Grace sometimes felt she could set the whole world on fire. She would start with one person, like setting flame to the corner of a page; observe the smolder, stoke the catch. Then watch, as it’d slowly crawl the edge, until it’d suddenly alight a bold, burning flame. This, Grace was sure, was the glory of man—the way they burned.
She saw it in their faces when she took them home. They’d lie in the shadows and the folds of her bed, but all the friction—the flush and the glistening of flesh—emitted a glow that cast a different light on the things she lay entangled with.
She’d watch their faces bloom—the dimples of temples deepening, the lines of their foreheads bending and breaking with the intensity of their emotions. Veins emerging beneath the corners of clenched jaws, expanding, straining to pump the life they contained. All the details she couldn’t see sitting across from them sipping coffee. It was raw, and they burned so bright she could see straight through them, and, if they opened their eyes, them through her. It intoxicated her to feel so alive. But time, she knew, was against her.
Just as quick as the flame ensued, she’d watch all that was consumed fold into itself until nothing was left but a small pile of gray ash. Muscles would relax, legs would go limp and she could almost feel their skin thicken—distance and darkness closing in. But she’d fight for every last inch.
Grace sat up and reached over her head, blindly searching for her cigarettes in the silence. He was a quiet one—something she didn’t mind at the beginning of the night. She thought him mysterious and intriguing; he was sitting in the far corner of The Black Rose with a Guinness and a copy of On the Road, and she wondered if she could taste the places he’d been.
He had deep-set, espresso eyes with a romantically tortured look that called to mind Russian poets and stirred about a sense of wanderlust in her. She wanted to taste everything he had—his rage, his passion, his insecurities, his questions. But his hands were timid, fumbling over buttons, unsure whether to search or rest. She tried to guide them a couple times, let him know she was his for the night, but as she ran the tip of her tongue across the flesh of her lips she couldn’t taste a damn thing.
She laid back down across his chest and rested a cigarette in the part of his mouth. He shook his head, “I don’t smoke.”
Grace flipped the lighter on and smiled coyly, “It’s for me.” She lit the cigarette, pulled it from his lips and kissed the corner of his mouth, trying to remember his name. It was something generic like Matt or Kevin. She laid back down in the crook of his arm, took a long drag and decided against using names. “What do you want out of life?”
The silence thickened. “What do you mean?”
She ran her fingers up and down the inside of his arm. She didn’t hesitate, “Just what I said. What is it that you want from life?”
His body stiffened a little. “I don’t know, to be alright I guess.”
“Just alright?” she paused, “what does ‘alright’ mean to you?”
She felt his eyes turn from the ceiling fan to her. She let him study her for a second, find his thoughts and trip over his words. “Well, to not be rich…but not be poor. And to find something I can do, I guess.” She wondered what his eyes were saying and turned to search them; as her eyes grazed his he quickly darted his head back towards the ceiling fan.
Grace took a final drag and snuffed the small bit of cigarette that was left. She pulled herself from his arm and got up, letting the sheets fall from her, exposing her nakedness; but she clung to the shadows of the room, her hand half toying, half concealing the raised scar that hugged the round of her hip as she walked to her closet.
Her fingers fanned an assortment of oversized shirts—charcoal, gray and white tokens of attempted sentimentality offered up to her by others as nameless as he—but they weren’t satisfied until they rested upon the only shirt threaded with any sort of color. She pressed the material between her thumb and forefinger, gently rubbing in circles, as if to rekindle something hidden deep within. The faintest essence of desert enveloped her as she wrapped herself in golden flannel.
He cleared his throat, she let the silence smolder.
It wasn’t that she was surprised by his lack of enthusiasm—most men couldn’t give an answer to her question beyond what this one did. It’s just it never ceased being a disappointment.
Sensing he did something wrong he asked, “What about you?”
As she pulled her auburn tendrils from her face, haphazardly folding it into a bun, she casually staked, “Everything.”
Grace walked out the room and into the kitchen, taking a deep drink from the faucet. She felt so dry and thirsty like a cracked riverbed. The oven clock read 1:38 AM and she felt the empty seconds tick away. It wasn’t so long ago that she filled them up with Blake.
They used to drive at midnight in Blake’s rusty beat-up ’87 Chevy pickup. Playing songs for each other—Boss, Dylan, Gaslight Anthem and The Beatles—sharing coffee from a thermos just to stay up and drive. Grace would scoot in close next to him and rest her feet on the window, wiggling her painted toes in the wind. He’d drive with one hand on the wheel, the other wrapped around her, keeping time on the curve of her waist. She wasn’t so scared of it then. They’d head out on the highway a bit, and then trace the surface streets just outside of town. Asking each other questions along the way like, “what song do you think we hear when we die?” Debating between “Where the Streets Have No Name” and “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door.”
