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On Fire

ISSUE:  Spring 2002

Having been taught by fools, how else could I have ended up
but as I am? a man who panics at the sound of his own voice,
a blusterer, afraid that within the five-pointed maple leaf there lies
another name he never knew; ready, always, to be found wrong.


Listen: in my tenth year they put me in a room where one plane
watched another plane fly over a city. It was morning in both
places. In black & white at first the explosion looked like water
rising. Captured, they say, on film, as in: pulled out of time

so we can rewind it and watch it happen again, as in a memory,
as in: this is a memory we all have, these are our family pictures.
There was that kind of shame. As if the fire really had been stolen.
And sitting on the floor there was one boy who even earlier

that year came home to find his mother hanging from a rope
in the kitchen. What didn’t he know that he needed this film
to teach him? Already what he knew was enough to terrify
the teachers, so that they couldn’t look at him. But they also

couldn’t not look at him. As if he was an obscene pleasure.
And he was beautiful. Complete. But what he carried in him
seeped out as hate for anyone of the same sex as his mother.
It was that simple: even a fourth-grade mind could understand.

So the girls stayed away. And from the other side of the common
room, where the books full of numbers being added, subtracted
and divided were kept, our new teacher watched, helpless, knowing
he also needed this knowledge, but she couldn’t give it to him.

Which might be why she let me touch her. Because she couldn’t
get near him and my head against the antique white lace of her
dress was a good enough almost. Her hair was light brown, if I
remember correctly. Innocent is supposed to mean free from hurt

but it can also mean you don’t know what you’re doing. As when
I felt that touching her wasn’t enough and I wanted to press closer,
until someone felt pain, or until I passed through her dress and found
myself inside her. It didn’t matter if she was an adult and I was ten:

what I wanted wasn’t sex. Or not what I have learned to think sex
is. Her dress was made of a material called vintage, which meant
that although it had managed to avoid all the minor catastrophes
of red wine stain and hook snag, along with the major disasters

of history, no one had treated the cloth with chemicals, to make it
flame retardant And on the whole length of the hand-sewn inner seam
that started at her wrist and ran all the way down to her ankle,
no one had remembered to place even one small label warning:

if you touch the sleeve of this garment to the still-hot coils
of an electric stove, it will explode. Which is what happened.
There’s the land of scream you hear in movies. What I heard
twenty-seven years ago didn’t sound anything like that. It was

sharper and can’t be recorded. No matter how many times
you rewind the film. You keep going back and each time
there’s a little less there. Until the memory has become
the event. And how you feel about the memory. The materials

have burnt away. There was so much fabric and all of it on fire.
Her hair too, which was long, as I remember. She came running
from the faculty kitchen, as if she could escape what she was
turning into. But all she did was excite and encourage the flames.


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