Still and Box Words

Written by Theresa Martinez

DAY 11: MAY 31ST 2016

I am sitting here writing this on my laptop, alive and well, 11 days after it happened. Reyna is technically homeless currently sharing a bed with me, since she was supposed to keep Club Cornelia. Meanwhile, Emily and Mary are still displaced persons staying at Mary’s friend’s home while they wait for their leases at their new apartments to begin on July 1. As of yesterday, I am the most settled of the four of us with an apartment, a bed, two armchairs, and enough clothes to get me through the final two weeks of school. All of these things, except the apartment, gifted. I think what the four of us feel more than anything, besides the constant sense of confusion and fear, is a deep sense of gratitude.


How do you say “thank you” for the clothes, shoes, books, money, furniture, and words of well-wishing when “thank you” simply isn’t enough? What you do is say simply say “thank you” with as much gratitude as you can express to show them you mean it and hug them with the same sentiment; then you move on because its what’s good for you and what they want for you.


Moving on is the hard part. You would think that the actual day it happened would be it, but somehow going forward hurts even more. In order to properly move on, I’ve decided to deal with this the only way I know how: by writing about it.


This is an account documenting how Reyna Ortega, Mary Donohue, Emily Mosher, and I, Theresa Martinez, moved on the week after losing everything.


DAY 0: MAY 20TH, 2016

We were all sound asleep in our beds at 4:31 a.m. when we first heard our door buzzer going off thanks to some random passerby. It is thanks to this kind stranger, that I am even able to write this today. It was at 4:32 a.m. that we ran out because our home, that we affectionately called Club Cornelia, was on fire. You know that game that you play with your friends where you go around the table and ask what you would grab if your house ever caught fire in the middle of the night? You always think you’ll remember to grab your precious mementos or expensive technology. Well, it turns out real life is nothing like that.


That morning Mary ran out with nothing, which is understandable because she opened her bedroom door to immediate bright orange and red flames and thick black smoke. Reyna ran out with nothing except her cellphone which she only had because she was dialing 911, which is again understandable because the room we shared was next to Mary’s and the smoke and flames were creeping up the hallway quickly. I ran out with my cellphone, a jacket, someone’s shoes, and my pink-eye medication I had just received 9 hours earlier. Emily, whose room was the furthest away from the fire and closest to the door, had the most time to react running out wearing her own jacket and shoes and her backpack filled some of her science notes, her laptop, and her cellphone because as she explained, “Science stops for no one”. We all laughed at that and then cried as we watched our house burn, then smolder, and then it was over, but we couldn’t stop crying.


DAY 2: MAY 22ND, 2016

I don’t have any photos to illustrate this day, but it was hardest day for me and I think, for Mary because it was time to leave our parents homes and come back to face reality. For Emily, it must have been the day before and for Reyna the next day. If coming back to Chicago and finding yourself sleeping in a place that isn’t your own — or in my case still doesn’t feel like your own — isn’t enough we also have to face the fact that not only were we affected by fire, but our parents were too. It was hard to say goodbye and say that we were going to be okay. We had to comfort them and say that we were feeling fine even though we were being torn apart on the inside by fear, confusion, anger, and hurt.


It had been two days and we still didn’t know what caused the fire. Although, I finally felt brave enough to search our address and read the article written about the fire in the Tribune and learned through a Google search that we ours had been a still and box alarm fire (meaning that multiple calls had been received about the fire and was therefore considered a high-risk structure), but still wasn’t brave enough to watch the video my friend had sent me on the day of, of someone who did nothing to help us, but decided it was a good idea to record our home burning down.


Despite this uneasiness, we are each able to find comfort in our sisterhoods. Emily in her sorority sisters of Alpha Xi Delta, Mary in her sorority sisters of Chi Omega, Reyna in her soccer team at Robert Morris, and I found it in my singing group DePaul Women’s A Capella. And of course with each other, but we hadn’t seen each other in two days.

DAY 3: MAY 23, 2016

We all go back to school and try our best to get our lives back together as quickly and as neatly as possible. For Emily, Mary, and me finals week was only two weeks away and the fire could not have come a worse time. I had only just gotten my laptop back and Mary lost all her files because her laptop hadn’t made it all. Thankfully for Mary and me, most our professors are understanding about our situation and allow us the extensions we need to complete our work.


Emily and Reyna are slightly less lucky. Emily is a psychology major with a focus in neuroscience planning on attending medical school in fall of 2017 to become a doctor and Reyna is a health science major planning on becoming a nurse someday. As Emily stated the day of the fire, science stops for no one.


At this point it had been three days since Mary, Emily, Reyna, and I been all together. Mary and Emily stayed in the same place together and Reyna was staying with me while we looked for new place for Reyna to move into come July 1.


