The Fairer Sex: Fires

The Fairer Sex: Fires
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Photo by bjbieg (copied from Flickr)
Photo by bjbieg (copied from Flickr)

The whole time we were in California I dreamt of fires.

At first I thought it was because in every town Jack and I drove through, I saw a big red fire truck. They all had great silver wheel arches and gold lettering stencilled on the doors saying their town, like something out of a toy shop. They were the shiniest things I’d ever seen: not a single smear of oil or a speck of dust on vehicles that I felt should be dirty and working. I couldn’t stop staring at them.

When we pulled up next to one in traffic, I said, “The firemen must spend their whole day polishing them. You wonder if it’s because they haven’t they got anything else to do.”

“Perhaps there aren’t enough fires,” Jack said. He kept his eyes straight ahead at the windscreen and didn’t look at me.

“But it’s so fucking hot,” I said.

He didn’t reply.

***

We hadn’t spent much time on beaches because Jack was blonde and fair, but as soon as I saw the Pacific in Santa Monica at the beginning of our trip a balloon rose in my chest and I knew that I had to go swimming in it, whether it put him in a bad mood or not.

When I finally persuaded him onto the sand, I stripped to my underwear and ran into the ocean, feeling its coldness rise up my legs and over my belly. When I got deep enough I lay back and sucked in my breath as the water rushed into my hair. I opened my eyes to the bright blue expanse of the sky.

I had come to America for the emptiness and to be in the desert. I wanted to know what it was to look out and see nothing on the horizon.

I thought of Jack sitting on the beach with those strange blue jellyfish, fully clothed and as hot and annoyed as a wasp in an upturned pint glass. We couldn’t be together and we couldn’t be apart. I shut my eyes and had a wee.

When I came back in and found him, he was frowning and smoking.

“It’s so nice in there. You should have come,” I said, trying to sound encouraging but knowing that my enjoyment was only throwing his misery into starker relief.

He shook an empty Marlboro box at me. “We need more fags.”

“Wow,” I said, “Was I really that long?” There had been half a pack before.

“Yes,” he said. “You were.”

“Oh come on, I wasn’t more than half an hour.” I dug my toes into the sand.

“You were.”

“Well, it’s the first time I’ve seen an actual ocean. I’m so fucking sorry.”

“We have to get going, or we’re not going to make it to Santa Barbara in time.”

“Fine.”

I dried off in silence.

***

It took us just shy of a week to get from LA to Santa Cruz. The place had a touch of a 70’s B-movie about it, bizarre and surreal and rundown, which I found comforting. Everything in Santa Barbara had been too clean; I’d ordered an iced coffee from Starbucks and a barista with Lego hair and a starched green apron wished me a “Happy Earth Day”. I had accidentally laughed in his face.

***

“What’s worth more?” I asked Jack, as we sat in a launderette. “A nickel or a dime?” The question was my way of apologising for shouting at him earlier that day, because he kept explaining to me what everything was. Any cunt can read a guide book.

“A dime.”

There was a little girl of about six running about in pink pyjamas and jelly sandals, a big soft turtle in her hand. She kept doing circuits round the central bank of machines, putting the turtle in one drum and then taking it out and putting it in another.

“What’s your turtle’s name?” I asked her. She stopped and stared back at me blankly and ran to her mum, who saw me and told her in Spanish not to bother strangers. The turtle hung in her hand, limp, its head squashed against the floor. I always felt sorry for children’s toys, even the ones with painted on smiles.

Watching clothes churn in a washing machine is surprisingly entertaining. Red over blue, red over blue. “What’s a Five and Dime?” I asked. “Is it like a 7 Eleven?”

We had been to a 7 Eleven every day for Slim Jims and Big Gulps and the thinnest newspapers I had ever seen. Shrimp burritos and peanut butter cups that were so sticky they seemed to suck on the top of my mouth.

“Sort of,” he said. “Not really. If we see one we’ll go in.”

I got up and went outside, the door clattering behind me. I couldn’t usually stand smoking in the sun, but I lit a cigarette, and stretched my arms out, rolling my shoulders, my muscles stiff as the car seat. The launderette was in a horseshoe of shops, between one selling wind-chimes and purple throws and a store for surfer gear with all the stickers in the window sun-bleached to white.

