You Always Reminded Me of Fire
Miracle once had hair like fire, bright red and sticking up in all directions. I feared her back in elementary school when she was the playground menace, pushing and shoving her way through kids like me. I mostly stayed away from her, but every once in a while her eyes would find me. Those were scary days; it felt like trying to keep moving and stand still at the same time.
Miracle moved at the end of sixth grade to the other side of town, so it wasn’t until my senior year that I ran into her again when we worked side by side at Fred’s Diner, one of the older establishments in our old town. I was almost eighteen, on my way to Boston University in the fall, a future so open it felt like taking a deep breath. I had my own group of honor-student friends, and we barely noticed mean girls like Miracle at our own school, as busy as we were with our tests and extra-curricular activities and community service projects. But as soon as Miracle was handed her uniform, I got that old feeling like I needed to run yet freeze; dance across a minefield yet build a bunker.
Physically, Miracle had changed. Her natural red hair had been toned down with a bottle of peroxide, teased into an entity of its own with a can of Aqua Net; her breasts swelled against the buttons on the green polyester uniform, and she wore heavy makeup. But inside, she was the same. She’d stomp around behind the counter and into the kitchen, barking at me to get out of her way and at the KP guy for not busing quickly enough. She smiled brightly at the customers, but as soon as she turned away from them, her face would close into the narrowed eyes and scowl I remembered so well.
Even skinny Stan, our sad excuse for a manager, and Rodney, the burly cook who’d done two tours in Vietnam, stayed out of Miracle’s way when she went fuming through the back door, yelling about her eggs for table four. The story was that she was dating the owner, Fred junior’s twenty-five year old great-grandson, Keith. I didn’t believe Fred was an actual person till Stan told me he’d called from Florida because Keith’s girl needed a job. Keith was one of those guys who wore sweatpants and a tight t-shirt, like he was always coming from the gym, but he wasn’t sweaty. His hair was curly and unmanageable and his face was always red, like the anger inside him was seeping out through his skin. He was the kind of person whose future was so obvious it was hard to look at him without holding your breath.
Sometimes, when Miracle would storm past me, Stan would give me a weak smile, like he was saying, thanks for not quitting, Anna.
My father would be apoplectic if I quit, and it was pointless to find another job this late in the school year.
At home my mother asked me why I was so on edge.
“Are you worried about going away to school?” she asked.
I shook my head. “You could always live at home—”
An exasperated sigh escaped me, but I clamped my lips together and tried to hold it in.
Our eyes met for a second before she looked down at the eggs she’d just cracked into a bowl of ground beef and breadcrumbs.
“I shouldn’t have said that,” she said, her voice small.
My father came in then and barked at her to hurry up with dinner, and she worked her hands over the contents of the bowl, squeezing and crushing the eggs into the mixture with so much force her breaths were ragged, like when we ran laps in gym class. I escaped to my room. I tried to write a paper on Grendel for English, but all I could think of was Miracle. The sound of plates clattering and muffled outbursts downstairs in the kitchen became the sounds of Miracle raging through the diner.
Instead of writing the paper that was due the next day, I turned to a blank page in my notebook and started listing everything I remembered about Miracle. Every infraction dating back to first grade: A pencil in the back of my neck, a shove that sent me into a crowd of older boys at the roller skating rink, the day she stood next to my table in the lunchroom, accusing me of thinking I was better than her; her friends cracking up while I cried and said No Miracle, No. How could I ever think I was better than you?
I had over thirty items on my list when my father pounded a hard surface somewhere in the house, snapping me out of my thoughts. My mother’s voice was like a ghost in reply, barely audible.
“I shouldn’t have said that,” she said.
“That’s not the point,” he said, the ‘t’ at the end of that sentence like a lock clicking into place. My father’s work boots stomped out of earshot and my parents’ voices disappeared. I turned off the lights and tried to sleep, but Miracle wove in between tables and behind counters in my mind, knocking everyone out of her way, plates of pie and cups of coffee lining her forearms.
