The Color of Fire

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BY J.R. GEROW

Immediately after the pipeline was set to detonate, they raced back to June’s car and made love. It was heady, it was ecstatic and terrifying, it felt like they were losing control of everything – themselves, their futures, their essential sense of citizenship to a place, or a people – but the world as reference point was insane itself so who the fuck cared, even if they never got the car out of the woods, even if the police were faster than they plotted them for, there was something poetic about the idea of them stumbling on the vehicle, seeing their shaved heads and grease painted muscles through the window, their shameless coiled bodies braced against the leather seat, eating each other out.

When they got back to the hotel, they shredded the IDs they had stayed under and filled a duffel bag with everything from the minibar. They drove fifty miles out of their way South so they wouldn’t be travelling on the expected roads. They made it to the airport with three hours to spare and when they got through security without anything amiss, holding rigidly impassive expressions and carefully following every instruction before it was even given, when it became clear that nothing had traced back to their names yet, they walked down the long concourse of the terminal and June squeezed Cody’s hand so tightly with relief that she could feel the blood cool in her fingertips.

That was to be their last day in America.

*

Go back. They met at a funeral in Crookston, Minnesota, in February. Standing at the edge of Red Lake River, where the reservoir met its run. It was a college friend of theirs, more of a friend-of-a-better-friend, roughly, dangling at the edge of the social milieu. A boy who’d driven his car into an embankment at ninety miles an hour, furiously high. A serious shock, especially to those who thought they knew him, as June had imagined that she did. Everyone was searching themselves for points of unique connection. For June, it was only a few pipes, an appreciation of Dizzy Gillespie, fuzzy late night conversations after the party was over. Waking up in the same destroyed living rooms with the same people. Everyone thought they should have known something.

They lit Roman candles off the shore of the frozen reservoir at a box filled with gasoline, fireworks, and the deceased’s personal effects – something like a Viking funeral for a frozen, landlocked country. They all felt perilously special standing there together, sharing a secret. The police hadn’t actually written up as suicide, out of respect. Catholic family, obviously. When the box lit up, it was stunning.

Cody stood next to June on the shore and lit her candle when the light came around, and as a dozen flames flew out into the darkness, and after a while one or two hit, the lake was gorgeous with the reflection of fire, with colors shining off of the ice that didn’t seem to belong in fire, from sparking electronics and burning plastics curling up at the edges. And when the fireworks started going off and flying in every direction like a hail of furious angels, screaming past their heads, they took cover behind a stand of trees, laughing and panting and confirming the absurdity of it all. Children marveling at their own closeness to death. Cody watched June’s face lit by the midnight flicker, patches of green and yellow enunciating across her high cheekbones, her gasping, parted lips.

And when they walked back to their cars, Cody offered June a ride back to the dorms, because it was on her way to the punk house where she was crashing, and it was too cold to walk it anyways. And June accepted, though they never arrived there.

There are more romantic ways to meet, obviously. It was Denny’s at three in the morning, pancakes and coffee, just them and the wait-staff. Unloading or discovering for the first time a body of feelings they hadn’t known they were carrying until it became imperative to name them to each other. It was June’s first death. And she tries to articulate how death compacts everything left wanting in life down to a sum, codified, finalized. And Cody counters that yet it unspoils all the deceased’s potential, freezes him in time while there’s so much he could still be. There are these kinds of conversations in the waning night, the shamelessness of children trying to become themselves, feeling at each other in full view of the morning truckers and sleepless retirees, pulled in for coffee, or the cops still radioing back from the counter about the fireworks incident the night before. Sunrises that come well before you were expecting them to. There are people who should have taken you home and never do.

*

“Ten years from now, we’ll just be the first.”

“Yes, I know.”

“What the fuck else are we planning to do with our lives? What do you believe in, what actual thing that you can do is as important in view of history as this?”

June didn’t have an answer. She felt vaguely anxious, manipulated by the question. They were sitting in the bus depot outside Williston, North Dakota, watching the crews of oil men shuffle on board with nothing but their duffels. They were disappointed, having acquired no good footage. Sleep-deprived. Itinerant as yet, twenty-three years old, over-educated, lacking purpose. It had been June’s idea to come, actually, but only because it had seemed like something Cody would propose.

