Elegy with Crackling Staircase
At what point was I knocked loose, like a tooth, from the mouth of the real? After the fire, I had a dream that my friend Carl’s mother, Elaine, came back to life and we threw her a “Back to Life” party. The brownstone had been gutted and stylishly renovated. It smelled of wood chips and harsh lemon cleaning solution. The disco ball Carl demanded for the living room as a child was steam-cleaned then re-hung, its spinning mirrors casting patches of light across our faces, across the furniture.
First I heard Elaine’s voice on the other side of the wall that divided the living room from the kitchen. Then I went into the kitchen and found Elaine washing champagne glasses, long strands of her wavy brown hair scooping half-circles around the rims of the glasses, making an intermittent wailing sound. “Elaine!” I cried out, surprised to see her despite the fact that I was a host of the party. “Elaine!” I repeated. “What are you doing washing dishes? You should be out in the living room, celebrating!” The look on her face was not quite happy and not quite tired. She wiped her hands on a dishcloth and turned and left me there in the kitchen. I scrubbed away at an endless pile of dishes, hands lost in suds.
In a different dream I had that year, I embarked on a long hike through a wooded trail not unlike the snaking path a player traverses through a classic board game. Eventually, I climbed up a steep embankment, emerged from a crowd of trees, and scrambled down a reedy, sandy path, arriving finally at the edge of a body of water. The water was plum dark and still. There was a long dock and I walked the length of it—the dock old, soft, mossy wooden, and rocking slightly under my weight as I stepped. When I got to the end of the dock, I flattened to my stomach, pushed up my sleeves, and reached into the water. The water was so cold it almost immediately produced the opposite sensation: a rolling heat. I dove over the edge of the dock, parting the water with quick, darting hands, submerging myself.
It didn’t take long to reach the bottom. Braced there, in a mound of packed sand, was a large black trunk. I grabbed hold of one handle of the trunk and pulled. When I finally hauled the trunk out of the water and stood over it, heavy in the weight of myself, my pants and shirt dripping, teeth chattering, I nonetheless radiated excitement. This trunk was filled with everything I had lost in the fire. I was sure of it.
And I was right. I popped the trunk open, and inside was everything, everything I’d lost in the fire, ground down to an ash lighter in heft and color than the sand on the shore I’d just scrambled down.
I rented a room in my best friend Carl’s childhood brownstone in Manhattan while he pursued a career in theater in Chicago. I ran out of the burning building, unharmed, while his mother died on the top floor.
I woke up, a little after midnight, in my loft bed in that rambling brownstone, to the frantic screaming of my name from floors below. Katie! Katie! Katie! Katie!
22, then 23, a chubby dyke teaching in the South Bronx through the Teach For America program, dubiously credentialed with an undergraduate degree in Creative Writing. A chubby dyke with hair so red I could easily connect that fact to a terrifying fatedness for the fire; then scoff, make over-dramatic gagging noises in my throat, wave my hand and skip past it.
Sometimes, even now, I hold my dear, dear Carl at arm’s length and think: thank god I was in the house during the fire and you weren’t—that I am able to carry the trauma of the direct experience of it, instead of you—and thank god it was your mother that died, and not mine—that you carry that trauma, instead of me.
Carl and I became friends while studying abroad in London our junior year of college. In London, we would go to the theater, and during intermission, he and I would buy champagne then walk out to a deck off the theater together. There, in a hazy London dusk, city lights fizzling out through the haze, for no reason I could readily discern Carl would begin to cry, and I would stand transfixed. I attempted over and over again to capture the right version of “shattered-star studded cheeks” to describe Carl’s tears in my journal.
My London journal. My books. All of my books. The scrapbook my mother made of my childhood leading up to my 21st birthday. A necklace from my grandmother I never wore but kept by my bed as talisman.
