Saving people from a burning house in Mexico: My own baptism of fire
I guess saving people is as traumatic an event as traumas go.
Dangerous, deadly situations have a special power of slowing time down.
They bend time in the most mysterious ways, really. How else to explain how after, the situation drags on so that weeks later you're still experiencing it as if it were happening right now.
I ask myself, "Did that really happen?" And many other versions of the same question.
She flicked the lighter, looked at the flame, looked up at me & we locked eyes. Suddenly, I didn't know her. Her eyes were cold, empty, powerful. She was somewhere way beyond where I could reach her. That was the moment it dawned on me that I might be in real, irrevocable danger.
*** The situation and people I refer to is the second part of the story I published here titled, "Getting evicted in the Wild, Wild West that is the Mexican Jungle." I do not change our AirBNB host's name because I just don't have the emotional energy to think of another name for her. All other names are changed.
I was packing our things in a hurry, feeling the rush of adrenaline fill my fingers and toes - a weird kind of excitement that I've literally never felt before. My lizard brain was taking over and turning me into some kind of superhero. I could feel the fear becoming smaller and smaller as I was choosing fight over flight. In the haze of sudden speed and strength, a thought knocked at the door of my mind. "I can't leave Troy alone."
My partner Troy is the most fearless and loyal person I know. He is stubborn in his integrity and fierce in his protectiveness - both admirable and potentially fatal. I am the fearful one. I am the one who is often afraid of dark unknown spaces, loud barking and guns. And in that moment, I feared for him. "Troy better not be doing anything stupid." I dropped what I was packing and went looking for him. In this instance, I believe the beauty and balance between heroic courage and evolutionary fear saved our lives.
As I walked to the house where the conflict is happening, Troy comes out with a pillowcase full of our things. Relief. We briefly talk, who knows about what, and we exchange places. He goes back to our space to finish packing and I enter the house - this time, I don't know why. It's no longer about protecting my partner. Something else was leading my steps into this house of commotion. Everywhere, small daggers of tension were happening. Civilians were packing all of her things in such a rush that it was obvious that they wanted to get out of there. Police presence could be felt even if most of them were outside the gate. Tightness entered my chest and a stone dropped in my belly as I saw these strangers move with such purpose, dismantling what hours ago was our "family" kitchen. They were breaking apart all these spaces we had made our own through connection and intimacy in the short time we were there.
I'm feeling victimized and our hostess walks down with a red nose, puffy eyes, and a tear-streaked face. We're sisters in this throwdown. We're on the same side. She looks at me and I take the emptiness in her eyes as emotional exhaustion. She goes to the stove and bends over. When she stands up again, she's holding a huge bottle of green liquid.
Calmly, she unscrews the camp and pours the bright green liquid all over the stove. I'm far away enough that I can't smell it and in my green-washed, naive brain, I think she's pouring an eco-friendly cleaner all over the stove. I remember wondering, "Why is she cleaning the stove right now?!" Christian asks her what she's doing.
My body starts knowing I'm in danger before I do because already, time is slowing down. Sounds are beginning to fade.
She is fiddling around with the knobs on this old stove where we would always boil water, make coffee. This was a life-giving device.
As if they're in another room, I hear Christian ask again, "What are you doing?" I don't know what she says but I do see her make a gesture that is almost comically recognizable as the gesture for explosion.
Christian ushers her away from the stove. I walk nearer to it. My nose tells me I was foolish. It's not some eco-friendly cleaning liquid. It's gas, and it's filling the open stove like a thick soup.
She struggles with Chris and I can tell he doesn't want to use physical force against her. Like me, he still thinks he's dealing with a rational person. She escapes his efforts and goes back to the stove.
We end up on either side of it, facing each other like I imagine how the sun and moon meet at that perfect hour - both powerful, both beautiful.
She takes a lighter from the cute little cup I put all the lighters in - back when I was trying to make a cozy home and I had hoped that others would put the lighters back in their place.
And in a second, the lighter was lit.
She looks at the flame, she looks up at me. We lock eyes. Her eyes were cold, empty, unreachable.
My brain, being ignorant about fire because I'm actually scared of it, doesn't know how much danger this all adds up to. Gas is in the air from a stove with liquid gasoline up to its brim, a lit flame inches away from it, a woman who hasn't questioned her actions once, a house filled with people, puppies and a four-year old child, her son.
My body knows though.
As if I'm out of my body I hardly hear myself say, "Stop. Don't do it." I can't hear myself well but I can hear my tone, as if speaking to a wild animal.
For the longest seconds of my life, there's a pause where none of us know what's going to happen. Everything stops.
She puts down the lighter.
She walks away.
I breathe again.
I don't stop to think, I clean it all up.
It takes several rounds of soaking to absorb all the gas. I give up eventually.
Sharing the story afterward, my partners and friends say, I saved everyone's life.
It's hard to conceive of. Even harder to realize that I could not be here right now, or too badly burned to even hold a pen to paper.
Danger and death bend time.
While I'm living, I'm reliving this moment.
Each time, I live again, barely escaping death and mortal injury.
Each time I somehow save the day.
Each time I relive it, I hold my breath in fear that the outcome could have been different.
Each time, I go back to the present and realize, I'm safe.
I'm here now.