“He departs from this earth like an arrow. Although he has not chosen his fate, he appears to have, in his last instants of life, embraced it. If he were not falling, he might very well be flying… He does not appear intimidated by gravity’s divine suction or by what awaits him… Some people who look at the picture see stoicism, willpower, a portrait of resignation; others see something else—something discordant and therefore terrible: freedom. There is something almost rebellious in the man’s posture, as though once faced with the inevitability of death, he decided to get on with it; as though he were a missile, a spear, bent on attaining his own end.”
The Falling Man, by Tom Junod
On July 14, 2016, Mohamed Lahouaiej-Bouhlel drove a nineteen-ton cargo truck through a crowd at the Bastille Day celebrations in Nice, France. He drove for two kilometers, playing Moses in a sea of bodies. Like all tragedies, the attack brought unity among survivors; police, first responders, and spectators came together to pack ambulances, to reunite families separated in the chaos, and eventually, to identify the 87 bodies that remained. They did not find the body of Nicolas Leslie until July 17, nearly three full days after the attack.
They told me it killed him instantly, but I wonder if that really matters. For me, those three days were a despondent purgatory. When bad things happen, the amygdala, the part of the brain responsible for interpreting stimuli and generating fear, becomes hyperactive. Overwhelmed, it creates artificial memories of its own to supplement those already being produced—time multiplies under the illusion of chaos. To the conscious mind, however, time appears to slow down and materialize; it becomes a room you can walk around in, a universe you can explore. For those three days—or years, or decades—I stood with Nick on the Riviera, freed from the constraints of date and time.
I am not sure how long those three days really lasted, but I know they were sleepless. Like many members of my community, I stayed up reading Facebook posts and pleading images shared by friends and family: “HAVE YOU SEEN HIM?” At first, I was hopeful. I shared the posts like everyone did and I watched as old classmates united, by the unthinkable, to bring him home. We’d talk about it over dinner, wondering where he was and what kind of explanation he’d give once he was back in our periphery, safe and sound. One of his friends present during the event swore she saw him walk away from the scene, unscathed, but she couldn’t remember where. Another assured us that he was very much alive; the bodies had already been identified, and none belonged to him. Sometimes hope lets light in, but often it is just a blindfold.
The second day came and went, and I remember wishing that they’d stop—that they’d call off the search parties, tear down the signs, and allow the last semblance of hope that we carried to linger on forever, as it only can with the unknown. Time passed slowly, but at some point the narrative changed. The unlikely outcome became evermore likely; the odds of survival narrowed and squinted. Back at home, we assured one another that he was not dead—he was missing—but each in turn knew that too much time had passed, that every minute made life less likely. Still, the search parties pressed on with their quest, insistent to bring cause to death and to allow his soul to depart from his lifeless body. I wish they’d stopped, allowing him to wander those Mediterranean streets forever.
Nick Leslie and I are not Facebook friends. I believe we once were, but as graduation approached and I began to sift through my online acquaintances to make room for the new, he must have been lost in the exodus. Nick was an acquaintance, I suppose, but that feels reductive. He was a source for an article I wrote for my high school newspaper about experiential learning. My sophomore year, he had a class down the hall from mine, and we shared the kind of warm, hesitant grins that acknowledged presence, but not much else. He was the long-lasting crush of an old friend of mine who always dreamt he’d be her first kiss, though I imagine her lips have found solace elsewhere now. I guess I never really knew him beyond those moments in passing, but Nicolas Leslie was a small piece of the patchwork of my childhood, my neighborhood, and my community. Nick was, and always will be, home.
It was on those Southern California streets that we both walked, never far from an ocean view, and learned to look away. It was in those suburbs, in the walls that protected (or contained) us that we remained, by choice or by nature, shielded from an otherwise tumultuous world. Where we grew up, there was always order, or at least its powerful guise. We learned of tragedy through television screens and schoolyard whispers, but it was always safely distant, a million miles away in some other world functionally separate from our own. As we grew older, we learned how to speak about catastrophe, how to weave words together into eloquent arguments and articles, but our distance always numbed us. We empathized as well as we knew how to, but the fear was not our own. The pain was not our own.
I imagine Nick went to France to feel something, to open his eyes and finally start to see clearly a world beyond our borders. I wonder if it scared him. What I do know is that his death changed things at home, it toppled walls and tore off bandages. With some great force, sudden and unpredictable, our eyes were lifted from the floor and directed at a modest city in the south of France. We became the loved ones of the victim, the friends of the departed. For the first time, their pain was ours. Their world was ours.
When I first learned of the Bastille Day attacks in Nice I sighed with frustration and sadness, but I moved on. “We cannot live in fear,” I’d remind myself—and besides, if every act of terror kept me up at night I wouldn’t be sleeping much at all. It wasn’t until several hours later that I was informed of Nick’s unsettling absence, and immediately I realized that this instance was unlike all the others I had read about in the past few months; I could not avert my eyes.
Looking back, there are few times in my childhood that I remember being personally affected by war, terror, or tragedy. I was three years old on September 11, 2001, but I still remember the footage, the horror, and the long, invasive silence that followed. Seven years later when the economy crashed, I learned that some questions should not be asked and that parents, too, were susceptible to the emotions I once categorized as childish. Only two years ago, a student at the Catholic school down the street from mine took his own life, bringing the national discussion of mental health to our doorsteps and teaching me that sometimes shoulders are meant for tears. Still, these events have been isolated. We learned what to say when discussing them, or not to speak of them at all. Bastille Day is different. Nick is different.
I do not know Nick as a friend, and I cannot write of the memories we shared or his quirks that I will miss. I do not know him as a friend, but I know him like I know myself—we share the same context, the same commute to school, and the same will to escape the place that raised us, even if only for a different view. It is hard to put his death in the context of the world because it is personal, but it is hard to make his death personal because it is just one in a chain of global tragedies that we, as people, have suffered.
I was six years old, and being the characteristically eager child I was, it is no surprise that I jumped out of my chair at the opportunity to volunteer. Standing before my class, my teacher asked me to stick out my hands, tiny palms facing upward. In one, she placed a large, cool rock and in the other, a crumpled ball of paper. My fingers trembled under the rock, if not for weight then for anticipation, as she turned to the rest of the class.
“In a moment, Russell will release both objects. Which do you think will hit the ground first?”
Chaos, laughter, response.
“The rock!” they shouted, confident both in numbers and in the question’s apparent simplicity.
She turned to me, signaling to turn my palms toward the floor and, at once, let them fall. I watched in silence as they plummeted to the earth, matched in perfect synchronization. As they hit the floor with a single, unanimous thump the class fell silent, shocked by the absolution of gravity. We learned that its pull is constant, regardless of weight, making gravity the ultimate equalizer.
Nick, this is not your obituary, but it is about you. This war is about you. It is about the long line of random deaths that came before you, and all that are sure to follow in suit. It is about your absence, and the way it affects me more than your presence ever did. You are one of two million victims in an unclear war, yet every time I read another headline—a pipe bomb in New York, a suicide attack in Mosul—it is your eyes that I stare into, your lanky frame that stands before me like a mirror. Two million lives, all falling to a single Earth with the same synchronized gravity, but I carry yours like a stone—trembling, if not for weight then for anticipation.
Image Credit: Russell Reed/Harvard Political Review