She loved the dirt roads the best—the way the loose dirt would raise in billowy clouds leaving a faint trail behind them.
“It’s decay you know.”
“All the dirt. Particles, really. Pollen, industrial exhaust, brake and tire wear, flakes of animal skin.”
“Animal skin?” Her nose squinched, revealing the youth they reveled in.
“Uh-huh. Animal skin.” A smile broke across his face. “Did you know humans fully shed the entire outer layer of skin every two days? That’s what house dust is mostly.” He said this casually but matter-of-factly, as if it were as natural as breathing. For Blake it was as natural as breathing. His head was always swimming with random facts and observations. He astonished her that way sometimes. He never went to college, but he was the type to always tuck a book in his back pocket. He reminded her of a Springsteen song—hard on luck and opportunity but honest and thirsty for life.
“I guess it all has to go somewhere.” He took a drag of her cigarette, “Kind of poetic, really. A bit tragic. The whole world’s falling apart and we blaze on through.”
Blake had a way of saying things that just lit something in Grace; made her feel like an inferno, ready to collapse and rage all at the same time. He said it was hunger. It did feel a bit like hunger, but she didn’t know what to do with it—couldn’t find anything to do with it—but to press her lips to his skin and blaze with him.
She wore red lipstick on these nights and it’d get everywhere. On the thermos. On his cheeks and forehead. The corner of his mouth. His neck and wrists. He used to be resistant, but she’d put her head in his lap, gently nuzzle up to him and promise she would rub it all off by the end of the night. He came to worship that little tube of lipstick.
Sometimes they’d park far out in the desert; he’d take off one of his shirts, bundle it up and make them a bed in the back of his truck. The stars were so bright there and they’d talk about them. These big fiery spheres burning up the universe, always losing their place and falling from the sky. Yet, there never seemed to be any less of them to wish on.
Grace looked out her kitchen window, searching for the stars but she could only find one. Too much fluorescent light. Blake told her once. She turned the faucet on one more time and tried to cup water with her hands, watching most of it slip through the cracks. But she drew it to her mouth and swallowed what little wet she had left, hoping it was enough to subdue the dry ache.
Grace walked back in the room. He was sitting on the edge of the bed, his arms on his knees staring at his clothes, contemplating she was sure. She couldn’t tell whether she took pity on him or just thought he was pitiful. He looked so fucking lost, like he didn’t know a damn thing. Something she could understand, but she couldn’t take the silence. She went to her side of the bed and turned the radio on.
“Listen, you can stay here or you can leave. The bathroom’s in the hallway, there’s some cereal in the cupboards. The door’s unlocked—I don’t have anything of much worth so I’m not really worried about you stealing anything. I’m going to bed.” She didn’t give him another look. She just crawled beneath her sheets, gathering them, trying to wrap the empty spaces.
She heard him speak up, unsure, “So…do you want me to stay?”
She didn’t look back. “It’s you’re life, do what you want to do.” She heard the rustling of jeans and keys, then, the final crack of the door.
Grace sat in the dark of her room, the clock tick, tick, ticking.
She turned up the radio. Switched the song. Turned it down. Changed the station. Sang along. Pulled the plug. But no matter the tempo, it couldn’t slow or stop the seconds that passed. There was no frequency that could change the bend of the road. No song that could drown out the sounds of shattering glass or the impact of metal-on-metal. No note that could stop the stars from falling. No words to keep Grace from burning.
And she could still feel the rush of wind tickling her feet. The warmth of his fingers. The smell of dust and smoke clinging to his tattered flannel. And how his voice soothed her and made her lids fall heavy humming with The’59 Sound, “I lit a fire that wouldn’t go out, until it consumed the walls and roof of this house. Until all I remember was burning away. And all I remember, you’ve burned it away.”
The echo resonated in her chest cavity, exploring and playing with the emptiness inside her. Flecks of dust illuminated by shards of moonlight forced its way through Grace’s blinds—flitting about, falling aimlessly, settling like ash. She couldn’t tell whether they were little pieces of him or her, but she felt the absence of flesh all the same—the growing presence of decay—blurring the lines between the past and the present; leaving her with nothing more than the hunger. The raging. The collapsing. The burning. Like a flame on the brink of a shiver.
–Story by Abigail Amabisca
–Photography by Michela Riva