Forbes and Fifth

Paraffin

Suppose I were to start by telling you that I am in love with wax. Paraffin wax. Chemically produced paraffin wax. Wax that’s derived from petroleum, or coal, or oil shale—it’s not the substance most people picture, the one derived from little honey bees flying in and out of little hexagonal hives that lie at the tops of trees.

Is it strange to find solace in an object? To get joy out of something that so many take for granted? That so many don’t even see. Paraffin wax is that object for me. An inanimate object that soothes me. An inanimate object that keeps me from feeling pain. Why? It probably does those things for me because of him. I loved him, and he served as a respite from the relentless anxiety that crippled me day in and day out. I loved him, and he loved me, and we both loved paraffin wax.

Paraffin wax is a bottom of the barrel product. Like, deepest depths of the bottom of the barrel product. Like, it’s the last byproduct to be produced from petroleum production. It comes after the petroleum has been used in the manufacturing of gasoline for your car. It comes after the petroleum has been used to manufacture the asphalt that lies beneath the wheels of your car.

On a rainy Thursday evening, three months after he left and our relationship ended, I sat cross-legged on my bed blaring Fleetwood Mac with the hoard of candles in my room all burning—except for one. I don’t burn it. I can’t burn that one. If I do it fills me with emptiness, loneliness. The loneliness then makes me anxious. On that evening, I left my door cracked, and my roommate entered to see what I was doing. After chatting for a bit she noticed the unlit candle. That it was the only unlit candle. “Why isn’t this one lit?” she remarked. I hadn’t consciously thought about why I never light it until she asked. But I don’t light it because of him.

I feel most lonely, most anxious, when I am driving. Something about the open road and the uncertainty that can exist in where you’ll end up, where your destination will be. Or maybe it’s just the emptiness of being in a car, alone, with only your mind and wandering thoughts that makes me anxious. That’s why even when I would take short trips to Whole Foods, or Ikea, or Barnes and Noble, I would beg him to tag along. His company eliminated the anxiety of being alone. The anxiety of loneliness. It was on one of those short trips to Whole Foods, or Ikea, or Barnes and Noble when he told me a fact about paraffin I had not known before. “Did you know that your tires have wax in them? They’re not just rubber. There’s paraffin wax in them, among other things.” Of course that statement hadn’t just come out of nowhere—we had been talking about how paraffin wax is in so many things, things you don’t even think of. Though I’d like to think that we were just driving, and that statement just came to be. 

I’m not actually in love with paraffin wax in its initial state. It’s not the paraffin wax; it’s the applications it is used in. It’s in candle-making, crayon-shaping, it’s even the shiny coat applied in candy-baking. Those glistening red cranberries you see sitting in a plastic bag marked Ocean Spray in the refrigerated section of the produce section? Those too shine because of paraffin wax.

God, I love candles. Have you ever just sat and played with the melting liquid substance that a candle produces as the flame shimmies its way down the wick? The tips of your fingers feel a burning sensation, not one of pain, but rather one that brings warmth. As you pull your hand away from the liquid and away from the flame and away from the candle, the wax hardens on your hand, becoming completely affixed to your skin. You can pull it off, of course, and when you do it reveals the most brilliant pattern of your fingerprint that you have ever seen. Each line and curve and even the scarred spot from where you burnt yourself on easy-mac when you were six years old all appear in front of you in shiny paraffin wax. And then, as you rub it between your hands or put it closer to the flame of that burning candle, it disappears as quickly as it had formed. Magnificent.

I’m really not even in love with all the applications of paraffin wax, but just the ones that remind me of him. When he first came over and saw the hoard of more than twenty that sat atop my dresser, he said, “I’m glad I’m not the only one who obsesses over candles.” We both exchanged an awkward, artificial giggle. 