On one fall day in London, a day bedazzled with autumn leaves unabashed in their jewel-hues, on a walk through a stately old park, Carl told me he felt homesick, and I said, “Really? Tell me about home.” Carl turned to me with his beautiful, long-lashed, open and passionate gaze, and said, “Home is a five story brownstone in New York.”
A brownstone spilling over with stuff. Often, when walking the narrow hallways that served as a landing between each staircase, I would have to turn sideways to squeeze past a box of books, or a box of picture frames, objects being moved elsewhere, to be packed alongside different objects.
Several fantasy lives in that brownstone—in Carl’s brownstone. I walked my little sisters right past Carl’s house just to walk past it when we visited one summer while Carl’s family was on vacation. I had my 21st birthday there. A few false starts. Various flirtations. Some truly spectacular sex.
A week with Carl at his home the summer after junior year of college. Sharing Carl’s waterbed with him and embarking on adventures during the day that inevitably drained my paltry bank account while titillating my wanderlust. We dined at Jean Georges and I sampled my first frog leg, inadvertently crunching right in to the tiny bones of it because I didn’t know any better. We went to a party in Brooklyn thrown by one of Carl’s friends from high school. At that party, the theme was, for some reason, “potato vodka,” and we took copious shots of the harsh white liquor. At the party, we befriended a boy who told us all about his plans to move to Japan and work as an organic farmer. We adopted the would-be ex-pat Japanese farmer for the night and took him back to Chelsea, to a restaurant that was open 24-hours and had recently been featured in an episode of Sex and the City. Some combination of us vomited into the restaurant’s manicured bushes. We made it back to Carl’s house at three or four in the morning with our new friend in tow, and it turned out that Carl had forgotten his key, so he rang the doorbell several times, awakening his mother who walked all the way down from her fourth floor master suite to the front door, which she opened bemusedly. Unsure of how to comport myself, I introduced the boy to Elaine and Elaine to the boy. But I didn’t introduce her as Elaine. I introduced her as Mrs. Hurvich. In the morning, awake again in my own clear, heavy head, I couldn’t overcome my embarrassment about the incident. Carl’s mother’s last name wasn’t Hurvich, it was her maiden Schwager, and furthermore, she was Mrs. Nobody—she’d always been Elaine.
Our friends Kyle and Julia moved to New York separately yet simultaneously, deciding to rent an apartment together and convinced they would soon find meaningful work. In the meantime, they stayed at Carl’s house. I would wake up and brush my teeth, then traipse downstairs in sweat-stained workout clothes, and inevitably discover Kyle perched up on his elbows on a blow-up mattress in the living room, studiously reading a book called Navigating the Quarter Life Crisis.
My room: a tiny pocket for myself in the middle of a five-story brownstone packed with college students avoiding dorm life, one young professional couple with the privilege of a basement kitchenette, various therapists’ offices, a tiny, shared kitchen on the second floor, the not-so occasional cockroach, the mouse that lived behind the radiator in my bedroom.
I was never completely in the know, even when I called the brownstone my home, as to how many other people rented how many other rooms, how many therapists saw how many patients in the basement floors. One day I would be eating a raspberry yogurt for breakfast, alone at the large and disheveled dining room table, and a man in a business suit would suddenly join me, explaining that he occasionally rented a room there when he came to New York for work. The next day I would meet a woman who had moved to the brownstone because she’d been a lifelong resident of New Orleans, but then Hurricane Katrina . . .
I sat on the couch with Carl while Kyle and Julia deflated and rolled their mattress, folded their bedding. Elaine happened down the stairs and surveyed the four of us there, packed in among all the living room things. “I’ve been thinking this room needs a change,” she said. “Like, do we really need all these pillows?” She gestured to a pile of throw pillows Carl was leaning his long, lanky body against. Her question quickly led to a spur-of-the-moment redecoration session. Side lamps and end tables and pillows and candleholders—almost everything was out. I wanted to tell Elaine to get rid of the overly fussy floral window dressings but didn’t quite work up the nerve. There was a kind of stand off about the “antique secretary” that was pushed against a sidewall—a furniture choice that forced a sideways step when entering the living room. Eventually, though, Elaine agreed that it could go and Kyle and Carl muscled the thing down to the basement somewhere.
