This is before the bed at my new apartment feels especially wide and I wake up crying over things I barely remember; before the two years during which every night I hear the tell-tale groaning of a broken stairway as it is about to collapse under the weight of ashes and a leaping fire in the second after I fall asleep; this is before I have to start going to therapy in order to keep from crying every time I pass the cafe where you used to buy me peppermint lattes, before I begin reminding myself that it is my fault, my words that manifested into fire and brimstone and inferno and consumed everything I had once loved. This is before they show me your body, or what’s left of it, before they tell me that you were trapped under a fallen beam, your spine melting into the burgundy corduroy of our sofa cushions as your eyelashes turned into dust. This is before I wait on the sidewalk, cold despite the heat of the flames that still roar above my head, waiting, waiting for you to appear, for your head to pop out from the doorway; this is before the moment that I realize that you weren’t going to, before the moment I knew that you couldn’t. This is before the roof collapses and buries you under it, before that first fire and before the final one; this is before I stumble down a rickety flight of steps as soon as the alarm sounds, at the first sign of smoke, before too many first-hand experiences acclimate me to the dangers of heat.
This is before I make you sleep on the couch, before I shut the door of our bedroom without even giving you a blanket. This is before the argument that even led to that fire in the first place. This is before I get sick of the way you laugh, before you burn the edges of the painting my mom had given me for my twenty-sixth birthday and I scream at you for doing it. This is before the coiled heat of irritability begins lacing itself every weekday night, before we lose our ability to have conversations without our words melting into the barrel of a gun primed to explode.
This is before you lose your job and we downsize to a shitty apartment two hours away from the house you used to say we would raise our kids in. This is before our two year anniversary, during which you light the entire cake on fire courtesy of cooking oil, because you “thought it was undercooked.” This is before you get diagnosed as a clinical pyromaniac and before I have to go through every room of our house, flipping over sofa cushions in case lighters are hiding underneath. This is before I realize that you have a problem falling in love with things that hurt you, and judging from how long I’ve stayed, so do I. This is before I wake up to find the quilt smoking around me, to your thumb flicking a lighter as your fingers hover gently over flame. This is before we move in together, and my father tells me that you will never make me happy because you have never known stability and I tell him to fuck off. This is before I have to take over making dinner because all too often what you make is burnt black, because you forget to turn off the stove while you’re busy staring at the flames. This is before I ask you why you smoke so much, and you tell me that it’s because you crave warmth.
This is before all of that. It is summer, and the groves of orange trees that we always drove by whenever we went on road trips are laden with ripe fruit. The air is filled with citrus and lies thickly and still and syrupy over the two of us. The sun is always golden and red and dying; the sky is always flame-pink; every oxygen atom in the space around us is perfectly seared salmon. You have yet to break your leg at the construction site where you work, and on Sunday afternoons, you still flip over the chain-link fence, filling your pockets with mandarins and handing them off to the kids that live on our street. On Wednesday afternoons, we go driving in your old Toyota, windows down, heat warnings and fire danger signs wavering in strips of silver, summer mirages slipping over the horizon and through our fingertips as you rewind the CD in the stereo. We are comfortable still, the two of us, caught in the divot between the awkwardness of learning to love and the exhaustion of forgetting how to. I lean in for a kiss, and when our lips touch, your skin is so hot it feels like fire. I think, to myself, that I would give anything, anything to stay in this moment. You are lovely, next to me. Your smile is incandescent.