In that hoard, there is a tall narrow candle that sits above all the others on my dresser in all its paraffin wax glory. Bright red with a wooden wick, it’s artificially scented to remind me or you or whoever else happened to pick it up from the discount rack of a discount store of the cranberry bogs of New England. But, I can’t burn it anymore. I used to burn it every single night. Its aroma used to fill my entire apartment on chilly winter days, days when he would visit, days when he and I were inseparable. The interesting thing is why we’re so desperate for this anesthetic against loneliness.i But I can’t burn it because it reminds me of him. It reminds me of him because he always remarked how it was the most fragrant candle in the hoard. I suppose I could burn the candle as a reminder of my lover. I could let my mind think of him. I could let my mind remind me of all the happiness. But I know that I would overthink and then be flooded with anxiety. I would overthink and just feel lonely. Overthinking always leads me to anxiety. And anxiety? Anxiety is the loneliest feeling of all. Anxiety brings back all of the sadness and pain you felt before, but also brings to light new pain, new sadness. And when this would happen before I would just think of him, hang out with him, and we would burn a candle or color a picture and all the anxiety would be replaced with joy. But now he is the object of my anxiety. And no matter how many candles or crayons I have, it’s different now that he isn’t there to share them with. So, I don’t burn it. I don’t burn that candle because I’m scared of loneliness. Loneliness is painful, but it seems even more painful when it’s associated with him. We’re all lonely for something we don’t know we’re lonely for.ii

I’m good at isolating. Odd, seeing as I’m scared of loneliness. I’m good at isolating myself. Myself from others. Myself from feelings. Isolating is probably how I cope with my inevitable loneliness. Because if I can be the cause of my loneliness that makes it okay, right? It’s only painful when I’m not in control. I’m not good at feeling. Feelings make me anxious. I’m good at being anxious. Worrying. Panicking. Stressing. I’m good at self-medicating. At anesthetizing my body. I take a Xanax to feel something. And when I say something I mean nothing. The lack of feeling, that’s something, right? But pain, pain is a feeling too. The pain is what you make of it. You have to find something in it that yields.iii An anesthetic induces an insensitivity to pain. Pain without cause is pain we can’t trust. We assume it’s been chosen or fabricated.iv But I choose my pain. I choose my pain before it can choose me. But when it does choose me, I choose to use an anesthetic to mask my pain. Because for some reason feeling nothing is better than feeling pain. Feeling nothing is something after all, right? We think we have to work in order to feel. We want to have our cake resist us; and then we want to eat it, too.v I think we have to work in order to not feel. Or at least I need to work in order to not feel. I’d rather feel nothing than feel something. Because even nothing is something.

I don’t think I’ve always felt that way about feeling. There was that one night when he and I took acid and spent the entire night coloring and blaring Stevie Nicks and Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds and Joan Baez and all of the other songs that came long before we did, under the light of those candles that flank the end of my room. I felt something that night. We melted some of the crayons—which are also formed using paraffin wax—that we were coloring with over the flame of that cranberry candle. Paraffin merging with another form of paraffin. Everything seemed surreal in that moment. Like a dream. I like to think his company made it feel surreal. Or his love towards me. But I know it was most likely the acid producing the dream-like feel, the dreaminess of the reality we were living in that moment. We watched as slowly each color dripped—Bittersweet Shimmer’s orange hue dripped softly till the wrapper with the signature Crayola logo was all that was left. Fuzzy Wuzzy’s ominous peachybrown disappeared into the cranberry-red liquid that sat around the flame. I see the crystal visions. I keep my visions to myself.vi Sure, everything felt like a dream during that moment, but I also had negative visions during the trip. Visions of the future, where I saw him physically melting into the hot wax. Rubbing my eyes, the vision would disappear. I decided we should play more music and get back to coloring instead of melting. Some would equate this to a bad trip. Maybe it was just the mind predicting the future. I can’t say for certain. All I know was that the vision was a dream of loneliness.vii

