The Arsonist (pt. V)

Conversely, Aiden was Brightness in jeans and white v-necks, with dark eyes and thick brown hair. I felt helpless as I watched stars fall from his mouth and the way that he shined on the sunflower Robyn, who seemed blind to the way Aiden stoked her beauty to grow and open wide. And so I decided to try to catch the grey fox and make him shine for me. 

But when I saw the way that Aiden sat next to Robyn on the couch in the dorm lounge, his eyes filled with a royal light after she told him “Yes,” I quietly left to storm alone in the ceramics studio. The Chariot roared out of cheap speakers to give voice to my raging silence, while I pounded at lumps of clay, throwing them on the furiously spinning wheel. My scars ached, remembering the last time I had seen that brilliance was in Tobias’ gaze. The faint idea that Jasper might be just gasoline began to screw into the back of my head, but I only tried harder to build up the flame. I called it bravery, and in this way I found Robyn and I were similar. Our only difference was the way I clutched Aiden beneath my ribs—but I never told her this. 

After three months’ time, we were all licking our singed wounds. 

* * * *

“Do your friends smoke?” my mother asked without warning as we shopped. I think she already knew the answer to that question. 

I had always hated cigarette smoke until I became friends with Von, when I first began to understand why people smoked. His struggles between suicide and life showed me that sometimes medicine, loving friends, and a gracious God aren’t enough to scare away all the monsters; blowing smoke seemed to offer a little extra help, though. He smelled like dirt and tobacco whenever I hugged him, and because I knew his hugs might someday not keep coming back, I began to enjoy the smell. I came to know the difference between those that enjoyed the occasional calming indulgence and those that developed an addicting habit. All I knew was that I had the choice to be a friend; not to control someone’s health. 

At that time, one of my roommates smoked enough to call it pollution. But I understood she had grown up in a household of smoke, and she understood that I hadn’t; there existed a sort of mutual respect between us. I didn’t know how to create that sort of understanding with my mother.

“I mean, if I was a person interested in you, I don’t think I would gravitate toward that sort of smell,” she continued. “You should probably wash your hair more.” She started talking about why I shouldn’t share clothes with my friends that smoked. I began to leave the conversation to look for marked-down jeans since most of mine now had rips in the knees. She left to look for some Estee Lauder perfume. 

So when I arrived at church late the next morning, I knew I must have smelled from spending the past 14 hours with Aiden and other friends up in Bass Lake hiking, dancing, hanging out at the local bar, sleeping outside under the full moon, and waking up with barely enough time to drive down the mountain. I felt like art, sitting down thinking Good, these people should know what it smells like to be alive. I wasn’t surprised when my mother asked me to take a shower before my grandparents came over for lunch. 

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The Arsonist (pt. IV)

A Catalogue of Lessons in Alternative Rock 201:

Artist: Aerosmith
Genres: Hard Rock, Blues Rock, Heavy Metal, Glam Metal

Livin’ on the edge, you can’t help yourself at all!

Artist: All Time Low
Genre: Pop Punk

But I’m stuck in this fucking rut, waiting on a secondhand pick-me-up,
And I’m over getting older…

Artist: Beastie Boys
Genres: Rap Rock, Alternative Hip Hop, Hardcore Punk, Rapcore


* * * *

“I don’t tell Grandma about some of the things you do until after you’ve done them so she doesn’t worry,” my mother used to tell me, referring to the hardcore concerts, the times I traveled alone, or when I adventured out into the backcountry. The year I turned 21 was when I started to realize that there were things I shouldn’t be telling her, either.

It was as if all the sudden the full moon rose and I woke up with a howling thirst for bravery. I began to gather a list of quasi-rebellious “first time” experiences. I still revealed certain “firsts” post-experience to my mother: my first time skinny-dipping in Bass Lake, first time drinking a beer while midnight-kayaking, first time taking a skateboard down a half-pipe, first time camping out in a snowstorm, first time cycling across towns to join Pasadena’s Critical Mass Ride—I even told her about my first time ditching class to get drinks in a local bar where my friends and I got hit on by British tourists. But I didn’t tell her everything; no needless worrying to damper my fire, no needless remarks that would emasculate my art.

* * * *

At first, Jasper just looked like a grey fox with a mustache. We came to know each other first through mutual friends, then by the letters and text messages we sent during the time I lived in the mountains. Near the end of our three-month correspondence, I drove down to the city to be with him for the weekend. The second night we drove into the canyon to “watch a meteor shower” in the rear of his Subaru Outback with blankets, tea, and Lord of the Rings. I started smoothing his skin, reminding myself to be brave. And he wasn’t worried about timing; he leaned in and I finally discovered the strange wonder of two mouths touching. It made me want to stay the night and sleep with his arm around me before waking to the blood-orange sunrise that I tiredly deemed “amazing.”  

Four and a half weeks passed before I woke up and saw the cheap way Jasper wore cardigans and wool bow ties, the way he was nothing but a bright blaze of sour-smelling gasoline, no tinder at all; no lasting flame. 

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And now a word from our sponsors…

Omg Levi the Poet quoted a Showbread lyric on Facebook, it’s like seeing two of your mutual friends crushing on each other and realizing you totally ship it. 

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The Arsonist (pt. III)

Taught to never spend time alone with a boy, I felt impelled to artistically craft my relationship with Tobias.

