We take care of each other’s burns; we touch heat often. Monday Juan hit the sheet pan with his arm, lifting the batch of pizza into the warmer. Later his arm was oozing red. Dee yanked him from dishwasher duty and marched him to the first-aid kit in the back and smeared a packet of burn cream on his stripe, patched it with the blue Band-Aids they make you use. In case they fall off into the food. No food is that color, no camouflage potential.
Dee had a burn once that got infected, turned nasty, had to go to the doctor for antibiotics. Now she was the main watchdog, the overseer, the keeper of our second-degree beauties. Now we’re all fretting over Kayla’s steam burns. They turned the back of her hands bright red. As if she had been out in the cold too long.
They don’t tell you things when you sign up to be a lunch lady. Like how fast you move your hands to get the food out to the kids in fifteen minutes. And how you’ll burn yourself every time it’s chicken fingers, and you have to count out eight, push them into the pile of mashed potatoes and hand them off to the person ladling gravy and repeat 400 times. There once was a hot pad you could wear like a sleeve. It went missing. Now you hit the edge of the warming pan with your arm just below the elbow. You make it through the first two lunches, maybe, but sooner or later you touch heat and it’s already too late, and there’s no time to run cold water over the redness developing like a Polaroid.
Add to your collection of scars.
I always burn with the door closed even though my roommates are gone. I know it’s madness. These aren’t accidents. It will be forever before I graduate from college, marry, remarry, have four kids and take a part-time job in a cafeteria. Then I will have my scar sisters and scar brother and no lies to invent. Then Dee will tear open a packet of burn cream for me. Then I’ll compare wounds with Juan. Everything out in the open.
Dee and Juan are far-off figures in some kind of dream. I can’t imagine myself over thirty. I am alone on a campus of 40,000. The bigger the university, the more students, the less human a person feels. A face in the auditorium in the gen. ed. classes. A body on the street. No one notices the burns even though pus makes a sallow pocket the size of grape on my forearm. One person sees. The woman in the Baskin Robbins in town. “Oh, that looks like it must hurt.” The tenderness in her voice kills me as I pay for the ice cream. I don’t eat regular meals, but wander the streets. I eat whatever might fill the emptiness, call it hunger.
The middle of summer, but I’m cold inside. The candle flame melts the ice in me. No. Cold is a sensation, and there is no sensation until the pain comes. Maybe it’s a way of being alive for a precious minute.
The girl I was feared fire, never lit a match until forced to as an acolyte, off to the side behind the ornately carved altar where our sins were forgiven weekly. Do not play with fire, Girl, but light the candelabra and do it perfectly and bow when you finish.
Alisha comes home, and knocks on the door. “Want to watch a movie?” Beth has probably told her about me. I hardly know Alisha. I’m taking Beth’s place in the lease for the summer. They are a bunch of women from Philadelphia renting an apartment together. Like normal girls do. There’s taco salad in the fridge. Alisha fixes real meals. I had been living with an old widow when it all started, her husband’s office, his old, battleship of a desk. We shared the bathroom. I found liquor bottles in her recycling bin. She was a Lutheran. I got her name from the local church. Transfer students like me have no group of friends to go in together on a lease. We patch together our existence from classified ads and recommendations from local pastors and rooms for rent by alcoholic widows.
When I disappeared, the old woman wrote to my parents. She was afraid for me. I never wrote back. She never knew what happened. The doctors didn’t know what I had. Why I should be maiming myself. When I came out of the hospital, my lease was over with the widow. I had a bottle of prescription pills and some boxes of my things. Anne Sexton had been given the same pills, and I found out what she did: “No original thought in my head.”
The forearm is a good place to burn. After a few seconds the pain turns into a heavy sensation like someone pressing a rock into your muscle. You count in your head. First ten then thirty seconds. You feel the pain connect to your bone. You feel like might have an original thought in your head. At least you feel something. In the future my son can tell me the name of the muscle I’m destroying. He’ll want to be a surgeon. He’ll study like mad, and I’ll be proud of him when he aces the AP Bio exam. But in the apartment with the door closed, I can’t see ahead even to my twenty-first birthday, which is only a few days away.
It’s minutes until suppertime. My son is bored. He says, “Want to watch a magic trick?” He douses the clean salad plate with rubbing alcohol. Then he lights a splint of wood off the gas stove.
