Everyone has their own way of dealing with disaster. Some burrow within themselves and attempt to shut out their circumstances. Some throw themselves into helping others so they won’t feel panic or despair of their own. Others curl up in a fetal position, keening and wailing, until someone either takes pity on them or slaps them across the face. My coping mechanism is a bit less dramatic: I create routines.
“Superstorm” Sandy was the mutant offspring of a nor’easter and a hurricane. It struck at the end of October 2012 and knocked out power throughout New Jersey for the first two weeks of November, just when the nights were getting darker and the air temperature was changing from pleasantly crisp to bitterly cold.
My family lost electricity on the first day, when a tree crashed across our power lines and into our back yard, narrowly missing our house. It fell on our ancient swing set, an unstable structure of rotting wood and rusty chains that my sisters and I were too big to use. I had been trying to convince my parents to get rid of it for ages. To my irritation, it somehow remained intact.
My town was a mess of fallen trees and downed power lines, some areas flooded with debris from sewers choked by rainfall. Residential and public buildings alike were without light, heat, hot water, and landline phone service. Every school in the district was closed for nearly two weeks.
Every day my sisters and I would dress in the cold and dark, pulling on as many layers as we could and resenting the moments when frigid air zipped up our bare skin as we changed. We would shove our laptops, phones, and chargers into our backpacks and walk into town – gas station lines had become hours long, so driving was not an option. We would spend the day at the library, which still had power, only leaving to get lunch at a pizzeria. We were careful to start walking home before darkness fell.
The library was always crowded. People came from far and wide to enjoy the heat, light, and Wi-Fi. It took some hunting to find a free outlet. The floor was crisscrossed with cords leaching precious electrical power into people’s devices like morphine lines. We were addicts, every one of us.
At first, I considered the break a gift. The first of November heralded the beginning of National Novel Writing Month, and I was determined to use this free time to get my word count up. I sat in an alcove near the upstairs window and attempted to write, scrapping idea after idea. I would write a few thousand words one day, reread them the next, come up with something I thought was better, and start over. I wrote about child soldiers, dystopian societies, lesbian couples.
I am easily discouraged at the best of times, but something about my surroundings made me even more unsteady. I was hyperaware of other people’s breathing, of tree branches scraping against windowpanes, of the number of sweaters I was wearing. I was always either too hot or too cold. The wires snaking over the floor made me feel like I was caught in a web. One day a woman wearing a neon orange coat sat down next to me to charge her phone, and the brightness of the color distracted me so much that I slammed my laptop shut and went to find another seat.
After the fifth day, I gave up on noveling. Creating my own world proved to be too taxing in the aftermath of a natural disaster, so I devoted myself to getting lost in worlds that others had already created.
It was always dark in our house when we returned home. Our mother would be sitting at the kitchen table, reading by the light of a scented candle that oozed globs of fragrant wax onto the placemats. She would be bundled in layers of coats and sweaters and scarves. Worse than the cold for her was the fact that the trains weren’t running and she couldn’t get to her office in Manhattan; I could see her boredom and frustration growing with every passing day. Our father still went to work, because his office had a backup generator. When he came home we would go out to dinner, taking our flashlights with us so that we could navigate around inside when we returned.
We usually went to the movies after dinner, drawn to the light and heat and distraction of the theater. There was only one film out that was remotely entertaining, and I saw it three nights in a row, eventually getting so sick of it that I walked out early. The theater, which had seemed warm and comforting at first, became overheated and airless. I had the overwhelming urge to get away from my family. I was sick of being holed up with them, of not being able to wash my clothes or turn on a light. As my family gathered up their belongings and used the bathroom, I pushed through the doors and walked out onto the street, desperate for a moment alone.
Outside the suffocating movie theater, the cold night air felt thrilling, even arousing. I could feel my heart beating wildly as I looked up into the dark shapes of the trees. They seemed to grasp at the stars, most of which were normally invisible in my little electric world.
As I looked up, I felt like I was being transported back in time and space to the previous summer. I lay on a mountain in Oregon in the middle of the night, momentarily paralyzed by the fear of falling into an enormous, star-strewn sky. But my limbs remained on the ground, and my fear was replaced by awe.
My trip to the back country of Oregon had been just four months before, but now it felt a universe away. Three months into my sophomore year, I was mired in work and friends and a looming dread of the future rushing to greet me with every passing second. I was deeply rooted in this place. I had a history, an identity, and a certain picture I painted of myself and displayed to friends and acquaintances.
Back then, in that remote place on the opposite side of the country, it didn’t matter who I hit or kissed. There was no shared past and no promised future and no harsh electric light for the world to judge me by, only the gentle passive gaze of stars too ancient to care whether I broke a law or another person.
I stood on the sidewalk, momentarily alone, hovering on the edge of the darkness. I wanted to run, silent and invisible, for miles, over the fields and streets and yards of a town I had known since childhood, which now stood transformed by the absence of artificial light. I wanted to do something wild, crazy, forbidden – something I knew I would not have the chance to do again for a long time. I wanted one of the shadows that stretched over the ground to materialize into something solid, something that would fly out and attack me with claws and teeth so that I could experience the pure exhilaration of fighting it off. I wanted something I could beat bloody and rip apart without ever having to face the consequences by the light of day.
I felt myself teetering on the edge of these possibilities. A few steps, that was all it would take, and before I knew it I would be racing. But I thought of my mother’s tired face, the tense set of my father’s jaw, the way the promise of returning to a cold, dark house seemed to drag my sisters’ mouths down and glaze their eyes, and I knew I couldn’t just disappear into the night.
This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.