Dreams of Debris

I find myself dwelling on previous brushes with apocalypse.

May these reflections on the mornings after an apocalypse offer comfort.

I was a kid when a tornado hit Pecan Valley, the nice neighborhood between Lawton and Cache with two-story houses and cul-de-sacs. My aunt and cousins lived there, so we, my dad, my mom, my sister, and I, piled into the car to go see if they were all right.

It had touched down on the house right next to theirs, flattening it like a bug with its guts splayed out across the grass. “Gee whiz,” my dad muttered. He stopped the car there, in the middle of the road—all the regular rules had been suspended, themselves casualties of the wind. My mom protested, but my dad climbed out and I followed suit. I too had been freed from my regular obligations to authority.

Why I wasn’t wearing shoes, I can’t say. But I remember how the wet grass felt between my toes as clearly as I can recall the smell of peace, which is dewy and green; “It’s over now.” We still walked with some trepidation, as though the weather might yet change its mind.

I didn’t wonder where the neighbors were. Perhaps my brain kept the thought from me, or perhaps I was too taken by the ruined objects scattered across the lawn—a shattered lamp, a ripped book, splinters and scraps of metal. It was a guilty pleasure, seeing a familiar world turned sideways. 

I honed in on a crumpled VHS cover. It was for a workout tape. There was a smiling woman on it wearing a pink leotard and holding a matching pink weight, her pleasant face folded in on itself. It was the first thing I saw that disturbed me for how it conjured the ordinary concerns of life—fitness, aesthetics, leisure, a resolve to finesse and hone and improve.

How fragile and silly, I thought, are our daily projects. 

It was raining hard, then the electricity went out, and then the wind started pounding at our windows, which looked plastic and flimsy and not like real windows at all when tested like this.

My mom and dad brought the candles out of the pantry. We’d been playing board games with my sister to distract ourselves before it had finally gotten too bad to ignore. My sister, who was seven, two years younger than me, was ugly crying and choking on herself.

We didn’t have a storm shelter like some families did, so we moved into the pantry and closed the door. It was dark, and my sister only got worse. I was a scaredy-cat too, so it surprised me when I found myself focused on calming her down.

I told her to pretend it was a ride at Six Flags, one of the water rides. “Being scared is what makes it fun,” I said. “Remember?”

We would eventually grow up in different directions from this moment. She would become the calm, rational one, and I would become the anxious wreck. I would be the one in near hysterics over our mother’s breast cancer, for example, and she would be the one to say, “Let’s wait until we know more.” But that evening in the pantry, I was the big brother.

My mom was probably praying. It was dark, but I could tell her eyes were closed and she was nodding a little. My dad, a closet atheist, I think, was leaning up against the wall with his arms crossed. I imagined that in this, like in most things, he had reduced it to a practical binary of either waiting it out or dying.

The wind was so ugly. I had no reason to believe the house would hold, which felt like a moral shortcoming on its part, a betrayal. Hadn’t we grown up here, and hadn’t the walls always done their job up until now? Didn’t they care about us in the least? The storm said, “Nope.”

I don’t remember how or where I fell asleep. I only know that morning did come eventually. One of our windows had given in, spraying a fine sparkly dust across the tile floor. Our garden was destroyed, but the walls of our house had held.

We spent that afternoon picking things up and ferrying them out of sight. The news said it wasn’t as bad as it could have been.

They were turning people away on I-99. The news was warning people not to make the drive up to Moore from Norman, because the would-be volunteers were clogging up the highway and making it harder for emergency vehicles to get to the scene. I pocketed that notion—how “good” could accidentally suffocate “necessary.”

The sky was still yellow as a bruise, but the sirens had stopped going off. I was eating a bowl of cereal and refreshing social media. Pictures of the wreckage were filtering in; a city scattered across the ground like Lego bricks in a child’s playroom.

“We were thinking about heading up,” Jackson said, picking up where the news had left off. He sounded disappointed. I didn’t know what he meant by “we.” Ryan, my other temporary summer roommate, was still working his shift at Target, and I certainly wasn’t planning on going anywhere.

