A farmer’s wife exploded in a ball of fire in the middle of a cornfield. We were all sure it was a freak accident, something wrong with the gas tank of the nearby tractor. When her distraught husband made the rounds of the morning talk shows, we watched his eyes, cloudy and distant. “I looked over, and she was just engulfed,” he said, and we thought there was something untrustworthy about him. We suspected the worst, but then the weather man came on predicting rain, and we gathered up our umbrellas and galoshes. We grabbed handbags and backpacks, hustled the kids out the door and left for work.
Just when we forgot about her, another story started circulating. A woman making coffee in her office in New Jersey burned in an instant, leaving behind a neat pile of ashes and scorched tiles on the break-room floor. We started looking at our appliances suspiciously, wondering if some electrical surge would do us in.
Soon, word popped up all over the country: women in New Mexico, Maine, and Georgia, all swallowed up in flames. Each week brought new accounts: a woman disintegrated in her mother-in-law’s living room in Bridgeport, Connecticut. Three more incinerated during rush hour traffic in Los Angeles, windows blackened but cars intact. No pattern emerged in the wake of their deaths. Some were alone, some with friends or family members. Most of them weren’t near anything flammable.
No one could produce an answer. With each passing day, we learned about more and more women perishing, ablaze in their own skin. We talked about it running on treadmills at the gym, over the din of hair-dryers at the salon. Could this really happen? How does someone burn up and go, poof? Just like that?
The mystery of it all infuriated us. We wanted answers, pronto. When none presented themselves, we did what we always do: made up our own. In the checkout line, stuck behind a guy paying for his order in nickels, we flipped through the tabloids. They promised the miracle cure to what some called Female Explosion Syndrome. Recommendations of ice baths, honey and vinegar concoctions, and constant exposure to air conditioning littered the pages. Pretty soon, we started seeing ads on late-night TV for special vests made with space-age tubing that constantly circulated cool water. “Available in your choice of pink, purple, and mint green! Comfortable enough to be worn under clothes, pretty enough to wear on the outside,” the announcer promised.
Some scientists floated the theory that FES was a hormonal imbalance, as young girls seemed unaffected. Extreme hot flashes could be the culprit, they said. Sure enough, ads started airing on the radio, telling us herbal supplements were the answer. “Thirty-day trials available, risk-free.”
Concerned about all the conflicting advice, some of us went to see our doctors. We worried about low-grade fevers, mysterious pangs in our stomachs. While we shifted on exam tables in scratchy blue paper gowns, our doctors sighed. They shook their heads, lowered their glasses on their noses. “FES is media hype,” they told us. “There has to be some other logical explanation for these incidents. What they’re reporting about hormones, or static electricity, or whatever today’s crazy theory is, it’s just not good science.” They placed reassuring hands on clammy shoulders. “You have nothing to worry about.”
We nodded, trusting their expert opinions, even though we heard one of us was found as a pile of ashes on the sidewalk just outside a clinic.
At home, we maintained normalcy. Scrubbing the tub provided calm. Clipping coupons brought peace, however brief. We welcomed our families home for dinner each night. Sometimes we had time to prepare nourishing, filling meals: pot roast with root vegetables, shrimp stir-fry, meatloaf and mashed potatoes. Sometimes time was tight, and we brought home sacks of hamburgers, large boxes of pizza or buckets of fried chicken. We washed down the guilt with plenty of diet soda.
Every day, we went to work. We greeted our co-workers with smiles and banana-nut muffins. We taught the lessons, assembled the switches, changed the diapers. Later, at our next job, we rang up the customers, organized the display racks, and entered the data. We shared anecdotes about our children, husbands, or partners over large cups of coffee, light and sweet. By the time we got to our third job, we only shared the weariness. We mopped the floors, vacuumed the carpeting, emptied the trash cans. With cigarettes furtively smoked near the Dumpster, we whispered about lovers, heartbreaks or debts we couldn’t pay. And always, always, we talked about FES.
The stories kept circulating: a mother of five, sitting on the sidelines of a Little League game, gone. A waitress in our favorite diner, who always remembered that we needed extra napkins, gone. A bank teller we said hello to when we deposited our checks, gone. Who could figure this out, we asked. Who was going to protect us?
The President held a prime-time press conference to address our fear and confusion. He stood behind a podium, eyes grave yet confident. He announced the creation of a special FES task force led by the Surgeon General. After pledging to us that our nation’s best and brightest minds were on the case, reporters questioned him, but they asked the same things over and over. Is this a disease? Can anything be done to prevent these tragedies? Could this malady be spread to men?
