My therapist always tells me that I can’t equate everything to fire.
“Everything is not about burning alive, Arnold. Sometimes a dress is just a dress.”
That’s fine. That’s valid. I don’t tell her that yes, sometimes a dress is just a dress, but other times, it’s a burning dress. It’s fuel for a fire in a busy nightclub filled to the brim with fabric, with bodies, with perfume and fancy lace and caked-on makeup. It’s high heels poking out from under a table, sequins sparkling in a smoke-filled room, giving you just a glimpse of an approaching fireball in a million tiny reflections.
I don’t tell her that, in my mind, sometimes a dress is singed into the flesh of the girl you almost flirted with in front of Donna (she was so pretty). It’s her limp and lifeless hand that’s only kind of open and is only kind of curling up in the heat. Sometimes the dress has fused to her skin so seamlessly that it is just the girl; they’re one now. I don’t tell her that sometimes you have to step over that pretty girl, ignoring the pained expression forever etched on her face in soot, and continue looking for Donna in an attempt to rescue her from the same fate.
I don’t tell her that I looked at the faces of so many blackened dresses that night, turning them, bending to escape the black sky that roiled from the crawling flames along the ceiling, struggling to breathe as I wiped face after face looking for Donna. I can describe every dress, and sometimes I see something similar when I’m at a store or driving home from work, and I almost choke on invisible soot. Sometimes I see a dress, and I’m sorry.
I’m sorry. I don’t tell my therapist that type of thing. I want to avoid the medicine.
I tell her instead that Donna’s dresses always remind me of burned nose hairs. They always remind me of that cool air hitting her lungs, the way she said she breathed in relief when she finally got outside, sure that I’d made it out, too. They remind me of the other people who were in the heat of the building just a little too long, who sucked in a deep breath of cool air just like she had, who dropped when that happened. I imagine the way they dropped after escaping the vicious heat of the Cabana Haven Club that night, smiling in victory at escape, only to fall over with their mouths blowing strangled wisps of smoke into the atmosphere.
Or maybe dresses remind me of waves. Something about the fire that night — that first time — something about it made me think of waves. Maybe it even made me think of army men. The way it crawled across the ceiling, looping into itself, sending the walls dripping. I’m older now. Not by much, but older. When I think about one thing, I think about another, but I always end up back at that fire.
My therapist says I need to relax. Relaxing doesn’t help.
Give me anything, and I’ll get you to that fire.
Synthia was the one who touched my skin when it was almost too wet to be considered skin, when it came off as the gauze was pulled away, barely in existence, sticking to the bandages more than to my flesh. She sat next to me and read me boring books that made the pain a little worse.
“You don’t like Hemingway?” she asked.
She didn’t laugh. I remember that the most. Through the indescribable feeling of my skin trying to escape my body, of my muscles uncurling, I remember that she didn’t laugh.
Donna would’ve laughed.
My therapist smiles.
“And yet you didn’t marry Donna. You married Synthia, the nurse.”
“The nurse could be trusted to not escape a burning building without telling me.”
Memories of fire warp my life.
Donna wore a dress that cost more than I’d ever make as a Coast Guard that night. I remember wondering how much it cost to take it off and then feeling bad about it. I try to be a gentleman even though I’m not.
She wore a watch that sat taut on her skin. It was completely black with soot by the time I found her. When the fire started, her eyes traveled up behind me, and I wondered what I had to say to make her light up like that forever. Foolishly, I thought I saw the color of love in her eyes rather than the crawling flames overhead, and I was happy I decided to spend my leave on a date. No one was ever more interested in me than she was.
It wasn’t until I smelled the smoke that I stopped being pleased with myself.
Synthia, checking my skin grafts, asked me how I got burned. I could tell that she knew, but she asked anyway.
“Dr. Aarol says no one has ever been burned this badly. Ever. You must be…” She stopped and coughed a little, almost gagging from imagining all the horrible things that could’ve gotten me.
How could anything other than a war have done this?
“My date. Wanted to save her. Already out. Went back to get…”
She nodded, with a sad smile on her face. She picked the Hemingway book back up.
“I hear you went back in four times, poor soul.”
On the way home from the therapist’s office, I see a deer in the road. It stares at me blank, and I think of Synthia waiting for me to finish my story that night, falling in love with me through strangled cries and bandages and tales of a famous nightclub burning, burning, burning. This time, my mind is not on fire, even with the sun disappearing in an orange haze in the distance. Maybe that’s a dead giveaway that something will happen.
The car skids so quickly that I can’t move my hands, can’t adjust in time, and glass pierces my face before I know what’s happening. Those eons pass, a whistle spreading from one side of my skull to the other, and I almost miss the smell of gasoline. I feel the ceiling of the car, and then I feel my seat, and then I’m still. I can hear sparks, and before I can see the glint in the cracked rearview, I hear that sound.
That woosh. Those army men crawling over each other.
The first time was permanent. More so than now, I guess. Death has a way of making something seem finite, and the feel of the fire devouring me is so much more complete than before.
That first time, trying to find Donna, fighting my way back into the flames of a burning club, climbing over bodies and sucking down ash, felt like a long time. It felt like a whole war came and went around me. I still feel it to this day. I feel it even more with the fire sifting my skin apart like…
Ashes. I guess that’s accurate. That’s what I’m becoming, right?
That first time was more shock than anything. You know, maybe I feel it even more than I feel the flames eating and engulfing the remaining flesh I have.
Fourteen years, skin grafts, therapy, and so many surgeries, memories, love, and children with Synthia, and fire still feels the same. There’s no memory that can truly pull me out of it.
Shock or no shock, it still feels like something worse than death.
Donna was radiant that night. I can say that with confidence, even with my memory lapses. You get too close to a smoky kitchen or see the cherry on a cigarette, and all of a sudden, you’re on fire a second time.
Everything from that night — from the way the drapes hung to the way Donna’s earrings shone in the darkness, flames reflecting in them — is burned in my memory. Painted in my memory. I can see it better than I see what’s in front of me now. How her middle tooth was slightly crooked, just enough to catch a piece of spinach. How I judged her relentlessly, not wanting to waste my leave, but still ran back into that building over and over to find her. I still felt something when she looked up with flames in her eyes. I still imagined her when Synthia gave me the same look at our wedding while listening to our vows, without a spark in sight.
I don’t think it’s poetic that she’s the one who comes to mind now that I’m burning again. She is, after all, the reason I burned in the first place. It’s Donna I think about, not Synthia, the nurse, who would’ve left the building with me, who would’ve made sure I knew she was safe before I ran back in. And it’s fire that traveled with my mind all these years and is doing just what it promised when it took my skin the first time.
From the day I burned, everything was just a slow march back to fire.