Near Miss

Being close to a hurricane.

Thursday morning, drinking icewater before the hurricane arrives.

How exactly to describe the fear I feel looking at the regional weather radar? I’m not sure whether it can even be called fear. I’m not really afraid afraid of Hurricane Isabel. Originally, when Isabel was a strong Category 5 hurricane that the NOAA had predicted would go straight up the Chesapeake Bay, I kind of was.

But then Isabel got knocked down to Category 2 and the predicted track changed so that it would make landfall on the Outer Banks and head inland, to my west. The worst we’ll probably get is steady rain and wind at the hurricane’s periphery, if it manages to remain a hurricane for much longer after it started rolling over Virginia.

Sure, that’s something to prepare for. I bought a gallon of water (generic Giant brand — the only kind they had left in the grocery store when I went two nights ago), picked up new batteries, even borrowed a wind-up radio from my father. But fear is supposed to be for stuff that’s going to kill you. Stuff that’s going to cut you up, make your girlfriend never trust you again, rip your house from its foundation — you know, the kind of thing that’s going to land you in a forlorn country song.

The way Isabel’s shaping up, it looks like none of that stuff is going to happen. But then why does everything at work have that anxious, pace-around-the-room vibe that back stage has five minutes before the show starts? A lot of people haven’t even bothered to come in, even though nothing is supposed to hit us until the evening

The gusts on the Bay Bridge have hit 30 miles per hour, a whisper passes through us. They’re going to close it when they hit 50. This also has no direct bearing on me. I live about 15 minutes away from work, and about the most difficult-to-navigate feature I have to hit is a set of train tracks. Still, I keep thinking about when exactly I’ll leave work today. I’m feeling sick anyway — you know, the blecchy onset of a cold — so there’s lots of reasons to weigh, lots of facts to consider, lots of timings to be worked out.

As I walk along the hallway to the sound studio, I look outside. It’s overcast outside, with a faint breeze. The leaves on the trees are deep green and the asphalt of the road is a shade darker than I remember it being. Still, I wouldn’t even stop to consider it if a hurricane wasn’t set to arrive in a few hours.

Ooh, a few hours. That’s the kind of phrase that they use in serious documentaries about people getting lost at sea. Maybe there is something worth being afraid of in here.

The governor decides to shut down the state government at 1 p.m., but of course we hear about it at 1:30. Whatever. I’m rolling through nearly-empty roads, up and down hills through a drizzle, back to my apartment. Radio’s turned off, wipers on low. I want to pay attention to things now.

This feels good. Trundle up the stairs, lock the door behind me, close up the windows but leave the sliding balcony door open a tad. Grab a blanket from bed, camp out on the sofa, load up the radar on the laptop. It’s the only way to tell whether anything is happening — the wind has picked up a little now, so that the branches of the trees outside wave like sea anemones caught in a current.

Hours pass, and rain comes and goes. For dinner I make tacos for myself; my theory is, if you’re going to be without power for a while, might as well go out with some semblance of style. All of this passes without incident. I flip on the TV for a few minutes at a time, trying to figure out what’s going on. I can’t find much out about the Outer Banks, which should have gotten the worst of it by now.

Silent is a good word for what it’s like. Nobody driving anywhere; no kids biking around the apartment complex. No arguments, no phone calls, no music. We’re all just waiting for it to happen — but what that it is, nobody is quite sure. I’ve been gobbling up information about Isabel all week; when it’ll hit us, how strong it’ll be. I’ve built up all kinds of permutations of weather in my mind. But then maybe the predictions will be wrong. Maybe everything I’ve read about isn’t really relevant. They’re just words and thoughts, after all.

In the space between what could be and what is, there’s only wind.

The rain turns torrential once it’s dark. I can only see it through the parking lot lights, in the ripples of sheets of water. It’s like a strong summer thunderstorm in intensity. But somehow I thought it would be more. The only thing out of the ordinary is a burble of electric appliances and a slight dimming of lights — so slight I wonder if maybe I just blinked without realizing it — when something goes briefly weird with the power. But that’s it. It’s just rain.

At midnight, the wind finally comes in earnest. High, almost shrieking, rustling, thrashing. Wind is supposed to mean change: a rush from warm to cold, a shift from past to present. But there’s no change that I can see tonight. The storm ended an hour ago. Just wind for wind’s own sake; a sound tied only to a memory of the physical world, like the faroff train whistle I hear each night before I go to bed.

In the end, the wind ends and I fall asleep, but I don’t remember which happens first.

The next morning brings trees missing leaves and branches, broken traffic lights, and a weird, unfamiliar kind of feeling. Not disappointment. Only an idiot would feel disappointment at having a hurricane miss you. Something else. Maybe an absence. Maybe a silence of a different kind. It lingers for days, and I can’t think of a name for it.

Article © 2003 by Chris Klimas