Memoir: there’s nothing like a shared near-death experience to bring you closer to the neighbours

Memoir: there’s nothing like a shared near-death experience to bring you closer to the neighbours

I work from home, which is a semi-detached Edwardian off Queen West. When my family leaves in the morning, I settle into my office and rarely consider the people who live on the other side of the wall—our neighbours. Mario and Theresa are an elderly Portuguese couple, kindly and retired (I’ve changed their names to protect their privacy). We live in mirror images of each other’s homes—shadows in each other’s lives.

In the summer, they sit on the porch, side by side in plastic lawn chairs, and we all smile and try to hack through the language barrier with talk of our kids, their grandkids and the dangerously overhanging tree we all live beneath. In the winter, the chairs go in, and so do they. Weeks can go by during which we don’t see them, though their grown children pull up most Sundays, and then we smell the mysterious scents of Theresa’s cooking.

The day we almost died together, I had been wasting time on Twitter, a new preoccupation for me. I’m a bad social networker. I have a family and a work life, and I sometimes feel that under the weight of one more demand, I’ll simply disintegrate—poof. So I committed Facebook suicide. But I was surprised to find that I enjoy Twitter. I appreciate the brevity, the water cooler atmosphere of clever gags and plugs for things to read and look at, curated by people I admire. It’s what I wanted Facebook to be, and without vacation photos.

On this Wednesday afternoon, I had to stop staring at my Twitter feed when I was overtaken by a need to sleep as forceful as a surge in a mosh pit. I never nap in the day, but around two o’clock, I curled up on my bed and fell straight to sleep. I awoke maybe a half-hour later to a faint beeping, then fell deeply asleep again, then reawoke. The smoke alarm, I deduced. The goddamn smoke alarm that goes off if we sauté.

I made it down the stairs and groggily climbed onto a chair to reach the device. I pulled out the battery and stood looking at it in one hand, the alarm in the other, marvelling at the fact that it was still beeping.

I don’t know how long I stood there trying to make sense of the battery-free beeping, but at some point I realized the sound was coming from a carbon monoxide detector in the living room. I’d plugged it in eight years earlier, during a fit of panicked, pregnant nesting. I distrusted the smoke detector because of its frequent beeping, and now I dismissed the carbon monoxide detector for the opposite reason: it never went off. I pulled it out of the wall.

But as I dragged myself up the stairs to bed, wondering when we got all those extra steps, something occurred to me: I felt really weird. My thoughts had big, roomy spaces between them. My head hurt. My stomach hurt. And then my fuzzy brain tossed up the old news reports that had prompted me to get the detector in the first place: carbon monoxide poisoning is how families die in their sleep.

I grabbed my cellphone and opened the front door wide. I dropped onto the front step and called 911: “I think there’s carbon monoxide in my house.”

The fire truck appeared within minutes, filling our narrow street. One of the neighbourhood’s new moms stopped, and her baby stared from its stroller as a fireman took a chair from our porch and settled me on the sidewalk.

“My neighbours—” I said, and suddenly I felt like crying. The firemen banged on their front door. No answer. I didn’t know what Mario and Theresa did all day, but what if they were sleeping too deeply to be roused?

I ran through a list of things I knew about them: they’d come to Canada from the Azores over 40 years ago and raised three kids in this house. We always knew the warm weather was official when their garden suddenly bloomed plastic green frogs that our children loved. But at the end of the previous summer, the frogs weren’t taken in, and the Christmas lights never came on. There had been an illness in the house, of indeterminate variety, communicated across the shared path to our doors on the rare days when they came outside. Every casual “How are you?” was now met with their clearest English: “Not good.”

Still, we proceeded as usual. At Christmas, two cards for the kids appeared in our mail slot, with a few bills carefully folded inside. We dropped off cookies. We told ourselves that they were okay because we could hear their TV. God knows what they heard of us over the years: screaming children, occasionally screaming adults. Late night dinner parties and renovations. They never complained.

On our block, change moves in one direction. House by house, the Portuguese and Polish couples who settled in half a century ago leave for the suburbs or the old-age home, or what comes after. People like them are replaced by people like us, busy, distracted, fumbling neighbours.

Finally, the banging of the firefighters at the back door got their attention, and they emerged into the sunlight. Mario seemed fine, but Theresa and I were taken into an ambulance to be tested for poisoning. Under the elephant snout of her oxygen mask, she was shaking and teary, clutching a box of medications. “It’s okay,” I told her, lifting my own oxygen mask. “It’s okay.”

I was cleared and released, but the ambulance left with Theresa in it.

The fireman explained that Theresa’s stove hadn’t ventilated properly. “But how did the carbon monoxide get into our house?” I asked.

“Can you smell their cooking?”

I nodded.

“Then the walls are porous,” he said.

At the door, he delivered a dramatic goodbye: “You saved their lives.” I felt proud, like the good neighbour I could be—the real-life social networker. Then he added: “Well, the detector saved you all.”

Katrina Onstad’s second novel, Everybody Has Everything, has just been published by McClelland and Stewart.

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