My alarm sounded at 8 a.m. that Saturday because I had a deadline: I needed to finish knitting a present for a baby shower that same afternoon. I lay in bed for an extra moment, allowing the oppressive sensation of living alone to enter my head, a feeling I'd grappled with for years. And then, along with my comforter, I shrugged it off, and rushed through my morning rituals. I downed my vitamins in one gulp. I filled the teapot with water and set it over a high flame. Then I glanced at a digital clock and realized I was already running an hour late, thanks to daylight savings time. The pressure from the deadline was heating me up. Or so I thought.
Then everything was searing and my eyes began to sting. I looked down and noticed smoke. An unnamable scent filled my apartment, like resin or epoxy mixed with pine. I flipped off the burner and backed away, but the stove wasn't fulminating. Then I looked down: flames licked up the front of my favorite threadbare, well-worn shirt. Instantly, I grabbed at it, tearing it off like the scraps Lou Ferrigno outgrew in "The Incredible Hulk."
Smoky tufts of my shirt lay scattered on the slate-tile floor. I was shaking. Flames continued to leap up from the fabric. Using my slipper-shod foot, I snuffed it out. Then I took stock. Naked from the waist up, heart racing, mind blank, fear coursed through my veins. I covered my breasts and screamed, but there was no one around to hear me. Just windows opened to cerulean blue San Francisco skies and my body flushed pink with adrenaline and heat.
Pain had yet to manifest, and in that brief moment my mind finally refocused. What do we do when we don't know what to do? We go online.
GOOGLE: WHAT DO I DO WHEN I BURN MYSELF?
WebMD told me to take off the burned clothing. Check. Then, "Slowly cool the injury under running tap water for 30 minutes." So off I went to the shower.
I stood under the cold water, pointing the showerhead at the right side of my now-pink torso. My body seemed to be vibrating. The site said that home treatment was all that was needed for most second-degree burns. I tried to remain calm by focusing on the words "home treatment" versus "most burns." You can handle this, I told myself, a mantra I had needed with all too much frequency in my 30s.
I had to handle it. I was alone. I let myself cry, briefly.
Since I was already in the shower, I figured I might as well wash my hair. With my fingers pressed into my scalp, small clumps of hair came loose in my hands. I looked at them for a moment before realizing that it, too, had burned. When I leaned over the stove to change the clock for daylight savings, the flames must have ignited my hair, which lit my shirt on fire. I cursed the years I had spent growing those locks. I cursed the joy I had felt pulling back my long tresses into a ponytail. I cursed the cursing of the cursed. After blotting my body with a towel, I looked in the mirror, into teary eyes both wounded and scared. I took a few Advil and gingerly belted my bathrobe.
I thought about calling Mom, but the subsequent conversation, after which she would feel miserable because I felt miserable — in much the same way she does after another guy breaks my heart — put me off. I worried about healing, scars, and whether I should go to the hospital. But I pushed aside those thoughts, too. It was easier to focus on finishing my project than it was to break down and feel sorry for myself.
After I dropped the charred fragments of my beloved shirt into the trash, I realized I still needed coffee. So I returned to the stove. With my arm ramrod straight, and my body crouched several feet away, I ignited the flame. It was 9 a.m. It had taken only one hour to disfigure myself.
But it was done now, and I turned to the knitting. I focused on the goal, to make every woman at the party swell with ooohs and aaahs. The booties would be quick; the aviator hat, complete with fuzzy white brim and chinstraps, would be more complicated. I tuned in to PBS and allowed the soothing French-accented English of Jacques Pepin to waft over me.
Heat radiated out from my smoldering skin. I took more Advil. I read more online and learned that honey and lavender oil are both homeopathic ointments for burns. So, in an unsexy way, I applied honey to my body. I considered ways to tell people what had happened. I also considered ways to avoid telling people. I wasn't sure I could handle the pity.
My friend arrived and we drove to the shower. The tight bucket seats of her MiniCooper made me bend in half at the waist, irritating my wounds. The party itself went by in a blur of tea sandwiches and onesies. I admitted to a few of the other woman invited what happened, but it sounded like fiction. Wow, they asked, did it hurt? Are you okay? Yes, I replied, and … yes?
Answering their questions, I pointed to my abdomen and right breast. Just pink now, the area would eventually erupt in blisters that took weeks to heal, made wearing bras difficult, and rendered working out intolerable. The pictures I've seen from the event show me pale-faced with a wan smile. My hair is pulled back with a headband — a style I almost never sport. Finally, I said my goodbyes and made my way home.
At first, the scars came in the form of peeling skin. Then they were just mental — I still recall the horror I felt just after I put out the flame. Now, even those are healed, leaving behind an extra layer of emotional toughness. That day's events are just another occurrence I had to manage as an often-single person. At home, no one is waiting for me, but, as it turns out, that's fine too.