Imagining the Victims
I give him a name. Henry Newsted. I imagine him standing in the frame of the entranceway to his ocean-side home on Staten Island, New York, watching as puffy cotton clouds float calmly overhead. He must have thought about Hurricane Irene, and how he, his wife and youngest child evacuated the neighborhood where his family has lived for generations. He and his wife must have thought about the moment they had come home and they discovered that humans, not the weather, did the most devastating damage: their home had been broken into, all of their possessions stolen.
Henry turns around and goes inside. His wife Gladys meets him in the living room holding a glass of iced tea and joins him on the couch as their sixteen-year-old son Stephen (“Steve” as he currently prefers) enters the room dragging his socked feet across the floor, his eyes transfixed on a smartphone that his thumbs dance frantically atop of.
Henry tells Steve they are going to stay home tonight.
Steve may have been hesitant. He might have informed his dad that all of Facebook was buzzing about how it was supposed to be really bad, but Henry is persistent, the blood rushing to his cheeks as he explains that if the power goes out, they’ll use flashlights. If a few feet of water comes in, they’ll move upstairs. Anyway, on the news, weather is always, always exaggerated.
Steve looks at his mother who is nodding with approval. He shrugs and continues fiddling with the phone.
Her name is Lidiya: a perfectly coiffed and fiercely independent elderly woman with a penchant for dogs. Lidiya’s thick Russian vernacular reveals migration status, but I imagine it’s the way she is with her appearance and her possessions—careful yet proud of the wealth she’s gained here after a paltry life in Russia—that makes her a standout in her neighborhood.
Lidiya’s poodle, Chanel, is suited up in a sweater designed by her namesake and the nails on her paws are a matching shade of pink. Chanel struts alongside her owner on the boardwalk with ears perked.
“You hear that, Chanel?” Lidiya says, pausing, and cups a hand over her penciled eyebrow. “It’s the song of the sea; the dancing of the waves.”
Lidiya inhales deeply, taking in a satisfying amount of warm ocean air, something she’d only dreamed of doing back in her wintry homeland, and then shuffles on, Chanel quick to follow.
Across town, about a mile inland, I studied the arsenal of supplies dispersed about the kitchen then peered out the window at the woodsy bird sanctuary parallel to our street. The October sky was relatively tranquil minus a couple of puffy cotton clouds that passed above the gently swaying treetops. I watched as Jim drove away to a firehouse that wasn’t the one he normally worked in, but to another that he was going to utilize with other rescue crew trained for extreme situations. A severe storm was on its way, but no one had any idea what Hurricane Sandy had in store.
After the taillights of his old pick-up truck disappeared into the world, my heart started to palpitate. I clenched my eyelids and forced myself to concentrate on breathing steadily, a technique acquired from a shrink. My husband is a first responder to the community, and so I have to be the first responder in our home, to our one-year-old child.
When composed, I turned to my young daughter and rearranged the Cheerios on her tray. She looked up at me; her doe eyes unblinking, and said, “Tank you, Mommy.” She’s pretty sophisticated for a toddler, and I know I’m very lucky. But I’ve always been a skeptic with luck: it’s usually short-lived, the end of it lurking right from the start.
I changed the television program from Sesame Street to the news to see what the future held. The anchorman spewed information about the hurricane that was fast approaching, saying that Staten Island, the area of New York City in which I lived, was going to be hit hard by violent winds, massive waves, and flooding.
I glimpsed again out of the glass casement, but it still revealed an average day. After recalling how overly dramatic the forecast was with Hurricane Irene the year before, I jammed a finger down on the remote control and shut off the cable. For some time, I’ve blamed the media for my anxiety, the news a prime example.
I put sneakers and a coat on my daughter, and then myself, and headed outside for a walk sans umbrella. Along the park path behind our house, we stopped and picked up rocks, twigs, pinecones and hollow acorn shells, stuffing our pockets with nature’s treasures. During the stroll I dialed Jim and joked about how “dangerous” it was outside, squawking “Auntie Emme!” into the phone as a light breeze tickled my cheeks. He chuckled but asked if I was close to the house. Because of the concern in his voice, I vowed to go straight home and lock the door.
