Sunday, November 11, 2012

The hurricane, Fire Island, the old house, and a short essay on falling


     Yesterday was the first day that people who own houses in Fire Island Pines were allowed to go back out to the island since Hurricane Sandy struck. (Writing that sentence reminds me that I wish that
indelible storm had been given another name -- "Sandy" seems so light and inconsequential a moniker for that vast, slowly spinning disc of trouble that passed over our heads, changing the course of many
a life beneath it.)

     Alex and I lined up with a couple of hundred others just before ten at the ferry dock. The entire Sayville police force seemed to be in attendance -- there to prevent looting, I guess, though the process of checking the credentials of the passengers felt a bit haphazard, perhaps mostly to create a show of authority. Technically, I'm not a property owner any more; I sold my house a few months ago, but the tenant I'd rented it to for a long season just moved out at the end of October. Then Sandy happened. So it was only yesterday that I could actually get there to retrieve some furniture and boxes of things that hadn't been included in the sale. 

     Some of the men on the boat (and the passengers headed for the Pines were, it almost goes without saying, 98 per cent male) were somber and apprehensive; some already knew their pools or decks were gone, and were making jokes about it. "My pool," I overhead a guy beside me say, "is part of the big pool now."

     It was a relief, when we swung open the wooden gate, to find the house looking untouched. The old garden was wildly overgrown, and a moraine of fallen twigs and slender oak branches made a long drift across the walk. The new chimney cap Paul and I had installed was gone, and in a while I'd discover that the rubber piping system that used to kind-of-sort-of heat the little swimming pool had blown off the roof, too. Not bad, under the circumstances.

    The inside of the house looked like a hurricane had hit there, too. The tenant hadn't been able to finish moving before the evacuation of the island, and so the big main room liked like one of those disaster photos of a house wrecked by flood: clothes, DVDS, dog bowls, gadgets, kitchen stuff -- everything everywhere, in no visible order.

     So we got busy, moving the fellow's stuff off the couch and chairs we were taking, wrapping up the glass top of the coffee table, and to my surprise we started actually enjoying ourselves. There was something good-spirited about it -- partly that we were finally bringing a long process to an end, partly that the new owner would be the one to take care of everything else. Partly that it was somehow the whole thing felt lighter than we'd imagined. The house was a revenant of a gone relationship, something of a hold-over, and the process of finally cutting loose from it might have been emotionally fraught. But it wasn't.

     At least not till I went to the attic. We didn't know, until Alex swung the trapdoor down, that half the folding stairway had fallen away; what looked like half a ladder just hung in the air, four feet off the floor. We found a stepladder so that we could climb up and look. Just a few boxes up there, and we found a flashlight so that we could look into the far corners and make sure we hadn't missed anything. That's when one of us laughed, and we stopped and talked about how surprised we were that this all felt easy, and fine. Perhaps that was what jinxed it.

    Alex went off to work on something else, while I looked into each box to see if it was something I'd want. I carted them down, carefully, one at a time. I didn't know what was in the last, rather weighty one, so I opened it to look: a collection of Moroccan tiles bought a long time ago, beautiful thick ones, orange and blue, geometric. I'd planned to use them someplace and never did, and now they could find a home, maybe someplace in the garden?

    I lifted the box, started stepping down one rung at a time, and around four rungs down my right foot arrived at the gap between wooden rung and stepladder, and I probably already know what happened. 
Something about that space between solid matter was enough to make me step unsurely, and then I was  falling backwards. I hesitate, beginning to describe that moment --  seconds, the duration of that descent from ladder to floor, but could I ever do them justice? 


    It's a commonplace, the idea that an unexpected event like an automobile accident or a fall causes us to experience time differently. It's like Zeno's paradox: the distance between launching and arriving seems to keep dividing in half, becoming longer, because the anticipation of getting where you know you're going is so terrifying.

