Today's story is one of escape. It's an excerpt from a memoir our featured writer, Amye Barrese Archer, who apparently had a lot to escape from. Scorched: A Memoir About Going Down in Flames tells the story of her first marriage to, as Amye describes him, "an agoraphobic panic sufferer who eventually became an alcoholic," who almost destroyed them both. (Sounds fun, right?)
Amye Barrese Archer is a graduate student working towards her MFA in Creative Writing. She has written poetry, short stories, and "many truths on bathroom walls." Her work has appeared in PANK, Twins, The Ampersand Review, The Battered Suitcase, and Oak Bend Review. Her chapbook, "No One Ever Looks Up" was published by Pudding House Press in 2007. Amye has three-year-old twin daughters, and shares her life with her (new and vastly improved!) husband, Tim. To read more by and about Amye, check out her blog.
Scorched: A Memoir About Going Down in Flames
By Amye Barrese Archer
What the fuck is that smell?
I flick my eyes open and stare at the low white ceiling. Something smells bad. Something smells bad enough to have jolted me from a dead sleep in the middle of the night. I look to my left, no one is there. I am alone. It's a horrible stench, like the time I put tinfoil in the microwave, or the time I singed my hair with the curling iron. Oh my God, something is burning. The house is on fire. I slide from the warm bed and begin the frantic search for my pants. I can't sleep with pants on, they are too confining, a preference that is coming back to haunt me.
"Bob!" I am yelling from the bedroom. I find my pants rolled in a ball under the bed. I can barely breathe the smell is so bad. "BOB!" I'm screaming now. We live in a basement apartment with only one exit. Poor planning on my part, my father trained me better than that. My bedroom door is right next to the front door. I stand in the doorway of my bedroom with two options: if I turn left, I'm outside safe and unharmed. If I turn right, I enter the kitchen, dining room, and living room, all in one huge living space. But there's no exit down there, it’s a dead end. My whole body wants to go left and run to safety – fuck everyone else. It’s a flight or fight moment, and I always knew I would pick flight. I turn left and start to climb the stairs when my conscience gets the better of me. You have to save him, he is your fiancée after all.
As I make my way down the hallway, the smell grows stronger. I'm yelling for him but he doesn't answer. I feel like I should be breathing heavily so I am, but there’s no reason to. There is no smoke, just an eerie fog, and I can't find a fire. I reach the end of the hallway and stop, knowing the problem, the source, lies somewhere in that vast open space before me. Should I stop, drop, and roll? When exactly am I supposed to start doing that? I remember a fireman in fourth grade, maybe fifth, drilling it into our heads: stop, drop, and roll. But when? Now? After I’m on fire? As a precaution, I drop to the floor and roll like a bumpy log into the main room of the apartment. The floor is cool to the touch and my thin black hair becomes overtaken by static electricity.
The whole place is dark. In this subterranean apartment we are not privy to any kind of natural light. Everything is artificial. I climb to my knees and feel for the light switch on the wall. Within seconds everything is illuminated like a furniture showroom. I scan the room but I cannot find the suspected plume of smoke, the bright orange and yellow flames, or the charred source of this horrible smell. I see Bob, my twenty-seven year old fiancée, lying lifeless on the floor. His blond hair fans out on the deep blue carpet. I run over to him and shake him violently like he's already a corpse or a very heavy ragdoll.
"Bob!" I yell right in his face.
His eyes open and he looks at me wildly, like I'm the last person he expects to see.
"Bob! What's that smell?!" I ask.
"What?" he's groggy.
"What the fuck is that smell?!" I demand.
"Oh. The couch."
"What about the couch?" I turn my head and look behind me. There is my brand new couch with a hole the size of a meteor burned right through it. It looks like a missile went straight through the middle, or that someone who was on fire decided to sit down and watch Judge Judy.
"What the fuck happened?!" I scream. I am never cool under pressure. I have a history of becoming hysterical at the slightest bit of danger. This is one of those times.
"What?" Bob asks like this is no biggie.
"What did you do?!" I'm crying now.
"I fell asleep with a cigarette."
"Jesus fucking Christ, Bob! You could have killed all of us!" The cats are nowhere to be found. They're probably hiding from the smell, although it has permeated every inch of the house.
"Oh come on," he says. "Stop being a fucking drama queen."
"A drama queen?"
"You heard me."