They had set out on documenting the ends of the oil towns that sprung up overnight a decade or so back and now were running out of resource, thinking there would be a story here, a lot of people reflecting on the impermanence of an industry, a whole way of life. But it hadn’t been like that – the decline of these places had been sharp and painful and no one was feeling particularly contemplative about it. It wasn’t impossible to see a kind of pale reflection of themselves in the young men they came to document. Unhinged and hurt, their age or even less. The bitterness had been there before they arrived with their cameras, there’d just never been the right someone to direct it at.

“What else do you believe like this, this much,” Cody said again. She was a gas-lit cocktail in a purple phial, shimmering, a runaway conviction that June admired and was afraid of, both at once.

And June loved Cody, and so the things that she believed were harder to isolate. They scattered like the shreds of a map blown by an immense self-assurance. They’d talked about the idea for a long time, but it had never been something she allowed herself to take seriously. All she wanted, at this particular moment, was to go home, to lock herself in a quiet room with the video, run through three weeks of footage looking for the minute narrative reluctantly snared somewhere, the sliver of story in all the disappointment of the trip, to salvage her pride.

It’s harder to love vain people. To want from them the same love that they give themselves.

“It’s not like, do you believe in violence, because disbelieving in violence is as useless as disbelieving in science. It’s coming. It’s coming. It’s starting up. It’s like, can we use this violence better, can we leverage this violence earlier. Can we do it ten years ahead of time, and make something change for the better.”

*

Here’s the inflection point: If the plane lands in Quito, that’s the start of the journey they imagined for themselves. And if it doesn’t, then it’s the start of the journey that they’ll have to take anyways. They are not in control of their own lives, never were. Whether they cross international airspace and fill out the little customs cards giddily and land in a beautiful capitol high in the mountains, where the clouds nestle down almost over the radio towers on cool days, and young nuns still play fútbol with schoolchildren in the shadow of El Panecillo, the enormous Madonna crushing the snake beneath her foot on the Southern foothills leading back up into the Pinchinchas, and they sleep for a year in a room without fully insulated walls, on the top floor where the gap between stucco and tin roof blows through a fine mist – on days when the patter of rain on sheet metal is so pretty it’s almost erotic – and work their broken Spanish up to fluency, and love each other to contentment, international criminals of conscience, hiding in Latin America, waiting for the rest of the world to catch up.

Or they don’t – and halfway over the Texas panhandle the plane is given the call to land, and the Air Martial stands up in his seat and walks quietly to their row, asks for their identification in a low voice, so as not to draw attention. And of course they give it to him, calmly, obedient, unable to process any different response. Their whole lives as they’ve imagined them ending at this moment, unstoppably, although of course they must go on as something else.

In that other version, they will learn the patience to let other people mete out their lives to them. Split up for more than a decade, while they become strangers to themselves. They are swallowed into startling pools of disenfranchised women who shock them, realizing they are more desperate and justified than they ever were.

They will watch the psychic ownership of their act slip away, as it is appropriated to enforce any and every narrative in mass media, which they will be asked to confirm or deny in their rare, stubborn communications with the outside world, until they’re beaten down by how insistently it is twisted, how impossible to sort back out into the narrative that made sense to them, and it is no longer theirs, and they no longer care to answer for it.

They will speak, years later, only reluctantly to each other, after repeated prodding from a family member or child. Unable to sleep the night before the call, both of them. Then holding the receivers back from their faces like they might burn against it, fearing the voice on the other end of the line. Saying their hellos unaffectedly. Reciting essential histories like they’re sitting before the parole board again – dates in and out of particular facilities, sequences of legal motions, times their names may have popped up in the news, you know, if you were listening for it, and of course she always was. And if they don’t hang up too soon, if they hold out long enough, waiting for the other out of polite uncertainty, growing uneasier by the second until the unconsidered word slips through unconsciously – sometimes I hated you there, and then a deep breath – or, you’d have been wading through pussy to your eyeballs in Sandstone. And then a conditioned laugh, the pet name on the tip of her tongue – a twenty-two year old heart leapt unexpectedly into a throat, that makes her both gladder and sorrier that she agreed to take the call, no matter how long it has been irrelevant what she feels, or what can be done for it now, and it becomes clear how across multiple time zones, State lines, jurisdictional boundaries, how their lives have declined in aching parallel.

