Forces of Nature

They’re calling it the Hundred Year Flood.

My boyfriend Steve is in the middle of a 24-hour shift as an EMT, trying to keep Boulder, Colorado from washing away around him. I am alone in our garden level apartment, splashing through the brown, putrid lake that our living room has become, trying to save the items that comprise our life together.

It starts around 9:00 p.m. on Thursday night in September. The rain has poured biblically for two days, but we don’t live anywhere close to one of Boulder’s many creeks, or so I believe, until my quiet evening is shattered by the sound of yelling and door-pounding.

I poke my head out of the door and see water pouring down the hallway. In a single second I recognized the inescapable power of this force of nature.

I slam the door and wedge a bath towel beneath it, already knowing it will be soaked through in minutes. Stand frozen for a moment, assessing everything we suddenly stand to lose in the 1100-square foot apartment we jokingly call “the Mansion”. Brown, spotty water is bubbling up through the bathtub drain, but the small CrockPot still cheerfully simmers corned beef and cabbage.

When I step outside it is straight into a cold, ankle-deep creek that used to be our front lawn. I am independent, not afraid to go for a six-hour bike ride alone in the mountains, accustomed to being without Steve in the past couple years as he worked nights and weekends in a restaurant and 24-hour shifts as an EMT. But right now, he is all I want, I want his calmness to be a still rock while everything else floats away. In the leasing office, at the top of a small hill, I call him.

But Steve has been driving through streets that are rivers and plucking strangers out of stranded cars, and even his voice is taut as a guitar string. “There’s nowhere to go, babe,” he says. “I’ve been listening to the radio. They’re shutting down all the streets around you. Just stay upstairs, and be safe.”

“I wish you were here,” I tell him.

“I know you can handle it,” he says.

He knows of no Titantic-sized wave coming at me; nor any evacuation. Then he has to go, another call.

So I go back inside, turn off lights, unplug appliances. I try to minimize our losses.

I race the water for I don’t know how long, ferrying items up the stairs to our second floor loft bedroom according to an odd system of priority. Wheeling Steve’s heavy red mountain bike, I wonder facetiously for a moment whether I am going to end up in the news as the girl who drowned trying to save her bikes.

I give up once it reaches knee depth, going through the dark one last time with my headlamp, gathering little piles of shoes, clothes, and gear on top of shelves and dressers, hoping they are high enough. Anything touched by this water is a hazmat situation, I later learn, and already my home smells like a rotisserie chicken that’s been left in a car for a day.

He calls once more, checking up on me.

“I think they might need all hands on deck tomorrow,” he says. “I might pick up a shift.”

“No,” I say, stunned at my own firm tone. I am ashamed to need him so badly, but I feel like I am going to crawl out of the top of my head. “Our apartment is flooded. I need you here.”

“Okay. I’ll try, babe,” he says, and has to go again.

Nowhere to go and nothing left to do, I curl up on the guest futon in the loft. Only then do I remember that just a few hours ago, I’d posted an offer on Facebook to house anyone who had been flooded out of their apartment. How silly to think that we might be impervious to something as big as a hundred year flood; that our cozy nest was waterproof.

I can’t see the future then. I don’t know that the apartment is beyond repair, that tomorrow they’ll tell us we have 36 hours to move out, that both friends and strangers will have to come to our aid to help us pack in time. Six months later, we’ll have moved four times, trying to be at home again somewhere and never quite succeeding.

I don’t yet know that all of this displacement will make me assess my life in a way I never did when we were settled, comfortable. In February of 2014, I am still pulling clothes out of boxes when I quit my 9 to 5 to freelance full-time. In May, I will strap on a backpack and board a plane to Europe for the summer.

He’ll stay in Colorado to fight wildfires. We’ll be okay, I tell him, I know it, even though that night teaches me that the stoutest man-made barricades break like flimsy twigs against the forces of nature.

We won’t make it. When I come back to Colorado from the Alps in August, six weeks later than originally planned, it will be to split up boxes of our things that he’s stored for me for months in a house I’ve never seen. I’ll be moving to Pennsylvania for a job, and he won’t come. We’ll split amicably, and for the best, but still, I will be emotional when we take a last walk through downtown Boulder together, pause in front of the bridge on Broadway Street that was overrun with water during the flood, and Steve will shake his head: “Do you remember when we said, ‘I can’t wait for things to be back to normal again after the flood?’ I feel like I’m still waiting.” We will stand there in the dark, silent, remembering the water almost one year ago—the way it knocked us loose like driftwood, and how we were never able to stop moving downriver since.

But that night, curled up amidst random belongings and sporting equipment in our loft, I don’t think that far ahead. I wonder what I’ll find downstairs in the morning. I wonder what I’ll do when I need to go to the bathroom in a few hours. Life is paradoxically simple in this moment; there are only two things I need. I close my eyes and try to sleep. I wait for him to come home.

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