Posted on | November 25, 2013 | 2 Comments
Human beings are not born forever on the day that their mothers give birth to them. Rather, life forces them to give birth to themselves time and again. – Gabriel Garcia Marquez
Two minutes is around the time it takes to describe the fire after someone asks about it.
If they seem particularly curious I have a five or ten minute version I give. If they are particularly tactless I’ll tell them things they have absolutely no desire to hear.
We call it politeness to be interested in the tragedy of others. Showing you care also seems to involve telling me about your own experience with fires and how everything worked out for the best. Sometimes it’s two minutes where I have to pretend to find a joke is funny or explain why I’m allowed to make the joke and you aren’t. Hundreds of people really care about me and want to help if they can. Others indulge out of boredom. A desire to have something new to be angry at.
I don’t write this for anyone else.
I write and time seems to stop existing. I can be with my pain and not have to explain it to my fingers as they exorcise ghosts.
A lot of my time is spent maintaining the expectations of others because they assume that due to my struggle with mental illness I’m somehow less equipped to deal with the tragedy than someone who hasn’t been taught adequate coping skills. They need to know I’m okay. Okay involves making jokes, saying weird things and genuinely be somewhat happy. I tell them the truth. I’m okay. Just not the same.
It takes me around two hours to get to sleep every night.
Each morning I wake up and it takes about two minutes to realize why I’m in someone else’s house. Why didn’t the kids across the street wake me up during their recess? What happened to my home? And then I remember it’s boarded up. And I make peace with it for a few more minutes, contemplate getting coffee, doing whatever I have to do to get into a positive head space. Think of who I have to call and tell I love them. Because you never know.
The two minutes which are important are the ones that involved whether or not we got out of the house that night.
These are the minutes I’ve counted back a hundred different ways, sized up, assimilated, dreamed upon, prayed against. And I let it go. Because I have lived in regret. I have refused to forgive myself and it destroyed me. Yet the desire lingers. The two minutes unfold and every day I dance to its rhythm before I consciously abandon the steps.
This is the time that obsesses my roommates when we get together to have a drink and try not to put out the candle at the table of the restaurant because we have to face our fears. Watching everyone’s face darken for a second when they look down at the small beam of light. Shaking them out of it with a joke. With a hug. With another drink.
We are together and it feels like home. Because I don’t have to explain anything or be anyone else because they know exactly what it is I’m feeling.
And we get lost in those two minutes. You know the ones I’m talking about. Because you have your own version. Where life magnified by unbelievable math, where every word and action mattered more than years you had lived previously, asleep to the reality of your existence.
At Last Temptation in Kensington Market we play grassy knoll imagining the different scenarios that may have caused the fire and what we could have done differently.
What I know is that something happened and there was a fire. I know that I smelled the fouled air through my vent. I made my way past the remains of a recently eaten bag of salt and vinegar chips, preparing to yell at my roommate Evan for not properly knowing how to make a sandwich and searching for some earlier time this happened. He yelled twice. Once sounded somewhat normal, like he was trying to make a bad joke. The second time meant there was no time and we had to get out.
I know I was in my underwear and I needed pants. I know that I couldn’t find my shoes. I had one sock on. No shoes. My fly was down and I had to adjust it when I got out of the house. It was really, really cold. Like winter chose that night to arrive or at least make its presence known. Alejandra had my jacket. I thought of referencing Curb Your Enthusiasm and decided against it.
After that I wasn’t really thinking with any traditional sense of logic.
It was like I entered the zone of Hypothetical Michael. Super surface, acting time. You’re watching your actions to keep them accurate, to seem connected but you aren’t. Wires have switched off because if you were fully conscious you’d become fully paralyzed.
It seemed so unrealistic that I didn’t really understand the consequences of what was going on. Words like panic would occur but not register. Everything was a practical decision.
Even when we saw our neighbour in the alley. Begging us to help.
9-1-1 must be called because everyone didn’t get out. Obviously we need to try to get everyone out.
I think Evan is on the phone with 9-1-1. Check my pockets. My phone is still upstairs.
Good. What else do I do?
Our neighbor, whom I only met once, needs to get his girlfriend inside to wake up. We can’t bend the bars on the window. How do I help?
The glass needs to be shattered. She can’t hear us through it. Apparently I went back onto the deck to get the shovel. I don’t remember that part. I think Alejandra shouted at me not to go inside.
I must now yell as loudly as I can to try to get his girlfriend to wake up. The flames are very bright. Pick up snow shovel. The front of the shovel doesn’t work, it’s too big, it can’t past the metal bars. I should flip it around. Shatter the glass of the window. Take a step back. That’s a lot of smoke. I should take a step back and breathe. Hurts a little bit. How come you can’t always see smoke even when you can see fire?
Only something is getting in the way of me going about my tasks. Someone needs to comfort: the guy screaming, “Baby you have to get out.” I shout with him. Very, very loudly, more like screaming.
Nino disappeared. Gave us his possessions. Went looking for fire extinguishers. Evan is yelling at him. He has to come back. 9-1-1 operator says a person could die inside. We are all screaming as loudly as we can. Still the panic hasn’t registered.
The first time I registered some sort of emotional reaction was with the camera man. It was like everything hit me at once.
Probably because it was something I could be angry at. You can’t really yell at a fire and expect a human response. I remember all of the feeling flooding back and Hypothetical Michael disappearing at the same time. All of this happened in somewhere between two and five minutes. At some point we all started to pray, whether we believed in God or not. When you’re that helpless any extra percentage chance is grasped upon.
