I don’t prepare for storms. When the newscasters start preaching doom and gloom and pointing wildly at maps of orange and red masses crawling over my tri-state area, I change the channel. When the snowplows start gathering and the trucks drop salt on the highways, I take the back roads. And when people crowd the grocery stores, line up in the aisles, empty them of toilet paper and water and matches and cans of beans, as if they would really eat plain beans out of a can, I stay home and read on the couch.
I remember when I was six years old and my mother purchased a single gallon of water on December 31, 1999, in preparation for Y2K. The other people at the store were running around frantically grabbing anything they could, and she stopped to browse the discounted baked goods. With my clammy little hand wrapped in hers, I asked her why we weren’t buying a bunch of stuff like everyone else. As she pulled her hand away to inspect the sell by dates on two boxes of donuts, she said, “People have been predicting the end of the world for centuries, and it hasn’t happened yet. I don’t see how the tick of a clock could be the thing that puts us over the edge.” She placed the chocolate frosted donuts in the cart, and in my excitement I quickly forgot what I was so worried about.
The gallon of water stayed in the basement for years. Once, when we were clearing off the shelves, I asked her why she’d bothered to buy it, and she shrugged. “Insurance. I figured, if I bought one thing, nothing would happen.” She blew a cloud of dust from the container and said with an air of finality, “The Y2K water stays.”
In her own way, she was a little superstitious, I guess.
So maybe it’s my mother’s influence, or perhaps my own skepticism, but I still don’t prepare for storms. I have a few little insurance items of my own: a flashlight I bought at summer camp that still runs on its original batteries; a box of matches left by the previous tenant; a pack of Gatorade that seemed to just appear in my pantry (I don’t even like Gatorade); a collection of miniature Yankee candles; and yes, the very same gallon of Y2K water. I kept it when we cleaned out the house. Call me sentimental.
On a dark day in February, I turn the news on in the morning and they warn of an impending storm. At work, my colleagues glance anxiously out the windows every few seconds, worrying aloud that it might not be safe to drive home. As if their cars will be buried in a sudden avalanche of snow. I nod my quiet assent and say nothing. I know the storm won’t be bad, but it’s given them something to talk about, and why take that away?
I don’t listen to the radio on the way home; I connect my phone and listen to music, shuffled from the same 100 or so songs I always listen to. If I had listened to the radio, I’m sure it would have been Snow Watch central. They’d be calling it a “snownado” or some other terribly cute portmanteau. The roads are packed with cars crawling home to hunker down, honking at each other as if a single car is interrupting the flow of traffic. I’m glad I went grocery shopping earlier this week.
Any trace of sunlight is gone by the time I get home at 5:45 PM. I change out of my work clothes and into a pair of sweatpants and a ratty sweatshirt from college. When it gets dark so early, I always end up making dinner as soon as I get home. I knew this morning that it would be a good day for soup—I can feel a soup day in the air—and threw some vegetables and lentils in the crockpot, so dinner is already made.
It's only after I’ve eaten dinner that I realize I’m out of milk.
As a kid, I never understood why my mother got so upset when we ran out of milk. It was the same when she asked me to take something out of the freezer to thaw. I just didn’t see why it was a big deal. Now, though, as an adult who, inexplicably, can’t fall asleep without a glass of milk before bed, I understand.
I’ll have to go to the grocery store.
I pull on a coat, some boots, and a hat, but I don’t bother to look out the window, so it’s only once I’m outside that I see the snow. It falls in big flakes, spiraling in the still air. I climb in my car, but I don’t turn on the heat. I like to see how far I can drive without turning it on. My breath comes out in white puffs and my hands freeze on the steering wheel, but still I don’t turn on the heat. I don’t need to waste the gas.
The grocery store parking lot is deserted. As I close the car door behind me, I’m struck with eeriness and dread, the kind I can only feel in an empty parking lot at night. Layered on top of my apprehension is relief that I won’t have to fight a crowd. I suppose I could have gone to a gas station for milk, but I only passed one on the way here, and countless other cars were already snaked around the pumps, desperate to fuel up before the storm. Besides, there’s always something a little off about gas station milk. It doesn’t feel right.
