I’d sheathed both my hands in potholders and furiously thudded at the flames. Somewhere in the middle of my pounding, I smelled that telltale scent of flaming hair. I recalled it immediately from my teenage days, when I battled with curling irons.
Then the corner of my shirt caught fire.
It was a kitchen fire and not my first. It had erupted in what seemed an instant from the heated oil in which I was planning to sizzle four neatly palmed latkes. My cellphone rang in another room and I dashed to get it. When I came back, I faced a wall of flame. I could hear my Dalmatian, Samo, howling in the living room, where he cowered in a corner.
Warning: Never dash to get your phone when cooking with oil. Your caller will inevitably eat the additional ten seconds that it takes to go from a heated pan to a daunting inferno.
I threw down the phone and slammed the pan to the floor, tossing a kitchen towel on top of it, as I had in similar circumstances (this time, the towel bore the inscription “Friends are therapists you can drink with”). Then I began to bat at my head, a poor choice, as the potholders I was wearing were burning, too.
After some serious batting activity I looked up to see four fully outfitted firemen wearing masks, bright orange reflective gear, and oxygen tanks piercing my smoky kitchen, which was quickly shifting into night-worthy black. Two of the firefighters attacked the burning pan-on-the-floor and stove situation, then pulled the microwave from the wall with a power and grace that seemed grafted from both Wrestlemania and Swan Lake. The other two blasted me with a foamy substance that had a vaguely chemical taste. It stung my eyes into a temporary blindness that prevented me from seeing the fire receding—though I could feel the lessening heat and thought I could actually hear the fire departing, like an angry, banished dragon. Two of the firemen ran out of the house with the still-smoldering microwave. I was rescued by a third, a man perhaps in his forties, who push-pulled me, stumbling, into the front yard. The fourth fireman pulled out Samo.
“You might see them on fire engines, but these dogs actually hate fires,” Samo’s rescuer announced, to nobody in particular. I was well aware. It had taken two days to get Samo to come back inside after my first fire. He wouldn’t budge from one particular spot in the yard—the furthest from the house.
Yes, that’s right, my first fire. I have fires. I make fires. Small and large. It is apparently my thing and not in a pyromania way.
Every summer, Black Rock, Nevada, hosts the Burning Man festival. Something about burning, something about men, something about effigies perhaps, attracts thousands to this event. This year, participants paid $575 each only to be doused in unseasonal rainfall that turned the desert into mud. Ironically, rain nearly unburned the “Burners,” the name attendees give themselves. By the time everyone gathers each year, the far-flung locale swells to become Nevada’s third largest “city”— one orchestrated around music and festival activities, climaxing in a large scale burning of an effigy.
I have never attended Burning Man, but the idea has at times appealed to me, maybe because I am a woman who has so frequently started fires. I will never go, however, because of my history as a woman who has started fires, and therefore triggering. (These things can work for and against you.) Still, I find Burning Man fascinating. I collect odd bits of trivia about it, fuel to my fire, so to speak. Here are three I like best, although I do not know how strictly these are enforced:
- In order to bathe at Burning Man, you must first bathe a dozen other people. Only after you’re a soaper, then a scrubber, then a rinser, times twelve, will you be the one getting soaped, scrubbed, and rinsed.
- You must barter, rather than buy things at Burning Man, as in swapping a muffin for your beer. I like to think that, in a place with “burning” in its name, someone might offer to trade a fire extinguisher for my handmade poetry earrings. But that seems unlikely—another reason never to go.
- You could freeze to death at Burning Man, though that might seem counterintuitive. It’s the high desert, 4,000 feet. Nighttime temperatures can dip below thirty degrees Fahrenheit. A human being can die of exposure or hypothermia at any temperature under 32 degrees in as little as ten minutes. Something about freezing at a Burning Man event fascinates me, she who has almost burned to death. That fire and ice are such close neighbors.
I stumble-fell into the yard next to the dead, surely carcinogenic microwave, which gave off a final hiss, the sound of a crispy, murdered dragon. When my eyes cleared a bit from the foam-stuff, I saw that a crowd of curious neighbors had gathered. Two white-clad EMTs ushered me into an ambulance. If I’d had my senses about me, I probably could have put out a can for donations. “Watch the charred writer and her dog pulled from their burning house- $2.00.”
I lived only blocks from the fire station in one direction and the hospital in the other. Once I was installed, the ambulance blasted off, full siren, that dreaded song of emergency searing the air. Fire and hospital news spreads fast in my small town. I figured everyone probably knew about my misadventure by midnight. I could just imagine all the “she has done it again”s being uttered by my neighbors, the pool cleaning guy, my colleagues at the university.
“Who is taking care of my dog?” I coughed.
“Neighbor,” one of the EMTs replied. I coughed again, wondering which nosy soul had him and how I would ever retrieve him without mountainous embarrassment. One of the EMTs fitted me with an oxygen mask. I can’t die yet, I thought, my daughter isn’t even done with college. She is still unprepared for the world.
