Set Fire, by Melissa Darcey
Updated: Jul 22, 2021
It starts with a first kiss kind of flush you see in the movies. A tingling vibration in your fingers and toes. It expands into a warmth that trickles through your veins. Your skin is roast beef—pink and plump and glistening, hot from the oven. You don’t need a thermometer to know your body temperature is rising. 104°. 175°. 380°. 670°. 1090°. 1401°. The flames materialize on your arms, your legs, your back, your chest. For a moment you feel nothing, and then it overcomes you.
The first dozen times it happened, you screamed and cried. You thought you were dying. You learned that tears and screams only made it worse. You know now that cold water is the fastest fix. A hose suffices, a shower works, but a pool is best. You can dive and sink to the bottom for a minute before resurfacing anew.
The other solution is slowing your breath and, as your doctor advised, melting into apathy. But this hasn’t worked. You have yet to master apathy.
“You’re 15. You should be the queen of indifference,” your mother rolled her eyes during your last visit to the hospital. After the twelfth incident, exasperation replaced concern.
“It’s an uncommon side effect of puberty. We’ll monitor it,” the doctor shrugged. A scientist already discovered the disorder three years ago so there is no opportunity for fame or publication in an elite research journal.
This is your twenty-third episode since it began last year. To avoid a trip to the hospital, a home remedy will have to do. You turn on the shower and gasp when the cold water slaps you. The flames dissipate, and your hot, reddened skin returns to its freckled olive complexion.
Eight weeks pass, incident-free. It’s a new record and perfect timing because the school year is over and summer is here. You plan to spend the next two months at the Poway Community Swim Center six short blocks away from your house. You will debut your first bikini—a red one, your mother finally caved—which you will tug at every few minutes, trying to cover up the body you thought you wanted to reveal. Despite your nightly prayers, you are an A-cup—just barely—and your bikini bottom sags on what the boys in your grade call a pancake butt. But you can’t return to a one-piece because you will be labeled a prude. You’d rather be called a slut, which Isabelle was labeled last summer for sunbathing topless.
“But everyone duth it in Thpain,” she choked out through tears, her lisp stronger than ever. But this isn’t Spain, they told her.
Nevertheless, after being crowned a slut she had her first kiss—something you haven't experienced yet. This means you must wear the bikini if you have any chance of David noticing you.
David is the captain of the water polo team and qualified for the Olympics last year, making him the coolest kid at school. Every summer, he works as a lifeguard, but this will be his last before he leaves for college, making it your last chance for a first kiss with the boy of your dreams. You feel warm all over just thinking about it, so you stick your face in the kitchen freezer just to be safe.
It’s nine in the morning, which means the pool will be deserted for at least another two hours. You shimmy out of your pajamas and pull up your bathing suit bottoms, which provide less coverage than your underwear. You struggle to tie the strings on your bikini top, hesitating between too tight and too loose. Too tight and your boobs look even more nonexistent than they are, but too loose and you risk revealing that your breasts are nonexistent.
Three clumsy attempts later and your strings are double knotted and in place. You put on a tank top and shorts to downplay your nakedness. Shoes on, breakfast consumed, sunscreen applied. You speed walk to the Swim Center, but you are not there early enough. A family of five is sprawled across seven lounge chairs closest to the lifeguard tower where David is on duty. You claim a lounge chair at the other end of the pool and drape your towel over the seat. Lying horizontally, you open the magazine you don’t intend on reading and wait for the right moment.
Two hours pass and you haven’t moved. It’s too hot for layers so you strip down to your bikini. The sun hits your stomach and you miss your one-piece. Now you have to spend the afternoon sucking in and holding your breath because you don’t look like the girls in your magazine.
Kids trickle in by the pairs. By noon, every chair is taken and the pool surpasses the thirty-person limit. Your opportunity has passed. After lingering until your skin burns, you resign from your post, peeling yourself off the sweaty chair and walking home. This happens again tomorrow and the next seven weeks after that.
And then, without warning, summer comes to an end. It's the last week before school starts and you still haven't had your first kiss. So, today you swim.
It’s early but the wall thermometer already surpassed the ninety-degree mark. Other than the two senior citizens treading water in the deep end, you and David are alone. You stand up from your seat and suck in your stomach as you walk to the edge of the pool.
You attempt a graceful dive but it all goes wrong. Water shoots up your nose. You open your mouth and the bitter, chlorinated water washes down your throat. You gasp for air, your arms flailing. You are so focused on surviving that you don’t have the energy to feel embarrassed. A hand wraps around your wrist and pulls you before releasing. Then two hands wrap around your waist and lift you up out of the pool and onto the cement.
“Are you okay?”
You open your eyes and see David. You respond with a cough. He pats your back.
“You’re okay, you’re okay,” he reassures you. “You’re not supposed to dive in this shallow of a pool, especially if you don’t know how to dive.”
“Sorry you had to jump in.”
“Don’t worry. I forget how nice the water is when I’m always up there,” he points at his lifeguard tower.
You don’t know what comes over you, but your body takes your brain hostage. You lean and kiss him on the mouth. It is not the first kiss you imagine, but it is still magical, and you feel strange and wonderful and nauseous. Before he can respond, you pull away and hop up from the cement.
You are warming up. Your skin is hot to the touch and will soon match the color of your bikini.
“Wait, where are you going?” David asks as you turn and walk away.
You breathe in, deep and slow, but it doesn’t work.
You won’t make it home, but if you can make it to the bathroom, you can use the water from the sink to cool yourself.
You have no choice.
You jump into the pool and sink to the bottom. You float up to take a breath of air. You hear David call out but you swim back down to the floor. You are weightless, and the water is noiseless.
David jumps in and swims toward you.
Your body is still cooling. You don’t dare surface.
He reaches for you.
You close your eyes and wait.
Melissa Darcey is a writer and high school English teacher in San Diego, California. Her work has appeared in The Florida Review, The Louisville Review, McSweeney's Internet Tendency, The Rumpus, Nat. Brut, Columbia Journal, and elsewhere.
Born in the Adirondack Mountains of New York, Bette Ridgeway’s education preceding her four-decade art career began with graphic design at Russell Sage College in Troy, New York. Professional designer with Reuben H. Donnelley Advertising Corporation was her first position. Next came the School of Interior Design Art and the Art Students League, both in New York City. Studies continued abroad: painting, exhibiting, teaching, immersed in the cultures of Madagascar, Australia and Chile. Returning to the United States, her fine art and professional careers continued. Visual arts specialist for the Maryland National Capital Park & Planning Commission and Executive Director and CEO of Very Special Arts an educational affiliate of The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, were amongst her positions. 1970s- Acclaimed Abstract Expressionist painter Paul Jenkins, saw a light in Ridgeway and closely mentored her over several decades. Forty years hence, her signature technique of “Layering Light” on large-scale, luminous poured canvases and metal sculptures has been perfected. Mid-1990s-current Ridgeway has been creating and residing in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Global exhibitions include 80+ museums, universities and galleries, including: Palais Royale, Paris, Embassy of Madagascar and London Art Biennale. Awards include Top 60 Contemporary Masters, Leonardo DaVinci Prize, Rome and Sandro Botticelli Prize, Museum of Florence, Italy. Mayo Clinic and Federal Reserve Bank are amongst Ridgeway’s many permanent public placements. Numerous books and publications have featured her work, among them: International Contemporary Masters and 100 Famous Contemporary Artists. Ridgeway has also penned several books about art and process.