Girls on Fire

Robin Wasserman

Girls on Fire

For my father, who believed that I could.

In the Age of Gold,

Free from winters cold:

Youth and maiden bright,

To the holy light,

Naked in the sunny beams delight.


Queen of lies, every day, in my heart.



SEE THEM IN THEIR GOLDEN hour, a flood of girls high on the ecstasy of the final bell, tumbling onto the city bus, all gawky limbs and Wonderbra cleavage, chewed nails picking at eruptive zits, lips nibbling and eyes scrunching in a doomed attempt not to cry. Girls with plaid skirts tugged unfathomably high above the knee, girls seizing the motion of the bus to throw themselves bodily into their objects of affection, Oops, sorry, guy, didn’t mean to shove my boob in your face, was that a phone in your pocket or are you just happy to see me.

Try not to see them, I dare you. Girls, everywhere. Leaning against storefronts, trying so hard to look effortless as they dangle cigarettes and exhale clouds of smoke; tapping phones while shrieking about how Mom is a such a bitch. Girls hitching up skirts by the liquor store, hoping for a handle of vodka if they show enough leg; girls in the makeup aisle, gazing helplessly at the nail polish display like they can hear you silently cheering them on, willing them to scoop those cherry reds into a bag, to succumb to temptation and expectation, to give in.

Give in: Pick a pair of them, lost in each other, a matched set like a vision out of the past. Nobody special, two nobodies. Except that together, they’re radioactive; together, they glow. Nestled into a seat in the back of the bus, arms tangled, foreheads kissing.

Long for the way they drown in each other.

Follow them off the bus and onto the beach, as the one in charge — there’s always one in charge — shakes her curls free. Her makeup is expertly applied, her beet lips excessively large, kissable. The other girl wears no makeup at all, and her hair, bone straight and dyed platinum, flaps in the ocean breeze. Watch them lick soft-serve, pink tongues flicking spiraled cream. Watch them turn cartwheels in the surf, watch them slurp Dorito dust from sticky fingers, watch them split a pair of earbuds and stare up at the clouds, their secret soundtrack carving shapes in the sky.

Try to hold yourself back from rising over them, casting them in aging shadow, warning of millennial futures, the end of days, days like this, warning them to taste each sugary minute, to hold on tight.

Hold back, because you know girls; girls don’t listen. Better, maybe, to knock them out, drag them into the sea. Let this perfect moment be the last, say, Go out on a high note, girls, and push them into the tide. Let them drift off the edge of the earth.

Impossible not to see them, not to remember what it was like, when it was like that. To sit there, shivering, as the sun dips toward the horizon and the wind blows cold over the waves, as the sky blazes red and darkness gathers around the girls, neither of them knowing how little time they have left before the fire goes out.

Remember how good it felt to burn.

US, November 1991–March 1992

DEX, Before Lacey

THEY FINALLY FOUND THE BODY on a Sunday night, sometime between 60 Minutes and Married with Children. Probably closer to Andy Rooney than Al Bundy, because it would have taken some time for the news, even news like this, to travel. There would have been business to attend to in the woods, staking out the scene with yellow caution tape, photographing the pools of blood, sliding the body into a useless ambulance and bagging the gun — there was a universal logic to such things, if TV had it right, a script to follow that would get even our sorry Keystone Kops past the hurdle of touching a corpse, seeing and smelling whatever happened to a body after three days and nights in the woods. From there, who knew how it worked, officially: where they took the body, who was tasked with calling the parents, how they extracted the bullet, what they did with the gun, the note. Unofficially, it did what bad news did best: spread. My father always liked to say you couldn’t shit your own bed in Battle Creek without your neighbor showing up to wipe your ass, and though he said it largely to get a rise out of my mother, it had the whiff of truth.

It was always my mother who answered the phone. “They found him, that boy from your school,” she said, once the show had gone to commercial. We were all facing carefully away from one another, toward the giant Coke bottles dancing across the screen.

She said they’d found him in the woods, found him dead. That he’d done it to himself. She asked if he’d been my friend, and my father said that I’d answered that already when the boy went missing, and that I barely knew him, and that I was fine, and my mother said, Let her speak for herself, and my father said, Who’s stopping her, and my mother said, Do you want to talk about it, and my father said, Does she look like she wants to talk about it.

I did not want to talk about it. I told them I might later, which was a lie, and that I wanted to be alone, which was the truth, and that they shouldn’t worry about me, because I was fine. Which was less true or false than it was necessary.

“We’re sorry about this, kid,” my father said as I made my escape, and these were the last words spoken in my house on the subject of Craig Ellison and the thing he did to himself in the woods.

HE WASN’T MY FRIEND. HE was nothing to me, or less than. Alive, Craig was Big Johnson shirts and stupidly baggy jeans that showed off boxers and a hint of crack. He was basketball in the winter and lacrosse in the spring and a dumb blond with a cruel streak all year round, technically a classmate of mine since kindergarten but, in every way that counted, the occupant of some alternate dimension where people cheered at high school sporting events and spent their Saturday nights drinking and jerking off to Color Me Badd instead of sitting at home, watching The Golden Girls. Alive, Craig was arguably just a little less than the sum of his meathead parts, and on the few times our paths crossed and he deigned to notice my existence, he could usually be counted on to drop a polite witticism along the lines of Move it, bee-yotch as he muscled past.

Dead, though, he was transformed: martyr, wonder, victim, cautionary tale. By Monday morning, his locker was a clutter of paper hearts, teddy bears, and basketball pennants, at least until the janitorial staff were instructed to clear it all away amid fears that making too much of a fuss might inspire the trend chasers among us to follow. A school-wide memorial was scheduled; then, under the same paranoid logic, canceled; then scheduled again, until compromise finally took the form of an hour of weepy testaments and a slideshow scored to Bette Midler instrumentals and the flutter of informational pamphlets from a national suicide hotline.

I didn’t cry; it didn’t seem like my place.

All of us in the junior class were required to meet at least once with the school counselor. My appointment came a few weeks after his death, in one of the slots reserved for nonentities, and was perfunctory: Was I having nightmares. Was I unable to stop crying. Was I in need of intervention. Was I happy.

No, no, no, I said, and because there was no upshot to being honest, yes.

The counselor sponged off his pits and asked what disturbed me most about Craig Ellison’s death. No one used the word suicide that year unless absolutely necessary.

“He was out there in the woods for three days,” I said, “just waiting for someone to find him.” I imagined it like a time-lapse video of blooming flowers, the body wheezing out its final gaseous waste, flesh rotting, deer pawing, ants marching. The tree line was only a couple blocks from my house, and I wondered, if the wind had been right, what it might have carried.

The thought of the corpse wasn’t what disturbed me most, not even close. What disturbed me most was the revelation that someone like Craig Ellison had secrets — that he had actual, human emotions not altogether dissimilar from mine. Deeper, apparently, because when I had a bad day, I watched cartoons and hoovered up a bag of Doritos, whereas Craig took his father’s gun into the woods and blew a hole through the back of his head. I’d had a guinea pig once that did nothing but eat and sleep and poop, and if I’d found out the guinea pig’s inner turmoil was stormier than mine, that would have disturbed me, too.

Weirdly, then, the counselor shifted gears and asked whether I knew anyt ...