I have a picture on my phone from that first night of acid dreams.viii It is saved in its own album. It’s a selfie I took. I don’t even think he knows I took it. I don’t think he knows it exists even to this day. In it, half of my face is shown. I have a smirk I have yet to see myself replicate since then, and in the background he sits, a shadowy figure writing on a piece of loose-leaf with a crayon. Why is a picture of something real eventually more exciting than the thing itself?ix When I see that picture I am filled briefly with happiness. I think it’s the smirk. I have never truly seen my face so happy before or since. Does your face please you?x Yes. Do you consider your image erotic?xi Yes. That smirk projects an almost erotic feeling within my body, because it brings me so much joy to see how much joy I had in that moment. But if I continue to look at the picture I am filled with loneliness, and I lock my phone quickly, trying to create some sort of erasure of the image from my mind, instead replacing it with the image of a blank, black, empty screen. Nothingness is better than the pain of loneliness. Loneliness brings nothing but displeasure. At least nothingness manifests without that displeasure. If you squint does your reflection become abstract?xii Yes. Does your face please you?xiii No.

So instead, when I have memories of that night, of him, I try to avoid things that will make me feel lonely. I do not want to feel the pain of that emotion. I do not want to feel any emotion…a memory cannot be trusted, for so much of the experience of the past is determined by the experience of the present.xiv A memory cannot be trusted, and neither can my emotions because my mind turns my emotions into pain. So, I focus on things from that night like the crayons we colored with. Crayons are fascinating when you think about them. Just as magnificent as candles. Both byproducts of the byproduct paraffin that somehow have each then transformed into individual objects that are uniquely their own.

What I love about crayons is that even when they break they remain usable. No matter how many times they shatter and fall apart, those little paraffin wax morsels still smudge color onto a blank page. And even sometimes when they break they keep their initial appearance of being in one piece. We broke a lot of crayons that night. That night, during our acid dreams, when we wrote poems in purple and drew landscapes with lime green grasses, we filled two spiral notebooks with our creations. Crayons became casualties of the night. Most broke into little paraffin morsels, though some appeared to still be whole. Crayons are like us in that way—or rather like me: even when I’m broken I’m not one to show it. I haven’t used crayons since that night that he and I got high. Maybe it’s because they remind me of him—that’s not true and I know it. It’s because, who at my age uses crayons on a regular basis?

Maybe what I’ve been trying to reach this entire time isn’t the idea that I love paraffin, but that I love crayons. Or that I love candles. Or that I love crayons and candles. Or maybe it’s just that I love him and miss him, and that deflecting my pain and my anxiety of missing him into things of paraffin is how I cope. Because I used to deflect my pain and my anxiety by being with him. And now that he’s gone, something else must take his place.

That byproduct. That paraffin wax candle mixed with artificial colors and artificial scents brings me back to some of the happiest times in my life, but those happy times are the ones that bring me the most pain. The pain? I think that maybe the pain is over how much I miss him. How much I miss him and me. Or maybe it’s painful because when I stop for a brief moment my mind wanders and I think about the fact that one of my greatest friends, and lovers, and companions, is now across the state and that late night Skype calls will never be a sufficient replacement for all of the time that we spent together.

Miranda July writes in her memoir, It Chooses You: “I felt like I wasn’t living thoroughly enough – I was distracted in ways I wouldn’t be if I’d been born in 1929”. I think about this quote often when I think about him. Especially in moments like this, when I think about him and how he makes me think about certain paraffin objects, or when the objects instead make me think about him. I wonder if I’ve distracted myself by using these objects as metaphors of our time together; if I had lived in another time that maybe I’d have better coping mechanisms. But pain is universal throughout time. Almost like how paraffin is universal in all of its applications. But paraffin just happens to be my distraction, doesn’t it? I’ve used artificial objects to keep me distracted from the pain I feel.


Endnotes

i David Foster Wallace

ii Ibid.

iii Leslie Jamison, The Empathy Exams

iv Ibid.

v Ibid.

vi Stevie Nicks, Fleetwood Mac, Dreams

vii Ibid.

viii Martin A. Lee, Acid Dreams

ix Jamaica Kincaid, Lucy

x Wayne Koestenbaum, My 1980s and Other Essays

xi Ibid.

xii Ibid.

xiii Ibid.

xiv Jamaica Kincaid, The Autobiography of My Mother


Acknowledgements

Maggie Nelson, Bluets and The Argonauts

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