I imagine Henry readying the house, stretching long slivers of duct tape across his windows to secure them. And as he does, he notices his neighbor bedecked in jewels and heels as her pompous pooch struts alongside her.
Henry might be the kind of man who would mumble to himself, Sweaters are for people not dogs.
Lidiya, who is oblivious to Henry watching her, continues down the street, passing by the last of the families packing up their vehicles and evacuating.
Better get home and stay there, he’d mutter to the woman as she shrinks into the distance. Especially if you keep flaunting that money, you’ll be next on the robber’s list—guaranteed!
Gladys enters the room confused as to why her husband is talking to himself.
Henry hops off the stool, ignoring the expression on her face, and asks if dinner’s ready.
Gladys nods and they head for the kitchen.
I picture Henry eating quietly, listening as the ocean’s rhythmic movements go from a graceful Fox Trot to a lively Swing. He looks beyond the blue slashes of adhesive on the panes and into the vast darkness. Droplets of rain spatter against the clear casings accompanied by occasional squalls.
I see Lidiya pouring herself a glass of red—Merlot perhaps—and then she eases into the living room. Chanel lets out a small howl when Lidiya passes the window, which causes her to spin on her heel and glance out. The houses surrounding them are dark, empty, and the street lamps flicker.
“Don’t be afraid of a little thunder, my love,” Lidiya says and scoops up the dog.
It could be that Lidiya remembers the long, cold winters in a dilapidated cabin in Russia where supplies were limited and hypothermia threatened her limbs every day. Her survival there was dependent on others—under the thumb of both the government and a set of unhappy parents—until she reached the age where she could break free. And it was then that she ran and escaped the treachery of living in a place where existing was more a hindrance than a blessing. And it was here, in America, where she waited tables and mastered the English language until she was able to put herself through school and earn a degree in architecture: designing beautiful yet sturdy homes her passion and purpose.
She looks around her house and feels a sense of comfort, of true belonging and security, all of which she created with her own two hands.
Once, in therapy, my doctor and I discussed my deepest fears. I pretty much only have one: death. Which, coincidentally, is something I, as a firefighter’s wife, seem to somehow always be around (even if it’s just by proximity).
Back in our home offshore, the day’s activities continued as usual. Rain began to clank against the sills of the windows. I turned the news on once more to see what soap opera was unfolding in the world, when images of big waves crashing onto the beaches of New Jersey flashed across the screen; it appeared as if Atlantic City was being washed away.
To distract my jittered nerves, I bounced the baby on my lap and continued to watch. The meteorologist was saying that the worst was yet to come when the full moon’s gravitational pull would have an overwhelming effect on an already high tide. He was talking science, a language I understood from my days as an elementary school teacher. That’s when my stomach started to flip.
The clock read seven. I closed the blinds and drew the curtains, part of the night time routine of putting my daughter to bed. The wind, which had gone from an occasional gust to a constant howl, had me worried that there wasn’t any tape on the windows to protect them from shattering. I called Jim for advice, despite his earlier declaration that duct-taping glass didn’t prevent it from breaking. But there was no answer, which left me to my own devices. I pushed the baby’s crib to the far corner of her bedroom, away from anything breakable, and set up camp on the other side of her door.
I imagine Steve glancing at the ceiling. Is that the roof? He jumps up and darts to the window. Where is the beach? He hardly recognizes the landscape as it’s mostly violent mounds of water hurtling dangerously close to their yard. His eyes nervously scan the perimeter when, in the distance, he sees there is a single light coming from a window and a small head pops into view.
Chanel? Steve squints for a better look. In his peripheral, Lidiya is dancing, a glass of some sort in her hand, as her dog, a lone stranger, is looking out in desperation, studying the incoming storm.
