When the fire alarm went off sometime between 1:30 and 2 a.m., I was lying sleepless in bed imagining how I’d decorate my quarters if I lived on Deep Space Nine.
We’d just returned from a splendid and restful vacation late the night before. I was feeling good, restored, like I imagine a vacation is supposed to make you feel — a little glum at returning to my everyday non-vacation life, but that’s probably not an uncommon feeling.
When the alarm started shrieking, I wasn’t even startled — I thought, I feel like it used to be louder, and wondered if time makes fire alarms less belligerent. I figured, at first, it was just my two-doors-down neighbor burning toast in the middle of the night again. It was only when I went to the bathroom and heard the thundering footfalls of my upstairs neighbor moving rapidly to the far end of his bedroom that I realized what was going on.
This can’t be happening again. I peed, calmly, and walked to the north-facing wall of my corner unit, and I heard the sound. It’s not like rain, exactly, because the water isn’t striking the building — it IS the building. It’s inside the building, it makes noises like an unnecessarily complicated fountain made of wood, it rushes and splurts and drips and soon it’s coming out of the HVAC vent, and soon it’s coming down from between the cracks of the drywall panels that make up the ceiling, and finally it pools and seeps through the drywall itself in unpredictable places that seem to follow a logic only water can understand.
My husband was still awake and out in the living room, and I shouted to him across the house, “I NEED EVERY POT AND CONTAINER WE HAVE.” Bewildered, he asked what I was talking about. “It’s happening again,” I croaked, “there’s a broken pipe upstairs. It’s happening again.”
Exactly two years and four days ago, on a bright and sunny morning, our bedroom flooded from above when a sprinkler system pipe in the attic space at the top of our condo building froze and burst during a period of especially cold weather. Which, you may already know, is a thing that happens in New England now and then. At the time, my husband was still working in an office in Boston, so I leapt into action alone, bailing out our bedroom as best I could. Although the experience was certainly upsetting, the damage was mostly cosmetic in the end, and we only lost a few small items. The subsequent drying-out period was far worse than the flood itself, when we spent a week surrounded by huge, endlessly roaring drying fans, an experience that gave me a new appreciation for the way sound can affect your mental state.
So returning to Sunday night/Monday morning, I was kind of in denial.
I called my downstairs neighbor, trusting that she had been awoken by the fire alarms, and in a creaking, panicked voice, yelled at her about turning the water off — she’s on the condo board, so I guess I thought she had some kind of magical building-wide water access. She explained that the firefighters were on site but needed to find out where the water was coming from before turning it off.
“IT’S COMING FROM THE SPRINKLER SYSTEM IN THE ATTIC ON THE TOP FLOOR THIS IS EXACTLY THE SAME AS LAST TIME,” I shrieked, imagining the firefighters strolling around our building with flashlights and cups of coffee from Dunkin' Donuts while I juggled undersized Tupperware catch-basins and my bedroom filled with water. This is unfair, I know, but panic turns us into assholes sometimes.
I hung up on my neighbor as three more ceiling leaks suddenly appeared and we scrambled to find more containers for them. Suddenly possessing the strength of 20 men — or, like, two — I began frantically disconnecting electronics to move them to less-rainy parts of our home. Soon we realized water was coming down inside the closet, too, so we relocated my wardrobe to the dining-room table, bucket-brigade-style. Only with dresses.
My neighbor called back. “IS THE WATER OFF YET?” I yelled.
She explained that the firefighters were having trouble turning the water off, but were working on it. So help me I will come up there and break the pipe in half with my bare hands and solder both ends shut with eye-beams of PURE FIERY RAGE TO STOP THE WATER.
Eventually, the water did get turned off. But if you’re ever in a flood, don’t assume that means that the crisis is over, because there’s still plenty of water needing to work its way down to you. Soon a troop of five firefighters was at our door, I guess to make sure our condo was not also in danger of burning down or collapsing or I don’t even know why FIVE OF THEM needed to come through our bomb-struck disaster of a home with both of us fully drenched in a mixture of water, whatever substance they make ceilings out of, and antifreeze — antifreeze that was supposed to prevent that sprinkler pipe from breaking again, by the way.
But five of them marched single file into our bedroom, and the first duckling said, “Don’t turn on any ceiling lights,” and the last duckling asked “Where’s your smoke detector?” (smoke detectah, for the non-New Englanders in the house) at the disconnected wire on the ceiling and I babbled, bewildered, “I just bought new ones. I was planning to install them tomorrow. They don’t fit the same bracket so I need to swap the old ones out. They’re on the dining room table . . . under all my clothes. They talk — like, they yell ‘FIRE!’ and stuff.” Shut up, Lesley. Why does he need to know that your new smoke detectors talk?
As the firefighters left and the door closed behind them, my husband, drenched to the skin, speckled all over with ceiling plaster and exhausted, turned to me with wide-eyed astonishment and said, “Did that guy just ask about our smoke detector?”*
All told, we spent three solid hours locked in epic combat with water and gravity like some lesser-known and really pathetic tale from classical mythology, and then a few hours more watching to make sure no new leaks popped up. We had had no sleep at all; it was about 5 a.m. when the flood remediation boss dude — whom longtime readers might remember as Moisture Guy from the last flood — showed up and assessed our situation. We had a cheerful reunion, as Moisture Guy has an excellent memory and even recalled that I was going to write about the drying-out experience.
