The Day Before, by Trevy Thomas

As soon as my husband left, I opened the basement door and made myself enter the dark, sometimes moldy hole in the bottom of our home. I’ve lived in five houses with basements and avoided every one of them. This basement had become a storage place for the things we seldom used. I’d prefer that it remain empty so there would never be a reason to visit it, but my husband believes in storage. Now I had a reason of my own to need it.

Most of the stuff that was piled around the edges of the small concrete cave would be useless: Christmas lights, a spare cabinet, collections of things that once belonged to people now dead—the ones who lived and left their lives just in the nick of time. Theirs was an era of bomb shelters that proved unnecessary. I was no longer sure that would be true for me.

As the U.S. and North Korea batted nuclear threats to each other like a ping-pong ball, my anxiety grew until I too was puppeteered to action. Determined to educate myself on wartime preparations, I knew it was best to act in secret. My husband didn’t believe there would be a nuclear war, or, if there were, that we’d die immediately. He thought preparations were foolish, and I worried he might dispose of mine, particularly the lame bag of paper plates and can of green beans I’d managed to stash so far.

My talk about preparing seemed to upset him. At first, I thought it was because it made him worry he’d married a woman with potentially questionable intellect. But I noticed him pay attention as national discussions continued, and the CDC issued statements suggesting such preparations. Then I began to suspect that what was really underlying his denial of the situation was fear—a motivator we shared. Our responses to it were just different. Maybe taking precautions made the unthinkable too real a possibility for him, in the same way not being prepared made the potential horror worse for me.

I used a big chunk of the morning studying Google search results about various preparation tactics: sheltering in place versus moving, understanding different types of radiation particles, what to pack in an emergency kit—which we should definitely have, according to government officials. We were absurdly unprepared. I started a list on an orange sticky note, which quickly filled. Then I opened a Word document and created a bulleted list. As a writer, this is the kind of preparation that felt most comfortable. I was beginning to wish my husband believed in the possibility of surviving disaster, so he would take over readying the creepy basement and leave me to my checklists.

There were so many things I’d have to assemble. Flashlights, lanterns, batteries, canned food, water, medicine, newspapers for dog (and human?) elimination, trash bags, a hand-crank radio, spare cell phone battery, change of clothes in case either of us entered the basement from a radiated outdoors, wipes for washing contaminated skin. I pushed back from my laptop, feeling overwhelmed, and began to understand why my husband didn’t want to face this. My quiet day grew silent, ominous, creepy. I had visions of eating canned green beans with a plastic fork in the dark, moldy, poo-filled basement.

But I’d learned a few things. For example, there’s a very good possibility of immediate survival after a nuclear bomb, given adequate shelter, but any exposure to fallout could cause the development of cancer at a later time. So, while my preparations might spare us short-term disaster, they could still result in a tradeoff for slow painful death, the kind any one of us might get at any time without the aid of a bomb.

My gloom grew into a lonely depression. I wished he’d return from the gym, so I’d have good reason to shut the door on my thoughts. I’d always imagined that having a spouse would lighten my dread of life’s most frightening circumstances. We could talk about our fears, make plans together, maybe put a blowup bed downstairs, and laugh about the romantic possibilities inherent in our makeshift shelter. Instead, I had to prepare by myself, in secret, shamefully.

A few days later, I went for a facial and broached the subject from the comfort of a spa table. Through the warm steam, my aesthetician suggested that my experience reflected a common gender difference. “Women are caretakers. It makes sense that we’d be the providers of comfort in a disaster.” Her husband—an atheist like mine—had also shunned her wartime preparations, and she responded by packing and hiding a survival bag for them both. “I tossed in a bottle of face moisturizer just in case.” It felt good to laugh about it. But I was surprised by this coincidence in our husbands’ refusal to believe in survival. Maybe there was a connection between not believing in a spiritual being and certainty of death in a nuclear strike. Was it my belief in the possibility of something—unknown, mysterious, unnamed, but still something—that led me to prepare for our certain safety? I already knew that my spa friend had a very devout faith in an organized religion that promised a secure afterlife. Her bag was packed and stashed.