We all watched carefully, but FES never developed the feared mutation that could affect the Y chromosome. Some grew suspicious, arguing that FES was engineered by misogynists to control women, keep them on edge and subservient to men. Of course, the men protested. “We’re hurting, too,” they cried. “We’re losing our wives, mothers, daughters, friends. This is not our fault.”
We looked to other nations around the world. FES struck indiscriminately. Women incinerated in cities, towns, and remote villages on every continent. While it was tough to get precise information, we heard of great numbers of women ostracized from their communities simply for their gender, whether they had “symptoms” of FES or not. Other countries mysteriously reported no cases.
In our fear, we drew on comfortable stereotypes. FES only affects poor women with no access to healthcare. FES plagues rich women because of their decadent lifestyle. White women thought FES was a minority issue. Minority women argued FES was a white woman’s dilemma. We organized along every division we could find: Methodists versus Hindus, Teamsters opposed to UAWs, city kids against country girls. Fingers always pointed at someone else. Not me, nope, I’m not one of those.
As the weeks dragged on, complacency hardened our hearts. Sitcoms featured exploding women, just for random comic effect. Joke shops sold FES memorabilia, like ball caps emblazoned with Thar she blows!
Religious leaders got in on the act. The upbeat woman we watched on cable early in the morning told us, “Sisters, don’t be alarmed. God will provide healing for us if we just ask Him.” But some preached that FES was a plague of biblical proportions. Punishment fell on women for some secret, buried sin, for leaving the home. Some connected FES to the Apocalypse, to the predictions of the Mayans. Soon, the crazy people at the airport started carrying signs that said: Women, conFES!
We couldn’t take it anymore. Our bodies regularly betrayed us through cancer, strokes, heart attacks, but this was different. FES attacked not just our bodies but our spirits. We lived in constant fear of ourselves, of this other waiting to strike.
Months piled up into a year, and still no answers. The government started to abandon FES research when the latest terrorist threat loomed on the horizon. Money earmarked for the Centers for Disease Control was rerouted into the military, and who were we to complain? As FES crept closer and closer toward our lives but farther from the nation’s memory, we realized that it was up to us to carry on the fight.
Small groups of women formed local, grass-roots organizations to fight FES. We met in our living rooms, crowded around the coffee table. We knew that origin theories about FES always dead-ended, so we had to take another route. We started examining those who died. No link existed between race, weight, religion, profession, eye color, shoe size. No prior medical history made a difference. We pored over the accounts in the newspapers, on the internet, but became stymied.
When looking back proved useless, we started looking around. The key to FES had to be in those that remained, we thought. Instead of looking at what separated us, we explored what we had in common. We investigated diet and exercise habits. We read water quality reports, and measurements of smog levels. Again, nothing concrete emerged. Every woman’s life differed so greatly from her neighbor’s.
Our home’s hostess would usually get up at this point to offer drinks, a plate of cookies or a bowl of popcorn. Just as the offer to share was hard-wired into our social skills, so was the polite refusal. For us to take something would leave you with less, we thought. We would respond, “Thank you, but I’m fine.”
“You always say you’re fine,” our hostess admonished.
A quiet woman in the corner raised her eyes to the group. “What if that’s the problem?”
Puzzled, we struggled to get her meaning. Some of us looked at each other, unsure of what to say.
She pushed her bangs out of her eyes, excited. “Can’t you see? Fine, fine, fine, that’s our motto.” Her eyes glinted. “What if it’s all that stuff just, exploding?”
An awkward pause hung over the living room. “That’s an interesting idea,” we said, and then we returned to our original conversation. We didn’t want to tell her to leave, but we hoped she would get the hint. We didn’t need crackpot observations when serious work had to be done.
On the FES websites, the death count continued to climb. We held rallies, candlelight vigils, protest marches. No one listened. We continued our research, but our mothers, our sisters, our best friends, kept dying. We started going to more funerals. The casserole dishes piled up in the sink, the cake pans deteriorated from constant use. Our black clothes slowly faded to an inky gray-blue.
We looked in on our neighbors, on motherless sons and daughters. We consoled the countless widowers with all the same words: “You’ll get through this. She’s watching over you.” Our teenage daughters, who once grasped for age and independence, reverted back to childhood habits. They watched cartoons, jumped rope double-dutch, and talked to us again. They were afraid to grow older, to become women and face this terrible unknown. We held them tightly, scared of leaving them, afraid for them, too.
Although shaken, we determined to persevere. We wanted to be the lucky ones, the strong, the survivors. We remained positive in the face of unbelievable pain, because the work had to continue.
But at night, when we sank into our beds, we remembered the dead. We missed them. We hoped to avoid their fate. Before we closed our eyes, we looked out into the darkness. We laid a hand just above the heart, the heat of our bodies palpable through skin. We asked for protection against the fire we carried inside.