I often feel anxious for no reason. Sitting on my couch, both kids at home for a Monday holiday from school, I have a familiar acidic feeling in my stomach. Am I nervous about my contentious case at work? The busy/complicated week of childcare I have coming up (thank you professional development days)? The fact that my ex-husband has not paid up for child support this month and I dread getting my Mastercard statement? I don’t know. I can’t pin it down.
All I know is that I didn’t get up early to work out today and don’t feel like it now. And since it was light out when I woke up, I didn’t use my light box. Because I was home, I had an extra cup of coffee. These things generally all make me feel worse, or seem to. But it’s not like a temperature you can measure with a thermometer. It is subjective. And I’ve had these feelings as long as I can remember.
Between the ages of 5 and 10, my family lived outside of Chicago, in a quaint neighborhood where everyone walked to school. Our white house with black shutters looked the same as everyone else’s. So did our gray station wagon, our neatly trimmed lawn and the hedges marking the narrow side yards. Kids roamed looking for friends, riding bikes (without helmets), catching fireflies. It was idyllic, a childhood paradise. For most kids.
On our very first day there, my father and I went to the grocery store to buy provisions.
As we sat in our Volkswagon Dasher, waiting patiently at an unfamiliar stop light, a flat alarm began to sound. It didn’t resemble the police sirens on The Dukes of Hazard. Or the ambulances that had careened by our old Washington, D.C. bungalow on the way to one of the nearby hospitals. It was lower, more ominous. Sitting in the front seat, clutching the directions my mother had written in her neat, nurse’s script, I looked at my father for his reaction, expecting him to explain, in the comforting, mind-numbing detail I had come accustomed to – the source of the signal, its meaning and the appropriate reaction.
He craned his neck looking in all directions, but only low concrete buildings, beige sidewalks and an endless expanse of the steely Midwestern sky were visible.
“Do you see a fire truck or anything?” he asked, adjusting his wire-framed glasses.
There was nothing. No people, no traffic.
A crinkled newspaper whipped by the windshield, careening up and over a telephone pole.
The light turned green and we proceeded. I had just learned to read and didn’t know what all of the circles and arrows meant on my mom’s note. For a bit, the paper itself became trapped in the rubbery accordion of the stick shift and I had to wait until we reached a higher gear to free it without ripping.
When we eventually pulled into the driveway, I was disappointed the moving truck hadn’t arrived.
My mom darted out of the front door, peppering us with questions.
“Where were you? Did you her the alarm? Why didn’t you come right home?”
“Well, we got a little lost,” Dad admitted, defensively. Mom had the directional instincts of a homing pigeon.
“But what about that warning? Didn’t you hear it?”
“Yes, um….er. We did,” Dad stammered, clearly confused that she knew about the siren.
“Well, that was a tornado alert!” she announced, exasperated.
His eyes widened, and he scratched the patch of hair over his ear, puzzled. “Well, jeez, how’s a person supposed to know that kind of thing?”
“Actually … I’m not really sure. Bess and Lenny told me,” she admitted, gesturing weakly to the couple now leaning on the front railing. I hadn’t noticed them appear.
They looked like young grandparents. Bess had thick hair, more brown than gray, cut into a clean, long bob. Lenny was robust and lively, with a thick Burt Reynolds mustache.
“Yes, a twister was spotted in the next county over, what you heard was the Cook County alarm,” Bess kindly confirmed.
My parents looked at each other meaningfully.
I was shocked by the realization that adults in general, and my mom and dad specifically, did not know everything.
Lenny launched into a primer. First, you go right to the basement. If you can’t get there or you happen to be somewhere where there isn’t one, the next best choice is a doorway.
“They provide structural support for the walls. They’re reinforced. So if the whole building were to just topple over, the door frames are usually the last to go down.”
Not a useful visual.
Second, Lenny said to put together an emergency kit with water, peanut butter, batteries. Keep that in the basement.
“You know, because that’s where you’d all end up, best case scenario,” he said and my parents nodded. I started mentally organizing my favorite stuffed animals in the small basement playroom. For their own protection. I generally slept with an army of teddy bears, plush dinosaurs and silky bunnies, artfully and strategically placed around my bed. But from now on, my five-year old self realized, I would have to sleep with the second-string toys.
Finally, Lenny advised, stay away from windows at all costs because flying glass causes the most injuries.
“You’ll notice,” he explained, “all public buildings, schools and whatnot, have reinforced windows. That means the glass has embedded chicken wire so that if a tree branch or tire breaks it, the shattered glass is contained.”
A tire? What kind of hell had my parents moved us to?
I looked at the enormous picture window, facing onto the front yard from the living room. I didn’t see any wires. Why was safety glass reserved only for schools? I wanted some.
I tuned back into the grown-up’s conversation midway through a story Lenny was spinning.
“That twister rolled right down the middle of the street back there,” he said, indicating the road that ran parallel behind ours. “When it got just about here, it changed direction and jumped right over our houses,” he gestured with a wide sweep of his arm from the back yard to the front.
“It landed a few blocks up,” Bess continued, shaking her head. “That was a close one.”
Pardon me, I wanted to interrupt, but tornadoes jump? There had been a tornado over my house?
From that moment forward, my ears would perk up at the sound of any siren, trying to match it to what we had heard that first day. An old-fashioned convertible in the fourth of July parade would sound its horn for the kids and I would turn to my mom, eyes wide, “Was that the tornado alarm?”
Same with the ringing of the bell at the school down the street to mark the end of the day.
Or the chirping of the low battery in a smoke detector.
Arcades were torture.
Although the answer was always “no,” I couldn’t help but ask … what if?
What if my mom was wrong? What if she just didn’t know? Like they hadn’t known that first day.
What if the guy in charge of the alarm wasn’t paying attention?
In fact, what if the tornado got to him first, before he could push the button or pull the lever? In fact, what was the mechanism for sounding the alarm? How foolproof was it?
The more questions I asked, the more I realized I needed to take matters into my own hands.
Becoming a weather vigilante, I would search the sky for odd-colored clouds and uncharacteristic swirls. Any kind of guttural sound – a truck starting up from an intersection, a train clattering across railroad tracks, one of the tens of thousands of flights into and out of O’Hare airport – would send me running to the basement for shelter.
One afternoon, I was in the front yard with my mom and she was talking to a neighbor who had two twin boys, just learning to walk. The sky was cerulean blue, with only tiny wispy clouds so high they looked like they could have been in space. As I sat in the grass with the babies, I heard something. My mom apparently didn’t, she kept right on talking. Same with that other mother. Both yapping about the upcoming block party. And the two toddlers lurched and swayed, the fronts of their matching shirts stained by drool. A sullen teenager rode his dirt bike past us without holding the handlebars. Although there was nothing amiss, I was panicked. A surge of bile in my stomach, my jaw clenched. I could feel the sweat on my lip, I couldn’t breathe fast enough.
I was the only one scared and felt very alone in my terror.
But that would soon change.