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When I graduated from university with a BA in English and political science, I had a path mapped out for myself. I was going to intern at a prestigious magazine, get a staff job and work my way up to editor-in-chief.
The irony was that my real passion was for writing, not editing. But no one in my family had ever worked in a creative field, and striking out on my own as a novelist seemed like a precarious move bordering on the foolhardy. I wanted some kind of security, so I drew up my plan.
But first I lucked into a temporary, well-paid job at a government office serving war veterans in Toronto. I needed the job to pay for a five-month editorial internship in New York for which I’d already made the shortlist and scheduled an in-person interview.
The vets I met were a feisty bunch who told me war stories. But I knew from shouting matches that erupted in the reception area that some of the clients were deeply disturbed.
One morning, one of them walked into the building armed with a large plastic container. I heard him muttering as he walked past my cubicle. He kept his head down as he poured liquid over the industrial grey carpet. It was just after 9 a.m. and I was frantically trying to update my résumé before my boss came in. Still, I couldn’t ignore the smell of gasoline.
“I’m calling security!” a counsellor yelled. I stood up and went to my doorway. The man was at the end of the hall. In a smooth, swift motion, he flicked a lighter and threw it on the carpet. A wall of flame surged up, so tall it swept against the ceiling, so hot it seared my skin.
I think I screamed. I know I ran. Later, I was given an award for getting people out of the office, but I don’t remember doing that. One moment I was frozen, seeing the flames come toward me, the next I was on the sidewalk seven storeys down with the reek of gasoline still making me gag.
The odour clung to me. At home, I threw out everything I was wearing except my sweater, which my grandmother had knitted for me. No matter how many times I washed it, it still smelled acrid. I buried it in a plastic bag in a drawer.
The fire destroyed three floors of the building and injured several people, some so badly they never came back to work. Police arrested the arsonist, but the case never went to court. He was declared incompetent and locked away in a psychiatric hospital.
“We were lucky. It could have been so much worse,” I told friends and family afterward. I repeated that line like a mantra. It was what I told myself when I got on the plane for New York that weekend, and what I said to my interviewers on Monday. I’d brought a newspaper clipping to show them. “His plan was to bring grenades into the office, but he got impatient,” I said, repeating what the cops had told me. Just saying the word grenades made my gut twist. When I got back to Toronto, an editor called. “We definitely want you here,” she said. “You can obviously handle anything. Do you want to start with the next group of interns?”
Yet, in spite of the bravado I’d shown, dark thoughts were clustering in my head. Just that morning on the subway, I’d watched a man reach into a duffel bag and panicked, believing he was pulling out a gun. In retrospect, that was a clear sign of trauma, but I worried that I’d be labelled crazy if I told anyone.
The magazine let me postpone the internship. In the meantime, I developed a morbid interest in criminal behaviour. I even dated one of the firefighters who had responded to the fire. “Tell me about all your arson calls,” I asked him over dinner.
What I really wanted was to make sure I wouldn’t be a victim again. I thought if I understood violent behaviour I could protect myself. My confidence that I had control over my life had turned to ashes in the fire. I could have died at my desk, I realized. My life could have been over.
Over time, my ideas about security and control shifted. I hadn’t done anything risky, but danger had come my way regardless. An odd fatalism settled in: If safety was an illusion, why be held back by fear? The upside was that I could look at some things that used to scare me – like swimming in open water – and think, Why not? My relationship with risk had been recalculated. I knew death could easily find me at my desk, so choosing a safe course of action felt meaningless.
My life has been shaped by that close call. Nine months after the fire, I went to New York for the internship. Afterward, back in Toronto, I took scuba diving lessons so I could explore shipwrecks in the St. Lawrence River and, later, swim with sharks in the Bahamas. I quit the staff job I’d thought I wanted and freelanced instead, then started writing novels – my real dream all along. I travelled solo in Italy, and met the man who lured me back to New York and became my husband. My green card came through in August, 2001, and I made plans to move that did not change after the Sept. 11 attacks.
I wasn’t going to change course in the face of a disaster. Some people mistook this for bravery, but it wasn’t that at all. It was simply the knowledge that no matter whether I stayed or left, I would never feel safe. Dark as that sounds, it was also a liberating thought.
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