At school, it only took a few days before my friends told me to quit it.
“Stop talking about her,” Rachel, who’d also feared Miracle in elementary school, said. “She’s nobody. What does it matter?”
“She’s not nobody to me,” I said. I could never show Rachel the list I’d written.
“Find another job,” she said.
“My father will have a coronary,” I said. “He’s already pissed that I’m going to B.U. He reminds me everyday that he’s not ‘made of money.’”
She eyed me with pity. Nobody knew the other stuff, how he was always calling me ‘uppity’ and how once when he was drunk he told me that I should just get married because that’s where I was heading anyway, because I was just like my mother.
“He thinks I can get just as good of an education in state.”
“That’s not the point,” Rachel said.
“I’m going to Boston, aren’t I?” I said. “I leave in August.” The words came out louder than I’d wanted. The hallway was full of kids, and a few of them turned to look at me for a second.
“Ok,” Rachel touched my arm. I think she understood I wasn’t yelling at her. “Stop worrying about stupid Miracle, or you’ll fail out of senior year.”
“I just feel so trapped,” I said. “At the diner.”
“It’s only a few more months.”
Just then two boys started punching each other down the hallway and we were swept up in a vacuum of students and teachers. By the time we got to the scene, one boy’s face was bloody. The other looked down at his hands, knuckles smeared with blood, like he wasn’t sure how it got there. Two teachers jumped into the crowd and pulled them in opposite directions, leaving a trail of red drops in their wake.
That Friday night, Miracle was exceptionally explosive, nearly knocking me down when she came around the corner behind the counter to scoop a bowl of chocolate ice cream for a little girl at table two. I jumped out of her way.
“Jesus!” she said. “Move!”
“She’s something else,” Rodney said when I reached up to pin my order to the carousel. “Something else indeed.” He leaned his head back and laughed so hard I could see all of his fillings.
I started to hate myself. I could feel it; I was morphing back into the me I was in elementary school, the one who begged forgiveness for things I didn’t do or thought if I just moved more quickly or stayed still and silent, I’d get through the day. It was a rapid fading away; soon I’d be transparent. I had to do something.
That night, when Miracle was in the back room changing, I knocked and she swung open the door, her uniform half-open so I could see her cleavage and her lacy pink bra.
“What?” She stared at me. I stood there like an idiot, my mouth open. I’d had a whole speech planned for her, what I would say about elementary school and the past couple of weeks, listing her infractions – I had over fifty things written down – and declaring that I wasn’t invisible, how I was important now. But she stood there, disinterested, impatient. Finally she just lifted the uniform over her head and continued changing with the door open like I wasn’t even there.
“You pushed me tonight,” was all I said.
“You were in the way,” she said, her head inside a bright purple sweater. She stooped to pick up her uniform from the floor. I noticed a small bruise on her cheek behind her makeup when she dipped into the light. “I’m in a hurry,” she said, and she shoved her clothes and sneakers into a bag and started pulling on a pair of jeans.
“If you don’t stop going on about Miracle,” Rachel said the next day at school, “I’m going to bring you to the guidance counselor.”
But I was beyond guidance. Miracle had become a nemesis; one that I was determined to beat.
A few nights later, after closing, I stopped her again. She had elbowed me out of the way three times, splashed hot coffee on my hand once and nearly cut my finger when she’d sliced up a lemon too close to where I was switching out one of the fountain syrup dispensers.
“You haven’t changed since elementary school,” I said, as she was heading into the changing room. “But I have.” As soon as I said the words I felt stupid, small.
“I’m in a hurry,” she said.
But I stood in her way, so she couldn’t get into the room to change.
“Are you going to push me now?” I asked. I was trembling. I was still nine years old.
She looked at me, and for a second I thought maybe she would. I’d never wanted anything or feared anything so much.
“God,” she said. “I’ve really got to go.” She tried to dodge around me and into the changing room, but I stood my ground.
