The room is dark and quiet. I linger in sleepless limbo. Outside my window, a congregation is forming, speaking loudly in a language I do not understand. I ignore them. An orange light emanates from the west. Several minutes pass, and the gradual loudening of voices stabilizes. Dean rises from his place on my couch and goes to the window to inspect the scene. “Wake up,” he tells me. “We’ve got to go. 着火了 着火了” Some time elapses before I am able to translate the sentence. The building has caught on fire.
I grab my laptop and rush to my roommate’s door, knocking loudly. We inform them of the situation and hurry down the old, wooden stairs. Gray streams of smoke drift slowly just outside the window; after a few floors, we can no longer see them. We wait by the door as streams of people rush by in both directions speaking Shanghainese and heavily-accented Mandarin. Everything I own is on the sixth floor. All my documents, clothes, trinkets, everything except my laptop.
Because I have forgotten my shoes, my feet are bare as I walk carefully upon the rain-slicked concrete. My roommate and her boyfriend descend the staircase hand-in-hand, looking about in dazed confusion. When they come to greet me, I am alone, and Dean has fled to inspect the damage. Fiona’s English abandons her in this time of distress, and her boyfriend’s English is nonexistent. I learn that I am virtually unable to speak Chinese when worried, and can only nod or respond in one-word sentences.
“Where’s Dean?” – “Gone.”
“Where are your shoes?” – “Forgot.”
“Would you like to go for a walk? It’s dangerous here.” – “Sure.”
Dean rejoins our company and informs us of situation. The building next to ours is engulfed in fire. We can hear glass from upper stories crashing to ground. Surely, as we speak, people are dying. We wonder aloud what the cause of this could have been, but our questions are in vain. We walk to the front gate where the police are pacing back and forth, speaking in a language lost to us. Fiona is in tears, hardly able to walk without support from her boyfriend. We’re exhausted, uncertain as to the fate of our belongings, confused and angry. Fiona’s face is a maze of dried tear trails; at their origin are large oval eyes sparkling under the weight of tears yet to be shed. Her boyfriend takes her by the hand and pulls her in the opposite direction. “We’re going for a walk,” he says. “It’s dangerous here. She needs to breathe fresh air.” Dean leaves shortly after, unable to stay still for very long. As I sit alone near the police, it begins to drizzle lightly and I hold myself by the shoulders for fear of freezing.
Dean has been gone for a while. I am nervous. I turn to the police, ashamed and embarrassed. “Pardon me,” I begin, “My Chinese isn’t very good, so please be patient.” They nod in approval. “What is it that I hear about the fire? You were saying something earlier that I didn’t quite understand.” “It’s been put out.” “Put out?!” I want to ask how far its spread, how many lives were lost, a thousand other questions, but my Chinese fails me. I am unable to make further conversation. I sit alone on the bench and watch the emergency vehicles as they circle my complex and listen to the sweeping of broken glass and brick and to the gradually fading voices in the familiar distance.