Triptychs – Chapter 33
And so it went.
And so we came to this moment, this still, silent, warm moment, on Sunday night. Noah, asleep, half-sprawled on top of me, his breathing soft. Me, drifting in and out of sleep . . . in and out of dreams . . .
Noah moved a little, he stirred, without waking up; and I smoothed my hand down his back, just a little, and then we were still again.
It’d already occurred to me, how weird it was, to be like this; to live like this. I mean, together, as much as we wanted; as physical, as sexual together, as we wanted . . . It was amazing, what was left, after that constant sexual pressure, that sexual need, was burned away.
What was left were moments like this; and a kind of clear-eyed sanity, and the vividness of everything I was feeling . . . and it was all priceless. Completely, contentedly priceless.
Fuck-me, I didn’t want it to end. I didn’t want to go back to just seeing Noah at lunch, in our Learning Group, at work . . .
A sound outside; a familiar one. A wheeled recycling bin, trundling along pavement, across the street.
And that was good; that was good. The across-the-street neighbors, whose names I’d never known, always put out the trash and recycling around eleven o’clock, Sunday night, for Monday morning pickup; which meant, we still had most of Sunday night left, and then part of Monday, before it was all over.
I moved just a little against Noah, comfortably; and I relaxed, I let my thoughts drift, again, and I slipped away into dreams, again. Shared dreams, maybe; again.
It was the light, that woke me.
Light, shining on the bedroom wall.
I was a million miles away, when my eyes blinked open, looking at it; stupid, not knowing where I was, when it was, except that I was spooning Noah, my front to his back – but, honest to God, apart from that, I didn’t know if we were at the hot tubs, or if it was a school day or a holiday, or what –
The light was red. And, it flickered.
I snapped awake in about a second, full awake, everything just crashing back, sickeningly. The red light grew stronger.
“No . . . Fuck! Fuck!! FUCK!!!”
I rolled out of bed, rolling completely over Noah, falling, landing on the floor. “FUCKKK - !!!” I grabbed my baseball bat, by long instinct. Through the bedroom window, I could see the flames, red, roaring, close. “Noah get out, get out, FIRE - !!!” I was almost sobbing it out; everything gone horrible, the whole world gone terrifying and horrible, in just a few heartbeats –
I pulled Noah out of bed, one-handed, hard; and as soon as he was even half-way on his feet, I pulled him along after me, harder, and then I let him go, and I ran for the front door, stumbling-running as fast as I could go.
Out, and down the cold, rough brick steps, and to the left –
One of our own blue recycling bins was standing, lid open, right up against the side of our building, touching the side of our building. Orange-red flames were roaring up out of it, licking the building wall, ten feet up, more . . .
“Fuck, fuck, FUUUCCKKK - !”
The bin was full of flames, way, way too engulfed by the flames, to touch. I pulled the baseball bat back, then I brought it around; I hit the bin with all my strength, with all the crazy-strength fear and anger I had in me – WHAM!
And it went flying; away from the wall, landing halfway across the front yard, actually. And it broke; it split open, and flaming-red paper and cardboard went spilling across the wet green grass. There was a strong smell of gasoline.
“TREVOR!” Noah was staring at something in back of me; his face full of horror. I spun around, panting, gasping –
There was a really tall, slender evergreen bush, growing right up against the side of the house; right next to my bedroom window. It was taller than the building, actually; it came to a point, higher than the roofline. I don’t know for sure, but I think it was an Italian cypress.
It was on fire.
Not all of it, not yet; just a patch of it. But in the frozen seconds that I stood there, shocked, looking at it – the patch grew; and grew. The flames, greedy.
“Noooooooo - !” I could feel my face scrunch up, in agony; the horror of it all hit me again, like a toppling wave, falling on me, hard. “Noooo - !!”
I don’t know how long I stood there, frozen, helpless; one second, two, three . . . then I turned to Noah; my face twisted, my mouth open.
“Wake up the Morrisons! They’re the upstairs neighbors; it’s the door next to ours. Wake them up - !” A second’s pause; and he was off, running, a blur of flesh-color in the darkness.
And then, after that – everything got kind of jumbled together; dreamlike, nightmare-like, jumbled feelings and memories and impressions, the kind that you wish you could forget. The kind I wish I could forget.
