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  • Natural Disasters
  • Alexis Schaitkin (bio)

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we were living in oklahoma ironically. Obviously it is not possible to live in a place ironically, but we were twenty-four and freshly married, so it was not obvious to us. It would not become obvious to me for a very long time; by then, by now, this clarity would be pointless, the thinly exhilarating aha! of a riddle solved at a cocktail party.

Three months before we relocated to the Sooner State, Steven had come home from work with the news that he’d been offered a promotion and a significant raise for a position in his company’s Oklahoma City office. He shared this information tentatively. He was always tentative with me, always eager for my approval and watchful for the barbs of my scorn, and this was another thing that should have been obvious to me but wasn’t. The company had one hundred thirty active oil wells in the state pumping out a hundred twenty thousand barrels a day. Steven was a chemical engineer; he would monitor and, if necessary, modify the desalting process in the crude oil distillation unit at a refinery on the I-240 corridor. I don’t mean to suggest that I understood any of this. I didn’t, nor did I try to. I delighted in letting the particulars of Steven’s work—all that science, all those numbers— sail over my head. I suppose I thought my mind too pure to be sullied by such things.

This would be Steven’s first post away from corporate headquarters. We were living on First Avenue at the time, in a studio apartment the most notable features of which were its odor of mice decaying in the walls and its location across from the UN. The odor inculcated in us a sense of the small realities of our life, while the UN, with its sweep of flags snapping in the wind, its kaftaned and suited and dashikied diplomats eating hot dogs and shawarma on the plaza before the glittering glass and marble of Niemeyer’s Secretariat building, reminded us of its spacious potentials.

In New York we were broke, but this was okay, even fun, because we assumed that someday soon we would be comfortable, and would look back on these days with a tender longing that was not the same as actually wishing to relive something. Our faith in this narrative made it possible to enjoy things that were not, in themselves, enjoyable. I made a pot of chili con carne and fed us for a week on six dollars. Steven discovered a bookstore near the World Trade Center devoted exclusively to ornithology, where for five dollars apiece the owner would let you sit all day in the air conditioning. Perhaps our faith in this narrative is what allowed us to delight even in [End Page 81] our frequent arguments, and to misapprehend them as markers of our marriage’s durability rather than its fragility.

It was the notion of spacious potentials that Steven’s job offer awakened in me. I remember the moment clearly. It was July of 1990, one of those callously hot New York nights when the urban winds seem lifted from the surface of Venus. In the face of this, our stalwart air conditioner may as well have been made of putty. I was in the lightest thing I owned, a slip I’d bought to wear beneath an unfortunate bridesmaid dress. Steven had just arrived home from work, and was dressed uncomplainingly in a suit. We were sitting on the corduroy couch in our tiny living area. (“You could sit on the couch and touch the stove with your toes,” I had told our future children a hundred times in my head.) The origin of the corduroy couch was a story we liked to tell. We had salvaged it from the sidewalk on a drizzly summer day, and it took weeks for it to dry out in our apartment. I can still smell it, like some colossal, sodden basset hound returned from a hunt. The couch, the mice, bodies underground on...


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