Not sure if what he’s witnessing is normal, Steve grabs his phone from the mattress and runs to the first floor to be with his parents. But, halfway down the staircase, all of the lights in the home go out and the sound of water is uncomfortably close.
His mother calls him by his full name from somewhere on the main level. Normally, he’d roll his eyes but his name is no longer a major concern of his.
“Coming,” he says, stopping midway down the steps and turning on the flashlight of his phone before continuing the descent, cold water encircling his ankles.
Gladys flashes a lighted stick in the direction of her son.
Steve walks into the living room, salt water sloshing between his legs, as splattering gale continues bullying the structure housing them. Henry hurries into the room drenched. I imagine he’s frantic, yelling, “The basement is gone—completely gone! Water is rushing in the back door now. It’s way too fast. Come on! Come on!”
I see Steve and Gladys move through the water, the ocean creeping up their thighs. Together they follow Henry to the second floor and into the bathroom. He yanks at the shower curtain and heaves his family into the dry tub.
We’ll be fine in here, Henry mutters, wedging himself behind his wife and son.
I sat in the hallway as the beams of the house started to rattle and shake. There was no doubt in my mind that we were officially experiencing a hurricane; the weather report was correct. Beads of sweat formed at my temples as I hawk-eyed the baby monitor. My daughter was sound asleep and, thankfully, the windows were holding up.
I lied back on my pillow when a crackling sound pierced the air, and then all of the power went out. I crouched down and frantically grazed the floor with both hands, feeling for my cell phone. I scooped it up and called Jim. He answered and, through the static, asked if I was all right. I told him we were okay, and he said to continue hunkering down, that he loved me, and then he hung up. I held the phone to my ear, even after the conversation ended, with half of my brain wanting to kick into full-on panic mode. But the other half, the more rational side, kept me grounded.
I reviewed everything that Jim taught me to do if power went out: don’t open the refrigerator so it will remain cold for longer (like a giant cooler), only use your cell phone in emergencies (to preserve the battery life), keep the littlest flashlight lit for regular usage in order to conserve the powerful, bigger sources of light, and always utilize candles as a last resort because you don’t want to create a fire hazard in already hazardous conditions. Somehow Jim, an emergency service provider to the community, was able to provide aide to his family even when he was not there in the physical form.
The hour hand crawled around my wristwatch as things crashed outside. I tried not to think of my friends whose husbands were home with their family members, but I couldn’t help it. Despite my efforts, my breathing became erratic. Something scraped against the house and banged out in the distance. I was certain it was the old roof of my neighbor’s house, ripped off by the fierce winds. Everything was out of control, especially mine. I heard people’s lawn furniture blowing down the street like tumbleweed. I shut my eyes and prayed that the swaying traffic lights wouldn’t tear down the poles and the electrical wires connected to them.
I can envision Chanel starting to scratch at Lidiya’s shoes as she dances to a Billy Holiday record on a vintage Victrola. Lidiya stops swaying and gazes down at her pet whose tail is tucked between her hind legs. She goes to the machine and shuts the music, but the noise doesn’t stop. Outside, there’s a swift clap from storm clouds colliding followed by a bright beam of light and an abrupt crushing of the living room window; pieces of the sheetrock it was attached to caving in around it. The dog lets out a yelp as it leaps into Lidiya’s arms.
“Dear Mother in Heaven,” Lidiya whispers as she backs away from the weeping willow that once decorated her front yard, but is now lying limp inside her chic beach bungalow.
Water starts pouring into the house through the gaping hole in the wall.
Lidiya’s canine hops out of her grasp and runs into the kitchen. She finds temporary safety on top of the stove. Lidiya follows, seeking refuge atop of the counter next to where Chanel is. Together they watch as water submerges the kitchen floor and quickly rises.
“We can’t stay here, Chanel.”