Back home, my list had become overwhelming and I hadn’t even finished the suggested reading. I skipped over some details, like designing a meetup plan, making note of local authorities, and downloading apps that could provide further instruction. I hoped there was enough time before the bomb went off to at least place an Amazon order for the necessary purchases. Then I’d have to figure out how to get them organized and to the basement before my husband noticed.

As I imagined our shelter, I realized there was nothing I’d read about bedding. The blankets I saw downstairs would be useful, but two days (the suggested hideout time) on a cold, hard concrete floor would kill my back. My mind went to the blowup bed we keep upstairs, and I thought I could cleverly store it in the basement, ready if we needed it. But it inflated via electricity, and I couldn’t be sure we’d have any. If my husband were in on this, we could just set it up ahead of time. I was ill equipped for this job. I remembered that once when I was trying to persuade him about a basement survival tactic, he pointed out that, since there are no windows down there, it would be pitch dark. Somehow, this hadn’t occurred to me until he said it. I was thinking flashlight, not hanging lanterns. His input could be so useful.

A winter storm blew up the East Coast and our power went out. Living with a well and septic system meant no more running water or flushing toilets, so I brought up the gallons of old water bottles I kept in the basement for such a situation. Preparing for a power outage is a more approachable task. A day later when the power returned, I poured fresh water into the containers and my husband took them back to the basement, joking that it was our “Jong-un” water supply. Maybe we were making progress.

Days went by and I forgot about the list. My Amazon purchases returned to more pleasant items like lavender nail polish and spicy tea. Oblivion felt good. To not permit the dark possibility, to live life normally as though only some kind of regular death was ahead of me, not a slow, frightening poison, was blissful. Then I read about yet another North Korean missile test. A slight clenching of my jaw. Our president responded with barroom threats, taunting the foreign leader into a dangerous game of dare. I made a note in my bullet journal to find the list and place an order.

On Saturday, we drove to a monthly rotating dinner party. Since we live in the Washington, D.C. area and many of these people work in government, the topic of politics arose. We stepped gently through the landmines of disagreement, but I was surprised when the very thing that caused my tension at home was brought up. Between dinner and dessert, after beer and wine glasses were mostly emptied, E mentions the nuclear threat we’re facing. His job affords him some insider knowledge of the aftereffects of a bomb. Now that I’m not the one to suggest it, I was anxious to hear about any of his preparations. My husband pays attention too.

“We’re pretty set at our house,” E said. I’ve seen their basement. It’s finished and there’s a lot of storage. They keep a stocked pantry with lots of backup food and water. Having been in the military, he mentioned the inclusion of masks and other gear that hadn’t occurred to me. I take a mental note to add masks to my Amazon list.

“We tell everyone to shelter in place. People think it’s the blast that gets you, but it’s the fallout afterward, those little particles that travel through the air to the ground. You just need to seal yourself inside with plastic and tape around any openings.” Plastic and tape are duly noted.

Another friend from a different agency says there would be mass chaos for months after, even if we did all survive. There would be no food at grocery stores, the power would be out for an unknown time, there would be violence. The picture of survival gets darker. I’m assured, though, to hear that others near us also see the need to take precautions, and I hope their concern might encourage my husband to jump onboard. Then E says something that deflates my hope. “Don’t get me wrong. I’m no doomsday prepper.”

This is just what I think my husband wants to avoid: behaving in the cult-like manner he’s come to associate with those who prepare. Although this is technically what I’m proposing—preparing for doom—I know what he means. I don’t want to devote my life to the threat of disaster, complete with underground encampment, years’ worth of food, armor, and water supply, but I’d like to do a little better than paper plates and green beans. My intention is to take whatever steps are necessary to survive the forty-eight hours we’d need to stay in the basement until the fallout has settled enough to return upstairs. Just forty-eight hours. Once that level of readiness is in place, I could return to living my life as though nothing bad would happen, the way my husband was living his with absolutely no preparation.

