During Sandy, my friend on the first floor saw a wall of water surging down Bloomfield Street. Another said it was like a brigade, that torrent of rain like a torrent of boots marching in unison. Relentless, obscuring, the storm barged into basement apartments, made couches into useless sponges, rugs into marshes, books into grounded birds.
In a story I often read to my son when he was young, a man is unhappy with how small and crowded his house is. He and his wife have many children, all loud and rambunctious. His bickering in-laws live with them, the bird in its cage constantly squawks, and the dogs are always at his heels. Desperate, the man goes to his rabbi for advice. “Do you have a cow?” asks the rabbi. Yes, the man has a cow. “Then bring it into the house,” says the rabbi. The man, albeit incredulous, does as he’s told.
One early spring day, a man from my poetry workshop lifted me up to kiss me in an otherwise empty elevator. I remember bending my legs at the knees as I went up so that I was kneeling on air. Did we spin? Everything was spinning in those first raw weeks of knowing each other. I felt dizzy, seasick. What happened once the elevator door opened to the bustling lobby? Who were we for the rest of that afternoon?
I experienced Sandy as sounds as I lay in bed in my fourth floor apartment. As a whirling of wind, wind with a voice. An image came to me of my room floating on a sea, separated from the building that had always contained it, drifting off alone. When the power went out I heard a popping sound as the lamp clicked off, followed by a vibrant silence. The ceasing of the hums we’re all so used to in our homes, that we only notice when they’re gone.
The man with the cow tells the rabbi, voice trembling, “It’s worse. The smell. The flies. The noise.” The rabbi’s advice? “Add your sheep. Throw in a few pigs. Are there ducks on the property? Bring them in too.” Again, the man is dismayed but obedient. Soon, his home is a landlocked Noah’s Ark, bulging at its sorry seams, the commotion deafening, the stench beyond words.
For weeks we kissed in noisy cafes, on park benches, in the fragrant pizza place inside Penn Station. We were heedless, but we weren’t children. We weren’t even young. We had jobs, bills. I had my boisterous boy to pick up from school. Only this flowering thing between us was homeless. “Get a room,” a drunken man drawled as we caressed on the stairs to the Uptown One. But a room with a bed at its center would attach certain words to what we had, words we weren’t ready to claim.
Two days after the storm, a few shops with generators were able to open. The drugstore. Oddly, a florist. The corner newsstand. Still, it was eerie, empty. You couldn’t cross certain streets because of live wires under the standing water. You couldn’t walk far at all. On the side streets, I passed piles of sodden refuse higher than my shoulder. I talked to a young guy on a stoop whose car died under the weight of a felled oak. For a week I read by flashlight, opened cans of beans for dinner, lit the stove with a Hanukkah candle, turning our home into a kind of sacred space. My son—his cell phone and Xbox on hiatus—taught himself guitar.
The man goes to the rabbi one last time. “It’s unbearable,” he exclaims. The rabbi tells him to send all the animals back outside to meander beneath the trees. “Thank God,” the man says, singing prayers as he rushes home to do this. That night, he gazes around the same crammed rooms that had sent him to the rabbi in the first place—his squabbling in-laws, pesky kids with their rowdy games, pets underfoot in the kitchen. Yet, on this last page of the book, the man sees his house as spacious. He sees it as palatial, which is how I expected to feel when, after seven slowed-down days of improvising, the lights came back on and returned us to the easy sameness we had before.
Here is the part of the story I don’t like telling. While we were kissing in public places someone else loved me too. This was why we were such wanderers. That other man and I shared a home. We made certain promises and I was breaking every one of them. Love can do that, even to someone who has otherwise always been loyal. That is, someone like me. Love can be the wall of water, the brigade of rain. It can drown the things you felt sure you couldn’t live without, dependable things you thought were just humming along.
Ona Gritz’s essays have appeared in The New York Times, The Guardian, The Utne Reader, MORE, and elsewhere. “It’s Time,” which appeared in The Rumpus, was named a Notable Essay in Best American Essays, 2016. Her books include the memoir On the Whole: A Story of Mothering and Disability, and the poetry collections Geode and Border Songs: A Conversation in Poems, written with her husband, Daniel Simpson.