As the house burned down, and she watched everything they’d gathered or made in their life together float first up on rising rivers of hot air, then down like flakes of powdery, grey snow, Jennifer felt a kind of lightness.
“Like the universe knew I need a new start, and sent it in this spectacular and ironic way,” she said to the paramedic. “It looks like it’s destroying my life, but it isn’t. The old is burning away to make way for the new.”
The medic wrapped a shiny, tinfoil sheet around her shoulders and told her she was in shock. Jen pulled it tight around her with her hands inside, smiling at her friend Beth. “Look,” Jen said, poking the blanket from the inside. “I’m popcorn! Pop! Pop! Pop!”
Later, sniffing a crumpled tissue because she was convinced her tears smelled like smoke, Jen thought maybe the paramedic had been right.
When Jen and Megan had parted ways, some weeks previous, the dissection of their life as a couple had been absolute. Megan had seized her new identity as Jen’s ex-wife and utterly relinquished attachment to the house and any of its contents. Still, Jen couldn’t help thinking Megan would want to know.
She answered without saying hello, just “Jen, it’s 3 a.m.” and a pause while she waited to hear if Jennifer was drunk, or if someone was dead. “Jen?” Jennifer could hear her getting ready to hang up.
“Hi Meg,” she said finally. It was all she could think of to say, the phone cradled tight to her ear, holding on against the overwhelming wave of loss. This is all that’s left, she thought, vague impatience and charred remains.
“Are you alright?”
“No,” Jen said. “Not really.”
Megan sighed, a deep breath weighted with irritation. “You can’t just call,” she said. “At three in the morning for no reason.”
Of course she assumed no reason. “Sorry to bother you but the house burned down.”
Jen felt a rush of legitimacy, and a sudden, virtuous anger. “Yes, the house. I’m calling because you should know our house burned the fuck down.”
The coffee shop was almost empty. Having exhausted to topic of the house fire in the first minute (It started? Electrical. And everything’s? Gone, yes.) they sat across from one another trying to think up other safe topics.
“How’s work?” Megan asked finally. As long as they left out any mention of certain coworkers, work was a safe zone.
“You always say that.”
“Yeah right. I have a mortgage, you know.”
They both stopped short.
“Fuck,” Megan said. “You still have to pay the mortgage?”
“No, I guess not.” They had been nothing if not well insured.
Megan’s gaze slid over the customer at the counter, focusing vaguely on the sandwich specials. A coolness settled between them, dull and lifeless as lake water.
“I should go,” Megan said.
It’s not like she thought the fire would get them back together or anything, but Jennifer had expected more than this single coffee date from Megan. A place to stay for a few days, or some clothes. They were the same size, sort of. Not really, anymore, since Jen quit soccer. Well, shoes anyway. She could have offered shoes.
The café suddenly filled. A guy with a man bun looked pointedly at the empty cups on their table. Megan took the hint. “I’m heading home. You coming?” she asked, digging in her bag for her wallet. She looked up and saw Jennifer’s face, and said. “Oh shit. Sorry, I just meant, are you leaving now too.”
“No, of course. I didn’t think….”
“This doesn’t change anything.”
“No, I know.”
They’d bought the house originally for the family they were imminently to create. A donor had been found, a handsome theatre director content to be cool Uncle Rick. They planned simultaneous insemination, an idea that struck Jen now as analogous to those adolescent suicide pacts involving aspirin – overly dramatic and ultimately ineffectual. First their cycles wouldn’t sync up (story of their life, really), then Rick withdrew. Meg lost her job and got a better one, and pretty soon the would-be nursery was a home office they couldn’t do without. Before they knew it, five years had passed and they had stopped talking about babies and, in fact, had more or less stopped talking altogether. Their therapist had suggested that Meg’s affair (hardly an affair, though, a drunken one night stand at a conference) had been a way to finalize the brokenness of the marriage. A corner turned that could not be unturned. Following that logic, Jen wondered if she – not fifty year old wiring – had finally found a way to end her belief in the possibility of reconciliation. You want over, Meg? I’ll show you over. I’ll light that fucker up.
Except it hadn’t worked.
Jen wandered toward the house (or what was left of it. The site, maybe she should call it). The bulldozers had come and gone; it seemed fast but the fire department had explained it was a hazard now, and she could be liable if someone went in and was hurt.
