Not a drill
There were flashing lights. People pouring out of our 300-unit apartment building. I’d just come back from Target with kitten food, toothpaste, and a gift. I called Seth to learn what happened; he was out jogging, he had no clue. I asked the nearest person what was going on; she happened to not speak English, shrugged me off. It was a fire alarm, duh. Not a drill. I walked around to the front of the building to see two fire trucks and bigger crowds. A period of waiting awaited me. I sat down on a bench to read on my phone, but the lights were everywhere. Distracting. I stood back up, feeling out of place. So I watched the red strobe lights make tree shadows dance on the doorway. I watched my neighbors, who all looked bored. Unafraid. A little put out by the inconvenience. Several had their dogs with them; I saw exactly one cat. I didn’t recognize anyone. I’ve lived with these people for nearly two years and I didn’t recognize a single one. But I’ve met people! I’ve catsat their cats. Maybe they were all out of town. Probably I didn’t look hard enough.
I lapped the building; there was no fire or smoke that I could see. More residents were pouring out with their dogs. I wondered if I should go up there and save my cats. That’s the first thing they tell you in every fiction class: you have to save the cat. I love my cats. But right now my apartment is a mess of cats. We have our two cats. And we have our two foster kittens. We’re fostering the kittens out of guilt, because of all we went through last year, after Ellie died, after we applied with three different foster organizations so we could dip our toes back into catville without committing—I mean to save lives. So many animals are alive. Too many. But we failed right away, adopting our first two kittens, Mondo and Lazy, and we don’t regret it one bit, and neither do they, but we felt guilty, feeling that we had to foster anyway; I mean, we’d gone through hours of foster training, weeks of waiting. Hours! Weeks! So finally, after our hundredth friend moved away from DC, we opened our doors to two tiny friends. That’s why there are currently four cats in the apartment, which honestly is two too many. And that’s why I was standing outside, wondering if I should save them, because it didn’t look serious, it didn’t look like anything at all, probably a mistake, but on the other hand, if I couldn’t see a problem, it could have been a gas leak, who knows; it’s always the things we don’t see. Would I risk my life for four cats? Would I die in a fiery explosion because four is more than one? No. And besides it was probably nothing. Probably-probably-probably nothing. And besides even if I did try, how could one person carry four cats? Would I have to leave the foster kittens behind? Who am I to deem which lives are worthy? It was all too complicated, so I stood outside and waited. I wished I knew my neighbors but now was not the time.
Then out came the firemen, holding axes and batons, and I wondered how many walls they had to smash, how many cats to save… and they nodded everyone inside.
“Coast is clear.”
It wasn’t a fire drill but it wasn’t much of anything else, either. So I called Seth, now that the crisis had ended. And I don’t know why but the first thing I said was “There was a fire. The cats are all dead.”
He said “Oh my god” and started sprinting home.
What’s wrong with me?! I said I was kidding, kidding, kidding, and sorry, sorry, sorry, for such a terrible unfunny joke that, for a split-second, genuinely terrified him. I apologized over and over but I don’t know. As I was saying it, I knew it was terrible, and I laughed halfway through, but it could have sounded like a sob. It was the only thing I could think of: the way I let them down.
I don’t like to imagine the worst, but I do so anyway. I think it’s absolutely essential to say ‘I love you’ every time Seth and I say goodbye because one of us could die at any moment, and what would you want your last words to be? The rational part of me knows the irrational part is… well, irrational, but the rational part also agrees this ritual doesn’t do any harm. We had bed bugs once and we don’t know where they came from, but the internet says it could have been library books, so the irrational part of me puts every library book in the freezer for three full days, and the rational part shrugs her shoulders, because what else are we using the freezer for? The irrational part of me imagined barreling forth into smoke-filled hallways to save our cats from a fiery fate; but this time the rational part won out and said, Stay. So I stood outside with a hundred strangers I wish I knew. If I did, we’d figure out which one of us smuggled out a Sharpie, then tattoo hearts on each other’s palms, like we did when we were young. We’d draw tic-tac-toe in the dirt with our shoes. We’d make bets on what the firemen looked like, dare each other to say something to them when they emerged.
Fire drills were fun, for most of us. But there were always exactly two kids who cried. They cried because they imagined the worst, and, well, their teachers were telling them to. Imagine a doorknob too hot to touch. Imagine the smoke, seeping in through the doorway. How many minutes would you survive in a locked room? Most people can handle the double-lives we lead: part of us understanding that anything terrible can happen at any moment, and part of us living on anyway. These things can’t be perfectly balanced, because if you halfway thought you might die at any moment, you’d halfway fall apart. Instead you have to shrink it down to a tiny, microscopic part of you, and the rest of you protects it, feeding it when necessary with pointless rituals and laughter. And we need the laughter. We need to see the world in two ways at once and enjoy the incongruity.
I think that’s what I was going for with my terrible joke. “The cats are dead” was only funny to me because it might have been true, but only in the way that we might die tomorrow. To Seth, “the cats are dead” may have seemed halfway true, which was halfway too much.
Imagine instead he was there with me. Standing in the crowd, looking up at our window with our feet in the grass, we could laugh about the things that didn’t happen. And by that, we’d be laughing with gratitude about the things that did.
Proof they are still alive: