Brownout, blackout, burnout. (Part 2)

black·out (blkout) n.

1. A cutoff of electrical power, especially as a result of a shortage, a mechanical failure, or overuse by consumers.
2. The concealment or extinguishment of lights that might be visible to enemy aircraft during an air raid.
3. a. The sudden extinguishment of all stage lights in a theater to indicate the passage of time or to mark the end of an act or scene.

b. A short, comic vaudeville skit that ends with lights off.
4. A temporary loss of memory or consciousness.
5. a. A suppression, as of news, by censorship.

b. Restriction or prohibition of telecasting a sports event in order to ensure ticket sales.
Synonyms: blackout, faint, swoon, syncope
These nouns denote a temporary loss of consciousness: suffers blackouts at high altitudes; fell in a dead faint at the sight of the body; sank to the ground in a swoon; was taken to the clinic in a state of syncope.
The air condition is lulling Riley into a deeper sleep in the downstairs living room. I should be taking this opportunity to look for work. Instead, I sit next to his play pen and inhale his cookies and lavender scent.
It’s just past noon on a weekday and Cecil and Joy have the day off. I hear my brother’s dogs shuffling their feet in the driveway as they search for shade and lap up water from their bowls. My brother is sleeping upstairs in his room, and will likely continue to do so deep into the day. As I sit here, staring at my baby’s chest rising and falling, I can’t help but think of how immensely lucky I am, and how thankful I am for my parents.

For a long time, I weaved the mysticism of my parents’ pre-family lives with grim tales of our family struggle. I had no idea where fanciful fairy tales might give way to real life, and if I’m honest I can tell you that I still don’t know. Did my father really stab a man? Did my uncle really kill people? Did my grandfather really have the ability to talk to bees and an amulet that kept him from getting shot by bullets? Historical accounts, exaggerations and whimsy – they are all mixed up into one gigantic mass of maybe.

In the transcript of life, these accounts are not italicized, omitted, or blacked out in broad strokes of ink. They sit side by side on a page, claiming equal importance and validity, as if memoirs of a girlhood among ghosts.

*****

It is warm when I realize that the power has shut down. Lost in my thoughts, I must have missed the collective groan of my neighbors and the expected declaration from the man across the street. “Brownout!” His announcement ushers in a collective sigh: not just of acquiescence, but of relief. It’s okay, we paid the electricity bill.

I open the windows and front door, pick up the wood and cloth fan, and try to stop Riley from sweating. There are already droplets on his brow, which doesn’t surprise me since he can sweat even when the air conditioner is on full-blast.

As my arms take turns swathing Riley in the cool breeze of broad strokes, I remember the last big black out of New York City. According to the internet, it happened in 2003, but my memory places it much earlier, to a time when my brother was not yet a ‘tween and I had barely entered my teens.

It was summer: humid, sticky, and oppressive. The workday was almost done, and inexplicably, the power had gone out. My parents were home with me and my brother, and having grown up in the Philippines, were old pros at dealing with electricity outages. They bought take-out and set up foldable tables and chairs in the backyard, and we all talked and laughed as we ate dinner and complained about the heat.

Mom dug through the bottom drawers of the china cabinet for candles and matches, and while she was bent over, examining her finds in the diminishing sunlight, she muttered to herself, “Geesh. I thought this only happened in the Philippines.”

Dad talked to us about looters. He was sure they would appear. How many and in what neighborhoods, he couldn’t say for certain. But a crime wave would pop. He swore it was unavoidable. (It didn’t happen.)

Later, as my family and I sat on the front stoop, I thought about the Summer of Sam. One of my favorite pastimes was imagining what I would do if faced with historical drama: would I cower in fear, or would I stand up for something? Would I fade into the background? Would I die?

