To The Flames

May 29, 2008
By Mara Flanagan, Pittsburgh, PA

The first thing I ripped off was the mortarboard. I hadn’t even fully thrashed open the door to the new apartment when the hat was in pieces on the burgundy carpet. I echoed the initial thud with a torrent of shredded navy gown scraps settling down to give the cap a proper burial. Their whisperings during the fall did little to soothe my grief. I wanted something drastic to happen, much more important than ripping my clothes. I clenched my fingers around the scroll in my pocket.

The paper buckled wildly as my fingers trembled, unraveling the knot. I let the frayed ribbon droop on top of the limp pile at my feet as I absorbed the diploma in small fragments. “Saffron Exta.” “Class of 2008.” The golden seal glinted slightly with a spark of temptation. The closest I could get to undoing the previous four years of my life was to rip the flimsy piece of parchment right down the middle. But then, what would that do to make age 24 more like I’d imagined?

There was nothing wrong with community college. It was school. I had a degree in Sociology. A science. That had to count for something.

Why couldn’t mom and dad see that? Throughout the ceremony, they were contorted imitations of the typical graduate parents. They snapped pictures, shook hands… it was funny how many different faces they shook hands with. Some families were downcast that their child wasn’t graduating from an ivy. Others reflected immense relief, happy even to know that their kid could tie his shoes. But my parents. There was a placidity to their evident distress. They didn’t want to be there. I mean, they’d never truly been with me—psychologically—but their expressions were even more distant today. As if they weren’t standing on the yellowed lawn of a Community College.

A knock on the door jolted me from my stupor. I didn’t think anyone could get up here without buzzing in, so I stumbled warily to the door. It was the landlord.

“Hey,” I said, casually.

“Hey, man. Like the digs?”

“Yep.” A half-hearted response, sure, but I was silently wondering if Mr. Scripps realized his afro was going gray.

“Groovy.” He was nearing hippie impersonator status. But I knew he wasn’t. That tie-dyed Woodstock shirt was almost paler than his complexion.

“Everything OK?” I asked, noticing that he looked frailer than he had this morning (if a guy like Scripps could look frail.)

“Oh, yeah,” he said with faux relaxation. “But, heads up.” He leaned past the doorframe. “If anyone asks about the plants growing near the lobby, tell them they’re part of my herb garden. Say it’s… saffron!” He got a kick out of my name being a spice.

“’K,” I said, rubbing the back of my head. I wasn’t too concerned. Scripps had told me earlier that the police did monthly checks here, but since the place opened in 1965 no one had ever gotten arrested for everything. Covering for “unconventional” gardening habits wouldn’t be a problem. After all, it wasn’t a lie to say that Scripps had a green thumb.

“Thanks, man. Peace.” Scripps flashed me a peace sign as I shut the door slowly. I could hear a sitar beginning to penetrate the walls. Probably Cynthia Bramston from the next room. Shoot. I walked over to a stack of records in the corner and let Bachman Turner Overdrive blare through the room. Maybe a little upbeat for today, but it was better than ‘60s twang. Mom used to play that kind of music. When I was four, I’d ask her what the deal was with the odd tunes, and she’d laugh.

“Something to get high to,” she’d say. I didn’t know what that meant until the year she stopped playing it.

So it wasn’t that I hated groggy, buzzing music like what played all day long in this place. It was just too much of a reminder of a time when my life rocked. Cynth and Scripps and everyone were cool, but they were mementos of an era. They embodied the time when my parents were Jules and Fig, the people they were before they traded stuffing daises up gun barrels for raising a child well. I threw myself face down on the futon and wished them back into a frazzled, dirty, passionate existence. As far from today as possible.

I could see that my pink hair looked more electric in the evening sun coming through the window and realized that it was probably time to get the candles out. Flinging myself onto the floor, I retrieved a few orange candles from the bottom of my suitcase. Thick and heavy, their waxy weight felt satisfying in my hand. I flicked a match and set all seven burning. At first, I paused and waited for a smoke detector to start screaming. Then I remembered what Scripps had told me:

“With all the fire in this place, we’re probably already burning.”
Witty Scripps. He’d even set up an elaborate system of faux smoke detectors and sprinklers that he’d make sure were working one day a month. But seriously, with what this building had been through, I doubted a fire would be the worst thing this place had seen.

I sat in the chair at my desk and twisted slowly, calming myself with the motion, the music, and the uneven light. This felt so much like what home was supposed to feel like. Even in the dorm, with no parental restrictions, I never felt that free. But I was staring into the face of euphoria. But I had to reach for it to get it.

I couldn’t let my parents hold me back. It always seemed like they thought they were making a huge sacrifice for me by giving up their nomadic lifestyle. But it destroyed the essence of them, and I never got them back. My clearest memories are from age five and under; the rest is gone. I washed it away. I have no will to dwell on the last decade or so. And now I was here.
I pulled off the ragged white shirt I’d worn beneath my gown and threw it into the corner of the room. On went a silky white shirt, lapping gracefully over the edge of my black jeans. The effortlessness of fabric always intrigued me. I felt like the thick soles of my boots were clumping too loudly as I tramped around the room in search of a vest, but I realized The Eagles were echoing from downstairs. The police had obviously already checked in, and I doubted anyone would be up to creating a disturbance at the moment. My vest slid on over my shirt and I fastened two opal cufflinks onto my sleeves, admiring my handiwork. I couldn’t get into Harvard, but I rocked at sculpting. I scrutinized my watch. 7:49. I had eleven minutes to get over to Sieve. It was only a few minutes away, so I settled on running. I needed a bit to myself, anyway, before I was thrust into a room of people again.

I threw a key in my jeans pocket and stomped down to stairs. The room beneath my feet barely stirred with the banging development. I snatched open the glass doors and padded onto the sidewalk, only then realizing I hadn’t blown out the candles. Pumpkin spice was floating from my window. Someone would figure it out. Or they wouldn’t do a thing. Either way, there’d be no rowdiness at Kat’s Complex tonight.
I didn’t doubt the peculiarity of my long, neon hair fluttering behind Victorian clothing. I smirked. I didn’t care. I hadn’t for a long time and, tonight, I truly was free. No dorm advisor could scold my candle use; no guard could stop my running. Yes.

I came up on Scripps and peered in through the slight crack in the blinds. Abbie smiled out at me, her raven hair and purple streaks threatening to ignite due to their proximity to the candle she was lighting. She waved me in.

“First night in the apartment, hun?”
I nodded.

“Like it?”

“Feels like home.”

“Good for you.” She blew out the match she was holding before the flame could reach her fingertips.

“Where is everyone?” I asked.

“Zelda’s in the back,” she said, gesturing to a door behind her. “Chet’s on his way, and Fry and Grizzla are hung up for a bit at the bookstore. They’ll be down in a bit. In the meantime, though, you might want to head upstreet.”

“When should I be back?” I didn’t even try to stay today. Abbie’s happiness cut into my self pity.

“Twenty minutes, probably. At the latest. Be safe, sweet’art.”

“Alright, I’ll be back.” I realized at that moment that I had to get back to the apartment. I hadn’t been wearing my pentacle at the ceremony, but the ritual was about to begin.

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