the fire people

I am making some changes – leaving the place I have worked for the last five years for a new one. For the last five years, I have thought of myself in a certain way. Soon, I will begin thinking of myself in another.

We are always reinventing ourselves though, aren’t we? Our sense of self – evolving all the time? In the small and the large ways. In spring and early summer, I am a gardener. As the summer wears on, I am more of a garden-avoider. Most evenings, I am a mother, wife, a keeper of house. By day, a creator of documents, a meeting facilitator, a fast-talker, a salesman of sorts.

“A professional flirt,” my friend said once, when we were talking about raising money. I laughed, lowered my head to look up at her from beneath my batting eyelashes.

“Is it working?” I asked.

“Not a chance.”

With my son, we are working on transitions. “We give him a lot of advance warning, and then tell him everything that is going to happen, step by step,” his teacher says at the kindergarten parent-teacher conference. When he is doing one thing – say, building with blocks – then has to go to another – to get in line for lunch – he will sometimes express his frustration by whining, or shouting or crying. Yes, we are familiar with this, we say. He can be the same way at home. We all nod, write down the strategies that we think will help. Agree to be consistent – at home, at school. I think about myself and about M. About all the little rituals we put in place throughout our days. The ways we give ourselves advance warning, try to predict what will happen next, as a way, perhaps, of allaying our fears.

The question arises, as it often does in conversations about transitions of any significance, “Where do you see yourself in ten years?” It could be five years, twenty years, a hundred years – the time frame, it seems, does not matter. The question meant to evoke a vision for some desired future life – a state of aspiration, a wish. I am never sure how to answer this. In ten years, I see myself better. A better version of myself. Wiser? Kinder? Less doubtful? Less fearful? Calmer somehow? Having found something I have been searching for?

I think instead of ten years ago. In the tiny purple house on the west side of the city. New homeowners, newly married: completely unprepared for both. I remember standing in the kitchen one evening and M. coming up from the basement, wide-eyed. “There is a fire. We have a fire in the dryer.”


His exterior calm did not match what I heard him say. “There is a fire. In the basement. In the dryer.”

I stood there, unmoving, staring back at him.

“Do something,” he finally said, annoyed.

“What do you want me to do?”

“Call someone – call the fire people.”

“The fire people?”

And so it went.

I can’t recall whether, in the end, the fire people came. But I do remember having to hang our clothes on a drying rack for several weeks after that.

The bridge construction delays traffic as we drive across the old bridge. A woman in an orange vest walks out into the street, holds her STOP sign aloft, waves it at me. I stop. A few cars behind me, someone honks his horn, impatient to get to his destination. We stop there as a truck carries giant concrete slabs from one staging area to another. The horn honks again and its insistence makes me think of my five-year old son. Who among us does not have trouble with transitions?

The basement of the purple house had a dirt floor and a low stone wall, where we stacked the accumulated detritus of our prior lives. My wedding dress – the first one, the one I wore to marry B. – was there, preserved as it had been in its coffin-sized box. It was something I had been expected to do: To have the dress – an ivory taffeta affair with lace and with silk-covered buttons and a bustle – an actual bustle! – cleaned, pressed, and preserved in a box with a plastic window through which I could admire it – its bodice and arms now stuffed with tissue paper so as to appear, I suppose, lifelike. It was bulky, of course, this box and I didn’t want to keep it now that the marriage was over. I didn’t want to save it for Z., superstitious as I was, but it had been expensive, and so to avoid making a decision, I left it down there in the basement, where loose dirt and stone from the ceiling would fall on it, leaving little pockmarks on the plastic viewing window.

When we sold the house, years later, I left it behind. After days of cleaning, packing, and discarding the contents of the house, we were exhausted. The moving date came, and after we made the last pass of all the rooms, wedged the last of the boxes into my car, we drove off. It was not until days later that I remembered it. Perhaps it is still there, on that low stone wall, covered over now, as it must be, with ten years’ worth of dirt.

Now that it has gotten warm, we sleep with the windows open, and I wake to the sound of the cars speeding by on the highway – a muffled hum. Morning birdsong. The world in its own transition: the forsythia blooming, the drifts of yellow daffodils, the purple crocuses.

Ten years ago, spring in our first house together. The heady rush of it – of beginning.

Ten years from now: spring again. And me? Better, I hope. I hope I find what I am looking for.