“It’s bad, huh?” I said. There’s not much you can say after a tornado. In Oklahoma, making it to the day after a bad storm exempts you from having to think about any conversation beyond “goodness gracious.”

“Real bad,” Jackson said. I didn’t know him that well and I did my best to avoid him. Not because I thought he was a bad guy or anything. I just found my arrangement with Ryan to be embarrassing and I didn’t like anyone noticing it. Ryan was romantically interested in me and was allowing me to stay in the empty room in house for the summer without paying rent ahead of my semester abroad in Spain.

Jackson was in his last year as an undergrad at the University of Oklahoma, studying finance. He was tall with black hair, black eyes, milky skin; his face always preceded him like he was nosily sticking it through a window. That was another reason I avoided conversation. It always felt like he was rooting around for something I didn’t want to offer him.

“Where were you?” he asked. He was searching the cabinets in the kitchen for something, clinking and clanging.

“The gym,” I said. “They took us downstairs to the lockers. We watched it on the news. There was a TV down there.”

“Lucky,” he said. I didn’t say anything back. I thought about going back to my room, but I had started to hate it there with its empty white walls, empty closets, and ugly, beige carpet. I liked the living room more, or at least I did when Jackson wasn’t in it.

“So what are you gonna do?” Jackson pressed as if the storm were a personal crisis of mine and no one else’s. He’d closed the cabinets. I don’t think he found whatever he was looking for.

“I might go to the coffee shop,” I said. “I don’t know. I want to go somewhere.”

“It might be closed,” he said.

“I guess so.” Ryan wouldn’t be back until later that night, unless the storm, with its general capacity for chaos, would bring him back earlier or maybe later than usual. I couldn’t tell if I wanted to see him or not. “I’ll probably just drive around.”

The walk from the front door of the house to my car on the curb always felt like an ordeal. There was an old man who lived across the street who liked to give me a hard time. He’d called the police on me once and I had to explain to an officer, not a proper officer but one who drew some vague authority from a sash and utility belt, that I was staying with a friend for a while ahead of a long trip out of the country.

“They’re runnin’ a hotel in there,” the old man said, not looking at me but at the officer. “I’m tellin’ you, sir. They’re runnin’ a hotel.” Nothing happened, but since that day I always assumed he was peering through his blinds waiting for me to commit some notable offense, which made walking to my car feel like one.

I made it to the coffee shop, which was open. The barista, a young girl in a mustard yellow sundress and glasses, was gawking at the sky when I walked in and didn’t turn her attention from it until she had no choice.

“It’s terrible, isn’t it?” she said, and I wondered what, exactly, I had even come here to do. It was my favorite coffee shop, yes. I had done a lot of homework there. But it was summer, and I had no classes, and I wasn’t yet addicted to caffeine, and it was only standing in front of the barista that I realized I had come there out of some homing instinct—for no reason at all other than “because.”

“Terrible,” I said. The shop was empty. The streets were empty. All sorts of things had been meant to happen today, outdoor events and house parties and shopping trips, but then didn’t, because they couldn’t.

Some of these events were advertised on the coffee shop announcement board, all manner of things—volleyball, yoga, game nights, concerts, and so on. They seemed like foolish endeavors in hindsight; inappropriate ornaments tacked to a wall. 

This bizarre period would pass, as the storm itself had passed. The dead would be counted and mourned, and structures would be rebuilt, and the apocalypse would work itself out of our bodies at some point and relinquish its hold on our minds and on our daily affairs, and we would continue the presently unthinkable, selfish act of living.

And then what?

Everything seemed so precarious, so contingent, and the forces of sabotage were so unfeeling, so entirely unbothered by our anxieties. How was I supposed to continue business as usual, knowing that we were approximately one calamity away from being so thoroughly rearranged?

I felt a sudden bubbling over of camaraderie and warmth for the barista in a yellow sundress, a woman I didn’t know, but a partner of sorts in the ridiculous project of humanity. In spite of myself I had to ask, “Are you okay?”

“Oh!” she said, readjusting her glasses as if apologizing for her previous state of distraction. “Yes, I think I’m okay. What about you?”

“Me too,” I said.