Light and Heat
The day she turned forty, my mother burst into flames. I watched it reflected in my father’s glassy eyes across the dinner table, yellow and orange tongues of fire that danced in their devouring. Flesh doesn’t burn like wood or paper, doesn’t turn immediately to ash; it sears and bubbles, melts in layers, and sloughs away in chunks. She collected in a pile of chalky, mangled bone and blood broiled into sticky black tar.
There was nothing to do but watch, so we watched until the flames exhausted themselves on the reduced pile of once-body. The reek of burnt flesh mixed with the meal my mother had just served — smoked pheasant and sourdough bread, pearl onions cooked so tenderly they were translucent. My father’s sleeve dipped into creamed potatoes as he reached across the table to cut himself a slice of her cherry cake, adorned with candied lemon peels and a dusting of ash. He swallowed forkful after forkful, jaw never flexing to chew, and stared at the smoke slowly rising off of her rubble. He took a third and fourth slice, washed them down with her homemade almond milk, then got up from the table and went to bed.
And there we were, my brother and I, sitting in the orphaned dark, sucking the noxious fumes of our mother in through our nostrils. I thought then that maybe, if it was possible to die at will, I could simply follow her lead and combust.
But she wasn’t gone for long, if she was ever gone at all. By the time my father slammed his bedroom door, my mother had returned into a candle flickering on the half-devoured cake.
“Don’t worry,” she said, her voice spilling out from the flame as clearly as though she was sitting between us. “I’m right here. I’m not going anywhere.”
My father’s life expanded quickly, smoke filling up the empty space my mother left. And then it continued to expand into the shape of something that could no longer accommodate a son and daughter. He remarried on a dock that extended out onto the lake, surrounded by as much water as possible.
Before our father returned from his honeymoon, I found my brother stuffing all of his jackets and coats into a duffel bag, pushing them down and zipping and unzipping until it looked like a swollen caterpillar ripe to cocoon. The sight alone prickled sweat at my skin — all of those layers, his long hair, his new beard, his arms shrouded in flannel. “I’m heading north,” he said, as if he could claim the entire expanse of cold. “You have to leave, too. There’s no room for us here anymore.”
I thought for a moment that maybe we could go together, but my brother and I were never good at sharing. I often found him huddled around the fireplace speaking in hushed tones, the crackling of my mother’s voice only a distant tune I was not invited to take part in.
So I filled my suitcase with skirts and tank tops as my mother watched from the oil lamp on my desk. I lit the lamp every night, and sometimes she was there, the same way she was there in bonfires and barbecues, in church altars and scented candles, in fire pits as my friends gossiped about college applications and boys and I gazed into the flames until my marshmallows turned black and the smoke burned my eyes. Sometimes she was there, and sometimes she wasn’t.
“Maybe you should stay with your father a few more years, Andra,” she said from within the narrow glass walls of the lamp. “I think he’d like you to.”
“How would you know?”
Her flame twisted, fluttering in the air. “He told me.”
But I knew my father didn’t tell her, because my father didn’t speak to her. He blew out the candles my brother and I left burning and switched our stove from gas to electric. He stored old shoes and broken appliances in the fireplace so that we couldn’t light it.
I dropped another camisole into my suitcase and pulled a chair up to my mother, wincing as I lifted the glass off of her with calloused fingers. She ribboned as if stretching, and I cupped my hands out to her like I often did, drawing as close as I possibly could without being burned. My mother’s heat licked at my open palms and sweltered my skin hot and red.
“He doesn’t want you to go,” she said.
“He doesn’t want me to stay, either.”
When warmth grew to pain, I drew my hands away and pressed them into the cool skin of my cheeks, transferring it there.
“Well,” she said with a flicker of light. “Then let’s go together.”
I fled the Midwest and traveled down to arid Texas, to humid Louisiana, to the southernmost tip of Florida. I brought drinks to vacationing resorters and babysat restless children and got good enough at poker to beat the staff of any restaurant I worked in. And my mother was there, in candles, in furnaces, in the quick-burning thread of fireworks on the Fourth of July.
“Where are you going?” she asked me. “When will you be there?”
But Florida’s heat crept into me in ways I didn’t expect, sewing itself beneath my skin. At night, I kicked off my blankets and soaked my sheets with sweat, opened every window and laid cool towels on my forehead. By the time July seeped into August, my manager took one look at me, sweating patches through my uniform, and sent me home sick. But I wasn’t sick. I was just hot.
I stepped around the strips of sun-warmed tile in my apartment when I returned home and drew an icy bath. The cool water soothed my raw skin, but could not reach what was beneath. I lit my mother into a match.
“Andra,” she hummed from its core. “Christ, look at you. You’re sick.”
The flame devoured the match down to the tips of my fingers. I dropped it into the bath and lit another.
“I’m not sick.”
“How can I help?” my mother asked, light winding around the match head like liquid. “I’m right here if you need me.”
