Read (You) Set Me on Fire Online

Authors: Mariko Tamaki

Tags: #Fiction, #General

(You) Set Me on Fire (2 page)

BOOK: (You) Set Me on Fire

I was listening to “Forever Young” on my iPod and watching the sparks from my small collection of notes/letters, cradled in the arms of some old stuffed animals, climb into the night sky. Just as I started lip-synching the chorus I noticed a pool of
toxic chemicals, presumably the melting remains of formerly happy plastic-animal faces, sliding off the rock platform and into my mother’s bed of perennials. As I turned to kick dirt onto the sludge, my cape caughem;}
.textstyletoDot fire.

I should add here that this was a magic cape my mom made me years ago for a school play, and that I was wearing it because it just happened to be packed up with the stuffed animals. It’s not like I’m the sort of person who wears a cape on any regular basis.

So once again it was all stop, drop, and roll.

And this time it was my neighbours, who’d been watching my antics while they sat and drank their nightly sherry, who called 911.

After I’d managed to set myself on fire for a second time, I think my parents were sincerely considering locking me up in some sort of cage instead of sending me off to college. I’m sure they were a bit torn because, on the one hand, I had clearly become the world’s most troublesome daughter and they were kind of happy about the idea of getting rid of me and having the place to themselves. On the other hand, their precarious love for me made them worried, I think, that if they left me to my own devices I would blow myself up.

It was about this time, I’m sure, that they started seriously regretting their bright idea to fast-track me
into high school by skipping grade eight, a decision they’d made on the basis of a single (but apparently important) aptitude test I don’t even remember taking. One test score earned at the age of eleven and I spent my early teen years being that little bit less mature than the people around me. Hard to say if that really matters. Aren’t all teenagers immature?

My dad said he wanted to think on it before he’d agree to sign the parental-consent section of my St. Joseph’s residence acceptance form. He thought about it for three days. I don’t know what made up his mind, but on the day he told me he would sign the form, my dad gave me a big lecture about “decision-making” and me and what I’d been doing with my young life.

At the time, my skin was still sore to the touch. The blisters from my first burn had healed only to be eclipsed by a new rash of crispy soreness. The area around my shoulder and neck was a patchwork quilt of hard bits and baby skin. Parts of my body looked like something you’d find spinning behind the counter at a gyro restaurant.

“I just want you to think, Allison,” he said, “about what it means that this has happened to you twice. Just think about it, okay?”


“I know you’ve had—” My father struggled at the
best of times with emotional topics. The only way he could talk to me about any of this stuff was to be doing some sort of physical labour in the process. For example:


Fixing the Toilet


Mowing the Lawn

(And you know, for that last one I could barely hear him, so for the longest time I thought I’d be going on some sort of “bill.”)

He was washing the dishes when he approached the subject of me and my recent series of misfortunes. “I know you’ve had some trouble. I know there was that girl.”



“No, but. It doesn’t matter.”

“I know she was important,” I said">OH to you. And I’m sorry. I’m sorry you’ve had kind of a … a tough break with that.”


It’s painful to see the effects of your messed-up-ness reflected in the eyes of the people you care about.

“You’re a smart girl.”


“Maybe you could be a little bit … smarter.”


I remember looking at the sun hitting my dad’s hands as he scratched little bits of food that looked like my scabs off a dinner plate.

“Get me that form for your residence and a pen.”

And with that, I was officially off to St. Joseph’s.

I know some people funnel a lot of their hopes and dreams into their college choice. I did too, but not in that cheesy, fairy tale, “I wanna go to Harvard so I can become president” way you see in movies. I picked St. Joseph’s because, of the seven schools I applied to, it was as far away from my high school as I could manage on my (parents’) budget. (I’d also applied, on a whim, to go to this school in France and one in Russia but I didn’t get in, probably because I had such crappy marks in French and Russian.) Based on an informal poll, I’d calculated that it was also the only college no other people from my graduating class would be attending. No less than five states and two bodies of water separated it from most of the people I knew.

