Sunday, August 5, 2007

Fire Next Door

Seconds after getting into bed last night, P. calls out to me from the living room and I know from the tone that it is serious. I race out of the bedroom and am informed that the doormen have just knocked and told us to get out. There's a fire in one of the apartments on our floor. I look through the front door peephole, and see only smoke. I hear a woman screaming and it sends a chill up my spine. There is a baby (I often hear) living upstairs, and I imagine the worst. For a moment I am frozen, when P. suggests we get the cats; and make our way out through the fire escape. Already, the firemen were arriving, and there is no significant amount of smoke in our unit. We live on the second floor and the fire escape is outside the bedroom window (and away from the fire), so we are not in any immediate danger or feel a great sense of urgency. I gather my purse, in which are my passport and credit cards (just in case), and proceed to get one of the cats in his carrying case, no easy feat, while P. chases the other one down. "Do we need anything else, how about the laptop?" he asks. "Screw the laptop!" I say (it's not even mine). We go out onto the fire escape but have to re-enter several times: to retrieve P.'s shoes which he failed to put on, to replace the dufflebag with a hole through which one of the cats we put in keeps trying to escape, and to get P.'s wallet left in the dufflebag just replaced. We realize climbing down the ladder with the cats is going to be a trial, so he goes down ahead to investigate while I wait. I can see through the windows of the lobby that firemen have taken over. Curious, I go back inside to see if there is any smoke. It has started coming in through the front and back doors. I return to the fire escape, closing the door to the bedroom behind me to try to minimize any damage, should it come to that.

It was back on the fire escape that I had an "epiphany" of sorts. I am surprised to find myself thinking that there is nothing inside that I really care about or am afraid to lose. Everything is replaceable. Everything that mattered - my cats, my boyfriend and me - was going to be safe. If worse came to worst, and all was lost, I knew I could start over. Anyone who is privy to the inner workings of my anxiety-ridden mind, would know that this was a breakthrough for me. Of course, it helps that the apartment is insured and that I have some savings to get me through an emergency, but I did not even pause to calculate how long my retirement would be postponed in such an event. It felt liberating (for once) not to care about such things. P. returns and we manage to get down with the cats. Of course, the few residents standing outside the building are impersonal as ever. Eventually, the fire is put out and we're allowed to go back up, and except for the smell, everything inside is fine. The occupant of the apartment that caught fire, a retired doctor, is in the hospital due to smoke inhalation but is believed to be OK. I have seen him on occasion, an unfriendly sort who never responded when I ventured a "hello" before I respectfully gave up - this is Manhattan, after all, and it is a person's prerogative to be anti-social. I found myself wondering what I should do next time I saw him - should I break the unspoken rule of silence and ask if he is OK or offer to be of service like a good neighbor? Such were my self-centered thoughts as I eventually went to bed. This morning, my thoughts were still on him. It is horrible that he'll have to return to an apartment where everything has been burned or damaged beyond repair. I find myself hoping that having lost his material possessions, a reality that I only imagined, he'll not care too much and just be grateful to be alive. My "breakthrough" notwithstanding, I'll continue to go through my apartment "to do" list: paint my entryway, wallpaper my dining area, choose a media cabinet, etc. But I recognize that it is in the process (a creative one) of organizing my home in a way I find pleasing, that I must derive pleasure, and that in the end I must not allow myself to become too attached to the results.

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