I remember running to the side of the house, towards where we keep the garden hose – the pathetic little hose I use, to keep the flowers alive, to try to keep the flowers alive, during the summer and fall. Only, it was like running through knee-high water; I felt like I was flailing, pushing through resistance, not getting anywhere . . .
The sound of the flames. Roaring, now. Have you ever heard flames like that, heard a big fire, a real fire - ? It was loud, it was SO loud, and horrible and inhuman and all-consuming, terrifying beyond all description, and I’ll never, ever forget that sound –
Then, the sound of hammering, LOUD hammering on the Morrisons’ front door; and Noah’s voice, calling out ‘Fire!’ ‘Fire!’, over and over again –
Me, turning on the hose, at last; the spray of it hitting the building, drenching my feet, the cold spray splashing back and hitting my bare skin – we were still naked, after all – and then, I remember turning the hose on the flames, up at the flames, and for all the good I was doing, I might as well have been pissing on them, and me going, ‘fuck, fuck, FUCK’, over and over again, my voice high, panicked –
CLANGCLANGCLANGCLANGCLANGCLANGCLANG - !!!!
The sound of a metal bell, LOUD, louder than the flames, louder than anything – it cut through my head, I couldn’t even think, it was so loud . . . Noah had found the fire alarm, and pulled it. And the clanging went on, and on, demonic, infernal . . .
I remember doing the only thing I could think of doing; I remember getting up real close to the side of the building, between the burning tree and the side of the building; and I sprayed the side of the building, and I sprayed upwards as much as I could, hoping that I could keep the building from catching fire, maybe the building wouldn’t burn down . . . And the water fell back down on me, drenching me, icy-cold and I was shaking, now, but I kept spraying, even though I couldn’t really see anything . . .
Voices, from the front doorsteps; dimly heard, through the sound of the clanging bell, above the sound of the flame. I remember – I THINK I remember – Noah and Mrs. Morrison, mostly-carrying Mr. Morrison down the brick steps, and hustling along the walk towards the street, FAST, faster than I would have thought the Morrisons could possibly go, but there they were, the Morrisons halfway-into their bathrobes, moving along –
And then Noah was back by my side, panting.
“Are you all right?!” from him; yelling, as loud as he could, over the insane roar of the metal bell.
“Yeah; yeah! Just get away, okay?” I kept squirting water up the side of the building; it kept falling down in my face. “Get out to the street - !” I could see flames on the roof, now, flames running along the eaves, bright, horrible, oh fuck-me –
A pause from him; as he looked up, and looked around. “Just a second – !”
And then he was gone.
I looked away from the flames, away from the spray, after him – and fuck me, fuck me, FUCK ME, I saw him run to the front door, and disappear inside –
“NOAH!” I screamed it out. “NOOOAAH!!!” And I sprayed the water back up the side of the building again, back at the burning eaves, trying to get water onto the roof, it was all I could do, oh FUCK, it was the only thing I could possibly do . . . . “NOAH!!!” I screamed it, again; at the top of my lungs.
HONK!!, then, HONK!!! The sound of an air horn, a big one, and suddenly the night was filled with sirens, and lights, swirling red lights and roaring diesel engines, a nightmare of noise and confusion – A fire truck pulled up, and then another one, after that, and black-suited figures were jumping out, pulling on air tanks and masks, pulling out hoses, running, from the backs of the trucks –
Hands gripped my shoulders, from behind. “Back away, sir, come on, sir, you need to back away, now – ” The roar of the clanging bell, over everything –
“NOAH - !!” I screamed it out, again, as the hands pulled me back, hard –
A big diesel engine roared, even louder than the bell; and a ladder on the bigger truck swung around, extending, fast, up towards the roof. Something happened with one of the hoses, and all at once there was water, an avalanche of water, deluging the flames, but the flames still flickered, not dying –
And then Noah was on the porch, at the top of the steps. Holding things, in both of his hands. Blinking, in the spotlights; the whole building was blazing-spotlit by now, white light making the red flames feeble.
The hands finally let me go.
