“I feel that way too sometimes, it’s like a little fire,” my friend said, reaching over to steal a chip from my plate. I turned that phrase over in my fingers like a button that’s just come off a cardigan, strands of threads in the holes. As we continued talking about deep breathing and gentle exercise and kind self-narratives, I pictured a small pyre built out of all the asterisks I wish I could give to people who hurt me, for them to wear stuck in their clothes like prickly burrs for everyone to see.
*left me and never looked back
*left me and kept looking back but I wish they hadn’t
*pointed out the flaws in my teeth
Later, I walked home in the glassy late afternoon sunshine, adding every petite grief and curdled crush and spiteful thought-flash to the flames, my pulse gulping through me. I rushed inside like I was chasing myself, straight to the bathroom where I sat on the closed toilet seat with my head hanging between my legs.
I smelled burning.
I got up and looked in the mirror.
My black and white striped T-shirt had a growing patch of brown over my heart, with orange-red starting to thread around the edges. I gave an eyeball-rattling cartoonish shake of my head – the onomatopoeic representation would be something like EEEYADDA YADDA YADDA YADDA – and the smell and image went away.
I pressed both hands together over the place on my chest where, it seemed to me, the asterisks were gathered. I imagined a stack of other people’s hands on top of mine, like we were about to play the last basketball game of the season or perform in the opening night of the school musical. I pumped my hands with a chant of “One! Two! Three!”, threw them up in the air with a cry of “Gooooooo team!”, then pointed finger guns at my reflection and started shooting asterisks at myself.
*left them and never looked back
*enjoying when people let me down so I can wallow in it
*overly conscious of the flaws in other people’s teeth since that time someone pointed out the flaws in mine
A faltering knock at the front door interrupted me. Me and my housemates hardly ever get visitors or mail, so I thought maybe I’d imagined that too until there was a second, sharper knock. When I answered it, a woman I’d never seen before burst out talking like the words had been swelling inside her while she waited for someone to arrive home. She looked to me like someone who would own at least three vacuum cleaners of various sizes and always wave at children in prams even if they were sleeping. I wondered how I looked to her.
“Hi, sorry, hello, sorry, yes. I live next door? Sorry. One of my sheets has blown off my line into your backyard? Sorry about this!”
“Oh right! Wait here! No problem! One second!” I tried my best to convey with my face and my voice and my awkward half-jog to the back door that she did not have to say sorry.
A white fitted sheet was hanging off the wheelie bin in our little courtyard. I gathered it up and took it back to her, tamping down a brief urge to drape it over my head and pretend to be a ghost.
“Um, sorry but you should probably know it was on our bin, in case you want to wash it again, sorry about that, sorry.”
Her smile looked relieved, like she had half expected me to come back pretending the sheet wasn’t there, keep it for myself.
“Oh that’s fine, I’ll give it another wash and make sure I use ten pegs this time, ha ha ha!” Each syllable of the laugh distinct. “Sorry again! Thanks again! Sorry!”
I closed the door and went back to sit on the toilet – the smell of burning as I built all those sorries and exclamation marks into a new pyre.
Emma Wortley’s reviews, fiction and poetry have appeared in Voiceworks, Paper Crown Magazine, text Litmag, Scintilla Magazine and Going Down Swinging. She tweets at @emkawo.