Both of us were surely foolish. I’d avoided thinking beyond the forty-eight hours but doubts and fears about that period poked at me from the perimeters of my mind. Wouldn’t the house be full of fallout too? When were we going to apply plastic and tape if we only had thirty minutes to shelter? Was I supposed to just vacuum up the mess when the power returned and get back to work, laundry, and meal planning? Doubtful. But that was too vast an unknown period to comprehend, so I kept with the arbitrary forty-eight-hour segment some supposed expert had prescribed. We were all guessing.

I came to realize that this was the difference between my idea of readying and that of doomsday preppers. They were willing to imagine doom for a much longer time. That was the big unknown for all of us: How long before life returned to normal? Could it ever? I’m not sure I wanted to live long-term in the basement, or upstairs with a gas mask on my face and a weapon in my hand. Maybe I’d have to turn the weapon around in that circumstance. And this is probably why I avoided imagining long-term prep. I was beginning to understand my husband’s reluctance.

After finishing a large mug of Cuban coffee that was meant to be drunk from a little cup, we returned out to the cold night. The blast of caffeine and thoughts of future disaster stirred my alertness and I sat up in bed by the light of my phone while my husband slept. These fears and feelings of ineptness had been mine alone as I read frightening news stories, but now I saw they were shared by others, too, in their solitary moments. We seldom discussed it together. Maybe giving this news our mutual attention, acknowledging that the absurd was, in fact, possible, would make it too real. Is that why no one talked beyond the politics of it? We don’t like to be without control. People are doers. At the very least, we want to know we’ve done everything we could. But what can we, as individuals, do to prevent a fatal chemical war?

In the eighties, I lived in Florida, working in a small architectural office. One week, we were all abuzz about a made-for-television movie about to air called The Day After. It was a film about nuclear war, and as close a portrayal as anyone could imagine then of what life would be like the day after a bomb. So many years ago, we worried about the same scenario. The film was horribly depressing, gray, hopeless, impossible. It portrayed a life I wouldn’t want to live. I don’t recall the ending or any possible resolution, but memories of the movie stayed with me for years, and now it’s fresh in my mind again. It’s like being stuck in time, with no advances other than the calendar. We seem no better prepared or knowledgeable. Everyone—but the preppers—is turning a blind eye to it. It reminds me of the way most of us think of death: Live today, and when it’s over, it’s over.

The 2018 Winter Olympics begin. This winter they’re held in South Korea, and a few North Korean athletes are permitted to compete. I watch as a young North Korean couple skates beautifully around the ice, looking painfully thin. I worry about them. I’d read that if Chairman Un is going to strike, it’s unlikely he’d do so until after the Olympics, so I celebrate with the athletes every evening as they skate, ski, and curl to victory. It’s like a vacation from fear. Last night, the closing ceremonies were televised. This part is not as fun to watch because doubt and concern start prodding me back to worry. Un is a man who has extreme power over the people of North Korea, held in check by their fear of his whims. But now he’s getting a taste of a larger power, reaching across borders to instill fear in the U.S. and other potential targets where he was previously dismissed. Powerful places. Surely, that is a seduction too great to resist, maybe reason enough to strike unprovoked, despite grave consequences.

I turn off the television. By the time sleep is approaching, my thoughts have drifted to other, more manageable fears: Am I giving my dog the right dose of insulin to treat her diabetes, am I writing enough to hone my skills, do I have any skills? The larger fear of bombs triggered by emotionally unstable world rulers is too far from my control. The fear that accompanies that thought is limitless, grows regardless of action because no amount of canned food, comfortable pillows, radios, and flashlights is going to calm it. I bat back and forth between lame preparations and denial. I return to my world and continue to live, just like the thin skaters who had to glide home and carry on despite a much greater proximity to fear and death. There is nothing I can do but live with this fear. There’s no preparing for the unknown, just as there’s no preparing for death. Acknowledging that has made me feel a little less vulnerable. I understand my husband’s reluctance now in the same way I see his approach to death in general: “I want to live as best I can until it’s over.”

So do I.

***

Trevy Thomas is an author whose work has appeared in The Dr. T.J. Eckleburg Review, The Coachella Review, Drunk Monkeys, Sliver of Stone, Forge, Woodwork Magazine and the 2017 River Tides Anthology. She lives in Virginia with her husband and four dogs, and can be found virtually at https://trevythomas.com.

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