*

The first time they had sex, it was in a Minnesota cornfield. Early March, the ground just coming to a thaw. They went through most of a box of wine hiking the trails of the reserve starting in the morning, 10 AM – surprisingly early, for not-a-school-day. June had packed sandwiches and a picnic tarp. Cody packed alcohol and fire starter. They got lost around three and couldn’t find cell coverage to reorient. June had wanted to retrace their steps back and Cody wanted to go straight South until they came to a road, and so they walked for a couple more hours downhill through mud up to their ankles and bramble before Cody conceded hers arguably the second-best idea.

There was no farmhouse visible from the edge of the field where they finally emerged. Just a distant string of telephone wires that suggested a road somewhere beyond the curve of the trees. Before them, the dead stalks laid flat in rugged sheets, the frost just starting to surrender them to spring decay. June was sweating in the cold from the long way down the last incline, and so she spread the tarp flat in the gathering dusk at the edge of the field, and laid down to drink some of the chill away.

The place seems magical in retrospect. Because they had nowhere else to be, at the time – the dorms were closed up for break and Cody’s house recently raided and unwelcome to half its actual inhabitants. They had separate plans to crash with some loosely acquainted biology students that neither was particularly eager to follow through on. So they lingered a little longer in the receptive emptiness, the sun’s attenuated light evident only indirectly, appreciating something in it that they won’t be able to later in life, when they are better established, when they always have a place to go. They assign romantic weight to its dullness, to its barren freedom from proprietary oversight, because that’s exactly why it waits for them, just when it’s most needed.

The wine goes faster, their talk pattering down into softer voices and nearer shivering. There is a knowing apprehension in each of them. When June sees the first stars come out, she realizes it’s going to happen.

She hasn’t done this with anyone in two years. There’s some history there that Cody has sensed long since, probably the reason it’s taken so many months to begin with. So it’s with a hyper-conscious concession, each touch, allowing her to shift her weight against June’s body, guide her hands to her hips, receive her mouth apprehensively. For June, it’s like losing an enormous weight and taking on a different one, but a desired weight this time, one wholly different in origin and quality.

She doesn’t want to get this emotional.

Cody lifts June’s shirt and they wrap each other under the crinkling tarp, the high rustling over their breath throughout, through their wordless touches, their mouths hovering and closing on each other nervously. They shiver into each other’s bodies, their nipples hard from cold, their hands flush with warmth, they keep their shoes on and feel the scrape of lace hooks up exposed calves as legs vise around hips, they feel the absurd fortune of flesh over flesh, all of it incredible, all of it too much, barely enough, they have more than they knew they could want for, and need every inch.

And then when they finish, Cody quilts together all their coats and clothing and backpacks into a makeshift cocoon and they lay, cheeks pressed, staring up into the now impenetrable night, the clouds swarming overhead broodingly, the world a different quality of place than it has ever been until now. The old sounds of crickets, night vermin, breeze over shifting twigs all meaning something else, something new. Cody stares into the bare embossment of tree-shadow against the sky, and picking up a strain of their conversation earlier – a thing that she almost said at the time but couldn’t, not until they’d removed some essential sense of etiquette between them, and laid like this, closer, naked, given – she says “I don’t want to be around, when we actually ruin things. I don’t want to be responsible for the world by then.”

And June’s heart sinks and grows larger. She gives this idea the long quiet it seems to deserve. She thinks that she understands that she is receiving the most spiritual regret that Cody knows how to articulate. That their people will snuff out something essential in the biosphere before they even know that they’ve done it, and that she will be standing by, a petty chain of causation away. She laces her fingers between Cody’s ribs under the left breast, feeling the hum of blood and internal tremble at a consolidated frequency, imagines a baby bird chittering in the cage of her chest. She’ll want to return to this moment in the years to come – often, remember how it felt to hold her there, on this rare occasion when Cody felt vulnerable to her, exposed, frightened of her inevitable future, wanting someone else’s possession.

*

In one version of events, they are heartbroken. The weight of the marriage is too much to bear. “We will set each other on fire and dance bravely in the mutual glow,” they said in their vows, eight years ago now, but there is a loneliness to this kind of fire. It consumes and occupies every part of the host. It cannot touch anything else.

