“You’re smoking a lot tonight,” A observed of K at trivia tonight.
“It’s been a hard week.”
“Fuck today, fuck this weekend,” B rejoined.
We all concurred. This week sucks.
“But,” I gestured with my cigarette into the center of our table. “But. Tomorrow last year we still had no power. We didn’t have water. We couldn’t get milk. We couldn’t make phone calls. We had no access to the internet. We were all suiting up in boots and jeans and leaving our houses at 6am to work wherever we could. There was no school, there were no bills or errands. There was no place to pay bills or run errands! So you know, FUCK THIS WEEK, but next week we get to just have a normal fucking week. I will work on my seminar paper and we’ll meet for Jeopardy. We’ll post links to cat videos on facebook and we will sleep in our beds under the fans and we’ll get to take showers. We get to have a week on a calendar where there are hours, like regular people have. This week.”
“Right now last year we were at B’s house,” someone ventured.
“Yep, we were having red beans and rice. There was no power. We were laying out on the lawn and weeping from exhaustion,” I recalled.
“There was a royal wedding. And Osama was assassinated!” others chimed in.
It occurred to me briefly that that red beans and rice dinner made the New York Times food blog this year. I though about how M texted me, early in the morning when I could still get cell service, about the details of the royal wedding–the dress, the decorations in the church, the hats, the procession. I remember the evening we were eating dinner, already outrageously drunk, when we heard the news about Osama bin Laden and did not know quite what to do with ourselves.
It was. It was a very bad week. There were a lot of very bad weeks after that bad week. But this week, you know, we have options. There are choices. We get to get up and brew coffee in our electric coffeemakers. And then we get to go to the library or stay at home or go to conferences with our students or lay in bed and think about working in that huge dead swath of town made of crushed buildings and people and things. This year we get one hundred thousand times more than we had last year.
So you know, okay. Fuck this week. But next week? Next week is going to be infinitely, infinitely better.
And there are going to be a lot more weeks. There are going to be a lot more mirrors–this week last year I was trying to find a man boots, this week last year I was cutting down dozens of trees with a trio of marines to release an old couple from their home, this week last year C left town suddenly and I was wracked with rage and grief, this week last year I boarded a plane to New Mexico, my work in Alabama left undone, sobbing uncontrollably. This week last year I lay on the floor of NOS’ empty new house at 4 am and he lay down next to me, curled his body around mine and nipped my earlobe, ran his hand down the curve of my hip and the plane of my thigh, and thanked me for coming to his empty, broken house. There are going to be a lot of those weeks and all of them are going to hurt. But they are going to hurt alongside sunburns and days at the lake. They are going to hurt alongside long airconditioned afternoons in movie theaters and sweet mornings on the patio, reading big books from behind my sunglasses while I drink suntea before the day gets too hot.
Those things are not the immediacy, they are the legacy. And no, I’ve not done with them. I am not beyond them. They are around me as much as my perfume, my skillet, the vigorously-blooming geranium hanging from the eave outside my living room window. But they are not the culmination or the finality. They don’t eclipse or eliminate. They are just more. Those moments of pure pain and terror are a cornerstone, but you know. A cornerstone is just a fundamental part of a larger structure.
We are here to build the house.
Headed off to another first date. This one’s brunch, so hopefully I can squeeze in a bloody mary without too much fanfare. I just realized my new unconscious policy is could I bring this date to a gathering of my Santa Fe friends and be assured they’d GET each other?
I don’t know why I haven’t thought of this barometer earlier.
I just got up off the couch after reading all day to check the mail. The only thing in the box a letter from you, dried purple flowers spilling into my lap even as I tore the envelope open so carefully, sitting on the hot concrete steps in front of my house. Read it three times in a row, each time more slowly. Heard you so distinctly in each bracketed thought (OOPS I forgot where the GARAGE was) and felt so very, very at peace. More intimate with another human than I have felt in months. Your handwriting and the smudged colors from the pastels still on your hands while you wrote all over the page and even the smell of the paper. It is exactly what we are doing, isn’t it? Putting ourselves into narratives/contexts in which we are in direct dialogue with every aspect of our Selves, unable to look past our shortcomings and difficulties and failings. Going to meet them, to reckon up with them, for as long as it takes. I know I have at least one more year of penance to do here. Perhaps by then I’ll have grown up sufficiently.