We met on a backpacking trip as sophomores in college. He traced the trail to the spark in me as I gravitated toward the gentle fire in him. I wanted to see what would happen when I broke the rule meant to “keep bad things from happening.” Incidentally, what happened involved a lot homework, long conversations about our life experiences and philosophies, giggling, late nights watching Back to the Future. Sometimes I saw that look in his eye, and when I asked him about it, Tobias just smiled and said, “Something tells me it’s not the right time.” I smiled, feeling invincible. 

But I risked something no one talks about, and I was too star-struck to see. After a three-month intensive of striking sparks and lighting matches, I spooked like a skittish horse and frantically began stamping on the flames. Tobias, admittedly afraid of horses, backed away. When I regained my nerve, I finally felt the fourth-degree burns. I laid painfully in the dark. 

* * * *

Two years later, the scars showed as knitted purple patches of nerveless skin. Again I yearned to be mesmerized by fire, but my hands were empty of tinder. I only went hiking with Gideon, we only went to a metalcore concert together. I only made Brandon dinner and went bouldering with him. I only spent a summer with my friend’s ex-beau Liam, we only went star-gazing in the foothills. Perhaps I still feared letting myself become singed again. No campfires allowed, only cheap fireworks on Fourth of July, the ones that flash violently fifteen times before reducing to empty wisps of smoke.

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The Arsonist (pt. II)

A Catalogue of Lessons in Alternative Rock 101

Artist: Hawk Nelson
Genres: Pop Punk, Christian Rock

But you can’t take who I am, whoa-oh-whoa-oh!

Artist: Underoath
Genres: Metalcore, Christian Hardcore, Post-Hardcore, Emo

I’m taking back all the things I’ve said! But I sure can’t just sit still.

Artist: Showbread
Genres: Screamo, Spazz Rock, Alternative Rock, Post-Hardcore, Raw Rock

Yet we reel with desire though choked by coarse wire, 
Loosed by our raging disdain!

* * * *

Yet I was fully aware of how fun it is to play with fire. 

Most of us exhibit a spark during childhood. My grandmother saw mine when she came to pick me up from preschool one day and watched me walk over to my friend Jacob to kiss him on the cheek. When I came to her all rosy, I explained, “I thought you’re supposed to kiss the person you love when you say goodbye.” Cute then, but add ten years to four and I think of how the reaction surely would have changed—if one is not careful, age has a way with burying the self in the complex layers of each new year. But fires can smolder while buried, still.  

When the lovechild products of the punk movement found me, it blew on embers that turned into a flame. At first, I grimaced from the rude awakening. Besides, “hardcore” girls ultimately fell short of the glory of the lipgloss-glazed, skirt-and-blouse ideal. But I found that the bitter sound of chaos is an acquired taste. When my violin teacher started saying, “Why would you listen to something that sounds like a demon?” after we finished playing for the Sunday morning orchestra, I could only shrug. I didn’t know how to explain the way the abrasive guitars and howling vocals felt like a soothing release from the tightening of a controlled life, or the way I deeply resonated with the strangely poetical lyrics hidden in the album covers.

* * * *

When I went to college to study creative writing and art, I began to understand how the world worked. The wings of my liberal arts professors taught me a new sort of refuge: you can get away with breaking any rule as long as you do it the right way; this is often how the best art is made. 

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The Arsonist (pt. I)

“You do NOT call a boy like that,” she said.

My mother’s words rang in my ears in the midst of a high coastal fog on a Santa Cruz summer day. I was fourteen-going-on-fifteen with my first cell phone, busted for calling my Bible class crush Carter. Before summer vacation, he wrote his phone number in my yearbook and left a fiery buzz under my skin when he hugged me goodbye. All I knew was I wanted a reason to call him.

The exhilaration of my first time riding the Big Dipper roller-coaster on the Boardwalk felt like an opportunity. I dialed Carter’s number on the second ride, holding the phone open in the thrilling, rushing wind, sending giggles into the receiver. After getting off the coaster, I heard amusement on the other end—and I hung up smiling. But my grin turned into a guilt-ridden frown as my mother proceeded to emphasize in a taut voice the rules of calling boys; the summation of which was “Don’t.”

“We’ll take away your phone if you do that again; that’s not what it’s for,” she said.

I felt sick. “Okay, I’m sorry,” I said. 

* * * *

My parents never called me the Rebel Child. I wasn’t like my cousin Lauren, who spent her summers with her vagabond friends at raves. Her father worried about her. I wasn’t like my cousin Austin, who felt the constant pull of the principal’s office or his mother tugging to bring his ear closer to her murmured reprimands. 

I represented the 4.2 GPA student on the League Champ’s volleyball team who had been taking private violin lessons since fifth grade; that girl without kissed lips or too much makeup, who always went to the church’s youth group on Wednesday nights. My friends preferred choir, journalism, and soccer to partying, popularity, and prom. 

And I liked it that way—in the sense that I liked control.

Between the two reward-shame systems of elementary teachers yelling at students to Shut up and church leaders teaching more about the strength of evil than the power of good, I learned how to keep out the demon of guilt by controlling my behavior and following rules. The A+ mentality in academics made me fear looking stupid. The cool rebels and popular partiers that cared more about their hair than grades were simply on a fast track to a null existence of failing life—I, on the other hand, wanted to be perfect. 

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Stay tuned for my new non-fic piece The Arsonist!!!!!

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