The flame

By This Time Tomorrow

It was hard not to remember that the first joint she’d ever liked had been from his lips. In college it’d been all dark rooms, cheap beer, men’s and women’s hands moving under her sweater, over her skin, smoky air, and a dullness that drifted down into her gut and would surface as a headache if she woke too early the next morning, wrappers from burgers, tinfoil off burritos, cartons of dried, cold Chinese takeout, and a mossy taste in her mouth the only indicators of what’d happened. Then she’d smoked with Lai, a few months into their relationship. He’d lit the joint and passed it to her. She remembered it. The sharpness of the light on the other end of the paper. That small flame. The way he’d carefully nurtured it, not let it get too big as she had, sucking in too much smoke, her coughs already feeling distant as the weed hit.  

They’d already kissed by then, but it was different when they put their mouths to the same thing that would take them to who knew where. She’d known that with the first joint and with all those afterwards. There was still ash on the railing of the staircase. It’d been too many days. She didn’t think the insurance company was going to give them much money. She should tell Lai. She opened the door to his office and shut it very carefully, facing it. She felt it click in her fingers. Lai was watching her when she turned around. The monitor of the computer displayed the desktop—he’d minimized everything. His wallpaper was a generic photo of a flower that had come pre-installed.

She sat in the chair next to him. At first she stared at the desk. He’d cleaned it. There were only a few loose papers on the left side of his keyboard now, the right side occupied by the legal pad on which he took notes. He’d scrawled down some words, indecipherable to her from this angle. But she knew he’d started a new story.

She’d promised herself she wouldn’t cry, but when she looked at his face, she nearly did. She had to clear her throat. Lai watched her.

She looked down. Her hands were strangely still, half-curled into fists against her knees.

“I love you.”

A breath like a tidal wave rolled over her. Lai’s hands were digging into the sides of his chair. He breathed out again. His breath smelled humid.

She touched one of those hands. “I love you,” she said again. “I hope you’re not angry with me.”

“A little.” He was frowning, but he took her hand into his. His skin was cold, hers a little damp. She wanted to pull away and rub off the moisture before letting him hold it again. Their hands rose and fell as he took another breath.

“And I’m sorry about the fire.” His eyes widened. “I’m sorry that happened.” 

When he didn’t reply, she said, “I don’t think the insurance men are going to be generous with the claim. I heard them talking when you went to get them water.”  

She said, “It was careless.”

“Yes.”  

“I know.” The words sounded too quick in her ears, fading thin. She didn’t want to meet his eyes but forced herself to, and even then narrowed her own so it didn’t feel as much like looking into the sun. His eyes were still on her face. Her own kept darting their gaze—from each of his pupils, inside which she could see herself, huge and round, distorted, to his mouth, to the point of his nose—until she looked down. Closed her eyes. “I’m sorry,” she said.

She realized she didn’t want him to tell her it was all right or that she was forgiven or that it hadn’t been her fault. All throughout the house, there was evidence it had been—films of ash that looked soft but came away gritty on her fingers, black marks of boots, swirls of soot they weren’t allowed to touch for another few days, or weeks even, but she didn’t know how it all worked, if one day she and Lai would wake up in the same bed again to a clean house or if they would sell this one and move away, the spaces where they slept growing farther and farther apart, if she would ever not think of his unmoving weight in bed, if he would tell her, one day, that it’d been okay to make him wait so long and stew in the question of his unwantedness. That it’d been okay. They’d been okay.

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