In a Flash

“You need to go look in the mirror.”
I took my glove off and wiped my cheeks and forehead, then looked at my palm for soot, which was absent. I gave Josh a look that asked.
”You’ve just gotta look.”

We lived in the same house of the dorm in our first year, but had first truly met in the C-shop. The “C” stood at least for coffee, but also seemingly for cigarettes. When you opened the door, an almost visible threshold of smoke remained. In between classes during the day, it was where we’d hang out. I had friends there that I never saw anywhere else on campus.
Someone would get there first. On the days I had an 8:30 class, which was Monday and Wednesday and Friday that whole year, it would be me. I’d get a coffee, sometimes something to eat, and sit down at a free table and open something to read or write. Before very long, someone from the group would be dropping off their bag at the table while they got coffee of their own. By mid-morning, there’d be a full table and nobody’d be thinking about any of their assignments. There was still plenty of thinking in the give and take, about the nature of art, or the character of the modern, or whatever music anyone was excited about, or some book. The conversation would be in turns serious and critical and humorous. There was never any concrete product created, but the time was in no way wasted, even though that may have been our goal in the moment.
I became a smoker briefly. You can shake your head and think about the power of peer pressure, but you miss your mark. I didn’t smoke in order to fit in with my friends, I fit in with them before I became a smoker. I like the smell of it, and found out I liked the taste of it, and the feel of breath weighted with smoke. It’s a stimulant from just a slightly different angle from coffee, and together they give you a 3-D buzz. I gave it up because I couldn’t accept the likely long-term effects. There were a lot of things at that time in my life that I experienced for a short time and left behind that I still long for even though I know the desire is foolish. I usually have a lighter or a pack of matches on me.
The combination of cigarettes and coffee and thinkers had some unique products. One of them was the non-dairy creamer trick. A background discussion of the trick and its origins must include the example of the grain elevator explosion. Everything will burn, under the right circumstances. An organic powder like non-dairy creamer, or milled grain, will not burn very well lying in a pile, but if it is dispersed in a cloud, with a large ratio of volume of oxygen available to volume of powder, sha-zoom!
Someone would sit down with their coffee and a couple of packets of creamer, and stir one in as the conversation went on whatever way it was going. Eventually, there would be a lull, and the remaining packet still sitting in the middle of the table. Everyone had a light. All that was left was to open the packet, sprinkle it out through the air about a foot above the flame, and, if you poured it out at the right rate, the leading edge would take the flame and it would leap through the rest of it in a flash. It would be over before anyone else could turn to see what the light was coming from. Sometimes there would be two packets, or three. The more there is, the harder it is to get it to spread enough instead of just smothering the flame.

The question begged to be asked, and at that time all such questions needed to be answered. How much was too much? Could anyone get an entire coffee cup full of powdered creamer to ignite? People took up their positions, laid out their theoretical arguments. This was not a question that could be answered in the C-shop, no one wanted to risk being banned from there.
Our house in the dorm was two of the eight floors. The rooms were laid out around the square periphery of the building, in the middle of each two floors there was a common room two stories high. In one corner of the room, a steel circular staircase gave direct access to the common room from the upper floor. Josh and I figured that was probably high enough, and being inside would keep us from having to account for any of the wind this city was famous for. We couldn’t decide who should hold the match and who should hold the cup, so flipped for it and I won the cup.
I put on my long black denim coat and gloves and went up to the top of the spiral. Josh lit a whole pack of matches and held it at arm’s length in the air. I let just a little of the powder spill from the edge of the cup, a thin leading edge that I followed with more and more as I tipped slow to fast to all. That first edge caught immediately and the growling fireball climbed up through and past the cloud of creamer and around the empty cup I was still holding in midair. Josh and I paused for a breathless moment after it was done, still staring flashblind at the empty air that had just been filled with flame. Josh broke the pause first, “Holy fucking shit.”
”Yeah, that could have been better thought out. Wow… Wow. I am not doing that again”
”You never have to now. Holy shit.”
I came down the spiral onto a ash-covered floor. Josh already had the broom out from the common room kitchen and handed me the dust pan.
“You need to go look in the mirror.”
When we were done sweeping up, I went to the bathroom to look. The ends of my eyebrows were frayed and twisted from the heat. Good thing I blinked, I suppose.

So anyway, they grew back, even have to trim them sometimes. I still usually have a light, and can still find a packet of non-dairy creamer at the diners now and again.

[for the-whiskey-writer for sharing his story about how he lost his beard]


‘I used to joke that Josh Radnor was on the wrong show, I mean that in the best way. […] But ultimately he was on exactly the right show. Because none of HIMYM’s lunacy and farce would have worked if it hadn’t been playing against something or someone authentically based in reality, and that was Josh.

‘I think Alyson was the heart of the show, whereas Josh was the brains, Jason the spirit, Cobie the soul, and I was the cock.’

- Neil Patrick Harris: Choose Your Own Autobiography
You’ve Been Fictionalized!
Or, Is this really what you think of me? The shock of recognition. Twenty-odd years ago, T. C. Boyle asked me about the artists’ colonies I’d been to—he was writing a novel. I described the lunches dropped off on the residents’ porches, the nightly readings and revels. When his book, East Is East, came out, I... Read More »
By Michelle Huneven

The experience of being fictionalized can be like overhearing people talk about you when they don’t know you’re there.”