I’m standing in apartment 3B, over my neighbor Savannah’s bed. Since our tiny studios have the same floor plan whenever one of us rearranges we invite the other over to show off whatever brilliant space-saving idea we’ve come up with to improve our living environment and also to share how happy this decision has made us. Savannah, a social worker, and I have been neighbors for just over a year and have weekly check-ins consisting of; who we are dating (or aren’t anymore), what’s new at work, and which family member is currently driving us crazy and why. These conversations are normally over wine and often on our roof. Savannah has just moved her bed to the opposite corner of her apartment and wants my approval.
“I had my bed on that wall for a while. What’s your escape route?” I ask before taking a sip of wine.
“What do you mean?”
“Your bed is next the fire escape gate. You can’t open it with your bed next to it. What’s your emergency escape plan?”
“I would start moving furniture that way,” she says, motioning outward from the bed. “I would move the table over and then shove my bed back enough so that I could get between the bed and window and then open the gate and go out.”
“Wait-what? First, that takes way too much time. Second, do you realize how far you have to push the bed to get the gate open enough for you to fit through? Is there enough room between your bed and your dresser to allow that? Have you done a dry run?”
“Do you know how far over you have to push your bed to clear the gate?”
“No. I’ll figure it out if and when the time comes,” she says, nonchalantly.
“What if there isn’t time?” I ask, setting my wine on table that fits her laptop, a book and not much more. Using my hands and arms I explain we must think of the worst case scenario to be prepared. “You wake up! There’s smoke! Fire is making its way in, no! It’s already in! Flames! Heat! Confusion! You must shove everything hard and fast. As far as you can Savannah. Shove!”
“But I’ll break my tv.”
“Your tv? Did you hear me? Flames Savannah! Flames! Your tv is not surviving. Listen I have a better plan, when I had my bed against the gate I did a dry run. Your box spring is lower than the gate, so all you have to do you remove your mattress and then the gate will swing open. That’s what you do Savannah, throw the mattress off!” I say, moving to the foot of the bed, still using my gestures to explain. “See? Like this! And this is also what you do if there is an intruder because then you have the mattress between you and the shooter. He, or she, can’t see where you are and then you have a better chance.”
“You’re insane, you know that right?” She says, sort of insisting rather than asking, in a tone she often gives me after I go off on one of my tangents.
“No, I’m not. I just always need to have an escape route.” Savannah and I stare at one another for a few seconds. She has peaked both of her eyebrows. She’s waiting for me to realize what I’ve said. But I already have.
Right now there are moments of my life flashing before me as I reflect in a conversation Savannah and I had last week when I had her up for mimosas and to chat about how I wanted to break up with the guy I had been seeing by ignoring him, or what I prefer to call ‘the gentle phase-out.’ Something I’m sad to say has become a trademark move of mine when ending relationships. “I’m so busy,” I whine. “Everything is fine. I’ll be in touch.” I reassure, and then I never am
The week prior to this conversation Savannah had said, “Be an adult. Just tell him why you want to stop seeing him,” as though I didn’t know better.
“Umm-yeah- no, that’s not really my thing,” I honestly replied, prompting social worker Savannah, the girl full feelings, to look for hidden metaphors in my words and actions. The conversation ended with Savannah promising she would eventually get me to let her ‘social-work’ me and my ‘issues.’ Umm-yeah-no.
While she tries not to smile Savannah lowers her eyebrows, and before she can attempt to deconstruct my last sentence and the deeper meaning behind it, I declare. “Okay. I heard that. I always need an escape route. I have issues and metaphors. You happy? I’ll go write an essay.”
And here we are.
Let me be clear, I know where this escape route thing stems from. When I was four and my brother eight and asleep on the couch, our home was robbed. My mother was tied up and I was the only person that ever saw the robber. The man went through our home, but ended up only leaving with my mother’s purse which was later recovered by some teenagers who found it in the woods near our local mall. We were all okay but the man was never caught. Naturally this incident did some long-term psychological damage to me.