Driving to St. Joseph’s, I took a closer look at my final acceptance papers and noticed that the college
mascot, which I’d originally thought was an eagle (like every other college mascot), was a phoenix.

I’ve never actually read the myth of the phoenix. This may seem surprising, or maybe it’s not, because no one reads anything anymore. I wouldn’t even know where to start looking for it. I’m sure it isn’t just in some book written by some guy. It’s probably in a collection. To find that collection I’d probably have to know what KIND of myth it is. And I don’t.

What I do know, I know from Harry Potter and Wikipedia. I know that the phoenix—I think it’s a he—willingly enters the flames as a kind of ugly, weak, crispy old bird, and (maybe an hour) later, emerges from those flames vibrant and heroic, like something you’d expect to see in a commercial for something awesome.

I know that the phoenix is no masochist, no accident-prone bird, although possibly the other birds would argue otherwise. I don’t picture the phoenix as being very social, more like the mad genius no one wants to eat lunch with. A non-social drinker.

A possible drug abuser.

I’m well acquainted with the perils of drugs because before we left, my dad got his sister, who’s a nurse, to put together a bunch of pamphlets about drug abuse and alcohol poisoning. I was supposed to
be reading these pamphlets on the trip (with the possibility of a pop quiz during the last twenty-mile leg)—a trip my mother declined to join because long roads (and my dad’s driving habits on long roads) make her queasy. Hilariously, for some reason, the jog across the country reminded my dad of all his fun-filled college days. So for most of the ride I ended up listening to stories things I needed to be doingye c about what my dad’s frat brothers got up to when he was at Michigan State U.

I’ll spare you the details. Suffice to say, the majority of it was weird
American Pie
–type stuff that no daughter needs to hear about.

Wrapping up a story involving a sheep, a bicycle pump, and several buckets of Jell-O, my dad chuckled, “Do what I say not what I do, of course. Don’t tell your mother I told you that story.”

“I won’t.”

“I mean, you know, your dad was a crazy guy. And you, ah, need to be, you know. Just be careful out there. You got … you got … uh.”

“I know, Dad.”

The phoenix can dip into fire to transform himself whenever the moment strikes him, but humans, I knew, having been warned by several doctors, can only get rid of so many layers of skin.


Attention Dylan Hall Residents!!!!

Please Note: There are
flammable objects allowed in the dorm. These objects would include: incense, candles, scented candles, cigarettes, fireworks, and any other incendiary devices.


Dis orientation

(is a huge waste of time)

The funny thing about going to college is that it’s not some place you just GO. It’s automatically a new start, which somehow automatically requires a massive group orientation—i.e.: freshman year and freshman orientation.

A couple words about orientation week: it sounds very serious and important, like something you cannot miss. Like, if you don’t go, you won’t be oriented. Like, this is where they give you your special college campus decoder iPhone app, compass, and “You Are Here” map.

The truth is, there’s nothing less important in this world than orientation week. First of all, everything you need to know about any college is on its website. Orientation is just a bunch of get-to-know-you games
and commercially sponsored events. Which, to ME, means you should be able to opt out. Like, no thanks, I’m good.



I was caught in its clutches the second my dad released me from a mammoth goodbye hug on the curb outside Dylan Hall, St. Joseph’s only all-girls residence—a massive red-brick, silo-shaped column of a building just off the main road and two minutes from the main campus gates.

“Sure you don’t want me to walk you in? Get you settled?” My dadI also didn’t knowy%;margin-left: 0em; smiled what seemed to be a bit of a nervous smile.

“No. I just. It’s cool. It’s a long drive back and … Anyway. Thanks.”

Still imprinted with the smell of my dad’s aftershave, I stepped through Dylan’s thick wooden front doors and into the white-on-white main hall of my new residence only to be confronted by a very tall woman with an intimidating southern belle– sized cloud of blond hair and a red and white U REP shirt.

