My tongue is broken; / A thin flame runs under / my skin. –Sappho
In seventh grade I got a crush on the priest’s daughter. I didn’t call it a crush at the time. For a middle school girl in the South, or maybe anywhere in 1995, having a crush on another girl seemed impossible, a thing for which I didn’t have a name.
Crush: the boy with blonde shoulder-length hair at the neighborhood pool. Crush: the cold orange soda my friends and I drank after school in the unfinished room above the garage, our tongues turning the orange of 70’s shag carpet. Crush: the way my babysitter pressed the hot tip of her cigarette out, against the metal ashtray in her wood-paneled station wagon.
Elizabeth’s family moved to town the summer before I started seventh grade, after my best friend’s dad, the previous priest, received a call to another church in another state.
I grew up in the church, the way some people grow up in a neighborhood. Before my best friend moved away, we both lived in the older part of town within walking distance of seven churches. Unlike other kids at school who lived in subdivisions, with cul-de-sacs, tract housing, and gates at the entrances, my best friend and I walked through churchyards to find each other. We rode our bikes through graveyards, played basketball at the hoop behind the parish hall, started games of hide-and-seek in the Sunday School rooms. Every Wednesday afternoon we walked to choir practice. During certain liturgical seasons, like Lent, we ate supper at church, too. We knew every hymn, every prayer, every place to hide. We knew every mystery, too, like The Passion, the story of Jesus’ last days on Earth and his suffering on the cross.
Passion, from the Old Occitan word passio: violent love.
That’s the way it hit me when I first saw Elizabeth, in the green hallway, on my way to French class in the trailers behind the eighth-grade classrooms: violent love, as in distorting, the fluorescent lights humming above us in plastic panels, as in I didn’t see anyone else against the long wall of green lockers, as in strong, an ocean wave, our school’s mascot, the kids pushing their way through the halls, as in impatient, the teacher standing in the doorway, the hall bell about to ring above us.
Elizabeth was a year older than me, and in middle school a year seemed like a particularly long time. I thought that by eighth grade girls had learned things about love that all seventh-grade girls didn’t know yet. A few months into our friendship Elizabeth taught me how to break up with a boy. “If you don’t like him, you should just tell him,” she told me, as if what I wanted was as simple as saying the words. Think Bruce Springsteen: She’ll let you in her mouth, if the words you say are right.
“I’ll show you,” she said.
We sat cross-legged on her carpeted bedroom floor. She called my boyfriend, Paul, and pretended to be me. When he answered, she motioned for me to move closer to her, so I could hear.
“I don’t want to go out anymore,” she told Paul.
I could smell her hair—blonde and shoulder-length, parted down the middle. It smelled good, clean. I looked at her hands around the receiver, her nails short and bitten, something we shared, something we’d noticed about each other when we’d first met. Twirling the phone cord around her finger as she talked, Elizabeth made breaking up sound easy.
The first time I spent the night at Elizabeth’s house we went to the grocery store with her mom before dinner. In the produce department Elizabeth picked up a pomegranate, a fruit I’d never seen before. In her hand, it looked like an apple. But, where a stem would be, a spiked opening appeared instead—a hardened flower without stamen or pistil.
“They’re so good,” she said. “You eat the seeds. I’ll show you.”
When we got back to her house, her mom cut off the unfamiliar fruit’s spiked top on their kitchen counter, scored it into six sections, and pulled it apart, revealing what looked like hundreds of little red beads, enough to make a necklace.
“Try one,” Elizabeth said, handing me a small red seed that she’d pulled from the pith to eat.
The seed was delicate, thin, and, when I put it in my mouth, easily broken. The knife her mom had used dripped pink.
Pomegranate, from the Latin pomum and granatum: seeded apple, fatal fruit, food of the dead, seed of the imprisoned, keeper of Persephone. In German: granada: an explosive shell used in warfare.