It was pretty naïve at the time, June thinks to herself, measuring out the critical dosage of painkillers as she lies in a hotel in Corrientes, waiting for Cody to come back with the groceries, staring out the window at the cacophony of birds native to this country. They are, without question, the most beautiful birds she has ever seen, here in Argentina. They are of varied and radiant plumages she’d only ever seen on television – raspberry and indigo and pineapple yellow and greens from the darkest moss to electric aurora, crying for sex in every meter and octave, making ecstatic celebrations of their Maker, all the florid prose of genetic material that must be saved in the world, but she doesn’t want any of them.

They are too bright to watch.

She is thirty-seven years old. She does not have a child. What she wants is just a frosted window pane and one winter sparrow. She wants the stillness of a snow-covered Wisconsin wheat field. She wants days that begin to darken at three in the afternoon, in a muted corner of the world, a smaller planet.

She doesn’t take the pills, nor does she put them back in the bottle. She leaves the pile out on the nightstand and simply lays in the bed, staring into the blank television, waiting to be spoken for. When Cody comes home, there is therefore screaming, and then there is quiet.

This is how Cody stays up all night in the chair by the window.

She does not bother to pick the groceries back up off the floor, where they fell at the moment she walked in and saw the poison laid out like a promise beside her wife. Watching June sleep or at least lie still, playing back a decade, playing back the fight, which was not really like a fight, but just her raging impotence projected against June’s impassive, sympathetic smile, blank as the bedsheets, nearly as easy to fold, yes, I do, and no, I can’t, creased chin into breastbone and arms over the empty stomach, shuttering the eyes and put away for safekeeping. She hears in replay: all the you’d rather take yourself out than be responsible, you fucking coward – and the you’re trying to kill me instead, isn’t that the real motive here – all landing without effect, without even rippling the surface, and by morning she accepts what is coming.

At 10 AM, June goes out for coffee and does not come back. She overpays the driver for a ride in the back of a pickup across provinces, a day’s journey, like they used to do before they had income again. Back to the pampas of Córdoba, the soy fields barren this time of year, the soil dry and drying more each season.

There is a farmer that she slept with there last winter, named Bautista, an older man with a calming aura, respectful, a simple rhythm to his conversation, acquired from life in the fields. They’d been together while Cody was away, tracking forest loss at the edge of expanding cattle farms to the North, feeding her obsession. How lonely, she’d thought, and unlikely to socialize with anyone from the town who knew her wife, which was vital. He was gimpy in one leg but remarkably strong in his upper body to compensate. He was acceptable. He didn’t know everything about her and didn’t impose to ask. He wanted children someday soon before his leg gave out altogether, before he couldn’t carry them to church. He had asked her to stay with him, at the time.

She rode into Córdoba with no sense of place anymore but the next spot her foot fell. She had long ago decided that if she was ever tempted to kill herself she would first try to erase everything. Forget who she had been and rely on the body to persist on her behalf. Bleach her life white again and proceed from birth.

*

Without June, the bomb would never have been built. It was Cody’s brainchild, of course, Cody’s manic drive that developed the target, the timing, the instrument, the escape plan, the route from Ecuador and through South America while the news of their notoriety spread and they waited for the copycats, and the counterstrikes, for the civil discord that could only resolve in favor of sanity, for the parties and later the governments that would regard them not as criminals, but as godmothers of a resistance. Cody who saw their whole lives spread out in front of them twenty years in advance, who always thought twenty years in advance while something was burning in the next room.

But it was June who ran the chemistry. June who educated herself on Youtube and Wikipedia and six PETN-related US patents for assurance. Arranged for five different component chemicals to be sent to different addresses and painstakingly conducted the mixtures in ice baths in the basement of their apartment, praying that the temperature wouldn’t bobble even momentarily over the destabilizing threshold and blow her brains across the ceiling. It was June who did all of the thankless practicalities, who booked the tickets to and from against her wages at Sears Photo and learned how to manipulate the VIN number on a vehicle, who mapped the route to the airport along back roads and set Cody’s fever dream choreographies to legible notation, and in that sense it was June, really, who realized Cody herself, as a woman. Who made her into what she’d always wanted to be.

