That’s his side of the bed. From mine, I can also hear the unholy chorus of perpetually displaced dogs being fostered by our neighbors next door. But there are other sounds on my side, a stereoed humming, technological thrums not found in nature. The first is the radon mitigation system, a plastic pipe dug deep into the bedrock and clay beneath our house, continually suctioning out the colorless, tasteless, radioactive gas from far beneath us and releasing it into the air above. The previous owners, who didn’t have a system at all, had gotten sick, radon the leading cause of lung cancer in nonsmokers in America. Now, the periscope of the newly-installed pipe shoots the poison into the atmosphere far above the eaves of our roof, where it dissipates without harming anything, constant exposure its only real threat.
Being from the South, I’d never much thought about radon. Having lived on the west coast for years, I’d never much thought about radon. But as soon as we moved to the middle of things, the danger announced itself. Never mind that it’s natural, the radioactive decay of uranium as it breaks down. The fact that it’s a single atom means it can easily penetrate sheetrock, concrete, and mortar. Which means it’s pervasive. Insidious. And unsafe at any level, let alone the numbers our realtor clocked in our new house.
So we have a pipe that runs from the hole cut in the roof down through all three levels of the house, ending in a shuttered closet in the basement area where my husband writes. Inside, the pipeline whirrs and heaves; a visual check every now and again is necessary, examining the red liquid in the meter to make sure it falls in the shape of a lopsided U. But I know it’s at work from the sounds it makes, from the way the thin wall vibrates from the effort of it, a manmade machine protecting us from the harm of the earth below. From the toxicity of things as they age and diminish.
When we moved to Bloomington, I got sick. Very sick. Sick for years and years without understanding why sick. Mayo Clinic sick. Guessing at diagnoses sick. It was a constant parade of pills and tests and meds until an allergist finally pricked my skin and watched it rise up angry in response to 27 allergens in the Bloomington area: trees, mildew, the mold on old books, cats and raccoon pelts (good to know), ten of the eleven types of grasses that grow here. I am, quite literally, allergic to where I live. To nature. To my own context.
So along with the thrum of the radon system, the house is also alive with the constant hum and whir of air purifiers, one in every room, their glowing indicators shifting from an all-is-groovy blue to cautionary yellow to the-air-is-fucked red and back again. When I change the filters every three months, I see The Things It Saved Me from Breathing, and I am grateful.
A lot of work goes into staying here—injecting myself with the same allergens that make me sick, hoping to build up tolerance. Coating my nose and lungs with steroids. But this is where our family lives, where my husband and I work and write and teach and where our daughter sings and dances and acts in musicals with her BFFs. Like everyone, we do what we need to do. And while at first I wasn’t sure I could sleep with all that noise, I know now I couldn’t possibly sleep without it. I don’t find comfort in being so dependent upon the mechanical to keep me well, but the lines between the things that keep us healthy and the things that make us sick are as fluid as the sides of the bed we drift across in our sleep, intertwined. That is, until the power goes out.