As far as she could discern from what logical capabilities still existed in her paranoid mind, the world right outside her apartment was far too chaotic. Each day she saw hordes of strangers swarming in every direction atop the fractured sidewalks just below her second floor apartment window. Their urgency paralyzed her plight. She concluded that the prevailing temperament among these strangers was unfriendly. No one stopped to converse. No one smiled. No one helped when a person stumbled or dropped a belonging. In fact, it seemed a frustrating break in the tide, the crowd streaming around the incident like a car crash on a busy highway.
The thought that everyone would know she was outside further crippled her movement. Everyone would see her. They would see her dated apparel and worn shoes. She couldn’t remember the last time she shopped for new clothes. They would see the tattered hat she wore to cover up her dry hair. It had lost most of its integrity in the washer months ago. A couple of the buttons on her coat were missing. Repairing them meant leaving the apartment. She’d asked her daughter to do her the favor when she could but the opportunity never materialized, or so she supposed. Apparently, she just didn’t belong in this fashionable population. The women had such empowering attire – high heels and pencil skirts. Each dignified step purveyed such purpose and self-confidence. Not only did they know where they were going but they were sure to be in command wherever it was. And the men swung these leather brief cases like war instruments, gliding by ever so masculine in their Oxford shoes and tailored suits. Even the college and high-school students wore intimidating gear – pressed and starched jeans with the latest sneakers and matching caps. The street was a runway where these people proved to one another who they were by what they wore, not having to speak a word.
And who exactly was she? The answer dissipated within the confines of her apartment. She was no longer an active mother having to satisfy her children’s needs. They were now adults and far removed from the neighborhood she raised them in. No longer an active wife either, she divorced her husband after years of infidelity. But, somewhere along perfecting those two roles, she lost herself. She was incomplete without catering to someone else’s needs. She felt worthy only when those responsibilities allowed her to be.
The kitchen sink needed attention. She grew deaf to the sound of the drips and their broken rhythm. The thick black curtains, layered with dust, hung guarded against the sun. A single ray of light trespassed into the center of her bedroom, providing a warm area for her cat to lazily spend his day. The TV was always on but she rarely watched anymore; her remedy against mindless shopping. She didn’t have any more storage space for the items she was sure to buy from QVC. The refrigerator wore scattered magnets which secured her step-daughter’s drawings and a calendar on its skin. The outside was much prettier than its barren interior. The disorganized book shelf had restaurant menus, torn envelopes, and printed confirmation receipts poking out from in-between the pages. The laundry bin overflowed from the hallway closet. The standing lamp in the living room was blown out. She saw no point in maintaining an apartment no one visited. Her mess was far more comfortable than someone else’s cleanliness anyway.
Suddenly she saw a few people rush out the building door, followed by more seconds later, all coughing into their hands with charred marks on their faces and clothes. Surprisingly, one gentleman pointed her out to a concerned passerby as he struggled for air. She looked around as if there was someone else sitting beside her at the window. He couldn’t have meant her. She heard a scratching sound persist. Then she noticed her cat wasn’t in his favorite spot. She turned and raised from her computer chair looking for him.
“Jewels?”, she asked in a grumble. She hadn’t said a word in so long she needed to clear her throat of its thickness, but it only worsened as she tried. “Jewelsy, ahem, baby, ahem, where are you?” She opened the cracked door to her room and bustling gusts of smoke invited themselves in. She swung instinctively at the black air. Her eyes burned as she stepped back in shock. She ran to her son’s room in the back of the apartment. It was maintained just as he had left it so as to make his return, she hoped, that much more comfortable. The large window in the center of the back wall closed off the fire escape. Jewels clawed at is glass feverishly. She struggled to open the window as the smoke slowly followed her. She saw the amount of people in front of the building had doubled, most of them baring a look of mild hysteria on their faces. She started to panic. The window wouldn’t budge. Jewels was clawing at her lower thigh in fear. Would the very apartment she had loyally resided in ironically hand her over to the grim reaper? Maybe it was fitting. Maybe it had gotten tired of her. She turned and watched the smoke fill the room wrapping itself around them both.
Then, the glass shattered explosively behind her. A man in his early twenties, clad in urban sportswear, stood crouched just outside the window, baseball bat in tow. “Come on, ma’am! I’ve got you.” Jewels scrambled through the man’s legs and down the fire escape ladder before he finished speaking. “Miss! Come on! Let’s go! You wanna be barbecued?!” She lifted her hand into his outstretched palm. He warned her to duck through the window as he pulled her through and proceeded to guide her toward the ladder. The smoke still followed her. A couple of rather large gentleman gathered around below the fire escape. One called out to her in a burly voice, “It’s OK. We’ll catch you.” She snapped out of her daze, staring twenty feet down at people she didn’t know with another stranger’s hands on her shoulders. The fire escape’s gritty surface scratched the bottom of her feet. Her pajama gown floated in the breeze. She pulled it close to her body as she inched closer to the first rung. The young man’s voice carried sensitivity. “Slowly”, he warned. She grabbed the railing and took a step down. The height introduced itself in the form of terror surfing atop her spine. She looked back, around her hero’s waist, at the broken glass sprawled along the window pane. Smoke still rushed by. She took another step down. A frightened gasp burst from her lips. “Don’t worry. You’ll be OK, ma’am. They’re big guys. You can let go now.”
As she lowered her leg to the next rung, the ladder gave, sliding down, then re-wedging itself. The inertia shook her grip loose. She screamed as she dropped forcefully. But, the arms waiting below caught her gentler than she had imagined. “Ah. See. We got you”, said one of her catchers in a slight strain. They stood her up on her feet. “Are you OK? Are you alright?” She looked up at her former apartment in solemn silence. The smoke appeared to wave goodbye as it continued to barrel by above them all.
The fire department pulled up to the curb a few feet away. The sirens wailed. The fire truck was bigger than she remembered. A couple of firemen moved quickly inside the building. Another pair inquired about everyone’s health, checking for visible damage then escorting them over toward the truck. A woman dressed in a business suit approached her. “Here you go, Miss. He’s yours right?” Jewels sprang from the woman’s arms. It was over. She was safe.
Eventually the fire calmed. But, everything she owned incinerated. All the material possessions she hoarded roasted. She was left without shelter. But, for the first time in a long while, she actually saw a silver lining. Here she was outside her apartment, among the same people who discouraged her daily and surprisingly, she was just fine. They had actually saved her and Jewels. She did belong. Maybe the one thing that needed to happen finally did. The binding ties of anxiety were now gone.
She wanted to see her children. She wanted to buy some heels and pencil skirts of her own. She wanted to travel. Italy was always a desired destination. The opportunity to rebuild was present and she wasn’t going to squander a single second. This destructive ending was just a reawakening to a life long neglected.