When I dropped the match into the bath, my mother divided in two — a coil of smoke sent up into the air, and a black ashen rod that sank to the bottom of the water.
“You’re not really here,” I said to a new match. The words formed hot on my breath, like fireballs. “What could you possibly do?”
“Andra,” she said, and I dropped her into the water. “You’re not being fair.” Another match lit and extinguished, clouding the water with soot. “You know I’d be there if I could.”
Her flame kissed my fingertips, singeing flesh. “Would you?”
I dropped the last match into the water. When I lit another, it was just a match.
I met Rose Marie at a gas station in Key West in the middle of September. I stepped inside seeking respite from the heat trapped in the moisture-rich air, from shifting foot to foot as the hot asphalt threatened to burn through the undersides of my flip-flops. Whatever Rose Marie sought respite from, she found in a pack of smokes and a Gatorade that she cradled in her arms while she spoke something like French into her phone. When she got to the register, I could tell by her immediate scrambling that she’d forgotten to bring money, or maybe didn’t have enough. I leaned forward with a ten, and she looked at me like my face was as blue as her drink.
When the chill of conditioned air grew too icy on my sweat-slick skin, I stepped outside to find Rose Marie leaning against the wall, smoking a cigarette. She extended one out to me between two long fingers and then shoved it back into the box when I shook my head, unwilling to face the spark of a lighter.
“You’re not from here,” she said, the melody of her voice carrying an accent I couldn’t place. It wasn’t a question.
Rose Marie wasn’t either. She had moved from Haiti, where things were safer in some ways and more dangerous in others. Rose Marie was a travel writer, only she didn’t write nearly as much as she liked to, and she never had time to travel. “I’m also the receptionist for an interior design firm,” she added offhandedly, like it was something she did just for fun. “But I’m off today,” she added, stubbing the burning cigarette out against the underside of her shoe. “You got somewhere to be?”
I didn’t, so we walked down the side of the interstate all the way to the beach. The very sight of the dark denim of Rose Marie’s jeans made me swelter. Sweat dripped off of my forehead, slid down my neck, and pooled in hot rivulets between my breasts. I bought us popsicles from a cart, frozen cherry that liquefied immediately on my tongue. We watched the tourists and the sea and let the sun burn our skin.
“I haven’t been on the ocean in years,” Rose Marie said eventually. When she was young, she told me, her mother had gotten sick, though she didn’t understand it then or now. Her aunts and grandmother told her it was a sickness of spirit, something they tried their best to heal with remedies and medicine and prayers. But before her mother got around to dying, she disappeared.
“We found her boat out on the water, this little skiff that she saved up for ever since she was little,” Rose Marie told me. “It was miles out from the shore.” She lit another cigarette, protecting the flame with her hand. “And she wasn’t in it.”
I considered this for a moment, and all of the condolences I could offer. The ones I had heard thousands of times before and was sure Rose Marie had too.
“Do you think she’s still in there?” I asked instead.
Rose Marie pursed cherry-red lips out at the water. “What do you mean?” she asked. “In the boat?”
“No,” I said. “In the water.”
She turned to look at me, her cheeks sucking in as she took a long drag from her cigarette. She didn’t seem angry or upset, but like she was really looking at me for the first time.
“Nah,” she finally said. “I don’t think the sea could ever hold her.”
The heat woke me in the night, winding through my core like magma. I dreamed of my brother, cocooned deep against the cold, and woke wondering if I had made a mistake, if I had gone in the wrong direction. But at this point, my skin forever drenched with dripping sweat, I knew it was too late.
“Andra,” my mother hummed when I lit her into the candle at my bedside.
I ached to be closer to her, to let her warm me, but it hurt.
“Did you know that it would happen?” I asked her, blinking salty sweat out of my eyes. “Could you tell it was coming — could you feel it?”
She sparked against her wick, crackled and hissed until she was replaced by a winding ribbon of smoke.
The night’s air was a balm on my skin as I walked to the ocean, the breeze lapping against me like whispered breaths attempting to extinguish a candle. As I stepped a foot into the water, I found with surprise that I did not sizzle, that steam did not rise out of the sea.
I was hot. I was exhausted. I was hot and exhausted in ways I only now realized were never going to leave me. And as the dark, churning waves worked their slow rhythm against the shore, even the ocean itself seemed tired, laborious in its movement. Even the moon seemed heavy with fatigue, like it might drop from the sky at any moment.
A click of my lighter produced a quiet, tiny flame, a hush of warmth that felt intolerably hot against my fingers. Just the sight of all that light, all that heat, everything contained in such a small burst, was almost too much to bear. I ignited it once, then twice, then watched it flicker in and out of existence a third time as the wind sighed it out.
But that’s all it was: light and heat. And maybe, that’s all it had ever been.
I tossed the lighter into the water and watched as the ocean accepted the offering, the waves swallowing it into nonexistence.
Then I walked in after it.