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How to Use a Microwave

When I went to college at the University of Pennsylvania, the Penn kids and I did not understand each other. They didn’t know what a beef ’n’ beer was. I didn’t know what they meant when they talked about “unpaid internships”. 


Where I grew up in northeast Philly, the uniform was simple. Clothing was dictated by season. Eagles shirt in the fall, Phillies shirt in the spring, and your best jersey for church on Sunday. Add gray sweatpants and a necklace with your name spelled out in fake gold and you’re good. 


At Penn, jewelry wasn’t fake and sweatpants were only for kids headed to lacrosse practice. There were lots of shirts that said Patagonia. I was afraid to ask what that was. Was it the name of a country? Were these souvenir shirts, equivalent to the knockoff I Love NY shirt I bought on Canal Street last year? How was it possible that all these Penn kids had been to Patagonia on vacation? 


Guys wore pants with small animals on them: turtles, whales, dogs, flamingos. They topped them with pastel polo shirts. I was mortified for them, but the confusing part was, these dudes walked with a swagger. I didn’t know what was real anymore. I resisted a continual urge to grab them by the shoulders and shake them, warning them not to walk off campus into Philadelphia or they would get their ass kicked. 


The menu was different. For the first time in my life, I heard people say that pasta was not healthy. In the dining hall, there were girls who didn’t go back for seconds. They looked at me blankly when I reminded them they could go ahead, it’s all you can eat. 


My freshman hall was populated with characters. One of the gems was my next-door neighbor John, a wholesome square with a dry wit and a heart of gold. 


John was straight out of a J.D. Salinger novel -- a prep school Catholic who drank whole milk by the glass. He pinned the flag of Maryland to his dorm room wall, and when temperatures rose, he snapped up his purple high school letterman’s jacket. John “did crew”. I found out that this meant he got up early to row a boat on the Schuylkill with a bunch of other guys while another guy yelled at them from a separate boat telling them which way to turn. I don’t know. Seems like the system could be improved.


John was very quiet. The rest of our friend group was a loud gang of keyed-up eighteen-year-olds trying to out-clown each other, and John was the dad of the pack. He observed the pranking with a pensive face, occasionally recording on his Panasonic camcorder. Although he was quiet, John had a steady confidence and was comfortable with who he was, which made for a satisfying type of person to have around. While the rest of us roasted each other constantly, John paced himself and outdid us with well-timed zingers that were the most on point due to so much time observing.

Because he was so unshakable, we loved to provoke him. On April Fool’s Day, his roommate switched their two halves of the room, measuring things to the centimeter so everything on the walls would be a bizarro-world mirror image when John walked in after crew practice. John took it in slowly, nodded and said, “Well.” Getting a rise out of him was a real win. When he was frustrated with me, he’d sputter, “God bless it, Martha!” 


During the summers, when I worked at overnight camp, John sent handwritten letters (“even though stamps are 37 cents now -- give me a break”). He didn’t get drunk until junior year, when he threw up over the arm of our living room couch during a party. 


After freshman year, a bunch of us from the hall moved together to a high-rise apartment dorm. Four of us girls shared three bedrooms, and John and Russell lived next door. We were on the seventh floor of a twenty-four story building, with a living room overlooking four frat houses on Spruce Street. Being seven floors up was high enough for me. I had an intense fear of heights, especially being near open windows in high places, in case I lost control of my senses and decided to bust through the screen and jump out. So I never opened any of the windows, or stood near them if I could help it. 


I felt like I lived in a luxurious hotel. We had a black-and-white theme in the living room, with posters of James Dean, Marilyn Monroe, and The Godfather. We had a VCR/DVD combo player. My roommates had brought an ice cream maker, sandwich griller, espresso machine, and microwave. 


We didn’t have a microwave growing up. My mom is old school Italian and for years she found the idea sacrilegious. “I cook from scratch! I use a pot!” she liked to say. “Those things give off laser beams!” (She did eventually get a microwave, but for years she unplugged it between use.)

Having the microwave in the apartment opened a whole new world to me. I watched with fascination as my roommate Jen used it to cook bacon. Incredible! Every week I experimented with a new microwavable option. One week I bought a bag of frozen SuperPretzel soft pretzels, like the ones we used to get from the hot display case on the boardwalk down the shore. I looked forward to making a pretzel in the microwave for the first time.


It was a bitter night in December, the last night of finals week. Jen and I were in the apartment, putting off studying, and our other roommates were out. There was a knock at the door. “John, you don’t have to knock!” Jen said when she opened it. “Just come in!”

“A gentleman always knocks,” John said. He sat down on the cow-print-elastic-covered futon. The three of us bullshitted for a while. We debated walking to the library to get work done, but decided it was way too cold. 

“I need to go outline the whole semester of Poli Sci reading before my exam tomorrow.” Jen rose to get her backpack. “I am going to the rooftop lounge. If anyone interrupts me, I will be very angry.” 


John had to study for “MacroEcon”, whatever that was, and I had to write a paper. Everyone dispersed. It was rare to be alone in the apartment, so instead of working in my room, I spread out at our little dining table in the living room. The string of red chili pepper lights blinked above me. At 11:30 pm I remembered the SuperPretzels. 