I got up to write you an email and found yours. I miss you wonderfully/terribly.
Took a 3-mile walk with the dog all over town, mildly stoned, thinking alternately Everything is okay, this is a beautiful day, look at how amazing it is to be wandering around under these massive trees with honeysuckle hanging everywhere and the dog chasing squirrels up trees, just stay here, and I can do this, I can be here, today is a day of deep terror and grief, it is horrible and I am going to cry behind my sunglasses and that will just be okay, I can do this and got home, unleashed babygirl and picked up my phone. Before I’d left, I sent a text suggesting that it might be good to go to My Favorite Bar at some point. We spent so much time collecting shards of ourselves together in the weeks afterward that it seemed, you know, right. In fact even typing this it feels very right to walk down there and take a beer from NOS, because, you know, that it what it was. That is what kept us all going.
I picked up my phone when I walked in the door and god bless my sweet friends: every text said “Already here”, and “I was thinking Our Favorite Bar,” and “On My Way,” and “way ahead of you,” and “Of course, see you in a second,” so I dropped the leash, picked up my purse and headed down, where many of my friends had gathered and were studiously at the activity that serves as our barometer for normalcy: watching Jeopardy. So we did. And after, sweet sweet bartender B, who’d asked me yesterday if I would be in today (here I was thinking she was trying to introduce me to a boy) poured shots for us and put on a song we all knew and asked us to sing along and at the end, take a shot. I believe we toasted, simply, to being alive, and perhaps also to Our Favorite Bar. Meanwhile, someone brought in puppies:
So I spent those moments, also, with tiny babies asleep on my lap. After, I met the person I was meant to be introduced to, in an incredibly awkward and fitting fashion. And then off I went to A’s birthday party. Because today–today, the day of The Weather Event That Changed Everything–is his birthday. And last year when we were ricocheting off each other in sheer drunken relief, he murmured, today is my birthday and we swore his next birthday would be better. So we sat in the grass outside his house and people passed the guitar around and we sang along and we laughed and drank beers in cans and shouted and laughed.
Today many people texted or emailed to tell me that they knew what today was and they loved me very much. And I sent–to the people with whom I shared that time–emails or text messages. Sweet C said Thank you a thousand times. You are on my mind. You’re still here, and Tuscaloosa is fortunate you call her home. J said it is right and good to grieve, rabbit said I am sending you all my love today, and so today just happened. I made it all the way through. Everywhere in the world people held my grief up right along with me.
Tomorrow a year ago is a day outside of space and time. It is a day without power, water, newspapers, human contact, perspective. Without bread, milk, cell phone service. It is a day I walked to my friend’s house to read a birmingham newspaper and from which I walked down into the bowels of what became the dark heart of the center of my world for the following year. Tomorrow a year ago is a day outside of space and time, but tomorrow is just a day on a calendar. It is a day in which I will wake up, poach an egg, feed the cat, listen to weekend edition, and work. Tomorrow will not be a day in which I am walking off a cliff, tomorrow is just going to be a regular day. With silly pet stories and NPR and minor annoyances.
So let’s see what we can make of tomorrow.
Two small mercies today: one, I had work coming due that required some extended critical thought, which kept me quite distracted and made me feel accomplished (a critical essay about a single poem.) Two, I started my period suddenly yesterday, a week early, and have been in such colossal tremendous pain that feelings of sadness or anxiety or guilt for feeling the bad feelings and not the happy feelings, have taken a backseat for most of the day. Now that my work is finished, it’s time to do the thing with the sandals and the sundress and the altering substances and take the dog for a long walk around the neighborhood, because it’s a really beautiful day.
