Trial by Fire

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I’m breaking a promise in writing this. I swore I’d tell maybe my future husband, but bury this secret with me six feet under. It’s my fault really. I think the candle was my idea.

When something life-changing is about to happen, you begin to countdown. All of your thoughts and actions suddenly whirl around this big change. There are X days until the party, the wedding, the trip, the move, the job, the graduation. That’s what it was for me. Graduation.

Graduating college is a big deal and isn’t to be under-celebrated. My best friend Meredith and I were all set to graduate a semester early and we were, understandably, freaking out.

Luckily, we had the support of each other, but it’s difficult to graduate without all the familiar faces who started classes with you. Your friends aren’t worrying about the future yet, or what kind of job they’ll take, or if they’ll find a job they’ll love. Their graduation would be five short months away and they truly enjoyed watching us squirm in the anticipation.

Between the excitement and the tension, Meredith and I counted down each passing day in an attempt to slow time and make each day memorable. We wrote goals. Things we would accomplish before we left. Most of them were silly or fun, but one was serious. In retrospect, one was a very bad idea.

College wasn’t a particularly friendly time in our lives. College brought death, divorce, broken hearts, and pain. Universities don’t properly promote that college will bring you adversity and challenges to survive well beyond your midterms. Your early twenties are a time of immense change and life is hectic and uncontrollable.

We decided no one’s life was as hard as ours were in college. (When you’re 21, you’re overly dramatic.) No one else dealt with their sister’s death or their parents’ divorce. No one else was cheated on or dumped or abandoned. No one else had our food allergies or our stress levels. At the very least, I know no one visited doctors more often than us.

Graduation would symbolically close the door on the past three and half years of our lives and we would move forward, burning off the ropes tethering us to the past.

It took half an hour, but we wrote down every person who hurt us during college. We wrote their names and how we felt about it. We wrote our physical pains and our broken hearts. We wrote out everything we didn’t realize still clung itself to our hearts. Eight and a half by eleven covered on both sides by purple ink.

Meredith began ripping hers first.

I tore my page into three long strips, hot dog style. My paper ended in a hundred pieces of illegible names. My heart pounded a beat faster in my chest in exhilaration. An Acme-sized anvil lifted from our living room after precariously pinning us down for so long. The cathartic experience brought no tears, but only an eerie silence between us.

We didn’t anticipate so much paper. It’s humbling, really. To see all these hurts piled up made me feel so…stupid. They were the past, yet here they were pulling me backward. Why do we bother hanging onto these things? They are over. We can’t change it. We can’t make it go away.

The sweet smell of hazelnut enveloped us. We almost always burned candles in our apartment, but this candle was our catalyst. This candle would burn all of our hang-ups for good.

We slowly began dropping them over the flames.

“Are they burning?”

“They’re landing in the wax at the bottom.”

“This is going to take forever, isn’t it?”

But we kept dropping in slips of the torn pages of our lives. Untold chapters and plot twists disappeared in the growing flame. The rapidly growing flame now. In fact, this is getting pretty hot.

“What was that sound?” Meredith’s voice shook.

“Um….” How did I answer her question? “That was the sound of the glass cracking because the fire is too hot.”

“What! What do we do?” The flames began shooting up higher.

I filled a glass with water.

“Okay, stand back.” I knew the glass would shatter once I poured the cold water over it. Our tiny enflamed paper would fly and steam and smoke. My heart sludged adrenaline through my veins and I all but hurled the cup of water toward the flame.

The fire multiplied feet into the air and I worried it would set our ceiling fan on fire. Meredith screamed and ran off as the smoke alarm deafened our ears. I began refilling my cup anxiously, realizing I should’ve picked one larger or at least been ready with more water. I poured the second cup of water over the flames and they extinguished with grandeur.

I ran to our balcony door and opened it so they smoke could funnel out. I was trying to fan the smoke detector when Meredith returned with a fire extinguisher. The smoke alarm turned off and we were silent for a moment. Two of our roommates were asleep. Neither of them stirred, despite the commotion. We looked at each other from across the room with wide eyes before busting out in hysterical laughter.

“Well, it’s good to know that if there ever was a fire, they wouldn’t wake up.”

“Where did you go?”

“We needed a fire extinguisher and I knew there was one in the garage!”

“There’s one under our kitchen sink!”

“Oh. There was a fire! I wasn’t thinking straight.”

“We can never tell anyone about this. Never.”

But we couldn’t stop laughing. We joked about each other’s reactions and how we would explain the suddenly missing, slightly ruined coffee table. We decided throwing out our remaining piles of paper in the dumpster would suffice. Our hearts felt pretty well purged of the past by now.

I should probably share my story as a reason why you shouldn’t play with fire or trust Wal-Mart grade candles as kindling for your heartbreak. But more intelligent souls probably know that by now.

We went to extreme lengths to emancipate ourselves from the trials life pushed on us. You can’t really extinguish the past. You can’t even burn it to make it all disappear. It’s there, right where it should be. In the past. Maybe you’re trying to hold on too tightly, or maybe you’re trying to push it away, but it’s best to just let it go.

The future begins when you stop seeing it all as the pains, the hurts, and injustice that only you suffered. We are decidedly stronger and better because of all the pains life forces upon us. You wouldn’t be you without them.