The fire

May 25th, 2016, 2pm

A month ago a fire took out the third floor of our building and rendered the rest of it uninhabitable. The prevailing theory is that the fire was caused by our upstairs neighbor who either threw a cigarette into a pile of cardboard or threw a cigarette and a wok full of oil into a pile of cardboard (and then, apparently, inexplicably, walked away).

I got home after the fire had already been put out and residents were being allowed in to grab what they could. The lights were out in the building. Firemen were shouting instructions. I stood in the shattered doorway of my old apartment for longer than I should have. I thought useless thoughts like: I am glad I did not choose to wear flip-flops today and it is a good thing I do not need to pee right now. My husband, Steve, by contrast buzzed around me, pausing to give me a hug or kiss me on the forehead and reassure me that everything would be okay in between packing bags and fetching a flood light so that we weren’t fumbling around in the dark.

I sputtered into motion. I gathered the important things; I called the insurance company. Then, when it was over and Steve and I were walking away from it all with just a backpack each the numb confusion I was feeling was shattered by a disorienting burst of euphoria. The apartment I had always hated was gone and Steve and I had been reduced to some elemental version of ourselves. Though it didn’t make sense it felt like we were on an adventure, perhaps because I associate being pared down to just a backpack with traveling with Steve to some far flung place.

In the weeks that followed Steve and I were buried by the hassle of trying to get our security deposit back, find a new apartment and process our insurance claim. Life became a roller coaster ride of highs and lows and slow, gray moments. We had just got back from Toronto two days before the fire had happened and we were there because my dad is very sick. Somewhere in the middle of the month more bad news came: two very close relatives were diagnosed with terminal cancer. Each new bad thing still hurt but the blows felt like they were happening underwater, in slow motion, slow enough to diffuse the pain but not dull it.

The highs were better of course. Having a friend ride over the night of the fire to help out, unasked. Realizing we had insurance. Having multiple friends offer us a roof over our heads and one friend not only drive us around but let us leave our stuff at his place. Finding a cute temporary apartment. Receiving a super generous gift-card, a notebook and blankets from my coworkers who wanted to help replace my stuff. Hearing about my father’s birthday celebration, orchestrated by my genius brother. Getting a package of free goodies from Smashbox after the lady at the makeup counter found out what I was doing there (trying to look like myself, despite not having slept much the night before). Having two friends insist on a spa day and spending a Friday afternoon with me in a Japanese bath house. The list goes on. In general I’ve found people to be incredibly kind and whenever I start to feel as though my life is out of control I remember that I have control over at least one thing in this unpredictable world: who I keep in my life. And that in the end I suppose that is the only thing anybody ever actually owns - how they have chosen to spend their time and with whom.

In between the bouts of bad news and happy realizations we visited the apartment a few times to scavenge through our old lives. Our landlord would send out these emails with PDF attachments full of grammatical errors announcing when we could go and poke through our old apartment. Our door, shattered by the firemen, had been replaced by a wooden board and a padlock. To keep our things safe but also, I think, to prevent desperate squatters. The first day we were allowed back was two days after the fire. We bought masks and gloves but still ended up coughing like coal miners. The second day was the weekend after. The tenants filtered through. We heard conflicting stories about exactly how the fire had started and the parties involved but every single one still managed to involve our upstairs neighbor. One guy, who was wearing a lock around his neck, said he wanted to beat our upstairs neighbor up. He was flushed in the face, agitated and he looked like he might do it.

That last time we visited, I saw a homeless guy on the sidewalk across the street. We had just finished enthusiastically loading up a uhaul half-full of things we’d later realize reeked of smoke and I was tired. The homeless guy was lying there, face up, like a starfish, his whole world strewn around him in a semi-circle. His eyes were half open. It occurred to me that all week I had been joking about being homeless, but of course it wasn’t the same. I watched him for a second longer than I normally might have and he didn’t move. It was late in the afternoon, the sun was full in his face but he was sleeping.

Jan, Max, Linda, Neil and 4 others said thanks.

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Dani Z

The hardest thing about getting older is realizing that I might, in fact, be a minor character in someone else's story. (I keep changing this bio. I'm not sure I'll ever nail it)

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