And then I call my parents from Evan’s phone. I tell them what’s happened. Sort of. I got out. In case they hear about it on the news. Our only phone doesn’t have much in the way of batteries. Goodbye.
Back to Last Temptation.
When we got a couple drinks in us and made ourselves brave enough to face the light of the candles we talked endlessly about those two minutes. What would have happened if we’d gotten the fire extinguisher instead of going outside. Marveled at the coincidental fly infestation that enclosed our house in an iron grip and ruined our mood a few hours before. Talked about how we got the smoke out of our clothing.
Felt like a bunch of ghosts stuck in a bar having a drink.
With a few drinks more heroic things were contemplated. Like breaking into the basement. Promises we would have gone back for each other.
I keep going back to Nino and the fire extinguisher.
Within two minutes the bottom floor of our house was so filled with smoke he couldn’t walk ten feet without getting lost in the smoke, without losing his ability to breathe. He couldn’t even see. If we had been just a little bit slower, we all would be dead. And the reality of that feels like the end of a horrifying life long game of hide and seek. Where you asked death to hide and every day you go looking for him even if you don’t know He was waiting.
What does the two minutes mean in the most real and horrible terms?
When you hit a certain level of chaos the impossible begins to feel realistic.
Like maybe at some point those two minutes would have worked out differently and time will curve and we’ll make the wrong decision and all of this will be so much worse than it already is, your heart seizes up and your brain feels overloaded and slow. And the sequence of events becomes some strange endless circle in your head, time traveling to present times you couldn’t possibly be a part of. Imagining the feeling in your parents’ chests at hearing the news. Wondering which of the nice cops or fire fighters would be tasked to tell them. Contemplating what it would be like to be the man in the alleyway and wondering if you would have somehow been clever enough to walk through fire and come out with the person you loved safe and sound.
Yes, these thoughts exist in the realm of total delusion. But so does much of human thinking. It’s hard to fight against the desire to wish for mercy when life is merciless.
Everyone is a hypothetical hero. In another timeline everyone is dead. Not from something sensible like cancer or old age or even murder where hints could be found, examined and dealt with. Two minutes. If Evan finishes Sons of Anarchy a little bit earlier and goes to sleep. If he has his head phones on and doesn’t hear the beeping, or he just thinks it is the techno our neighbours often play far too loudly.
You think death is a series of decisions until you see it. There is no villain in this story. Just mistakes you couldn’t see as mistakes until they have been made.
Everyone knows what they would do as long as they have never had to do it. Yet you wonder. Because in hypothetical conversations in safe places you don’t have to think about what it would feel like for your nerves to fall away or what a two-alarm fire means. What it would do to the people who love you if you did something stupid in pursuit of something right. What it would feel like to be able to do nothing. To tell people you did nothing and have them judge you because they suppose they would have done it differently. To enter a house full of smoke and have to take the steps back out the door and see her boyfriend and only have your hands to give him.
We did our absolute best.
Yet the two minutes don’t go away. When we wait for the next bad thing to happen. When my roommates try to sleep and feel it slip away at the last second. With another question that can’t be answered. This is where regret and shame live. An anger at a past you can’t change. Shaking your fist at a fire and expecting not to be burned in your most private places.
You can’t know what that was in the same way I can’t understand the worst two minutes of your life. The decisions you wish you had made. That didn’t seem like they mattered and were in fact issues of life and death. Death was so close to us that night. So heavy that it wiped out air, it drank it so deep that it wiped out the world inside our house. That it tore through walls, cracked ceilings, moving so quickly it chased us outside into an alleyway. And we stared at it. And it didn’t look real. And it didn’t get us. But it was so close.
When I close my eyes and let it fall away, take a deep breath and know those minutes have passed. They will never come back. Everything that will be done has been done and we all made it out alive.
I have my friends. I have my life. Everyone lived.
Time continues and carries me with it.
I have time. I have time. I have time. And every second is one I wouldn’t have had. There is no more time for lies or petty bullshit.
And we are the table. Drinking Rusty Nails, some mysterious god-ike combination of Scotch and Drambuie, and we are laughing. Hugging. Kissing little Alejandra on her forehead. Slapping five. Calling Evan coach because he likes to make speeches when he has had a drink and has a fanatical desire to make us all happy. Me making stupid jokes about porn. Feeling the two minutes disappear in light of friendships that saved our lives. Laughing so hard we could put out the candle with out breath.
These are the people I fought death with. These are the people who will help me find life again.
My little brother Evan who has had a year from hell where concussions made him barely able to think and is somehow still strong enough to smile and make stupid jokes. Who thought he couldn’t do anything until he saved our lives and wishes he could do more. My little sister Alejandra who knit on the deck and taught me how to pronounce guacamole as whack-a-mole. Whose presence is a light in my life I talk about with strangers. Nino,aka the Germinator, who was willing to enter a house on fire to help a complete stranger and hasn’t met a friend he didn’t give a good nickname to. Who says Proust and who taught me beer goes good with burgers. My brave roommate Nicola who stood up and fought for his rights to be himself in a country he’d only read about. Who found a hostel for people who had been abandoned by the city of Toronto on the Danforth with no safe place to go. Alessandro, who arrived at our apartment in a flood and left in a fire. Alessandro, who looks like he always has hair gel like some European princess and was ready to hold an absolute stranger in sub zero temperatures, steady his voice and say everything would be okay.
And it was.
We are here.
For a moment totally free from the two minutes. Stronger than death. Nothing could break our friendship. Nothing could break us.
We weren’t going home together. But we were going somewhere.
Together as a family.
Drunkenly stumbling through the streets of Toronto raising silly cheers.
We left the bar and we blew out the candle.
We didn’t need to make a wish.