“Hey!” he said buoyantly as he looked at our ceiling with his IR camera. “This is a lot worse than last time!”
It’s true. It is a lot worse. Most of the damage in the last flood was restrained to one half of the bedroom ceiling. This time it extended throughout the bedroom and closet, into the bathroom, and then further into the hall and dining room.
Unfortunately, with Moisture Guy came The Fans.
The Fans very nearly drove me insane last time. You may remember. As the sun rose on Monday morning, and still sleepless and in shock, I awaited their arrival with growing apprehension. It didn’t help that Monday we were also dealing with yet another foot of snow falling here in Boston. (I won’t even start about the COMICAL level of snow we have on the ground right now.)
When the fan-bringing guys finally arrived, I welcomed them to The Grotto (I think they were Russian or something, so I don’t even know if this joke worked) and they got down to work. The fans are loud. Very loud. Like having a jet engine in your house. They might not seem that loud at first. Once the fans were in place on Monday, I thought, Huh, this isn’t that bad, but I evidently forgot that they get louder with every passing day, until Thursday afternoon when I swear I started hearing VOICES in the FANS, and then Friday morning when I kept hearing music threading through the inescapable white noise.
Are you worried for my sanity yet? Me too.
There is a lot of grieving that goes along with this kind of property crisis. When your home no longer feels like a safe place to live and keep your stuff, that takes a psychological toll on a deep mammalian level. I find myself thinking things like, Should I just throw everything I own away? I spent an hour Wednesday night pricing storage units, thinking it might be wise to take all the things that I value most and box them up and put them in a different building, somewhere — until I remembered the time my mom’s storage unit flooded, because that happens too. Even as I idly browsed liability agreements, the fact that I was considering such drastic action was deeply distressing, as this would go against one of my basic rules for life: Don’t save things for special occasions, don’t hide treasures away to protect them, keep your most precious and beloved items around you where you can see them and appreciate them every day.
Even if they may get ruined in a flood.
Floods are strange because they ruin things so slowly. It’s a plodding, methodical process of destruction, in which you can keep reassuring yourself that Surely, this is as bad as it will get, until it gets worse and moves into the next room or starts raining in your closet or pouring water out of your light switches. I hate it when people say stuff like, “Things can always be replaced!” because it’s not strictly true. I have a lot of clothing, antiques, ephemera, and art that literally can’t be replaced because they don’t exist elsewhere, and can’t be easily re-bought in a store (none of this stuff got ruined, for the record — I knew what to rescue first). I think it’s better to acknowledge that things sometimes get destroyed and that’s just . . . it. You can’t replace them. They’re gone. And it’s okay. In life, things you love will get lost or stolen or ruined, even things you treasure dearly, and no matter how much we want to keep them safe we just can’t control every possible outcome.
Physically though, I feel worn out; I feel like I have the flu, almost, that intense flavor of bone-weary fatigue, where even simple tasks like taking a shower or finding something to eat loom unfathomably large and require a constant internal monologue of cheerleading (“Okay, now you just need to rinse the conditioner out of your hair. Good job!”) to get through. Focusing is almost impossible. I don't know how I'm even writing this right now. I have had, at most, four hours of sleep per night since Saturday; sure, there's the constant fan noise and the discomfort of sleeping on the couch for a week, but what's really keeping me up is stress, and a totally irrational worry that another pipe is going to burst somewhere and flood us again. I am also barely eating because my kitchen is filled with the music of hell and I don’t want to be in it any longer than absolutely necessary.
And before you yell at me to go to a hotel, understand that we have a very high-strung cat to consider. As freaked out as she is by the fans, she’d be even more panicked by being uprooted to a hotel room. So here we stay.
Mostly we have kept to the living room — the one space of the house that is largely untouched by the flood, except for all the stuff we have piled up in there that got moved out of the bedroom — where I watch Netflix on my iPad through crappy headphones (my nice noise-canceling headphones that would have blocked out the fan noise got wet in the flood and now no longer work, of course, OF COURSE) and try to wheedle email responses out of our astonishingly unsympathetic and barely helpful management company. The wall of dresses heaped on the dining room table muffles the sound from the rest of the condo somewhat, and aside from my husband and I occasionally snapping at one another owing to the Extreme Prolonged Togetherness, it is survivable.
Yes, this is all very frustrating, and yes, even just writing this account was like digging through a brain filled with cotton wool to find the thoroughly buried meaty parts, but hey, it could have been worse, and soon it will be over and in the next flood I’ll look back on this and laugh. Or something.
Today —- I am writing this on Friday — the fan guys came in and took some of the fans away. We are now down to seven fans from a high of 13, with the rest coming out next week, after yet another immobilizing snowstorm, and as much as I am still thinking things like, Is 1 p.m. on Friday too early to open a bottle of wine? I know that this, like so many shitty circumstances in life, is temporary. And this morning I woke with the sun rising over the ocean reflecting off the spectacular volumes of snow heaped on the beach and shining on my face, something that doesn’t happen when I sleep in the north-facing bedroom. Sometimes you need to find your joy in the small things.
* Seriously though, a smoke detector will save your goddamned life. That firefighter was totally in the right to bring it up. The timing was just funny.