Helpless

From 2003 to 2007, we lived in a second-story apartment in one of the poorer neighborhoods on the south side of Buenos Aires, Argentina. Both Ellie and Scott were born while we lived in that house, so all my earliest motherhood memories are contained within its cinderblock walls.

There isn’t space here to describe the apartment in detail, but a few relevant facts will be helpful. Our apartment was above a storefront, which at one point contained a verduleria (vegetable store) but while we lived there contained only old rusty equipment, dirt, and cockroaches. When you came in our front door (before walking up the stairs) a door on your left took you into that scary domain. We had a key to that door for two reasons.

One, the fuse box to the whole building was located in the downstairs, and since we blew the very inadequate fuses often, we needed access to it. Two, the water tank for our house was on the roof, two stories above the street, and frequently the water pressure was not great enough to pump water up that high. Out behind the old verduleria a second pump at ground level could get us much-needed water if we went out and manually turned it on for a while. The pump was surrounded by a jungle of weeds and fenced in with old corrugated metal siding that was at least seven feet high. Below the spigot was a barrel of water that, in the summer, was the breeding ground for millions of mosquitos. It wasn’t a fun place to visit, but if you’ve ever had to live without water in your house for more than a few hours, you’ll know why we were thrilled to have the key to this unsavory paradise.

One hot day in the summer of 2005, I strapped Ellie into her high chair with some cooked noodles, cheese chunks, and fruit pieces for her lunch. As I’ve written about before, feeding my baby was a major stressor for me, but I had also discovered that when she was contained and distracted with food, I suddenly had a few precious minutes to accomplish something without her underfoot. That day, I was hoping to tackle the pile of dishes in the kitchen, but when I turned on the sink to get started, I only a few drops gurgled out. The tank was out of water.

I should have taken this as an excuse to sit down instead of washing anything, but I knew that there would be no water until someone flipped on the outside pump, and I was in desperate need of a shower later. So, I checked on Ellie, saw that she was still happily eating, and grabbed the key to run down to the pump.

I hurried through the insect-infested verduleria, used the key to open the back door, pushed through the weeds, and flipped the switch on the pump. Immediately, I could hear it begin to send water up to my house. Slapping away mosquitos, I turned to go back upstairs and saw that the door had swung shut behind me.

And the keys were in the lock on the inside.

As you might have guessed, the door locked automatically. It was metal and one of the only things not rusted in the whole place. There was no way I was getting through it.

At first, I was only mildly annoyed. I knew Nate was working in his office upstairs. His window looked onto our patio which was right above my head. So I yelled for him to help. I yelled and I yelled and I yelled. When my throat started to hurt, I finally conceded that he couldn’t hear me.

Fine, I thought, if he isn’t going to free me, I’ll free myself. I knew on the other side of the fence, the empty lot next door was open to the street. I pushed through the weeds to where some cinderblock were piled by the metal walls of the enclosure. I scrambled up them, and found handholds on the corrugated metal. I tried to pull myself up.

Don’t laugh. For a second it actually seemed possible. Then my arms gave out and I slid down the wall, getting a small scrape from a protruding screw along the way. I ignored it. I was pretty sure my tetanus shot was up to date, and anyway I had more pressing problems. My arms felt shaky from the attempt, sweat was pouring down my back, and the mosquitos were relentless. Plus, my baby was upstairs unattended in her high chair.

I yelled again. I banged on the metal door, hoping the sound would echo up to Nate’s ears. I yelled some more. I even tried to climb out again.

No luck.

Finally, I sat down on the pile of cinderblocks, miserably uncomfortable, worried about Ellie, and completely disgusted by my own stupidity and weakness. It was like a slap in the face of all my capable, independent notions of myself. There I was, trapped in the most ridiculous manner, and completely helpless to do anything about it.

It was everything I hated. Plus mosquitos.

I started to laugh, a little hysterically maybe, but also just incapable of any other reaction to such an absurd predicament.

That’s when I heard Nate call my name.

“Here!” I shouted. “I’m down here! By the pump! I’m locked out!”

It took a few minutes for him to follow my voice onto the patio and understand what I was saying and a few more minutes to get downstairs and unlock the door with the key conveniently waiting for him.

As soon as the door opened, I darted inside, shaking, laughing, crying a little, too, I think. He had Ellie in his arms, perfectly safe but a little mad from being trapped in her chair so long. I knew exactly how she felt.

“I heard Ellie crying and when she didn’t stop, I saw that she was in her chair, and I couldn’t find you anywhere,” Nate said.

I explained what had happened. He laughed at my silly blunder, and I laughed with him. But inside I was shaking, too. I had only been out there maybe thirty minutes, but the adrenalin made it feel like hours.

Well, the adrenalin and the unwelcome reminder that it only takes the stupidest little blunder to render me completely helpless. Being human is such a weird tightrope walk of courage and competence over this chasm of our limitations and frailty. I try not to look down too often.

But when I do, you’d better believe I’m going to laugh. It’s the only way I can keep my balance.

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