March 25, 2003

The Ex-Husband has exciting news.

"I'm almost done building your pizza oven!" he proudly announces, wiping sweat and tomato sauce from his forehead with a greasy red bandana. "All we've got to do now is drop the pipe organ into the swimming pool, and we're all set." 

He points to the courtyard just outside my apartment door. Until now, there used to be a swimming pool in the middle of the courtyard -- a swimming pool usually filled with ducks and garbage and abandoned pool toys -- but now I see nothing but a gaping hole in the ground, surrounded by mountains of dirt and broken concrete. A lone duck stands perched on the tallest mound of dirt and quacks balefully.

Overhead, a military helicopter is noisily lowering what looks like a massive Wurlitzer pipe organ into the crater where the swimming pool used to be.

"That's for your customers to listen to while they're eating pizza," The Ex shouts above the noise of the helicopter. "We had to knock out your dining room wall, but I think it's all gonna fit." And that's when I realize that the entire front half of my apartment is simply gone. I can see all the way through to the very back of the apartment, to the bedroom, where David is curled in a knot beneath the blankets, snoring peacefully.

I am absolutely furious with my ex. "This isn't what we agreed to at ALL!" I shout at him. All I wanted was a goddamn pizza oven ... and now here he's gone and destroyed my whole apartment! Plus the noise from the helicopter is sure to wake David, and he needs all the sleep he can get.

"I want you to fix this RIGHT NOW!" I scream at him.

The Ex-Husband shrugs. "It's too late," he says nonchalantly. "I've already put down a deposit on the helicopter, and it's non-refundable." We stand in front of my ruined apartment and watch as the chopper drops another couple of feet lower, until it is hovering directly above the hole in the ground ... the pipe organ swaying precariously back and forth at the end of its rope, like an abandoned tetherball in a playground breeze.

      *      *      *      *      *      *

3:15 a.m.

I am wrenched from sleep by the sound of a helicopter flying low and menacingly over our apartment building.

It takes me a minute to orient myself: to realize that the helicopter noise is real, that I'm awake, that I'm not imagining things, that it's not a Dream Helicopter lowering a pipe organ into the swimming pool outside. From the sounds of things, the helicopter is positioned directly above our building: I can actually feel the vibration of the engine and the chopper blades shaking our bed, as though somebody snuck into the bedroom while we slept and attached a Magic Fingers machine to our mattress. If it weren't so teeth-rattlingly loud, it might not be completely unpleasant.

It takes me another minute to question why a helicopter is hovering above our dinky little apartment building at 3:15 a.m.

This is my third or fourth unexplained helicopter encounter in the past two days. I'm not talking about the traffic helicopters swooping back and forth above 880 every morning and every evening: those are as much a part of our daily commute as tailgaters in the Tube and protesters on the street corner. I'm talking about the big, black, vaguely predatory-looking helicopters you see in nightmares, or in 'Die Hard' sequels. Twice we saw one coming in for a landing on Coast Guard Island while David and I were driving to work; yesterday afternoon I watched one hovering above the Oakland Coliseum for almost thirty minutes, while I sat at my desk typing soil density reports.

And now we've got one of these noisy behemoths buzzing our apartment in the deep dark hours of the night.

I briefly consider crawling out of bed and investigating the situation further: maybe tiptoeing outside to the courtyard, to see if I can catch a glimpse of the pilot ... maybe grabbing the digital camera and snapping a picture for the website ... maybe turning on the TV or the computer and checking the news, just in case there has been some ominous overnight development while we slept. But I can't quite make myself get out of bed. The thought of running into one of our neighbors in my crusty sweatpants and my 3 a.m. hair is bad enough.

The thought of hearing about any 'ominous new developments' in the middle of the night is even worse.

The windows above the bed are rattling in earnest now. Maybe I should wake David, I'm thinking. He would probably find all of this interesting. All I would have to do is poke him gently in the ribs with my big toe, three or four or eleven times in a row. But in the end I can't quite bring myself to do that, either. Sleep has become a precious commodity for us both in recent weeks: between my back problems, his sinus problems, war anxiety, Tot anxiety, Upstairs Neighbor Guy practicing his clog dancing at 2 a.m., neither one of us is getting as much shut-eye as we require in order to function effectively these days. I'm not about to yank him out of what looks to be a perfectly good REM sleep just so he can look at helicopters with me.

Instead ... I bunker down into the blankets and decide to wait it out.

After a couple of minutes -- it seems like a lot longer than that, but the clock says it's only been two minutes -- the helicopter departs just as suddenly as it arrived. I listen as it abruptly lifts itself straight up into the air, then pivots around with a roar and heads due west, toward San Francisco. The silence, once the helicopter has departed, is almost as deafening as the noise itself. It takes at least five minutes for the throbbing in my eardrums to subside ... for the pounding of my heart to ratchet itself back down to normal. I wrap the heating pad around my lower back, pull the top blanket over my head and begin the long patient wait for sleep to return. Something tells me that the sound of helicopters -- like sirens screaming past our window at night, like the radio always running at work, like the emergency siren drills on the first Wednesday of the month -- is just another one of those wartime background noises I'm going to have to have to get used to.

Especially if I ever want to get any sleep at night again.

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