It was very quiet. America, for all its corporations and traffic, seemed like a very quiet place to me.

There was an off-licence with a sign in curly letters saying Liquor in the front, poker in the rear and when I finished smoking I went inside. Behind the counter there was a fat woman in her fifties wearing a punk band t-shirt. A bell jangled above the door, but she didn’t look up from her magazine.

I’ve always thought foreign shops are more interesting than museums and every time I’ve been abroad I’ve spent a lot of time in an equivalent to our newsagents, gazing at bottles and packets and tins on shelves. Relics distant only in their strangeness, not because of their age.

The spirits section was mainly whiskey, and some of it was in big see-through plastic vats like bulk oil that made my throat almost gag. I studied the rums for a while, and in the end I chose a black one with a picture of a sea monster on the label.

I looked at Jack through the glass of the laundrette door. He was bent over in the chair, his elbows on his knees, reading the guidebook again. The fucking guidebook, as if there was lots of culture we were missing out on. There’s nothing here, Jack.

“What did you get?” He asked.

I put on a pirate voice. “A bottle of rum, black as your mood.”

He smiled.

Like all the other towns, Santa Cruz seemed to shut down about 9pm and American TV was unbearable, so in the evenings we played cards and smoked. That night I suggested that the loser of each game did a finger of the rum, because Jack was so miserable I was convinced I’d win. Perhaps I secretly wanted to knock him out.

He tried to kiss me and I refused and he slammed out of the motel room.

I vomited into the bin and passed out.

***

As we were coming into San Francisco I sang along to the radio. ‘She Belongs To Me’. My feet had gone slightly brown from where I’d had them up on the dashboard. Jack had, to his credit, done all the driving, but only because we had agreed at the car rental that I’d be a danger to myself and others. It meant that the most enduring image I’d have of him from the trip was his right ear.

I was curious about San Francisco: I had heard about the Tenderloin, the gay parades, the fanzines, the hilly streets, but I didn’t really know any more than that. All cities have different degrees of penetrability. You have to burrow into London like a relentless archaeologist, scraping back layers and layers until you become part of the place. Amsterdam is watching people through a series of fishbowls. Prague, Venice, Bruges all exist in distant fairyland.

The American cities we’d been to so far reminded me of a design exhibition I went to once where they’d put seemingly ordinary things on display in glass cases. A garlic press. A china cup.

I had a suspicion that San Francisco would feel much the same as that.

***

On the way to a motel we saw three firemen wandering about at the traffic lights, collecting dollars and nickels and dimes in wellington boots. I didn’t understand how they could wear those work jackets. I was as hot as a lion.

“Have you got a lighter?” It was the first time Jack had spoken in a while. I dug mine out of my pocket to give to him.

We passed a fire station. Like all California buildings it had a clean, square facade that looked as if it was part of a film set, an inch thick and held up at the back by wooden struts.

***

The night we got to San Francisco I had the worst of all the dreams.

Jack was trapped in a burning motel room and I was in the car outside, watching him and unable to get the car door open. Then I realised I could open the door but didn’t, and pretended to Jack that I couldn’t. I banged the window and pretended to try the door catch again and again, as his begging face got covered by a thick grey smoke.

When I woke up my fingers ached.

We went to an IHOP. My belly was getting a good deal rounder as the days passed, but that wasn’t stopping me having pancakes and a fry up every day, especially when even the language of American diners was so delicious. Eggs over easy. Sunny side up. Links. Grits. They really knew a thing or two about breakfast.

I emptied a little pink square of Sweet ‘N’ Low into my coffee.

I had come to America for the emptiness and to be in the desert. I wanted to know what it was to look out and see nothing on the horizon.

“Do you hate me?” I asked.

He didn’t look at me. “No.”

 

Alice Furse

About Alice Furse

Alice Furse studied English Literature and Creative Writing at The University of Kent, and was published in two anthologies for the best student work before completing an MA in The Contemporary Novel. She lives in London and her first novel, Everybody Knows This is Nowhere, is out now on Burning Eye.

Alice Furse studied English Literature and Creative Writing at The University of Kent, and was published in two anthologies for the best student work before completing an MA in The Contemporary Novel. She lives in London and her first novel, Everybody Knows This is Nowhere, is out now on Burning Eye.

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