Excerpt from How to Set Yourself on Fire
Thirty-something Sheila and twelve-year-old Torrey, who has just lost her mother, make their first tenuous connection through a shared secret.
What would I say about my mom to a daughter who has just lost her mother? I think about when she sat with me on the stairs after my dad left the first time, temporarily, and she must’ve been so sad but she didn’t take care of her own sadness, she took care of mine, but I hated what had happened so much that I couldn’t separate it from her. I couldn’t stop blaming her. She made me a warm drink, honey and lemon in hot water, comfort food, and nothing tasted the same. What did blame and hurt taste like?
Or the time he left for good, that morning, she came to my Confirmation and smiled, dressed in linen, transparent red plastic-framed sunglasses in the church courtyard, greeting the other mothers, greeting the bishop, her arm around me. I was annoyed by how proud she acted, how fake it seemed. The next day I was angry that she hadn’t told me about my father. Even then I think I knew I’d have instead been angry at her for ruining my Confirmation day. Under the silent gaze of Torrey, of a girl already proving herself to be smart and kind and weird, I couldn’t come up with a single memory that showed my mother as batshit crazy. The only things I could come up with showed that it was all my fault.
“Did Vinnie tell you that my grandma recently died?”
“No,” Torrey says. “I’m sorry.”
“It’s okay, you don’t have to be sorry,” I say. “It’s just important if you want to know more about my mom.”
“Sheila, I don’t know if I want to know more about your mom,” Torrey says. She has a bit of dread in her voice.
“It’s not that bad. Don’t worry. It’s mostly just a story about my grandmother. Right before she died, like hours before, she told me she wanted to give me something, this ancient shoebox. But she said it could wait until the next day.”
“And then she died.”
“So, did you get the shoebox?”
“Well,” I say. “I had to sneak in and steal it from my mom’s house.”
“That’s terrible! You’re dysfunctional.”
“I know. But in the box were hundreds of letters. Letters from a man who wasn’t her husband. Letters of increasing intimacy.”
“I know. I’m glad you see it that way, too. My mother, apparently, doesn’t.”
“How’s that?” she asks.
“She seemed really stressed to have lost track of the box,” I say, and I sit up straight and shift the chair a bit so I’m facing her. The plastic legs scrape against the concrete and I worry for a split second that I look too intense. I try to apply some nonchalance to my face. “I think she’s paranoid people might find out. She wasn’t gonna tell me what was in the box, or who the letters were from.”
“Well, I guess that makes sense,” Torrey says.
“Anyway, I had to lie to her.”
“I bet you’re really good at telling really good lies,” Torrey says. She still has that childlike ability to say something incredibly innocent and offensive. It’s hard to be angry when it’s so true.
“Yeah, well, I have my talents.”
“What did you tell her?” she asks.
“I told her I found it, but that I put it in the coffin and it got buried with Grandma. But it’s really still in my house.”
“Oh, shit,” she says. “You still have the letters.”
I feel a fire inside, a spark. I’m almost certain this is a terrible idea.
“Wanna read them?”