I pulled the bag from the freezer and carefully wet the top of a pretzel as directed to apply the salt crystals. I put the pretzel in the microwave, glanced at the bag, saw the 3, set the timer for three minutes, and pushed the button. Just enough time to listen all the way through to Mariah Carey’s All I Want for Christmas is You.


Mariah was hitting a Youuuuuu and I was stabbing the air above me with my pointer finger when I noticed a burning smell. 


The microwave beeped. I pushed the button to open it, and a rush of black smoke poured into the room. It was like a bomb had dropped. I could barely see through the haze inside the microwave a melted, charred black lump of pretzel. I grabbed the bag, blinking stinging eyes at the directions. Heat for 30 seconds. 30 seconds. Not three minutes! Why, why, why didn’t I have the common cultural knowledge of how long a pretzel should be cooked in a microwave?! That space in my brain was probably taken up by the schedule for the 67 Septa bus. 


The room was so thick with smoke now that I couldn’t breathe. Smoke inhalation is a thing. This is a situation. I ran over to the windows to open them, but one glance down seven stories and I backed away. I couldn’t bring myself to do it. I ran back to the microwave through the smoke. I went back to the window. I went back to the microwave. 

There was a knock at the door. 


I flung it open. There was John, a polo-shirt-clad Oliver Twist holding a bowl of dry Cinnamon Toast Crunch. “Martha. Do you have any milk? I drank all of-- What is going on?” Smoke billowed behind my head and surged out of the apartment into the hallway. John stood with his mouth slightly open, looking at me with the expression of a father who finds his child on the bathroom floor, having discovered scissors for the first time and cut off all her hair.

“Come in! I need to close the door!” I said. The black cloud of smoke was filling up the corridor. “Before the--”


The fire alarm in the hallway went off. 


“I’m not going in there!” John said. He was still holding his cereal bowl with two hands. “Martha, you need to get out of there!” 


The alarm screamed and flashed. Doors started opening and heads poked out. Eric, our RA, ran hysterically out of his apartment, exhilarated to assume his post of Paul Revere after a dormant semester of self-sufficient sophomore residents ignoring his invitations to “let me know if you need anything”. He ran up and down the hall, banging doors and yelling importantly in his best FEMA voice. 


I had to stop this. It was midnight on the last night of finals. The 796 other residents of this building were either sleeping because their morning exam would determine if their grades were good enough for med school, or, if they did things more my speed, they were cramming a semester’s worth of unattended History of Ancient Greece class material into a three hour block fueled only by Mountain Dew Code Red. Nobody had time for this right now. 


But people were already streaming for the exits. The elevators had shut down in automatic response to the alarm, and as someone opened the door to the stairwell, I saw a stampede of bodies galloping down the stairs. The building was being evacuated.



If there was one thing I had learned about Penn kids by now, they did not love to be inconvenienced. 


I started running, before things got too ugly. Down seven flights and into the lobby, straight to the front desk where two student staffers appeared less than confident. I leaned over the desk and spoke in a whisper. “It was me,” I said. “I set off the alarm. There’s no fire. It’s fine. You can turn it off.” 


The boy blinked and pointed to the front door. Multiple fire engines flashing in front of the building were parked at opposing angles, ready for a standoff. Guys on the truck unwound a hose. Firefighters pushed their way in through the revolving door and headed for where I was standing at the desk. 


I looked the other way. Waves of students poured into the lobby from both stairwells and rolled out the front doors under security’s direction. It was an angry mob of 796 type A’s  who had just descended twenty-four flights to stand outside in eighteen degrees in their underwear and pajamas. Each was angrier than the last, ready to kill the idiot who’d set off the fire alarm. 

If everybody found out it was me, this would cement my legacy, and not in a good way. They wouldn’t forget something like this. These kids were currently living page 125 of their autobiography and this interruption was not in the plan. Who knew what they were capable of at this hour, hopped up on caffeine and Adderall? My body would be found at the bottom of the library steps, sharpie'd up and covered in sticky notes, each one bearing the name of a victim who had to re-take Statistics after having their all-nighter disrupted. Was there a witness protection program in the Ivy League? 

I was out of time to make a plan. The firemen were talking to the front desk guy, and the front desk guy was pointing to me. Head lowered, I gave the firefighters the apartment number, then went back to the stairs, swimming upstream against the risk takers who were last to leave. At the seventh floor stairwell, I stood facing the cinder block wall, hands in the pockets of my gray sweatpants, and hid. I couldn’t face it. I didn’t know how to use a microwave, I was afraid of being by open windows in high places, and I still didn’t know where or what Patagonia was. 

The alarm stopped. People were starting to come back up the stairs. I opened the heavy stairwell door and headed for our apartment. Two firemen, different guys from the ones I’d directed downstairs, were in the living room with Jen and John. The room still had a gauzy curtain of smoke, but the windows were open, and freezing gusts of air came in through the screen. Everyone looked at me. 


I raised my hand meekly to the firemen. “Hey, uh, I was the one that did it.” 


“Yeah, we got it,” one of them said. “Just leave the windows open for a while.”


They left. 


“Don’t worry,” Jen said. “We already instant messaged everybody and told them it was you.”

I didn't want to make another pretzel in front of everyone, so I waited until the next day. It worked out fine.

John has two kids now. He hasn’t changed at all. When I was visiting his family and Sullivan, the six-year-old, farted in my face, John slapped his knee and said, “God bless it, Sullivan!” Also, he still drinks milk by the glass. 

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