Lidiya scans the room and sees the ironing board that she’d used earlier is still out, leaning upright against the side of the fridge. She gets down and retrieves it then goes into a drawer for a screwdriver. Working fast, Lidiya unravels the screws that hold a pair of bulky metal legs onto the board. They fall away, dropping into the water that is now up to her waist. Lidiya clutches the top portion and turns to her pup.
“Ever been surfing?”
Chanel gives her a crooked look.
“Me neither,” she says, and straddles the board. “But, there’s a first time for everything.”
As the Newsted’s sit motionless in the bathroom, I imagine the sound of liquid swishing causes Steve to lean over the side of the tub.
Gladys, who’s been trying to fend off emotions in front of her teenager, can no longer hold back and shouts, “the attic!” as she shimmies her way to a standing position.
The Newsteds scramble up the old ladder into an alcove and crowd together as the contents of the maddening sea fill every space of the abode. Steve shuts his dampening eyes, feeling as if he’s some male version of Alice in some sort of crazy Wonderland swimming in the swells of his tears as water works its way up his neck.
The attic walls quake aggressively, struggling to withstand the increasing tension of the current when the roof buckles… I don’t want to imagine what happens next. ~
I clutched my cell phone in the dark and sent Jim a text message. I didn’t know if the phone service was working but what I did know was that my husband was out somewhere on the island, battling against the tides to save people who didn’t evacuate. Regardless, he needed to be made aware that his family, for the most part, was all right. Tucked in a fetal position on the hardwood floor, I laid envisioning chaos similar to Hurricane Katrina, imagining the victims as their lives unfolded like I did during therapy sessions, and wondered what tomorrow would look like. Then I started thinking, with the unruffled weather being as it was earlier, would I have evacuated if I lived by the shoreline? Probably not, but Jim would have made us.
The sound of the baby’s cry prompted my eyelids open. Daylight was trickling in through the blinds revealing a new morning. I hopped to my feet and retrieved my daughter from the crib. With her in my arms, we walked the perimeter of the property, and fortunately, the structure appeared fairly untouched. Some trees were down across the street and garbage littered the roads, but overall the neighborhood survived.
Lidiya wakes to the sound of a beeping machine. Her arms feel heavy. “Probably from all that paddling,” she thinks, and glimpses down at herself. She is lying in a hospital bed. She turns her head first to the left and then to the right.
“Looking for someone?” a nurse says, entering the room.
“Chanel. Where’s Chanel?”
“You can call any family member you’d like, ma’am,” the woman says, reaching for the phone on the end table.
Lidiya drops her head back and sobs.
“Chanel’s not a person. She, she—was my dog.”
Pieces of the Newsted’s home are scattered along the beach, a cavernous hole where their house once stood. Nothing remains intact except a few cement stairs that led into the beautiful seaside residence.
I was about to go inside when Jim’s truck pulled into the driveway. Our daughter greeted him with a boisterous hello! as his eyes met mine in sadness. I instinctively knew he had seen death. But I wouldn’t dare press him for stories. As the spouse of a firefighter, one of my main duties is not to ask questions, not to expect details. My only option is to imagine what could have happened.
Jim, not normally one for public displays of affection, took the baby into his arms and then motioned for a group huddle. There on the sidewalk, beneath a few dissipating clouds, we were reunited. I rested my head on his chest, sighing with relief into his shirt, before glancing up at the sky and thanking it for such a privilege. Showing gratitude to the cosmos was something I did after he returned from catastrophe; one never knows when their luck may run out.
Epilogue: Hurricane Sandy would take 24 lives on Staten Island, accounting for more than half of New York City’s death toll from the storm. Jim was part of the search and rescue team that recovered the bodies of the victims, including household pets. Both humans and animals were found within range of their residences, while others were scattered along the shore.
Dawn Turzio is an award-winning essayist whose work has been featured in many publications including The New York Times, Salon and MSN Lifestyle, which can be found at www.dawnturzio.com and on Facebook. Novel forthcoming.
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