Dana Norris is the founder and host of Story Club. She once went on 71 Internet dates. This was not one of them.
I wake up feeling amazing. It’s a Saturday morning in May and I feel the kind of amazing that’s only possible after you’ve woken up feeling terrible every day for eight consecutive months. The past fall and winter have been horrific—the breakup of a long-term relationship that tailspinned into months of self-doubt and bottles of Scotch and Internet dates and phone calls to my sister at 3am, “I’m going to get back together with him because I can’t sit here and watch Jersey Shore by myself anymore—I JUST CAN’T DO IT.” I’ve never lived by myself before this and the transition has been rocky.
But on this lovely morning in May I open my eyes and see buds on trees, feel warmth in the air, hear children playing outside, and finally, finally, I feel normal. And to feel normal again is amazing.
I decide to celebrate by cleaning my apartment. I’ve developed a new method of cleaning since I started living alone. I blast music, use a Swiffer since my ex got the broom in the breakup, and I remove my pants so I can move about easily. I set about to business, wiping, dusting, Swiffering, and scrubbing every surface in my apartment. When I’m done, I’m tired but I feel good. I feel so good that I decide that I’m going to get back the water bottle that fell down behind my stove back in January. It’s one of those overpriced metal water bottles and I’ve been wanting it back for a while. I was waiting, I guess, for some man to come over and have sex with me so at some point I could ask him, “Hey, if you don’t mind…” But only one guy has come over so far and I forgot to ask him about it afterward.
I decide that me and my singleness and my no-pants and my newfound acceptance of living alone are going to get me back this water bottle and we’re gonna do it today. I decide to move the stove.
The stove is small and is wedged between the fridge and a countertop. But luckily the gas line is pliable—it’s made of several feet of corrugated tubing that’s wrapped around itself so I’m able to scoot the stove back easily. I pull out the stove, step behind it, retrieve the bottle, and push the stove back into place. Man, I am becoming an amazing single person.
And then I smell gas.
I must have blown out a pilot light during the process. But, no, the pilot light is still lit since it’s what ignites the gas that’s leaking into my apartment. So naturally, the area above my stove explodes in a fireball, Jerry Bruckheimer style. Before I can scream it settles down to a gentle roaring fire underneath my stovetop. So there’s a fire on my stove. But: Is that OK since that’s where fire is supposed to be? No. Because this one is growing. I decide to put on pants.
I run to my closet and as I step into my pants I think, “Maybe the fire will be gone when I get back to the stove.” But it isn’t gone—it’s quite a bit bigger. I grab my fire extinguisher, pull out the pin, aim it at the stovetop and…I stop. Are you supposed to use fire extinguishers on gas fires? Because once the fire’s out, won’t the gas still be pouring into my apartment? And then it might re-ignite only there will be more gas so it’ll blow up the whole building? Is it actually safer in this situation to let the gas burn off as it comes in?
Yeah, I don’t know either.
I put the extinguisher down and decide to call for help. I grab my cell phone and I find myself caught in the middle of a conversation between that tiny reptile part of my brain that controls fear, which is screaming at me, “HOLY SHIT FIRE FIRE FIRE FIRE” while the front of my brain that controls rational thought is like, “I know, I’m about to call 911, shut up, God” but the two parts are yelling at each other so loudly that I can&mmp;rsquo;t think. I’m looking through my contacts for 911 and I’m getting increasingly frustrated because I can’t find it. Is it under Ambulance? Emergency? “N” for nine? It takes me a solid minute before I realize that I don’t have 911 in my cell phone as a contact because, if you want to call 911, you just dial 9-1-1.
I finally manage to call 911. This is the first time I’ve spoken since the fire started so I say something like, “MY APARTMENT’S ON FIRE HELP!” The Chicago 911 operator responds sharply, “Ma’am, don’t yell at me.” Because 911 doesn’t need my drama. I apologize and she connects me with the Fire Department who say they’re on their way.
I hang up. The fire department is coming but, meanwhile, the fire is still growing, nibbling on my light socket, eating away at the sides of my fridge and licking the underside of my cabinets. So—what now? I debate running away, maybe to the coffee shop across the street, but I feel like I should stay with my burning kitchen. But my neighbors, they could run. They probably should run.
I start going door-to-door and having the same, awkward conversation: “Hi. My name is Dana, I live down the hall in apartment H. Nice to meet you! Um…it’s on fire. My apartment is on fire right now. The fire department is on their way, but they’re not here yet. So…there you go. Thanks!”
And my neighbors are very sympathetic and say things like, “Do you need a fire extinguisher?” and I sigh and respond, “I don’t know.”
And suddenly the fire department is there. I don’t know how they even got into the building but now there are a dozen of them, all loaded down with heavy equipment, running up the stairs and past me down the hall to my apartment. It’s just a blur of mustaches.
They run into my apartment, which is now full of black smoke, and the first guy yells, “Where’s the fire?” And I yell back “In the kitchen!” and he yells back a clarifying question, “Where the fuck is your kitchen?” And I just gesture because the answer I want to give is, “It’s a studio. The fire is in the place that’s both the only room and also WHERE THE FIRE IS.”
While they work on putting out the fire I sit on the floor in the hallway, trying to breathe shallowly so I don’t inhale too much smoke. Afterwards, a fireman takes me aside and reports in a top-notch Chicago accent: “OK. Your stove is toast. Your fridge is all burned out. And that nice little lamp you had on top of your fridge, with the picture of a martini glass on it? Yeah, that’s gone too. Everything else is OK.” I look at him and try to nod thoughtfully while I suppress my urges to hug him and just weep because, oh my God, that was so scary.
The firemen leave and I survey my apartment. My fridge was torn away from the wall and thrown across the room. The stove had also been thrown across the room and is now on its side, a burned out shell. There’s a giant hole in the wall where the firemen hacked away at the electrical socket. There’s a clear line of smoke damage along the upper third of the walls, and there’s drywall and ash all over the floor along with all of the magnets and pictures of my nieces that were on my fridge. And there is water everywhere. I sit down on my couch and it’s wet. The odor of burned-out refrigerator, a combination of hot insulation and sulfur, permeates everything I own.
It’s a Saturday morning in May and I feel awful. I sit on my couch, the wetness slowly absorbing into my pants, and I look at my wreck of an apartment. I live alone. I’m supposed to be an adult but I don’t know how gas lines work, or that they have, as the fireman told me, “This little lever thing you should really turn off before you move your stove again.” And this is it. This is everything I feared about living alone. I just made a huge mistake and now I, alone, have to clean it up. A Swiffer isn’t going to handle this.
So is this moment, sitting alone, feeling this way, worse than I felt back in September when I was living with someone inside of a long-term relationship gone bad? Honestly, in this moment, it’s about the same. I feel lonely, ashamed, idiotic. I tell myself it’ll be fine, my landlord will fix the wall and get new appliances and I’ll never ever move a stove again and it will be fine. It doesn’t feel fine. But it will be fine.
I get up, go outside, and buy a broom.
Dana Norris is the founder and host of Story Club, a monthly show for stories in Chicago. She has been published in Tampa Review, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, and The Rumpus. She is currently pursuing her MFA in Creative Nonfiction from Northwestern University. She performs around Chicago you may find a list of upcoming shows at www.dananorris.net.