What We Lost in the Fire: Part 2

The day I wrote a post called “What We Lost in the Fire,” I met up with my friend and his wife for dinner. I turned down freelance work for the first time to see them, because they’ll be leaving the country soon, and there are no longer infinite future imaginary nights out together. A little something more lost, for everything gained in return.

We talked about where to meet up and I was relieved when he suggested, “Cheap sushi?” because I am very broke and even cheap travel is more expensive than staying home on the couch. “Cheap sushi” is a restaurant – if we may call it that – on St. Mark’s. I’ve never once remembered the name of it, or the actual address, only the cross streets: 2nd and St. Mark’s, which I think still isn’t exactly accurate. Sushi is half-price during happy hour and it is permanently happy hour. It is never not happy hour at cheap sushi. I used to meet my siblings there for “family dinner,” (New York is very different than Kentucky) and I dragged every friend there at some point to play my favorite game of food poisoning roulette. The only way I know for sure to get there is to walk from Union Square, take a right on St. Mark’s, and keep walking until you spot the bright red lanterns, then text your friends the address, which will mysteriously disappear from your phones so that you can never find it again unless you follow the ritual.

My friend texted for the address as I turned right on St. Mark’s, so I texted him the not-totally-accurate cross streets for the time being and kept walking. St. Mark’s is small and crowded. If your mental image of New York is all skyscrapers, this squat, claustrophobic, busy street will disabuse you of the notion. But suddenly I was staring at an empty lot where an empty lot had not been before.

I remembered that a gas explosion has taken down a building on the lower east side – I had spent all day following it on the news – but mentally, I had placed it on a different street, closer to where a friend used to live, grateful that he had moved and there was no chance he was injured. Once I had checked in with everyone I still knew in Manhattan and everyone was fine, my concern became the more diffuse concern of one civilian for another, one person for one city they used to live in. I had had no idea the explosion had happened on St. Mark’s. There was a fence up and memorials to the lost lining it, pictures and flowers and a balloon, and angry letters detailing how neglect and greed had caused it. I stopped to look at the faces. One of the men who died in the explosion was a father.

I kept walking and stopped. I was at First. That was the cut off. If you walk to First, you’ve gone too far. You have passed cheap sushi. Go back. I turned around.

I walked past the empty lot and I passed Stomp. Stomp is too far up. I turned around again. Where the hell was cheap sushi?

It took a full minute for it to dawn on me.

I went back to the fence at the now empty lot and looked more closely. There it was, clearly visible in one of the before pictures: the red lanterns. Before, red lanterns; after, fiery ball of death. Cheap sushi wasn’t even in one of the buildings that collapsed after the explosion. Cheap sushi had definitely, actually exploded.

I stood there, staring, over and over, trying to make my brain understand this simple thing: a thing was there, and now it is gone. That explosion wasn’t just a news story that concerned you because of its wide-reaching implications and the profoundly sad loss of life that resulted. That explosion blew up the restaurant you were planning to eat at, pretty much for the rest of your life. A horror that had been clearly delineated as belonging to other people suddenly occupies a far murkier border territory. It is a lot closer to home than you knew, and yet it only changes this: you were going to eat at this restaurant, and now, you are not.

I stood there and stared again, at the pictures and faces, like a moron, unable to form a coherent thought. A thing was there and then it was not there, and it will not ever be there again.

Summers are hard now in a way they were not before. My friend died in the summer; another friend lost their father; another lost their mother. These events come into contact with each other, grief bumping up against more grief, all of it bumping up against the mundane. We have to grieve but we also have to go to work and pay our bills and talk on the phone and love our friends and get our car re-inspected and go to the bank.

I’ve been thinking about a line in a Jason Isbell song that goes, “I thought we could all grieve one at a time.” There’s a mental comfort to that image. Let’s get in a line. You grieve first. We will all be there for you, in your grief and sadness, with none of our own; we’ll take nothing in and carry nothing out when we leave. When you’re done grieving, the next in line will move forward, and we’ll do the same. We’ll order our grief and sort through it and put it in neatly labeled boxes on shelves. Except, of course, we won’t.

The older I get the more grief becomes a completely natural part of life. Grief and loss are as much a part of any ordinary day now as a cup of coffee in the morning. And like coffee, there’s an opportunity for more, some days, when you didn’t expect it. Over the two weeks I traveled up the east coast I mourned friends and opportunities. I mourned strangers. I mourned for losses that weren’t mine. I mourned Charleston as part of a nation; I mourned my own losses and the losses of others by myself.

And every day that contained those griefs also contained the mundane: I got gas, I went to the grocery store, I sat by myself writing. And those days also contained real and overwhelming joy: I had conversations with my friends and their children, I made new friends, I spent time with people I love in rare and fascinating combinations.

On Friday, the Supreme Court of the United States ended the fight for marriage equality. The work of nearly half of my life, over in less time than it takes to blink. I’ve never seen a fight like that truly won before, and I don’t know if I ever will again; to see it once in a lifetime is a privilege I don’t take lightly. I can hardly understand that something I’ve been thinking about since I was 14 I suddenly never need to think about again. I can’t imagine how James Obergefell feels. I really can’t. I try, and I can’t. I’m still trying to make room in my heart for my own joy. His is incomprehensible to me.

There’s a quote from Joshua Ellis a friend gave me once, to which I am attached. It goes like this: “So everybody pretends they don’t know what the future holds, when the unfortunate fact is that — unless we start paying very serious attention — it holds what the past holds: a great deal of extreme boredom punctuated by occasional horror and the odd moment of grace.” Since I’m rarely bored, I find this comforting. And since I see what happens as we get older, I amend it thus:

“So everybody pretends they don’t know what the future holds, when the fact is that — if we pay attention and work very hard — it holds what the past holds: the mundane, happiness, grief, the grocery store, work, travel, love, and the trappings of the lives we build to suit ourselves, punctuated by occasional horror;

and the odd moment of grace.”

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