Posted in A Cartography of Sin, Nonfiction

Putting Out Fires

“Wow, what happened?” My arms never fail to catalyze this question.
“I didn’t know how to put out a fire.”


I was on fire.

I tried to put it out with alcohol. At the bar, halfway into happy hour and more than halfway to a hangover the door opened. Light and the noises of Brooklyn stumbled in much like I would eventually stumble out. In walked the new teacher. I immediately ordered a round of shots. She and the others thought I was being friendly. I wasn’t.

Nate knew. He knew I was mean with jealousy. At their little jokes about her being in his old classroom. Her advances toward him. They may not have made jokes. She likely didn’t make advances, but my imagination has always been good. It didn’t help that I had recently realized that all evidence pointed to his ex not being an ex at all. Sometimes I chose to believe his insistence that I was crazy. That I was not the other woman. I was not crazy. And I was the other woman.

“Nancy has stinky feet but we still love her.” The joke was too much with everything else. I went outside to the yard behind the bar and found a spot with a clear view of the few stars visible in the city. He came outside. “Harriet’s leaving. You should say goodnight.”

“No, I shouldn’t.”


“Why don’t you go say goodnight to her.”

“I don’t like her.”

“I don’t believe you.” I wanted passionate convincing. He walked away.

Harriet appeared shortly. “I wanted to say goodnight to you. I was hoping you would say goodnight to me, too.”

“What?” I squinted through beer hazed sight. “Why are you even here?”

“You invited me.”

“I wasn’t serious. How could you think I was serious?”

“I guess I take people at their word.”

“God, you’re clueless.”

She leaned down, put her hand on my shoulder. “I’m sorry that you are so sad. And so angry.”

“Fuck you.”

She walked away.


Hiss — POP!  The essential oil burner on the entertainment center exploded. My apartment full of cheap IKEA wood was about to go up in flames. The dry winter air didn’t help.

He ran into the kitchen and soon metallic static of water filling a pot signaled to me that something was wrong.

“NO! Kitchen fire!” I held up one finger before grabbing a bag of all purpose flour. A fistful of flour saved the night. And possibly my life. Because I was reminded after that, simply could not get out of my head, that every type of fire has its own method for being put out. Liquids work on some. Liquids only make others worse.


Another fire had been sparking in me since childhood. The fire of mental illness. It bloomed like ink in water, loaning itself to beauty at times: bursts of creativity, manic redecorating, all night conversations. In the company of others I could keep it under control, but when I was alone it raged. Self-hatred throwing some gas on it. Shame tossing on more.

I would scream while I cut myself. I’d stuff balled up pair of socks in my mouth so the neighbors didn’t call the police. I marked every indiscretion of his, and mine, on my body. The cuts were ugly and deep. I thought it would help but I just ended up with infections.

The maps of these wrongdoings still exist: a cartography of sin.

I was forcing a boxcutter into my thigh when a film of my mother began projecting itself in my head. If I cut too deeply and killed myself she wouldn’t survive. So I had to. I wrapped my leg tightly with pantyhose and washcloths, making it up as I went. I threw on a large coat and rode the empty D to Coney Island. I had finally realized that some fires can’t be put out. I had to let myself burn up, leaving a pile of ash. Only once I gave myself the time and space to burn completely could I rebuild.

The empty beach was littered with the faded ephemera of a summer long since over. At the water the wind howled louder than I could. I screamed until my throat bled.

Image by Brooklyn MuseumEast from Little Pier, Coney Island, Brooklyn, ca. 1872-1887.Uploaded by palnatoke, No restrictions, Link


10 thoughts on “Putting Out Fires

  1. So raw and powerful: “I was forcing a boxcutter into my thigh when a film of my mother began projecting itself in my head. If I cut too deeply and killed myself she wouldn’t survive. So I had to.” I liked the thought of your mom popping into your head like a film. xox

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Those were such raw emotions pouring out, Nancy! I liked how you started with feelings of jealousy and then gave a background of the mental illness. Some fires cannot be put off. So many layers to this. The imagery was vivid too.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Wow, you have some powerful imagery in here, particularly ‘a cartography of sin’. I can totally relate to the fire, I think a lot of people could. Very well written.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you so much for stopping by. That’s my favorite line, too. I forget when I came up with it but could never make the piece work. I appreciate your comments and stopping in to read it.


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