by Helen Rosner
This was our first summer in our new apartment, which has a big concrete terrace, and my husband and I bought a grill. A basic Weber kettle, nothing fussy, though I sprang for the fancy charcoal — lump charcoal made from oak, the kind that burns brutally hot and brutally fast. Two chimney starters, so I could get the next round going while the first batch was tearing through its brief and brilliant life, painting a spectacularly taut char on a spatchcocked chicken that had spent two days bathing in hot sauce and onions and buttermilk.
We had friends over on Memorial Day, and I was grilling. I was wearing a t-shirt, I think, and jeans, and I remember very vividly that I was barefoot, because at some point someone was pouring a new batch of viciously hot coals into the grill and a few of them — fiery wisps, glowing red pebbles, a confetti of ash — spilled out over the edge of the kettle and danced around my feet, in response to which which I reflexively danced back, a hot-foot jig to avoid the sudden hail of flames. Of course, both feet, bare and pink, landed right on top of the coals, my entire body weight pressing into the smoldering carbon for two seconds that felt like a thousand years.
I used to worry that I bared my feelings too readily, too voluminously; more recently, when I’m thinking about them at all, I worry that I don’t show them nearly enough. A particularly hyperbolic happiness is no problem, an omg dying! enthusiasm, nor its dark twin, a certain performative despondence that’s half cynical and half exhausted. But real feelings, those used to be easy, and now they’re hard. Which is to say, they’re still easy, but over some set of years and certain therapy-aided revelations, I’ve come to a point where keeping things in is just as easy as — maybe easier than — feeling them in the first place. It wasn’t until I apologized to a friend for spending months being morose and self-absorbed about a work situation and he genuinely had no idea what I was talking about that I had the dawning realization maybe I’d been doing so well at showing less I’d maybe been showing nothing at all.
I wonder if I should be proud, somehow, of what happened when I landed on the coals. I remember feeling a resonant thunder of pain fill my body — it didn’t shoot through me, it didn’t grab hold of me, it was just there, everywhere, like my lungs had hardened and my skin had shrunk and time was stopped and it had always been stopped — and I remember taking that pain and folding it up inside my head in a way that felt, in that moment, strikingly like the process of making an origami mouse, and tucking it away. I remember taking a breath and saying in my normal voice, “Everyone make sure you’re wearing shoes, and someone pour water onto the coals on the ground.”
And then I remember walking, maybe a little faster than normal, but maybe not, back into the house and through the kitchen and the hallway and into the bathroom where I closed the door behind me and sat on the edge of the bathtub and turned on the water and let it wash over my feet, which were charred black in places, and terrifyingly bloodless in others and I sat there and I tried to breathe and I waited for someone to realize that I was gone and I needed help, and to come help me. After three minutes of silence I got up, walking on the side of my right foot (there was a burn the size of a quarter at the peak of my arch) and the heel of my left (the skin on the bottom of my three outer toes was gone, mostly, and what was left was a sickening white), and I cracked open the bathroom door and called out to some girl whose name I never really caught, some lovely, ephemeral girlfriend of a friend, to ask her to ask my husband to come over to the bathroom. After a few minutes he did, and it wasn’t until he closed the door behind him and asked me what was wrong that I unfolded the origami mouse I’d tucked away, and began to sob.
When you’re balanced on the lip of a bathtub, hysterical with pain and terror, your husband frantically searching the internet for what to do when a person steps on actually-not-metaphorically white-hot coals with bare feet, you’re not really in a position to appreciate how morbidly funny it is that most of what comes up on Google is a mix of instructions for how to fire walk as a party trick, and snide news reports of the time the “signature experience” of walking barefoot over hot coals at a Tony Robbins self-help seminar seriously injured two dozen people. A few websites come up that say if you burn the soles of your feet, you should definitely go to the hospital; a few websites say that if you burn the soles of your feet, you don’t really have to. We tried downloading one of those Uber-but-for apps that will send a doctor to your home within an hour, but despite living in a relatively fancy part of Brooklyn, it apparently wasn’t fancy enough to be in range.
It wasn’t until two months later — when my dad, a doctor, took a look at the bottoms of my feet, mostly healed by then but not entirely, and got furiously angry at me — that I learned that my burns had been third-degree. The worst ones, the ones that burn through all your layers of skin, that kill your skin, that can, and I don’t entirely understand how this works, somehow burn your blood. You’re supposed to go to the hospital immediately for a third-degree burn, especially on an extremity — but what were they going to do to me there? The coals were small, my burns were small. They’d have dipped me in antibiotics and wrapped me in gauze, and told me to stay off both feet until everything got better. Which had been, effectively, what I’d done on my own. I spent three weeks effectively immobile, hobble-hopping from the bed to the bathroom to the couch and back again, my husband bringing me bottles of seltzer or a laptop charger or a fresh roll of sterile gauze so I could go through my twice-daily ritual of unwrapping the bandages and staring in fascination and revulsion at my body steadily rebuilding itself, watching blisters billow and collapse as my skin slowly regrew, the bandages changing over the weeks from bloody and wet to clean and dry. Then I’d apply antibiotic burn cream, and wrap my feet away again.
I kept looking for more stories about the Tony Robbins seminar. “It’s a metaphor for facing your fears and accomplishing your goals,” one of the women who’d walked across the coals told the New York Times. Someone else said, “The fire walk is not about the fire walk, it’s about taking steps in life, in anything.” I didn’t really tell my friends I was hurt. No one really seemed to notice. One group thought I was hanging out with another group, and same thing going the other way. I told my boss and a few coworkers that I’d hurt my feet, mostly to explain why I wasn’t in the office for a while, but I played it down. Burning both of your feet on hot coals during a barbecue isn’t a sexy injury, it’s not really very sympathetic. Wear shoes, you idiot.
Later, I reached out to some of the people who’d been at the party when it happened, people who I figured deserved an explanation of why I’d invited them over only to disappear for forty-five minutes, and come back for a while, and then disappear again, to bed this time, curled up with some ancient Vicodin from a long-ago surgery, leaving my husband to refill the drinks and bring out the desserts and eventually say the goodbyes. Most were shocked to hear that it had even happened, even though they — like my husband, who didn’t realize I’d disappeared to the bathroom because I’d been horribly hurt, because I didn’t tell anyone, because no one was looking for it — were standing right next to me when it happened. “Why didn’t you say something?” one of them asked me when I told her, and she meant it with kindness.
I don’t know why. I don’t know why I didn’t really mention it then, or later, or even why I’m bringing it up now, or what it means, or if it matters. I burned my feet this year. It was one of the worst things that’s ever happened to me, to my body. My breathing gets shallow and my throat gets tight even thinking about how scared I was when it happened, how long I stayed scared, how much it hurt, how helpless I felt for a month of immobility, how alone I felt, how Hitchcockian the solitude, how the pain ebbed and flowed and scintillated and eventually subsided, how many origami mice I folded up and tucked away and wouldn’t know how to find and unfold even if I wanted to. I don’t know.
My feet are better now. You can barely tell that anything happened. There’s hardly any scarring, and even if there were more, it’s on the bottoms of my feet. No one looks there on their own, and I’m not likely to show them to anyone, anyway.
Photo by Kenneth Lu
Save Yourself is the Awl’s farewell to 2015.