How to Set Yourself on Fire
Torrey and Vinnie are still outside when I get home. I wonder if they sit outside all afternoon and evening because there’s a deconstructed mountain lion or something hogging the living room floor.
Torrey is reading some sort of Penguin Classic. Vinnie is playing Tetris on his phone. He isn’t smoking.
“Come sit with us for a little while,” Torrey says.
“Okay,” I say. I look at Vinnie. I haven’t looked at him since we slept together. “Give me a minute.”
Vinnie looks up, nods, and goes back to Tetris. This is relieving.
I go inside, where Harold C. Carr’s letters lie scattered across my entire floor. I don’t remember doing this, leaving them like this. I panic a little, considering the likelihood that I scattered the letters without noticing versus the likelihood of a break-in while Torrey and Vinnie watched my front door. Still, I check them all. I count them, paranoid. Three hundred and eighty-one. There’s one missing so I count again. I must have miscounted them because now there are three hundred and eighty-two and I realize I am sweating. My knee itches to the point of insanity. I look at it and see a pale, crusty patch of eczema that wasn’t there yesterday. It’s the size of a quarter, and as I stare at it and my vision blurs and warps, I can make it grow until it covers my entire knee, the floor, the walls, the sky outside.
It’s been an hour since Torrey asked me to come sit with them. Counting letters takes time. The sun has long gone down and they’re inside their own house now.
Is Vinnie panicking about our supposed no-strings arrangement? That because I didn’t come outside, maybe I’m feeling awkward? I’m not awkward. At least, not about sex. Not about Vinnie. I partly want to spend the rest of the evening talking to Torrey, because she makes me feel something like hope. And I partly wish Torrey wasn’t there because then I could have sex with Vinnie again.
Frontline’s on. It’s about drug-resistant bacteria. I’m fascinated and appalled. I wash my hands in the kitchen sink eighteen times in the first half hour of the segment, eyes glued to the screen. The eczema on my knee is getting worse. I turn up the volume while I rifle through the medicine cabinet. I check the kitchenette. On the counter is oil and vinegar and my skin’s so irritated right now that I opt for vinegar. It burns. I wash my hands again, first with vinegar. Then with soap. They’re red and flaky.
“…She was a skin picker,” the doctor on Frontline says. “She, as do many kids, picked at her little scabs. And that was likely what introduced the staph infection.”
I want to look up eczema blogs, but I don’t. I leave the television on but go outside. Vinnie’s finishing up a cigarette.
“Hey,” I say.
“Is Torrey asleep?”
“I think so. She was up early today to get an assignment done.”
“Oh. Sorry I didn’t come out earlier. I got held up,” I say.
“It’s okay,” he says. He presses his finished cigarette into the ashtray and gives it a slight twist.
Frontline says through the open window, “So you’re telling me that he had these bugs and you had nothing left to treat him with?”
“God, what are you watching in there?” Vinnie asks.
I shrug. I sit on my front step and scratch my knee, and bits of my skin drift to the concrete. I want to throw up.
“You okay?” he asks, his voice quiet for Vinnie. If Torrey were awake, there’d be a good chance she actually didn’t hear that.
“Yeah,” I say.
“Oh, it’s eczema. I think.”
“Is that why you’re watching some horrible germ show?”
“I don’t know,” I say. I don’t know.
“Well, I have some stuff you can put on it, if you want. Taxidermy is a rough business. I keep lots of salves around,” he says.
“I’ll go get something and bring it over,” he says.
I wait for a minute. Then two. Then I go back inside.
A nurse is saying, “You go into a room, and maybe there’s a hole in your glove.”
The letters are lined up on my bed, spread out. I never cleaned them up when I counted them earlier.
“It’s a very complex environment,” says the nurse. “Alarms are ringing.”
Vinnie walks in.
The nurse says, “Did I forget to wash my hands between Mr. X and Mrs. Y?”
“Here,” he says. “Let me.”
