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Hurricanes, tornadoes, earthquakes and other wonders of American life

 

They told us to pack the essentials only, but everything I owned then was essential. Considering the fact that i had come to spend only one summer in America, I had only had some clothes and a few books. All of it could fit into one suitcase and it took 15 minutes to pack, but I was evidently unnerved.

You see, whenever I move into a new flat, and lemme tell you, there have been a couple, I like to root myself there slowly, leaving traces of my presence everywhere so as to adapt more easily. I try to give new life to every empty wall in an empty room and when I have to leave, I feel as if a part of my life is left in that place forever. Additionally, there are also space-time shelves in my head, which I neatly stack with periods of my life and I don’t like it when someone messes up with them.

I had planned to leave that flat in October and I had prepared myself mentally for the occasion only to be forced to pack and leave my room, city and state and disappear for a couple of days by some hurricane called Irena. The whole thing clashed with my plans and showed in my irritability and anxiety, the only things anyone can feel when they realise how small and helpless people are against nature.

I knew intuitively that the hurricane wasn’t going to strike us directly, not only because I was good pals with nature, but also because I am an optimist by nature and all that din was setting my teeth on edge. I may exaggerate in my optimism, but if god truly saved the fools, I ‘d have preferred to stay at home and observed the sky and the ocean as they form some new shapes and patterns which can only be achieved with the aid of a hurricane. However, since the evacuation was obligatory, the landlord had come to warn us to leave the flat as soon as we could so that he would secure it properly. Deciding against being rebellious I packed everything into a floral navy blue suitcase and waited for the bus to take me to Baltimore.

The bus was hours late because the whole city was being evacuated and the streets were congested.  I was forced to sit on uncomfortable plastic benches on some blasted stadium, eating blasted sandwiches and waiting for that bus until the cows came home. When they finally did, along with the bus, we set off to Baltimore.

In Baltimore we were greeted by some gymnasium belonging to a primary school, full of bunk beds. I slumped into one instantly, demanding from everyone not to wake me up before the hurricane was gone. The hurricane did pass, but nobody managed to wake me up since. I refused to get up from that bed for three days, realizing only then that I had not slept properly for months before that. I woke up only to eat some more of those blasted sandwiches and then went back to sleep.

When I finally did wake up, I took off to see a bit of Baltimore and ended up sleeping again, this tame in some plain, under a tree while some squirrel chewed away on some seeds, spitting remnants over my back, which had a very beneficial, relaxing effect, like some tickling massage. I knew my nature was giving me a favourable nod again.

When we returned to the Ocean City everything looked the same, though nothing was. My flat was in the same spot, all the trees were in place and the ocean was as calm as it had been before the hurricane. Yet, everything seemed sadder and emptier. The holiday season was drawing to an end and even the few holidaymakers we had anticipated had cancelled their trips in the whole panic. Restaurants and hotels were vacated and we were left without our salaries and tips from the tourists who never came.

Suddenly everything started swinging and I slumped into a chair not knowing what was going on. At the other end of the city, in the hotel where I worked, tourists dashed out of their rooms asking my colleagueto provide them with new furniture because their rooms were shaking. “Ladies, gents, all the rooms quaked, it was an earthquake.” It was yet another American nonsense we had grown used to.

And then, several days later, a tornado showed up, completely unprovoked if you ask me, and hit our city. The wind was not as harsh and didn’t cause too much damage and everything went by without much drama. I was several kilometers away from the place at the time, so I didn’t feel anything. I only saw that the sky had become more charming. I remember its pink-orange colours which spelled out poetry in the hand of the tornado.

The flighty ones were evidently annoyed by my indifference. “Don’t you see what’s going on?” “And what’s going on?” What is really going on is that I believe that nature has its own reasons. I believe it only gives us back what we gave to it and takes what we had taken. What’s going on is that humankind is the worst thing that could have happened to this planet and if Mother Nature wants to wipe us away with a single huge wave, so be it. As long as there’s garbage in the streets, dead whales with lungs full of plastic bags, turtles drowning because of plastic straws stuck in their snouts, sharks murdered for fun, elephants in circuses, camels carrying tourists lions in zoos, bombs and nuclear weapons, there should be hurricanes, tornadoes and tsunamis. And everything else that’s necessary for the extermination of mankind.

Wake me up when it’s all over. Just leave enough sandwiches for me.

Once the situation settled we rented a car and hit the road from Maryland to Florida to celebrate our unsuccessful year in America and say goodbye. On our way to Key West, while we were on the 7 Miles bridge, surrounded by water, I remembered why I had come to America in the first place and it occurred to me that I might be living the dream. Namely, it takes 15 minutes to cross that bridge of 7 miles during which you can only see the turquoise shades of the water where the Atlantic meets the Caribic sea.