"You were drunk, weren't you?" I look around for the wine bottle, the gallon jug of PA Lake Country Red I know I will find. I also know it will be almost empty.
"No," he says with an unconvincing chuckle.
"How much did you drink?" I’m growing angrier as I speak, a heat is building in my toes and working its way upward. The panic has given away to rage.
"Not much," He says shrugging his shoulders.
"How much?" I ask again through clenched teeth. I want to punch him in the face and knock his crooked teeth right down the back of his throat. I want to grab his perfectly rounded head and smash it like a ripe pumpkin off the slate fireplace behind him, but I can't. I know how irrational he gets when he's drunk and I know he will call the cops if I touch him. But it’s so tempting. The smirk, the smell of wine on his breath, and then there’s my couch. My burned up fucking couch.
"I don't know. Look, it’s fine. Go back to sleep," Bob says and sits on the couch, the other one, the only one now, and lights a smoke. I walk over to the burned couch. The air around it is still warm and thick with that smell.
"It's not fine! This couch cost me a lot of money! Are you a fucking moron?!" I start to cry. I'm upset over the destruction of my couch, but there’s an element of defeat in there, too. I know this is huge. There is a sense of finality in the air surrounding us. I sit on the floor, put my head in my hands, and start to weep.
"Oh, here we go!" Bob yells to an invisible audience. "Listen, Amye, it's not a big deal. I'm fine, by the way. Not that you give a shit."
“This is so much bigger than that, Bob.”
“It’s about respect. I spent my whole savings account on the furniture for this apartment, and you just destroyed it, like it didn’t even matter to you.”
This apartment is cold and damp and way too big for us. It is the basement, a dungeon, inhabited by myself, Bob, and three cats: Mr. Lionel Richie, Lucy Lennon, and Neo, who would later become Patrick Swayze. It was my idea to move here. We were living in a small efficiency apartment across town. Everything was going so well. It was our first apartment together, so there was something romantic about it. It was tiny and we were living on top of one another, but it was quaint and easy to clean. But here, in this underground cavern, the energy is sour. This house belongs to an aunt and uncle of mine who went through such a nasty divorce that restraining orders and gunshots were used as methods of mediation instead of lawyers. Now it's our turn to wallow in the bad mojo. I didn’t have a good feeling about this apartment from the start, but we had to move here. I had inherited some cats, and our old place wouldn't allow them to live there.
The first thing I did when I moved in, to make up for the wide gaping space, was buy my living room set. Somehow a ragged old futon I had been dragging around with me since college wasn't going to cut it anymore. I was working at a local television station making about nine dollars an hour, so this living room set, this one with the two couches and three tables, cost me almost all of my savings, nine-hundred dollars. These couches were the nicest things in the apartment. And now they’re ruined.
"What happened? How did this happen?" I ask as I sit down on the ledge of the fireplace. I am trying to calm my voice, calm my nerves, but my hands are still trembling. I know Bob doesn't remember what happened, but I ask anyway. Not because I'm a moron who can't understand the cause and effect of falling asleep with a cigarette, but because I want to fight. It's three-fifteen in the morning, according to the green clock on the microwave, and I want to fight so bad I'm actually salivating. I want him to end this nightmare our lives have turned into.
"I told you," he slurs. He's still out of it. He's sitting on the couch with his bare feet on the floor and a Newport hanging from between his chapped lips. He's wearing his flannel pajama bottoms and a shirt with a picture of the original Nintendo controller on it. Under the controller are white letters that say "Old Skool". His blond hair hangs down to his shoulders and he hasn't shaved in about two weeks. Six years ago I would have said this was hot; now, it’s just sad.
"I know how it happened, asshole. I'm asking you how could you let it happen. How could you, an adult, allow yourself to fall asleep with a cigarette and almost burn the house down killing me and everyone else in the upstairs apartments?" The sarcasm is pouring from my mouth like vomit.
"Get off my back, okay?" He stands up, pushes his cigarette into the ceramic bowl we use as an ashtray, and starts walking down the hall towards the bedroom. I follow him. Only he's not going to the bedroom, he's going into the long hallway, but instead of taking a left into the bedroom, he's going right into his computer room, because it's only three a.m., and his night is just getting started. I follow him into the small computer room, the one that has been declared his. The wine bottle is on the desk. More than half empty as I predicted.