A suite of bedrooms and a shared bathroom on the third floor. One bedroom belonged to Carl and another to his sister, but when they weren’t there, the rooms were rented by strangers. The room I rented belonged to neither Carl nor his sister and thus was always a room-for-rent. A philosopher of mathematics who had inhabited it sometime before I did mathematically maximized the space by building a loft bed that stretched the full width of the room. I would walk in the door, swing my belongings onto the desk below the lofted bed, climb a small wooden ladder, and collapse on the mattress. Getting up from that bed, I had to be careful to remember how close I was to the ceiling, and more than a few times I wasn’t that careful—I rose to my knees and plowed my head against it.
The school where I ended up teaching Reading, Writing, Math and Social Studies to 12 sixth graders on Individualized Education Plans was the second stop in to the Bronx after leaving Manhattan. That first year, I would walk across the long avenues to where I could hop right on the 6 train, grab a seat, and lean my head back and doze. Often I was the one constant on the journey; by the time I exited the train, two stops in to the Bronx, I was a pulsing, white, highlighted figure amid a sea of Black American and Latino American faces. Occasionally, all of the people would filter off sometime before or around Harlem, and no one else would get on, and by the time the train pulled into my stop, the Brook Avenue station in the Bronx, the train would feel so strange and desolate that I convinced myself it was likely that once I exited the train I would discover the wreckage of some kind of sudden apocalypse.
My mom took a train from Pittsburgh to New York as soon as she heard what had happened. And even though I was a card-carrying adult at this point, I felt I’d shrunk my hand down and wrapped it tightly around her middle and index fingers as we walked up and down the New York streets.
My mom and I spent one night in the apartment my friends Kyle and Julia shared in Brooklyn. I slept in their tiny spare bedroom, on a blow-up mattress that consumed the entirety of the space. I had to squeeze my feet and ankles between the edge of the mattress and the wall then kick the mattress up at an angle with my foot to get the door open. My mom slept on a pile of quilts on the floor in the living room. A friend of Kyle’s who happened to be visiting from out of town walked into the living room where my mom was just starting to wake up in her quilts. He looked at my mother, who resembles me in size and shape and spacing of features, but has dark brown hair instead of my bright red, and said, “Wow, Katie, I like what you’ve done with your hair.” When I emerged a few minutes later from the spare bedroom, Kyle’s friend looked at me and looked away, blushing.
A painting I bought from a street vendor in Venezuela and intended to give to my parents as a present. The quilt my stepmother made for me when I graduated from college. A tiny, crystal snowflake that was the last gift my great-grandmother ever gave me. One dud laptop and the laptop that replaced it. A tall, leafy plant I bought at Ikea.
I was terrified, as my Mom drove a van to JFK to pick Carl up from the airport, that Carl wouldn’t be able to bear the sight of me, that he would despise me, find himself eternally repulsed by my presence. Then he just climbed into the van and sat down beside me.
Carl and I rented a two-bedroom apartment in Brooklyn and, together, attempted to forge a recovery. What little we had was either brand-new or hand-me-down. In the pullout drawer of my bedside table, a bedside table that had previously occupied my mother and stepfather’s bedroom back in Pittsburgh, I stored a roll of scotch tape. It was a completely functional roll of scotch tape that I refused, ever, to use. I had happened to toss the roll of tape into the metal filing cabinet I’d inherited under the loft bed in Carl’s family brownstone when I first moved in, and granted this haphazard measure of protection, it was the one thing to really emerge from the fire intact.
