It happened when I hung up the phone with the insurance company. My ear was warm and sore from holding the phone too close while the voice on the other end droned on about claims I needed to process. The call ended and in the silence I saw the piles of wet clothes and the soggy plaster bits from the ceiling were still there, and something inside cracked. My face contorted and I cried into my blanket. There is no bigger, better purpose to any of this. I was alone, and it was wet. A flip neighbor went out the previous night, New York’s coldest night in 20 years, and left her window open. A pipe froze, burst and drained into my apartment walls. If the neighbor was home now, she’d hear the drooling, empty howl coming up through her floor.
After several minutes, I stood up to get a tissue and kicked the giant trashcan in front of my bed. It barely moved. It was full of dirty ceiling water, some of which feebly sloshed over the sides when I kicked it again. Suddenly I wanted WRECKAGE. I wanted to hurl that stupid, rubber immovable bin out the window and chuck the pieces of window glass across the room. The pitiful stack of damp sweaters were not enough. I would shred them and throw them into the garbage before I would wear any of them again. I wanted visceral damage. I wanted my apartment to bleed. I wanted to call that dry, even-voiced insurance adjuster back up and tell him there was internal studio hemorrhaging and no amount of placid pressure could stop it.
I blew my nose and had to lay back against my damp pillow. The thumping in my ears subsided and mid afternoon shadows came in through the window, the room darker and quieter now without electricity. Three low hoots from an invisible owl came in too. Every couple of minutes, a piece of ceiling plopped when it hit the floor. It was my 31st birthday.
In the last 8 months, I’ve noticed that on a given day, I can walk down the sidewalk and smile at strangers who smile back. There are chirps and honks and evidence of the city’s changing seasons. On the inside I wonder if I would feel ashamed to walk down the sidewalk with great, bulging eyes. I think about what it’d be like to wear my thyroid on the outside of my neck, dangling in a little plastic bag at the base of my throat, like a necklace. I could point to it when people asked how I was. “My thyroid overacts,” I’d say with a knowing look. “Sometimes I take it out and cool it off so the rest of me can take a breather. Look here.” It is on the sidewalk sometimes, on a perfectly reasonable afternoon, that the desire to explain what is happening overwhelms me.
The morning my ceiling collapsed, my last as a 30-year-old, I awoke with a headache. Light greeted me through the window. It was snowing. My room was silent.
“Look,” I said to myself. “Can we just go easy, today? I know you want to go all existential today because of your birthday tomorrow, but what if…what if we just take it easy? Let’s just take a break and let it be quiet, let us move across floors and rooms with ease today and stop wondering what it all means.”
I sighed and rolled over. Something behind me began to hiss.
“Who is taking a shower in my closet?”
I turned my head around and squinted one eye, to hear properly. “Someone must be washing the roof.” The sound of liquid rushed against the windows, at first like it was raining, and then like the roof drain had been overturned. My ceiling light flickered. I got out of bed and pulled back the curtain. Black water pooled onto the ledge. My feet were wet.
On the other side of the room the closet door opened on its own. A single stream of water spat from top to bottom – an invisible cherub statued atop my pile of sweaters, pissing directly onto the floor. Behind me, the ceiling light coughed, almost politely, before it too began spitting up water. A warning belch. I leapt across the room and hit the lights.
I moved quietly through the rest of the day, collecting wet belongings from the floor, pushing furniture into dry corners and emptying pots and bowls when they were full, so they could start again. It was the next day I cried, when I returned to an apartment that reeked of mildew and saw what had once been my stuff for what it now was – piles of wet shit.
A week later, I was back in the building and in a new apartment. Each night after work, I stopped by old Apartment 3 to see if the door was locked. It never was. The ceiling was gutted, and its insides were still on the floor. It looked smaller, and smelled like a locker room. I’d walk in and set my purse down on the floor. One night, I tiptoed into the middle of what was my living room and sat down. Something began to ache. This just wasn’t my home anymore.
My friend Sam saw the connection before I did. In a letter she wrote, “I suspect that the missing link here, what has not made it onto paper, is that just as your apartment, your housing, let you down, so too did your fleshly housing become unreliable. Caira. There is no safe housing.”
The good news is, I don’t smell like mold.