When the tornado sirens started, my husband and I were on our front porch, watching the storm. He'd just strapped towels to our car, to protect it from hail. This was March, and the grass was already green from an abnormally warm winter followed by days of rain. I was eight months pregnant with our first child.
Gently, Wes took my hand. "We should head inside, into the basement."
We'd never heeded the sirens before. The spring storms had always passed us by.
Obviously, circumstances were different. We stayed in the basement that night for three hours. For a while we just stood on tiptoe to look at the world through the small window at the foot of the stairs. Branches blowing up the street. Pieces of paper set loose from the recycling bin. And the sky whirling and shifting: gray to gray-black, edges blurring yellow. What we were waiting for was that eerie green shade, the color of danger.
Eventually, we got tired of looking, but Wes said it wasn't safe yet to go upstairs. The sirens were still sounding regularly enough to remind us.
I felt agitated more than scared. Lately, I constantly worried about time's passing. How I'd never complete what I wanted to before the baby was born. Not that I believed "famous rich painter" was even a thing anymore. But there were still a number of paintings I had ideas for, and yet no energy to complete them. Every night when I got home from work, I collapsed on the couch and napped for an hour until dinner, after which I went to bed for real.
Now here we were in the basement with nothing but boxes filled with castoffs that Wes and I had accumulated over the five years we'd lived in the house.
"We should at least sort through this junk," I suggested, in the manner of someone more efficient, and so we started digging through boxes and marveling at our terrible memory for our possessions.
Some things we'd very much wanted to possess, in fact: an espresso maker, a stained-glass lamp, a set of unused dishes someone had given to us on our wedding day. We made a pile of all the things we could sell at a garage sale once the weather improved.
The basement was your average Midwest basement, cold and damp and prone to flooding. All our belongings were on palates or metal shelves.
On one of those shelves, I found a portfolio bulging with old drawings and sketchbooks, all of them from college, and as I sifted through the stack, Wes looked up from a plastic tub of camping gear. We hadn't gone camping since 1999, when we lived near mountains, not plains. Earthquakes instead of tornadoes.
"Are you sure you want to do that?" he said.
He knew how I got when I looked through old work. Like a sad drunk who sits at the bar until the wee hours of the morning, slumping into her bottomless bourbon. Things I once made always struck me as little, unexplored gems—proof of a former, unrealized talent. I was usually reluctant to say unrealized genius, though this phrase sometimes floated up to the surface, a tempting but inaccurate lure and anchor.
I ignored Wes and continued sifting, continued sinking. A self-portrait (a decent, melancholy likeness); doodles of unsuspecting café-goers in Rome, where I had studied abroad; an accomplished sketch of my Italian landlord's fat cat, who used to sit on my balcony to sun herself.
Already, I could feel the effects: a hardening in my chest, a gradual separation from my present body as I slipped back into the former hand making these marks, the former eye seeing and responding to that former world. I'd never been somewhere so old, where I was at once entirely trivial and actually alive for the very first time. With senses I had never used so well before to smell, to taste, to see, to touch.
"That's a pretty one."
Wes had come up behind me and was gazing with me at a series of hands drawn in charcoal—open, closed, holding a lit cigarette. "For Noah," it said at the bottom, in my handwriting.
"Old boyfriend?" His voice arrived from very far away. Teasing, kind, wary.
"I think I'd remember that sort of thing."
The words came out a little touchy, but Wes put his arms around me, around my stomach, and that way I began my resurfacing. The baby kicked, and we both felt it. He backed away, returned to the camping gear.
I almost suspected someone else of having made these assured drawings. My Italian roommate, perhaps. She had always been in love with someone. We used to sit for hours in the kitchen of our San Lorenzo apartment, talking about boys and girls we flirted and slept with while we drew each other and drank wine.
But when I turned the page in the sketchbook, a card slipped out, one made of plain old printer paper, the dot matrix kind with the perforated edges. The card was blank on the front, except for an unremarkable heart (drawn in blue ink), and on the inside, this inscription: "Liz, thank you for being an example of ways I wish to be. Love, Noah."
Such a strange little sentence of gratitude. How had he wished to be? In what ways had I been an example? Though proof of me knowing a Noah, and him knowing me, it failed to jog any image of the man, aside from the vague likelihood of a beard.
We never lost power. Eventually, the sirens stopped and the wind quieted. We put our flashlights away and went upstairs. It was still light out—lighter, even, than hours before, because the storm had passed, and it wasn't even dinnertime.
Wes wanted to check on the car. The infant seat was already in the back, ready for an early arrival. We pushed open the front door and stepped onto the porch. The air was pleasantly cool, the sky radiant. I expected to see rainbows shooting across our lawn. We didn't yet know that several miles up the road, the tornado had touched down, wrenched up a row of wooden houses, scattered them elsewhere.
At first we could see only a mild disarray: bits of trash scattered in the yard, a telephone wire sagging over the street. But in a moment Wes was muttering, running. A large branch from the old black walnut tree had fallen on the hood of the car, crushing the metal and front headlight and sending whispery little cracks across the windshield.
Wes gaped down at the mess, then looked up at me, helplessly. "Well, shit. This is going nowhere pretty fast."
Noah's car is a white Saab with a badly dented front fender. On the way to the airport, he holds a cigarette out his open window, even though it's raining.
I'm in danger of missing my plane, but he drives slowly, reluctantly. We’ve known each other a matter of hours; we met at the last-minute going-away party my roommate held for me. I never learn who invited him. He's older, not a student. A carpenter or contractor. Recently heartbroken. Or anyway: lonely but not desperate. At the party, he admired the sketches I'd hung up on the kitchen walls. Because I felt flattered, and because he seemed to be the only one not drinking, I asked him for a ride.
On the way he tells me he once dreamed of being a sculptor. He says he'll show me his work when I return in ten months. For the first time in years, he says, he has some new ideas. He gives me his address on a receipt he pulls from his wallet.
From my new city I write him a letter; he replies with a card. I draw a picture for him but am reluctant to send it, perhaps because looking at it reminds me of the thrill of being admired.
In Rome, I live under tall ceilings; I am reborn. Speaking Italian. Drinking espresso, painting every afternoon in a perfect, decrepit little studio.
Vivere senza rimpianti is something I become too fond of saying.
Absorbed by the world and happy in its firm, but fleeting grasp, I give away most of what I make: nudes sketched in my morning classes, the narrow alleys and sloping hills of Travestere, the shifting light on my own hands as they work.
Possibly the drawings and paintings were beautiful, possibly they were amateurish and dull.
Now I wish I had kept them all.