My upper body surged forward like it belonged to someone else. I shoved her. She backed up. Her mouth opened like she was about to say something. I shoved her again. In the seconds it took me to pull back my arms and shove her a third time, I understood. I knew what it was inside every person that made it feel good to put their hands on another person and make them hurt. It was like a kind of freedom. Miracle didn’t push back. I thought: I can shove her. I can hit her. Punch her in the face, slap her so hard she will cry. I can do this for every item on my list. I raised my hand and made a fist.
We both jumped at the blaring of a car horn. The sound stretched out, like when someone cuts you off in traffic, like you’re trying to physically hurt them, and the longer you can keep the piercing wail going, the more pain they will feel. Then the horn became a succession of angry beeps like exclamation points on a page.
“Fuck,” she said. She picked up the shopping bag filled with her street clothes and moved around me and ran out of the restaurant.
I followed her. Keith was standing outside his car, his hand pressing on the horn. She was pulling her green uniform over her head and running toward him at the same time; for a moment she moved across the parking lot in her underwear. He pulled the shopping bag out of her hand and dumped her street clothes all over the concrete.
She stooped to pick them up. “I’m sorry,” she said. “Sorry.”
“Who were you in there talking to?”
“Just some girl,” she said. Her voice came out in a trembling murmur. The air was chilly and her skin was immediately covered in goose bumps. She pulled a sweatshirt from the pile of clothes on the ground and pulled it over her head. She picked up a pair of jeans and held them in front of her.
“Just some girl.” He said the words three times. His voice got louder each time he said it, and with each pass of the words he stuck his finger into the side of her face where her dimples would be if she’d been smiling. She flinched and backed away from him.
“Sorry,” she said again, her eyes on the ground.
“I’ll fucking leave you here next time.”
“What the fuck are you looking at?” he said to me.
I was frozen in place just outside the front door of the diner. The light from the sign illuminated the small parking lot. My heart pounded. I had the sudden sensation that I wanted to run back inside the restaurant, lock the door behind me, then run to the kitchen, then out back to the changing room, going deeper inside the building until I ran out of doors to close behind me.
He turned back to her and screamed something else in her face, something about her being a whore and accusing of her of sleeping with Rodney or Stan or both of them.
“Did you fuck the old guy or the black dude?”
“They’re both old,” Miracle said.
Keith got into his car and pulled away before Miracle had completely gotten into the passenger seat, she was pulling on the door, trying not to fall out as he gunned it out of the parking lot, loud music blaring.
The next morning I watched Miracle move from customer to customer. She didn’t seem embarrassed about any of it. When I thought about pushing her, my face reddened. I stood behind the grill watching Rodney flip pancakes and make four omelets while he kept his eye on the waffle maker behind him, his large POW MIA tattoo undulating with his triceps muscle. He smiled at me.
“What’s got you down, kid?” he asked.
“How many months till you take that one-way ride to the big city?”
“Don’t forget about us.”
I wouldn’t forget about any of this. I liked working at the diner. I liked the ebb and flow of the daily rushes and slow periods. I liked how some customers had sat in the same seat for years and I knew what they wanted before they even sat down. I knew which ones were ornery, and I could be proactive about their needs, quell the angry outburst with a well-timed cup of coffee and a tuna melt. I liked the predictability of it, the same way I liked the predictability of school. You show up, work, leave. Miracle had ruined all of that.
I didn’t see Miracle until the following weekend. The night was the typical rush of families followed by teenagers out on dates after a movie. Miracle moved around in her usual way. As I was leaving for the night, I saw Keith and Miracle standing by his car. I caught the end of their argument, then his fist cocked back and he hit her across the face. She didn’t say anything; she just backed away while he got into the car and peeled out of the parking lot.
She stood there looking around as if she half-expected him to come back for her, then she bent down and picked up her bags from the ground.
“Can you give me a ride home?” she asked, her back toward me.
I stared at her. I wanted to say no, but when she turned around to face me I saw the same look of extinguished possibilities I’d watched cross my mother’s face for seventeen years.