When “If You Wanna Be Happy” came on the radio in their kitchen that night, I thought Jimmy Soul’s personal point of view was ridiculous: If you wanna be happy for the rest of your life, never make a pretty woman your wife. I thought I might be mishearing it, mistaking “never” for “you better,” the way I misheard Gloria Estefan’s “loved to hear the percussion” as “loved to hear her passion.”
Elizabeth sang the refrains, and I laughed when she did the dialogue between Soul and one of his back-up singers near the end of the song:
I saw your wife the other day.
Yeah, and she’s uggggllly.
Yeah, she’s ugly but she sure can cook, baby.
On the 1963 album cover to Soul’s hit single, the circles inside the p’s of happy form two eyes, and a line curves under the word to make a smile.
On one of the first really warm days of spring, I acolyted at an outdoor service. After processing up the grass aisle carrying the tall brass cross, I took my seat next to the priest, Elizabeth’s dad. The bright grey headstones glimmered with sun. Elizabeth and several other eighth graders sat on the front row in squeaky metal folding chairs. The azalea bushes bloomed bright pink, and all the girls wore sundresses.
I don’t know what came over me. Maybe I overheated from wearing a long white robe over my dress. Maybe my serotonin levels shot up too quickly, my brain forgetting how to handle so much sun after months of grey winter days.
Or perhaps I went back in time, when passion was a verb, from the Old French passionner and the German passien: to torment, to torture, to want to the point of grief.
We might have been singing “Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing”: Teach me some melodious sonnet, sung by flaming tongues above or “Light the Fire”: Lord you know just where I’ve been, so light the fire in my heart again or “Purify My Heart”: Refiner’s fire, my heart’s one desire. Whichever song the organist played on his portable keyboard set up in the grass made me feel suddenly ignitable. Oh Eros, oh thin flame, oh melter of our limbs. My body felt liquid, like there wasn’t a single bone inside. Without thinking of the consequences, during the last hymn, I mouthed “I love you” to Elizabeth.
Still in my white acolyte robe, I walked straight up to Elizabeth after the service, trying to remember the way she’d broken up with Paul for me, on the phone months before.
“Did I trick you?” I asked her. And before she could answer, I said, “Olive juice.”
I didn’t wait for her to say the phrase back to me—for her to feel how she pushed her tongue off the back of her front teeth to say olive, to recognize how her mouth would open the same way if she said I love.
I didn’t give her the chance to question me, to sound out juice, to feel the way her lips pursed as if she might take a drink, as if she’d said you.
I took the grenade of I love you carefully back, the shrapnel re-packed tightly in its shell. Until I’d said it, I hadn’t fully realized how dangerous those three words were for a girl to say to another girl.
The following Sunday after church I rode my pink ten-speed bike to a restaurant on the old town square to meet up with a group of eighth-grade girls, including Elizabeth, for lunch. We all ordered chicken fingers and fries, which the waitress brought to us in red plastic baskets. I was the only seventh grader at the table, and I felt proud, like I knew the things they knew, even though I was a whole year younger.
After lunch we rode our bikes to Jane’s house to find her parents’ cigarettes. Our bike tires kicked up the gravel in her driveway, leaving lines in the dirt.
Some of the girls opened a window in the upstairs bathroom and smoked in the shower. I waited until we rode our bikes to Azalea Park, the same park where I’d first kissed a boy the year before. Standing on the grass in the circle of girls, I took a few puffs of the cigarette we passed around to share.
After leaving the park we rode to Holly’s house, a few blocks away from church. I had about an hour before junior high youth group started. The eighth-grade girls were moving up to senior high youth group that week, so they didn’t have to be at church until dinner.
Holly thought her mom wouldn’t notice if we took a little pour of liquor from each bottle in their cabinet. That way all the bottles will look the same, she said. In a plastic cup, she poured a little vodka, a little gin, a little tequila, a little whiskey, a little pour of everything on the shelf. As we walked down the empty road from Holly’s house to church, we passed the cup from girl to girl. It was like communion, the way all of us drank from the same cup. When the cup came to me, I could smell the way the alcohol would burn my throat. I put the cup to my lips, closed my eyes, and took a sip.
