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literature : first proof

Keep Away from Things That Can Catch Fire

by Stephanie Chou


You stand outside your apartment waiting for it to burn or maybe not burn down to the ground, and think of your dead daughter's theory of the nought universes. It was a theory dreamed up during a neon summer away at church camp when she was twelve. You and your husband Mitchell are not religious people. But Beth had friends who went every year and convinced her it was more about water sports and friendship bracelets than the bible. Beth had one epiphany at camp: the theory of the nought universes. A nought universe buds from a time when you wish you hadn't done something. For example, she really wished she wasn't wearing overall jean shorts when she got her period in the middle of craft time. The accompanied nought universe was one in which fertility was far away like high school and learner's permits. One in which Beth finished making bracelets out of embroidery thread instead of holding her overalls under hot tap water (a mistake you'll tell her gently later, blood stains are best removed with cold water) in the campground's washroom hut.

You try to apply Beth's theory to your current situation. The fire alarm continues to blare, but you don't see smoke, don't feel heat. Tenants, the likes of which you have never seen before, spill out of the building onto the lawn and sidewalk. It is 10:32 at night, the sky is cloudy and the air is cold. A low fog has been hanging over the city. You are wearing two bathrobes underneath your down jacket. Someone close by lights a cigarette. Hours earlier, when you put on lipstick and leave the house to go meet your daughter's widower Jordie, the hallways smell like burnt rice. I hope there isn't a fire, you say aloud because you know no one will respond. Now you wish you hadn't said anything. What kind of nought universe did you summon with your hope?

Your husband of thirty-six years, Mitchell has his laptop tucked under his arm and talks to the neighbor from across the hall, Basil. The battery cord is connected to the laptop and its prongs graze the dirt as Mitchell moves and sways with conversation. You don't want to join them because you have been speculating that Basil is a bad influence on Mitchell. You think they smoke pot together. Recently, Mitchell has been looking five years older every time you really look at him. Sometimes you put anti-aging cream around his eyes when he is already asleep. Then you feel bad and put more on yourself instead.

People are emerging from the apartment at a leisurely pace. A man in his thirties that you see some mornings in a suit and tie is wearing a Hooters T-shirt. He is carrying his iMac in his arms like a baby. The woman beside him is carrying an actual baby. It's weird to think that all these people are contained by the same walls as you. A Helen Mirren lookalike wears a fur jacket over her silk pajamas and has sunglasses atop her silver hair. You cinch the tie around your outer robe a littler tighter.

A bruise forms in your gut. You know that smoke is a thin wispy cloud until it turns into a billowing dark orange storm. You hadn't thought as far ahead as Hooters shirt. There is a suitcase underneath the bed in the guest room with things that used to belong to Beth. You put it together after taking part in a grief support group that urged participants to unpack the invisible suitcase and pack the visible one. Beth died three years ago when she was twenty-nine after going into septic shock from a perforated ulcer in her abdominal cavity. She had died on the anniversary date of when she had taken her first steps. You took this as a metaphor. At Beth's funeral you read a poem you wrote titled "The Day You Walked Away" that was a case of contention between you and Mitchell. Beth hadn't been able to walk for months before she died.

You said, That's not the point. He said, There isn't a point to any of this. You said, No fucking shit.

You filled the suitcase with old report cards (Beth is very good at arithmetic and spelling, but often distracts her classmates) and grade school doodles that are creepy in hindsight. Bloated heads atop squiggly-lined bodies. There are postcards from the year she spent studying Political Science at Sciences Po in Paris. One is of underpants hanging on a drying line. There are a few items in there that make you feel like you are slipping on ice. A matte red Revlon lipstick (that you had overheard Beth call her "fuck me" lipstick once), a tooled leather coin purse that you had gifted Beth when she was little. A plastic butterfly clip the size of a thumbnail. There is one of the candles that Beth had lit at every table during the night of her wedding reception. It smells like gardenias and the back has a warning label that says:

BURN WITHIN SIGHT
KEEP AWAY FROM CHILDREN AND PETS
KEEP AWAY FROM THINGS THAT CAN CATCH FIRE.

The last time you smelt the scent of gardenias unknowingly at HomeSense you cried for three days. You wish you had the suitcase with you. You want to feel the leather handle in your hands. Its edges jostling against the side of your calf. All of its weight.

Mitchell has been studying invasive plants lately and is telling Basil about the Asiatic bittersweet vine.

He says, It ropes around tree trunks and strangles them to death.

Basil looks horrified. You think he might be stoned.

It was brought over as an ornamental plant. It is a god damn pretty one though.

