I was nineteen and living with three other girls in a big house sandwiched between a linseed-oil factory and a pesticide plant. Two of the girls were nuts, and the smell of linseed oil gave me headaches.
At the time, I was dating a young man who, I was sure, did not love me — he loved a girl in upstate New York and was trying to fix his car so he could go back there and rekindle things with her, but that car never did run right. This young man and I were two thin-skinned types whose trains had derailed for a while, and who had gotten together because we were both stranded. But really, secretly, I was in love with him, and was too afraid to let him know. This man was my entire world. He was a little shorter than I, showed lots of gums when he smiled, and was brilliant in a way I could never quite put my finger on. I was sure I didn’t measure up to the other girl; whatever spark I’d had inside me as a child was now dormant. I loved this man so much, yet I knew he could not see me for who I really was. Most of the time I felt as though I could break in two or die from heartbreak at any moment.
As I said, two of my roommates were crazy. One was big, mean, and bitter, and immediately hated my young man and me. The other rarely left her room. She had her own bathroom, telephone line, and TV. She must have had a hot plate or something in there, too, because we never saw her in the kitchen. We hardly saw her at all, but we knew she was around. My third roommate was quiet, and didn’t reveal much.
My bedroom was next to the laundry room, at “garden level,” which meant it was in the basement. I liked it down there. It was pleasantly damp, and the smell of linseed oil was not so strong. Most of the time, my only companions were the ants, whose gently pulsing trails I was careful not to disturb. I felt somewhat like an insect myself: spindly, insignificant, easily crushed, but safe in my underground nest, protected from the other girls’ assessments of me and from having to make conversation with them when I didn’t feel like it. From my room I could hear their sounds only faintly, as if I were coming out of anesthesia.
The telephone was a big part of my life. Ours made a chirp like a cricket when it rang. “It’s your young man calling for you,” the cricket would say. Sometimes I waited many hours for that chirp. It was the whole extent of my worth.
On certain nights my two crazy roommates would sit in the living room watching Pat Robertson’s 700 Club on TV. I would tiptoe upstairs to the dark kitchen and listen for laughter or irony in their comments about the program, but there wasn’t any; they were dead serious. They huddled around that glowing box as if it were a campfire, watching The 700 Club, and somehow this elevated my spirits as much as the telephone’s chirp — I can’t be as bad off as they are!
It was after one of those shows that the big, mean roommate wrongly accused me and the quiet girl of stealing her peanut butter. I felt like pushing her down the stairs into my basement nest, where the ants would teach her about getting along with others.
It didn’t take long for me and the quiet girl to pack our bags. We found an apartment together in a suburb north of the city — a place frozen in the fifties. Our new landlady had a sad, nostalgic quality about her and seemed out of place in the present. She looked like one of those blondes on Perry Mason who got hysterical at the end of the show and confessed to everything, usually because of a man. In her apartment, framed photographs covered every inch of wall and furniture, and she had two silver cages with small yellow-and-green birds. Those birds meant everything to her. Their cages were spotless and filled with toys, bells, and preening accessories. Even the tiny bird mirrors looked as if they had just been Windexed. I imagined the sounds of their rustling late at night reassured her that she was not alone in the world. When she said, “You’re my very handsome boy, Jim,” into one of the cages, I thought that a transfer of souls had taken place between the little yellow bird and the serviceman whose tinted portrait sat on her bureau.
“We’ll put you up on the third floor,” she told us.
The very first night I slept in that apartment, I had a dream about climbing out the window. I used sheets: long white sheets tied together and hung over the sill like Rapunzel’s hair, letting me inch safely to the ground.
I remember the apartment perfectly: blond wood, hollow doors, electric stove, sponge-worn counter tops; two bedrooms, one bath — a dwelling for temporary people. It was part of an eight-building complex. Some buildings allowed kids, others birds. We lived in one of the bird buildings, with lots of divorced people and their birds. I knew, without knowing exactly why, to stay away from the men in our building.
The quiet girl and I had very little furniture. I had a wicker rocking chair, a card table, and a lumpy, secondhand mattress. She had a bed and — of all things — a church pew. The apartment was huge, and our lack of possessions made it feel even bigger. The quiet girl also had the most beautiful, delicate china that she got from her farmer parents in Wisconsin. Wisconsin is one of those states from which you come away with family values and delicate china. I, on the other hand, am from a newer state out west, and came away with an understanding of divorce and a vinyl-covered card table from the sixties.
