An excerpt from a personal essay about two people with “heat-seeking hearts”
Burning Man, as we all know, can feel like a secret dimension where miraculous and marvelous things manifest. Can a love sparked in that environment outlast its magical surroundings?
Maria Finn ponders that question in a personal essay for Longreads in which she tries to make sense of a deepening relationship at Burning Man while grieving her brother’s suicide. This is an excerpt from her story, which picks up as Maria and Danny hit Black Rock City as their rawest selves…
The playa at night is a hallucination, a dream, an open-ended LED-lit adventure filled with a flame-shooting octopus and neon shark art cars darting by. Danny convinced my Aunt Kaye to dance for possibly the first time in her life, under a huge sculpture of a woman, naked and incredibly sad and powerful under the dark desert sky. Danny and I took ecstasy and couldn’t stop touching, until we finally split from our friends and groped each other in a dark part of the playa. I joked that I didn’t want to die by getting run over by an art car. “It would be a heroic death,” he insisted.
At the Human Carcass Wash, we stripped naked and washed total strangers with our bare hands. We touched their scars and bruises. “You want your taint washed?” Danny asked a guy. “Then lift up your balls.” I marveled at his wholeheartedness.
We visited the Temple, a wood structure papered in notes to loved ones, lost pets, family members, and friends who had passed away. There were letters of rage, and symbols of love and pain and regret. Outside was a box for placing forgiveness letters. Danny scribbled a note and tucked it in there.
“I forgave my mother,” he told me.
“What about your ex?” I asked him.
“It’s strange, but I’m not angry at her,” he answered.
He hadn’t seemed heartbroken at all by the breakup — just very inconvenienced. So I believed him.
“Who did you forgive?” he asked.
“My contractor,” I answered.
One morning at a Sweat Your Prayers dance, my brother’s death hit me. A stranger saw me crying and approached me on the dance floor and held me as my tears ran down his bare chest. When he moved on, another man stopped, and I cried and cried in his arms. I rode my bike out to the Temple and wrote a letter to my brother, promising to stay close with his wife and kids. And I wrote one of forgiveness to myself for not being a better sister to him. I didn’t help him; I couldn’t. When we were kids, I tried at times. My parents had married young and had five children in seven years. We all just survived as best we could. I tucked the letters into the Forgiveness Box at the Temple.
That night, we passed the Burning of the Man ceremony while dancing on top of art cars. I knew the man was burning, heard the roar of house music and cheering of the crowd and felt the heat from the flames. On top of the art car, I was tucked between my Aunt Kaye and Danny, and surrounded by friends. I felt only warmth, not pain. At dawn, Danny and I cuddled together on the embers and watched the sunrise over the desert, spraying it blue and gold and pink hues.
The next night at the Temple Burn, Danny and I joined the silent crowd. He grieved his father, and I my brother. The air smelled of dry wood, and as the fire grew, the heat blanketed us all. Danny and I sat holding each other, united with everyone in a gentle, burning grief until the building finally collapsed in a heave.
Afterwards, I blurted out that he had the best heart of anyone I had ever met.
He looked a little scared. “This got serious, fast,” he said.
I begged him to not break my heart.
“I wouldn’t have gotten involved with someone so soon,” he said. “But I’ve never felt a connection like this. I think you might be my soul mate. Don’t break my heart either.”
Danny and I were leaving in different cars, but planned to meet in a hotel room in Reno to shower and rest before traveling home. But the exit line was four hours and hotels were completely booked. Once on the road, I kept nodding off at the wheel. So, I stopped in a parking lot in Sparks, Nevada, and snoozed in the cab of my truck. Danny met me there. I was dust-coated and my hair was matted, with makeup smeared under my eyes.
“This is the worst you will ever see me,” I told him.
He pulled me into a dusty hug.
After coffee, I kissed his chapped lips and rubbed my face against his scratchy cheek. Then I watched him get into his minivan and drive back to his default world.
We scheduled a camping trip for Big Sur, and it happened to be the weekend of the lunar eclipse. I looked for the perfect camp site — close to the ocean, but also near redwood trees. We planned to visit the hot springs at Esalen, to sit in the tubs under the stars with the Pacific Ocean crashing below. It was almost too much to hope for. That chunk of the California Coast seemed preternatural to me — towering redwood trees and cypress twisted by onshore winds, dramatic slopes of mountains dropping into white-capped waves that licked up into fog cover. I couldn’t imagine having him to myself for four days in this setting.
Then he called and canceled our trip.
To read the whole essay and see what happens next, click here. Has your love survived the playa? We’d love to hear in the comments of this post.
Top photo by Zipporah Lomax