and this is just one idea of heaven

Photo credit: Lewis Roberts

The date isn’t going well, so
I don’t feel the need to lie when she arches one eyebrow and says: “What’s the
worst thing you’ve ever done?”

Her name is Carla, a trainee
paediatrician with blonde highlights and a diamond shining against the tan skin
of her throat, pretty in a solemn, sexless way. The daughter of one of my
father’s friends, she’s the latest in a series of women he has taken to placing
in my path with all the subtlety of a salesman.

“Come on, Nathan,” she says,
taking a careful sip of her Viognier, studying me over the rim of the glass. I
can’t help but imagine the way she will describe me to her girlfriends over
brunch. “I’m bored of small talk, tell me something interesting.”

I top up my own glass, then
hers, giving myself a moment to think. She’s pushing for something. It strikes
me that maybe she wants me to respond with something related to sex, but
nothing suitably risqué springs to mind. “I don’t know if it’s the worst thing,
but when I was nineteen I set fire to a gas station.”

I have to look up to see her
reaction: I’ve been spending a lot of the meal staring at my plate or the
insipid watercolour on the wall next to us. My father designed the building
opposite the restaurant we’re sitting in, just off Second Avenue. He didn’t
mention this when he recommended it to me as suitable for a first date. It wasn’t
until I sat in my window-facing chair that I noticed the grey building with its
faceted panelling, my view having been obscured by my umbrella when I stepped
out of the Uber outside. Having this office block watch me eat has done nothing
to improve my digestion. My father designs buildings for function, not form.

She smiles at me, uncertain,
though I can see that I haven’t shocked her. I haven’t told anyone else about
the fire before and her muted reaction is both a relief and a blow.

“In New York, or—?”

She cuts the question off,
another inherent in its abortive pause. I mentally replay my words to check I
got it right. Here it’s gas station, not petrol station or filling
station or even the station d’essence or benzinestation of my
school days. My accent is light enough to be indiscernible to even people from
my hometown, yet here in Manhattan I find myself having to repeat my orders to
bemused waitstaff on a daily basis. My inflections are all wrong, vowels too
modulated and consonants clipped, lacking the natural pitch and cadence of the
American accents around me. Something about my voice, I think, puts people off.

“Not here,” I say. “In Canada.
I studied there for a year.”

She hums, politely interested,
and reaches to take one of the dessert menus the waiter had placed discreetly
beside us a few minutes ago. The fingernail she runs down the list is a perfect
short almond, polished a pale dove grey that makes her look, on first glance,
like she suffers from a circulatory disorder. I am reminded of my maternal
grandmother and her cold, shaking hands, the nails permanently tinged blue.

“Did it help?”

I’m distracted, blinking at
her dumbly. “I’m sorry?”

“The fire. I presume there was
some sort of reason behind it. Did it help with whatever you wanted it to help
with?” She’s cool, speaks without lifting her gaze from the menu. It’s not hard
to imagine her speaking to a crying child: tell me how it hurts on a scale
of one to ten.

“It wasn’t meant to help with
anything,” I say after a pause. “It’s not like it was arson. It wasn’t, um.”
The word escapes me. “It wasn’t targeted.”

This is true. I looked it up
afterwards: to meet the legal definition of arson, the fire must be set for
personal, monetary or political gain. Technically what I did falls under the
definition of pyromania.

*

“Anything for yourself, sir?”
The waiter is back. The obsequious charm of service workers in America always
seems sincere to me, though I suspect it rarely is. Carla orders the white
chocolate and raspberry panna cotta and a double espresso, a choice I find
obliquely pleasing. Most girls on dates refuse the dessert menu altogether and
order another champagne cocktail instead, or else order the mango sorbet and
stir it abstemiously until it melts. In an effort to show her I approve, I
order the goat’s cheese cheesecake with lime sauce and an Irish coffee, but she
excuses herself to the bathroom while I’m still reciting my order. The waiter
murmurs very good, sir as he scribbles and I am briefly too warm.

