I don’t know where she is now, or if she’s alive. But I remember when we met. I was in the third class of our group to be hired by that Fire Department. She was in the fifth or sixth. We weren’t on the same crew, not even the same shift. But we were women. And thus, we knew each other. I left that job, in a toxic place, well before she did. Turns out, it was as unhealthy for her as it had been for me.
She helped me along the way. She was outside the establishment that I was so intent on fitting into and so she possessed more levity about the job than I did. When I decided to leave and pursue something better, she encouraged me. She supported me. She told me I was smart enough, deserving enough. She let me sleep on her couch.
It was on her couch, that one of our co-workers made me uncomfortable. He had come over while she was on shift and I was at her home alone. I was studying for my Paramedic exams. He kept moving closer and closer to me on the couch. He pressured me into accepting a back massage. Then he pinned me down and forced off my shift, unhooking my bra and asking me to trust him. Trust him as a friend, as a brother.
I finally got him off me and out the door, making it clear that I was not attracted to him. I went back to my studies. It would be years later that I would learn about how he pursued my housemate, that woman who’d been helping me. I learned about how he stalked her. How she once caught him in the arroyo behind her house, gazing toward her lit windows with a pair of binoculars.
I didn’t know any of that on the night she called me. I had moved away and moved on. I was clear across the country in New England. On a very cold night in New Hampshire, two years after I’d vacated that spot on her couch, my cell phone rang. The caller ID showed her name. I was on the tollway when she called, and as I realized the gravity of what was happening, I pulled off onto a service exit. I coasted into the New Hampshire Liquor Outlet parking lot, as vast as a football field and nearly empty in the winter dusk.
It was ten degrees out. In my mind, I can still see the neon sign I stared at while I listened to her and tried to make out her words. They were slurred. Slow. Sometimes so quiet that I could barely hear her. Something was terribly wrong.
Our conversation was light, stilted. It was about nothing. I asked her about the weather in Phoenix, where she was. Soft and slow, she said, “It’s…really…cold.”
Her voice was icy, like that of a lost hiker making a last phone call before she froze to death.
“What’s the temperature?” I asked, trying to figure out if she was outside or in, coherent or not.
“It’s … like…fifty.” She slurred.
As deeply worried about her as I was, I chocked back the bubble of laughter that all New Englanders express when they hear someone from the desert talk about how cold it is.
“What are you wearing? Do you need some more clothes on?” I asked, so that maybe I would have a way to describe her.
“I’m wearing our (Fire Department) sweatshirt,” she breathed.
She was in our casual uniform. That she used the term “our,” made me think she’d lost track of time, lost track of the fact that I didn’t work there anymore.
“Are you home?”
She wouldn’t answer for a minute. Her pace was getting slower. I could hear her breathing.
Her breath was getting heavy, slower, louder.
“Hey,” I paused. “What’s up? Talk to me.”
There was only breathing, then soft crying.
Louder now, “Listen to me. Did you take something?”
“Fuck that place,” she said.
“Tell me what you took.”
“Valium. … I …had some from…before.”
Heavy breaths. I could hear the spit in her throat.
“Hey!” I brightened my tone. “I wanna send you a Christmas card. I found this one with horses on it and I knew you’d like it. Give me your address again so I can mail to you.”
I had lived in her house for a couple of weeks, a couple years ago, and for the life of me and my Dispatcher brain, I could not remember her address. Not even the closest cross-streets. I could have driven directly to her house, but I had no idea what street or house number would get an ambulance to her. This was long before smart phones and Google Streetview.
All my training, all that work, all those 911 calls I answered and figured out where people were…it was failing me know. And I was failing her. She had swallowed a bunch of Valium and booze and who knows what else. And I was racing the clock. I was 4,000 miles away, shivering in the New Hampshire Liquor Store parking lot. And she was committing suicide in Arizona.
“Please,” I said. “Just give me your address.”
“Arrre you fffucking playing me Rawwwbin? Arreee youuu fffkeen playin’ me right now?” She was yelling. And slurring.
“No, baby, I’m not playing you. I love you. And I can’t remember where you live. Please tell me.”
“Yuurrrr fuckeeeeng playeeeng meee….” Click.
My heartbeat. The sound of my engine. The rhythm of windshield wipers I’d forgotten to turn off. The soft ticking of icy snow against my windshield. The defroster.
I didn’t want to call the Chief. I didn’t want to put her job, her reputation in the fire service at risk. I couldn’t call 911, I had nothing to tell them. I couldn’t call my old dispatch center. They had as much information as I did.
“The union. That’s it! I’ll call my old union rep.”
“I know he’s still there. He has access to personnel files. He can get her address.”
Thankfully, I still had his number in my phone. We hadn’t talked in a long, long time. When he answered, I cut to the chase. There was no time for pleasantries.
“Dude, you have to get in there and get her address out of her personnel file and call the Alarm Room. You gotta get a fucking truck over there. And send PD, they’re gonna need to force entry I’m sure.”
He was all business. “I’ll call you back.” He hung up.
I waited. I watched the snow blur the distance between me and the neon liquor sign. I shivered, even though the heat was blasting in my little car. I cried off and on. For her. For me. For that stupid place. For those heady, early days when we were young in the dream, when we still believed in a place that would later destroy us.
“I didn’t die. I left.” I said it to my windshield.
I chewed the flesh from my lips and the nails from my fingers. I don’t remember driving home, but that’s where I was when he called me back. We weren’t close anymore, he and I. But his voice was soft. That same many, my friend, had saved my life a couple years before, when I was at my lowest. Through his presence and his empathy, he lifted me out of utter despair, and I didn’t die.
“Well?” I asked.
“She didn’t die,” he said. “But she almost did.”
She had indeed overdosed. The truck got there in time. They made entry. The found her, breathing. At the hospital, they gave her reversal agents and made her drink charcoal. Someone found her mother, who came to her side. And she felt like shit, but she lived. She lived to go back to that job. And to quit that job, just like I had. She lived to do something else. I’m not sure what.
I never spoke to either one of them again. And I never sent another Christmas card.