One morning when we were quite young, my older brother and I were up before our parents, eating cereal and watching cartoons.
“Wanna see a neat trick?” my brother asked me. Of course I did. My brother could make the sun rise, as far as I was concerned. He dug out some matches, struck one, and lit the corner of a paper napkin on fire. I oohed and aahed and then he blew on the napkin–to extinguish his tiny flame–and instead of going out, the flame doubled in size. He yelped and dropped the napkin on the carpet. I ran to our parents’ room and screamed that the house was burning down. My father came running and with one good stomp it was all over. Except for the scorch marks on the carpet. And the hairbrush (bristle side down) spankings that my mother administered afterwards.
Later in childhood, I never lost my fascination with the ability to focus sunlight with a magnifying glass until wisps of smoke began to rise. This was best done outside, of course, but I have a very vivid memory of sitting on my bed and methodically burning hole after hole into a sheet of paper. I stopped when I burned a small hole in the bedsheet.
I still find fire fascinating. But as an adult, you don’t light napkins for kicks or go outside and burn up some unfortunate ants. The occasional blaze in the fireplace, sure, or a rare night by the campfire, yes. I now have a healthy respect for fire and take all the recommended safety precautions. Because I’m a grown-up now, and I know to be careful. And I don’t want to get hurt.
Only, I still play with fire. A different sort of fire. I make poor decisions. I love people who hurt me. I get burned and come back for more. I talk the talk and I walk the walk and then I put myself in harm’s way because I’m mesmerized by the brightness of the flame and reason that I’ll be able to keep it from getting too close. It always gets too close. I’m left wounded and bewildered, trying to puzzle out whether this is the nature of human relationships or if there is something fundamentally wrong with me.
Then I retreat for a while. Curl up within myself, tend to my injuries; slowly journey back to health. Emerge restored. Restored, yet isolated; lonely. Where I am drawn, again, to the sparkle and the dazzle of those who will–albeit unintentionally, most times–singe me if I let them.
There must be a middle ground between seclusion and the inferno. I am weary of trying to find it.