Plus, I hadn’t finished my taxes. I had an appointment at H&R Block in the morning.
A repeat, if unintended, fire offender, I often wonder how long it would take to actually die in a fire. While fire itself is a pretty straightforward phenomenon—spark, oxygen, fuel—the answer is oddly complicated. For one thing, you can die in two different ways—by smoke or the fire itself.
If it is a smoky fire, most people die from the smoke. The time it takes actually to burn to death can range from as little as two minutes to as much as three hours, according to the human burning experts I follow online. The average time is thirty minutes. But those same human burning experts say you won’t really care after a few minutes. That is because your brain will burn first. Oh, and your eyeballs might pop out, so you wouldn’t really see anything. Fire-death research can be harrowing.
Between the years 2005 and 2018, I was the cause of three house fires, not including a fourth started by my father, who was trying to light a cigarette on the stove. I blame dementia (his), and a wicked addiction to multitasking (mine). By the time of my last house fire, my life had become a series of urgent yet distracted activities, each one interrupting another and ushering me into a nest of four or five more. Hungry cats and children running inside soaked to the skin from soppy rainstorms interrupted laundry; swerving trucks and snowy inclines, ghostly deer appearing in fog, and hysterical arguments with my spouse interrupted my driving. And I had to balance all this with my work as a small-town newspaper reporter with bundles of assignments that ganged up on me daily, one story inevitably having to be put aside for two or three others deemed more urgent. On the back burner (pun intended) I balanced book deals, freelance article assignments, and failed love affairs. A string of affairs, conducted after the arguing spouse and I finally split, left me blistered and stinging, I think, as badly as the fires. Possibly worse.
Once an anomaly in my simple life on a farm in western New York, by the time of my latest fire fiasco, multitasking had become normal to me; I was almost always multitasking. Having given up my newspaper job, parted from my husband, and become embroiled in new boyfriend-related heartbreak, I balanced teaching college with single motherhood and writing. From the first moment of my day to the last, as I bulldozed into exhausted but never restful sleep, I rarely stopped; when I did, I felt strangely out of sorts and breathless, as if I were forgetting something. Even my dreams were of busy balancing tasks: one repeating dream I had was of rushing out of a subway car and realizing, as the doors closed, that I had left my daughter in her stroller inside while talking on my cellphone.
After my last fire was over, I retrieved my dog from my neighbor (nice woman next door, trimmed her trees back once when I’d complained about their rather large, cracking branches). By then my blisters had healed to the thickness of after-burned flesh; the smoke-crusted kitchen had been repaired, the walls repainted. I’d acquired a new microwave, and I’d chopped my hair to remove the flame-curled singe.
I told myself I’d changed.
The smoke had imprinted the kitchen ceiling with a swirly afterimage and me with a fear of anything prone to burning. Who thought up the idea of incense, I wondered. Candles? Insanity! I never left my house without checking the stove at least three times.
I left the smoke swirl on the kitchen ceiling as a reminder. I called it, and the soreness on my right hand (that persisted for almost eighteen months), my fire scars. But my fire scars ran much deeper than those on the surface.
Fire fear became fire paranoia, replacing my multitasking obsession, which I’d banished ferociously with mindfulness videos and a new attentiveness to every moment, a habit I was cultivating with pride, like a home-grown bouquet of roses.
Every moment I am not on fire is a thing of beauty. An accomplishment.
Drinking a glass of orange juice, not on fire, I think.
Grading a student paper, not on fire.
Fire fear co-opted my multitasking life, and I found that new emphasis was a perfect fit. I had the old dream of leaving my daughter’s stroller every now and then; but I dreamed almost nightly of mad infernos surrounding me in forests; small fires erupting from my pillows; kitchen fires chasing me out of my house. The dreams, and my new attentiveness to minutiae, were changing me. My heart was changing, too.
Since childhood, I’ve had a thing for firemen. There is an erotic power in their demeanor, their set determination, the way they rush into volatile heat when everyone else is rushing out. There is something sexy about their heft, too, wearing all that gear. And the image of a fireman with a spurting hose is, one cannot deny, baldly Freudian. It seems odd to me that I’ve never been romantically engaged with a fireman, since they inspire me with such lust and I have had so many, let’s say, opportunities to get to know them. But while I may be aroused by the thought of their saving me, in my actual life I have always fallen hardest for artists. How is that possible? What could be more the opposite of an adorable rescuing fireman than an artist? One dashes into danger; the other seems remote from it, choosing a life deeply embedded in self-discovery, fancy and fantasy, crafting images and objects rather than dashing into flames to rescue them. I have never been saved by a single artist; to the contrary, those I’ve known have tossed me into great fire pits of angst. I spent much of my adult life chasing artists the way a fireman chases down a fire, with what feels to me like the same urgency. And always, always, I’ve been disappointed by the sputter of these romances into great, charred, emotional ruins.
