West Virgina, 2004. Fear #32: fear.
Eight a.m. I’m the first one awake this chilly October morning, here in a farmhouse-turned-meditation retreat center. I’m bunking for the weekend with seven women I barley know. Not my thing, but I’ve just moved to the area to begin graduate school. I want to see the autumn leaves, I need to make new friends.
Cold and stiff from sagging bunkbed-sleep, I stumble into the kitchen, a drafty room overlooking woods on one side, adjoining the great room on the other. The old house seems to ache for generations under its roof: grandparents and babies, nosy aunts and conspiratorial teens, drowsy fathers and waddling toddlers. The towering double-door fridge wants to feed hungry farmhands, not a bunch of skinny yogis.
I start pulling food from cupboards, thinking I'll cook breakfast for everyone. I just need to figure out how to light the massive stove. Eight burners, two ovens, a griddle that could fry a half-dozen flapjacks and a side of bacon. The stovetop's still cold, as it was last night when we’d arrived, fumbled in the dark for light switches. Someone found a crumpled piece of paper in a kitchen drawer. Someone else said, ah, directions, a gas pipe here, a valve there, a few twists to open it. Lefty-loosey, righty-tighty? A soft hiss I didn’t hear, didn’t follow with my imagination into the black belly of the stove, a cloud trapped, swelling all night, and no pilot light to burn it.
I hold my face inches from the stove and peer into its iron skeleton. I see a tiny pipe that might be a pilot. I light a match and stick it in.
I can't remember the explosion. Can’t remember a sound, a flame, a flash, whether a ball of heat or wave of pressure pushed me, sent me staggering back.
I smell burned hair, burned skin. My face is hot. My face is very hot. I take the one or two long steps to the kitchen sink and thrust my face under a running faucet. I shout for ice. No ice, someone says, no cold water. Lukewarm water's best. Someone leads me to the bathtub where water flows thicker, faster. I kneel and twist my neck awkwardly so that my face can meet the stream. My face won’t cool. I can see--at least I can see. I start crying. As if a valve or pipe has been opened within, the tears flow, for fright and fury, for the city and friends I left behind, for strange hallways and unknown paths ahead. I can't stop crying. I sit on the tub's edge with my head dangled down, gasp into a paper bag.
An ambulance comes. An ambulance for every tear, every heartbreak. The ambulance that took my father, the truck that rescued my great-grandmother in Hiroshima. I lie down on a stretcher in the back, feeling foolish, helpless, the way one feels inside the wispy flaps of a hospital-gown. How bad is my face, I wonder. Do blisters take a long time to appear? Why is my face still warm? My pulse races.
-Is there a mirror? I think, or say aloud.
-We don’t have a mirror.
-You're lying, you just don’t want me to see, my face is burned that badly. I feel lightheaded. The ambulance ceiling moves close, faraway. Shiny metal, as if it could be easily rinsed. What my father saw. What Obaasan saw, or no, she would have seen the sky.
-No, we really don't have a mirror.
-I don’t believe you.
-Here’s some oxygen. Just breathe. Long, slow breaths.
-You’re okay. Iiyo. You're okay, you're okay.