On a March morning, while the sun was still slowly creeping its way across a nearly-cloudless blue sky, Amina woke up with a jolt, moments before her alarm was set to go off. She went about her morning the way she usually did. Brushed her teeth, shook her half-asleep mother on the couch and started the stovetop coffee maker before anyone else was fully moving. She went through her pile of laundry, looking for a shirt she was almost positive wasn’t actually dirty but she had thrown in the basket for organizational purposes. In their shared bed, Amina’s little brother was still curled up in the tangle of blankets, protecting himself from the frigid cold that encompasses the small room that has two front-facing windows.
Amina always left the house like this, almost-frantic and unsure — taking one last look before she stepped out the door as if when she came back, it might be entirely different. And sometimes, it was. A house once organized and tidy by Amina the night before might transform into a whirlwind of clutter while her mother was in search for one specific item she absolutely needed in that moment. A fridge, filled with just enough food to hold them over for the week, emptied by her little brother who was hungry on a day there was no one to take him to school.
Today, it was the strip of stores around the corner of her apartment that had changed. As Amina was walking out of her apartment building, she noticed a cluster of neighbors holding the front door open, one foot stepping inside the building but bodies turned towards the street, the way a magnet pulls a paper clip irrevocably to its surface.
When something is strange on East 194th street, Amina, as well as most of her neighbors, didn’t flinch. It takes ten minutes of an escalating fight outside her window before she even notices the commotion, even then giving it another few seconds before she popped her head out onto the fire escape to see what was going on. When there was a strange man sleeping in the hallway of her building, she told herself she would wait a few days before mentioning it to her super. Weeks went by and she never did.
So, like any other day, Amina didn’t fully register the oddity of her neighbor’s still and drawn expressions. Until she herself stepped outside the front door, the sky opening up before her.
Mothers stood, arms crossed and feet curled in their slippers and children huddled next to them, hands gripping the arms of their bookbags. The entire bodega staff stood out in the cold without coats on — including the sweet Dominicana, Marisol, who always greeted Amina’s entrance into the bodega with a smile and made her coffee without having to ask her how she wanted. There were barricades, wet concrete and more white people on the corner of East 194th than she had ever seen before at one given time.
Most of them were firefighters. The rest were news reporters.
As far as she could see, the sky was blue up above but at eye level, the sky was smoke — the color of canvas notebook paper. The kind of notebook paper Amina carried in her bag where she doodled eyes and lips next to the answers to her homework assignment.
The corner laundromat, pizza shop, the beauty salon and grocery store were engulfed. The extent of the damage was indistinguishable. Where the fire started, where it ended - if it ended at all - was lost in the sounds of walkie-talkies, the shuffling of cameras and reporters and in the congestion of residents, both cornered and enthralled in the chaos.
Amina fleed, in the other direction — I still have things to do, I can’t stand here all day, she reassured herself.
The last time there was a fire on her block, only a couple months ago, Amina laid in bed, her brother snoring next to her while the smell of what she could only identify as the smell of summer seeped into her room. The smell of summer was really the smell of charcoal grills and her father’s carne asada on Fourth of July, her uncles setting fireworks off on the street — little particles of heat hopping through the air. The smell of summer was her boyfriend throwing parties at a house that was not his in Kingsbridge Heights, the smell of burning branches in a garbage can turned fire pit, the smoke trapped in the helix of her curls for days and the taste of Corona and purple Doritos scraping against on her tongue.
In actuality, the smell of summer was the fifth floor of the building on the corner of Briggs Ave and East 194th catching fire in the middle of the night last December, Amina would come to find out through social media an hour later. Her breath got caught in her throat. In a moment of both relief and mourning, Amina pulled her brother closer to her body. There was something about fires in the Bronx that sat uneasy in her stomach, a sense of history repeating itself. She felt guilty for being relieved it wasn’t her building, but relieved she was. Amina went to bed that night dreaming of empty buildings with only unharmed children’s toys left behind on the floor, the walls colored black from old fires.
In the months that followed, Amina had almost forgotten about that fire, despite its close proximity. Until this moment, her initial grief had been lost the way most tragedies that just barely touch you do, not out of disregard but by the protective nature of dissociation. Until this moment, Amina was able to evade the feeling that at any moment, a cloud of smoke can take the place of her home.
A honking car summons her out of her foggy memories. She, instinctually, takes a step back from the curb.
All of the streets leading to East 194 were closed off, except Valentine Ave which was the highest point of East 194th Street, each block thereafter gradually lowering down to where East 194 met Webster Avenue. Amina stood at the top of the hill. In front of her, a stream of cars trudged behind one another, one driver after another turning their head to look towards the smoke — wondering for a moment what caused the disruption of their morning commute, a flash of concern before going on their daily routine.
Amina could see her neighbors, still huddled around a barricade of fire trucks and firefighters, watching as places they walk past and visit every day were carved out hollow by both fire and water. It occurred to Amina then that it was only nine in the morning. The laundromat opens at six. She wondered then whose clothes were burned, lost in the midsts of their washing cycle. Her mind flashes to the pile of laundry in the corner of her room. Her brother only had a few clean pair of underwears left.
It wasn’t until that moment that Amina felt the emptiness of her hands, void of her morning coffee. She stuffs her hands into her jacket pockets, turning on her heels forcefully.
Enough, she told herself, I’m not helping anyone by standing here.
But as she ascends up the hill towards the subway station, Amina can’t help but take one last glance over her shoulder at the streets behind her.
A construction worker sticks his head out the window of a new building on the block, a helicopter hovered above in the part of the sky that was blue, untouched by smoke and chaos. The notebook-colored smoke engulfed the corner of E 194th Street and Marion Ave. From here, the smoke just looked like low-flying clouds, quiet and ready to swallow everything whole