As kids, we learn not to poke our fingers inside of ovens and toasters or place our hands on hot stovetops. We learn it will hurt to be burned. We grow up wary of external elements in the natural world, cautious of vulnerability to open flames.
I am attentive when I cook. But each time I neglected to be so careful as to not make contact with the fire, it surprisingly didn’t really hurt that much. The open wound did not scare me because it was understood as lacking permanence. There was merely a split second of discomfort and I ran my hands under cold water to stop the tingling from the heat.
It was always the days which followed that surprised me. My fingers would throb when I woke up and blisters bubbled on my flesh. Calluses would form and I never knew how long they would last, but it was always longer than I anticipated. I have permanent scars on my fingertips from some of these clumsy kitchen mishaps.
The same seems to go for heartbreak: the initial sting is the easier part. It awards you every excuse to eat sugary snacks and drink bad wine and feel a sensational validity in sulking about what once was. It enables you to cry over spilled milk while good friends clean it up with empathetic pity.
It is months later, as the thought of him still prevents me from finishing assignments and keeps me awake trying to quantify my own self-worth, that I’ve come to appreciate the fear of getting burned. It’s not the shock from the fire, but rather the aftermath, when the Bandaids and Vitamin E oil cease to heal the broken skin, that proves inexplicably harder to grapple with.
I wish I could play with the open flame again, eating ice cream and getting drunk and performing my hurt for the people around me with an entitlement to complain about the freshness of the wound. I got to dance amongst the smoke not yet forced to try and heal despite ashes that would remain.
Little did I know then that the preliminary pain was not the hard part; it’s the residual heat that really burns.