I haven’t been outside in two weeks.
I am staying indoors not because I’m lazy or sick. I stay indoors because I’m scared, because I live in northern Virginia.
Two weeks ago, the Beltway sniper began his rampage in the Greater Washington, D.C., area and since then my life has changed. All of our lives have changed. I am now part of a population that begins each day with an uneasy step toward the door to pick up the paper, as well as a hesitant approach to the TV or radio. The news is all bad: another death, another getaway, another period of waiting.
The walk from my car to the building where I work has never seemed so long. A trip to the grocery store is terrifying. And just try to imagine what a visit to a gas station is like. Daily life has become tense and way too strange.
The random murders of innocent people going about their daily activities have stunned everyone and have demanded that communities take drastic measures. In some districts, kids are being ushered one by one into school by bodyguards. Their homecoming parades and football games are canceled.
And these are just the obvious changes, the ones we make in the name of survival. But these killings have also affected us unconsciously.
The other day, I was in a parking lot where a little boy happened to be carrying a bunch of balloons. While trying to get them into his family’s vehicle, one of the balloons popped. In a split second, bystanders hit the deck. They did not want to get shot.
On my way home from work the other night around midnight, I saw a young woman in her 20s – my age – doing what looked like cardio-kickboxing around her car in an effort to not stand still while she filled up her gas tank. And in the last two weeks, I have not seen the “neighborhood baby machine” parading her litter of children up and down the road where we live. It’s not normal to do aerobics at the gas station and to not give the kids fresh air.
As for me, I no longer jog outside. Perhaps this doesn’t seem strange, but I haven’t missed more than a day of jogging in about three years – even during winters in Maine. I now watch two hours of news each day. I look both ways before crossing the street, not for traffic but for white Chevy Astro vans with ladder racks or for any white trucks with rolling doors and a burned out taillight.
At the gas station, I sit in my car, sometimes with my seat fully reclined, while the tank fills up. I run every time I have to be outside. And I don’t just run. I zigzag. I will not shop at any Michaels craft stores, and while that isn’t exactly unusual for me, I will no longer go anywhere near a Michaels. And I have memorized a tip-line phone number in case I see any suspicious behavior (apart from the suspicious behavior of nearly everybody).
The only way I have found to cope with these bizarre new habits in my life is to laugh at myself. The truth is: None of these actions will actually save my life from a crazed lunatic with an assault rifle. But they make me feel better. I suspect they make all of us here feel better. When my aunt and I go for coffee, we sprint from the car yelling, “Moving target! Moving target!” It’s not funny really, but we have to do something to lighten our otherwise edgy moods. We need to laugh and de-stress momentarily in these times that are dominated by panic and reluctance.
Every day we hope that the thousands of police officers on the job will catch the sniper so no one else will die, so we can all go back outside. But meanwhile, brave people offer to pump gas for others, strangers say “stay safe” to each other, and we shake our heads and laugh at our bizarre habits.
Because I am a bartender and it’s part of my job to listen to what people feel like telling me, I hear all sorts of crazy theories about the sniper. He’s 10 guys. He’s with al-Qaida. He’s a discouraged crafts salesman at Michaels. He hates gas stations. He owns a van dealership.
I also hear responses to our new way of life. Mostly, people say that living in fear is what the sniper wants and if you live that way, he has won.
I do believe that. But I admit that I live in fear. And, unfortunately, indoors.
Kristen Anstead, who grew up in Orono, is a vegan bartender at a ribs joint in Virginia.