    It occurred to me later that my descent seemed so long because my thoughts were so complex. I knew I was going to land on the small of my back,  where I've had disc problems in the past. I thought I might break my back. I was acutely aware of the condition of helplessness; I could do nothing to stop this, or even moderate the damage; I do nothing. I was aware of the box which had been in my hands and now was in the air just above me and was likely to land on my hips, aware of the weight of the box. I was aware of my own voice in my own mouth, calling out not a word but just a loud, outrushing exhalation. I didn't think of the Bishop poem in which Aunt Consuelo cries out from the dentist's chair, though I think of it now -- a sense of dislocation. Was that my voice? And I was aware of Alex running toward me from the next room, and that I was striking the wall, and sliding down it, and then there was a sharp, ferocious blow, which I thought was the box striking me in its descent, and then I was possessed by the pure terror that I was about to experience unimaginable pain, and then I did.


     Okay, now the temporal experience starts to get murky. Even as I'm narrating the moment above, trying to be faithful to the experience, I start thinking about Elizabeth Bishop, who certainly was not on my mind as I fell. I've been reliving the experience since it happened; it rises up in my awareness like a wave, and I feel myself tense, and that awful fear returns. I've seen the same thing happen to Alex, interestingly, as a witness; in the 24 hours since, I've seen him doing something else then experiencing a kind of paroxysm of a related kind of pain -- as if he is physically re-experiencing his own powerlessness, and the terrible moment of seeing me hit the floor, and then sitting beside me while I cry for a long time.


    Was it a very long time? I don't know. I was flat on my back, and somewhere down there was the eye of the storm, an awful fire. Though it wasn't burning. I don't think there's a word for what it was, or if there is it's not something I'll find now, just a day later. I was moaning loudly, Alex was telling me to go ahead, let all that out, and also to breathe. 
    Almost blinding physical pain comes in tidal waves, and with each one I have to stop thinking, breathe, accept that it is there, let the tension in my back and pelvis go a little. I'm aware of our situation: we're on an island where there's only one boat more, leaving in two hours, there's no doctor, there's no help except perhaps the police, and if they come they'll move me and make me scream. We're still getting our stuff ready and this the only time it can be done and I don't know if Alex can do it alone, and if we can get back how I can sit in the car, and I'm thinking about these things in between spasms or pulses of pain. 

    Then Alex says something like, "The house bit you," and I begin to cry in a different way, from another place within my body, because he has tapped into the metaphoric current that has already begun with me -- how this house represents some last hope around my last marriage, how that hope fell into dust, and now the loss, guilt and rage I've not wanted to allow their hour have struck me down. I am cursing the house and the old marriage and saying now this is the end, this is really where it ends. All this feels like a release of pain, letting this out in sobs and shudders, but there is always a wave of fresh pain behind the last one.


      In a while I begin to slow down, to still. When I remember my terror the muscles seize and the pain is fierce, but then I can let it loose a bit, slowly. I am not breathing so hard. I can move in and out of thinking metaphorically, come back to the event as just itself, and it can also be the fall from the hope that any marriage is, too. I begin to think I have not broken anything. I am worried about being hit by the box of tiles and what this did to me, and Alex says, "You weren't hit by the box." I am shocked by this; of course I was hit by the box. But no -- it in fact skidded down the hallway, and I came down on one curved metal arm of a framed mirror I'd bought years ago at a flea market in Houston. Alex was afraid it might go through me, but in fact it hadn't broken the skin. I had composed the story of my fall incorrectly, though for me it will always be the box of tiles, a box of the past, that gave me that heavy blow.


     I can walk today, slowly, and sit up in bed briefly. Medication has the swelling going down and has granted me a long sleep. I've been talking to the dogs, and I drank a cup of coffee. What I cannot do is write any more of this. Though, as I have been spilling out this deposition,  I have hurt less: telling the story seems to release something, at least in part, and I'm heading back to sleep. Next installment: aftermath, and hurricane.