The older men of the block congregated to the side of our house, exchanging news of how long the blackout was expected to last and where else it was happening. I watched it all – the terror, the fright – and felt as if the beginning of a horror movie was unfolding before me. A high-pitched shriek of fear and adrenaline ripped through my body. What if this was it? What if all hell broke loose in New York City on this particular night and hordes of people mobbed the streets, flipping over cars and tearing through houses in order to steal and satiate their primal need for bloodlust? Should I sleep with my shoes on and a small bag of necessities packed and ready to go? Should I tell my parents about the escape routes I had planned? Who were our allies? I never trusted the mechanic on our block…

My father turned away from the other men and stubbed out his Marlboro Light with the seasoned efficacy of a man who’s been smoking since his early teens. Despite his chain-smoking, his chest seemed puffed up. He had the air of no-nonsense, been-there-done-that. Other times, his display of machismo would signal to me a superiority complex, and my need to rebel against the existing patriarchy would rear its head. During the blackout, though, I was grateful for my dad’s leadership and charisma.

When we went back inside the house, I noticed that my mother had washed the dishes and tidied the house more than usual. This confirmed my fears of a raid, and my paranoia was only assuaged by the knowledge that with everything in its right place, there were no impediments to our speedy escape. I wondered if my mom had the same thoughts. I also wondered if she equated “robbers” with “guests”.

My senses seemed to be working double over-time, and the night was loud with static: summer, sex, and police sirens; an audible but obvious awareness of the blackout’s effects and implications; heightened energy; anxiety; urgency; danger; lust. I couldn’t help but wonder how many people would get high off of the warm warning signs of war, and succumb to sex. Or violence.

It was darker than I thought New York could ever be, as if the city’s parents had come home early, kicked out the party people, and sentenced its offspring to steep in dark solicitude and worry. There were plans brewing beneath the blackened streetlights. Moon-made shadows faded into the all-consuming blanket of darkness. Party people were dispersing the streets and congregating in other strees, possibly forming lynch mobs and riots.

The darkness was thick and black as a cauldron as all of these sensations bubbled to the top of my skin. I felt like I was watching from behind the curtains of my own eyes, as if the magnitude of reality was too much for me to stand. I saw my dad bring our dog, Kato, into the house, and that’s when I knew my dad meant business, and that my paranoia was well-founded.  Kato, was a chow-chow/collie mix with the ferocious heart and golden fur of a lion. He was loyal, obedient, and house-trained, and the only reason he stayed outside was because of my mom’s fear of him.

That night, after my mom had gone to work and as Kato kept sentry in front of the master bedroom door, my dad fanned my brother and I with a copy of The Daily News. The heat was flying off of us in huge waves. Sweat must have been pouring from his forehead and armpits.

As I stand over Riley’s playpen and dutifully fan him, I see myself in my dad and mom: responsibly taking charge of household tasks then shuffling to work; never complaining or making us feel inept or unloved; feeling one with the role of parent. They have instilled in me not only the capacity to act in this loving manner, but also the desire to do so, if only to prove my love.

So easily, as my back becomes sopping wet, other parallels dawn on me. Rob was 27 and I was 24 when Riley was born: the same ages as my parents when I was born. I spent the first few years of my life shuttling between New York and the Philippines, a lot like Riley’s doing. And my parents, even though they saw warning signs of hardship and difficulty, surged on with their relationship because it’s the only thing they knew how to do.

The other parts – my angsty teen years, my parents’ dysfunctional marriage, mine and Rob’s many problems, etc. – are conveniently blacked out from this version of my story as I stand over Riley’s playpen and ensure his comfort and good health. Most cleverly, my brain has wiped clean all of the assumptions and generalities that one could draw from my life and experiences. They are reduced to a loose collection of acts as the actors fret about on stage: my parents, me, Rob, my brother, Riley, Rob’s parents, friends, etc. Those who ignore history are condemned to repeat it… Learn from others’ mistakes. You can’t live long enough to make them all yourself.

Perhaps, if I was smarter, I’d pick apart the pieces, overturn all the parts, and find a spine of meaning connecting it all and shining some reason onto the whole ridiculous and amazing affair.

In due time, perhaps that’s exactly what I’ll do.

Right now, I just want to experience the play-by-play as it’s happening and trust that it will etch itself onto my soul so I can share it after I’ve had my fill.

Blackout.

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