You say, Do you think there's a fire?

Mitchell and Basil look at you like they didn't expect to see you.

Mitchell says, Like this one! and cups your shoulder encouragingly.

Basil sniffs at the air. No. We've only ever had false alarms.

Now. Giant hogweeds. Ever see one of those?

*

You did not like your daughter's husband, Jordie, for a long time. But you thought he had beautiful green-grey eyes and maybe your grandchildren would too. Both of you join the grief support group recommended by the hospital without knowing it until the first day. He is the only male. Grief is a sticky thing. You do not ask him what's in his Beth suitcase. Sometimes you imagine. Movie ticket stubs. Her mouth preserved in lipstick on a napkin. A Mars bar because those were her favorite. The two of you see one another every month even after the grief group stops meeting.

Jordie's mother died when he was in college. He likes reading lists of things and tells you about the top ten terrifying teenage Satanists. Five ancient discoveries that were almost lost to the modern world. Ikea hacks for the kitchen. You once watched a documentary together of a ballerina dancing the en pointe technique while wearing kitchen knives attached to her pointe shoes. The performance was so violent and terrifying that you clenched Jordie's hand the entire time. You feel there is a metaphor in your friendship, but you don't know what it is. At the cafe Jordie orders a flat white. He says he saw it in a commercial and wanted to know what the big deal was and oh by the way he is engaged.

You say, I did not know you were dating again.

You must look truly shocked because he blushes. You remember reading a pamphlet at the hospital filled with unusual facts. Blushing causes the lining of the stomach to turn red. You thought everything inside was red.

She teaches 11th grade physics. They went to high school together. You wonder what she looks like and he pulls up her picture on his phone. She does not look like Beth. At first relief, and then a slow shade of disappointment. You feel silly. In the washroom of the cafe you realize you have lipstick on your teeth. You wipe it off with your tongue and the rest of it with a scratchy paper towel.

The two of you will have beautiful children, you say. He beams.

You wish for a nought universe in which Jordie wasn't re-marrying. Then again, all of this wouldn't have been the case if your daughter wasn't dead. You have wished for that nought universe manymanymany times.

On the bus ride home you watch two little girls testing their knee-jerk reflexes. One karate chops the other just below the kneecap and they both explode in giggles when they've hit the correct spot. They alternate. They kick their mother's handbag. She is standing and talking to a woman who got on three stops ago. The woman is a student, you think. Big headphones hang from her neck, and you can hear their soft sounds like something underwater. The woman gushes over the girls. The mother asks if she has children of her own.

No, no. I probably need at least a boyfriend for that. Her voice is clear and loud, the kind they try to teach in drama classes.

The mother tells her, You will meet someone special.

She answers, I just want to meet someone who is good and kind and that's all I need.

The girls have gotten bored of their kicking game and try to look out the window but it is fogged up with everyone's breath.

You already can't remember what Jordie's new fiancée looks like. You can only see Beth. The fiancée could be on the bus and you wouldn't be able to pick her out. Nervous, you look, but then you realize you don't care.

Good and kind and that's all I need.

*

The heaviness of the fog is settling into your hair and your two robes. You have your arms crossed over your chest and you can't stop rolling your eyes at the apartment. You want your daughter's suitcase. You overhear Mitchell inviting Basil to go on an identification walk with him. You do not like these walks, but you are a little hurt. The two of you, in bright yellow rain gear from MEC wander trails in the Pacific Northwest's rainforests, trying to look for things that don't belong. All you see is green, but Mitchell has a good eye. He reports any invasive plants he sees to the Invasive Species Council. He even offers to ride along with the team to show them where he's sighted invasive plants. They've started a fantasy football league together.

The fire alarm sounds like it's stopped until someone opens the door. A large group emerges wearing black dresses, tuxedos, and glittery party hats. The last of their group is holding a birthday cake. They form a circle around someone you can't see and sing happy birthday.

Basil joins in and so does the rest of the crowd. You clap a little.

Someone screams, Blow out the candle! The crowd laughs in waves. HahaHAHa.

*

One summer a few weeks before Beth's wedding you have all the floors and the kitchen of your house redone. The thought of chaos calms you and you think this is your worst quality. Mitchell can handle the noise and small talk with the floor layers, but you can't. He shuffles things from room to room. Arranging and rearranging brings him joy. You call Beth to tell her how much you are paying for the hotel you'll be staying in and you sigh a sigh you've earned as a mother. Jordie is out of town at a conference. Beth sleeps on the foldout couch in the living room and offers you the bed. She hasn't changed the bedding and you can smell their sweat on the sheets. You feel voyeuristic. At night, the room is hot and you open the door. You hear Beth talking to Jordie on the phone from the living room. You pause and listen.