“Why would anyone go in?” she’d asked. She herself felt almost physically repelled by the sight of it, as if it were the burned remains of a body, not a building.
“Kids,” he’d replied. “Or people think there’s something to steal.”
“So if a thief hurt himself breaking into my burned out house to rob me, I could be sued?”
The fire guy said, “It’s happened.”
Jen doubted it but signed the work order anyway.
She got the insurance check, and then a realtor called and made an offer on the land. She agreed almost immediately. It’s not like she was going to rebuild a house. What did she need a house for? Beth pointed out a vacancy in the apartment building next door, and now she was single, with a new, empty apartment and money – a lot of it – and what felt, on one hand, like freedom but also, on the other, like a terrifying, unhinged variety of abandonment.
Her boss offered her time off to “help her deal with things.” The absence of routine was not, it turned out, helpful in the least. She lay on the mattress in her otherwise empty apartment and googled “forest stewardship” to read about the regenerative properties of wildfire. She found a lighter, and singed the hair on her arm. She began to scare herself. She began to wonder if 38 was too early for a midlife crisis, although this would suggest she’d live to 76, which struck her as more than generous.
She fell asleep in the mid afternoon and dreamed she had become anorexic. She woke up, tired and hungry, and went in search of something greasy to eat.
In the alley behind her apartment she stopped short, feeling a swift rise of anxiety before she even realized she was sniffing the air like a dog.
A rat ran past her leg and she jumped back. It stopped and looked up at her, and she realized it was a small, grey cat.
She inhaled. She smelled smoke but then again, she was always smelling smoke these days. She’d stopped saying can you smell that? to people around her. They couldn’t. It wasn’t there. She was going crazy.
The little cat meowed at her. It was scared to death, poor thing.
She crouched down slowly and held out one finger, the SPCA-approved cat greeting she’d learned as a teenage volunteer. He bumped his miniscule pink nose against her, permitting her finger to stroke his cheek. He was just a baby, she thought. She moved her hand slowly toward the back of his head thinking to catch him and turn him in to the local shelter for adoption. She reached her arm a little further and her bag swung down off her shoulder. The kitten bolted away, startled, and ran right under a rusted dumpster. Jennifer realized the smoke she could smell was real, and it was coming from the garbage bin. Which was up against her apartment building. And directly above the little kitten. Shit.
She looked around quickly, saw no one and nothing to help. She crouched down further and peered under the dumpster. He’d backed himself into a corner, wedged into a tiny gap between the wall and a broken bike frame. He mewed again, a high-pitched, anxious sound. She backed up and got down on her belly, ignoring the gritty concrete, and sniper crawled herself into the space between the bin and the brick wall. It was hot; the metal side of the dumpster almost, but not quite, hot enough to burn her. Jen’s eyes began to water and she held her breath, trying not to think about discarded needles or condoms or about the lung conditions that may result from the thick, putrid smoke of burning garbage. Her arm stretched, fingers grasping, finally catching him – barely – by the fur then adjusting and getting a better grip on his nape. She pulled and shimmied back, dragging him along until they were both clear.
She held him by the nape of his neck, his legs clawed wind mills, emitting a seemingly endless hiss of hostility for her efforts. She coughed and ran a grubby hand across her face and through her hair. Her hat dislodged and fell, landing upside down beside her. She put the cat down between her legs, keeping her grip on his nape. He contracted to a grey, matted ball, his belly tight against the ground, the hiss now a low, throaty threat. Jen held on in a protective restraint, knowing he’d dash off the moment she released him and feeling, in the space of those few minutes, responsible for him.
A man rounded the corner and she waved him over, coughing again. When he reached her, he crouched down, and put a handful of coins in her hat. “Here,” he said. “For some food for your cat.”
What the hell? “I’m a millionaire,” she said. Practically. If you rounded up.
“Of course you are,” he said, standing and brushing off the front of his jeans and carrying on down the alley. “Good for you.”
“That dumpster’s on fire,” she called, pointing. “Hey!” He walked on, not believing or bothering to care.
Jen reached around to her back pocket, working out her cell phone with one hand.
“9-1-1 What is your emergency?”
Life’s great multiple choice question. What was the nature of her emergency, Jen wondered. Abandonment? Neediness? Maybe, but first things first. “Fire,” she said. The kitten went quiet under her hand. “It’s a fire.”
Photo by My Girl Photography.