There is a couple on the table
next to us – at least, I think they’re a couple, although they could be
brothers, the resemblance is close enough – who have been quietly arguing since
Carla and I had begun our appetisers. Actually, arguing isn’t the right term,
exactly; the smaller and younger-looking of the two has been lecturing his
companion for close to an hour now, his voice a plaintive hiss periodically
rising in volume enough to be audible from our table. As Carla makes her way
back from the bathroom, he puts his steak knife down with a clatter and says “I
just don’t think you understand the extent to which I’ve let my own personal
narrative be subsumed by yours this year, Mike.” Mike’s reply is too
quiet to hear.

Fascinated, I have to drag my
attention back to Carla when she slides neatly back into her seat. As she does
so, the younger man reaches across the table and grabs Mike’s hand, knocking
his cutlery onto the floor in the process. I try to imagine what it must be
like to be so unafraid of causing a scene, of holding another man’s hand in
public and using phrases like “personal narrative”.

The waiter brings over our
desserts. The lime sauce on the cheesecake is bitterly overpowering even
against the tang of goat’s cheese, rendering the whiskey in my coffee sour and
spoiled. It’s a rookie error, too many bold flavours fighting for dominance on
my tongue: the choices of an unsophisticated palate. I think back to the waiter
and his murmured praise and wonder if he laughed once his back was turned.

*

The gas station squatted at
the edge of campus like an afterthought. I had been living in Montréal for
nearly seven months, studying at the École de technologie supérieure on
a year abroad. I didn’t have a car and anyway I was drinking nearly every day
that semester – the neighbourhood we were based in had once been home to a
brewery, which somehow served as an excuse for a near constant state of
inebriation amongst my fellow matriculates and me that year – so I spent a lot
of time riding the bus that served the edge of town where our student housing
was located.

Usually I rode this particular
route alone, but the first time I really noticed the gas station I was with
Pierre, a volatile French-Canadian two years my junior whose overgrown canines
and patchy facial hair gave him a vaguely lycanthropic appearance. I can’t
recall now the precise sequence of events that led to us ending up on that bus
together, but it was later that night, half drunk on cheap rum from the sleazy
bottle store down the block, that he let me suck his dick for the first time.
His hand tentative on the back of my neck while I prayed he would tighten his
grip.

“This has to be the ugliest
bus route in all of Canada,” he said as we inched down the highway in the early
evening traffic. It had snowed earlier that day, a light fall by Quebecois
standards, the sound of the bus wheels trundling through the grey slush a
pleasing bass note to Pierre’s rapidfire French.

“It’s not like I’m riding it
for the scenery,” I said, or something like that. Our knees were pressed
together, his left to my right, and it was distracting me to the point of
incoherence. At some point I had become convinced that I was acting against his
will, that he did not want to touch me and I was simply hemming him in against
the wall of the bus the way I had seen sweating older men do to girls at clubs.
I was testing him every few minutes by moving my knee away briefly, on the
pretext of stretching or leaning down to scratch my ankle. Each time I did, his
knee would chase its way back to mine a few seconds later.

“Even so,” Pierre said, using
his sleeve to rub a circular porthole in the condensation that had built up on
the windowpane. “It’s just so bleak. I don’t know how it doesn’t make you
depressed.”

“I’m very depressed,” I
intoned, in English because I knew it annoyed him. He glanced at me and
grinned. He had recently bleached his hair over his shared bathroom sink and it
had turned a fascinating orangey shade, dry and patchy. I had the feeling that
if I grabbed a clump of it in my fist, it would snap straight off like a dead
twig.

“Look,” he said, gesticulating
out of the window at the small patch of scenery visible. The gas station. It
could have been anywhere. “Even the amenities are hideous.”

“Oh, come on,” I said and he
laughed, that special high-pitched yelp. “It’s a fucking petrol station. They’re
always ugly.”

Petrol station,” he
said, lips pursed, in a stiff approximation of the Queen’s English – mocking
me. Then, slipping back to French and solemn: “Bad architecture hurts me on a
soul level.” He reminded me of my father then. Pierre was studying construction
engineering.

