Three days after the wedding we found out the apartment in France burned down.
Lightning they said. I guess in lightning storms, the electricity can short out things…but in my head, I pictured long blue tongues of lightning snaking down inside the walls and uncoiling across the floor, licking at the drapes. My imagination made it light up like a comic book.
The reality, when we finally got to see it several weeks later after the visa came through, was a lot more real – windows that had shattered from the heat. Ash and blackened metal where the bed used to be. Plastic clothes hangers melted into unexpectedly beautiful and elegant forms in taupe and bone.
I don’t remember really feeling any kind of surprise or shock. I’ve learned from the past though that when something really scary or huge is happening, you never really feel the way you think you should. A lot of times I just feel…flat.
I might have laughed, and then held the laughter back when I saw my husband-of-three-days actually WAS having the appropriate emotional response of freaking out. But I don’t remember being upset.
I guess the stress came out in other ways that I wasn’t expecting. That week I had my first genuine night terrors since probably I was little – woke up screaming and crying and terrified and convinced I was being attacked by some faceless mindless thing. And suddenly I found myself grieving – not for the stuff in the fire, which was mostly forgettable things, tacky formal dresses from when I worked on the cruise ships and jeans that were never new to me. Replaceable clutter and empty objects…nothing of significance.
But the loss I was feeling wasn’t from the fire. I spent those weeks when we were trapped in the U.S waiting unhappily for the French consulate to return from an apparent office-wide vacation finding old photographs of the life I walked away from the previous year, tallying in my head the things left behind in the house, making sad stupid useless lists of sad stupid useless objects.
A telescope. A spinning wheel. A box of little glass scientific vials. Bags of wool and a box with tiny mouse skulls that I’d picked out of owl pellets. My hiking boots. All the pieces of glass that I had made and carefully ground and polished and then abandoned. And not just the things…all of it. The life.
I drove away fast when I did…I gave myself three days to load things in a car and drive away. It’s probably the worst thing I ever did. They whys and hows are too complicated and still too raw. And the grief didn’t come then, not right away.
But the fire triggered it, I think. And maybe it’s normal now, as I go through my days unable to talk, to get lost sometimes in the past…to think about all the things and people that come through your life and then are just gone. Maybe that’s why we get so sentimental about objects…they become totems or symbolical tangible reminders of a reality that no longer exists. We hold on to them and imbue them with memories and then become unable to let those things go…because to get rid of the object almost deleted the real-ness of the memory.
I know all of you have boxes of things like this. Maybe you don’t even use the things, or look at them anymore, they’ve been relegated to a box in the corner of your basement…but to actually throw it out would be unthinkable, right? Like you’d lose a part of yourself if it was gone?
I think it’s human…it’s a way of dealing with the fact that life is transient and constantly moving, it’s a way to try to slow down time, to freeze aspects of it in amber. Futile, but human and therefore wonderful to me.
I think back to moments when I felt trapped by the avalanche of Things in my life, wanting to move on and yet feeling entombed by a house full of furniture and sentimentality, like a museum…like I was barricaded in by walls of my own possessions. Sometimes I’d feel panic, like I was being suffocated. And sometimes I would dream of waving a wand and having it all disappear, having freedom again. Sometimes this fantasy would take the form of fire…of having it all just vanish.
Maybe this is really why I wasn’t surprised to hear about the apartment burning. Maybe I knew this was coming…and maybe I had philosophically cut so many ties in the last year that to have an actual physical manifestation of the carnage was a relief. Finally, something I could put my hand on as a visualization of the loss.
I sit now in our temporary flat. It’s peaceful and I’m drinking coffee and dreaming about waking up this morning sleepy as M headed to work early. I’m dreaming about French and glassblowing and feeling the start of new life growing. I’m wondering what this new life will be like.