My friends and I played a lot of ping pong during our senior year of high school. It had been a family Christmas present; I imagine my parents’ intent was to provide us with a safe, harmless source of fun in the waning days of childhood innocence.
Fueled by testosterone and incapable of any nuanced verbal expression, we naturally whipped the tiny, featherweight plastic balls back and forth with exceeding force, often directly at one another. This inevitably led to dented ping pong balls, which were unusable — the dent compromises the bounce, see, and trying to hit a ball without a true bounce is probably a special kind of torture used by demons stuck in middle management.
Our story turns, as many good stories do, with a half-remembered maxim from an older brother. My buddy Jay insisted that his brother had shared with him a secret way of repairing dented ping pong balls by using a microwave.
It turns out Jay’s brother wasn’t entirely wrong.
Four post-pubescent children crowded together to watch the plastic orb slowly loll around the rotating plate of the microwave in my parents’ kitchen. At first, it seemed like nothing was going to happen. Then, in the latter portion of that first 30 seconds, the ball ballooned, swelling to nearly twice its size before the timer ran out and the light went off.
We were enraptured. This was no longer a utilitarian endeavor to allow us to return to the ping pong table; this was for ScienceTM. And so I did the only thing that made sense: I punched the “ADD 30 SECONDS” button a second time.
A pair of scientific discoveries was indeed made that day. Discovery number one: the plastic with which ping pong balls are made has a lower melting point than one might expect. Discovery number two: the gas inside is extremely flammable.
In my memory, the ensuing sequence of events is comprised of a series of palpable sensory experiences: a dazzling flash from the other side of the enmeshed window, a cacophony of shrieks and vulgarities, and the soul-curdling smell of acrid black smoke rolling out of a microwave door that may quite possibly have opened of its own accord.
Then a number of things happened at once: I grabbed every cleaning supply I could find and piled them on the kitchen counter. Several pairs of hands frantically scrubbed at the charred remains of the microwave interior, stubbornly insisting that we could cover our tracks. The garage door opened, signaling my mother’s arrival on the scene. Two of my friends suddenly “had things to do” and vanished from the house so quickly there was still a smoke outline where their bodies had previously been.
My darling saint of a mother walked into her kitchen to find two 17-year-olds frozen completely still, covered in sweat and soot and shame, each sheepishly holding a bottle of 409 and a roll of paper towels.
Moments of demoralizing silence followed. “I think we might have broken the microwave,” I said, which was in no way new information. My mom, who is in my book probably the third most holy woman in the history of the world behind Mary the Mother of God and Saint Catherine of Siena, swore at me for the first and (so far) only time in my life. She did so in a quiet and gentle way, which made it even worse, and then without another word glided out of the room.
Somehow, miraculously, the microwave was not broken. Jay and I were even able to clean up a lot of the ashy smudges inside, though we were unable to do much about the smell. I apologized profusely, of course, and made all kinds of outlandish offers of penance, none of which my parents upheld, thank God.
The microwave remained for a few years, and it didn’t take long for the whole ordeal to be an occasion for laughter instead of scorn. Eventually, my parents got new kitchen appliances, and now all that really remains of the whole episode is the story, and the laughter, and a general sense that one should take half-remembered maxims from older brothers with a heavy grain of salt.
Every now and then this story floats to the surface of my memory, especially around Ash Wednesday and during Lent. Caught red (or black?) handed, Jay and I were virtually paralyzed with fear and shame — and even though our misdeed was neither sinister nor premeditated, we did break something, perhaps more than just a kitchen appliance, and it was undoubtedly our fault.
The charred interior of the microwave stood as tangible evidence of our offense, and though I remain guilty for putting it there, the shame is gone. Incredibly, my parents’ forgiveness transformed the black marks, which came to stand as evidence of their love — a love that did not erase the effects of our knuckleheadedry, but did heal our relationships in a mysterious way that at once defies understanding and also makes all the sense in the world.