By Katie Mulkowsky
- It’s 7:00 am when I mindlessly check my phone. The room is early-morning grey, apartment asleep. There’s a window above my bed that’s damp and cold. It’s summer back home but winter in Cape Town.
- It’s 7:02 when your mom posts about you. I hadn’t seen your name in a while. No one had heard from you since last night. Has anyone seen my son, she asked in two languages, English and Italian. You weren’t in England or Italy. You were in France.
- It was July 15. Bastille Day: the night before. I was in Cape Town, a South African city flagged for terror warnings all month, and you were in Nice, a ville tranquille on the Riviera. You were the one missing. A man with motives had plowed a truck through a crowd watching fireworks. People were dead and your friends’ legs were broken and after the impact someone thought they saw you running. They didn’t know for sure.
- You were missing for three days.
Cape Town’s District Six museum acts like a kind of surgeon. Its walls are scars, stitched together by archives of the black and coloured South Africans uprooted by apartheid. Rooms are constructed out of newspaper clippings, family recipes, old china. Maps of streets long demolished are redrawn by those alive — marked not by signs but by places, reminders of what was once home.
You can stand, if you want, on the corner of Baby’s barber and Dad’s grocery. You can hold patchwork quilts. One wall reads that “our histories are contained by the homes we live in; we are shaped by the ability of these simple structures to resist being defiled.” The right to home is the right to dignity, argue the guides who lived this history, through mouths still muted in its wake.
My first time at the museum was that June. I cried. I was in Cape Town with a friend from home, researching affordable housing in the city, studying the politics of shelter. We went to make meaning out of places different than ours. You were in Nice for the same reason.
All of this is a true story. My second time at the museum was that July. My eyes stayed dry. Gradually we learned how to distance ourselves from outrage at injustice. It was the only way to speak reasonably with architects and activists for our work each day.
But then we heard that you were missing, and for three days every injustice in the world was personal. Elementary, middle, and high school classmate; only child; kitesurfer of the ocean that taught us to swim. Your parents lived up the street from mine at home. If you and I were to erect our own versions of the District Six museum, they’d have the same landmarks.
Things we wanted you to be, 7/15-7/17
- The John Doe on a surgeon’s table, still breathing
- Brutally and miserably lost
- In hiding, in shock; pretending it never happened in a grocery store
- On a flight home
- Never there
These days became every living cliché: the minutes that passed were all hours. From Cape Town we updated newsfeeds, shared photos of last-seen outfits, sent solace to home across land masses and equatorial lines. We avoided public gatherings and our mothers’ texts. It could have been you, I want you home. / Pourquoi n’était pas — why wasn’t it?
Somewhere around 5:00 pm on the second day I asked my friend to doodle a house. The next night I got it tattooed on my ribcage. There was a miscommunication about the time I’d come back to our apartment after — one, two, three hours passed and he was alone, starting to panic.
What fear made him do:
- Call a local friend; get that friend to call a friend
- Have friend’s friend find my tattoo artist’s cell number
- Call her, petrified that I’d left hours ago and been missing since
- YOU CAN’T JUST DISAPPEAR ON THE STREETS OF CAPE TOWN WHEN PEOPLE WE KNOW ARE DYING ALL OVER THE WORLD.
- Er — not dying.
- We existed within 20 square feet of each other but barely spoke until the next day.
By then, we weren’t hopeful, but when the news came we still fell apart. My friend’s words reached me first, texted from our Cape Town kitchen — from the table we studied housing and drew homes on top of. Before you go on Facebook or anything, they’ve confirmed that Nick died during the attacks. It was during the following days that people we’ve known all our lives became the ones who cry and hold each other in news coverage of tragedy.
We weren’t your best friends or parents or high school prom dates or frat brothers. We weren’t home for the ocean paddle-out in your name, and might not have even gone if we were. You were a fixture in our childhoods who eventually became A Facebook Friend. But that is exactly why it was senseless and terrifying for global madness to hit home.
My tattoo wasn’t an impulse and had nothing to do with Nice. I’d wanted it since I left California for New York and fought to make the city I now lived in feel the same way. Back there, home to me was never my house — it was every sunset spot where temporary love could be built into the backseat of a car, parked cliffside and dangling. It was the places where friends grew together and apart, where dads got cancer or didn’t, where Nicks surfed and learned and became people.
New York wasn’t home until it, too, contained artifacts: floorboard of the first I love you, floorboard of the spilled wine, floorboard that trembled one spring night under the weight of too many bodies. In Cape Town we argued for the right to basic infrastructure but also for the right to this type of story, for the right to a home filled with messes and memories and mistakes. And in Cape Town we learned that someone whose home existed indefinitely alongside ours was pulled from it hastily — making him another casualty in a war of hatred, insanity, and fear. But to us, he’s more than that. To his parents and to our hometown, he’s more than that.
This isn’t a eulogy because it has no business being one. It’s a reckoning with home and terror, justice and loss. I’m Facebook friends with a dead Berkeley student I learned fractions alongside in fifth grade. How is anyone supposed to rationalize that? How is anyone supposed to board a plane?
- The French verb rentrer means to return, but more specifically to return home. Nous sommes rentrès, mais il n’est pas — we returned, but he didn’t. It’s random and will never make sense. I feel lucky in terrible moments because I’m living them.
- Heartache does not justify intolerance, and terror does not excuse war. Especially not on religion. Thou shalt not race-ialize by association.
- Cities are living, breathing things, where lives are built and space is planned. The poetry of where we were was the intentional désordre of its form. We searched for meaning rather than solution. No one can turn back time.
- By my definition, Cape Town briefly became home. The apartment we lived in is filled with ghosts: instants of knowledge, then fear, then loss. We learned about geography and space and law there. We left humanized and ignited and safe.