an accidental campfire tale
even though dateline: to catch a predator was on, on tuesday night around 8:30 the housemates angel bunny and lqt and i were sitting around in the living room with the television uncharacteristically off, talking about the kinds of things we normally do, like seasonal produce, anal sex, and what kind of fiber our area rug was made of. somewhere in the semi-distance i heard some banging and some breaking glass, followed by some muffled shouts, and with the part of my brain that wasn't actively engaged in our conversation i cataloged the noises as either someone clumsily moving furniture through the adjacent main stairwell or a heated spat.
it took only a moment to realize i had the "heated" part right.
a woman's voice pierced through the night air: "fire! there's a fire in the building! everyone get out, there's a fire in the building!"
adrenaline sent wings to my bare feet as i flew up the stairs to my room and began to tear about in a panic. where was the fire? i wanted to know. how close? i opened the door in my third floor bedroom that leads to the central walkway. the alarm was clanging and i could smell the smoke and hear the clatter of people running. i scooped up my laptop, my ipod, my digital camera, my green card, my current diary, and my purse and threw them into two shoulder bags. for one ridiculous materialistic moment i wondered how i could carry the television. for a series of more sentimental moments i wondered how i could carry my box of diaries and the lifetime of memories that pack my living space. practicality took over and i slipped my feet into some shoes and ran down the stairs. lqt and angel bunny weren't in the apartment anymore. i grabbed my keys from their hook and went out the front door.
the hallways were choked with thick, gray smoke. i merged into the pack of residents descending the main stairwell, and tried to cover my mouth with my hand, but i couldn't seem to keep from breathing the fumes in. we emerged into the chilly night and i found lqt across the street.
i grabbed hold of her coat-covered arm and tried not to cry. "i'm so scared," i confessed. "where's angel bunny?" i asked. we didn't know. i tried calling her phone, but she didn't answer. "this is so awful," i told lqt. she told me it was going to be okay, but i couldn't help but repeat: "i'm just so scared!"
and i was. of all the disasters on the books fire is the one i fear the most. my irrationality level had shot sky-high, and i imagined my home--my safe place--was soon to be ashes.
then the fire trucks arrived. it seemed it took them only a heartbeat to get there. i frantically walked up the street, the air nipping at my bare legs--i was wearing a flimsy summer skirt, a lightweight tanktop and a lightweight cardigan sweater, perfect for sitting around talking about whatever it was were were talking about, but not for spending any amount of time outdoors in late february, even in los angeles. in front of the church i spotted angel bunny. i pulled on her sleeve and dragged her with me. "you can't be separated from us like that!" i told her.
we watched as the capable men of the los angeles fire department made short work of the fire. it was confined to the apartment one floor down from ours, but immediately on the other side of the main stairwell. even though it was put out expediently, smoke was still rising to meet the black night sky, alarms were still clanging, and it all felt too close for comfort. our neighbors cradled nervous dogs and shivered as i did in our inappropriate attire. we saw the firefighters rescue a small dog from the street-facing unit, and the crowd seemed to issue a collective sigh of relief. word was circulating that no one was in there--no one had been hurt. to our left were the people i soon would think of as heroes: the guy who smashed the glass to pull the alarm and the woman who ran about rousing us out by yelling "fire!" the guy was nursing cuts on his hands and feet. he was talking to a man who was holding onto an empty bowl with a spoon; i suppose when you run out the door you may well be holding on to whatever had been in your hands in that awful moment between things being normal and things being forever changed. angel bunny had managed to snag some extra underclothes, but lqt hadn't even remembered her purse. i still had a shoulder bag of so-called worldly goods hanging from each of my shoulders.
as part of procedure, the firefighters began to drop the burned apartment's furniture out the window and onto our meager front landscaping. out came a charred couch, a burn-scarred mattress, some tangled wires. everything was hosed down, and every bit of stuffing shaken loose onto the sidewalk. it was sad to see those bright flashlights scanning the shredded walls and to watch this person's belongings emerge in singed remnants.
"let's walk up to starbucks," i suggested.
we soothed ourselves with hot milky drinks and made quick calls to a handful of important folks. i had sent the darling boy a panic mode text message during the initial fray, but had since shifted to the mode of accepting that there was nothing i, nor he, nor anyone could do at this point, except to wait until it was all clear to go back home. the resident heroes had come down to starbucks, too, and i thanked them for doing what they'd done. "it was nothing," i think he said. but it wasn't nothing to me.
when we turned back around the corner onto our street a few minutes later they were taking away the orange plastic cones that designated the street's closure, and all but one of the fire trucks were gone. some firefighters were wrapping things up by their truck, and when we passed by we all three said thank you to them for their good work. they assured us it was okay to go right on in through the front door. it was safe to go home.
inside the building the stench of smoke was awful. it lingered in our living room, and to a lesser extent our upstairs. i put my bags of worldly goods down, and lqt was remarking that it was just in time for us to catch tonight's law & order: svu. i sank down onto the couch and tried to pay attention to my favorite show. but it was hard to follow what they were saying, because all the whirring in my head was so distracting. i was grateful no one was hurt, and that the firefighters had arrived so fast. i was coughing, and wishing i'd thought to put something over my mouth when i'd run down the stairs. i was feeling horribly on behalf of the poor young man whose apartment was now a black hole, and who might have to struggle to regain his own sense of normalcy. i wondered how it happened.
today the smoke smell is gone from our apartment, although it still clings ferociously to the air in the lobby and the stairwell. this morning they walls near the burned unit were power-washed, and i saw one of the managers meeting with someone to presumably arrange to restore things to a state of presentability. i'm still aware that there's a hole in what has always felt like a fortress of safety. i'm aware of the weakness in the notion of stability, and the frailty of life.
i'm also going to get me some fire extinguishers of my own, and a fire-proof box to house my lifetime of journals, just like i always wanted. but i don't think i'll light any candles any time soon.