The Bullet You Didn't Dodge

In 2004, I went out for errands. I ended the day with a gunshot wound and an ultra-large dose of reality.

My first thought was that the car misfired. I looked down, saw blood pour out of my leg and knew, deep down, what it was, even if most of my brain was still in refusal.

Time felt different, faster yet elastic. Mom got out of the car and I limped inside. She took grandpa too shocked to move  and shoved him to the front seat. All while carrying my baby sister in one arm.

This is what it’s like being shot.

It was a few days before Christmas. Downtown Maracay had gift wrappings, nativity sets and gaitas everywhere. Back in 2004, Venezuela could still afford Christmas, something so quaint now.

We had gone with grandpa to the bank for his pension. He and mom sat on front while I had to share the backseat with my sister in her baby-seat. She was three weeks old, but she already had a big bush of black hair.

Then I felt the explosion beside me, the coolness all around. Like when you cut a finger. I saw the blood.

Grandpa was in his mid-70’s and needed help for transactions. After glaucoma and cataracts, he could only see a little through an eye. He’d put his hand on my shoulder to help him on the street and, after a stroke, his mind wasn’t what it used to.

I knew the procedure: Step in the bank and fill the withdrawal slip, as mom waited outside. It went smoothly. Grandpa was happy saying, half jokingly, he’d invite us all for lunch. We usually declined but we settled for sundaes at McDonald’s after the drugstore, in Caña de Azúcar.

For those of you who don’t know Maracay, Caña de Azúcar is what 23 de Enero is to Caracas. Built in the 70’s, the housing project is mostly made up of iconic apartment blocks, with a nasty reputation for crime.

Grandpa actually helped building it. He was regional director of the National Institute for Housing (INAVI) and, reminiscing about Caña de Azúcar, he invariably would say that “Nobody wanted it. Everyone wanted houses, so we pretty much had to give the apartments away.”

Anyway, just as in the bank, mom stayed in the car and we waited on the sidewalk to be attended. Grandpa rested against the wall he had a bad knee  and I stood on the steps looking around. Hearing firecrackers.

It was Christmastime, fireworks season. Seeing kids running after the bangs, my first thought was that they lit something up and were now taking shelter.

I thought ‘this is it.’ We were going to die and there wasn’t anything I could do.

Then I felt the explosion beside me, the coolness all around. Like when you cut a finger. I saw the blood and grandpa looked at me. Frozen in time.

Now, in the car, mom went full SWAT mode. She saw the whole thing and it was she who told me I was shot. The kids brandished large, shiny guns and behind them, two officers fired crazy.

I was hit by one of the cops.

“I felt many things at once, but I mostly felt death” she tells me, still after a decade. “I thought ‘this is it.’ We were going to die and there wasn’t anything I could do.”

Her celerity took us to the ER of a clinic. They carried me in a wheelchair and, minutes later, I was in the operating room with local anesthetics sinking in. Had it happened now, I probably wouldn’t be as lucky.

The doctor struck up a conversation, asking me if I liked to read and if I read the latest Harry Potter. I did, and told her I was reading Kafka. Two CICPC agents walked in and asked me my version of the events (turns out the kids tried to rob a cybercafé). I made a statement and that’s the last we heard about it.

The kids brandished large, shiny guns and behind them, two officers fired crazy.

I didn’t walk for two months. Every time I leaned on my right foot, it would bleed. I was actually lucky, the bullet missed the bone by about three centimeters. For the first time ever, I was grateful for my chubby legs.

I went to school on crutches and ate alone in the classroom. Some students from Caña de Azúcar recognized me and, for a while, I was the popular kid at school. My friend Braulio was unimpressed, expecting something more Tarantinoesque (“That’s not what a bullet hole looks like! You did it yourself with a BB gun!”). He also didn’t believe I was shot while wearing a Superman shirt, which I still own despite my mom’s feelings on bad luck.

There were 21,752 homicides in Venezuela last year. Around 86% of them some 18,800 , were by firearms. The US, with a population that is ten times larger than Venezuela’s, reported 15,696 gun deaths in 2015. This wasn’t the first time I had been in front of a gun, nor it would be the last. No matter what precautions you take don’t go out after sunset, don’t go to bad neighborhoods, don’t take out your cell phone  it’s always a matter of luck.

I’m 26 now, and the scars have mostly healed. But if you put your finger on them, you can feel the gap under the skin. Also, if I walk for too long, it feels numb. Sometimes I look at it feeling so lucky.

Because next time, things might be very different.

José González Vargas

Freelance journalist, speculative fiction writer, college professor, political junkie, lover of books and movies and, semi-professional dilettante. José has written for NPR's Latino USA, Americas Quarterly, Into and ViceVersa Magazine.