I heard the first siren, almost as soon as kasambahay Lanie left for the grocery. It sounded quite near, but I kept at what I was doing until a second sounded, which seemed so close it might have come from the living room. I rushed out of the bedroom, and that’s when it dawned on me I was really all alone.
Another siren. I looked out the balcony, and a fire truck was directly below, between our building and the next. Onlookers, perhaps from neighboring buildings, began to line the street. How serious can things be, I thought, when my air-conditioner and lights were still on. I called downstairs and was told that the other building’s transformer had exploded but that firemen got there in time to prevent a fire.
I sat down and hoped the electricity would not go off. It was so hot. The unbearable heat outside reminded me of another fire next door to our house in Dasmariñas Village, a lifetime ago.
Heat was not the worst thing about a fire, at night, as close as next door. I remembered what terrified me most was the absolute darkness that suddenly engulfed me, when all electrical power in the neighborhood went off. In the blackness I became a blind stranger in my own home. Every tentative step was a risk.
The efficient maids had quickly taken care of the children and the dogs. My doctor husband had driven our two cars, one at a time, to safer ground. I groped my way out and joined my children and the other mirones across the street.
Soon enough, the help emerged out of the house, too, clutching their mats and other personal belongings. They found their own safe place from which to watch the fire, like the rest of us. Not one gave a thought to saving the porcelains, the paintings, the jars and other precious collections.
My gentleman neighbor, having seen me emerge from the house empty-handed, put a flashlight in my hand and assured me there was still time, in case there might be anything I might want to save.
Of course, but none worth going back for. On second thought, there were irreplaceable documents and some jewelry in a small portable steel box in a drawer at the top of the stairs. If anybody had to go back, it had to be me; it was I who knew exactly where these things were.
I went back, feeling like a brave hero, but nearly lost my nerve at the first sound of exploding glass windows with a sharp ring to it. I remember the suffocating heat and the whirring sound of the raging fire, its huge tongues, mercifully for us, going upward lapping the eaves and roof of the next house. Nothing was left of it. The absence of wind spared us.
Recalling the incident still sends shivers in me. Now, from the balcony, I was looking at the firemen getting back on their truck. I went back in and sat on the sofa, feeling safe and secure again.
Then I began wondering, What if I needed to escape with my life? I’ve downsized quite a bit since that last close call. I looked around our condo unit and began to wonder: What, if anything, would I save?
It seemed almost ridiculous to even try to remove the paintings, collected through the years, from the wall, or wrap blue-and-whites one by one. I’d leave the clothes for sure, half of them unworn since I graduated from a medium to a large. I was down to another little steel box of documents and some real jewelry and cash. But these might be safer in a bank’s safety deposit box.
Indeed, some assets can become a burden at this stage of our lives. But none as ridiculous as those huge jars my friends and I loved to decorate the house with. One husband spoke out one day and asked, “If the political situation worsens, and we all have to run to the mountains for safety, how are you girls planning to take those jars with you?”
We felt stupid, of course, because he was right! I have gotten rid of stuff since moving into our little condo. But I need to do more of that, for peace of mind, so I can walk out without looking back.
I remember the story of a very wealthy man, who, to the wonder of many, slept like a baby at night. “Simple,” he said. “Before I go to bed, in my mind, I burn everything I own to the ground.”