I went out of town this week to New Mexico on a work trip. When I was driving back home, I looked over to check on the mailbox. The surprise I felt when realizing the mailboxes had been taken out was immense. I knew this could always be a possibility, but it was still shocking to have it happen. There was a dump truck in the parking lot that Austin help me sift through to see if we could find the mailboxes. We found the posts that held the mailboxes up, but no actual mailboxes were present. I wrote a note and left it inside the truck in hopes that I would receive a call; I have yet to hear anything. Perhaps I won't ever get that typed out copy back, and I still can't decide if it's something I would want to redo. What I do know is that this story is continuously taking me on a journey and I am trying to appreciate the ride even with all of its bumps and detours.
Searching for Closure
Two months have passed since the fire. Every single day I drive by our old place to get to work or town. Every time I look over and see our burned-to-a-crisp, barely-holding-on apartment complex and I always look into what used to be our home. In a way, the sight of it brings me some comfort that I can still see it and remember our life there each time I drive past. Only once after the day it happened did I pull in to look up at our second floor apartment. I found some old book pages that had somehow fallen down from our apartment to the studio apartment below it where the fire first began. I couldn't bring myself to touch any of the pages or any leftover soot, nor wooden frame that survived.
I finally decided that I needed some closure and I was going to find that by going up in our old home and saying goodbye. I told Austin this one night and he supported me with my decision. We found some clothes that were given to us that didn't fit well and we planned to wear them into the ash stricken complex. It was late, so we went to bed. As I lay there trying to fall asleep, I was overtaken with anxiety. I thought of what I might find in our home. Maybe I would find an old piece of jewelry or love note. That night while I slept, I dreamt that I found all sorts of meaningful items in our home. These items that I found in my dream (my grandmother’s jade ring, the dishes and pottery I had since I was 13 that I put into my Hope Chest for my future, among other things) were especially meaningful to me. I woke up excited and anxious. We hopped in the car and began driving to our old place. I was getting really nervous, but I was also incredibly anxious to get up in there and put my heartache to rest. We are less than a mile away, and my heartbeat speeds up, and, as I lean in closer to the windshield, craning my neck to get the first look at my burned out home that I was going to climb up into, the lot comes into view. I inhale sharply as I look at it.
"Oh my god," Austin says.
The entire complex has been torn down. All that remains is a man who is leaf blowing over the cement slab that used to hold our home. I could not believe what I was seeing. For two months, that complex stood there taunting me each day as I drove by, yet when I finally decide to go back inside and say my last goodbye, it has been taken down; erased forever. There were no words in my throat to utter, only tears to be cried. I felt as if I had lost my chance for that closure I was trying to find. The closure was forced upon me, which didn't exactly feel like real closure to me. Driving by now almost hurts more than when the burned place still stood there. It feels as if that moment in our lives has been erased forever and not to be remembered. I am trying to tell myself that it was for the best. I might have been hurt if I went up in there, but I cannot hesitate to say that my heart hurts deeply over not getting to do this act of going up into our old home and saying goodbye.
John is in the parking lot area drunkenly stumbling around continuing to yell, “Get out! Get OUT!!”
“AUSTIN! AUSTIN!!!” I scream.
Austin saw movement in our neighbor's window as we were running by and stopped to bang on their door to make sure they got out of their apartment.
We later find out that the movement was caused by their snow white cat. She often sat perched in the window. We enjoyed saying hi as we passed on our way to our apartment every day. She didn’t make it out.
“Get out! Get out!” He yells. He pounds on the door until they open.
I see him running back to me and I feel the slightest bit of relief. In the next instance, I see the cars are starting to catch on fire.
“Austin! The cars! The cars are catching on fire!” I yell.
Austin sprints to his silver Honda Accord and backs it out of its spot towards me. He leaves the car running. He has a spare key to my car in the console of his and runs to back my Honda Pilot out too.
I look up to see our neighbor, Jill, standing on the walkway upstairs yelling at our neighbors who started the fire.
“What did you do, you Mother Fuckers?!” She screams.
What sounds like gun fire goes off.
“Are they seriously shooting at each other right now?!” I think as I instinctively crouch down and use my arm as a shield.
Later we are told there was ammunition in an apartment that was exploding.
Austin yells for me to drive his car across the road to the dirt lot on the other side of the street.
He pulls me out of my stupor of gazing up at the fire and cursing my heart out, and I am, once again, in go mode.
I pick up all of the stuff I carried down that I unknowingly dropped on the asphalt during my fire gazing daze. I throw it all into the back of the car. I notice things spilling out of my purse onto the floorboard. I throw Willoughby in after the stuff and then jump in the driver’s side. I am panting and focus enough to avoid the people walking around the road and dirt piles, not sure what they are doing. I see they are in the same stupor I was just in, not ten seconds ago. They appear as what I imagine the Hebrews wandering in the desert looked like; dazed, confused and helpless.
The cops have already pulled up. They are telling everyone to get behind our cars. Wait, now the dirt piles. It’s not safe here. I look over to Austin who is awkwardly being forced into a hug with the neighbor from downstairs who is holding his daughter.
The neighbor tries to rope me into the hug too, but I push him away and tell Austin, “I cannot handle this right now.”
Austin knows. He politely leaves the neighbor and scoops me up in his arms, and I let myself groan into his chest.
“Let’s just leave. Let’s take the cars and leave,” I say.
“Ok, we will meet at my work. I don’t have my phone anymore, so let’s just meet there.”
“Ok,” I say.
As he runs to get into the Pilot, I notice he's only wearing his socks; no shoes. I become aware of my large sweater I threw on and how I am so hot from the adrenaline and the fire.
May is just around the corner and with it the promise of warmer, and in effect, happier days. Unfortunately, the hope of warmer weather provides no sense of solace at this moment.
My chest is heaving and I want out of here. I cannot bear the thought of watching my home burn down till the end. It hurts too bad.
We pull out as the fire trucks arrive. As I drive past, I feel no physical heat. Austin later tells me that when he pulled out right behind me, he felt the heat wave thrust into his car as he drove past the inferno. I don’t feel anything. I don’t even look over for one last glance. I am shaking all over my body and am taking deep gulps of air in, trying to stay afloat as I drive to Austin’s work. My home burned down. My home. Burned. Down. I keep repeating in my head.
Austin has been a rock up to this point; leading us out of our home with swift speed and directing me out of my stupor. He took charge and made sure our neighbors made it out, while I was dropping everything and screaming in the parking lot.
Later he tells me he would have stayed to watch the whole thing burn down to the end, but he knew I couldn’t handle it.
I grab my cell phone and call my mom.
“Those motherfuckers burned our home down, Mom!” It is communicated in a combination of a scream, sob and plead.
“I am so sorry, Rachel. I am so sorry. I am on my way right now.”
I feel like I am going to vomit and shit my pants at the same time. I want to wake up from this nightmare.
Unfortunately, that just isn’t an option.