And that is the explanation to why I will, or have already broken up with you by ignoring you. Good? Umm-yeah-no? Okay, fine. I’ll dig deeper and feel stuff for you.
The robbery was the first of many incidents from my childhood that have contributed to my desire to know what is going on around me at all times and to plan exactly how to get out of the worst case scenario without pain or harm.
This is probably a good time to tell you there was another attempted robbery on our home shortly after the first incident. Luckily the door was locked and my mother was able to scare the would-be robber off before he actually got in. We moved shortly after. But my traumatic childhood stories don’t end with robbery. Once at a neighbor’s house there was an explosion in the basement in the very room I had been in moments before. I was out of the house by the time the basement burst into flames but had no idea if my little sister was still where we had just been playing. Thankfully she was not and got out of the house okay, as did the three other people inside, but the family’s pets were not as lucky. This evoked my deep fear of fire or death by fire, which is why in school I took fire drills very seriously. Matter in fact, when I was in College an alarm went off during an evening class my professor said, “No smoke. I bet no fire, must be a false alarm.” I sat still another minute before interrupting her lecture and declaring I had to evacuate just in case, and ran out of the room. It was indeed a false alarm and shortly after I returned to class a bit embarrassed but at least my heart rate had returned to normal.
I have been hit by firecrackers (yes plural, on several occasions), almost drown (I still have visions of my swimming teacher saying, “she’s fine,” while I swallowed water and sank until my mother jumped in for me. My brother also saved me when the same teacher made my jump from the diving board without floaties for the first time and I panicked). I’ve almost been kidnapped at least three times that I am aware of, I’ve been in several car accidents, and may or may not have broken into the Hammond Civic Center with the neighborhood kids to see the Circus, I was terrified someone would ask to see my ticket stub and I would be arrested and sent to jail forever. Not to mention I had an older brother that liked to tie me up and leave me from dead in places like his bedroom or the our tree in our backyard. It was a busy childhood.
Don’t let my dramatic nature fool you because this is not about drama it is about being prepared. I was a Girl Scout, it was our motto. And I listened when grownups said - safety-first! Rules are made for reasons. Expect the unexpected and you will always be expecting it. So if an alarm goes off, I respond accordingly.
It’s only natural I apply that to everything in my life. If something is incredibly under-priced shouldn’t I worry about its quality? Or if a girl I hang out with spends all our time together complaining about her other girlfriends, am I not right to wonder if she spends all her time with them bitching about me? And if on the first time to my apartment when a date makes himself a little too comfortable shouldn’t I flash forward five years when we are living in a pigsty and he’s leaving his shit everywhere, and I mean that literally. Everywhere. And there I am cleaning the kitchen, not because I am a neat freak and I like to clean the kitchen and besides no one will never do it the way I like it so I might as well just do it myself -but because he didn’t even offer to help clean, or hell to even take his dishes to the sink, even though it was me alone that slaved over making a fancy dinner, one that did not come from a box or the frozen section of the grocery store, because I am trying to impress him and so I’m on my best behavior, while he sits in my favorite chair and watches some show I hate, and hardly looks up at me when I bring him dessert, one that required baking. I hate baking. And so can you blame me for staring at him wondering how I not going to plan escape route from my future with him? Can you?
Look, I don’t like confrontation. I don’t want to hurt people’s feelings and sometimes I think a relationship can end sans a long drawn out story about how we feel and why we feel that way. ‘I’m busy,’ is so much easier than, ‘you’re boring,’ or ‘not smart,’ or ‘you suck in bed,” or ‘I love you and am afraid to get my heart broken. Again.”
So yes, when I use public transportation, or walk into an unfamiliar room, or enter a relationship, I like to know the worst case scenario and how I am going to get out of it without someone getting hurt. That’s what escape routes are for.