Through my bedroom window I saw a man throw a lit cigarette butt on the ground today. It was on the street in front of my apartment. For a panicked moment I contemplated going outside and stamping it out.
The night before I bolted up out of sleep that had barely hit the REM phase. I’d had a nightmare that fire was consuming my home.
I suppose this means it’s official. I’m traumatized.
Maybe that’s a little strong. I really don’t want to be emotionally fraught. Is it possible to talk myself out of it? To purge via writing? I’m willing to give it a try.
Driving home from an emotionally challenging day on Tuesday, I noticed signs I’d never seen before on the Garden State Parkway and the New Jersey Turnpike; they said potential for brush fires was high, so asked that drivers use their ashtray and not throw lit cigarettes out the window. A non-smoker myself, I stored it away as interesting.
On Wednesday, having no direct correlation to the above since I don’t live near brush, a car fire erupted in front of my apartment building. I was talking on the phone to my sister and I told her I had to hang up because there was white smoke coming from the hood of a car in front of my building. I called 911 and then grabbed my phone and wallet to see what was happening outside.
A young woman was standing near the front step of my building. She saw me and said she was the driver. Then she began to cry. I assured her it would be OK, that help was on the way. A policeman pulled up and he began asking her what happened. She said she was driving her car and it began to smoke so she pulled over. This is an urban street, so her car was close to the one in front of it.
Suddenly the white smoke turned black and orange flames began shooting out. I’m not exactly sure of the order, but I began saying successive Hail Marys, shooting a tiny bit of video on my phone, and then crying. I called my brother, who was soothing and told me to stay on as long as I needed to. The fire grew and loud popping sounds erupted as pieces of ash shot up, one large piece landing near my feet. My apartment windows were just feet away.
The fire department arrived so quickly, but the fire was raging by then. The adjacent car caught on fire and the startling booms continued. It was amazing to watch them take an ax to the windows (a fireman later explained to me that they have to do that to get to the actual fire inside the car) and slowly slay that thing. I could feel myself begin to relax only when I saw the shell of two drenched cars get towed away.
As cleanup ensued, I thanked the police and firemen and even had a chance to interact with the driver and a man who appeared to be her significant other. They both thanked me for helping her out.
I thought I’d exorcise it by posting my literal two-second video on Facebook and expressing my authentic fear. It was helpful, as I have terrific support from people in my life. When I woke up Thursday morning, my anxiety was lingering so I started searching around the internet for other documentation of the fire. I found a photo shot from an angle opposite mine and it reassured me that, yes, I had reason to be afraid. It was a real threat. I’m not sure why I needed to validate my fear, but I indulged it.
After combing social media, I decided to take a power walk on a gorgeous spring day. Me, music pumping through ear buds, a view of water. That’s it. Therapy.
And then, here comes Alicia Keys through those ear buds:
She’s living in a world, and it’s on fire
Feeling the catastrophe, but she knows she can fly away
Oh, she got both feet on the ground
And she’s burning it down
Oh, she got her head in the clouds
And she’s not backing down
This girl is on fire …
My steps quickened with the words. The song is rousing. It inspires. How weird to have this little twist on fire. It was like a completely different tune now.
As thoughts swirled in my mind, I found myself jealous of my neighbors who’d missed the fire drama. And then not. I tend to think everything can show me something if I choose to see it. I certainly saw life’s precariousness in that moment.
The day of the fire I kept calling it the scariest thing I’ve ever experienced and upon more reflection that is true. While I was in New York and terrified on September 11, 2001, I was over 20 blocks away and most of the fear around that was residual and manifested in being afraid in the subway for months (and even years) afterwards. And while Hurricane Sandy hit Hoboken hard and I had a scary experience that day, it was not as terrifying for me personally as watching flames erupt and rage so close to my home.
The day after the fire, I woke to find an upside down water bug next to my bed. So gross. I learned from an exterminator a while ago that that means they’re sleeping, not dead. I calmly put on sneakers, proceeded to the kitchen to get a can of Raid and I drowned the creature in a pool of poison.
I’m afraid of bugs. Did I mention that?
As Elizabeth Gilbert writes in Big Magic, “Scary, scary, scary. Everything is so goddamn scary.”
I hate that that feels true.