I pointed at my car. She got inside and locked her door, pulled her seatbelt across her body.
On the drive home, she didn’t say much, she just looked out the window and gave me directions to her house. I could see the spot where Keith’s fist had connected with her cheekbone becoming inflamed and spreading into her seldom-seen dimple. I couldn’t wait for the ride to end so I could stop watching the redness travel down the side of her face, turning her into a victim. If I’d walked out five minutes earlier, I’d be driving alone, never knowing what had happened. And the next day at work, I could just pretend, like I’d done before, that the bruise wasn’t there. But she was in my car; breathing and looking out the window at the dark streets and the rows of houses as she mumbled the lefts and rights I needed to take to get her safely home.
“Do you think you could give me a ride somewhere on Tuesday morning?”
I glanced at her; we passed under a street light and her face looked grotesque, swollen.
She waited for me to answer. When I didn’t, she said, “It would be a few hours,” She pressed her cheek. “I think. Just a few hours.”
I was about to tell her that I had school, but I stopped myself. I agreed.
I left for school at the usual time on Tuesday, but Miracle didn’t need me to pick her up till nine, so I took my car and drove around town. I went past the elementary school and watched the grounds go from empty to populated in twenty minutes. It seemed like such a long time ago, my mother dropping me off and rushing home to do something for my father; me rushing into the building, trying to get inside and be still and invisible in my desk chair. Miracle walked in the same way she walked around at the diner, like she owned the place. Her thick flaming hair, bobbing around, orbiting her head, her hands in fists.
“You can never tell anyone,” Miracle said, as she got into my car that morning. “I mean it.”
I nodded. She’d covered her bruise with too much makeup so her face looked unnaturally tan.
She was quiet for a while; she looked out the window of my car as we rounded the bend toward what used to be called the Jewelry District of the city, where the factories once were, where the Planned Parenthood was. My father often complained about how his first job in high school was working at one of the jewelry factories, how he had to take care of his siblings while his own father was out drinking somewhere. My mother got pregnant in high school, so he kept working at the factory, linking chains together into necklaces for rich people till the factory closed when the jobs went overseas.
Miracle sighed. “If he finds out I was pregnant,” she said. Her voice shook. “He’ll—“
“How come your name is Miracle,” I asked. “I always wanted to know.”
She laughed. I caught a flash of the dimple. “Is that what you always wanted to know?”
“Somebody must have thought you were something to give you that name.”
She shrugged. “My parents.”
I thought about all the items on my list. I laughed and shook my head.
“My parents thought they couldn’t have kids. They were wrong,” she said.
I cleared my throat. “That night that I pushed you—“ She held up her hand as if to stop me from what I was about to say. Her hand shook.
We were silent for a while.
“I heard that cook, Rodney, say you’re moving to Boston?”
“For college,” I said. “Next year.”
She nodded in approval.
“Where are you going next year?” I asked.
She looked at me for a long time before she answered. “Not everyone’s going somewhere.”
We’d crossed into the city. One side of the street was lined with vacant factory buildings and tenements, some boarded up, some with bars on the windows. On the other side, the Port of Providence, a large gravel lot housing a giant pile of scrap metal, the sun dancing on the water, a mammoth barge moving slowly in the distance.
“Are you going to break up with Keith, after this?”
She rolled down the window and breathed in the air. It was a warm day for March. She pointed to the stop sign up ahead and directed me to turn right.
“You should break up with him,” I said. “Then you could do whatever you want.”
She blew air out of her mouth the way my mother did when she’d taken a drag from her cigarette and the room would slowly fill with smoke.
“That’s not the point,” she said. She looked out the window.
“I shouldn’t have said that,” I said. “It’s none of my business.”
“Did you ever notice everywhere looks the same?” Miracle said.
We were passing by storefronts and gas stations and salons; some of the names on the signs were in Spanish instead of English, but otherwise they looked like the ones in our town. Miracle directed me to turn left and more crumbling factory buildings loomed on either side of us for a few blocks.