Carl inherited a significant sum of money. My mom hounded me, not so gently, to pay back the money spent getting me going after the fire. Carl purchased speakers that cost thousands of dollars, stately speakers in shades of black and polished wood, waist high, that made of our Brooklyn living room a bona fide musical experience. I trudged back and forth from the subway, thinking of Carl’s speakers, filling with rage, wanting to bash them in with a steel baseball bat. And then, Carl would be out somewhere, and I would be alone in our living room, alone with the speakers, and I’d stretch out my leg and accidentally kick the attractive polished wood speaker remote to the floor. I’d drop to my knees, blinking back tears, cradling the remote and praying wildly that it remain unknicked, undented, unbroken.
I began to see apocalypses all the time, not just on chance intervals of finding myself alone in a subway car. I would lean back and close my eyes, and behind the veil of my closed eyelids, Elaine’s skin would peel off the bones of her beautiful face. Because the tragedy was not supposed to be my direct experience. And then, because it had become my direct experience, it was necessarily both everywhere and nowhere. Caught, flickering, exposed in its own mistranslation.
One day I was teaching what I was convinced was an exquisitely crafted sixth grade math lesson, and somewhere partway through the guided practice, I realized I was seconds away from passing out or dropping dead. I propelled myself calmly out of the classroom, down the stairs, and into what qualified as “the nurse’s office.” I had an hour-long panic attack in a darkened anteroom.
On another day, my students were lining up for lunch, and as I strode to the front of the line I caught the smell of dense, acrid building-fire wafting off of one of them. But then, I couldn’t be sure. It had become hard for me to trust my own senses. “William,” I said, “Can I check in with you?” I sent the rest of the kids down to lunch. “Is everything okay? Your coat, I mean?” He shrugged his shoulders and said, “Oh, yeah, there was a fire in my building miss, but it’s no big deal.” All winter, William wandered through my classroom in his smoke-scarred winter coat, appearing fine. I had a new winter coat and could only admire his resilience from a great and bewildering distance.
Just one week after the fire, I went to a middle school math training with my friend and colleague, Phoebe. The training site was only three blocks from Carl’s childhood home. When the training ended early, around one, and we were unexpectedly gifted an afternoon off, I suggested to Phoebe that we walk to the brownstone together. I led Phoebe right up the front steps, right in the door that swung easily open, unlocked because, what was left to lock inside? We walked up the stairs I’d run down the week before. The walls were smeared with black soot. The railings were gnawed away. There was no door to Carl’s bedroom, and inside everything had been charred the same strange color. It was a gray-scale room of shadowy fragments, bits and pieces charred black, sharp splintered edges, dull instruments of torture, things for the trash. I pointed Phoebe up the last set of stairs that led to the master bedroom where Elaine had died, and immediately turned, immediately left, covering my face to block out the horrific and raging stench of the building.
A friend recently wrote her own essay about that time in New York, and in my friend’s essay—written seven firm years in the future from the fire—when she describes the events surrounding Carl’s blackened and burned out childhood home, she doesn’t mention me. In fact, when she gave me the first draft of her essay to read, she was careful to point my narrative absence out and explain. She said, “I left some parts out. Some parts that seemed like your parts. Your story to tell.” Of course I was flattered, to have been so considered. And also, a little burdened. Maybe I just want someone else to do it for me sometimes. To unmake some parts of this mine. The remains of Carl’s childhood home, where Katie rented a room for a year, before a fire took it all. Before a fire took everything.
Like last year, speaking from now, Carl’s grandmother—a woman who barely made it out of Nazi Germany on the last kinder transport only to outlive her one American-born daughter—finally succumbed to old age. She’d been suffering from a kind of psychosis in her last months, and Carl spent many hours with her, as she raged and cried out, in her ninety-year-old body, for the Nazis to just go ahead and take her child-self already. After she died, I drove down to New York to help in whatever way I could after. Mostly all I had to offer was my presence and the use of my car to ferry some of her things from Riverdale to Carl’s current apartment in Dumbo. I attended his grandmother’s funeral, and the burial, in the plot just a few yards down the grassy slope from where we’d buried Elaine. And about 45 minutes after Carl’s grandmother’s burial, as I stood outside a synagogue in Riverdale, in the rain, trying fairly unsuccessfully to collect myself, my boss texted me, demanding I tell her who, exactly, had died. After a certain number of these insistent texts, I finally felt I had no choice but to reply: “My best friend’s grandmother died.” And she quickly responded: “That does not count as a bereavement day. Only family counts.”