And then he’s touching my knee, and it’s weirdly intimate and disgusting at the same time. I want to know when he washed his hands last, but he smells clean, and he’s a professional, and I’m watching PBS, so surely he knew to wash his hands.
“Is Torrey asleep?” I ask, again.
Vinnie undresses me. This arrangement is going well. I reach for the remote, but there’s a Pfizer VP on talking about cutting research, and he’s a bit handsome. He’s an asshole, and he’s smug, but I hesitate to turn the TV off.
“Leave it on,” Vinnie says in a low, dark voice. I look at him and wonder if I misheard him. “For the noise,” he clarifies. “You know. Torrey.”
My hands are still raw and peeling. There are probably a thousand tiny points of entry for bacteria to get under my skin, right into my bloodstream. I look at Vinnie’s hands. I look at his skin. I consider Vinnie’s hygiene.
When he climbs on top of me on my small couch, his leg brushes the eczema spot on my knee. I brace myself by grabbing his shoulders and my fingernails scratch his skin. He makes a noise—a moan, a gasp, something in between—and I think about his skin cells beneath my fingertips. I think of him liking this feeling. I think of my fingers, raw and peeling, covered in a thousand micro-tears and vinegar. I wonder if Vinnie’s shoulders sting.
I scratch harder, just a little drag. The idea of Vinnie’s blood and toxins on my skin is unsettling but it makes me lift my hips off the couch.
Vinnie pushes into me. There’s a pause, there’s heavy breathing. I feel intense and powerful.
Frontline says, “It’s been two years since his last operation. It had taken three surgeries and another round of highly toxic antibiotics before doctors believed they had removed all the NDM-1 from his leg.”
“Fuck,” Vinnie says. “I’m a little bit out of my mind right now.”
I don’t answer. I don’t disagree.
“Those letters,” he says, breathless, a little distracted, nodding toward my bed. His movements slow but he doesn’t stop. “What are they?”
I prop myself up, awkward.
“Shut up, Vinnie.”
I scratch at my knee in rhythm to his movements. I feel outside of my body and oppressed by it at the same time. There’s ointment mixed with blood on my fingertips. The TV is talking about the Centers for Disease Control and I reach up to Vinnie’s shoulders and pull my bloodied, oozing fingers across his skin, into the scratches I made.
When Vinnie leaves, I drive back to Jesse’s. The house is completely dark. I sleep in my car that night, parked across the street. I fling the driver’s seat back and slump into the gap between the top of the seat and the bottom of the head rest, stretching my feet out on either side of the pedals. It’s almost as good as lying down.
When I wake up in the morning, the sun is bright and high in the sky. Jesse must have long since left for work. I try to remember if I’ve ever seen him leave for work. I wait to feel sadness or disappointment for missing him, but nothing comes.
At home, Vinnie is in the courtyard. He’s doing something to a pair of glass eyeballs.
“Were you keeping your business a secret from me, or something?” I say.
“What?” he asks.
“I mean, I’ve lived here for two years and didn’t know you were a taxidermist. And then just days after you tell me, all of a sudden you’re painting eyeballs out in the light of day?”
He laughs. “Well, I suppose it looks that way, doesn’t it?”
“It’s a shameful profession,” I say with a smile. “You should be ashamed of yourself.”
“Are you just now getting home?” he asks.
I don’t have to answer to him, I remind myself. I never had to.
“Nah, I just had to run some stuff over to my mom’s.” The lie feels good.
“Hey,” Vinnie says. “Don’t worry about explaining anything to me.” He’s smiling.
I smile back. “Okay.”
“And,” he hesitates. He picks up the eyeball and twirls it a little, squinting to see whatever it was he was doing. The edges of his skin around his fingernails are almost all split. “Thank you.”
“For last night.”
“And the other night.”
“Yes. Well,” I say. I want to be inside. “Thank you.”
“Well, okay, yeah, you’re welcome,” he says.
“Please don’t ever thank me again.”
“Is it a real eyeball?” I ask.
Inside, I lock the door, but then I open the windows. It still smells like sex in here.
