It’s a month after Hurricane Sandy and, having attended a benefit the night before for the Rockaways where we grew up, my girlfriends and I drive though Long Beach, one of the many devastated beach towns on Long Island. We pass boarded up businesses, houses burned down to their shells, heaps of sodden debris that are all that’s left of first floor kitchens and basement rec rooms. I’ve seen similar wreckage where I live in Hoboken, but I’m not yet inured. What I feel is shell-shocked, humbled. None of us exists outside the reaches of nature. I knew that. Only I didn’t. Not really. Not experientially.
The afternoon before the storm, as the winds were just beginning to pick up, Ethan came home from his dad’s long enough to grab clothes and books for school and give me what I call a teen-hug—a quick reach around my shoulder for two brief pats. It flashed through my mind that he’d be better situated with me since Richard’s apartment is in a part of town prone to flooding. But then I’m prone to worrying, I thought, and weather reports are prone to exaggeration.
“Just be careful,” I said, my attention already drifting back to the chapter I was in the midst of revising.
That evening, after we both lost power, we spoke briefly on the phone.
“I wish I was home,” Ethan said, the plaintiveness in his voice surprising me. A gush of water had poured through the entryway of Richard’s building with such force it broke the back door. Ethan told me this, but my mind couldn’t process it. I pictured flooding that would prove to be no more of a concern than the few inches they got in the basement from Hurricane Irene the previous summer. The worst was over, I felt certain. By morning, everything would be fine.
The thing about losing electricity is that it can leave you in the dark in more ways than one. Without a smartphone for Internet or batteries for my one dc-powered radio, I had no access to the news. I spent most of the next day in my living room where we get the most light, waiting for power and writing on my laptop. When I couldn’t reach Ethan, I assumed he’d turned off his cell to preserve the battery.
My biggest concern right then was getting our dog walked. Our staircase, in the best of times, is hard for me to navigate because, going down, the one railing is on my right, palsied side. Pitch-black, I found the descent impossible. Cindy was too well trained to use the wee-wee pads I set out, so had to settle for two walks that day courtesy of our very kind neighbors.
“I need you to come home and help me with Cindy,” I told Ethan’s voicemail, unaware that, due to the height of the floodwater in their lobby, he was trapped upstairs as well.
Meanwhile Dan, home in Philadelphia, kept trying to reach PSE&G and find out when I could expect to regain power. It wasn’t until the following evening that he learned Hoboken’s electricity was out because the power stations themselves were underwater.
For the first time since the storm hit, I felt truly alarmed.
“It could be weeks. You should try to get here.”
“He’s with his dad. He’ll be okay.”
“I couldn’t,” I said, which turned out to be literally as well as emotionally true. The train station was flooded out too.
The following morning, when my neighbor Marie came for Cindy, I ventured out with her, taking my time on the steps while she spotted me.
I started toward Richard’s but a police officer blocked my way.
“You can’t walk there,” he told me. “There’s a four-foot deep moat of oily water. Might be live wires underneath.”
“But my son…” I said, watching the National Guard roll by in their khaki truck.
“He may well have been evacuated,” the officer said.
Shaken, I began repeating Dan’s words like a mantra. He’s with his dad. He’ll be okay. He’s with his dad. He’ll be okay.
I continued to chant this as I packed a bag to go stay at my friend Dawn’s house so as not to be alone. Suddenly I heard an urgent rapping at my door.
“Who’s there?” I called, wary since the building’s front doors, which ordinarily lock electronically, were propped open for the duration.
“Who do you think?” came the wonderfully familiar, terribly sarcastic, indescribably welcomed voice of my boy.
That morning, Ethan and Richard had waded through their lobby, legs wrapped in garbage bags, and drove off to find a store with power and WiFi. There, Ethan checked his messages and got my SOS. This time I refused to settle for a teen hug. I squeezed him tightly, chanting my new mantra. “You’re here. I’m so happy you’re here!”
Having Ethan with me made a week without power livable. We have a gas stove and had clean running water — two assets that made me feel absolutely rich. A third was Dawn who continued to be a lifeline for us. Driving out of town to get Chinese food. Come by at 7, she texted one night. And the next, Picking up deli sandwiches. What can I get you?
Each afternoon, when Ethan went to walk Cindy he’d spot me on the stairs so I could wander through what felt like post-war Hoboken. The main avenue was blacked out but a few stores were open. I entered the hardware store to buy batteries, the clerk leading me by flashlight and writing out my purchases by hand. The narrow residential streets on the west side of town were made narrower by shoulder-high walls of saturated refuse. I learned that Dawn lost the photographs and years of correspondence she’d stored in her basement level office; that Ethan’s drum teacher’s ground floor music studio was trashed; that another friend, a mother of two, had to carry jugs of water up ten flights of stairs.
And yet, so much during my walks heartened me. The free food stations set up throughout town; the neighbors who, upon regaining electricity opened up their homes as charging stations; the spirit of most everyone I talked to who, despite the rubble Sandy made of their possessions, expressed gratitude for all they didn’t lose.
Back home, I started dinner by lighting the stove with a Hanukkah candle, which made preparing our simple meals into a spiritual ritual. Afterwards I read by flashlight and sat with Ethan who’d begun teaching himself guitar. The piece he spent the most time working to perfect was Stairway to Heaven. I’d hear it and think how, now that he was home, our pitch-black staircase led to a kind of haven.
Every evening, Dan called to check in on us. Though neither of us had a way to get to where the other was, I felt deeply connected to him during our long week in the dark. It gave me a new appreciation for the skill and grace with which he lives without sight.
“I finally really, viscerally get why it’s so important to you that I put things back in just the right place,” I confessed. “I frustrate myself on a nightly basis misplacing things!”
Now I ride with my oldest friends to whom I’ve told this story, and they, in turn, have told their aftermath stories to me. We three, as it happens, were among the luckiest. But as we gaze out the window, we’re quiet, holding a kind of vigil for the beach communities we knew so well as teens, taking in the stories that the ruins around us only begin to tell.