The Burning Bed

cigarettesPublished in Ninth Letter, Issue 19, Spring / Summer 2013.


I lived at that time in a one-room studio apartment on Beacon Street in Boston’s Back Bay.  The room was bare and cavernous, with high ceilings and scuffed wooden floors, a marble fireplace I never used.  The walls were a smoke-stained cream color.  Tacked on to the main room were a windowless shower and kitchenette whose yellowish tiled walls seemed built to be hosed clean, if necessary, and a walk-in closet, where I wrote.  That was why I’d moved to Boston, to write, and all of it — the sirens screaming down Beacon from Mass General, the students shouting outside my window at night — seemed charmed, the faux-Victorian brownstones and flickering coach lamps, even the gutter-slush, which I navigated my first winter in tennis shoes, rich with resonance.

All of this was before I woke one morning to find my bed on fire.  There were no leaping flames.  It was late fall, but I had few sheets or blankets.  I woke to an unpleasant warmth against my face.  When I understood what was happening, more than fear, I felt shame, which by then had become my constant companion.  I dragged the futon mattress off its frame and opened the bay window.  On the side of the mattress where I’d lain was a black crater in the stuffing.  Embers curled and twisted inside.  By then, I was coughing, my throat and chest burning from the smoke.

That spring, I believed I had fallen in love with a fellow student at my writing program.  The woman — let’s call her Kate — was already engaged and living with her fiancee.  At the beginning of our affair, I had some perspective on how it might turn out; but perspective, of course, wasn’t the point.  As she said, I was inevitable, meaning that she knew that when she went to graduate school, she would meet someone; and if I’d had my wits about me, I might have said the same about her.  After our first kiss, I fled to a bar, feeling a vertiginous, not unpleasant, slippage.  She was to have been for me the amelioration of a lifetime of loss.  She was also terrifically sexy, small-boned, with a dancer’s body and a flatness and throatiness in her voice which drove me wild, which seemed both strange and homely.  She had beautiful auburn hair.  I still regret that we did not get to know each other, because she also had a fine mind.  We spent the summer having sex, leaving sweat-stains on my sheets, moving the futon close to the bay windows to catch the dusty summer breezes that smelled of car exhaust, and some days, the harbor’s distant ocean smell.  At each step it became clearer that she would never love me, and I became more manipulative and desperate, until I couldn’t untangle myself from the web of rage and longing and self-deceit that I had created.

After Kate left, but before I set my bed on fire, my father visited.  He brought the wife of his business partner, though when he first arrived, he didn’t mention her.  He said that he was going to look at property in Maine that he was interested in buying.  Although years had sometimes passed without my seeing him, he had helped me move to Boston.  He also paid my graduate school tuition and the rent on the studio apartment.

My father was radioactive, incandescent, a walking hard-on.  His face was already ossifying into the final form of masklike fixity it had begun to asssume in his thirties, though at this time, the gaze behind it was still sharp, and later, in the last years of his life, it became terrified.  He walked like a bantam rooster, his chest puffed out, arms cocked at his sides, the tight paunch of his stomach not yet slovenly, a badge of success among men in Houston of a certain age.  He knew everything, he had the answer to everything.  He had just made full partner in the lab where he’d worked for almost twenty years, and was making a lot of money.  He was unstoppable.

Neither of us could know, of course, that in seven years he would be shot dead by his own hand.  Neither of us could know, though it would not be hard to guess, that his business partner would find out that he was sleeping with his wife, and would blacklist him in Houston’s medical community, so that my father would have to take jobs farther and farther from his family, which by that time, in any case, was a shambles, and perhaps he only wanted, at that point, to escape the mess he’d made.

But none of this had happened, then.

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