She asks, Did I wake you. My mom is staying over for the next few days. I know, I wish I could too.

Did I wake you?

Her voice is soft. Pillow-talk voice.

Oh yeah. Then what would you do to me.

You are about to the close the door.

She says into the phone, Wait hold on. It's Jordie.

Hi babe, how's the conference?

You twist the doorknob so its latch doesn't click as you slowly push the door into its frame. You lie in their bed wide awake and the nighttime amplifies every sound your body makes. Everything buzzes. The room is too hot. You take an Ambien and try to think of cold things. Somewhere between the lull of static drowsiness and velvet sleep you hear Beth's keys jingle. In the morning when you go to the kitchen your daughter is grinding coffee.

She smiles apologetically. Did I wake you.

No.

She asks, Remember when we used to drive around to different houses in December to look at all the Christmas lights?

You say, I was thinking of cold things last night too.

*

You see a woman who is in your adult swim class standing a few feet from Mitchell and Basil. Because you are older now, the instructors don't yell as much about your form. Your favorite is the backstroke because you like looking up at the stained glass near the ceiling of the pool. The light filters through into the water, a kaleidoscope.

The woman's name is Hilda and she's always wanted to be a synchronized swimmer. The first time you met Hilda she had said, Let me tell you. I shouldn't be here. Then she recounted a long tale about seeing an owl when she was skiing. In the daytime! She had an accident on the slope that put her arm in a sling and then her car had skidded off the highway.

I shouldn't be here, she said again.

The perky instructor said, Yes you should! Don't you let anyone tell you otherwise!

Hilda wears professional-grade makeup to swim class. It is completely waterproof. You think her face looks like the scales of a beautiful glistening fish but you don't tell her because it sounds mean even though you don't mean it to.

*

Beth was a terrible swimmer. In elementary school, she fails the levels multiple times. You drive her to swimming every Tuesday and Thursday. Mitchell has taken all your savings to start a small artisanal grocery store. You say, Those words do not make sense together. You do not believe Mitchell is business savvy. He is going to stock fine teas flavored with smoke and little soaps made from egg whites. There is an IOU in the register one day on a post-it note. Mitchell sleeps on the couch. Beth curls herself against him sometimes like a cat. You wait tables and you work at the store. You pick up shifts washing dishes and you stock the shelves. Three hours of sleep a night is lucky. The store is in a bad location, Mitchell reasons. He sips his smoky tea and you knock it out of his hand. It scalds him and you hold an ice pack against it for the rest of the night.

Beth has failed another level in swimming. You are late picking her up because you wait tables at the restaurant and you work at the store. All the other kids have received their fabric badges and have gone home. Beth does not know how to wash her own hair well. At home, Mitchell does it for her. But there is no time. She does not like peeling off her suit at the community centre. In the shower stall, Beth takes the Ivory soap bar out of its plastic container that you've brought from home and puts it into her bathing suit. There is no hot water left. The tiles are tiny hexagons and you see flower patterns in them. The bar soap glides over her skin and underneath the suit. Its rectangular outline makes it seem like she is wearing a wire. Your daughter asks you timidly if you can help her wash her hair. But there is no time. You wait tables and you work at the store. Your clothes get all wet in the shower. You squeeze shampoo onto the top of her head and rub it vigorously into her scalp.

There is shampoo in my eyes, she says.

You rub the shampoo until it is a thick lather.

We don't have money to keep on signing you up for swimming lessons that you keep on failing. The breaststroke is the easiest one for god's sake.

There is shampoo in my eyes.

Try harder.

Your blouse is wet and the restaurant patrons will be able to see your bra through it. You convince yourself your voice is loud because of the tiles. You convince yourself your voice is angry only through the violent spray of water from the showerhead.

You can't tell she is crying through the water until she lets out a sob. It echoes and bounces off the hexagons. Her shoulders shake. She rubs her fists against her eye sockets in the stream of the water. Beth sobs and sobs and all that's left is ice cold water. You turn it off. The bar of soap is still in her swimsuit. The swimsuit is too small for her. It must be uncomfortable. She must not know how uncomfortable it is until she has one that fits properly.

You want to scream, It's not me who is making us miserable, it's your father. You don't. You hug a towel around her. She's still shaking. You have her stand underneath the hair dryer and press the big silver button every time the stream of warm air stops. You feel sorry for her. You feel sorry for yourself. Someone else emerges from the showers and it is the high school girl who teaches the swim class. Neither of you can look into one another's eyes. After you've dropped Beth off at your mother's place, you can't get yourself out of the car in the restaurant parking lot. You cry for a long time. With every hour that passes you think about all the money and tips you are losing and it scares you into replaying every moment of your life so far in slow motion.

