Tonight I am sitting alone at the kitchen table, lighting matches and watching them burn. I like the way the match flares when it first catches, and for an instant, during this tiny explosion, the room is illuminated. Then the flame dies down, and suddenly the world around me fades to dim outlines and flickering shadows. Memories, I feel, work the same way.
My father could light a match in his hand while snapping his fingers. It was the only trick I ever saw him do. He would hold out his hand and say, “fire,” and snap, there it was, flaring up over his knuckles. It never stopped seeming magical.
When I was nine years old, he used this trick to light our Christmas tree on fire. It was the week after Christmas, and the tree was beginning to turn gold and crisp, so one night we dragged it out to the back yard and lit it up. This was before the suburbs came, when we were still in the country and it seemed natural to burn what you had no use for. It went fast, faster than I would have believed possible. In seconds the tree became an orange blaze, ash and ember swirling up into the night air.
My father dusted off his hands. Well. There goes Christmas, he said.
This was the night I fell in love with fire, the peculiar conversion from matter to energy. I was thrilled that we had kept something so dangerous in our living room. I began setting other things on fire just to watch them burn: newspapers, dead leaves, cans of hairspray, old clothes, furniture that people dumped in the bushes at the end of our dead end street. Every day there was a whole new world to burn.
When we started buying fake Christmas trees, I lost interest in the holidays and discovered girls. I fell in love with a girl named Allison who wouldn’t take her shirt off because she had a scar beneath her breasts from a childhood accident. She would not tell me how she got it; or rather, she told me every possible way she could have gotten it. I fell for her the way you fall in love with an album for the first time: the way you imagine it was created just for you, the way the notes keep playing in your head for days even when you’re not listening to the music. The first time we had sex, I smelled smoke. It happened like this:
It was 1995, and I had the most beautiful hair, long and wild and free. Allison’s brother, Andy, used to call me Sammy Hagar. He was going to college on football scholarship, though later he would get kicked out for shooting at the parking police with a pellet gun and join the marines. Andy hated me, but there wasn’t much I could do to shut him up. Hey, Sammy Hagar, wanna arm wrestle? Hey, Sammy, heard you got a speeding ticket! Allison: What’s it like to date a rock star?
One night, we snuck down to her parents’ basement to escape. We turned on some music and put some candles in the window. “Do you have a condom?” she asked. Then she undressed and lay down on the couch and pulled me down to her.
I was lost somewhere inside myself, trying to preserve the moment, when she put her fingers to her lips and started saying, “Shhh. Shhh. Shhh,” in rhythm with our movements.
I whispered, “But I’m not making any noise.”
PAP! PAP! PAP! Something banged on the window. I got up to look, and I could see Andy on the other side of the glass flipping me off.
Allison screamed. “Your hair!”
I smelled it before I saw it, the terrible odor of burning hair. It must have caught on the candle. I could see my reflection in the window, my flaming head superimposed on Andy’s hulking figure outside, convulsing with laughter.
After that, Allison and I were no less in love, but our relationship became a destructive force. It resembled nothing so much as a series of bombs going off. Three years of silence punctuated by fighting and fucking, of screaming and clawing and biting and wrestling. When we were finally through, we did it all again. And then we were FINALLY finally through. I burned everything: the notes, the photos, the stuffed dolphin she won at the fair, even the sheets. I always thought this was a cliched ritual, but at that point I understood why people do this. We need to destroy each other to survive.
I did not expect to hear from Allison again, and I didn’t, except once. She called me to tell me that Andy had been killed by an IED after he kicked down a door in Fallujah. I didn’t go to the funeral, but a few weeks later, I did go to a vigil for fallen soldiers. And I could only stare at all those candles flickering, and all of us clutching them and gazing into the flames, like tiny windows. And when we cupped our hands around them, it was not to shield them from the wind, but to try to feel the heat.