It was the Spring after another round of failed COP talks. A year since Alaskan fires swept through Western Canada and launched a thousand sponsored papers reinvestigating permafrost methane release rates.  Three weeks since the collapse of krill hatch and phytoplankton drew calls out of Nature and Science about the extinction of whales, generally. India’s government issuing reports about the North running out of fresh water within a decade and East Africa growing habitually borderless in the shifting power vacuums following agricultural collapse.

It felt like it had been this way since before they were born. It felt like they’d been waiting all their lives for the starting gun. It was time to believe in something. It was time to craft a statement of citizenship to a country that hadn’t been found yet. It felt like time, if there was ever going to be a time, to match the existential spectre with a commensurate fury, a yawp of righteous indignation, a fist sweeping all the dithering chess pieces to the floor.

Because Cody believed this, and June believed in Cody, it was possible to see purpose in the weeks spent compiling milligram after milligram of stabilized PETN, tinkering together the timer, the detonator, calculating the mass needed to blow through a 36-inch pipeline, of booking the first hostels under fake names trailing down the coast, doctoring identifications and arranging money wired into new accounts accessible at each juncture. Playing chemistry at risk of life, limb, respiratory system, imprisonment. It was possible to believe in this violence as a new kind of birth, and feel the shockwave piercing the sleeping world was an extension of their love.

 

*

“I want children.”

“No, you don’t,” Cody said.

In Siberia, the taiga was on fire. The Bangladeshi diaspora were changing their names to avoid identification abroad. Insurance had effectively priced taxable commerce out of Miami.

“They won’t know any different than how things are.”

“That’s objectively cruel.”

June was quiet. The price of eggs had gone through the roof, but that just meant they ate more legumes. Scarcity had increased the sense of celebration, and celebration was maybe worth more than surfeit had ever been. She wanted to wring all the love out of the time she had. She wanted something to adore. Past thirty-five, your risk of Down’s, of miscarriage, of ectopic pregnancy grows every year.

“But what if we’re wrong.”

“You’re being maudlin.”

June felt like she was fighting her own body with an outdated version of her mind. She clenched her fists under the table and wished what she were saying rang truer.

“What if everything turns out fine?”

*

 The brush cut their legs to pieces, sprinting through forest, bleeding, when the sound of the blast set their already racing hearts to hummingbird speed, swinging open the doors and almost collapsing into the car, switching on the ignition instantly and then just staring, panting, unable to put together the next necessary thought, June’s mind unable to access her body, where to put her feet on the pedals, which way to turn the wheel.

It was as the reality of what they had done was still sinking in – just starting to bloom into that awful recognition that you have no more choices now, the black milk that diffuses over your entire field of vision, that you have foreclosed the last way out of wherever it is you’re going, and there is nothing more terrifying to an American than the knowledge that she has no more choices – that Cody pivoted out of the passenger side and straddled June assertively in the driver’s seat. She grabbed a fistful of hair and pulled her head back. And then her teeth were on June’s neck before she could even say no.

There was no denial to give. They made love and June’s hands passed along Cody’s back tentatively, like water over glass, like she had gone blind as was trying gently to feel her way towards air. There was nothing she could take away from Cody Jane Holloman anymore. When two people have thrown their lives away so fully together, they can only say yes to each other.

*

The long walk up the farmhouse was idyllic. Grain fields rust colored in the dying sun, yielding to dusty green along the path. The path lined with saplings, trees just young enough that Cody could tell they were planted sometime after June came. They were devastating. Trees which June had planted with her own hands in this place, Cody imagined, one after the next, digging down until the soil would support roots, and the roots spread out for her, deepening her oath to this place. Embracing the longed-for domesticity of it, knowing that it would be many years before they bore fruit. The chimes on the porch rang with a consonance that was familiar to someone, but not her. And when she came within sight of Bautista in the door, his off-kilter stance relieving the skinny leg, leaned against the doorframe, nodding to her amicably, she was utterly gutted, navel to trachea, like a fish split and spilt out unworthily all across their pretty fucking lawn.