I start to keep matches from myself, but I find other ways. The electric stove in the basement apartment, for example. Kathryn, the current roommate, whom I met in the hospital with scars on the back of her hands, gave me the idea. You touch a twisted paper towel to the burner until it lights, then you touch it to the candle wick.
The plate is covered with orange flames. Really it’s glorious, exquisite. The fire seems to spring out of nothing. Should I say something about safety? It ought to seem dangerous to me as a mother. But I know from experience.
The aftershave gave the best show, but it wasn’t a big deal after the alcohol burned off. I splashed it on my thigh mechanically and lit the match. Flames engulfed me. There was something blue about it. Such drama, much like a Hollywood movie. Not much pain. Then the fire would disappear, and I would notice very little damage when I inspected my leg. And the therapist who made me lift my skirt and show where the fire had been knew it, too. But he asked me anyway week after week to show the top of my thigh until I finally divorced my Green-Card husband of two years and moved away.
Hardest burn to endure is an iron on the wool setting held against the abdomen. Why I do this is because I eat and eat and nothing fills me. I get fat, and that’s naughty. Hurt has always gone along with punishment. Pitch a fit, and the wooden spoon came out. Not finish the food on my plate, and there it was. Make a commotion in the car while my father was driving, and WHACK! Something feels right about pain. As if it has power to zap guilt. And maybe take me out of my empty head. Carry me to bright alertness.
In addition to fire were sharp things. A litany: razors, scissors, corkscrews, knives, razors, scissors, corkscrews, knives. A place with locked doors—where they don’t let you have a spiral notebook because of the wire. Little do they know how badly a person can scratch her stomach with the flat end of a tube of Colgate.
“I have spent nights with matches and knives.” Wonder if anyone remembers the Indigo Girls and the allusions in their songs to the kind of illness no one ever talked about. Those were the days before the proliferation of depression screenings and communities banding together against suicide. I see girls who come through my line in the cafeteria with neat rows of scars on their biceps, like tiny pink ladders. Left out in the open.
“Oh, that looks like it hurt.” The woman in Baskin Robbins is me now.
Strange that it started. How does it start? Strange that it stops. How does it stop? It starts with a gesture. A suicide attempt—sort of. The fascination of being in control of my destiny. Or the power of owning myself as evidenced by the marks I can make on my forearm and later my calf and later my torso—wherever I want. A way to see what’s in my head. A way to write the word “misery” and read it from a distance.
It starts with that original ancestor who was never diagnosed, but surely she had something. All the signs of it, how she had screaming tantrums and brooding spells in the stories my aunt tells. Did it start before she emigrated from Italy? Or when she was isolated from her people living in a tiny apartment in central Pennsylvania not speaking the language?
Did it stop because, as my father told himself, “It’s just a phase”? One day in the fall of my twenty-eighth year there was a decision not to reach for a razor, to do nothing about the heavy guilt pressing on me, demanding release. I had made a mistake and inconvenienced someone I loved. Now I needed pain. I needed my punishment, my fix, my art.
I let it pass. Grit my teeth. Count to ten then thirty. A resolution to fight it. To grow up. Move on. Be my own parent but one without a wooden spoon.
Once there was razor hidden in the pantry, the middle boys no more than three or four years old. The oldest in elementary school. I must have been angry at myself or my husband or both. It’s hard to untangle emotions when you love someone intimately.
I press the blade against my rib cage. Sharp pain. Like phlebotomists say when they’re about to shove in the needle. “Little pinch.” Then I stop. I’ve lost my edge. Or the edge has lost me. The reasons I once had for doing it—they must have been strong to overcome the pain. Or one kind of pain must have been stronger than the other.
Most of the scars on the left arm never faded. The cocoa butter and lotions and time, which heals all wounds, had no effect.
“I was working the deep fryer at McDonald's,” goes the lie. “And there was this terrible accident.”
And the lie becomes more and more true as I burn myself baking gingerbread cookies for the family, or taking knives that have come straight from the dishwasher—carrying too many canisters of silverware in my arms, scalding my wrist. Counting chicken fingers again. Pulling a pizza out of the oven for the boys. Serving.
Incidental. Touching heat.
Laura English posts a blog called Eat More Life, a healing space for women living with anorexia. On Sundays, she teaches writing to people from all walks of life. Work has appeared in journals including minnesota review, Sow's Ear, Adanna, and Straylight. A chapbook, Graves Too Small to Be Red (Finishing Line Press) was published last year.