It would have been pleasingly
literary had he exclaimed something like god, they should just burn
the whole lot down!
He didn’t, though; just yawned and pushed his leg so
hard against mine that I could feel the tense muscles of his thigh even through
two layers of denim, and asked me if I had any cigarettes, which I didn’t.

*

“Did you not get into trouble?”
Carla asks me as she spears a raspberry. I’m still pushing pieces of the
cheesecake into my mouth and chewing and swallowing even though the taste of it
is so disappointing that it makes me want to cry with frustration.

“No. They never found out it
was me. I don’t think it was a very big deal. It was a student town, you know?
There was a lot of dumb shit going on. Vandalism, frat parties that got out of
hand, that kind of thing.”

She looks at me for a long
moment, long enough that my scalp begins to prickle, and says, “I guess it’s
not as if anyone died.”

*

A few days after the fire, I
happened to see a local news bulletin, a rarity for me as the television at my
flat had been broken well before I moved in. I was at the local dive bar, a
sticky-floored basement popular with the student community, drinking to get
drunk and staring at the screen mounted above the bar to occupy myself.

At some point it occurred to
me that I recognised the footage they were showing: blackened shell, scrubby
trees, distant overpass. The strapline across the bottom of the screen
identified the owner of the destroyed gas station, a tired man with a face made
blurry by middle-age. The television was muted to allow for an old Pavement
album to blare through the speakers, but the closed captions were spooling
across the bottom of the screen. The garbled text transcribed the financial
ruin that now faced him and his family. He had two children under the age of
twelve. His wife had recently recovered from a mastectomy.

I watched this and perhaps it
was the beer I had drunk or the fact that Pierre was standing at the bar at an
angle which meant he could not see the screen and I could not see his face, but
any guilt I tried to muster for this man and his family was entirely
performative. I wondered, half-excited, at my lack of shame. I remember looking
around to see if anyone else was watching so I could catch their eye and say
something like that’s so sad or that poor guy and maybe mean it
in all sincerity for the three or four seconds it took my mouth to form the
words, but nobody was.

*

It takes a surprisingly long
time for a fire to really take hold, even somewhere as volatile as a gas
station. It’s not as dramatic as it is in films. Of course, there’s a chance
that maybe I just hadn’t set it properly, not being an expert. Maybe there
really is a way of making the flames lick and bloom within seconds of striking
a match. Though actually, I didn’t use a match: I used a lighter I had taken
from Pierre’s bedside table, purple plastic with the partially scratched-off
logo of an energy drinks brand on one side. When I arrived back in Hamburg a
few days later for winter break, not so much hungover as still drunk and sick
from the preceding night, I realised I had accidentally packed it in my
carry-on and wondered why security had not taken it from me. I still have it
now, in the bathroom medicine cabinet among the out-of-date condoms and bottles
of Benadryl. It doesn’t work any more, it’s empty. Someday I’ll clear it all
out, throw it all away.

When I think of the fire, it
is in the same way that I might assess a painting or photographic print in a
gallery, an amateur critic. An aesthetic appreciation based on tones, angles,
use of negative space. Darkness bleached from the sky by the backlit signage
and, later, the fire itself; scorch marks creeping up blistering white paint,
the disappointingly pale flames themselves where I had been expecting rich
oranges and reds. My cheeks burning from the intense dry heat, so bad I had to
buy a tube of moisturiser the next time I went to the store. The strange
symmetry of the column of fire slowly inching its way into a sky so polluted
with light it was somehow orange and purple and yet simultaneously neither of
those things, and the quiet dignity of the petrol pumps as they waited for the
flames to catch up.

There is no chronology to
these memories. Each brief snatch of time exists unmoored, its own beginning
and end. I cast myself in the role of disinterested spectator.