She ran her fingers through her hair and tapped her feet on the floor of the car and took another deep breath.
“I mean,” she said. “There’s got to be somewhere out there that looks different than here. Maybe like, I don’t know, Paris?”
“Probably,” I said.
“Or Venice, you know with the canals?”
“Boston doesn’t look too different than this,” she said. “But you—“
“Me? Me, what?”
She stared at her hands, inspecting each nail and pushing the cuticles back with her thumbnail. She looked back at me.
“You’ll be different,” she said. “Being there will make you different.” Her eyes locked on the Planned Parenthood building ahead of us on the right.
Suddenly I wanted to save her. I wanted to go back and save my mother. I wanted to go back even further and save my dad.
I wanted to save me.
I had to save me.
I hit the gas so hard I almost passed the building. The Planned Parenthood was in an old factory; it had bars on the window. I expected to see protestors outside, like on the six o’clock news, but the street was quiet except for one solitary bum leaning against the building across the street. “Hey girlies,” he called to us as we got out of the car, then his voice trailed off like he was too exhausted to finish what he wanted to say.
There were two young men sitting in the waiting room. They both looked at us nervously then returned their gaze to the TV in the corner. The Today Show was on. They were interviewing the family of one of the astronauts who’d been killed in the space shuttle explosion a few months back. Our teachers at school had brought TVs into our classes that day, so we watched the explosion at least six times, once for every class. The explosion was jolting, but I kept thinking that the real tragedy was that they never even made it out of the Earth’s atmosphere. All that work and planning and they never even got to see anything beautiful.
Miracle sat next to me, picking at the skin around her nails. She kept crossing and uncrossing her legs, shaking one foot or the other up and down. She was scared.
But when her name was called, she stood and followed a woman in scrubs holding a clipboard. She was gone an hour and a half. I watched as two women returned to the waiting room and walked out, held tightly by the men who’d brought them in. Others came in and followed the woman with the clipboard while I watched TV talk shows and flipped through old magazines and stared at the speckled off-white walls. I tried to read the faces of those who waited to go in, those who waited for them and those who came out. When Miracle came out she was groggy. She pointed to me when the woman in scrubs asked if she had a ride.
“Are you ok?” I asked her. “Does it hurt?”
She walked out of the building and got into the back seat of my car and lay down, balling up my Boston University sweatshirt for a pillow. She didn’t notice the pile of schoolbooks and notebooks underneath it, the one with the list I’d made – over one hundred items the last time I’d added to it – somewhere in the pile. She squeezed her eyes shut and fell asleep immediately.
“You should really break up with Keith,” I said.
She made a small moan in her sleep.
I drove us back the way we came, through the factories and city streets, by the blue water of the Providence River till we crossed back into our town.
“Your hair used to be so red,” I said to her, even though I knew she was sleeping. “When we were children. You always reminded me of fire.”
At a stop sign, I turned and looked at her. She was curled in a fetal position. When I got to her house I called out to her three times, but she was still sound asleep. I pulled out of her driveway and drove us away. I passed the old elementary school, the grounds a flurry of children at recess. I drove us through the nearby neighborhoods, past my house and past Rachel’s house and the house where Miracle used to live when we were kids. I drove past my high school, the student parking lot silent but for a few kids cutting class, then I drove us past Miracle’s high school, our town rival. Finally, I drove slowly through the parking lot at the diner. Miracle kept sleeping. She didn’t change positions or open her eyes. She didn’t sit up suddenly confused, asking where she was. She made no sound except the steady breathing in and out. I continued to drive us around till the late afternoon sun started to sink. I listened to Miracle breathe and watched the strip malls and drug stores and gas stations go by.
Kristen Falso-Capaldi is a writer, visual artist and filmmaker. Her writing has appeared in Good Housekeeping, Volume 1 Brooklyn, Joyland and on The Other Stories podcast. She lives in Rhode Island with her husband and two cats.