After it burned down, we sat next to the mailbox, facing the charred skeleton of our house. The sun was rising, the day still tender and new, but the sky was gray with damp smoke rising from the burnt remains of our lives. I turned to look at Gregory. He was nearly unrecognizable, wearing a mask of ash. He was smiling. I wiped away the ash beneath his eyes with my thumbs. He handed me one of the bottles of wine we rescued. I poured a little onto the sidewalk, and then drank much more.

We met accidentally because he sent me a text message in the middle of the night meant for someone else. It said, “Please come and get me.” It just broke my heart to imagine that sad unanswered message so I texted him back, asking where he was. He texted, “Who is this?”

The arson investigator would take weeks to finalize his report. In the end, he would report that as best he could determine, the fire was accidental, an errant flame in the wrong place at the wrong time. No one was to blame. It was a relief. We wouldn’t be able to rebuild without the insurance money. Before the fire, Gregory tried to get me to quit smoking for nearly three years, mostly because he had quit, and the taste of smoke on my breath made him want to swallow me just to get a better taste. After the fire, I never smoked again. When he read the report aloud, as we sat on the balcony of our motel room, in our Salvation Army clothes, there was a tone in his voice. 

Gregory needed someone to come get him because he and his girlfriend at the time had gotten into a huge fight that involved an inappropriate reference to a previous argument, an indiscreet comment about his mother and the asking of a question for which he did not want to hear the answer. The soon-to-be ex-girlfriend kicked him out of the car in the middle of nowhere between Omaha and Lincoln. I was awake and bored and a daydreamer so I threw my hair into a ponytail, applied a fresh coat of lipstick, walked through a mist of perfume, and grabbed my keys. I found Gregory sitting at a picnic table at the 431- mile marker rest area looking like a man who had lost one more in a long line of fights. I studied him for a good long time to make sure he wasn’t a serial killer—I have a sense about these things. Once I was certain that there was a good chance I would make it home alive, I texted him to get in the car.

The day after the fire, after we had gone to the hospital in separate ambulances, after giving our statements to the police and the fire department, after we had showered, trying to get rid of the skin of smoke that wouldn’t go away for nearly a month, after the phone calls to our families and friends explaining that we were homeless, after meeting with the Red Cross and checking into a motel and laughing at the sad little clothes they brought us, we slept as if it was the last thing we would ever do. I woke up only once in eighteen hours, shot right out of bed, shaking, unable to catch my breath until Gregory pressed his warm hand against the small of my back and whispered, lie back down. Everything’s going to be okay.

When Gregory got into my car, I studied him carefully. He had a mess of long black hair, hard blue gray eyes, a nose bent slightly to the right, a weak chin and the fullest lips I had ever seen on a man. He put on his seat belt and said, you’re saving my life. Also, I’m a dentist. He switched the dome light on and peered closely at my face. You have good teeth and nice jaw structure. We married two years later.

There was nothing to salvage from what remained of our home. The first day after the fire we slept. On the second day we walked through the still smoldering detritus of our lives, recognizing charred fragments of books and pictures, a box of condoms, my sneakers, his video games, all of it coalescing into what we would later refer to as The Burnt Past. We went back to our jobs, we played make believe hoping that teaching literature and cleaning teeth would balance the new tenor of our lives.

What we managed to save during the fire: the clothes on our backs, such as they were, our laptops, my charger, our cell phones, four bottles of wine we got from a trip to wine country we took the second summer after we started dating, my box set of The Gilmore Girls, a Playstation controller, a copy of The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, three pairs of his boxers, my briefcase, my favorite tube of lipstick, a picture from his brother’s wedding, Gregory’s yarmulke from his Bar Mitzvah, a pair of stilettos, and my father’s atlas, leather bound, stained, well worn. We made little altars on the small table in our hotel room, carefully arranging and rearranging what was left of our lives. For years to come, we would regard these items with a certain reverence. Gregory would say, I am of the chosen people and these are our chosen things.  Then we bowed our heads.

We met with the insurance representative and spent several long hours inventorying the things we had accumulated into neat little columns, cataloging what we had and what we lost even though there were many things for which we could find no column. The adjuster was a solemn man who gave us stern looks and reminded us to continue paying our mortgage even though there was no nothing on our property but The Burnt Past. He gave us an advance against our eventual claim and Gregory and I high-fived each other for finally learning to pay our bills on time. 