He jumped off the porch, onto the grass, lurching a little – whatever he was holding, was heavy – and he ran up to me, to us –
“Is everybody out of the building - ?” from a black-coated, black-helmeted shape at my side; loud, loud. Other shapes were moving, all over the yard, over by the front steps. “Is everybody out of the building - ?” Loud, commanding, insistent.
“Yes – ”
“Are you sure? Are you sure - ?”
“I’m sure!” from Noah, blinking, panting.
“All right. Please stay here!” And the shape – it was a woman, I realized – the shape made a big arm gesture, over her head, and left us; and two more black-jacketed and black-helmeted forms with orange tanks on their backs, went up the front steps, and disappeared inside.
And Noah turned to me, flushed, panting, red-cheeked, holding up his hands, some – and for the first time I could see what he had; our two backpacks, and his jeans, I guess, and a pair of my gray sweats –
And, I lost it. I totally, completely, irredeemably, lost it. As bad as I ever have, in my whole life.
“What the fuck - ? What the FUCK!! What the goddamn fucking HELL do you think you were doing - ? What were you DOING - ?”
All my fear, seeing him run back into the house – all my terror, my helplessness, and then the huge, overwhelming relief seeing him come out again –
Yeah. All the adrenaline, all the fear – it came out as a blind rage, a blind, red, towering rage, at what he’d just pulled.
“How could you DO that, how could you fucking DO that - ? What the fuck were you doing, showing off, showing off how fast you think you are - ? You ran into a fucking burning building, to bring out a pair of fucking PANTS? To bring out our fucking HOMEWORK - ?”
Noah’s arms – lowered; they sagged, until our pants were trailing in the water and the muck. His mouth opened a little; his expression, was the beginning of pain, the shock you feel when you cut yourself on something sharp, but before it really starts to hurt . . .
“What the FUCK were you thinking - ? Don’t you EVER risk your life like that, again! I love you, goddamnit all to hell! Haven’t you figured that out, yet? Don’t you know that I love you - ? Do you know what it was like, watching you run back into a burning building - ?”
Weirdly enough, oddly enough – I realized that I was crying, now; my face all scrunched up, the words coming out thick, sobbing.
Noah’s face was white; stricken.
“God damn you! FUCK you!! FUCK you!!! Don’t you EVER do anything like that again! Don’t you EVER risk your life like that again, you hear - ?”
Full stop; full stop.
Me, wild-eyed, panting; tears running down my face, now, dripping down off my face; my nose, running, my mouth all twisted up. Noah – looking shocked, looking like I’d just stabbed him, maybe . . .
To our right, another diesel-engine roar, as the truck ladder lifted, and moved, a little; then one black-suited figure began climbing up the ladder, and then another one followed, pulling on a white canvas hose. The flash of the rotating red lights, against the side of the house, against the trees; the babble of radio-talk, coming from the open truck cabs.
“Oh, God,” I went; after a few seconds, a few heartbeats.
As I realized what I’d just done. What I’d just pulled.
I looked down, and away, a little; then back up at him. “Oh, God, oh no – ”
“I’m sorry,” from Noah. His voice high, strained; on the edge of crying himself, now.
“Oh God. Oh, no. I didn’t mean it! Oh, Noah, I’m sorry, I didn’t mean it - !” I reached out towards him, put my hands on his shoulders –
“No, you’re right. I’m sorry. I was showing off. I was showing off – ” His voice was all choked, and his shoulders slumped; and our pants trailed further down into the wet.
“Oh, fuck me!” I put my arms around his shoulders, and pulled him in to me, hugged him in close to me. “Oh, fuck me, why do I have to fuck up everything - ? Oh, fuck, Noah, I’m sorry, I’m so sorry - !” My face, all twisted up again, worse than ever –
And I held him against me, hard, like that, for a minute, and then two; the lights flashing, the tumult all around us, water from the hoses cascading down around our feet. Me, still thinking; why do I always fuck things up - ? Why, why, WHY do I always, always fuck things up - ?
“I love you too,” from Noah; whispering it, into my ear, like an apology. The pain I’d just caused him, what I’d just done to him, coloring everything.
“Yeah,” I whispered back at him. “Yeah.” And I kissed his cheek, quick. Smearing his cheek, with my tears.
