I exited my apartment and began to walk. Oversized flakes of snow fell in bunches all around me. To an eye tainted by trauma, the cascading snow mimicked the appearance of falling ash from an angry sky. Suddenly, even the peaceful freefall of porcelain white snow acted as a transport through time. I was now remembering the building that was ablaze on that black winter’s night.
My nose began to reminisce on its malodorous concoction of burning wood, chemicals, and the personal belongings of those victimized by the merciless flames. A burning building smells nothing like that of a camp fire. Although hard to describe, it is unmistakable to a nose that has been caressed by its violent odor. It simply smells – evil…
As I continued to walk, my mind continued its freefall into memory.
I recalled pulling up to that building engulfed by flames that licked themselves high into the blackened sky. A truly nefarious sight to see. My partner and I did our best to park away from the blowing wind, and at a safe distance. All of which was futile, the heat from the roaring blaze permeated the ambulance. Where a camp fire’s sound is serene and boasts a calming quality, an uncontrolled structure fire by way of contrast is nothing short of burning chaos. It’s mesmerizing in the most terrifyingly hypnotic of ways. It sounds like nature screaming a horrendous war cry.
I exited the ambulance and walked carefully but dutifully towards the fire captain. I made our presence known and indicated where the ambulance was located. He met my directions with a decisive nod, and then returned his attention to the growing adversary in front and above him. My eyes followed suit – I was once again mesmerized by its ferocity.
Much like the snow was landing on me in the here and now, ash, and soot landed with Its likeness back then. The first time I was kissed by fire, it was in the form of an ash-flake that fell to my forehead. Almost dead centre. Unlike a snowflake, it does not land with a cold, wet embrace – it is instead a feeling all Its own – it lands softly with a heft of violence. I used my hand to wipe it away, remnants of streaking ash remained stained to my fingers.
I swear as I was walking, I could feel the heat of that fire again. I could feel its hot kiss against my face. Back then, as I began walking away, towards the ambulance, my radio came to life with a muffled and metallic voice of panic. It was one of the firefighters from inside the raging building.
“Cap, we got one. We’re coming down the stairs, we need medics ready now!”
My body had already began running to the ambulance whilst my mind digested what had just been heard. My partner must have heard the same thing, as she too was now outside of the ambulance, fetching the stretcher from the back of the rig. I grabbed the gear I thought we would need, and threw it onto the stretcher, and with haste, we approached the burning building.
The top floors were now nothing short of biblical inferno. The closer we got to the building, the more a winter’s night air gave-way to the heat of that conflagrant hell…
We were ushered in by ground-crew firefighters and led into the lobby. It was explained to us that the rescue team was brining down the patient. We had no other information other than that we were about to be busy. At this time, my partner called in for a second ambulance, which would later turn into a third, and then a fourth…
Out of my right ear, I could hear the weighted thuds of the over-encumbered firefighters, descending the stairs and coming towards us. There were about four firefighters carrying what looked like an ash-soaked man between them. The narrow build of the stairs, along with the healthy bodies of the firemen, and their gear made for a less than graceful descent.
When they neared the bottom stanza of the stairs my partner and I reached in and alleviated two of the firefighters of their carrying duties. I wish I hadn’t – when I reached in, the only thing that was available for me to grab onto, was the wrist of the injured man. In doing that, the weight of his body, along with the awkward transfer of carrying hands would see that his charred and blackened skin would peel and slough off. The skin remained clasped in my hands, the man did not…
The whole encounter was executed with skill and haste, but it is amazing what the mind can snap-shot in those fleeting seconds. His wrist was now a dissolution of burnt skin, and raw, reddened fatty tissue. As I reconfigured my grasp in readiness to hoist this man to our stretcher, I could see that he once dawned a beard. A beard that was now fire-bitten and matted with bits of clothing and fat. The stench that this gave off was something not from this world. It was punishing and ubiquitous.
Despite our best efforts, the man would die. I had only hoped at that point, that he had died before all this damage. In my head, I fabricated a story where he had, had a heart attack and was dead before the fire even got to him, but the reality is I will never know. The only thing that is certain was that on that night, he died, and the fire continued to roar.
At the end of my shift, I went home. Like it had been any other day on the rig (ambulance). I carefully and quietly unlocked my front door, entered into my home, and ascended the stairs to my bed. A bed I was then sharing with my girlfriend of the time. I followed my routine of walking into the room, not turning on a single light, and almost tip-toeing so as not to disturb her. A foolish practice when part of my routine was also going over to her side of the bed, gently brushing her bed-swept hair away from her face and kissing her softly as if to say “I made it home. Another safe shift.” She would moan and sometimes even smile.
“Matty? Why do you smell like smoke?”
“Ah, there was a bad fire tonight. Go to sleep, I’ll tell you in the morning. I gotta go shower. Love you.”
“[moan] you too.”
Our relationship was not really one of comfort, so I never really talked to her about my bad calls. Besides, when we weren’t fucking, we were fighting.
As I entered into the shower and turned on the water, I stood beneath their streams and allowed for their purification to wash the nightmare off of me. Although not clearly visible to the naked eye, blackened water rolled off my skin and swirled through the drain below. I was covered in the lingering reminder of untamed fire. Ash and soot were being cleansed from me. Likely, faint remains of the burning man as well…
The water continued to pour from overhead, and I did my best to steady my mind so that I would be able to go to sleep. It was during that process that I would hear the sliding-glass door of the shower open. It was Alicia. She had come to join me. I guess we were not sleeping, nor fighting. Only one thing was left…
Our bodies began twisting into one another like vines from a tree. I could hear her panting breath, which meant I was doing something right. Adrenaline was still coursing through my body from the night of work – that was often the case. And most of those times, to release the angst from either her job as a first responder, or mine, we would use each other’s bodies as pleasurable releases from the pain. We would fuck. And fuck we did.
I grabbed her by her hips, spinning her around, and then gently guiding her arms towards the shower wall and placed them in such a way as to brace her. I lowered my hands, gliding my finger-tips along her sides, and then firmly grasping her hips. I allowed my fingers to clasp onto her moistened flesh, much like the flames had wrapped their snake-like kisses around the windows and walls of the building. Soon, just as the fire had roared, so did we…
When all was said and done, I found myself on our bed, with her head on my chest. She was breathing softly and drifting to sleep. Me? I was picturing a fire that burned with a limitless rage and barbarity, and my forehead still felt the kiss of death from falling soot and ash.
That is what the cascading snow outside reminded me of last night. In my world, anything and almost certainly everything can be a reminder of trauma. Of a world I once lived in. A world I miss in some ways… a lot of ways… And the world I now inhabit, the one where I don’t feel I fit nor belong.
Snow is beautiful. But last night, it was as beautiful as it was painful…
(This was the song playing in my ear buds last night as I walked, and remembered.)