I am pleased that you are finding the time to reply to me so frequently. Your letters bring me such joy. Unfortunately, I will not be able to respond for the next eight days. I was unable to tell you sooner because my travel plans have been up in the air, but I am going on a trip to visit my brother. He and I are quite close, and his wife just this morning gave birth to their first child. Despite having lots of young nieces and nephews, it still feels strange to be an uncle, but I am looking forward to seeing my brother and his new family.
However, I daresay I will miss you. I’m afraid that come eight days from now, you’ll have a hefty stack of letters pushed through your fence, letters I wrote you while I was away.
I saw you and your daughter playing in the backyard yesterday. Do you think of me when you’re in the backyard, as I think of you when I am in mine?
Harold rambles the most in this letter. It’s one of his longest. I try to imagine him in this space between meeting her and professing his love, between the beginning and the middle. He tests the waters with affection. He tests the waters with familiarity, with anecdotes, revealing things about himself.
I want more.
I’m asleep when Torrey comes home. She knocks on my door, which is unusual for any of the now three residents of this tiny courtyard. There’s not supposed to be any sort of inquiring. We just wait in the courtyard, and someone will come out soon enough.
When I open the door, she steps forward, like she’s coming in. I remember that she is twelve. I remember that my house smells like sex with her dad. I step toward her too, so that the both of us are more outside than inside. I win.
“I want to read the letters again,” she says.
“No,” I say.
“Oh, come on.”
“Well, just one? Please?” She looks so expectant, so pitiful, that I almost consider it.
“Maybe another day.”
“Come and sit,” I say. I feel motivated almost (almost) entirely by a desire to make this other person feel good about herself. I wonder if this is what it’s like to have a sibling. Then I wonder if this is what it’s like to have a child. Then I wonder what it means that I considered someone twenty-three years younger than me more viable as a sibling than as a child.
“How’s school?” I ask.
Torrey laughs. “Really?”
“You’re doing the ‘how’s school’ thing?” she asks. She uses air quotes.
“Yes, I’m doing it. Since when do you use air quotes? Is this a new thing?”
“Nobody else I know does air quotes. It’s not a thing. I probably saw them when I was little, watching old nineties movies or something.”
“So you’re, like, retro,” I say.
“I guess I am,” Torrey says. She kicks her feet up and she’s wearing the exact same shoes I wore at her age, navy blue Converse low tops, faded enough to be mistaken for grey, and the black line along the toe is rubbed thin, some plastic shoelace aglets missing.
“You totally are retro.”
“I’ve been thinking about that one letter,” she says. She’s not even cautious. She doesn’t feel like she needs some sort of preamble. I love that about her. I love that about children.
“Oh, that one?” I poke her arm. “There are three hundred and eighty-two of them. Narrow it down a bit for me.”
“The one where he is upset.”
“He’s upset from like, number twenty onwards,” I say.
“The first one where he, you know. Where he goes a little crazy?”
It’s been ten days. You’ve never gone this long without writing to me. Even a few months ago, when I visited my brother, I was so pleased to come home to eight little oilcloth packages, each containing an individually wrapped letter for each day I was gone. I was filled with joy! Despite the fact that we have no expectations between us, no commitment, no rules, I am finding myself afraid as each day passes. When I am the most selfish and the least paranoid, I worry that you have tired of me. When I am the least selfish and the most paranoid, I worry that something terrible has gone wrong, that you are ill or hurt. And when I’m somewhere in the middle, both selfish and paranoid, I worry that Mr. Baker has found my letters.
I’ve taken to sitting on the grass in the backyard, near my vegetable garden. I watch as best I can through the cracks in the fence but I can’t see much. I know I’d be better off indoors, where I can at least see that people are in the backyard. Sometimes I can see the top of your head, the sun shining on your hair. I feel like a Peeping Tom. I feel like a scoundrel. I don’t care.
My dear Rosamond, I just want to be closer to you. And that is why I sit near the fence in the afternoons after work and first thing in the morning. I feel slightly batty. I’ve considered moving my bedroom to the spare room, just so that when I sleep, I sleep one room closer to you.