* * *
The dream-like night, Nightmare Night, lurched on . . . at a different pace.
Less like a violent, heart-pounding, falling-off-a-cliff dream; more like one of those particularly gruesome, vivid nightmares, the kind where unpleasant things keep happening, and happening, and happening, and you know you’re dreaming, and you keep trying to wake up, wanting to wake up, but you can’t . . .
“Okay,” I was saying, at one point; “okay. You need to understand – they get cold, they really FEEL the cold, you have no idea, they think a summer day is cold, their furnace is running all the time, you need to get them someplace WARM – ”
Noah and me, wrapped up in big, thick Berkeley Fire Department blankets, now; by the side of one of the trucks. Me, trying to explain to one of the firefighters, about the Morrisons.
My voice, rising a little; sounding stressed, and weird, even to me. But fuck-me, it was true, the poor Morrisons can’t stand the cold, they honestly, really can’t STAND it, even when things are normal, and the idea of them being out here, suffering, on this fucking freezing street, I just couldn’t let it happen –
“It’s all right; it’s all right.” The firefighter was a woman, taller than me, and she was looking at me a little strangely. Patiently; but strangely. “They’re in the ambulance right now – see, over there?” and she pointed to the big, boxy ambulance, lights flashing, in front of one of the trucks. “They’ve got heat, inside; they’re warm, I promise. We’re taking good care of them. Are you a relative - ?”
“No; no. We live downstairs.” I pulled the blankets tighter around my shoulders, and I shivered. “My mom and I kind of look after them . . . ”
Another look, from her. Maybe a little softer. “They’ve called a relative of theirs, a daughter, in Walnut Creek; she’s coming to take them back to her home. We’ve checked on them, thoroughly, and neither one needs medical care, right now. They’re doing fine. All right?” Her voice, slow and patient; the voice you use, with a child, with someone who has problems comprehending things.
“I – ” I looked over at Noah, a little wildly . . .
And Noah was looking back at me; eyes wide, and worried. And it came to me, the tone of voice I’d been using, the stress all through my body, the fear –
Yeah. I was in shock. Still. Duh.
I breathed, for a second, or two. Then – “Yeah. Yeah, okay.”
More incomprehensible noise, more incomprehensible things, happening.
One of the trucks left pretty soon; the black-jacketed firefighters carefully rolled up their white hoses, and stowed them in the back of the truck, and the thing pulled away, slowly but still roaring loud, red lights still flashing bright.
The other truck stayed; the ladder up to the roof stayed, and a couple of shadowy shapes were roaming around, chopping at the shingles on top, tossing down chunks of shingle and wood. The water went off; but the spotlights stayed on. The loud babble of the radios, still overlaying everything.
Some yellow, crime-scene tape went up, across the front yard; and I got a visit from the Berkeley Fire Department arson investigator.
My name; my mom’s name, Noah’s name and address, the Morrisons upstairs. The story of what I remembered, what Noah remembered; then –
“That’s not where you normally put the bins, on collection night? Against the side of the house - ?”
It wasn’t really a question.
“It appears that there was an accelerant used, in the recycling bin.” A guy, this time; youngish, short-haired, uniformed, and competent. It was one of the themes of the night; everyone we’d dealt with, was really, really competent, I mean, they knew what they were doing, and they were good at it.
This one was looking at me, really closely.
“Yeah,” I said. “I smelled gas. Gasoline, I mean.” I was feeling – kind of tired, now, actually; and a little nauseated. My feet were fucking freezing, on the wet pavement.
“Any idea – ”
I cut him off. “It’s my dad; it’s a domestic violence case.” Feeling more sick, saying it. “We’ve got a file with BPD; it’s a pretty thick one. You can call Sergeant Gibbons, at five-one-oh – ”
“I know Lisa,” he said, cutting me off, in turn; writing something down on his clipboard. “We’ve worked together . . . ” More writing, which went on for awhile; then he peered up at me. “ Do you have a restraining order - ?”
“No.” I shrugged at him, from under my blankets. “No proof; he’s pretty good at hiding his involvement.”
Another intense look from him, for a second; then just the slightest shift of expression, a look of – I don’t know. Sympathy?