“Hey!” she squealed, one arm up in a big wave, like I was someone she was meeting for coffee who was
five minutes late. “Hey! I’m Joy! Welcome to Dylan Hall! How are you!?”

“Hey,” I echoed back with significantly less enthusiasm. “Uh, this is my residence. I mean, uh, good, I think. I have my letter in my bag if …”

“Well let’s just get you your room number then,” Joy trilled as she pulled out a red clipboard of residents and room numbers, flipped through a few pages, and bobbed her head from side to side a bit before giggling. “OH my goodness! I need your name first. HELLO, JOY! You are?”

“Uh. Allison. With two l’s and an i. Lee, two e’s.”

“Yup, yup, yup, no, yup. Oh, HERE you are!” Joy looked up from her list to give me another smile, which shattered when her eyes hit the sore spots that ran from the hairline on the left side of my face down to and under the edge of my shirt. “Oh my goodness, AH-llison, what happened to your skin? Are you okay?”

“OH!” I sputtered, “Oh yeah. Um. Yeah. It’s an old injury. Just. You know. Heh heh. He-healing.” I was suddenly sweating like a can of soda on a sunny day. “You, uh, have a room number for me?” I inquired somewhat weakly. “Or, um …”

“Oh right. Yeah.” Reaching behind her, Joy grabbed a blue plastic bracelet, not unlike the ones they give
you in the hospital, and quickly, with single-handed efficiency, clipped it around my wrist. “You’re floor eleven, room seven. Right, that’s YOU. A guy came yesterday and delivered some boxes to your room so you should be all set up.”

“My dad owns a trucking business,” I blurted. “But he has a small car. And with the burns. It was just cheaper than. Anyway.” I don’t know why I felt the sudden need to explain why I wasn’t lugging my stuff around like everyone else. The idea of having something delivered to me suddenly made me feel like a snob. Or an invalid. An invalid snob.

An invalid snob with a neck full of disgusting scabs. A person worthy of continued, possibly never-ending, mockery and isolation.

You get the idea.

Loading a stack of pamphlets, glossy pieces of photocopied neon paper, and a bright pink Dylan Hall PRIDE shirt onto my one free arm, Joy did her best not to make eye contact with my scabs as she breezed through the rest of her spiel. I did my best to keep my body angled so that she couldn’t glance up and stare at my neck.

, this wristband gets you into all the frosh events, including the concert and the first-year BBQ PIT, so don’t take it off. This week is REZSTOCK so
there’s tons of stuff to do. Tomorrow there’s a Dylan Hall Bagel Breakfast?” I asked, c and a run up Mount Joseph at seven a.m. sharp. Then there’s a Hall Meeting at noon and a campus tour and scavenger hunt at eleven a.m. SHARP. Then there’s the campus concert at eight. Are you a big hip-hop fan?”


“Okay great, Allison!” Joy beamed, already grabbing another bracelet for the next victim. “WELCOME TO DYLAN!”

“Right. Bye.”

As the line behind me pushed forward, I swivelled and attempted to plunge my way through the crowd, which seemed to have expanded into every available corner of the building like a squealing ocean wave of Dylan Hall residents. After weeks of being bandaged, disinfected on a regular basis, and relatively isolated, I’d completely forgotten how to walk in a crowd and finally resorted to frantically boxing my way forward. By the time I got into the cramped elevator and up to the eleventh floor, I was humming from the overload of physical contact. Racing my way around the U-shaped maze, I found room seven, pushed open the door, and flung myself inside.

Ah the joys of the average dorm room’s functional yet in no way comforting decor.