I visualized Mexico somewhere accros the bay, Jamaica and Cuba somewhere below, thinking about how I might see these countries one day, maybe taking these same roads. A harsh question brought me back from my daydreaming: “What do these islanders do in case of evacuation?” Pulled away from my mental sailing, I turned to Bojana and said: “How can you be thinking about it right now?”. Bojana was a big fan of geology and she was unable to relax and let the sea lull her into reverie, as she was too occupied thinking about tectonic plates, the earth crust and strange dark passages underground waters made. To romantic lover of fluidity such as myself these questions were not only inappropriate, but also tactless.

And then, owing to some weird space logic I was transported from 2011 to 2017, journeying again towards Key West, looking forward to seeing the turquoise water, long spindly bridges, pink cardboard houses the Euclid Street, Hemingway’s house and its cat residents – anything – only to be greeted by the news: “Because of the hurricane Irma, all citizens of Key West are to be evacuated.”

What is wrong with this world? What kind of a joke is this? Irma the what now? “Don’t you watch the news? They’ve been talking about the hurricane reaching the category 5 heading for Florida for days now!”

What kind of a stupid question was that anyway? Of course, I don’t watch the news. My friends, who did watch the news and who had come from Atlanta to visit me were evidently taken aback by my decision to take them to Key West of all places on Florida while everyone was scarpering from there. I tried to keep their spirits up by telling them that Americans liked to exaggerate and that there was no reason to panic. Then we noticed that we were the only ones in the lane going towards Key West while there was a stream of cars gliding in the opposite direction. Disheartened and with ache in my soul, I agreed to return to Miami, cursing Irma and her cousin twice removed, Irena. I cursed Bojana for jinxing me six years before that by questioning the evacuation of Florida in that same very spot I found myself at then.

By the time I got home, quite bereaved, Irma was getting there too, so they ordered the evacuation of Miami and its surroundings. This time there was no organised transport nor sandwiches and bunkbeds. I couldn’t fit everything into one suitcase with flowers either, although I did have it with me. This time its wheels were damaged from all the travelling. I had not come to spend only one summer then and the mental shelves had become larger. This time I really had a life of sorts, or I ws trying to create it.

There was a whole assortment of lamps, candles, cushions, mugs, plates and framed pictures I had been painstakingly collecting for months and arranging according to some logic only I understood. I had to pack all of that first and since I had no idea where to start, I decided not to pack at all. Hurricane be with me and all my plates and cups with roses and cushions on mantles. Devil be with all the framed photos, bursting notebooks and shells I had dragged from the seaside and me.

I had given up in advance. I left everything in the house. It may well have sunk to the bottom of the Atlantic, hell I’d start all over again. Memories of all my previous packings overcame me and all the things thrown away because they didn’t fit suitcases and boxes and I promised not to get attached to these trifles anymore. I performed an operation on my memory, surgically removing all of those from there and said goodbye. It was only me left then and a couple of things that could fit into my pocket, some papers, which allegedly state who I am and a single ring on my hand.

A part of me knew, once again, that this hurricane would miss us and that I would be back in my flat surrounded by my cups and cushions, but it didn’t matter anymore. Something had grown stronger in me, some long forgotten pain and the desire to belong to a place so much that no force could move me from there. The desire for a place in the world that existed only for me. A memory of Levi-Strauss’s Sad Tropics and all the pain caused by our helplessness and disquiet. That development brought on more empathy for all the islands I had always dreamt of, the poor Caribbean in their beauty and weakness.

While we were driving from Florida towards the north, and the movie from 2011 replayed in my head in reverse I felt like I was going through some retrospection. When I first took the I95 highway several years back, the one that stretches all the way across America from New York to Florida, I somehow predicted that it would be somehow connected to my life in the future. There were too many unfulfilled desires, ideologies that did not match reality, numerous youthful illusions and lines from Beatniks’’ poetry and Peppers’ melodies. I was chasing the music video for Scar Tissue and Road Trippin’ down these highways even then, but I never found them.

I was somehow older this time, more bitter and more aware of my own sets of prejudice and the consequences caused by them. Nevertheless, in these mixed feelings I started seeing sparks of initial ideas about America I had so long nourished in my mind. Metaphors, symbols and even people I knew then started springing on me, out of the blue and in strange forms, like some movie had been brought to a halt and left in my head to haunt me in its unfinished state. Some delayed frame sprang up and fell in line so spontaneously that the tape started unravelling without making its intended point.

I never wanted to take this road again. I didn’t leave because I was afraid of hurricanes, but because a kid someone had stolen candy from. As I had mentioned when Irena struck, I had my own rituals and I was chaffed when someone interrupted them. Especially some category five hurricane like Irma. But the moment I finally departed and left everything behind, I felt indifference. I couldn’t care less about lamps and plates and the life I had previously led because it had become a mere shadow by then. There was a new life ahead of me, down that I95 highway, continuing from the same place it had stopped years before. As Jack Kerouac said: “Nothing behind me, everything ahead of meas is ever so on the road“.

