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Germ Bag

Burning For You

By Suz Redfearn | Posted 12/25/2002

I had a feeling it would be a bad idea to take my eyes off the dining room table, even for an instant. But all I wanted to do was quickly push some unwanted bits of salad out of a bowl and into the garbage. How harmful could that be? Plenty harmful -- at least that's what my intuition told me.

Against better judgement, though, I did it anyway; I huddled in the blind spot between the cupboard and the fridge and I scraped. Then and there, I was filled with powerful visions, clear visions of those devastated moms sobbing on so many episodes of 20/20. "I only looked away for a second," they blubbered. "Just a second."

I peered back at the table, and noticed my cat had jumped up. No cause for alarm. Unless you're Marty.

"Don't let Habbib on the table!" he had harped countless times, saying it was gross, unsanitary. But I never listened because I'm deeply in love with that cat -- have been since he gazed up at me with his giant amber eyes and climbed onto my lap in the animal shelter seven years ago. I deny Habbib nothing. Hey, if he wants to saunter around on the table, fine with me. In fact, I've found it can be a symbiotic thing, benefiting both of us. Like in the mornings, when he lays flush with my cereal bowl and I prop a magazine on him. Sure, sometimes he flips his fluffy tail into the milk, but I just fish the hairs out of my bowl and move on. After all, black fur is easy to spot in milk.

Marty would have yelped tonight for sure as Habbib meandered about the table, had he not gone down to finish the laundry. Wandering around the abandoned dinner plates, the ungainly cat was not being too careful about the one hazard in the middle of the table: a flickering candle. I momentarily envisioned him going up in flames and I chuckled, thinking that was far too sitcom-ish to actually happen.

But sure enough, the thing that I had feared most -- and had laughed off -- had in fact occurred. My cat was on fire.

It was a horrific scene. Time slowed to a paralyzed crawl as I watched Habbib pause, lower his head to examine the remains of my pork taco and -- because he lives for pork -- suddenly lose all awareness of his surroundings and swing his plume-like tail lackadaisically into the flame. In an instant, fire shot from the base of his tail to the tip. The whole thing was engulfed.

At these times they say your life flashes before your eyes in a millisecond. But actually, my life didn't flash and neither did Habbib's. Instead, a whole slew of odd scenes played vividly in my head as I lunged toward my boy.

First I was whisked back to Thanksgiving dinner in 1994, seated next to my brother's wife's dad. As Mr. Patrick reached hungrily for the yams, his festive holiday sweater grazed the flame of the centerpiece candle and, owing to his garment's unnatural fibers I guess, his entire right arm went up in flames. Since I was seated adjacent to the fire arm, it was my responsibility to save this man. I frantically slapped at him with both hands, eventually extinguishing the blaze. I felt smug about having averted disaster.

Instead of thanking me profusely, though, Mr. Patrick was perplexed.

"Um, what? What?" he said, furrowing his brow at his odd in-law.

"You were on fire!" I panted.

"I was?!" he said, looking thankful but dubious.

Turned out no one had seen the fast-moving fireball but me, and Mr. Patrick's sweater showed no evidence of ignition. Not a single burnt thread -- owing, I believe, to its unnatural fibers. The family looked at me like the misunderstood black sheep that I am, then simply passed the can-shaped cranberry mold.

But Habbib wasn't wearing any unnatural fibers -- I was pretty certain of that (oh sure, I'd considered dressing him in wintertime, but that's another story). As I lurched toward him, I remembered a dream I'd had two nights before. In it, I was standing next to a makeshift snake pit located in a public library watching two cobras fight it out with a third, high-octane snake sporting huge bulging eyes and a very haggard, prehistoric look. We all knew the bulgy-eyed one would triumph. Suddenly though, it bypassed the cobras and flung itself out of the pit and onto a man standing near me, latching lethally onto his arm. The man collapsed, sending massive pools of blood onto the hardwood floor. Because I was just inches from the man, I began tearing at the snake with a fork, trying to get it to detach. At the same time, I was trying to call 911 on my cell and couldn't get through.

My efforts appeared heroic, but in the dream, I knew I was only aiding the draining man because, like Mr. Patrick, he was next to me. Had I been across the room, I was pretty sure I would have recoiled in horror and left the gallantry to someone else. This made my dream-self wonder about my true nature, my instincts, my skill level. Because after all, if I only exhibit selfless chivalry when absolutely forced, what the hell kind of parent am I going to make, huh?

But then here I was lunging at Habbib, thinking of nothing but his safety and preservation. I didn't care how I put out the fire or if I got maimed. I was unconcerned about our nice purple table runner and how much damage it might sustain. Hmm, I thought, this is good.

Then, half way across the dining room, another memory hit me. Suddenly I was in the fourth grade, huddled with boys who were playing with fire. It took a while for them to convince me that you could pass your finger back and forth through a flame without burning yourself. But when I finally tried it, I realized they were on the level -- it was possible to touch fire and not get burned, provided you kept your finger moving. Pretty soon I was giggling and painlessly passing my whole hand through the flame, first quickly, then slowly, feeling like I'd beaten the system. They say pyromania's not good. They're wrong.

When I reached the dining room able, I grabbed Habbib's tail tightly at the base and ran my hand up the length of it in one hard and quick motion. In a flash, the fire was out. Frantically, I felt around for damage, but there was nothing there save for a field of black crispies. Habbib looked up at me as if to say, "Um, what? What?" then moseyed over to the next plate, completely unaware. All that remained of the moment was a sharp stench that suggested beauty parlor disaster.

Petting the boy furiously and waiting for my heart rate to slow, I stewing myself in visions of what this scene could have become had I left the room for awhile or even the apartment, say, to go get the mail downstairs. Habbib could have died a hideous, painful, shrieking death, and I would have found him charred. Oh it was unimaginable. Things could have been so much worse.

But they weren't. Habbib was unscathed and blissfully unaware, interested only in rooting around for more scraps. And I had confirmation that my nobler instincts -- though perhaps in need of some honing -- are in fact intact.

At the very least, I'll be of some use if my children catch fire.

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More from Suz Redfearn

Exit Stage Fright (2/26/2003)
Editor's note: With this installment we bid adieu to Germ Bag.

Cabin Pressure (2/12/2003)
Escape -- you might think it's what you desire. Until you've actually run somewhere.

New Traditionalists (1/8/2003)
It was Christmas Eve morning on Harvard Street. Marty and I sat on the hardwood floor near our...

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