It was meant to be a fun Friday night out. I’m with two friends in a tiny bar facing the Seine, a few yards away from the Quai des Orfèvres, the oldest police station in Paris. Three girls, a good bottle of wine, gossip, cigarettes.
I get a call from my brother just after 10 p.m. asking me nervously where I am. A friend of his is a waiter at a bar in front of the Bataclan and has just called him in tears. At the time of the call, the massacre has just ended. But it seems I am the first person in this bar to learn that terrorists are shooting at people in Paris.
I recall the alert on my phone, minutes earlier, warning of gunfire in Paris' 11th Arrondissement — a message I had promptly ignored. I assumed, between sips of wine, that it must be some sort of personal grievance turned violent. How different Paris was just one year ago.
The second I hang up, a huge flow of police cars begins to leave the station. They pass by so fast, their wheels don't touch the ground, like in a cartoon. The howling of the sirens leaves no doubt of the horror. In the city, that sound will not stop tonight. It screams with fright and pain for the victims that nobody has heard about yet. It announces the hatred and fear that will remain for others.
In our bar, phones are ringing, faces are worried, everyone is shaken. Though first, there is denial. Strangely, we order a second bottle of wine and return to our discussion. Other customers do the same. The Friday-night ambiance from before this brutal interruption begins to return, but our phones start beeping and ringing incessantly: "Stay where you are, girls. Sleep at a hotel if necessary; do not take the metro."
Nobody really knows what's going on or where the terrorists are. The waiters put on the news. Automatically, we speak louder, but between each sip of wine, between each joke, between each laugh, looks make a hasty return to the television screen.
Another waiter comes to our table: "Girls, do not worry too much, but do not go out to smoke, we'll close the doors. Smoke inside if you want." The waiter does not just close the door; he barricades the bar. He locks all entrances and lowers the iron gates. My girlfriends and I exchange looks: You think the terrorists are going to come here? Followed by: Well, we can smoke inside, that's cool.
From this moment, time passes very quickly and in slow motion.
The Paris we know is dying, and so, frantically, we drink in its last seconds of carelessness. The same question on everybody's mind: Where are the terrorists?
There are those who are already beginning to discuss the social issues that lead to terrorism; others, checking their phones, seem like they're only just grasping the gravity of it.
Soon enough, we are all sitting around the same table. It feels like the Paris we know is dying, and so, frantically, we drink in its last seconds of carelessness. The same question on everybody's mind: Where are the terrorists?
Then, a sudden jerk of the crowd. "Everybody go down to the cellar!" A girl I do not know grips me by the arm and pushes me towards the stairs. "The terrorists are 200 meters away," she shouts. A rumor on social networks, which later turns out to be false, signals that the terrorists are right next to our bar.
My friend finds me. Her fiancé is in front of the bar. He has come to take us home. We walk up the stairs from the cellar, and right before we leave, the waiter says something that will haunt me: "Girls, if you leave, we will not open up to let you back in."
The door of the bar opens to a city we do not know anymore. In these streets that I know by heart, in these streets I have traveled to go to college, to have a drink, in these streets that have known the joys and romance of my 20s, there is nothing but terror.
People my age all know at least one person who lost a loved one in the attacks, if not more.
"Not even scared" was the most popular slogan in the streets the day after the attacks. This is not true. After that night, with each blow of horn pressed a little too long, with each carelessly forgotten bag in the subway, we fear.
Right now, the terrorists have won.
They terrorized Paris. They shot her youth. People my age all know at least one person who lost a loved one in the attacks, if not more.
I have a recurring nightmare in which men with guns in their hands walk towards me. I know they're coming, but I'm glued to a chair, and I cannot move. They point their weapons at my face and I have time to be certain that I'm going to die before I wake up.
The country is rife with hostility now; the divisions are bitter. And on the eve of the presidential elections, political extremism has swept into breaches of hatred with record success.
Terrorists have won, but only for a time. Once we have healed, we will fight bigotry and hatred with unity and freedom.