Saturday, March 28, 2020
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Shadow of a Massacre


I awake to the aroma of something sweet in the oven. Slightly disoriented, I remember the bed I’m lying in, still unfamiliar after all these days of blissful irresponsibility. There are the lavender striped sheets that cocooned me through many struggles to wake up and get to class by 7:30; the tiny wooden desk that’s only ever found meaning in housing lots of paperwork and junk that I find impossible to throw away despite the maddening quality of excess; the dusty ceiling fan into which my lanky body would haphazardly collide during the cherished ritual of “bedroom dance party.”

I’m in my room. In the house where I grew up. In Redlands, CA.

That something sweet in the oven, with the scent powerful enough to drag me out of a sacred slumber, turns out to be persimmon cookies, a December-only treat in the Peykani house. It’s later that night, as my parents and I nosh on the seasonal delicacy, when the subject of the shooting comes up.

There are some streets in Redlands where if you turn to the left you’re suddenly in San Bernardino. San Bernardino is where the Rolling Stones made their U.S. concert debut; it’s the nostalgic stop along Route 66; it’s the city that shares a name with the largest county in the country. But it’s also the city I grew up avoiding unless I had to go to the mall; it’s the city we all knew in high school not to be hanging out in after dark; it’s the most bankrupt city in the country; and it’s the city where, barely a month ago the largest mass shooting since Sandy Hook took place.

Redlands, located 10 miles southeast of downtown San Bernardino, can be described as a small town. The population is about 70,000 people, 69% of which are white. Loma Linda University Hospital and ESRI Headquarters attract well-educated, affluent families; however, they are not the majority so there still remains a strong sense of “this side” versus “that side” of town, divided by the I-10 freeway. Recently, the city decided to decorate the freeway overpasses by posting massive images of old citrus crate labels. One of them spells “juice” as “jucie.” Redlands wants to develop and prosper without losing its charming quaint appeal.

It’s a town where you can shop at Nordstrom Rack, Banana Republic, and TJ Maxx all in the same plaza; you can go to the Redlands Bowl on a warm summer night and enjoy a production of “Romeo and Juliet” under the stars; you can take a historical tour of the city and learn about the old opera house that used to be across the street from what is now Stater Bros. grocery; in 2011 you could have gone to the university to listen to a lecture from a Buddhist monk and watch the week-long construction of a beautiful mandala.

Yes, it’s small and dull and everything is closed by 10 p.m. and there are very few opportunities for those who crave something great out of life, but it has a personality. And it has pride.

From Facebook statuses to news reports both local and international, the main consensus Redlands and San Bernardino residents have expressed is the disbelief that something like this could happen here. It’s sickening, how something so inhumane could have happened essentially in your backyard. Even I, weeks later, find myself stopping whatever I’m doing as the thought slaps my consciousness: A terror attack happened in my town.

Whenever the subject of terrorism arises in class or on the news, I remember one night when I was about eight or nine. It was late, past midnight, and who knows why I was still up. I remember my dad and I were sitting in the living room, talking about flying. Resolute, I told him I would never fly because I’m afraid of airplanes. He asked why. And I said, more nervously now, because of 9/11. Because I was afraid of terrorists. My dad turns to me, a naïve, scared kid who should have definitely been in bed, and tells me terrorism isn’t real.

He spent the majority of his childhood and adolescence in big cities — San Diego, Santa Barbara, Los Angeles. One year in the shabby town of Denton, Texas, where he experienced some of the most hateful, hurtful racism in his forty-six years, was enough to convince him that small towns are not the suburban utopia they’re cracked up to be. In a big city, my Iranian father — with his thick hair, brown skin and dark wild eyes — can stand out but still manage to blend in.

For him, Redlands is the city where people would give him suspicious looks as his pale-skinned, blue-eyed young daughter cried when they had to leave the park. He wouldn’t let my sister and I walk home from school even though it was less than a mile away from our house. He believes David Lynch could make a brilliantly disturbing movie set here. He doesn’t trust Redlands; in fact I think he is afraid of it. Call it irony, call it coincidence, but somehow, this is also the town where the terrorists lived.

Living in Irvine for the past three years, I’ve grown accustomed to clean air, the beauty of cotton candy sunsets, spontaneous trips to the beach. There is life here, a healthy spirit of existing on a whim, that there is any opportunity available as long as you know where to look. The moment I travel east and cross into that hazy hell called the Inland Empire, I lose hope. Smog and pollution taint the sky. It’s difficult to breathe, to live. Everything is gray. Dirt field after dirt field; beige, windowless buildings have replaced orange groves. The Inland Empire, with San Bernardino as its epicenter, is a decaying pit of claustrophobia and dread.

“How could something like this happen here?” they ask, still unable to see things clearly.

This is the question that hangs unanswered beneath the tall, white ceilings of our living room, as we fill the silence with more bites of persimmon cookies. Every year, my mom bakes the soft, chewy treats for the holidays. The tradition started years ago when two family friends would send us their persimmon cookies as a Christmas present. Jan and Pat are both in their eighties, retired, who spend their days as volunteer forest rangers in the San Gorgonio Mountains. They go out with their rifles and their horses, to safeguard the towering range that gazes upon Redlands and the rest of the Inland Empire, casting triangular shadows across the valley and giving us a reason to look up.

Proudly, my mom reminds me that the persimmons were grown in Redlands.