Autumn was reaching the north of America and we followed closely. We travelled together as far as Ohio, taking in cold air and admiring the first fallen leaves. There you have it, if it hadn’t been for Irma, I never would have seen Ohio and wouldn’t have experienced autumn that year I would have been in Florida, stuck in the middle of Summer that wasn’t going anywhere.

I don’t want to sound like someone completely unrealistic. I could have died on several occasions for taking all kinds of danger too poetically. I could spin endless yarns about the horrors of watching people fight for a bottle of water in supermarkets, deserted gas stations and endless lines of cars barely inching along. We found ourselves stuck in one of those lines, gridlocked in the middle of the night and the middle of nowhere surrounded by dead deer and running out of fuel.

We escaped that place barely managing to stumble upon some side road that took us on and all of that without any internet or navigation systems. As we meandered on, we were followed by the news that the hurricane was tailing us all the time. We were travelling from the south to the west and then northwards across Florida and Irma seemed to be taking the same route. Even when she passed, we couldn’t go back home because of enormous congestions on the roads. I could write for hours on end about it, but you could have read about it all in newspapers and seen it on the telly, so you don’t need me to add insult to injury with my stories. And to be honest, I’m worried that my mum might be reading all of this.

I returned to the peace of my own home. Those palms that had survived the storm were bending sadly above my roof, happy to have lived and forlorn because some others had not. Everything was the same as ever, just sadder and emptier. The holiday season went bust again and we were left with no tourists and by extension jobs and salaries. But, it would be ungrateful to complain. And so I sat next to those emaciated palms in the garden, thinking about where I’d been, what I had wanted to do before the hurricane and what had mattered in my life.

I found my to-do list, saw some reminders scribbled in different colours and even though they were written in my handwriting, I couldn’t see any connection between them and myself at that moment. Rattling through my planner, I found an event I had wanted to attend: the city had organized a trip to sea turtles’ nests at the time the young were supposed to hatch and walk into the ocean where they would continue their lives. Suddenly it hit me that one of these hatchings was supposed to take place in the night of the hurricane and I asked myself what could have happened to these eggs. Had they survived? There was still a bunch of cats in Hemingway’s house and they had just announced on the news that they had survived the storm. I hoped that baby turtles were just as lucky, buried deep in the sand, which I could see scattered all over the place.

While all of this was happening, we kept reminiscing about Serbia and talking about how lucky we had been to be born in such a docile country, unthreatened by any tsunamis, hurricanes and tornadoes. I thought about how I had seen more wonders during a couple of years in America than I had during my whole life in Serbia. I thought nostalgically about my house, safely tucked in the plains below the clearings of Fruska Gora, unencumbered by winds. My house and my family were at a safe distance from America, protected by European mountains and far from the shore.

Then they called to tell me that an unexpected storm, previously never seen and experienced in such intensity in Serbia, had hit Srem and pulled several trees from my backyard and damaged the fence and the roof. Completely aghast, I felt that little hope that Serbia was faring better than America leave me and I couldn’t help but wonder if some distant relatives of Irma had gone to my house carried on my own thoughts and anticipations. I didn’t even dare to think about it.

And naturally, Miloš Crnjanski spoke again with his ever-so-relevant Sumatra:

“I felt one day all the helplessness and the complexity of our destiny. I saw that nobody was going where they wanted and noticed some previously unobserved bonds. I felt all that white, endless silence somewhere in the distance. My eyes were tired from the lack of sleep, and I was overcome by the weakness brought on by the long journey. I thought: Look how intangible bonds are. Nothing can keep them intact. I too, travelled everywhere.

Blue seas, distant islands I don’t even know, rosy plants and corals I probably remembered from geography lessons kept haunting my thoughts. Finally there was peace, peace from dusk to dawn, taking over me. For the first time I noticed some big change in the world.

Everything is so tangled. They had changed us. I remembered how the life had been different before. I hung my head. I felt our helplessness, and all my sadness. “Sumatra”, I whispered somewhat affectionately. Still, I felt in my soul, in spite of my resistance to admitting it, all the love I held for these distant hills, snowy mountains and even icy seas all the way to the north. For all the islands where all the havoc was going on – the havoc we ourselves may have wreaked. I lost my fear of death. I lost the bonds with my surroundings. As if in some strange hallucination, I felt myself rising into the immeasurable morning mists, reaching out to touch the distant Ural and Indian seas where all the rosiness from my cheeks had gone. To caress the islands, love, the loved ones and the pale silhouettes. And that tangled mass suddenly became peace and endless comfort.”

Later, all of that became a poem.

Later, all of this will become a poem.

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