The Night of the Fire
I was working at the desk below my lofted bed when there was a knock on my door. I said, “Come in.” The door swung open. It was Carl’s mom, Elaine. She stood in the doorframe, in a red dress. She said, “Would you mind extending your stay with us through August? Late August/Early September are better times to rent.” I had no problem with that arrangement; I was not in any hurry to go scouring the streets of New York for some other place to live. I remembered a literary magazine she had loaned me a few weeks earlier, a magazine featuring some poems she had written. I lifted it off the side of my desk, handing it back to her. “I really liked these poems,” I told her, “I was lulled and disturbed by them. They were great.” Elaine’s face rippled with pleasure. “Did you know I’m renovating a cabin in the Catskills?” She asked. “I am planning to use it as an artists’ retreat. You can come sometimes if you want.” I pictured a cabin, wood beams and cut-out windows in a grassy valley. She said, “In the summer, I’ll go there. Away from all this.” And then she turned and walked up the stairs. I shut the door lightly behind her.
Startled, suddenly, from sleep, I ran from the burning brownstone, naked because I always slept naked, exposed and terrified, out the door of my room, out somehow, into the impossible black smoke of the narrow hallway, down, fast, the stairs jumping with orange flames, with red flames, alongside the crackling walls, beside the hot inner blue of the thousand flame-hearts. I made it to the front steps and covered myself first with a thin sheet from an ambulance, and then, sometime later, with the large gray sweatsuit of a Good Samaritan on the street who happened to live nearby.
I sat on a stoop across the street while the fire blazed on, while the smoke soaked deeply and irreparably inside of me, and I remembered the quick spaghetti-and-canned-sauce dinner I’d cooked for myself in the shared kitchen that evening. I berated myself for leaving the stove on. I didn’t leave the stove on. When it turned out the fire had started in the wires in the walls of Carl’s bedroom, which was being rented at the time by a student at the Fashion Institute of Technology, I would not let myself off the hook for being so blasé in the weeks leading up to the fire about the occasional brown-out we’d begun to experience.
Carl’s father sat upright and wide-eyed on a stretcher. His hand was badly burned. His face too, I think. He didn’t want to get in the ambulance. I told him to get in. I think, as Carl’s best friend, I was the person closest to him on the scene. I wanted to be there for him. But Carl’s father didn’t want to leave. “Where’s my wife?” He asked over and over. I said I would look out for her. I said I would look out for her and that he needed to go.
A ladder unspooled all the way to the top floor, to Carl’s parents’ bedroom. It was the most important thing and I couldn’t bring myself to focus on it.
A small reprint of a Modigliani. A picture of me, my little sisters, and our dog, Mo. A stack of letters from my girlfriend. All of my books. All of them. Piles and piles of graded and ungraded student work. A backpack. A suitcase. A rug.
I called my mom. I think I was barely making any sense. I used a cell phone that belonged to some other random Good Samaritan. Actually, I called my mom before I crossed the street and sat on the stoop and got a sweatsuit. I called her wrapped in a sheet from an ambulance after being roughly woken, naked, from sleep. Roughly woken by yelling, terrified voices. I said things like, “I’m naked.” “I don’t know where Elaine is.” “Elaine didn’t come out.” My mom said, “Calm down, calm down, calm down.” She said: “I am coming.” At some point, the firefighters told me I needed to cross the street. They were going to have to break some windows. There was a gaggle of us that rented rooms in Carl’s childhood brownstone, and we all moved, dazed, to the other side of the street.
