When you’re not there and people you care about are.
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Sheer impact calculus suggests that your friends are safe. They have to be; the howling, fuming, speculative vortex of incomplete, evolving/contradictory reports are horrifying, but they are that 30 or 50 or 90 or more people are hurt amongst thousands – a fraction of a percent, feeble comfort though that is. Chances are that other people’s loved ones are the ones missing legs, or blood, or who didn’t make it through the day at all. Which is horrible. It’s horrible. This is an exchange you are completely willing to make, the lives of two of your closest friends for those of two total strangers. That is horrible, too, and the source of a hollow relief and an unspeakably awful sense of guilt all at once. Submerge in data, in idiot information, so as not to drown in tears.

But fuck the percentages. Probability works fine until it doesn’t. I think of my college roommate, the one who moved to Boston last year and has dedicated himself to doing everything the city gives him to give. There’s no chance he’s working on Patriots’ Day. His friends – people I’ve never met but feel like I know through his phone calls – aren’t either. Most people aren’t, which is why they might have been there with so many others, cheering on and marveling at the runners. The roommate is not a marathoner, but he’s a runner; he’d want to see this.

A phone call goes straight to voicemail. There’s some awful dumb thought about what effect explosions can have on cell phone traffic; there’s something on Twitter about cellular service being “shut down,” not clear by whom, not clear how. Send a text, call again. Hear nothing and see everything – on Twitter, on Facebook, on TV – and worry more. Another text: tell me when you’re safe, and wonder why you didn’t tell him you love him, too. Finally, on Facebook, there’s the lifeline – one of those Boston friends, with a check-in. “We’re safe,” it reads. I click the Like button, because that seems like the appropriate thing to do in the moment. Mania reverts mundane in a real-time second. I’ll find out soon after that he was less than a block away from the explosions when they happened. But he’s safe, he’s okay. It’s over.

But then there’s another friend, my oldest friend. He lives several states away, and unlike the buddy in Boston, he does run marathons. So: calculate the travel time from North Carolina to Boston – considerable, but feasible that a guy who travels to a couple of marathons per year might find it worth the trek. Well, if he qualified. You have to qualify for Boston, right? (Check: right, yes, you do.)

Which is no relief: the friend is right in the sweet spot of the runners who might have been crossing the line at that time. He’s far from a pro but he’s won his age group more than once. He usually texts over his times; they keep getting faster. When he lived in New Orleans, he ran that city’s marathon multiple times. Once, he ran six miles from his house to the starting line, then the race itself, then jogged those extra six miles right back home. The most badass thing. Tell that one to other runners and watch their eyes pop. He’s an animal, they extol, and I imagine the kid I once dunked on mini-Nerf hoops with as some kind of feral beast, a panther or maybe a wolverine. I smile at that.

But that son of a bitch won’t answer his phone, either. I’m as certain as I can be – so goddamn certain – that he isn’t there; he would have mentioned running Boston. Someone tweets out a link to a site where you can track each runner’s progress and it turns out that five members of the field share his last name; none have his first. So one more call, and this time he picks up. “What are you talking about?” he rasps, with a tone that suggests both annoyance and a suspicion that the person on the other end of the line has a possible chemical imbalance. He had no idea what happened, because he was home in North Carolina, and out running most of the morning.

I can’t help but laugh – out of relief, at the nauseating irony – before a shock wave of remorse at laughing at all. I’m still on the phone with my friend, the one I was worried a few a minutes ago could be dead, and so we talk. Not about the tragedy, because what can you say? What can anyone say, really, other than to dissect the day’s degrees of horror? So we talk about other things, trivial things like last night’s Game of Thrones and some other things that don’t matter, but do. Just the talking – the being able to talk – feels significant, wildly bracing and great and fortunate. There’s guilt in there, too: there will be people after today who will not be able to say the same.

I’m lucky. Most of us are lucky. Some are suffering madly, awfully, and we ache for that. Something was violated for all of us, there’s a scar we can share, but some wounds are different. Some will be left to forever associate loss with an activity that makes so many feel so alive. So I re-opened my phone and typed a text to the first friend, nearby and safe, who experienced everything I did on a far more personal level. I told him I loved him. It seemed like the right thing, the only thing to do.

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