Girl on Fire

A boyfriend's brain injury tests a relationship's future...and its past

WHEN I FINALLY GET HOME from the hospital at 2 AM, I change my clothes, touch matches to candle wicks, and crawl into bed. My boyfriend’s dog, Tashi, snarls, farts, digs in the sheets, gnaws on the comforter. She won’t settle unless I’m touching her, so I bury my fingers into the loose skin and short fur of her neck. Eventually, she begins to snore while I stay awake, watching the tea candles burn slow and steady on the nightstand; just last night, Quinn and I talked in bed together by their light. I stare at the candles until, one by one, they run out of wax, extinguishing as if the flames were being swallowed, and I’m left in a dark room creaking open with the sounds of daybreak. Somewhere around 6 AM, I get dressed, make coffee, put Tashi in her kennel, and go back to the hospital. 

FIRE IS MORE COMPLICATED than fuel consumption, more nuanced than hunger and heat. Fire gulps oxygen and sheds light and, in a chain reaction, converts whatever’s burning to something else: straw to ash, wood to charcoal, paper to dust. When something burns, it changes shape, color, weight, and density, and this forced change is fire’s true legacy. The shift can be as fast as a brush fire sweeping over a grassy plain, slow as a log embered in a campfire, but ultimately, burning irrevocably turns an object into something other than what it was.

The aftermath of a fire is typically easy to recognize. You can see the difference between a living tree and a charred stump, but when something inside a person burns, the change is not so recognizable. On the street, no one will look twice. Your family won’t mistake you for anyone else. Your friends will think you’re wood when you’re really charcoal.


“DO YOU REMEMBER that night at Drakes Beach with the bioluminescence?” I ask Quinn. We are lying beside each other in his hospital bed, which has a huge net around it so they can lock him in when a nurse or visitor cannot be present. In late July, he was hit by a truck and suffered a substantial brain injury, and although it’s September now, he is still too unpredictable for conventional accommodations.

I want Quinn to remember, clearly, as I do, the night we went to Drakes at midnight to go skimboarding. When we pulled into the parking lot, the breakers were illuminated in bright bands. The waves seemed to thrum with electricity, like lightning-bolt whales cresting from the dark water.

“Is that from the moonlight?” I asked.

“I don’t know.”

“It might be bioluminescence,” I suggested.

“You might be right, kiddo.”

In the ocean, I swam past the crashing waves to where I couldn’t touch the bottom. I cupped sparkling water in my hands, and it glowed against my palms. I poured green-blue ropes back into the Pacific and couldn’t stop laughing. When I kicked my feet below the surface, the churning water glowed. Quinn was not as enthralled by the bioluminescence as I was; he told me the best part was seeing me happy, but he was worried I’d drown in the riptide.

Now, in the hospital, I ask, “Do you remember that night at Drakes Beach with the bioluminescence?”

“Vaguely,” Quinn responds.

I cannot tell if he is bluffing. The doctors still do not know how permanent his brain damage is; that will take at least a year to assess. Some nurses have said it’s probably permanent, that I should think of Quinn as a soldier who was hit in the head by shrapnel from an improvised explosive device in Iraq, and others have assured me he’s young and strong and will recover quickly. But I need him to remember things now. I need him to remember that night at Drakes Beach. I need him to remember the first time we kissed, the trips we used to take to San Francisco. I need him to remember the night we went camping, when a fox acquiesced to eat chunks of PowerBar from our open palms, and the time he slept on the couch because Tashi and I were taking up the whole bed and he didn’t have the heart to wake up either of us. The memories we once shared were pulled from him like teeth and now stick into me like shards. I can’t comprehend holding them alone.

Lying beside him, with nurses constantly pattering past the door, I try to jog his memory. “I remember you taped a glow stick to my ankle so you’d be able to see me if I got carried out to sea. And I remember you were wearing a lifejacket since I refused to put one on, and you said one of us had to wear it. You also had this sixty-foot throw bag—”

“It was a fifty-foot,” he says flatly, his voice conveying neither self-pity for forgetting nor joy for remembering. I can hear the nurses and doctors talking in the hallway over the screens of their desktop computers. Inside room 110, Quinn’s breathing is even.

“You had a fifty-foot throw bag,” I correct, “and while I swam, you stood chest-deep in the water. Later, you said you’d been waiting to get tagged by a shark, wondering what the hell you were doing. But it was so incredible. The bioluminescence was so amazing. And you made it safe for me to be there, with the lifejacket and glow stick. You were watching out for me while I swam.”