I left, in the end, because
the glass in the sliding doors of the convenience store began to smash. It must
have been reinforced somehow against burglaries or other vandalism, but the
frames the thick panes sat in were soft metal and the one thing I do remember
clearly is the way the glass warped and ballooned before it finally
disintegrated. I stood entranced by it. The vinyl decals of the chain’s logo
disfigured and melting like an acid trip in a film.

The sound the glass made as it
smashed was oddly muted, a muffled crunch that nonetheless made me jump in my
adrenalised state. My heart was beating so hard it made me choke. I don’t know
why exactly, but something about the open gasping mouth of the doorway fringed
with jagged teeth of glass disquieted me. The flames were already feeling their
way inside, nosing across the carpet tiles to explore the shelves of
plastic-wrapped convenience food.

*

In the end, the gas station
didn’t change anything fundamental about my life. They don’t bother with CCTV
in places like that. The fire is simply another thing that happened to me, a
story to tell bored girls in restaurants.

The arguing couple beside us
have fallen silent; Mike, the taciturn one, is counting out money from a folded
wedge of bills. His partner is staring furiously at the crumpled napkin on the
table in front of him, muttering under his breath.

“Well, this was really nice,”
Carla says. There is a sincerity in her voice that makes something in my chest
ache briefly. “Shall we get the check?”

“Yes,” I say, and my voice
comes out in a kind of croak.

*

Thoughts of the fire do not
come to me every day. I can go for weeks, months even, without thinking about
it. When I do, the images of the flames are often warped and overlaid with
other memories from that year: the day a large bird flew into the patio window
of my parents’ dining room just before the house was sold, the dusty imprint
its body left and the way my mother’s hands gripped at her throat in shock. The
three moles on Pierre’s back beneath his left shoulder-blade as he stretched,
and how the solid presence of his body formed a halo of the sunlight through
the window of my room. My father clapping me on the back with a hard little
smile and saying best to get all that kind of thing out of your system in
college, son.

After it happened, though, I
began to be plagued by a strange sensation in the pit of my stomach. The
feeling is the same one I had when a rental car I had been driving while on
holiday in Reykjavik some years ago had caught a patch of black ice and drifted
into the path of a concrete barrier.

By steering into the skid and
keeping my feet away from the brake pedal the way I had been taught, I had
managed to escape with no more than a smashed headlamp and cosmetic damage, but
as my car began its slow-motion drift towards the wall I had been utterly
helpless, a passenger with the steering wheel spinning uselessly through my
fingers. What had struck me afterwards was my utter lack of fear. My body had reacted
without my conscious input, operating on some basic, lizard desire for
survival, and yet I watched dispassionately as the barrier approached and my
brain said: oh.

When the car slewed to a stop,
the brakes steaming in the freezing air, I was barely even out of breath, my
heartbeat steady in my chest.

As a child I would be
overwhelmed with the desire to step out into traffic every time I waited to
cross a road. The same urge would hit me on a train platform, or when following
my mother through the glassware aisle of a department store whose shelves were
emblazoned with signs that read FRAGILE PLEASE DO NOT TOUCH PLEASE ASK FOR
ASSISTANCE
. The desire to be a force acting upon the world, to bring about
some kind of change. To leave a trail in my wake.

*

Carla allows me to pay for
both of us. For a moment I consider asking her if she would like to come back
to my flat but the idea of it quickly strikes me as exhausting. She says
nothing as I sign the bill.

“Thank you, that was
delicious,” I say to the maître d′ as I help Carla into her coat. Her perfume
wafts up to me as she flicks her hair out from her collar: something warm and
spicy, lightly toasted. For a moment I am gripped by a desire to hold her
close. It passes as quickly as it had come. Across the street, the windows in
the grey office block glow orange in the light from passing cabs.

“Excuse me?” the maître d′
says. I repeat myself, making an effort to enunciate more clearly, and he
smiles and inclines his head demurely but makes no reply.

I rode the bus past the gutted
remains of the station almost every day for the few months that remained on my
exchange programme. A few weeks after the fire, the workmen arrived to finish
the job I had begun. By the time I left, they were building something new.