There was the artist in Brooklyn who painted mammoth mermaids and whales. Another made furniture laced with optical illusions, items that seemed to vanish or crawl up walls. One was trying to bury his house underground. And another twisted birch sticks into great spirals. I’d been drawn to each of their furious creating spirits, but each one left me charred and ruined. I thought I was tough enough to take on their passions. But, in the end, my heart proved not to be inflammable.
The month before my final fire, I had been visiting my sweet flame, Enrique, who lived up in the mountains and rarely came to town. He was the stocky, buff sort of artist who rolled up a pack of cigarettes in his t-shirt sleeves while preaching about the superiority of hand-rolled cigarettes. (“But you have a pack of store-bought cigarettes right there, in your sleeve!” “Oh yeah, I was in a rush today and bought a pack.”)
I’d been feeling sorry for Enrique, who I was sure would be crushed by my impending departure for a month-long trip to a writer’s colony in New England. Poor man—how would he survive my absence? He could keep himself busy welding old car parts onto each other as a form of sculpture, I figured, or stacking dead toasters and painting them ceramic blue. That was his kind of art,. welding together trash to make it oddly interesting and attractive.
Yet before I could tell Enrique of my acceptance into the esteemed writer’s colony, leaving him to his welding, garbage-stacking fate, he asked me, “How long were you planning on staying here, anyway?”
I’d planned on a couple hours, but suddenly realized I was being invited to leave. I’d been preparing to deliver a mini-oratory about our sweet parting, but I’d been beaten to it.
“How long did you want me to stay?”
“Maybe, this afternoon?” Enrique said. “Or…leave …now-ish?”
I hadn’t had a chance to dash Enrique’s heart because he’d dashed mine first. I didn’t even bother telling him of my acceptance to the writer’s colony, about which I’d been so excited. After he blew me off, I found I didn’t even want to go. How odd that the prospect of my leaving had been so much more joyous and fun when I knew someone left behind would be pining away for me.
In the end, I cancelled. That was a crazy thing to do, as I would probably never again be offered three weeks in a small house in the woods with nothing to do but write. My heart was so sore, I couldn’t even manage to pack.
Three weeks after the Enrique break-up and my retreat from the writing retreat, I set my kitchen and self on fire for the final time. When my daughter called, I couldn’t bear to tell her about any of it. The fire, withdrawing from the writing retreat…
“Where is Enrique?” she asked.
“He broke up with me.”
“Mom, don’t sulk,” my just-past-teen daughter said. “It doesn’t become you.”
I spent the rest of the semester healing my hands and painting the kitchen, trying to rid the house of the smell of burn, so that by Christmas break, when she returned, my daughter would not suspect I’d had yet another fire. I thought it was going quite well. I’d discovered cleaning supplies that masked smoke with a variety or pleasing scents. Plus, I’d discovered there is nothing like a good old fan and open windows for dispelling the distressing aroma of smoke. But when my daughter returned from college, she busted me immediately.
“Mama, you had another fire,” she accused, hands on hips. “I am beginning to think you should stop cooking. Can’t you get take-out?”
I saw Enrique one more time late that winter, at Tractor Supply. He was there with his ten-year-old son, Enrique, Jr. (‘Rique). The materfamilias in this configuration had vanished long ago and I never knew what became of her. I had considered it often since my dismissal, thinking perhaps she was similarly dismissed.
“Hey, Elizabeth,” Enrique affectionately shouted out to me from the chicken coop aisle.
“Enrique,” I said, “and ‘Rique. What a surprise!” I was with my dog, Samo, whom I had brought to bathe in the Tractor Supply walk-in-and-do-it-yourself dog bathing facility. For ten bucks you can hoist your dirty dog into a steel tub and spray him with industrial strength sprayers, clip his nails with industrial strength clippers, and dry him with an industrial strength blow dryer, picking your favorites from a potpourri of dog bathing concoctions. I had just bathed Samo and topped him off with a “tarragon-mint” conditioner, which I was realizing made him smell a little like a warm Irish stew.
“What brings you here?” Enrique asked. “Buying a new tractor?”
“Dog washing,” I said. “You?”
“’Rique here decided to play with fire near the chicken coop,” he said. “Second time!” He glared at his son with a blend of fatherly disapproval and pride. “Little pyro!”
‘Rique blushed, as if he had just been complimented. “Apple doesn’t fall far from the tree, papa,” he finally said, “Grandpa said you burned down the barn and that’s why mom left.”
“Yada yada yada,” Enrique said, echoing Jerry Seinfeld.
I left the encounter in a mind-blown state, my infatuation with garbage artist and apparent arsonist Enrique suddenly extinguished.
Walking to my car in the parking lot of Tractor Supply, I thought:
I’m not on fire.
Putting my just-bathed dog in the car, I thought:
I’m not on fire.
That was when I began to savor a newly attained power of attention to every moment, every part of the world I inhabited, and the strange, weblike connections among all things.
I know that I will always be flammable, and possibly more likely than others to catch fire. But I also feel fortunate to have a certain perspective on life that others may not share. At any given moment, I can stop, breathe, and be thankful. I am not on fire
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