I start to cry. Tears fall on Quinn’s chest. He holds my body closer, and part of me wants to scream because I feel as small and finite as wax in a tea candle. I know I am limited and burning, that I can’t sustain this schedule—constant visits to the hospital and skipped meals and procrastinated graduate school work and sleepless nights—forever, but I miss him, desperate and wild, and I want to do whatever it takes for him to come back as he was.

I cry and Quinn holds me and we kiss. For the first time in a month and a half, we kiss on the lips, and he’s warm and calm, and it is as beautiful as the bioluminescence glowing on his wetsuit when he walked out of the ocean beside me, sparkling like the cosmos. 


“I WANT SOMETHING with low overall volume and a high alcohol content,” I tell the bartender, my elbows propped on the counter. There are Christmas lights above the bar, the floor slants at a harsh angle by the pool tables, and my best friend, Gelman, has just put my favorite Black Sabbath song on the jukebox. I’m trying hard to feel slightly more human and less like myself.

The bartender gives me something with vodka and lime. Even the smell of vodka makes me cringe, but I gulp it down in two swallows. Last night, I stayed in the hospital with Quinn and caught sleep in intermittent twenty-minute intervals between the hours of 2 and 5:30 AM.

“I want another low-volume, high-alcohol-content drink,” I say. It’s a Wednesday night, and besides Gelman and me, there’s only one other person at the bar. I drink something pinkish, then something greenish; then Gelman orders us tequila shots.

“Are you trying to get wasted or something?” the bartender asks, tattooed forearms swilling a napkin around an empty glass.

I don’t know it yet, but in a week, Quinn will start to come out of it. He will begin speaking in full sentences and will be able to eat solid food.

“It’s been a long month,” I reply. “I’d like another.” He sets down the glass and pours vodka, Kahlúa, and tonic water in layers over ice.

“What’s this?”

“A Mind Eraser,” the bartender says, topping it with a straw. “This shouldn’t be a problem for you, but drink it all at once.”


I’VE BEEN RESEARCHING GREAT FIRES RECENTLY. I started by learning about what causes death by fire. Then I began reading about people who’ve been burned, then cities that have burned. I’m trying to remind myself that real fire feels different from this internal snap-crackle sensation of being consumed.

In 1788, New Orleans burned. A fire broke out less than a block from Place d’Armes (now Jackson Square), and in five hours, it turned eight hundred homes and public buildings to ash. It devoured the town hall and church, and the only two operational fire engines in New Orleans were dusted to hot scrap. It was after this fire that the quick-burning wood buildings, dry structures that crumpled to chapped cinder, were replaced with the brick walls, wrought iron balconies, and wide stone courtyards that are now emblematic of New Orleans architecture.

In 1547, Moscow burned. Gunpowder stores exploded, and the June air heaved with smoke. Russian author and historian Nikolay Karamzin wrote, “The fire flowed like a river. . . . The crackling of the fire and the cries of the people, from time to time, were drowned out by explosions of gunpowder.” Seemingly solid architecture was proved impermanent; stones splintered, iron screamed red, and copper melted. The fire was unnatural, witchlike, in its fury. It was thought that the insane blaze was catalyzed by the Tsar’s grandmother, who allegedly flecked the streets with water in which human hearts had been steeped. More than eighty thousand people were displaced, and while the city shook with fire, their cries echoed among the cinders.

In 64 AD, Rome burned. The flames pooled in level spaces, rushed up hills, then charged down toward the flats once more. Four of Rome’s fourteen districts were unharmed while seven were left to hot wreckage and charred ruins. Three were completely obliterated, nothing but ash over blackened streets. Desperate, some Romans—their houses burned, their food burned, their families burned—lay down in grass fields and waited to burn, too. 


IF HE DOESN’T RECOVER, I sometimes whisper to myself, especially at night when I’m drinking beer and the house is empty and Tashi is staring at me with heartbreakingly bored, wet eyes, then I’ll run away with his dog. I’ve been thinking South Carolina or Mexico or Maine. I research apartments in Myrtle Beach on Craigslist, start trying to speak Spanish with the guys at work to practice. I cry and sing along with “Boston” by Augustana.

When something burns, molecular bonds are rearranged. Carbon atoms are given away. Old ties are broken. Energy is released in the form of heat. It escapes into the air around the flame. It has to go somewhere. The atmosphere absorbs it and disperses it, and it spreads as evenly as possible through the universe.

