My husband and I are rebuilding our house, which was destroyed in a fire a year and a half ago. You could say it was my fault. Before the fire, I insisted on renovating my husband’s bathroom, turning it into a spa-like space with a steam shower, mosaic glass tiles, and a waterfall tap. He said, “Why bother? It is perfectly good as it is.”
“Have you noticed the rusty shower head and the peeling wallpaper? This will never do.”
He capitulated because he knows that I am a serial renovator, but he did say, “When you finish my bathroom, you won’t have another thing to redecorate. You’ve done everything in the house except the laundry room.”
I smiled and said, “I’ll think of something.”
I have lived in the same house for twenty-five years, sixteen of them with my husband, who moved in when we got married. It’s not large, but every time we think about moving it always comes down to, “We love the neighborhood. Everything on the market is so expensive. What do we need with more space for? We can take the money and go on a trip.” And coming home to familiar surroundings was always the best part of going away.
On the last day of the renovation, with champagne on ice to celebrate the ten-week remodel, the plumber used a blowtorch, throwing an ember into the air space behind the wall. I was in my home office, which has a common wall to the bathroom. For ten minutes I heard a strange, crackling sound but attributed it to dripping water. Then the plumber yelled, “Fire. Get out.” Smoke billowed out of the shower head and spilled from the fireplace into our bedroom. I called 911 and ran out of the house with only my pocketbook and cell phone. I remember standing on the sidewalk, surrounded by concerned neighbors, watching a ladder cantilevered up to the roof, firemen taking axes to break holes so the smoke could escape, and a drill team of hose bearers shooting water through the front door. The townhouse adjoining ours was also engulfed in flames.
Large oak trees brushed against the roof, and the branches would have been perfect conduits to carry the fire throughout the neighborhood, which explains the phalanx of one hundred firemen and fourteen fire trucks blocking our street. Pedestrians were cautioned to stay away, but lookie-loos insisted on gawking as black smoke filled the sky.
The plumber, Frank, was interrogated by the fire chief. “I don’t know what could have caused the fire. I was just screwing in the tub tap.” He adjusted his sunglasses.
“You weren’t using a blowtorch, by any chance?”
“No. I can’t imagine what started it. I’ve been in this business for twenty years and nothing like this has ever happened to me. Maybe there is faulty wiring in the attic. ”
When the smoke dissipated and the fire was put out after a half hour (it seemed like an eternity), the fire chief took off his face mask. A spitting image of actor/fireman Dennis Leary. Only in Los Angeles. I asked him, “How bad is it?”
“Bad,” he said. “Sorry.”
“Is anything left?”
“Not much.” He wiped his face. “Where’s the plumber? We found this on the bathroom counter.” He showed me a red blowtorch. “And the box it came in was still on the bathroom floor. He also had put down an asbestos blanket in the tub, just in case. So much for not knowing what happened. I’ll need his contact information.”
“I can’t believe he lied to you.”
“We see this all the time. And they usually try to cover their tracks. He wasn’t too smart, but we would have figured it out, box or no box.”
I was shocked. Frank had always been so courteous and reliable. He brought his son on the job to “show him what it means to put in a good day’s work” and thanked me for hiring him. “Business has been slow lately.” Weeks after the fire with four insurance companies parrying and thrusting to sort out responsibilities, I found out that Frank wasn’t licensed or bonded and didn’t have insurance. He had lied to me about that, too. How could I have been so trusting?
My husband was at work when the smoke lifted. I called him with the terrible news. He said he was in a meeting and couldn’t leave the office. I screamed into the phone. “Don’t you get it? The house just burned down!”
My husband doesn’t react to what is not right in front of him, but he agreed to come home. “It’ll take me about an hour with the traffic on the 405, but I’ll get there. It can’t be that bad.”
We walked through what was left of the house: the ceilings in the upstairs rooms were opened to the sky; electrical wiring hung everywhere; there was mud on the floor – plaster mixed with water, and a terrible smell. A 7-Up bottle was stuffed into what remained of the hole where the chandelier hung, and water dripped slowly into a puddle on the floor.
It took us an hour to get our cat out from under the bed, but she survived, her fur smelling of smoke, but otherwise she was unscathed. The Air Quality Management Department required that everything be decontaminated because the fire released asbestos particles embedded in the walls. We had to throw all our appliances away; our furniture was destroyed, our books charred, our clothes in a roiled heap. Not much was salvaged. Air scrubbers were installed for two weeks to clean the air from asbestos.
Thankfully the firemen took our artwork off the walls and threw everything onto the sidewalk. It looked liked a fire sale. Somebody came by and helped themselves to a lithograph, The Butler’s In Love, by Santa Monica artist Michael Stock, and a 1926 pencil drawing by New York illustrator Leland McClelland of Jane Kendall Mason disappeared.
We moved into a rental apartment after the fire. I suffered from temporary PTSD: every time I heard a siren, I jumped. I became sensitive to smell – even burning toast set me on edge. One night at our apartment, I triggered the fire alarm while cooking dinner. That was the last time I used the stove – take out and eating out took the place of preparing meals.
And then I became like the Ancient Mariner. I’d tell the story of the fire to anyone who would listen: the cleaners, the bank teller, the barista at Starbucks, the gas station attendant – they all became my confidantes. “You heard about the fire,” I’d say, and then launch into a short, medium or long explanation. It became my way of alleviating stress. I usually got the same response, “You seem so upbeat.” And I was. I shifted into rebuild mode, addressing everything that I didn’t like about the house before the fire. The fire turned into a made-to-order excuse to decorate and update.
A pair of mourning doves nested in a light fixture on the patio at our temporary apartment. The male bird busily carried twigs and detritus to build their home, and then the female settled in and waited. Three weeks later two little babies hatched. My husband named them Paloma and Paolo, an homage to Picasso. The family stayed with us for four or five weeks until the babies were strong enough to fly. When they left we kept the nest where it was, hoping that the birds would come back again to reuse it, but they didn’t. We did see four mourning doves this spring perched on the wrought-iron fence of our apartment. I’d like to believe that Paloma and Paolo are among them, but there is no way to know.
We are nearly finished with the rebuild. A joyous riot of color and texture has replaced a subdued and cautious palette: an exciting fuchsia and gold Tibetan rug in my office, an apple- green Indian rug in the living room with ikat accent pillows on the side chairs in purple and green, ottomans made out of faux horsehair dyed purple, silvery draperies on the windows, a waterfall chandelier in the dining room, adobe walls in my husband’s office to complement a sage, English leather sofa that feels like butter. The wall in the Zen bamboo garden has been painted an eggplant purple.
The fire certainly tested our resilience. My husband I will drink a toast (is that the right word?) to having passed the test with flying colors. And we plan on inviting everyone, not to a “house warming,” but to what South Africans call a “roof wetting,” referring to the spray from a bottle of uncorked champagne.
Loren Stephens is the president of Write Wisdom, which provides ghostwriting and publishing services to her famous and not so famous clients. Her essays and short stories have appeared in the Los Angeles Times, the Chicago Tribune, the St. Louis Jewish Light, Peregrine, MacGuffin, Eclectica, the Summerset Review, and the Montreal Review to name but a few as well as the anthology Kicking in the Wall. She is an Emmy nominated documentary film producer. She was just nominated for a Pushcart Prize for her short story, “The Sushi Maker’s Daughter,” also the title of her debut novel.