Friday, November 17, 2006

Christmas Flood

When you live in a basement apartment, you must accept certain risks. One of these is that in times of heavy precipitation you may find that some areas of your dwelling will develop a certain level of saturation.

It rained a lot one day, but this particular risk did not come to our minds. After a busy day, Yvana had nothing on her mind aside from getting home in one piece while attempting to slip through bouts of rain, both of which she accomplished. I was thinking about making dinner, about what I was reading, and about my upcoming meeting with my adviser. This meeting was causing me a fair amount of anxiety, mostly because I secretly get anxious about everything. Usually I conceal this through outright denial. But that day I chose my fallback: procrastination. So I prepared cookie dough instead of completing my report essay.

The rain had just started up again when Yvana was a block away, but this was just the light precursor to the downpour that started after she was inside. I had expected her later, so I began the fried rice-making procedure when I heard her keys at the door. The eggs were scrambled in the oil by the time her helmet was on its shelf.

We exchanged our stories from the day. A stressful experience on the phone. Good seminar, but concluded a half-hour late. Copied readers. Success in returning a bicycle pump. Failure in replacing a watch battery. Dinner was now ready, and shared in the spaces between conversation.

We preheated the oven for the cookies. When the first batch was coming out, there was a knock at the door. Our landlord wanted to see if there was any seepage in some problem spots since it had been raining most of the day. Yvana showed her around as I prepared the second batch. No leaks by the furnace, and I had successfully banished my upcoming meeting from my mind while resisting the urge to sample the batter.

Yvana was leading the way to the bathroom inspection when the sheet was in the oven. I didn't think there was much I could contribute to the situation, so I stood in the kitchen and read the bank statement we had just received.

They were finished with the bathroom and were moving into the utility room while I attempted to understand why, “As of November 30 Citibank will no longer offer World Wallet Drafts for purchase,” was under the Suggestions and Recommendations heading. I heard some commotion in the front of the apartment as I searched for the promised “more information listed on this statement.” Stymied. This didn't seem to offer any recommendation, while the suggestion seemed to be too vague to be of any good. Finance mystifies me. I wondered the context of this bank statement would count as some kind of Wittgensteinian private language game.

Just before the timer called out, I noticed Yvana and the landlord taking things out of the closet and placing them in the hallway, followed by some kind of exclamation. I scraped the cookies off the sheet bitterly—they were flat. I had mixed the dough when I got back from the coffee shop, so it had sat for several hours before baking. That probably did it.

When the last batch was in the oven most of our belongings, formerly in the utility closet, littered the hallway and bedroom. The landlord offered some apologies, then ascended the stairs to get some towels. She scattered them around the closet, then left with the cookie we offered her. The last batch of unleavened baked goods was out, and I finished washing the dishes. I sealed the cookies up after they were cool enough, hoping to preserve what moisture was still in them.

We assessed the damage over cups of tea—peppermint for Yvana, orange pekoe for me. Most of the stuff we stored was in plastic bins, or on makeshift shelves. We had some experiences last year with this same location, so we were prepared. The only thing that sustained worrisome damage was a cardboard box full of Christmas decorations. We steeled ourselves for the worst, and opened the container.

The leak in the closet must have been fairly recent. Although the outside of the cardboard was soaked, it had for the most part not touched the items inside. We aired them out for good measure.

As we removed the ornaments, we realized that we had not seen them for two years, since we have never had a proper Christmas tree on which to hang them. They were mostly Yvana's. Her relatives had a tradition of giving ornaments every year, a tradition that began the year her sister was born and continued to the year we were married. She had memories attached to each one, some more significant than others. One was labeled as a gift from her great aunt just before she passed away. It was three winged humans holding hands around a star. On one side, the hands of one figure had broken, creating a rupture in the circle. Yvana reminisced.

“She was Catholic. I never understood why she only had one kid. But my uncle was protestant. So there you go.”

The only ornaments I recognized were the ones we received in 2004. Thin, crystal things with, “First Christmas Together” etched in calligraphy. I tapped my ring against one. Thin, plastic things with, “First Christmas Together” etched in calligraphy.

“You're going to break them.”

“I did the same thing to your ceramic “Precious Moments” one and it was just fine.”

“Well, you'll break those too.”

I held up an ornament consisting of a snowman's head attached to a string.

“We should start a snowman theme.” She glanced around the collection, noticing the snowman paraphernalia scattered on the floor. “I guess it's already started.”

I turned back to my snowman head.

“Somewhere, there is a decapitated snowman wandering the aisles of a Hallmark store.”

She laughed. As we sat on the living room rug she explained that she would line them up in chronological order before she hung them every year. We ordered them accordingly, and as she explained the significance and story surrounding each one I lost interest around 1993. Glancing at the bookshelf I noticed my copy of The Oxford Illustrated History of English Literature. I pulled it off the shelf and opened it to the entry on Muriel Spark. I began to read. Yvana graciously overlooked my rejection, and started to go about the process of gathering the undamaged ornament boxes.

“Is there a small box for these?”

There was no catalog of our empty boxes in my memory. I wondered why she couldn't get up and look for herself. I was working my way back in my gloss of English literature and had already reached Forester. She looked at me with her hands full of ornaments when I grunted in response to her question. She asked it again.


“So what are we going to do with these?”

I was perfectly enjoying the moment I was having with late 19th century novelists and didn't understand why she had to keep pestering me.

“Don't you have a report to write anyway?


“Mike, is this really the best use of your time?”

I felt blood rush to my throat, which I should have known was a bad sign. I set the book aside at George Eliot.

“Why can't you get the box?”

“I thought you said there was no box.”

“To my perception there was no box. Do you see any boxes right here? I don't know what we have. You know where we keep them. Why did you have to ask me?”

She stared at me incredulously.

“I figured you would help.”

“Well, I thought this was a poor use of my time.”

“Fine, we'll leave them here.” She got up. I had every intention of continuing the argument. I have found that sometimes doing what it was that was asked of you before the fight began needlessly escalates the situation. So I grabbed a box.

“Mike, I said just leave it if that's how you want to do this.”

“Fine.” I dropped the box in the middle of the room.

I stalked back to the desk, picking a path through the Hallmark and Precious Moments figurines littering the hallway, and attempted to resume my reading of Jean Leclercq on Bernard of Clarivaux. Page 169 of The Love of Learning and the Desire for God contains a quote from Bernard where he is explaining a passage from the Rule of Benedict.

“Then come the spiritual gyrovagues: their inconsistency carries them from reading to prayer, from prayer to work, preventing them from obtaining the benefits of their undertakings: stability in effort and perseverance in devotion. Victims of acedia, they think it better at one moment to do one thing, and, at another, something else; they begin everything and finish nothing.”

I looked back at the ornaments on the floor. I smelled the lingering odor of burnt, flat cookies. I saw the anthology open on its spine to George Eliot. I glanced up at the half-written report. I continued reading—“loving only themselves, pursuing only their own interests, they go about...” I thought of the box in the middle of the floor—“creating cliques and divisions, never ceasing to sown unrest in the flock of the Lord through the obstinacy with which they defend their egos and their individuality.”

I sipped my tea. It had grown cold. I thought, why didn't I chose chamomile?

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

You need to write a book Mike!