The quiet girl worked downtown in the tallest building in the city, and took a bus to get there. I never found out exactly what she did, but I was terribly impressed with her. She was everything I wasn’t: calm, self-confident, mysterious. She talked in a low whisper, her face was sweet and round like a baby’s, and she had beautiful golden cat’s eyes. She wore her strawberry blond hair in a smooth pageboy. I thought she was as close to perfect as someone could be. We probably could have been good friends if I’d let her get close to me.
Our third-floor apartment seemed to be up so high; I have a thing about heights. I always dream about cliffs, tall buildings, mountains, airplanes. But I don’t fall in my dreams. It’s the opposite: I’m always about to ascend, to lose my footing and float away. From the day I moved into that apartment, I felt light and vulnerable.
A month after moving in, I had a scary experience. My young man was working late that night. (He had taken to staying with me, and I loved having him over; his guitar and his page-worn science-fiction books helped fill the empty spaces.) I had gone to bed and fallen asleep right away. Almost immediately, I felt the sensation of wind blowing through my body, taking something from me — as though lifting my soul out through my ribs. I felt weightless, white, and papery, without bones or flesh, and I floated into the next room, toward the window.
I woke up startled and afraid, feeling that some part of me had actually gone into the other room. I called my young man at work, and could hear people giggling and talking in the background. He couldn’t come over; there was an office party. I was alone. The quiet girl had a new boyfriend and was never home anymore. I lay on my back, stiff as a branch, not wanting my two selves to part company again. Barely breathing, I stared up at the gray ceiling and listened to the tick-tick-tick of my plastic alarm clock. If only I’ d watched The 700 Club with my big roommate, I thought, then I could have blamed this experience on the devil.
I lay awake, planning how I could climb out my window and shimmy down the Norway pine, with its long, shiny needles. I measured with my eyes how far it was to the tree, and even got a rope and an extra set of sheets, and put them by the bed.
The next day, I felt claustrophobic, so I sat outside on the concrete stoop. It was late April, but already hot and muggy. The humidity clung to my body like tight clothing. Nothing budged, not a bird or a leaf or a blade of grass. It was so steamy the air was hissing. I was encircled by a halo of moisture. Nothing would stay in focus.
In the afternoon, I went across the street to the Plaza — one of the oldest indoor malls in the country, its fifties space-age architecture now decaying. I wandered up and down the aisles of the brightly lit Liquidation Store, looking at kitchenware. At sunset, I went back to my apartment to call a friend. The air was heavy with soggy heat. Suddenly, the sky made a frightening wheeze, and the plants I had hanging in the windows were sucked up against the screens, then punched back out into the room. I dropped the phone and ran to my bedroom, where I saw the Norway pine lurch painfully sideways. The lights flickered and died. I got down on my hands and knees and felt my way to the front door, then flew down the stairs to the sound of breaking glass. The divorcées with their birds were already in the laundry room. “It sounded like a freight train,” they were saying, “just like a freight train.” Through the window we could see the flashes of transformers exploding.
Minutes later, dazed people spilled into the street: men with round white bellies, standing in their boxer shorts, TV remotes in hand; women with their arms crossed tightly under their chests, as though shivering. In no time we heard sirens and saw blotches of red light on the crumpled sides of buildings. It had been a tornado, without warning. We stayed in the street until a man with a flashlight gave us the all-clear.
The twister had left a small hole in the roof of my building, and windows were broken in all of the apartments — except mine. One building in the complex was completely wrecked, its walls folded inward and stacked like dinner plates. All of the cars in the parking lot had been flipped or crushed like June bugs — except mine. Everything in my apartment was just as I had left it. A breeze from the open window blew my bangs. With the power still out, my refrigerator was dark inside. I thought to myself, I’m starting from scratch. I’ll need new food. The Norway pine had lost a large limb. I felt bad for it. I put the telephone back in its cradle. Although it was dark, I could see everything in crisper colors — all the steam and haze had dissipated. I took a deep breath; the air was clean now. As I sat in my rocking chair, my heart still fluttering with excitement, a ring from the telephone startled me. It was my young man, calling to see if I was all right. He would be right over. I thanked the tornado for that.
Early the next morning I found out from a hand-lettered sign tacked to a sheared elm that three people had been killed in my neighborhood. One had been thrown from her second-floor bedroom onto the sidewalk. I walked with quivering knees down a quiet street where the homes looked like dollhouses: one side missing, brightly wallpapered walls attached to nothing. The Plaza was flattened. A few days later, snow fell on the wreckage, making the neighborhood look ghoulishly pristine. I guess deliverance is a very personal thing.