What Happens When Withholding Empathy Becomes Routine?

Mariana Enríquez de-normalizes the daily fires we observe and survive in "The Dangers of Smoking in Bed"

Image of woman smoking in bed
Photo by Elsa Donald on Unsplash

Five years ago, on a brisk September morning, I was having breakfast when I smelled smoke. Suddenly, those ubiquitous New York City sirens seemed unusually loud. I checked the hallway outside my apartment; the air was hazy. Frantic, I woke my husband. We evacuated from the sixteenth floor down to the parking lot, now crammed with fire trucks and ambulances. Slumped outside the lobby, amid a sparkling pile of broken glass, was a charred mattress. I looked up at my building—the windows to a third-floor apartment were missing. I could see its blackened interior. The next-door neighbors, who had sheltered in place, poked their heads out from their apartment’s window, craning to see. That evening, I learned that an elderly woman had been smoking in bed. Her cigarette started the fire in which she died.

The Dangers of Smoking in Bed by Mariana Enriquez

I remembered that half-forgotten day as I read Argentine writer Mariana Enríquez’s short story collection The Dangers of Smoking in Bed. When my local Latinx book club selected her work, I was thrilled. After more than a year of the pandemic, I was ready for a dose of escapist horror, a hand-railed journey into a nightmare from which the author would ultimately wake me. But I soon realized that at the end of an Enríquez story, there is no relief.

In the eponymous short story “The Dangers of Smoking in Bed,” a depressed woman named Paula witnesses a fire in a nearby building. She later learns a woman has died. Paula has never met the deceased, but she gathers enough details to describe her: “a paralyzed, bedridden woman who had fallen asleep in bed with a lit cigarette between her fingers.” Paula, already on the brink, finds strange comfort in imagining “a vaguely soothing world of burnt old women.” Unable to summon sexual desire, her skin roughened by keratosis pilaris, she recasts herself as kindling—”everything dry, so dry.” She toys with lighting her sheets on fire, and the story ends.

Defamiliarization, as a literary device, can snap us awake to the world around us. As Enríquez told LitHub in 2018, “When fiction does the trick of moving people, it’s like they can look at it again.” The horror genre can likewise bring us to familiar places to unveil the bloodstains on the floors, the monsters in the walls, the killers in the mirrors. How many times have I fled, giddy with fear, from the shadows in my own basement? This particular story unsettled me with its déjà vu—the unknown woman, the burning cigarette, the impulse to interpret the experience, the desire to be transformed by it. Broadly speaking, I empathized with Paula, having struggled with my own anxiety and feelings of worthlessness. But when Paula interprets her neighbor’s tragedy as “a relief,” I cringed. Paula was rewriting her neighbor’s story; the new story Paula created gave her permission to be reckless with her own life.

The horror genre can likewise bring us to familiar places to unveil the bloodstains on the floors, the monsters in the walls, the killers in the mirrors.

Spurred by my distaste for Paula, I revisited the fire in 2016; I wanted to believe I’d been a better person than her. That day, I’d been chillingly practical. After the firefighters gave us the all-clear, I hurried back inside to shampoo the smoke from my hair. I had to get to work. Freshly showered, I felt as if the fire hadn’t happened. When I told coworkers about it, I observed their reactions carefully. What did they think? Should I have been transformed by what I’d seen? They saw what I had recognized in the mirror: I was fine, untouched. And yet—as I later learned—a woman had died.

At the time, I withheld my empathy to protect myself from conjuring her humanity: her loves, fears, needs, pain. I wanted to believe I would not die that way—alone, and seeking one last comfort before sleep. To me, this woman was not a neighbor, with all the feelings of friendliness and community that carries. She lived twelve fire-resistant floors away from me—our building omitted the unlucky prime—and I behaved as if she’d lived in another city.

Half a decade later and now living in Massachusetts, I felt belated guilt. How quickly I’d moved on from the fire. How quickly I’d forgotten that woman. In fact, like Paula, I had overwritten her story. I saw my neighbor’s death as avoidable, inconvenient, even selfish. For a cigarette, she had died; for a cigarette, her neighbors could have been seriously injured; for a cigarette, here I was still trying to understand her death.

