On September 30, I received an email from my neighbor that our apartment building had caught on fire. “The whole house filled with smoke,” she wrote. “Everyone is ok but the fire department said we can’t live there until future notice.”
More information filtered in. The fire had started in the basement, where it was luckily contained. My apartment, being the closest to the fire, was the first to fill with smoke. The firefighters, not knowing if I was inside my smoke-clogged apartment, tried first to break the door’s window, only to find a layer of Plexiglass that refused to shatter. With no other way in, they broke down my door.
When I finally dared to return to my building, I saw a trail of glass, which led me to the gaping space where my front door had been. With the entrance wide open to the outside, my apartment no longer looked like an indoor space. The carpet was dirty and matted from the morning traffic of heavy footprints.The linoleum floor was streaked with mud. My sofa had disappeared under a layer of drop cloth; my other furniture had been shoved into the middle of my kitchen. Only my bedroom looked untouched. At least, until I pressed my nose into my bed, my duvet, my pillow, my clothes. All stunk of smoke, as acrid as burnt hair.
I shoved a few items into a laundry basket, a few more into a duffel bag, and loaded my car just as my landlord and his maintenance man unloaded a new door out of their van. Then I walked to work, where I told my coworkers the story and laughed at their surprise.
Once, during a phone call with a friend, we were talking about a bit of good news I had just received. The good news had come after weeks of painful and drawn-out uncertainty, weeks that had nearly turned me inside out with panic and dread. Yet when I relayed those nightmare weeks back to my friend, I found that I couldn’t stop laughing. My friend kept trying to talk about my good news, but I wouldn’t let her. I swerved us back, again and again, to the site of pain, the same one that I had been trying my hardest to ignore. A site that I was eager to poke and prod at now that the pain was over.
“This is perfect for you,” my friend finally said on the other line. “Now you have a story you can tell.”
The first short story I ever workshopped in my MFA program, I wrote after a breakup. The story was, of course, about a couple in the midst of breaking up. Enough time had passed since the event for the story to appear clear-eyed, even as obvious blind spots remained. My workshop went well enough, and I imagined that, after a few revisions, this story would be published. That year, I submitted the story to every literary magazine and contest I could think of. It bounced back, again and again. Eventually, I tired of the story, found it growing clunkier with every revision. Worse, I had stopped believing in its honesty, the only criterion I have for judging my writing’s worth. Even then, I persisted. The story went out.
The first short story I ever published I wrote my senior year of college, inspired by an intense friendship that had ended a year ago. I had been recovering from the aftershocks of that falling out all year. The day I got the email from the magazine, I felt not just joy, but relief. If I had convincingly written my pain into a story, then my pain was finally over because it had been transformed into something else, something meaningful. This is not me speaking in hindsight, trying to interpret what were only, at the time, subterranean feelings. Reading and rereading the acceptance letter, I remember actually thinking: It was worth it.
In fact, I used to say the same thing, after every large hurt or disappointment.
“At least I can write a story about it.”
It wasn’t enough, however, just to write the story. The story had to appeal to someone besides me. Because if I could convey the contours of my hurt, draw its perfect shape for somebody on the outside of it, then that meant that I too was finally on the outside. Otherwise, I was left only with wreckage that I couldn’t understand. Commonplace, useless pain that I couldn’t get out from under. During my first MFA workshop, I remember trying to explain my reason for writing the story in the first place, and failing.
“Breakup stories are boring,” I babbled. “Only the people breaking up are interested. I wanted to write a breakup story that everyone would be interested in.”
After I got off the phone with my friend, I had believed that a devilish part of me found my good news uninteresting on its own. That I preferred the drama of the trials preceding it. After all, what was the better story, to be the receiver of good tidings, or the survivor of bad ones? Pretty soon after, however, I stopped telling the story of my nightmare weeks entirely. The story hadn’t gotten less interesting, but its tidy end had started to grate on me. I told the story in order to talk about my bad weeks, but the focus was still, invariably, on the good news that ended my tribulations. Thank goodness that’s over, seemed to be the moral I was sharing, as if the good absolved the bad, or rather, erased it entirely.
Yet the story I never told was how I’d barely experienced those bad weeks. Instead, I had barreled through with my head down. I found no deeper meaning in the difficulty, only that it was hard, and I was sad and angry, and meanwhile life went on. I didn’t talk to many people about what was happening, and when I did, my words were confused, bumpy with undigested emotion. I hated how disorganized I sounded, how shallow. “It just sucks,” I remember repeating at one point. “It just really, really sucks.”
I had thought that after the fact I would finally be able to articulate that which had robbed me of my articulation. And like some magic incantation, my story, with its neat frame and definitive end, would spell also the end of my experience.
For so long now, storytelling has signaled the start of me moving on. It was a useful gauge, letting me know when a wound remained too fresh to touch and when it had healed enough to examine. At some point, storytelling became a shortcut to the process of moving on, and then, finally, a substitute.
Nearly a month after the fire, I still have no idea how to tell its story. Honestly, this entire post has been my attempt to turn the fire into something meaningful. Or something interesting. But I’ve gotten no real satisfaction from the retelling. It’s too soon. My apartment still smells faintly of smoke. There are still bits of glass outside my front door.
The story of my fire did not extinguish the fire. It did not replace my door or paint my walls or clear my air ducts. It does no cleaning up on its own. That work remains up to me. After all, storytelling is only supplemental magic, as strong, or as weak, as the one doing the telling. I am still, I suppose, a little too weak. Or rather, I am still, I suppose, on the inside of this particular story.