THINGS THAT BURN
December 2014

A eucalyptus candle flickered, emitting a thread of soft smoke toward the ceiling fan. I watched it upside-down, lying on my borrowed yoga mat as I tried to adhere to instructions: "Inhale for three seconds, exhale for four. Feel your belly rise, then your chest."

It was the first time I had a chance to think about the events of the past week: a long and silent ride home, a two-line email, a skinned knee, and I began to cry. I tried really hard to think about other things--walnuts, Blake Lively, my grocery list--but I had already picked at a fresh wound. It scared me how uncontrollable it was.

I recently read an essay about how public crying is so common in New York because the city naturally acts as an extended living room. Apartments are small--they're where you sleep. The city is where you do your living, your socializing, your feeling. PDA and public displays of emotion take place on the subway, sidewalk, park bench, and coffee shop. No one bats an eyelash because everyone knows they'll do it at some point, as early as this afternoon. It's anonymous, and at the same time, a shared experience.

I watched the candle burn through blurry eyes. It looked like a kaleidoscope, collecting and collaging bits of color from around the room--the painting of Lake Titicaca, the sage wall, the red pulsing light on the thermostat. My yoga teacher kept talking softly about inhaling and exhaling as she stepped over horizontal breathing bodies to pull a couple fresh sheets of tissue from the cardboard box on top of the stereo. She walked back to my mat, knelt down, and gently placed them in my hands. I wiped my eyes, and the candle's flame became clear again.
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I came back to my apartment a week after the fire to get my coat. A lightbulb was dangling by a fat orange wire in the lobby. An inch of water soaked the tile entrance. A giant fan sat unceremoniously in the middle of the hallway. The walls had turned black.

I slowly climbed the stairs to my apartment as though I was going to disturb some sacred force if I made my way too assertively, the way you carefully and quietly walk the length of a cathedral or a cemetery. The hallways were lit only with sideways flashlights or an occasional wind-up camping lantern. Everything was damp. It smelled like poison.

I pushed open my door slowly, to find a few men in my apartment, wearing stained sweatshirts and paper surgical masks. They tromped around my hardwood floor in muddy boots, taking my soot-covered posters off the wall, revealing clean white squares on the surfaces, and then adding them to a big pile of my belongings in the middle of my room: my pillow, my bookshelf, my drawing pens, my French press, a pink Valentine's Day card from my mom that I kept on my desk.

"Who are you?" one of them asked.

"I live here" I answered like a question. "I just need to get something. Um, it'll be quick."

"Oh. Okay. Well just step around this stuff," he gestured to the pile.
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I want some genius to make an app like Shazam but for scents. I want to know what makes a street corner smell like Kobe, Japan, or the third car of the Amtrak smell like the Santiago airport, or the sanctuary of Foundry Methodist Church smell like my high school chemistry lab.

I want to hold up my phone at the street corner, press a button, let it collect the mysteries of the ethers, and then provide me with a bulleted list of exactly what's going on there: spilled coffee, aluminum scraps, decaying leaves, fresh rubber soles, and burning incense from Fadiga African Hair Braiding Salon.

Then I'll be able to realize THAT'S it--it's the incense that makes it smell like Kobe. Then I'll make up in knowledge what I lack in magic.
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Watching a year is like observing a bonfire, slow to catch on to the kindling at first, and then full and mesmerizing at its height. The flames become so dramatic and intense right in the middle, like the never ending, over-emotional summer. It's dancing, blinding bright, and doesn't smell like anything. Not until it winds down and the flames crackle and you get that good bonfire scent immortalized by Glade Candle Company. 

I'm all about the crackle: the sight and sound of everything winding down. I'm all for moments when it's just about to end: the last drink at the bar before it closes, the last song before the wedding's over, twilight. In the winter, I dream of heading to 75-degree-all-the-time weather, like southern California or Guatemala. But you don't get the crackling in these places, you don't get the winding down. You don't get the lavender shadows and the gold light, the smoky air and the romance of a sniffle. I always want to stay for the crackling.