At 5 a.m., I woke up to a horrible sound. It was like your most annoying roommate’s most annoying alarm clock on one of those mornings where your annoying roommate sleeps right through the blaring noise that’s waking up everyone else in the house.
My first instinct was not to rummage around for the snooze bar, though; I knew it wasn’t really an alarm clock. I haven’t used my alarm clock for about four years. Using an alarm clock implies that you actually need to get up earlier than usual and that you need assistance in the matter because otherwise you’d keep sleeping undisturbed. I have two living alarm clocks — the kind of models that go off randomly and often and don’t have a snooze function. The kids.
So I realized it was the fire alarm, blaring thoughout our entire apartment building. I checked to see if Gil was awake, and he was, though just barely. Unbelievably, the kids were sleeping through all the racket.
“What do you think we should do?” I asked him.
“I’ll go check it out,” he said and went down the stairs to the first floor. He was back in a few minutes.
“Well?” I asked. “What did he say?” Gil said the front-desk guy didn’t have any more information than we had; he said the fire department was on its way and recommended evacuating the family. I grabbed the diaper bag and some shoes for Emi, and Gil loaded up a bottle, but neither of us went in to wake the kids. We stood there for a while, looking at each other, the alarm clanging, the sounds of people running down the stairs echoing from the hallway.
“You know, if this were really a fire, we’d be toast,” I said, since the alarm had been going off for a good ten minutes by that point.
“I know,” he said.
It was right then that I had my Sex and the City-writers’ moment: the part of the show where the by-then very obvious central theme is even more obviously hammered into our consciousness by a shot of S.J.P. thoughtfully posed near her laptop, gazing out a window or licking ice cream off a spoon before clicking away on her keyboard and voicing over the heavy-handed loaded question from her “column.” If someone could have zoomed in on my own laptop’s screen (after a shot of me posing thoughtfully in my 5 a.m. disarray), he or she would have seen this: Does the probability of messing up the kids’ sleep outweigh the possibility of perishing in a fire?
These are the kinds of thoughts you have as a sleep-deprived parent. Not, Oh, I’ve got to get the kids out before we die a fiery death, but Crap, if I wake them up now to take them outside and save them from disaster, there’s no way they’ll ever get back to sleep!
We both knew the right thing to do, so we woke the kids. Thanks to my S.J.P. moment, I decided to bring my laptop, just in case there really was a fire and we might have to spend some extended time living on the street, though why I imagined that might afford me more time to write I don’t know.
I wrapped Emi in her blanket and grabbed her stuffed animals and some shoes; Gil carried Nate and the diaper bag and the food.
We went outside to gripe with the rest of our neighbors and sat on the ground, pointing out the fire trucks to Emi and making sure to emphasize how brave she was to stay calm during this silly fire drill. Around us I heard the sounds of animals. I realized that just about everyone in the building had a small dog or cat of some kind, and they were all out on the sidewalk with us, yowling and barking from their crates.
“Gil, we forgot the cat!” I said in a whisper, so as not to alarm Emi. But she heard me. “I don’t want Sweetie to get trapped in the fire!” she said, worried. “She won’t, Em, there’s no fire,” I said. But the fact was that if there really was one, Sweetie would be out of luck. The whole thing threw her unfortunate status in our household into high relief. If this were a movie, she’d be Extra Number 5. She’d be the Expendable Best Friend. She’d be a goner.
Luckily (and I say that as much for the fact of it as to remind myself that it is indeed lucky that our 5 a.m. wake-up call was due to some faulty wiring and not to an actual fire, which would not have been something to joke about), there was no fire, and Sweetie was fine, and we were able to go back to the house. Eventually, much to our incredible thanks and disbelief, we were even able get the kids back to sleep.
The fire alarm went off a few times later on in the morning, and each time Emi was panicked and I was annoyed. But I had to remind myself that being annoyed and awakened and inconvenienced was a luxury. Better a thousand early-morning fire drills than one deadly fire, right? And who knows — maybe with more practice, we’d even remember to save the cat.