DAY 4: MAY 24TH, 2016

On DePaul’s campus, protests against the hate speech break out across campus. Someone had written on DePaul’s quad late at night “Trump 16” and “Fuck Mexico” which was only charged by known anarchist, pot-stirrer, and hate speech spewer Milo Yiannopoulos. Reyna and I being Mexican felt hurt that were people that felt this way about our ethnicity and that there were these negative stereotypes being shouted about on campus not just about Mexicans, but black and Muslim students too. It was enough to make you lose faith in humanity.


That night Emily, Mary, Reyna, and I finally got together for the first time in four days. For the first time since it happened. Emily and Mary have news about the fire for Reyna and I. Even though we hadn’t been told anything by the officials, their friend told them that the fire chief of our district told her (a barista at Starbucks) and her co-workers that he had just put out a fire that was an arson earlier that day that matched one he had put out on Friday in Wrigleyville. Emily’s mom called to confirm and it was looking like that was the truth. Someone had purposely set our home aflame as we slept just because they could. We cried together again, each taking turns breaking down at Chipotle.


DAY 5: MAY 25TH, 2016

It’s a slow day, but finally a good day. Mary and I hit up the seven for $27 sale at Victoria’s Secret because we have no underwear, or the underwear we do have is ill-fitting. That’s what I’m going to tell you now, if you are ever in a fire and you have boobs, grab your favorite bra. Mary and I spend our shopping trip talking about how as awful as it’s been, one of the greatest parts of the healing process is reconnecting with people you never thought you would have the courage to reconnect with.


One of the worst things about healing, is realizing how badly you are going to be left scarred. It is on this day that we all start to recognize some signs of PTSD. Mary can’t sleep without a light on, Emily is always on edge about her surroundings, I jump every time someone knocks on a door, and poor Reyna is the worst. She jumps at the shuffling feet of the people who live above us, she becomes startled and begins to tear up at loud noises, and fire truck sirens make her nervous.


We’re really trying, but it’s so hard.

DAY 6: MAY 26TH, 2016



It’s almost a week and the only person to have made it without crying every day, is Emily. She has spent her week dedicated to getting back in the classroom becoming more laser focused than she has ever been. For her, she was given this second chance at life to succeed. To succeed in school, to succeed as a doctor, to succeed in helping others. I admire her for that.


Obviously, we were all back in school, but it’s hard for the three of us to adjust. Mary is the next in her determination. She pushes ahead after a rocky start with one of her professors. She too determined to take this second chance to be the best her she can be. She is the one handling the legal affairs and emails with our landlord about our lease and money. If there were ever any doubts about her becoming a lawyer, those were gone now.


Meanwhile, Reyna and I were still struggling to find our ground. We knew we had work to do, but there was just so much running through our minds all the time. Not to say that Emily and Mary weren’t as affected by these thoughts, maybe they were just better about telling them to shut up.


On this day, I take Reyna to the seven for $27 (seriously, UNDERWEAR, PEOPLE!) and we take a walk around the Loop and realize that more than anything, we’re angry. Wouldn’t you be? We had just lost everything, some asshole running for president was spitting hateful rhetoric about the minorities of America, and we’re supposed to go back to school and work like everything is normal?


The answer is, yes actually. So we decide to let our anger out on Trump.


DAY 7: MAY 27TH 2016

Officially, a week had gone by. I asked my former roommates what the hardest thing had been about moving on a week after we lost everything in that fire.


Mary: “Knowing that people apologize for what happened or express their sadness, but they’re thinking that they’re glad it wasn’t them.”


Reyna: “Definitely my mind set and trying to get myself to know that everything is okay and not every single noise is someone out to get me.”


Emily: “Trying to reframe yourself in your new life and new situation while still trying to keep the old you from before. And the fact that everyone else in your life had already moved on or are starting to forget and you’re still stuck, but I don’t feel like I can take my time with moving on.”


Theresa: “Trying not to cry every day and convincing people that I am okay. I know, I’m not right now, but I will be, I just wish everyone would stop asking: how ARE you? expecting me to burst into tears or looking at me like I am something to pity.”


It’s one week later and in reality, we’re not fine or okay. It’s going to be weeks, months, even years before we have the things that we had in our apartment back costing us a lot of time and money. It’s going to take us an even longer time before we get used to the idea that the place we used to call home no longer exists. We’ve become more jaded to the world and we just want to hold on to the hate that we have and never let it go because that’s what feels right, but we have to eventually release it. We have to move on and we’re doing it as best as we possibly can. So, this is us, moving on.


Contact Theresa by email at