I sometimes want to escape, too, to slip away as quiet as smoke. I don’t know how to rebuild with wrought iron, or how to comprehend this situation as natural, or how to lie down and let it take me, so whenever a nurse or caseworker asks me how prepared I am to care for Quinn, I start fantasizing about Interstate 10. When Quinn hallucinates, I imagine highway towns with diners and gas stations and people who say “Howdy.” As I burn and my bonds rearrange and I become something I wasn’t, I think about how it would feel to drive my Honda Civic all night long, over dark stretches of open road, with nothing but a full tank of gas and Tashi in the backseat. 


AFTER SPENDING FIFTY-TWO DAYS in two different hospitals, he’s been released to his parents’ house. Here, there are no nurses. Here, Quinn and I sleep in the same bed when I stay over. Here, I tell him, No, thank you, I’m not hungry, and he comes back from the kitchen with an ice cream cone or corner of cornbread or cup of coffee for me anyway. We smile at each other across the dinner table; I keep my hand on his knee almost constantly, as if he might escape.

Sitting on the back porch a few nights after his arrival, Quinn asks me, “Did you sleep with anyone?”

Did you sleep with anyone? I’ve imagined what I’d say to this question, imagined him asking if I’d cheated, and even imagined him knowing instinctively that I’d crossed some lines. I never imagined explaining myself, so I say, “No, I didn’t sleep with anyone.” It is easier than telling him what happened.

What happened is that after the bar, I came on to Gelman. I tell Quinn I “almost kissed someone” when in fact I pushed Gelman onto the bed and took off my dress. I tell Quinn I began to cry when it happened, and this part is entirely true: when we were about to have sex, I started to sob gut-shuddering, full-body dry-heaves, spilled tears onto my best friend’s chest, while I repeated over and over, “I want Quinn back. I want Quinn back.”

There’s silence between us. Listening to the crickets in Quinn’s parents’ yard groan and creak, my arm still resting on his leg, I take a deep breath and, in a temporary wave of honesty, say, “I’ve been thinking about running away.”

“From me, or with me?” he asks.

“With you.” 

THE NEXT NIGHT, in the quiet, cupped dark of his bedroom, Quinn tells me he loves me. I tell Quinn I love him, too, and we kiss. Outside, it begins to rain. A quiet pattering bounces off the concrete back porch and hot tub cover; it taps against the wide squash leaves in his parents’ garden.

“Quinn, do you love me because you remember me taking care of you after the accident, or do you love me from before?”

The rain picks up. I sometimes feel like a stranger with him; his memories of me before the accident are fragmented. He remembers the night I had a panic attack, remembers teaching me to do dive rolls over woodpiles in the backyard, remembers getting dinner in the city one night, and what he remembers of Drakes Beach is his fifty-foot throw bag and standing chest-deep in cold water, waiting for one of us to get attacked by a shark.

“I just know I love you,” he replies. It is simple and sad.

I get out of bed and walk over to the window.

The hardest part is knowing I can’t go back. Like New Orleans or Moscow or Rome, I will never be what I was. There will be no returning, no refitting of the original boards. There are no original boards left. At first, I just missed Quinn, desperate and wild and wanting harder than hell for him to come back to me as he once was. I wanted him back in the kitchen while I made dinner. I wanted him opening me a beer and analyzing my problems while I sat on the counter, leaning far toward the right to stir a pot of tortilla soup on the stove. I wanted him back in the workshop, teaching me how to cut metal or helping me make fire poi or looking over my shoulder while I soldered pieces of stained glass together. I wanted him back at Drakes, bathed in bright greenish lights and the clean smell of salt.

Outside, the arbor above the path to his parents’ garden is draped with a string of colored lights. I put my palm against the glass, beginning to realize that even if Quinn can come back, I might not be able to. Who I was before, like those centuries-old structures that no longer exist, might not exist anymore, either. Through the rain, the arbor lights twinkle like flames. In the raised beds holding tomatoes and squash, solar lights stick out of the dirt like candles.

About the Author

Gina Warren

Gina Warren is a nonfiction writer living in Marin County, California. Her work has appeared in Junk and Mason’s Road, and won first place in Bacopa’s nonfiction contest. When she’s not reading or writing, Gina enjoys rock climbing, hiking with her dog, and practicing vermiculture in her kitchen.

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