personal

try not to breathe

One of my most vivid memories of elementary school is surviving the fire safety house. For a while I thought that this was a universal childhood experience, and then for a while I thought it was maybe just us, just this one district in West Virginia in the 90s. A lot of my adult life is like that: determining where on the no-one-to-everyone spectrum I’m landing.

The fire safety house was a trailer that could be towed from school to school, and inside was a little home built child-size: kitchen, bedroom, bathroom, all scaled to us in a way that nothing, at that point in our lives, was scaled to us. The blinds by the sink were the right proportion for the sink, which was the right proportion for the counters, which went up to our hips. The light bulbs in the hallways were low enough for us to change. Our feet touched the floor when we sat in the chairs, and the balcony upstairs – there was an upstairs! – was big enough for just a couple six-year-olds or absolutely no adults. I loved it: it was a dollhouse, perfect in the way no real houses are perfect, empty of mess and ready for us. And we had to learn how to escape it.

We would go in one class at a time and listen as a nice representative from the Marion Country Fire Department explained each room to us. It turned out that there were so many ways for things to catch fire. If we could see them all, we’d be okay. Everything was flammable: curtains, papers, wires inside walls, heating elements left exposed, our own beds, our own selves. Here was how smoke rose. Here was how heat mounted. Here was how, if we needed, to stop, drop, and roll – the three great commandments of my childhood. Put this towel along the bottom of the door. Don’t touch this doorknob. Don’t panic and breathe in too much, or panic and forget to breathe at all. Here was how you might die: from what got into your lungs, from what caught against your skin, from the house breaking itself apart onto you.

At some cue I never managed to catch, the little house would begin to fill with smoke. It didn’t smell like real smoke, like earth and spices and old things turning to ash. It was artificial in a way that always frightened me more than anything else we’d learned. But we’d just learned so much – we were going to make it! And we did, always, bursting out into the fresh morning air, shivering from excitement and feeling like small gods, like we’d tricked the universe into letting us live.

It turns out that a lot of schools have these. The original manufacturer even has a website with photos. I’ve spent minutes on minutes just now paging through photo after photo, trying to find the house I remember.

Frankly, I expected to be on fire so much more often as a child. (This was, after all, the same age at which I was very concerned about quicksand – another danger that hasn’t really panned out.) Why would they be so sure to teach us if it wasn’t going to be a recurring danger? For a while after each tour of the fire safety house, I would go home and eye each of my own lovely things with suspicion, imagining how they might betray me. I wanted to be alive so badly. I wanted it despite not really understanding what being dead meant. But the dangers of the world were knowable, learnable, and I would study them, and I would live forever.

And then, when I was I was eight years old, the after-school news showed me Columbine.

If standing in the little fire safety house was surreal, smelling that artificial smoke, then this was something beyond surreal. I took ballet lessons at the time and our recitals were held at local high schools with halls like the ones on TV, with cafeterias like the one on TV, with long sprawling lawns like the one on TV. The kids who were killed were so much older than me but even I could tell that they were kids. Braces and flyaways and closed eyes in the yearbook photos, the same Lifetouch background I’d had just a month before. Glasses and middle parts. Faces that were still halfway soft the way the faces of my friends were soft. But surely some things were so terrible that they could only happen once.

For a period of time, ending in the 1850s, such a thing as perfect security existed. We’d briefly invented unpickable locks. And I can’t imagine believing that if I turned a key I would truly be safe forever, but I know I did once, because as we walked back to class from the fire safety house I could not imagine anything really happening to us.

*

 In less than a week I’ll be twenty-seven, and in less than a month it will be the anniversary of the first school shooting I ever knew, and today millions of people marched in America. I wanted to march with them. I didn’t.

Instead, I sat on my couch and looked at photos of the signs in Washington, in New York, in the town next to my own hometown. I watched the speeches as they went online, and I read the signs, and I cried and then cried again.

Shortly after I started my job in 2016, we had a whole-building fire safety meeting. I work on the fourteenth of sixteen floors, so knowing the location of the stairs feels more important than it usually does. There were doughnuts and coffee. There were handouts. I, once and always the class pet, took a pen so I could write down notes.

After most of an hour, the speaker had exhausted most of what could be said about concrete stairwells and headcounts and said, “Now let’s talk about active shooters.”

And I wrote down active shooters like it was normal, because it’s normal.

This is what it means to have grown up in the world where Columbine was possible, where Columbine was not the last time, or even the first: I think about active shooters a lot. There are so many ways to die. I know that now. I’ve known that for most of my life. And so I always look for the closest exit in the classroom, the mall, the movie theater, the office, the way I was once taught to look for escape routes in a burning house. The only time I ever skipped class in college, it was because the classroom was small and narrow and a classmate I felt uneasy about sat right next to the door. It was fine; they were harmless. It’s usually fine. They’re usually harmless. But what if, what if, what if.

Today I woke up with plenty of time to go to the march and thought about all the high places in Manhattan, about long-range rifles, about how much some people love their guns, and I was too afraid. What if. What if.

The speaker at our fire safety meeting told us that this kind of surveillance was good and useful. You should always know your surroundings. You should always know which furniture is movable, in case you need to barricade the door. Think about angles of ricochet. Think about what you could hide behind, what is dense enough to stop a bullet. Some bullets, at least. Think of what about you is soft and unprotected: your stomach, your face, your heart.

Some part of me wonders if there is a safety house for this, and if not, whether we should make one. The least we can be is honest to our children. Lead them all, one class at a time, into the little trailer where the rooms are laid out like the school they have just left. Show them how to play dead. Show them how many ways there are to fire.

On bad days I read surgeons’ reports of what an AR-15 does to a body and think about the nonzero chance that I, a person living in America, will be in the wrong place at the wrong time someday. That my face becomes one of many faces on the evening news for a day or two, until there are others, because there are always others. When I was a junior in college, a man who lived about a block from me took his guns to Western Psych and shot until the Pitt police shot him. I was home on spring break. I cried then too.

There’s a line I’ve never been able to shake in Denis Johnson’s “Car-Crash While Hitchhiking” about “a family from Marshalltown who head–onned and killed forever a man driving west out of Bethany, Missouri….

Killed forever, I imagine telling my little-kid self, the version of me who was alarmed by artificial smoke and worried about quicksand.

And what do I do, I imagine that little kid asking.

I don’t know, I would say. I am saying. I don’t know. I will teach you what I know about surviving. But it’s nothing you should ever have to learn.

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