A couple of nights ago I had a dream that I was letting the oven pre-heat and accidentally caught our apartment on fire. I woke up relieved to find that it was only a dream. There are a few re-occurring dreams that I have, including showing up to high school naked, an alligator eating my brother, and all of my teeth falling out. But this one (about the fire) is different because it actually happened.
Like most newlyweds, Jordan and I were caught up in a fuzzy, feel-good bubble of bliss those first few weeks after our wedding. Everything was exciting about our first home and new life together! “Don’t you just love this tea kettle?!” “Let’s use our cloth napkins for dinner!” “I love the patterns we chose for our bathroom!” I’m about 98% sure we said stuff like that. We would have never anticipated that we were only weeks away from living in hotels while waiting to find out if our insurance would replace that tea kettle or our bathroom decor.
I never knew that I loved to cook until we got married. When I lived with roommates before marrying Jordan, I would just eat things like Lean Cuisine, salad, cereal, oatmeal, or mac & cheese for dinner. Every now and then my roommates (Emily and Lauren) and I would cook dinner together, but it was usually homemade pizza with Trader Joes pizza dough. But once I got married and had all these brand new, fancy kitchen appliances, I started cooking for real and was surprised by how much I enjoyed it! So I started branching out, trying new recipes, and cooking with ingredients I didn’t even know how to pronounce. One night I was really in the mood for trying something new and decided I would attempt to make coconut shrimp. Little did I know that would be the last time I would cook on that particular stove top.
I had never cooked with a pot of oil to fry something before, so I was frustrated that every recipe I could find for coconut shrimp simply said, “cook in oil.” Could they be more vague? So, I just figured I would fill a big pot up with oil, wait for it to boil, and then stick the sweet, battered shrimp in! What I didn’t know was that oil doesn’t boil like water. What I also didn’t know was how dangerous it can be to cook with a pot full of oil. Until it burst into flames. Then I kind of figured it out.
I will never forget how terrifying that moment was. Huge flames were reaching the microwave and I had no idea how to stop it. I considered throwing the pot of oil into the sink and turning on the water but (PRAISE THE LORD) I remembered that oil and water DO NOT mix (duh) and left the flaming pot on top of the stove. Seriously, I could have melted my face off. I kept racking my brain for what I could do to stop the fire from spreading, but I was coming up with nothing and thick black smoke was starting to take over the kitchen so I figured it was time for me to get out of the apartment.
I’m sure we’ve all been asked the question, “if there was a fire and you could only take 1 thing with you, what would it be?” I thought about that question and scanned our apartment quickly before I left. All of a sudden, this question was my reality and I had no idea what 1 thing to grab! I saw Jordan’s computer sitting on the living room table so I quickly grabbed it along with my cell phone and ran out of the door screaming.
The first thing I did when I got out was call 911, but I couldn’t even form a coherent sentence much less tell them my address. All I could choke out was hysterical sobs. Thankfully, one of our neighbors stepped out and called 911 for me. All I could think about was that I had just.lost.everything we had. I was so scared, I could barely breathe. I tried calling Jordan (I had sent him to the store to buy some mango salsa, since my homemade version didn’t work out) but although he answered, the cell reception was so bad that we kept losing our connection. What I didn’t know was that right after we hung up, he had pulled into the apartment parking lot and heard me screaming. He panicked, thinking that I was being attacked by someone! He was actually relieved to find out it was a fire and that I was ok. I can’t imagine how scary that must have been for him at first. Jordan grabbed a fire extinguisher (my hero!) and kept running back into the apartment to use it, but eventually the smoke got too heavy for him to breathe, and we had to just let the fire spread until the fire department arrived. Which, by the way, was the most helpless I had ever felt.
The firefighters arrived quickly and, thankfully, the only actual fire damage was in the kitchen. The rest of the apartment was filled with smoke damage, but that just meant it had to be cleaned. At one point (when the fire had been put out) a couple of firefighters came out of our apartment laughing. Apparently the Nora Jones Pandora station I had on was still playing in the midst of the smoke and flames. The soft, sultry tunes definitely brought some funny irony into the situation! Jordan said it reminded him of a TV show where everything is up in flames and there is soft, sad music in the background.
That night Jordan and I stayed in what would turn out to be the first of 3 hotels we would live out of for the next 5 weeks. I think we got chick-fil-a for dinner at like 9pm? I don’t really remember, because we barely had an appetite and spent most of the evening making phone calls or just sitting together in shocked, exhausted silence.
The next 5 weeks were tough, but we tried to make them fun to the best of our ability. Thankfully, our insurance (if you don’t have renters insurance, BUY IT NOW!!!) covered everything! So they were in the process of having all of our furniture and personal items removed and cleaned by professional companies, would replace the few kitchen items that were destroyed by the fire, and paid for pretty much all of our meals over that 5 week stretch. So we were able to eat out WAY more than we would have been able to afford otherwise (besides, we couldn’t really cook in a hotel room. Not that I would have had the guts to attempt it again that soon anyway), had an excuse to buy new clothes, and definitely took advantage of the buffet breakfast, free wine at happy hour, pool, hot tub, and all the amenities the hotel had to offer ;-).
It may sound fun, and at times it was, but being displaced and homeless is not an easy thing. The only good that came out of it for Jordan and I was a deeper appreciation for each other, and a level of bonding that I doubt we would have had that early on in marriage, had it not been for this event. There is something so special and intimate about sharing such a difficult experience with another person. Many people can have compassion and sorrow for you, but only the other person you shared the experience with can really understand what you’re going through. To this day, I think it has molded a deep understanding and togetherness between us.
People have told us that one day we will have a funny story to tell our grandkids. I believe that one day, we will be able to look back on this experience and laugh about it. But that day isn’t here yet. I even started shaking a little bit and getting emotional as I wrote this. I’m still a little bit scarred from the trauma, but I do hope to look back on it one day and laugh. I also hope to be able to cook fearlessly again and try new things. I still love cooking in the sense that I like chopping and mixing ingredients, but once I light the stove top or the oven (we currently have a gas stove/oven which certainly does NOT help my nerves!) I feel anxiety flood my body. I’m so paranoid of a fire that once when I smelled popcorn burning, I literally ran into the kitchen, grabbed the bag of popcorn, threw it out on the back porch, and dumped half a bag of flour on it! (oh yea, I learned that , in the event of an oil fire, pouring flour on it is the trick).
Until the laughter comes, I hope that finally writing about the event will help me process it, and ease my fire dreams and anxiety.