Now, I was ready to give my empathy. I looked through the obituaries posted online by local funeral homes. I submitted a FOIL request to the city for the fire incident report. I confirmed the time, location, and cause, but I kept searching for the woman’s name, her family. The least I could do, I thought, would be to have a memory, to be a witness, to hold some part of her story. I wanted a second chance to be human.

The least I could do, I thought, would be to have a memory, to be a witness, to hold some part of her story. I wanted a second chance to be human.

I found nothing, and rightfully so. I had waited until I could do this on my own terms, and that was too late. But in seeing the hundreds of fires listed in the city’s database, I remembered just how  many there were. I had lived one block from Harlem Hospital and Engine 39, and two blocks from the 32nd precinct. Every day and night, I heard the ambulances, fire trucks, and patrol cars that clamored down our street on their way to Fifth Avenue. How safe had I been, really, from the stray spark, the unwanted ignition? The city was always on fire.

Reading Enríquez, I didn’t go to bed worried about zombies and ghosts. Though she often evokes the truly grotesque—unafraid of decapitation, dismemberment, and disembowelment—Enríquez creates long-term destabilization in her readers by reacquainting us with everyday horror. She wakes us to the nightmare we’ve been living all along.

To be familiar and to be normal are not the same. What is normal carries an air of naturalness, the imprint of the status quo. What is normal isn’t frightening. It feels safe. It even feels right. The day of the fire, I searched my colleagues’ faces for a sign: Was it normal for my building to catch fire every now and then? Was my reaction to it normal and, therefore, right? Faced with discomfort, I longed for the cozy simplicity of normality.

Enríquez is keenly aware of how we normalize, and even at times romanticize, our violent world. In “The Dirty Kid,” from her collection Things We Lost in the Fire, the narrator—a privileged middle-class woman—has purposefully moved to one of the most dangerous neighborhoods in Buenos Aires. She touts her address like a badge of honor. “[Living there] makes me feel sharp and audacious, on my toes. There aren’t many places like Constitución left in the city … [it] isn’t easy, and it’s beautiful.” Her smugness embarrassed me. Like the narrator, I was proud—arrogant—about having lived in New York. “There are certain tricks to being able to move easily in this neighborhood, and I’ve mastered them perfectly …” Knowing how to survive creates a sense of control and safety for the narrator. She has figured out the rules, but she hasn’t questioned the game.

As the story progresses, the narrator recognizes the limits of her perspective. One night, she invites a homeless child out for ice cream. “I realized, while the dirty kid was licking his sticky fingers, how little I cared about people, how natural these desperate lives seemed to me.” When the boy disappears without a trace, the narrator fears he has been murdered. Only then does she come to a greater realization—that she could have offered him safety. Or, at the very least, a bath. But she had accepted his dirtiness as part of the status quo; it was his epithet. She wishes the “dirty kid” would come back “to ask me, again, to let him in.” She wants a second chance.

De-normalization demands that we reflect on, question, and name the features of the status quo. De-normalizing horror can be uncomfortable. As we come to see the cruelty of the system we reside in, we must recognize our complicity in its perpetuation. As I dug further into my unease with Enríquez’s stories, I reckoned with the many other “fires” I’d seen—the scraps of bedding tucked under the sidewalk shed on Sixth Avenue, the man digging for an evening meal in the Port Authority trash can, the woman who had been bathing herself in the restroom before the police escorted her away. Instead of overwriting their many stories, I had focused on my own, telling myself I was an upstanding citizen and—given more chances, given more resources, given greater knowledge—I’d prove it. How many times did I stride past that same cardboard sign that asked for help? Enough that it became familiar. Enough that walking past it became normal. Once I learned to navigate the streets, I lost the desire to remap them.

To a certain extent, we normalize to protect ourselves. As Enríquez said in her LitHub interview, “I normalize [everyday horror] too of course: you can’t empathize all the time; you’d go crazy. So I guess I write to de-normalize it for me too.” I experienced normalization as a coping mechanism that allowed me to go from one day to the next without weeping. The longer I normalized horror, the longer the oppressive system benefited from my inaction.

In Enríquez’s stories, her characters do act against horror, but their response can be just as disturbing. In “Things We Lost in the Fire,” the women of Argentina respond to the ubiquity of domestic abuse. After a football player burns his girlfriend to death, women begin burning themselves. “They have always burned us,” one says. “Now we are burning ourselves. But we’re not going to die; we’re going to flaunt our scars.”