A picture of my friends melted into the glass of its frame. Try to peel the photograph off and the faces rip.
First some firefighters told us that Elaine was in an ambulance and would be okay. They’d gotten her out of the building somehow, without me ever seeing. And then, later, much later, I was alone on the stoop across the street, because the fire had finally been put out, and the firefighters had given the all clear for us to re-enter the house and attempt to salvage some possessions. But I did not, under any circumstance, want to re-enter the brownstone. I sat on the stoop across the street from the brownstone and a policeman approached me and asked if I knew the woman from the house. I said, “Elaine?” “Yes.” “Is she okay?” He said: “She died.”
The policeman left me and I left myself. When I finally succeeded in returning as much as I could, back into my own disbelieving skin, I called Carl, who was in Chicago, and I told him his mother had died and he needed to come home.
On the phone I said: “Carl, there’s something I need to tell you.” He said, “Yes?” I said, “There was a horrible fire in the brownstone.” “Ok.” “Your father is in the hospital.” “In the hospital?” I said, “But your mom, your mom, well, Carl, I’m so sorry, I don’t know how to say this, but your mom, your mom, she died.” He said, “What?” I said, “I am so sorry. Your mom died. She didn’t make it out. She died. I am so sorry.” I heard him breathing. “Is your roommate there, can I talk to him?” And then I told his roommate what had happened, and asked him to help Carl get a plane ticket and pack his things. His roommate gave the phone back to Carl. I said, “Carl, I love you.” He said, “I love you too.”
I slipped my feet into a pair of the Good Samaritan’s big, floppy old tennis shoes, and managed to say I needed money for a taxi to Brooklyn, where my friends Kyle and Julia lived. The man, who has only moments beforehand stepped out of one of the doors of a neighboring building, revealing himself, suddenly, to be my neighbor, placed his hand on my back consolingly, nodded. He reached into his pocket, pulled out his billfold, and passed me fifty dollars for the cab. I had him write his address on a little slip of paper so that I would be able to pay him back. I made a point of doing that.
My cell phone. Every article of clothing. A poster that had graced the walls of each college dorm room I’d lived in. Some bonds that had been gifted to me as a child. My passport. My driver’s license. My social security card.
I can’t remember if I talked to Kyle or to Julia or both of them then. But what I know is: I told them everything, that Elaine was dead, and that I was on my way. I told them this deep into the night, when even Manhattan seems dark, when even Manhattan performs its version of quiet. I hailed a cab and sat alert in the back as it wended its way down lower Manhattan, over a bridge, and into Brooklyn. I kept picturing Elaine in the doorframe, rustling in her red dress. I apologized to the cabdriver for the way I smelled, told him I’d just been in a fire. When we arrived at Kyle and Julia’s apartment, Kyle was in the front yard, pacing back and forth with a phone to his ear. He startled when he saw me. I walked toward him. “Mom,” he said into the phone, “Katie’s here. I have to call you back.”
“Katie,” Kyle said, “What happened?” We hugged each other tightly and greedily and walked into his apartment building. Kyle turned and said, “Is Elaine okay?” I stopped, my foot dangling in the air over the step up I was about to take. “What do you mean is she okay?” I asked. He said, “I just talked to Carl. He said he’s not sure what’s going on with his mom. He said she might not be okay.” By this time, we’d arrived at the top of the stairs. Kyle opened the door to his apartment. Julia was standing in the living room in the way one stands in a living room because one has forgotten that in a living room there are other options. “You guys,” I said, “I already told you. Elaine died. She’s dead.” I can’t remember who was crying then, if we all were. “Oh,” they said, “Oh no.” Kyle said, “Okay, okay, because, well, I just talked to Carl, and he wasn’t sure. He said she might not be okay.” The moment lingered, suspended in amber. I saw, acutely then, what it is to know a thing, and what it is to shrug that knowing off, like a heavy winter coat.
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