When You Catch On Fire, And No One Notices

Catch On Fire

Midlife Musings: Nancy Knight

The movies have it all wrong.

And, if they’re at all based on fact, so does the CIA, MI6, all those initialed spy agencies. Super-spies shouldn’t be hunky, flint-eyed men or bombshell young women who improbably flip assassins six time their own size over a high-rise balcony. Nope — the biggest untapped source for double-O agents and national security operatives is us. You know — middle-aged broads.

“I’m not the first one to point out how invisible we are.”

I’m not the first one to point out how invisible we are. Nor am I first across the plate in working that fact to my advantage. But just maybe, my wife and I are the first to successfully simulate international infiltration thanks to our invisibility.

And it all began with a humble seat heater.

Lost Control Of My Bladder:

Several years ago when my wife Laura bought her first Subaru Forester (such a cliche, yes, we know), she was annoyed when the heated door mirrors she wanted were packaged with heated seats.

“Heated seats!” she shrieked. “Who needs ‘em! Those are for boozhie babies!” I puffed in contemptuous agreement, my only experience with heated seats being once when the colleague giving me a ride turned my seat on without my knowing — and in horror I became convinced that I’d suddenly lost control of my bladder.

But then along came winter and we both fell deeply in love with the feature, our butts and lower backs basking in the warm loving embrace of those seats. So much so that Laura began to slowly take over most of the driving duties, previously my domain — but who wanted to ride in my stone-cold sad sedan when it was 10 degrees outside, while her car would hold you tight like a baby kangaroo in a warm pouch?

After-Market Seat Warmers:

Now spoiled beyond reason by Laura’s car, I bought one of those after-market seat warmers that plugs into your lighter port. It cost like 20 bucks, including the shipment from Shanghai, which the poorly translated instructions seemed to indicate it came from. It was hard as a rock, barely covered the seat, let alone my hiney, but I loved it. Yes it was like sitting on concrete, but hot concrete.

“I could never stand that scorching heat for more than five minutes at a pop, but those were a glorious five minutes.”

It had two settings, LO and HI, but more accurately it was HOT AS THE STOVE TOP and HOT AS THE SURFACE OF THE SUN. I could never stand that scorching heat for more than five minutes at a pop, but those were a glorious  five minutes.

I’m a giver, so on those occasions that Laura couldn’t avoid going somewhere in my car, I always let her use the seat warmer. She’d grumble about the hardness of the thing, throw shade at its inability to compete with her own seats — but of course she never gave it up, either.

Mid-Winter Birthday:

Now, one absolute in our decades-long relationship is the Birthday Dinner. No matter how busy our lives may be around each anniversary of birth, we always carve out time for a culinary extravagance at the Birthday Girl’s choice of restaurant.

And of course, it’s always the job of the theNon-Birthday Girl to do the driving, so the Birthday Girl has the option of getting blotto if she so chooses. So when Laura’s mid-winter birthday rolled around, I chivalrously put my seat heater in the passenger seat of my car for her, and off we headed to the Great White North, to the Ontario oyster bar she’d picked out.

In those pre-Pandemic days, we didn’t think twice about traveling across the border to Canada just to have an excellent meal — one of the perks of living in Upstate New York near Buffalo. From the resort town of Niagara-on-the-Lake to California-style wineries dotting the Niagara Peninsula, the outstanding cuisine options abound. Which was the main reason years ago that we invested in Nexus cards — a TSA-approved fast pass that, among other perks, lets you drive across the Nexus-only Whirlpool Rapids Bridge. It’s the only bridge between the two countries where you are pretty much guaranteed no waiting in line to cross.

Whirlpool Rapids Bridge:

On the way to the restaurant, Laura fiddled with the seat heater. “Which setting is the hottest?” she asked.

“It doesn’t matter, they’re both too hot, you’ll be fine.”

“I won’t be fine, you know I’m always cold, this thing never gets hot enough for me.”

“Well it’s not my fault your ass is made of ice-cold asbestos! You’ll be fine!

“…*grumble grumble*…”

We’d had this same argument about 80 times. And after the wonderful meal (so many oysters), we had it yet again on the way back to the Whirlpool Rapids Bridge to get back into the States. 

So after a short drive we got to the Bridge, and passed the turnstile marking the Point of No Return, which means there’s no turning back — you’re on your way to America, baby. It was at this point that Laura thought she felt a bug biting her thigh — and then thought, “What the hell kind of mutant bug is out in January?”

She looked down — and realized that next to her leg she could clearly see a heating coil in the seat heater — glowing. She let out a small yelp and backed up slightly in her seat — and a FLAME A FOOT AND A HALF HIGH SHOT OUT OF THE SEAT HEATER.

“I flinched at the burst of light; Laura screamed.”

Burst Of Light:

I flinched at the burst of light; Laura screamed. Phobically afraid of fire under the best of circumstances, she plastered herself against the door and ceiling. I stamped the flame out with my hand (yes it hurt) and ripped the power cord out of the socket, all while gripping the wheel hard and trying to keep us centered on this one-lane international bridge hundreds of feet over the turbulent waters of the Niagara River.

“You okay?!?” I shouted, coughing on the smell of burning plastic.

“Yeah! I think so!” she replied, shaken, finally sitting back in her seat, examining her thigh for burns. 

That’s when we burst out laughing.

Because we were only approaching U.S. Customs in the Age of Trump, in a car filled with the smells of acrid smoke and seared flesh and the panic of two very adrenaline-filled ladies. Nothing suspicious to see here, gentlemen. 

The Border Agent:

We rolled down all the windows (not at all suspicious on a 15-degree night) as I slowed to a crawl on the Bridge (no one behind me, thank goodness — and, again, perfectly normal international border crossing behavior) while we both tried to collect ourselves before facing the border agent.

I’ve often wondered if there are some kind of futuristic, bio-metric measuring devices at the Canadian border, that could, like, measure your blood pressure or heart rate from a distance, to see if you were an anxious person who should be stopped and frisked in the interest of, you know, Homeland Security and all. 

Welp, there isn’t. He waved us through, no questions asked.

I’ll wonder forever if another factor was our Cloak of Middle-Aged-Lady Invisibility, which took away the border agent’s interest and, certainly, perception of threat. Even when you catch on fire!

But one thing I don’t have to wonder about, because I have actual evidence: In spite of her recent birthday, Laura was — and is — still smokin’ hot.

Photo Credit: Illustration by Nancy Knight

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About the Author:

Nancy Knight is a freelance graphic designer and writer. She and her wife of 30 years live on a farm in Western New York, where they are bossed around by one very spoiled dog, two ornery but adorable goats, about 23 chickens (give or take a few), three demanding but loving barn cats, and by the ongoing threat of Nature trying to reclaim her 53 acres of pasture and forest.