I think last night I dreamed an alternate reality, in which the tornado did not tear up my town. Very similar iterations of the events that transpired in my life afterward still occurred, the same people entered and exited, but their motivations and outcomes were quite different. It all would have turned out the same, just different.
I am thinking a lot about something my EMDR therapist said earlier in the week, about how people who do not endure trauma/suffering cannot be courageous–that one cannot find courage without knowing fear first. I think she meant to comfort me by saying this. But in order to call yourself courageous you have to have survived a thing. You cannot still be living it. In the weeks after the tornado, when I was working madly, I thought this is going to be the moment when I discover what I am made of. Here in this place and time I am going to be strong and brave and I am going to help wherever I can and then I will know that I am strong and brave for the rest of my life. I was very strong and brave, then. But I am not now and I haven’t been since. I do not think my actions made me courageous.
So, now we are a day away from the one-year anniversary of The Weather Event that Changed Everything.
Photos and footage and firsthand accounts and memorial invitations are littering my social media feeds today, ramping my anxiety up to expected and unnatural proportions. I remember in the middle of the thirteen hour days followed by marathon nights of drinking myself into oblivion followed by sobbing screaming shrieking nightmares, the fiberglass insulation rashes on my arms, the sunburns, the spider bites, the massive hard lump on my bicep after I got a tetanus vaccine, the scratches and pulled muscles, during all of this, seeing a photo someone made of two tornadoes, joined at their tops to make a heart shape. I remember sifting through massive piles of boards and roofing tiles with nails driven through them and sheetrock and bricks ground into small palm-sized bits. Just entire vast sections of the city, pulverized.
I refuse to find that photo and post it here.
I remember finding that photo, that photo of the two tornadoes joined in a heart shape, so violently offensive at the time–but having been strained so far beyond the ability to cry or rage or even roll my eyes dismissively, I merely pointed it dispassionately out to J as we were switching shifts at the temporary emergency services facility office in which we were working during the final weeks before the relief effort flagged and city planners took over.
I think it is important to note that I did not see the tornado. I was in my closet. And for many days, there was no power (no water, no cable, nothing.) And for many weeks after that I was working. Every day. I was down in it, looking at the devastation wrought, without actually witnessing the event which wrought it.
One afternoon I left volunteering early to finish writing as essay for the Tuscaloosa Runs This anthology. The essay ends on a loving, faithful note–it is a love letter to the city whose body I was collecting day by day. When I finished it, though, I was in a very dark place. And so I opened a browser window and navigated to youtube.
I knew all day, last April 27, that tornadoes were coming. A furious thunderstorm knocked down several trees in my neighborhood the night before, so I was without the benefit of power for most of the day. But the clouds banked yellow and moved swiftly overhead all day, the world was suffused with that strange bruise-colored light. I knew what was coming. I ran into bets in the parking lot of a grocery store, where I’d gone to buy peanut m&ms and a copy of Real Simple–failsafe strategies to keep me distracted through the afternoon. “Is there going to be a tornado? It keeps saying on the news…” bets said. “Yeah. Yeah, at least one.” I answered. We parted with “be safes” and I went home to turn on the television, which was running again, the power having been turned back on about 45 minutes previously. I watched the weather correspondent for our ABC affiliate, a bald old man in suspenders who absolutely loves gadgets and technology, show us models. I sat on the couch on my laptop, volleying tornado jokes back and forth with friends on facebook. Morphing weather jargon into energy drink names. When on the fringes of my consciousness I heard “if you have bicycle helmets, please put them on,” and “if you are able to drag a mattress over yourself,” and “we now have a team on the ground verifying that there is a tornado in the city limits,” I turned the volume up as high as it would go and herded the animals into my closet. Since we had no helmets and my mattress would not fit in my closet, the only windowless spot in my house, I covered the dog and the cat and myself with blankets, every blanket I could find, every blanket in the house. My dog trembled and I sweated under all those layers of cotton and my cat stood in the corner of the closet, his ears and whiskers pricked in a very specific direction, utterly still.