She didn’t take it the first time he offered her coffee, but she almost demanded it before June arrived home – just to have something to hold in her hands, just to have the little spoon to stir in the sugar and watch it dissolve while her wife came in the door, and said hello, to take her eyes someplace, anyplace else but the woman carrying the basket of produce, wearing someone else’s clothes. Who belonged in none of them, who belonged naked curled against her body sleeping through the late mornings with hair tousled and tickling against her mouth every time she exhaled. The boy ran in ahead of her and almost jumped at Cody with curiosity, saying nothing with his eyes wide and lips parted, both hands folded nervously under his chin. Cody was shocked at how little he looked like June. She had expected him to be theirs, she realized suddenly. She had expected him to look like the child they should have had.

Dinner was plantain fried and corn soup. Cody was grateful for another thing to hold and surrender her gaze to. Bautista knew who she was, or he could figure it out. The two of them, June and her new husband, alternately held the boy’s hands to steady his grip on the spoon and lead it to his mouth. He was motor impaired in a manner for which there was no diagnosis here.

“Don’t look so surprised,” she’d said to June, sitting there at the breakfast table, the moment she came in the door.

June’s face had fallen. “More surprised it took you so long.”

That night they lit a fire in the pit behind the house, and Cody stared into it seeing only one color. The man and the boy were never far off, the whole evening. There was not space to say I love you. There wasn’t even room to feel it, really, to hear the words beating in her chest and question if they were still true. She was not welcome in this house to feel those sorts of things. She was an invader here.

June didn’t offer her a drink because she knew it would send Cody off. They talked about farm yields, the heat of the season. They talked about life in Corrientes, what their mutual friends were doing now. They talked about forest loss, Cody’s journeys, where it was accelerating, who was responsible. Good, said Bautista, if it means more cropland. The price of food cannot last this high.

And because when he spoke, she knew that he spoke for June, because she knew that her wife now enabled someone else to be, Cody stared into the flat orange glow and discreetly brushed aside something like a tear, unacceptable to her.

Someone gathers up the dishes and limps them back into the kitchen. Someone carries a child to bed. Someone dampens the embers with an unshy stream of piss and they blink on and off peacefully in the collapsing ash. Someone lies about having a place to stay that night. Someone else knows she is doing it.

Tomorrow, she is going to depart in a plane, for the first time in sixteen years. She has to. She has no choice but to break. There is no end to righteous living, she says to herself. She is not weak because she has nothing. She has lived a life fully to her principles.

*

They pulled the car into the airport, the sense of walking into the monster’s jaw. The final shift into park, the involuntary mental background still scrambling, searching for any other viable plan, any other option unforeclosed to them. They gathered their luggage out of the trunk, walked the long rows of empty cars up to the sliding glass doors, welcoming them indifferently. Printed their boarding passes from the kiosk. They stood outside the line to security and double-checked the video, one last time, set to automatically send to a dozen different press agencies in forty-eight hours. Logged out and closed the window, knowing they would never log into these accounts again.

The man who scanned their bodies for contraband, the administrative agent of the State who reduced them to a 3-D X-ray image, one and then the next, standing behind the yellow line and then beckoning them into the booth, into the whirling mechanical arms that capture them in surface aspect only. Who saw the outline of all their intimate places, the dimensions of skin they showed only each other, and took a moment to stare diligently, gave the appropriate measure of attention his job required. He saw nothing. He could not detect the rabid pounding of their hearts, the moral consequence they carried, the many futures pivoting in the air at that moment, that they might or might not be allowed together. He could not see the most obvious, important condition of the two young women processed through his line in the late afternoon of his weekend shift. He had every opportunity.

How lonely on this planet. They walk down the long terminal, between kiosk shopping and wafts of circulated perfume, CNN or Fox on every screen, commerce humming to itself contentedly. They walk in silence, disembodied announcements fading in and out around them past every gate, eyes straight ahead. Hearts at the edge of an atmosphere, somewhere, speeding across like satellites, nineteen thousand miles per hour and unsure of reentry. Something like trust in each other, some future already chosen. Hands squeezed so tight that blood cools in the fingertips and they cannot sense the borders of flesh.


J.R. Gerow has been featured in the literary journals Adelaide, Convergence, and Mobius. He can be found at JRGerow.com. He lives in the Bronx.

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