After the Bombs

Catie Joy

Catie Joy

I wasn’t there when the bombs went off at the Boston Marathon. I was three miles away in my Allston apartment, sitting in bed with a book in my lap. I heard sirens and what sounded like cheering. My boyfriend, propped up against his pillows reading from his hefty Criminal Procedure textbook, checked his phone to see the time. There was a breaking news alert filling its lock screen.

“There were explosions,” Santiago said. “Two explosions, at the finish line.”

“Oh.” I didn’t feel surprised or scared, but I noted that the sound I’d thought might be a cheer must have actually been the startled shout of a neighbor learning the news, sound waves bouncing against the walls of the alley outside my window.

We moved to the living room and turned on the TV. It was early still. Every network was saying the same thing, showing the same thing. Video: smoke rising out of the flash from a bomb, screaming spectators, an older man collapsing in the middle of Boylston Street, cops in neon yellow vests running toward the smoke, civilians rushing in to help. It played over and over.

We realized that our parents might be worried. My phone couldn’t make calls, so I texted instead. “Cell towers overloaded, but I tried to call. Will try again later. We’ve been home all day, obviously very far from the explosions. Love you!” My parents hadn’t heard, so my mom replied quickly to ask what was going on. I explained: “Explosions at the finish line, many injuries but not sure about fatalities. Looks intentional.”

The rest of the afternoon was a swirl of cable news, Twitter feeds, and graphic photographs on websites. Santiago had to stop watching, but I couldn’t. Deadened, I thought, narrating my reaction back to myself.

Near midnight, I posted something on Facebook, a comment from a congressman and my own plea to put the brakes on the anti-immigrant, anti-Islam commentary that always starts within a few hours of an attack.

“I want to remind everyone that this is not just about the people of Boston; the Boston Marathon is an international event with runners from all over the world. I would not be at all surprised if some of those injured aren’t from Boston or Massachusetts.” – Rep. Michael Capuano, in what amounts to a great reminder that now isn’t a good time for anyone to break out their racist, xenophobic, Islamophobic bullshit—not that there’s ever a good time for any of that, but it seems particularly horrific to use violent, racist rhetoric in the wake of such trauma.

I waited. Likes. Good. And then bad: A comment from my cousin, Chase, who lives in rural New Jersey. His own post about guns, immigration, and terrorism had set me off just an hour before, the inciting incident that made my Facebook status feel necessary. The gist of his comment was that “most” terrorist attacks are the doing of foreigners, that we must protect our people by protecting our borders. (Who, I wondered, are “we?”) It kept going: immigrants are ruining our Constitution, which was written for “a certain type of person.”

I read the comment aloud, looked at Santiago, and crumpled my nose. “Did he just try to justify racism?”

A nod.

“What should I do? I can’t just leave it there.”

I’d been here before. Bad internet behavior is a hobby of mine. Not only do I read the comments, but sometimes I even reply to them. In internet parlance, I feed the trolls. But the troll had never been a relative.

I’ve always known Chase and I were on opposite ends of the political spectrum. I even knew that he had terrifying views about race—from his Confederate flag t-shirt with the slogan, “If this flag offends you, you need a history lesson,” and from his liberal use of the N-word to denote displeasure during a Thanksgiving football game. I try to ignore his Facebook posts, but I’ve noticed a few about immigration in the past, using the word “illegals,” long-since replaced with “undocumented immigrants” in my own vocabulary. I knew. And still it surprises me each time I’m reminded—how can I be related to someone like that, someone so repugnant?

This, though, took me beyond confusion: to shame, fury, a bout of sobbing in the shower. What gall, I thought, to say something like that to me today, after everything that’s happened here. It was about racism, yes, but it was also about my city. I’ve only lived in Boston for a year, but it has become home. And I have ties here that go back several generations: my dad grew up in a town just outside the city, my paternal grandfather’s childhood home is less than five minutes from my own apartment, and his then-future wife and her family lived in a house a few miles away in Brighton, the same house my dad and his siblings lived in until the mid-1950s.

I had to write something back. The first draft: “Our grandparents would be ashamed of you.” Delete. The second draft: “I am so fucking ashamed that we’re related.” Delete. The third draft: “I have no interest in engaging with you on this issue.” But that wasn’t enough. Delete. Instead:

I am afraid for many of my friends, Santiago included, who will go out into the world tomorrow and be on the other end of suspicious looks, if not worse. Speculating isn’t helpful, and it almost always results in problematic, racist thinking, which often has very real consequences for people who just happen to look the way many Americans assume “terrorists” look. There is nothing okay about that.

I wrote more, but this felt like the only thing that should matter. Strangers walk up to Santiago at least once a month speaking in strings of quick Arabic. Cab drivers spot his complexion and beard and ask if he’s Muslim. He doesn’t speak Arabic. He’s Jewish, not Muslim—but even if he was, what would that excuse?

Chase kept replying, in short bursts meant for speed, each comment a nugget of raw half-thoughts, ideas parroted from some off-stage pundit. Here was his interpretation of the Constitution, his thoughts on the intent of the founders, the name of a Latino friend as though the guy’s existence was proof that I was just reading these words wrong, that he wasn’t really racist at all. It ended around 3 AM. I wrote, “It’s clear that there are fundamental differences in how we see the world. One of those differences is that I don’t believe racism is ever acceptable, while you’re quick to justify your own.” He wrote back twice more, but I didn’t look.

As Santiago and I changed into our pajamas—our phone screens finally dark and plugged in on our nightstands—he whispered, “I’m just not sure I’ll ever be comfortable in the same room with him again.” I agreed. I have learned that this happens sometimes: that occasionally someone will remind us that we’re in an interracial relationship, and that the world isn’t perfect yet. Although we aren’t confronted with that reality on a daily basis like Mildred and Richard Loving (the couple who brought the landmark Loving v. Virginia case to the Supreme Court, ending anti-miscegenation laws) and other couples of their era, we are aware of the way some people see us. If we have children, they will know that their great-grandad came from County Kerry as a little boy, and that their abuelos were both born and raised in Honduras. They will be Irish-Honduran-Bostonian-Americans. And they will not be white.

I fell asleep, shaken up from the day’s events and from the reality that I was burning this bridge, that I’d known it all along, and that I was fine with it. Hours later, I woke to a private Facebook message from Chase. “Catie,” he wrote, “it’s clear that we have differences in how we see this country and the government. This doesn’t change our relationship for me. You’re my cousin and I love you, and that won’t change.”

I tossed my phone down without making it through the whole note. How lovely, I thought, that you have the luxury of believing that this changes nothing.


Catie Joy is an MFA candidate in nonfiction writing at Emerson College. She hails from Philadelphia, and received her BA in writing, literature, and gender studies at Eugene Lang College (The New School) in New York City. She now lives in Boston with her boyfriend and a healthy supply of burritos, and is a nonfiction reader at Redivider. You can find her petty complaints on twitter (@catieohjoy), and snippets of her writing here .

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