When you get home Mitchell is asleep on the couch. He has a notebook and a calculator on his chest. A pencil tucked behind his ear. There is a hole in his sock that you make a mental note to darn later. The only light on in the house is in the bathroom. You find your daughter submerged in the tub. She is wearing her bathing suit. Panic slices a cool blade along your Achilles tendon, the place where skin meets nerve.

She surfaces. Blinking through the water that drips from the top of her head she says, I'm sorry.

I'm going to try harder.

You cry again. Beth is practicing how to breathe underwater. Her small hand pats the back of your head. You hold her and you wish you hadn't married. None of you deserve this.

*

Hilda spots you and makes her way towards you. She is wearing a jogging suit and is carrying a duffle bag. You want your daughter's suitcase.

She says, See, I told you I shouldn't be here. Third strike!

Everyone seems to have left the apartment. The doors stop swinging open. The alarm is distant and faint. It turns out there is a small Chihuahua in Hilda's duffle bag. She gives him a full sized hot dog wiener. You try to listen for the sounds of the fire trucks. You don't hear them.

You ask, Do you think there's an actual fire?

Hilda shrugs, Better safe than sorry.

You think of calling Jordie but you don't know what you would say to him. You always kiss Jordie on both cheeks when you say goodbye like they do in France.

You and Hilda don't really know one another. She asks if you have kids. You say no. She says she likes being a bachelorette and kisses her Chihuahua on its face. You wish Mitchell wasn't talking to Basil. They are laughing over Basil's phone and Mitchell tries to get your attention. He waves you over.

But you do not see this. You are focusing on the southeast corner of the apartment building. Through the fog and clouds you see it rising like steam from a whistling kettle. There is smoke. The fire alarm blares inside of you. You do not hear the fire trucks. You wish very, very hard for their wails. You try to summon a nought universe. You push Hilda aside and make your way through the crowd to the sidewalk. You look up and down the dark street and there is nothing. The apartment is screaming. You run to the end of the street. There is no point but you wave your arms.

Then like a moth to flame you are running towards the apartment building. If man hadn't tamed light, moths would navigate the moon. Mitchell calls your name. He follows you through the crowd but you have always been the more agile of the two of you. The ballerina en pointe. Black smoke is coming from the corner of the building. You need your dead daughter's suitcase. You use your elbows and push your way through the mass of people whose names you don't know. You are mercurial. You need your hands full. You want them so full you can't hold onto anything else. You believe in Beth's theory of nought universes. You believebelievebelieve. You reach the apartment's doors and heave the glass doors open.

*

On the last night of your honeymoon in Venice with Mitchell, you kissed someone else. You lost your virginity to Mitchell a week and a half before. You stay in a glass blower's house in Murano. Mitchell has a never-ending list of things that are vexing him. You realize for the first time that Mitchell is scared of new things. This in turn, scares you. Winter is turning to spring. He doesn't like the smell of the canals. Everything is too old. The language is shards in his ears and slippery in his mouth. You try not to imagine the life you've been imagining. The city's decay intoxicates you. Mitchell spends his last day inside. The glassblower has his workshop furnaces in the basement of the house. On the last day he leaves his workshop and shows you his favorite spots. An entire garden filled with glass flowers. A decrepit house with a peeling green door. He has been apprenticing since he was eight. You feel heat on your face. You have a hard time maintaining eye contact with him. At night the canals are mirrors of luminescence. You are shattered glass in the reflection.

When you get back to the house Mitchell is asleep. He has packed his bags, he is ready to leave. You go down to the glassblower's workshop. There are piles of sand in colors you've never thought about. You grab a handful and let it run in a stream from your fist back into their piles. He says in the winter he warms his home by blowing glass. The furnaces radiate heat like a spotlight. He makes you a small bird. Pulling and stretching the heated glass orb of its body like glowing molasses. You kiss him. Then his mouth is on your neck, on the insides of your wrist, everywhere. He is underneath your skirt. His thumbs hook into the band of your underwear and he begins to slide them down. Your bones are glass. You shatter. You stop him.

When you return to your room, Mitchell wakes and asks you about your day.

You say, Imagine living in a home heated with nothing but glass.

 

Stephanie Chou is a writer from Vancouver. She is finishing a collection of linked short stories and working on a non-fiction book. Follow her on twitter @choustephanie.

Tags:
fiction
short stories
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