De-normalization demands that we reflect on, question, and name the features of the status quo.

But the patriarchal system resists change. Instead of empowering women, the state simply polices them more. “The judges expedited orders for raids, and in spite of the protests, women who didn’t have families or who were simply out alone in public fell under suspicion. The police would make them open their purses…. The harassment was getting worse lately …” The system absorbs their self-destruction into its greater narrative: that women must be protected from themselves. By the story’s end, the protagonist, Silvina, realizes the fires may not stop until thousands are dead.

In 2020, there was another fire in my former apartment complex. A woman gripped a sixteenth-floor window ledge as a firefighter rappelled off the roof to rescue her. Watching the footage, I felt déjà vu. Because the complex buildings are identical, her apartment layout was the same as my own. One newscaster even reported the same apartment number: 16D. All that was missing from the footage was my sun-bleached furniture on the balcony, our blue curtains in the smoke-filled bedroom window. I felt as if a ghost had touched me.

Later, as I was drafting this essay, yet another fire struck my former apartment complex, this time tearing through the commercial businesses on Lenox Avenue. I saw Manna’s—with its yellow awning, the signpost that meant I was nearly home—charred. And my little tale—that I was special, that I was safe—evaporated.

Enríquez grew up in Argentina during the dictatorship—often called the “Dirty War,” a misnomer, as she told Electric Lit—which lasted from 1976 to 1983. She writes about that era as well as the long shadow it casts. In “Back When We Talked to the Dead,” for example, a group of teenagers uses a Ouija board to search for the gravesites of the disappeared-dead. In “Kids Who Come Back,+ children re-appear unchanged years after having disappeared, in what Enríquez has admitted was an unintentional—though certainly subtextual—echo of the children who were kidnapped by the Argentine government.

In reading her work, I felt the impulse—which I speculate was both very American and very human—to protect my psychological safety by viewing her stories as about an “other.” An Other Place, an Other History, an Other People. This couldn’t happen to me—it happened to Them. And, as American exceptionalism has taught me, it is normal for these things to happen to Them.

But as a daughter of Chilean immigrants to the United States, my identity already muddled, I regularly practice flipping that Us/Them perspective. Like Enríquez, my parents lived through a brutal Latin American dictatorship (1973-1990). And Enríquez’s writing inescapably summons up for me the face of Carmen Quintana, who was viciously burned by the Chilean dictatorship in 1986. The dictatorship formally ended in 1990, but I’ve seen how normalization can extend horror—and prevent a nation’s reckoning with it—when people stop seeing human rights violations as aberrations. At best, regime apologists see violations as one-offs, the mistakes made by bad apples; at worst, they see them as necessary to maintaining law and order. I cannot avoid the parallels in the U.S., where exhausted activists call on us yet again to reckon with our foundational systems, to remember that even our constitutional pillars were built with the buy-in of slaveholders. To see again and act.

The reader must decide how deeply to engage with the ramifications of their discomfort.

Enríquez acknowledges her writing as political, but like all good fiction, it avoids being prescriptive. “That’s my way of not being romantic: I don’t preach,” she told LitHub. The reader must decide how deeply to engage with the ramifications of their discomfort.

Now that we’ve looked again, what do we do? What can we do?

Today, Chileans are drafting a new constitution. The 1980 constitution established by the Pinochet dictatorship may finally crumble away.

My answer to Enríquez’s work is not romantic or earth-shattering. I think, for me, de-normalization, and responding to the truth it reveals, is a forever process. At the time of the 2016 fire, I had started working alongside the facilities team at a medical center. Among them were fire safety officers and others whose job it was to respond to fires and floods. I had unwittingly joined a culture of “see something, do something.” Day in and day out, for months and then years, I was among experts who were showing me that I had the judgment—even if I felt alone or inexperienced—to notice when something was wrong, and then do something about it, however small.

In the summer of 2017, I was crossing our apartment complex on my way home from work. I smelled smoke. Habit told me to ignore it. Someone was probably barbecuing on their terrace. I had to force myself to stop walking. Feeling foolish, I looked back. Beyond the parking lot, a line of smoke rose from some decorative bushes. I ran to inspect it. A fire was catching, flames licking at the dry twigs. (Another stray cigarette?) I unscrewed my water bottle and put it out.

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