How an Apartment Fire Changed Everything

When the troubled woman in the apartment upstairs started a lethal fire, writer Lisa Gornick found herself without a home—and wondering if a few small kindnesses might have made a difference.

smoking-match
Photo by Anthony Bradshaw/Getty Images

She died. We have to start there.

I met Ms. P only once. I’d come upstairs, banging on the door of her apartment because her cigar smoke was permeating my children’s rooms. It was not the first time I’d banged on her door, but it was the first time she responded. She answered in a dingy bathrobe, her breasts partially exposed. Despite her long history of alcoholism, there was something regal about her. She had the right to smoke in her apartment, she informed me. It was her home. Yes, but you’re impacting my home and my children’s health, I said. Could you at least open a window or smoke in a different room?

Something in her eyes softened. I could see that she was obstinate but underneath also reasonable. She would talk with the building’s super about sealing the holes that might be allowing her fumes to descend into my apartment.

The holes were sealed, but she continued to smoke, and the smoke continued to find its way into my children’s rooms. Three times, we learned from the building super, she had been taken from her apartment in a diabetic coma. We lodged complaints with the building’s board, with the management agent. She drinks, she smokes in bed. She’s going to set a fire. She’s a danger to us all.

And then the smoke stopped. Ms. P, now in her 70s, had been placed in a nursing home. Were she to return, we were told, the building’s board would require her to have 24-hour home care. I stopped thinking about Ms. P.

Time passed. My older son went to college but came back frequently to play our piano. “I smelled smoke,” he reported one day.

“It can’t be Ms. P. She’s in a nursing home.”

A few hours later, we all smelled smoke. This time it was mixed with the scent of burning rubber. “It’s her,” my husband said. He raced upstairs. I called 911.

She’d returned, but because she was housebound and had taken up e-cigarettes, we had neither seen nor smelled her before that day, when a visitor had brought her cigars. And perhaps because—despite the building’s promise—she did not have 24-hour home care, no one had mentioned to us that she was back.

Following our neighbors, we fled down the stairs and out onto the street. I seized the arms of our building’s board president. “We told you this was going to happen,” I said.

Sixty firemen laden with hoses and axes poured into the building. I raced inside to the doormen’s cabinet to get the residents list for the fire chief, who then asked me to stay to help check off who had safely exited.

I was still in the lobby when I heard loud voices. Seconds later, two firefighters came out of the elevator dragging a rolled rug between them. “We’ve got her. She’s breathing,” one of them yelled.

The rug fell open and there was Ms. P. She was unconscious and naked, save for her old lady’s underpants. Wisps of hair barely covered her scalp, and her breasts splayed like enormous jellyfish onto the floor—everything a deathly white white white.

The EMS workers lifted Ms. P onto a stretcher. “She’s alcoholic. She probably was drinking. She’s diabetic,” I said, as they covered her with a sheet and then rushed her to the waiting ambulance.

The chief touched my arm. The firefighters, he told me, had gone through the flames to get Ms. P. They’d carried her down a flight of stairs to the landing below and then into the elevator.

“She’s burned on 85 percent of her body,” he softly said.

“But her skin was so white.”

“That’s what burnt skin looks like. Ashen white.”

I stared at the rug left behind on the lobby floor. Not until I went to move it out of the way did I realize that it was mine—a rug we kept in the hallway outside our front door. We’d bought it on the edge of the Sahara from a man selling the handiwork of nomadic Berber women: women without permanent homes who take great pride in the rugs they weave for their family’s use—ours sold due to a decimating drought. It was Ms. P’s last covering, aside from hospital sheets. Other than the firefighters and medical staff, I think I was the last person to see Ms. P alive.

The fire chief took me upstairs to see our apartment. I knew there would be damage, but it was not until I saw the water pouring through the ceilings and pooled on the floors that it hit me that the widowed Ms. P, with no relatives anyone knew of save a nephew in another state, had unintentionally made me her heir. It was as if I’d been plucked from the writer’s life I’d been living and bequeathed another life: You will camp out in the front rooms of your apartment while you make enormous piles of wet trash, dry trash, clean, donate, store, move. You will pack up down to the last paper clip and go to a hotel, where your little son will check in with his viola and music stand and you’ll cook dinner in a microwave and wash dishes in the bathroom sink. You will move into another hotel with a kitchenette, where you will bring your father, whose cancer won’t wait the month it takes to negotiate the lease for a temporary apartment owned by a couple who live in China and, you suspect, have never seen their place—a place where no one knows how to operate the heat or why the dryer leaks and the oven freezes with a flashing light that says “Insert meat probe.” You will hire contractors who will demolish your own apartment until it looks like a haunted house while you tell yourself that you are so very lucky to be so well insured, but to get a penny will be like doing your taxes every day, day after day.

On one of your visits to meet with the electrician or mold expert or air-conditioning installer or plasterer or carpenter or tile guy, you will stare at red smears outside your front door, and then you will wash Ms. P’s blood off the wall.

In the months since she died, I’ve learned more about Ms. P than I knew when she was alive. I’ve learned that in the 60s and 70s she was the manager of a maverick teen star who sang about social issues. I’ve learned that she was fired due to her alcoholism. What I’ve really learned, though, has to do with our story together—and how it might have taken a different turn.

I am not the first writer to wonder if novels create a blueprint for the future: My second novel, Tinderbox, centers on a family in the wake of a fire as they come to understand their complicity in the disaster. I have no illusion that I could have stopped Ms. P’s drinking or her march toward an alcohol-related death. But had I not thought about her solely as the woman whose smoke seeped into our rooms, had she not ceased to exist for me once I no longer smelled her cigars, I might have inquired how she was doing in the nursing home, made it my business to know when she came home and that when she did, it was with adequate care. She might not have died from burns on 85 percent of her body, and my apartment, now nearly a year later, might not still be a construction site.

Had I seen our lives as connected beyond a ceiling and a floor, our story and this one might have started not with a bang on the door but with an invitation for a cup of tea.

Lisa Gornick is the author of the recently released novel Louisa Meets Bear, as well as two earlier books: Tinderbox and A Private Sorcery. She lives in New York City with her husband and two sons.