I was 16 in 1994. I remember I had a crush on a girl at my high school named Stacy. She was two years older and had absolutely no interest in me (though my incessant quoting of the movie Heathers did get her to proclaim me her “project” for the rest of the year). I had a beat-up old Renault I drove to and from football games. I was wildly unpopular and … basically thought the world sucked.
Emery was 18 in 1994. At 6’5 he would’ve been the star on my school’s basketball team for his height alone. He was handsome, nice … His year was spent living in secret in a house on one of the high hills of Kigali, Rwanda. It was spent a few meters from a church that he had stayed in for a few weeks before. A church that if he had stayed in for any longer — would have seen him slaughtered.
“Every church in Rwanda should be a memorial,” he tells me. “Because every church was a place where thousands of us died. We were told they were safe. They’d be respected. They weren’t.”
One church in the mountains saw three thousand people murdered. The bodies have never been moved. Nothing exists of the people who died — no bones, no skulls. They’ve disintegrated. All that remains in the church are the clothes of the dead.
When I was 16 I had posters of John Elway all over my room. He, in my mind, was a hero — commanding his offense, running to his left, throwing back to his right yards without breaking a sweat. I wore his jersey everywhere. On my walls were pennants of the schools I dreamed of attending. In Upstate New York those pennants read SYRACUSE, COLGATE, CORNELL.
In a room of the Rwandan Genocide Museum, Emery takes me aside:
“This display is simple. It is just the clothes people wore the day that happened. It’s just the clothes but still … ”
Behind the glass are a dirty pair of jeans, a ripped Adidas warm-up, a Superman towel with machete cuts throughout and a Cornell University sweatshirt, letters faded, the blood permanently dried on its front.
Emery doesn’t cry as he leads me around. Instead, he laughs. Not an amused or vicious laugh but a “can you believe it” laugh. Like a man looking back on something surreal that happened in his youth. If it were me, I’d be talking about Stacy, saying:
“I can’t believe she broke my heart.”
If it were Emery:
“I can’t believe we survived.”
We’re the same age, but we’ve never lived in the same world.
“I thought it was the apocalypse. Everyone was dead. What else was I to think?”
When I was 16 mass graves were a photo in history class. They were Auschwitz and Treblinka. Sixteen years later I’m meeting my first holocaust survivor. He is not Jewish. He is not old.
“So, what did you think, seeing everything today?” he asks.
I think when I was 16 I would’ve hung with you on the weekends, Emery. I think we’d have spent hours acting out the action sequences you’ve lived:
“This hill is where the rebel forces who saved us were. There were no buildings, just bush. I was in a house on that hill. Across the way, about 10 kilometers. On the bridge were corpses. Hundreds. In Kigali center were those trying to kill us. So you would run toward the gunfire, past swinging machetes, hoping to live. And if you did, you spent the rest of your life asking why.”
“What did you think?” he asks again.
“I cried a lot,” I say.
“Yes. But that’s what you felt. What did you think?”
If he asked me now I’d tell him I thought about the museum display of skulls and the endless Polaroids of children. I thought about the note that said:
Best Friend: Mom
Favorite Food: Rice
Died: By being slammed against a wall to death
Mostly I’d tell him that I think about him at 18.
Emery smiles more than I did as a kid.
After all, when I was 16, I sulked because I couldn’t wait for my future to arrive.
At 35, Emery laughs, because it seems so unreasonable that his ever did.