The ambulance took me to the closest hospital where they cut off my Sinead O’Connor concert t-shirt. Then another ambulance took me to the charity hospital because I had no insurance. It was brick, and they bathed me in what looked like a horse trough. The nurse shot me up with morphine and the world receded into a hazy glow. I called my voice teacher and she came and sat with me. I was bandaged like the Invisible Man.
Burn wards are full of children, because children pull over pots on stoves, or play with lighters in flammable outfits. Charity burn wards have more of them because the parents have less time and money to watch them. Children scream, and screaming keeps me awake.
So the next day I went home on the bus.
I realized I’d called my voice teacher because I had lived in Chicago for six months and had no friends. That I was cold all the time. I told my drama school I wasn’t coming back. They sent me a cut letter anyway.
The scars healed in the shape of a chain. They are there still, faded.
* * *
The second time I was on fire was in a club in Atlanta, with my then-boyfriend, then-partner, soon-to-be-fiancé. He held a torch on my skin too long and was startled when I screamed. He hadn’t known the beautiful photo of a leg full of fire was a long exposure.
I’m sure I berated him. If not for that, for something else. For many other things. We loved each other like twins and fought like siblings. I didn’t know then that we were both depressed, that my ambition was also mania.
Now he sends me the last book Terry Pratchett will ever have written, because Terry Pratchett is dead and so is our marriage. Inside he writes, I would gladly have kept buying them for you. I am glad we treat each other with such kindness.
Now he is the brother I never had. I have two biological brothers, and that, too, is a scar.
* * *
The last time I was on fire was on purpose. Fire is the act to do when you’re tired, when it’s late, when you’re cold already. Yes, it is easier when it’s cold out. And harder when it’s windy and the flame whips across your face and takes out a pair of false eyelashes and parts of your real ones. I tilted my head back to light my tongue on fire and lit another torch from the flame. Bringing my head upright is a practiced motion, eye contact with an audience member, flick my tongue with the last of the flame and smile. Another ten in the hat, maybe twenty if it’s a family or a group of dudes. On the other side of the circle, my partner flicks her tongue too late and misses the smile. Eventually the motion will sink in. Our interns watch with longing, wanting to be in the fire act and scared of being in it, too.
Tomorrow we will teach them in a windless underground parking garage, first with unlit torches to get the motion. I learned alone—when you teach someone, you’re responsible for their safety, if they set themselves on fire or do something dumb at a party it’s your fault for teaching them wrong or picking the wrong people.
I want to tell them, be kind to your lovers, love your audience, always get what you’re worth. Instead I say, “Heads back farther before the torch goes in,” knowing they will be on fire when I am long retired, they must earn their own scars.
This is my favorite fire-eating photo - Montenegro, 2009.