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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.