Oh, my Rosamond. It would behoove me not to send this letter through the fence. I’m glad you are receiving my other ones. I worry that a growing stack would be too conspicuous. But this one in particular, well, it is not in my best interests that you be made aware that I am losing my mind over you.
Alas, sweet Rosamond, I will surely send this anyway. I seem to have a misplaced all sense of restraint when it comes to you.
“So, you know, the first one where he goes mental?” Torrey asks.
I do know. “Do you have a photographic memory?”
“Not really,” she says.
“Well, there’s no not really about it. You either do or you don’t. You seemed like the type to have a photographic memory, that’s all.”
“There’s a type?” she asks. She kicks back her chair so it balances on the back two legs.
“Yes. You. You’re the type.”
Vinnie’s patio furniture is so old that I worry for her safety. The chair’s back legs bulge a little as she slowly rocks, but they don’t give.
She rocks for a while, minuscule movements on the chair. I’m suddenly desperate to try it, too, like a contagion, like a yawn. But I don’t.
“What’s the deal with your family?” she asks.
I kick back on my chair after all.
“What do you mean?” My chair falls forward and crunches back down on all fours. I suck at doing the artful idle thing.
“I mean, where are they? Why do you have the letters? Why not her own children? Why was this a secret? I need answers! Or whatever.”
Torrey laughs. Vinnie comes out. He sits on my step because he only has two chairs in the courtyard, the ones Torrey and I are in. He nods at us and lights up to smoke. Torrey hands him the ashtray.
“I can’t believe you endorse his nasty habit,” I say.
“What are you ladies doing?” Vinnie asks.
“Talking,” Torrey says. I’m not looking at her to see if she rolls her eyes but the nostalgia I feel for my own adolescence is heavy.
“Torrey asked me about my family,” I say vaguely.
“I hear your phone calls with your mother. Well, I think it’s your mother,” he says.
“Yes. That’d be her.”
“Is she all you have?” Torrey asks.
“Jesus, where do you get lines like that?” I ask.
“Sorry,” she says. “But is she?”
“Yes,” I say. “She’s pretty much all I have now that my grandmother died. I don’t have any siblings. Neither did my mom.”
“So is your dad dead?” she asks. “I can ask because I have a dead mom.”
“Torrey,” Vinnie says.
“I’m ready to joke about it like that,” she says. “She’s my mom. I decide.”
“I thought it was awesome,” I say.
“Well?” she says.
“No, my dad isn’t dead,” is all I say.
Nobody speaks. Vinnie extinguishes his cigarette.
“Have you heard about Sheila’s grandma and her crazy affair?” Torrey says to her dad.
“Torrey!” I say.
“No,” Vinnie says. He watches me carefully. I watch him back. “I don’t need to hear about your girl stuff,” he says. He gets up, messes up Torrey’s hair as he walks by, and goes back in the house.
Vinnie is a good man.
The moon is high in the bright sky. “My mother always used to call it a Children’s Moon,” I say, nodding upward. “When it’s out in the afternoon.”
“So did mine,” Torrey says, and her voice is quiet and small.
It takes a minute for me to muster up the courage. I don’t even know what I’m feeling. Friendship? Maternal instinct? Sisterhood? It’s something and it’s strong and I just want Torrey to feel like she’s not alone.
I reach over between the two faded green plastic lawn chairs and pick up her hand. She flinches at first, but quickly relaxes and lets me hold her hand. She’s stubborn, and she’s tough, but the first time I squeeze her hand, she begins to cry. She’s a quiet crier. It’s so tidy and gentle.
I can’t remember the last time I cried. But I can remember the first time I definitely didn’t.
Julia Dixon Evans lives in San Diego. How to Set Yourself on Fire is her first novel. Her fiction has appeared in Monkeybicycle, The Fanzine, Hobart, Paper Darts, and elsewhere. Her nonfiction work has appeared in Like The Wind Magazine and Barrelhouse. She is an editor and program director for the literary nonprofit and small press So Say We All.