No matter what popular movies about college life would have you believe, especially movies about college cheerleaders, the dorm room is basically a small, cheap-looking hotel room with no bedding or TV. Smelling faintly of strawberry air freshener. Space-wise, there’s just enough room for the averagesized student to walk four steps from the door to the window, turn, and walk back four paces along the same line. My room contained a small cot with a canvas-covered mattress, an orange chair, and a desk-slash-shelving-slash-closet unit. I had one huge, single-pane window, facing south, and, for some weird reason, a grand total of four mirrors: one by the bed, one over the desk, and two on the closet doors. Funhouses don’t have this many mirrors. Standing alone in my room, I was surrounded by me. Stacked up on the far wall were several boxes of my stuff. If I wasn’t clear whether I was in the right place, there was my name written multiple times in my mother’s sharply angled font.




Wow. Looks like ALLISON LEE IS HERE.

Staring at this tower of mom-handled stuff, I had

a sudden urge to hug my possessions. I was acting
on this urge, my face pressed against a strip of tape, when there was a knock on the door.

“Hello?” I called, not really wanting to do much more than that.

“Uh. Hi!”

There was a long pause. “Um. Okay. Are you going to open the door?”

Outside my room a small tribe of fellow eleventh-floor residents stood behind a tiny doll-like girl with pink and blond hair in what appeared to be a matching pink and yellow athletic top and skirt. Grinning from ear to ear, she stuck out her tiny hand, revealing a foamy pink bangle and pink nails. She looked like someone auditioning for the role of a cheerleader on a family sitcom.

“Hi! I’m Carly.”

“Allison.” I took her little hand and shook it. Carly’s handshake pulsed with the energy level of someone who you would imagine drank a lot of caffeine. my lower lip.

Spreading her other arm out, Carly pointed to the crew behind her. “This is Mary and Karen and … June.” Mary, Karen, and June, in jeans and T-shirts, looked like a drab denim backdrop behind Carly. “We’re, um, rooms two, three, four, and eight? Everyone’s going downstairs for pizza in the
common. You want to come get to know your fellow floormates?” Mary, Karen, and June waved.

There is no such noun. Floormates. Fake noun.

“Yah-no,” I chuckled, leaning into the door frame and dropping Carly’s hand, trying to sound and appear uninterested but not necessarily rude. “Actually. I was just unpacking.” Unpacking, feeling weird and out of place, same thing.

“Oh! Um, right,” Carly chirped. “You just got here, huh? Okay well, you should come down and join us when you’re done!”

I could feel the edge of Karen’s gaze scanning, accessing, settling like a mosquito on my neck.

Shifting my left side out of view, I tried not to scowl (while no doubt scowling away). “Sure,” I said. Affirmative and yet noncommittal. The best word ever.

Carly did a little jump backward into the hall, like someone preparing to do a cartwheel. “Coolio. We’ll see you in a bit!”

I threw out fast handshakes to Mary, Karen, and June and then (quickly) closed the door.

A little over an hour of being a girl with my own place and already I had an assortment of nosy neighbours.

Another hour later, as I was curled up on the bed reading, another knock came.

There was Carly, alone, standing with her hand on her hip.

“So, um. Okay. Not to be rude. But. Is it because of your burns,” she asked, “that you’re not coming downstairs? Are you, like, nervous or something? About people being uncomfortable. Or something?”

“Oh! No.” God, I thought, just go away. “I just, you know, I was just kind of sitting in my room. Just unpacking. Like I said.” I could feel my high-schoolhostile nerves pricking up and waving in the non-existent breeze.

Carly took a small step into my room and looked around with an air of practical optimism I would eventually come to admire.

“Okay,” she said finally, and then, carefully choosing and spacing out her words, “I guess I just figured I’d come up and see if maybe I could hook you into coming down. I mean, you know, it’s orientation week.” The sparsely decorated surfaces of my room slid past her gaze: my bare-looking bed with its oatmeal-coloured sheets, my computer with its fuzzy-TV screensaver, my stack of black journals piled up on the desk.

Not your typical teen dream mansion.

“Maybe I’m … maybe I’m just not much of an orientation-week person,” I shrugged, stating the obvious.

Taking a step backward, Carly tilted her head and looked sad and suddenly still.