We were having a grand party on the night of the fire celebrating our fifth anniversary—my friends and his friends and lots of booze and dancing in the back yard beneath paper lanterns and Christmas lights. We stood in the middle of our patio, and Gregory had his arms around me and we were swaying slowly while everyone around us jumped up and down, dancing and talking and laughing loudly. We kissed and Gregory tasted like grilled meat and vodka and fruit. He kissed me so hard I could feel it bruise my bones and I moaned into his mouth and left my voice there. Gregory bent me away from him and the world turned upside down, my hair dragging against the ground and when he pulled me back up, I was lightheaded and perfect. He buried his head against my sweaty shoulder, and licked my collarbone. He said, may we always be this perfect. He slid one hand beneath my dress, between my thighs. My body throbbed so sharply, I wanted to hold my hands open and watch the moment fold into them.

We don’t know the specifics of how the fire started. We never will. There were only a few friends lingering in furtive spaces in the farther recesses of the yard doing the kinds of things that flourish in muted light. Gregory and I were still on the patio dancing to a silent song and suddenly there was smoke billowing around frame of the back door. Someone yelled Fire. At first we heard nothing. I felt my husband’s arms wrapped around me, holding me in the most perfect place, listening to him hum and tell me breathtaking secrets. It wasn’t until our eyes started watering that we looked up and at our house, burning down. We didn’t think. We ran into the house. We heard the fire engines wailing toward us. We held each other’s hands as we stumbled, coughing, through our home grasping for our chosen things.  And then we were on the sidewalk holding onto each other so tightly that our knuckles were gray, watching the firemen try and fail to control the flames. We nodded as our friends patted us on the shoulder murmuring their condolences. We nodded as the firefighters repacked their equipment. We stood there and I replayed the best parts of the evening over and over until I didn’t mind that our home was becoming The Burnt Past. We held vigil. We watched. We waited. And then we were alone.

Years later, in telling new friends the story of that night, Gregory would say that he didn’t mind the fire because it was the night we truly got married. We’d show them our collection of chosen things. People would ask us how we got through it, how we started over and I would tell them I don’t know but it helped that we watched it all burn. 

Our parents came to visit and help us hire contractors and make sure we were some version of alive.  Our mothers fretted over us and disinfected the motel room with Clorox. Our fathers surveyed The Burnt Past, offering their theories of what went wrong and what should happen next. It wasn’t until they left that I cried for the first time, sitting next to our little altars with a huge binder filled with estimates and invoices, wearing someone else’s clothes and someone else’s shoes that didn’t quite fit. 

Gregory stood behind me rubbing my shoulders. He made promises he couldn’t keep. I told him to leave me alone. All I could hear was the steady bass of an incredible headache. He slammed his fist against the table, spilling the little altars everywhere, said he would love to leave me alone if he actually had somewhere to go other than our tiny fucking hotel room—the room we were slowly filling with some of what we lost. I said, have the tiny fucking hotel room to yourself. My cheeks burned and I couldn’t catch my breath. I grabbed my purse and walked out. I didn’t go very far. I was never good at running away. I rented a room a few doors down. I filled the ice bucket and ran to the liquor store for a bottle of expensive vodka. I poured myself glass after glass while I made a new little altar with the contents of my purse. My world, I thought, is a set of nesting dolls, getting smaller and smaller. I started crying again my chest growing tighter and tighter like my body was going to fold in on itself. I looked up at my new little altar—a pen with the cap chewed through, a sheaf of Red Cross brochures, a package of Kleenex, two batteries, a book of matches. I swept everything but the matches into the metal trashcan in the bathroom. I set it out on the balcony. I lit the matches one by one and let them fall onto the sacrificial offerings. Then I sent Gregory a text message. I said, Please come and get me.

Roxane Gay's work appears or is forthcoming in DIAGRAM, elimae, Storyglossia, mud luscious, Word Riot, decomP, The Northville Review, Necessary Fiction and many others. She is the associate editor of PANK.


Copyright 2009