The last thing I heard before the power went out was from the field crew: “Oh my god, Oh my god. I have never seen anything that big. Oh my god, Oh god please–” And the house went dark.
Because the side of the city I live in missed the outer edges of that mile-wide tornado by a good half-mile, I did not know when the storm was over. I did not know when to leave my closet.
I heard birds.
And then the rest we know about. The flurry of text messages. Is everyone accounted for. I am going to drive over to M’s house because I haven’t heard anything from him. I heard she lost her car and there’s some broken glass but she’s okay. Are you okay? I’m okay. And we gathered with all the shitty beer we could find we are all alive your hair looks amazing I have never loved anything as much as I love the sight of you right this minute, that sheer we all made it joy. Before.
Before we realized we hadn’t really made it at all. Before we realized a lot of us didn’t make it. At all. I think “We are coming back”, “We made it!” and positive slogans of the like are bandied about liberally, especially during this time. I guess I understand this concept of “healing” and the need to rally around a positive message, maybe.
But I am not sure what is wrong with grieving. And feeling terrified and skittish and desperately, desperately sad. I am going to go ahead and stand up right now for those of us who still feel very broken. The things I lost in the weeks after that storm and the burdens I picked up and continue to carry are complex, deeply rooted and wholly inarticulable. I will be lucky if in the course of my life two or three people listen and comprehend the incredible sadness and terror and desperation that propelled me wildly through those weeks, in which my mandate was give and give and give and love and love and love hard enough to fix it and the repeated, crushing revelations over the months afterward that I could not and did not fix it, and that I had very much been broken in the process.
I don’t want to see any flags or photoshopped heart-shaped tornado images. I don’t want to order 1-hour DVD specials compiled by local news networks of interviews with people who lost everything and family members grieving children crushed by their houses. I don’t want to see cameras pan over vast devastated neighborhoods and neighbors embracing sobbing neighbors. Those images do not inspire me, or make me feel hope, or profound gratitude, or direct me toward the belief that things are better now than they were last April 27.
Those neighborhoods are just bare now, but the drifts of rubble and the shell-shocked residents staggering around in them are absolutely still transposed over those empty lots in my mind every time I pass them. The man I fell in love with after the tornado took his house is still broken, and we broke under the weight of that stress and loss, and we are never going to be un-broken. That love is not coming back. I lost my mind in the months afterward and was suicidal for long stretches and lost a lot of friendships and they aren’t coming back. That neighborhood is not coming back. The me who was making jokes about energy drinks and slept through April 26 undisturbed is not coming back.
It is not better.
There is no way to repair what happened. There is time. There is different stuff that fills in. There are other people. There have been new jokes. There is a new Taco Casa where the old one was blown to bits. But I saw it. That event will never be anything other than what it was, and it is an event I don’t want to commemorate with flags and banners and speeches and cheerful slogans.
When I finally did sit down and watch that footage, taken from the inside of the cab of a truck, I was alone. The thing looked monstrous, malevolent. Which is a silly thing, isn’t it, to personify a natural phenomenon. But having seen the havoc it wreaked first and the event itself later, my immediate, animal reaction was to hate and fear a thing. A storm cloud. A weather aberration caused by hot and cold weather systems moving too quickly and too closely together. To think of a tornado this way is just as provincial and senseless as making a tornado into a heart shape.
I don’t want to gather tomorrow in a spirit of communal triumph. I want to grieve what was lost. And this robust, flag-waving, we-made-it atmosphere does not seem receptive to fear and deep sadness–the emotions I will be moving through for most of today and tomorrow. I can be no other way. That is my April 27.
The May/June issue of elimae is up and features two poems from the Rabbit cycle. You should read them. You would like them.