“Oh um, right. I guess, you know, I thought maybe I’d just come up and see. I mean, maybe you could just come down for one slice?”

Clearly, this monster called orientation was a stickier beast tha things I needed to be doing-10n the phenoms of high school: physical education class, overnight camp spirit week, Halloween—all things I’d managed to detour in past years through a complex system of avoidance and denial.

I think the problem with orientation week, narrowing it down, is that even if it is a fake holiday, a college creation, people believe it’s real. It’s like Santa Claus: everyone knows he’s not an actual ambassador of Christmas, and yet we all get a thrill out of pretending we don’t. The people who make the biggest show of believing are the people with the most spirit. People who refuse to hang stockings by the chimney, on the other hand, are really sad or assholes.

My refusal to take part in frosh was obviously making Carly … sad?

Why it didn’t make her think I was just an asshole is anyone’s guess. I suppose that after several years of having people read my silence as some sign of asshole-ness, I was kind of touched by that.

“You know what,” I said, after what must have been a long silence, “I’m done. Putting things away I mean.”

“Seriously? Yay!” Carly chirped. “There’s pizza and if you hurry you can get a slice in before we go up to Alpha Delta Phi. There’s a concert thing too but a bunch of us are going to skip out and go to Alpha.”

I half expected Carly to reach for my hand like some sort of camp counsellor, but instead she did a jumpturn and walked out the door to the elevator.

As we waited for it I casually leaned on the fire extinguisher case, pretending not to be reading the instructions, while Carly whistled the opening lines to what sounded like an old game-show theme song.

“What’s Alpha?” I finally asked.

“The fraternity?” Carly hopped through the rickety elevator doors (which had evidently been painted and then scratched up on a yearly basis). “For the party?”

Clearly, I was about to fail my very first college cool test.

“Is it like an all-ages thing? Or. Just. Because I don’t have, uh, ID. I mean, I HAVE ID but I don’t have …”

“Fake ID.”


“What do you use to go to bars at home?”


“Um, I don’t really. I’m.”

Well, let’s see. You don’t need fake ID to go to the movies so … it’s never really been a problem.

Finally I stuttered, “I skipped a year in junior high … so. I’m even … younger. Just, uh.”

I watched as the gears in Carly’s brain clicked forward. “Right. You know what? Don’t worry about it. I got this.”

On the main floor, the quivering mass of women I’d pushed through earlier had concentrated into a solid block of the newly arrived. As I walked through the corridor lined with framed pictures of Dylan Hall in earlier (black and white) days of tennis and posh picnics (apparently), the hum of their voices was not unlike a hive of angry bees—except there was laughing. So a hive of laughing bees, if that’s possible.

a book in the library.?0
In the main common area, outfitted with a fancy flatscreen TV and functional oak and green-upholstered furniture, girls of all shapes and sizes in various positions between standing and sitting chatted and reached across each other for pizza.

Stepping over a pizza box and a cluster of floormates, Carly headed toward the centre of the room, and I followed.

In case you’re wondering, a room of giggling freshman-year dorm residents is not unlike any other room of giggling girls. It is not, in and of itself, a scary or intimidating thing, unless, of course, you know a little something about the individual particles of the girls who make up these masses.

My parents sent me to my first all-girls’ school in grade six after a boy in grade seven attacked a girl in my class behind the music portable. With a clarinet. She was fine, eventually, but it totally shook up my parents (who spent years checking to see if residual memories of the horrific incident had stuck in my brain). After that, I suppose, it just seemed to be a good idea to continue the trend, and so my parents sent me to an all-girls’ overnight camp and, later, a horseback riding camp that allowed boys, although few came. As a result, my young memories of teenage boys are fleeting and grainy, focused on cousins and the tall but sickly boy who lived across the street from me until his parents moved to
Hong Kong. When I think of boys, I think of either birthdays or Halloween; boys were a holiday thing for me, is essentially what I’m saying.

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