Yesterday, July 4th, I stood watching friends set off fireworks on the street. Now, my friends are all (fairly) adult and were being (somewhat) responsible with the explosives. There was no need for me to feel an imminent sense of danger or fear.
So I didn’t.
Well, my logical mind didn’t. But, my body, guided by my subconscious, told a different story. My stance was defensive — arms crossed, planted on the stoop while everyone else gathered a good few feet away in the middle of the quiet suburban street, or, at very least, on the sidewalk.
“Wanna get a little closer T?”
“Err, nah, I can see it from just fine up here, thanks!”
I watched the pretty colors pop and blow into the sky, unalarmed by the loud screeches, but unwilling to move towards the flame. Eventually I ended up on the sidewalk and someone planted a sparkler in my hand. I waved it as it sizzled, and as if it were a magic wand, it unlocked a memory.
In the UK our big fireworks celebration day is November 5th, Guy Fawkes Day, the time when we’re reminded that attempting and failing treason against the British parliament may result in you being blown up literally and figuratively for centuries to follow.
If London’s reliably rainy weather doesn’t dampen things too much, councils host firework displays in community parks around the city to commemorate. Most aren’t much more than a pleasant, free night out in a local green space for families.
But when I was a teenager, Fireworks Day was quite the event. You absolutely did not go with your family; you went with your friends. You put on your newest hoodie and freshest kicks, gelled down your baby hairs, fluffed your afro-puff and tried to look cute because the whole neighborhood would be out.
There were kids who started to make November 5th, and days around it, feel a little ugly. They used fireworks as weapons, threatening people with explosions, letting off rockets on buses, using fireworks to mug people. But as long as you kept your street smarts about you and didn’t hang out too late, there was still fun to be had.
One year, when I was 13 or 14, I went after this fun with three girlfriends of mine who lived on my street.
We headed to the big display on the Rye. And it was all fun until groups of kids started chasing people with fireworks. Fights broke out between different crews. Families started leaving. The fun stopped. We knew it was time to go home and we knew we had to be quick about it.
So we ran. We ran away from the park, away from the troublemakers and away from the impeding police sirens. Even by then, as young teens, we’d learned that the police don’t do a very good job of distinguishing the victims from the assailants in certain neighborhoods. We ran towards home.
At times it felt like we were being chased, like we were constantly dodging some trouble promising to emerge from some crevice or enclave. Once close to home, on our well-lit high street, we calmed down, slowed our trot a little. We were out of danger.
Then, turning a corner, we found ourselves cornered. A group of boys, most of them older and bigger than us, surrounded us.
Sparklers, rockets and lighters in hand, the boys grabbed at our arses, crotches, budding breasts — anything they could reach. One lit a sparkler; held it close to our faces, close enough for us to feel the heat, to understand the threat of the burn. They laughed, and though we felt panicked, we didn’t panic.
“Come on, move, man.” My friend growled in a tone she hoped was tough enough to disguise the plea in it.
And soon enough, they did. Cackling as they walked off. Irritation superseded fear when we were finally released. “Dickheads” we muttered when they were out of earshot and our heart rates had slowed sufficiently.
They’d let us go, we’d felt, without little consequence. We were safe. They didn’t rob us. They hadn’t hurt us. They were gross and pervy and touchy-feely but they didn’t rape us. We didn’t know we’d been sexually assaulted.
It didn’t seem serious or important enough for me to tell my parents. I didn’t give them the unnecessary worry. I doubt I thought about it the next day, or the day after that. Or for 13 or so years after that. Not until I stood standing with a sparkler, wondering why being too close to fireworks always made me feel a bit uneasy.
The mind is a funny old thing. Sometimes it takes the smallest spark to bring unattended fires to flame.