“We might find something this time,” he said. “We’re going to be looking very closely at this; if he’s responsible, he’s escalated to the kind of activity that we take very seriously. We’ll be checking all the physical evidence, and we’ll be interviewing your neighbors. The police will want to bring him in for some pretty intense questioning, at a bare minimum; that’s guaranteed. So, keep your hopes up – ?” And he squeezed my shoulder, brief and firm, before turning away.
A car came up, and a man and a woman helped move the Morrisons into the back seat, painfully and slowly, with the help of one of the EMTs. I figured it was their daughter from Walnut Creek; I wondered why I’d never seen her before, why they didn’t visit, why didn’t they visit - ?
Then, after, Noah and me, sitting on the foot-step of the fire truck; watching the activity. Him, with an arm around my shoulder, one extra end of one of his blankets, around my shoulder. Me, shivering steadily; those damn red lights, still flashing relentlessly over everything.
Finally, somebody in charge came up; an older guy, confident, full of authority. I didn’t need to see the stripes on his uniform, to tell that he was a captain.
I was the only one around, who lived there; so I got to hear his report.
He squatted down in front of us, all gray and bulky and concerned, and started in . . . We were lucky, he said, the damage looked worse than it really was; it was mostly to the roof, the exterior wall, the eaves . . . They’d tried to keep the water damage to a minimum, and it’d worked out really well, there was a little damage, mostly to the upper unit, but it wasn’t too bad . . . The roof, the walls, needed to be stabilized, especially before the next rain, but disaster-response companies did that sort of thing, all the time, the landlord just needed to call them . . . Something, then, about joists, and stringers . . .
Noah did a lot of the nodding, a lot of the responding, for me.
“ . . . the City will have to do an inspection, probably tomorrow; but my guess is, if they don’t find electrical damage in the ceiling, they’ll probably green-tag you. I wouldn’t recommend staying here before the disaster response company does some work, first, though,” he said; still squatting there, one arm across his knee.
Silence, then; I blinked, and roused myself, to say something. “Okay . . . Okay. Thanks.”
I felt him look at me, for a silent second; then at Noah. “Do you guys have a place to stay, tonight - ? The Red Cross – ”
“He’s staying with me,” from Noah; flatly. Final. “At CSU. In Hayward.” I just shivered, under his arm, as the captain nodded.
“Good; good.” He turned his head a second, checking on the situation; then he turned back to us. “Give me a few minutes, and we’ll get somebody to escort you inside, so you can pick up some clothes, whatever you need. All right - ?” He heaved himself upright, up on his feet, again.
“Thanks . . . ” I managed to say, at last.
More silence, then. More shivering; my side pressed up to Noah’s; his arm around my shoulders, holding me closer than ever.
“I’m sor – ” I started to say –
“Shhhh.” I felt him look sideways at me, a second; then – “Don’t,” he said, gently.
Two of the firefighters began stretching flat, wet hoses out in the street, carefully; another couple of them disappeared, slowly, this time, up the stairs to the Morrisons’ apartment. I shivered, worse than ever; and Noah brought his other arm around my front, another fold of his top blanket around me, hugging me close.
You want to know something, perverse - ? About me, I mean. Something deeply, utterly, fundamentally perverse - ?
As I sat there, still in shock, shivering in my boyfriend’s arms, my lover’s arms . . . I was bracing myself. On some level, anyway; I was bracing myself, to hear another ‘I Love You’ out of Noah.
Not wanting to hear it. Not wanting to deal with it, right then, anyway . . . in spite of what it meant to me, all the good things it meant to me, to hear him say it . . .
I just, didn’t want to deal; I didn’t want to confront it, right then, I didn’t want to summon the energy, work through all the implications . . . I didn’t want to deal.
But he didn’t say it.
Instead, he just held me, quietly, trying to warm me with his own body, as we waited to go up and get our clothes.
And he didn’t say anything after, as we waited for his friend Ron to drive up from CSUEB, and take us back to the dorms, for the rest of the night . . .
And of all the things we’d done, all the things we’d done together, ever – it was the one, single thing, that made it all, finally, real; made it all clear. It was his gift to me, right then; and I loved him for it, God, did I love him for it; so much. So intensely.
Hey. I said it was perverse, didn’t I - ?
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