February 17, 2003

Disaster. Relief.

Sometime after ten o'clock last night, the apartment building adjoining ours caught fire.

We don't know why. Someone being stupid and careless, in all likelihood. It hardly matters. We ran outside while our bedroom filled with smoke and with hardly more than the clothes on our backs and watched the fire fighters do everything they could, in two feet of snow, in the driving sleet, hardly feeling anything through the adrenaline and sick fear. When we heard the water was frozen in the lines, we prayed like anything they could get it to flow. And, eventually, they did, and we cheered and lost sight of the whole scene in clouds of steam and smoke.

And when we were all sent down to the rental office, I thought I'd hear by the end of the night that we'd lost everything, that the roof had caught, that there had been too much smoke, that we'd be out of a home. I thought of the irreplaceable artwork in our apartment, and the unfinished writings, and my countless, precious books. I felt like William of Baskerville watching the Abbey library burn. And Stacy and I sat in the office with all the other refugees from two apartment buildings for the unbearable long hours we had to wait, and hugged each other, and mostly felt glad to be alive.

And then, sometime in the small cold hours, someone told us that the residents of the 2221 building could go home. Yes, even the ones in the third-floor units. The building was safe. The damage was contained.

We wandered home and took stock. We saw where the firemen had liberated a small bookcase to use, I assume, as a makeshift stepstool, spilling its contents on the floor; we saw where they'd broken through our bedroom ceiling and scattered drywall and insulation across the carpet; and we so, so did not care.

We slept in our spare room. About four o'clock, our neighbor Angie came, who lived in the basement unit of the building that burned, and slept on our sofa. (We met her for the first time last night, standing underdressed in the snow, terrified for her cats; they lived through it, and are around here somewhere too, terrified and hiding but okay.) We couldn't believe we were home. We couldn't believe we had one.

What would we have done if we'd been burned out and lost everything? Where would we have gone? I don't know. We're snowed in, and will be for some time.

Did the foot or more of snow on the rooftops make the difference in delaying the fire? Did it do more good that way than the harm it did freezing the pipelines? I don't know that either.

I know that I look at the gutted remains of the 2219 building, through which the sky can be seen, and am filled with queasy horror, knowing that we came within quite literal inches of sharing its fate. I know that every time I try and talk about this, I end up speechless and babbling incoherently, unable to frame what happened in words, unable to even figure out how I feel about it. I know I'll be damn glad when the maintenance folks clean up the mess in our place (Such a little thing! So cosmetic!), and when we get our gas and hot water back. I know that I ache for normality. And I just can't, can't believe how lucky we were.

I laugh at inappropriate things. When we walked in to see our computer gleefully running its idiot screensaver as if nothing unusual had happened, I almost had a fit of hysteria. Almost everything is unbelievably surreal.

I'm okay. Stacy is okay. Poor Angie will be okay eventually, and rebuild her life as best she can. I'm fighting the urge to crawl off somewhere and wait for the world to go away. The adrenaline has run out, and I feel incredibly numb. This should have been a weekend to relax and enjoy being snowed in, enjoy the unexpected extra time off tomorrow. Instead, I sit here and shake my head and sigh and don't know how the hell to feel.

My world went very briefly nova last night. I hope and pray, if there's anything worth praying to, that it may yet collapse back to something like its former shape. In the meantime, I'll be here, looking in wonder at the wreckage around me, insensate and uncomprehending. Counting my blessings and my good fortune. Waiting to not feel like such a shellshocked wreck.

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