We reached the steps outside the church parish hall with ten minutes to spare, before I had to go inside. One of the girls asked the rest of us if we knew that you could use a cigarette lighter to burn a smiley face onto your skin, as if the smiles on our faces weren’t enough.
I’ll do it, I said, surprising myself at how quickly I volunteered.
I can’t remember if I asked Elizabeth to do it or if she volunteered. Regardless, the only way I was going to let someone burn me was if she was the one doing the burning. There was something comforting in knowing I’d share the hurt with her. Elizabeth and I had started taking guitar lessons together from a parishioner at church a few months earlier. I thought about the way the tips of our fingers hurt and sometimes bled after practicing. I thought about the way we compared the callouses on our fingertips, how, when we peeled off the hardened skin like the rind of a fruit, the skin underneath was pink and tender.
I sat down on one of the brick steps of the church and pushed up my shirtsleeve before I could change my mind. Elizabeth sat down beside me while the other girls circled around us. One of the girls pulled a lighter out of her jeans pocket and handed it to Elizabeth.
“Are you sure about this?” Elizabeth asked me.
Elizabeth pulled her thumb across the serrated sparkwheel of the lighter several times until a flame flicked and stayed.
“Hold the lighter upside down until the top of it gets really hot,” one of the girls instructed her.
“Are you okay?” Elizabeth asked me, insistent in her concern.
“I’m fine,” I said, the liquor still warm on my breath.
Elizabeth moved her hand closer until she finally touched the hot metal top of the lighter to my upper arm, halfway between my elbow and my shoulder. Without thinking, I yelled and pulled away from her. The burn felt deep and permanent. But all that appeared on my skin seconds later was a faint pink curve. The lighter wasn’t on my skin long enough to make the eyes or the full curve of the mouth. The mark looked indifferent, I thought, nothing like a smile.
“Do it again,” I told Elizabeth, “I won’t move this time.”
The girls looked on in anticipation, the way people circle around a bonfire, a primordial fascination with things on fire.
Elizabeth ran her thumb across the little metal gears to get the lighter hot again. When she moved closer to me on the steps, I tried not to flinch.
I wanted desperately to forget the way the metal of the lighter had eaten at my skin minutes before. How my skin had seemed to melt, like wax, under the heat. As much as I tried not to think about it, though, I couldn’t stop myself, and I pulled away from her a second time when she touched the lighter to my arm. Another faint curve appeared on my skin, an inch above the other one.
“This time, don’t let me pull away,” I told Elizabeth, determined to make it work.
“Are you sure?” she asked, looking at the two other burns.
“Yes,” I said, with a surety I rarely had when answering questions.
This time, the third time, I wanted to get it right. She held my wrist with one hand and pushed the lighter into my upper arm with her other hand until I pulled away from her for good, sure that the metal had burned down to the muscle this time, singing it black.
“There. It worked,” I said, smiling when I looked down at the eyes and perfect mouth that had begun to pucker and pinken on my arm. The failed attempts looked delicate, already starting to blister—two necklaces to accentuate the bright face that smiled inches above them on my arm.
As I walked alone into the air-conditioned cool of the dimly-lit church parish hall for junior high youth group, leaving Elizabeth and the other eighth-grade girls behind me in the sun, I didn’t know then how I would have to hide the burns from my parents, how the third burn—the worst burn—would get badly infected a few weeks later, how I would lie to my mom, insisting the burn was from a curling iron I used at a sleepover, how the eighth-grade girls would start high school so soon, how Elizabeth and I would grow apart, how a few years later the two smaller scars on my arm would have completely disappeared, how the worst burn wouldn’t ever heal correctly, the scar still visible on my arm twenty-one years later.
A pool, a ripple. My skin a reflection on water. Burn, a noun in Old English, a stream or river. I didn’t call it water at the time. Because I prayed / this word: / I want, Sappho wrote. Because I prayed this word: I let a girl light a river on fire, I allowed my skin to melt, a burn to mark the fire I could not speak.