The sliding doors open as I approach, releasing the heat trapped inside. I shed my coat as I walk through. Grocery stores are never the right temperature. In the winter, they’re saunas. In the summer, you need a parka just to survive the frozen section.
I amble through the empty aisles with the shelves cleared of staple items. There is almost no cereal left. How much cereal can a household possibly go through? I know I should hurry, but there’s something peaceful about an empty grocery store. I could stand and debate two cans of tomatoes for twenty minutes, and no one would squeeze past me with a full cart and a dirty look.
By the time I reach the dairy section, though, I’m feeling sufficiently spooked. I can’t possibly be the only one who put off buying supplies. Can I?
I’m making my way to the cash register when I suddenly trip and fall to the floor, the gallon of milk flying out of my hands and bursting open. Some of it splashes into my face and onto the coat in my hands, and I try to dab it with my shirt. After a moment of muttering curses, I finally notice what I tripped over: a baby carrier with its cover pulled closed. I forget the milk momentarily as I reach forward and open the carrier, only to make eye contact with a wide-eyed infant who immediately begins to sob.
Frantically, I look to my left and right, but no one comes to my rescue. No distraught mother or absentminded father. Just me, the baby, and a gallon of spilled milk. With no other choice in sight, I curl my hand around the carrier handle and hoist it up. It’s heavier than I expect. The baby doesn’t cease crying, but I suppose I wouldn’t either. I coo in what I hope is a soothing way as I wander the aisles, looking for a wayward parent, but they’re still deserted. Only one register is open, and the cashier appears to be about 16, with a bored expression that suggests she will be absolutely useless in this situation.
“I dropped a gallon of milk in aisle 3,” I tell her sheepishly, and she just rolls her eyes. “Sorry,” I add, gesturing to the wailing baby as if that explains everything. She doesn’t reply, so I book it towards the exit and through the doors. Standing in the vestibule, I begin to panic. Is this kidnapping? Am I a kidnapper? With my free hand, I pat my pockets, looking for my phone, but of course I left it in the car. With a sigh, I say to the baby, “Sorry, little one.”
Outside, the snow is falling heavy, and I close the carrier again to shield the baby. I was only inside a short time, but my car is coated in an inch of snow. I open the back door and gently place the baby on the seat. There’s no car seat attachment in my car (why would there be?) so I pull a seatbelt across the carrier and hope that works. I’m smart enough to keep an ice scraper in my car, at least, so I turn on the car and the heat, and begin knocking the snow from my windshield.
When I’ve cleared most of it, I pick up my phone and dial 911. A dispatcher answers, and I explain what happened. I tell her I have the heat on, and the baby is safe, and I swear I won’t leave the parking lot. She says someone will come as soon as they can, but the road conditions are bad, and it could be a while.
It seems to me that she should be more concerned.
As we wait for help to arrive, I move to the back seat and sing lullabies. My voice is scratchy, numb from the cold, but the child’s gaze is unwavering, and I gradually feel my own anxiety fading, soothed by my own singing. I go through my entire repertoire of children’s songs, winter songs, holiday songs, and when I forget the words I just mumble. The baby has no idea.
During a poor rendition of Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star, my mind wanders to my own childhood, and the near constant presence of songs. My mother sang all the time, whether she was alone or not. She sang along to the radio in department stores and didn’t bother to keep her voice quiet.
I still miss her. With her lack of planning and her skepticism of forecasters, you might think she finally lost her life because she failed to plan for something foreseeable. That’s not what happened, though. She was diagnosed with cancer, and there was nothing she could have done, nothing she could do, nothing I could do.
So, when people ask why I don’t prepare, this is what I tell them: because in the end, no matter how prepared you are, you can’t prevent something terrible from happening.
I look at the child next to me. If I had prepared for the storm, I wouldn’t have come to the grocery store tonight. And then who would have saved the baby? The teenage cashier?
When the officer taps on my window, I’m relieved. I tell my story again while she retrieves the car seat. She takes the baby from me and fastens the buckles on the seat.
And then I’m alone. The lights of the store still flood the parking lot, lending a sparkle to the still falling snow. I drive home slowly with my hazard lights on. At home, the power is out and the apartment is chilly. I light one of my candles with one of my old matches, wrap myself in a blanket, and sing myself to sleep.