I hear this song and suddenly I’m cruising down the street I grew up on in my electric blue ’93 Chevy Beretta with a carload of my fellow high school cheerleaders, windows down because the air conditioning was broken (or, actually, never really worked), letting the easy breeze that comes from hitting 40 MPH between stop signs relieve us from the soupy mid-July air of Southern Ohio. We’d spent the weeks since school let out practicing non-stop in preparation for the cheerleading competition at the county fair, and now that the fair was over we were relishing our free time. However, we soon realized that there wasn’t much for a bunch of 16-year-olds to do with so much free time and so little cash; at 78¢/gallon, a tank of gas split four-ways would give us hours of fun doing what all the other teens did on hot summer afternoons: cruising.
Those afternoons cruising in a wide, distorted loop around the eight or ten blocks of town, represented some of the only typical teenage behavior I can remember. Aside from the fact that we were all cheerleaders, I didn’t have much in common with my cruising pals. I’d never really dated–in fact, never been kissed–while they were completely boy-crazy, hopping from one “relationship” to another. At parties I preferred to get a nice sugar buzz from too much Pepsi so that I could remember all the sloppy, embarrassing antics my more inebriated friends might pull, though always playing the good sober baby sitter who stops them from doing anything truly regrettable. I attended a fairly strict church, helped with Sunday School, and participated in the church’s bible quiz team on Sunday mornings while my friends slept in and slept off their Saturday night indiscretions. They were still my friends–great friends–and we got on with only a tiny bit of teasing for my Sandra Dee persona.
That summer we couldn’t get enough of The Bloodhound Gang–probably because none of us had CD players in our cars, so we were at the mercy of the repetitive playlist of the one radio station we could get in that wasn’t exclusively country music or gospel. The music of that summer always conjures up warm, happy memories, but this past winter on an unforgivably cold February morning, the droning repetition of The roof. The roof. The roof is on fire. had a cold, numbing effect as one of my old cheerleading friends and I sat in my living room watching her house across the street burn.
Jane was one of the wildest, most boy-crazy cheerleaders in the bunch. But as I sat there, trying to make small talk with her in the far-too-early hours that Sunday morning, I realized how much she’d changed–how much we’d both changed–and it was a little difficult to reconcile the women on this sofa with the younger versions of ourselves cruising down this very street in my Beretta more than a decade earlier. Jane is now married with three children. She’s a stay-at-home mom while her husband commutes hundreds of miles for work and is only home a few times a month. She’s an active member of a super conservative local church. And me, well, I’m practically her polar opposite–single, never married, no kids, pursuing a graduate degree and a career in academia, liberal, agnostic. Our paths have gone so far from the common ground we once shared as 16-year-olds that, during the last presidential election, I “unfriended” her on a social media site after some heated back-and-forth about politics and equality (her comments read like a proper Glenn Beck devotee).
But now, as we sat in my living room sipping coffee and watching the flames and smoke dance a light show across the pre-dawn sky, the ideological distance between us seems no greater than the physical distance between our two bodies parked shoulder-to-shoulder on the sofa. After reassuring her that the fire had spared the only contents of the house that really mattered–Jane, her husband and girls–it was hard to know what to say. We made mall talk about the girls, which sent us into a nostalgic spiral, trying to remember being their age. We recounted sleepovers, dramatic arguments, triumphant cheerleading competitions, and the heartbreak of young love. No matter how far Jane and I may have come from the girls we once were, that girlish spirit is still a part of us, and it was good to find it again. It was the kind of trip down memory lane that normally induces contagious smiles and giggles, but for us it remained warm but stoic as neither Jane nor I could take our gaze away from the flame-lit windows.
The fire departments began to arrive about a half hour after the family called 911, and in those thirty minutes my mind raced. It was far earlier than I was accustomed to being dragged from beneath my warm haven of my bed on a work day, much less a Sunday, and I had to keep brushing cobwebs from my mind as I tried to grasp the situation. I wanted to do something; I needed to do something. But what? After making sure everyone had made it out of the house safely, giving them some warm clothes (they’d run out in their night clothes!) and coffee, I was left to watch the flames consume more and more of the home as we listened in vain for approaching sirens.
A bucket brigade! We should start a bucket brigade! Images from some cartoon from my childhood flash through my mind before a loud crack from the burning building snaps me back to reality. Even if we were to mobilize the full force of neighbors who are now standing huddled in the street in front of their houses to form some kind of bucket brigade, the buckets of water would simply sizzle and hiss as they were flung and the giant flames now extending like tongues from the windows, licking at the roof overhead. The words helpless and futile don’t begin to describe the collective ache of the neighborhood that morning as our sighs froze visibly in the February air. And the lyrics from The Bloodhound Gang rang cruel and true in my ears: We don’t need no water; let the motherf*cker burn.
Futility, helplessness–whatever you want to call it–has to be one of my least favorite feelings. It’s worse than heartbreak, worse than failure, because as long as your actions don’t feel futile you can fight your way past the negative feelings. When things look helpless, you have little urge to do anything but just watch it burn.
Lately life has felt a bit stagnant, with the exception of huge outbursts of flames that threaten to destroy everything I’ve worked for. And it feels like any efforts I make to regain control are merely individual buckets of water dropping one at a time onto a life fully engulfed in flames. They dampen one small area of fire only to hiss and pop and reignite, taunting my efforts–my futile efforts. Discouraged, I resign myself to stand and watch it burn.
It’s time for a change. It’s time to ignore that awful helpless feeling, to stop being a victim of my own bad choices (or lack of choice/action altogether), and do something–anything–to move forward. Today I’m putting down the bucket and picking up the phone. I’m calling 911 and getting a truck with a fire hose to put out the fire, once and for all. I’m vowing to quit being self-destructive and to start being proactive. I’ll reclaim my life, my direction, my purpose, if I have to drive that fire truck and wield that hose myself.