“I want a proper fire,” he said. The logs were damp from today’s rain and it wasn’t going to be easy. “I will make you a fire,” I replied, because I have spent my life watching boys start fires. I was too scared back then to participate, but I watched and I remember. Tinder-kindling-log. There is an order. I know which damp half-burned remnant from last summer's fire is the right one to stoke. I did not start fires as a child. They scared me. But I watched others start fires and I remember how it is done. Fuel. Oxygen. Breathe and don't worry about the ash in your eyelashes. Breathe soft and gentle. Feed the fire small twigs, dried grass, but not bark. Bark just smokes. Bring the flames into life with the air from my lungs. I know how to do this. I have spent my life watching boys start fires.
I have learned how to do many things by watching. I’m sure I could hang a ceiling fan by myself, but I have only held screwdrivers, read directions aloud, and unwrapped fan blades. I am in charge of little things that are easy to do, such as holding the light while he sprayed the wasp’s nest in the attic. Even that I bungled, dropping the light and running, fear so loud in my veins I could hear it. He called me a pussy, but it became his favorite story.
I can tell you how to polarize a motorcycle battery, how to jet a carburetor, how to adjust the front forks for a more comfortable ride. I know Harleys by the differences in their motors. I have recited these things at parties like a trained pet. I listened to men talk and handed them wrenches and I didn’t say anything even when I could tell they were doing it wrong.
The passive voice makes for weak writing, but I have always been a passive person. I am proud that I can get my ideas across without causing offense. I can find a way to make it seem like I agree with anyone, I can add something interesting to any conversation. I think of it as infiltration, even though I know I really am not a covert operative but just an amorphous woman made out of clay. Tell me who you want me to be. I am so very good at bending ideas in my mouth to sound the way others find pretty. I excel at having no opinion when other people are listening.
I learned early on that my knowledge will not be rewarded. If I argue, he may yell at me, and then I will lose all of my words, stand choking, wetness in the corners of my eyes, throat dry and useless. It is better to wait until he has failed before I step in. I am the one who hid the fire extinguisher behind my back and had faith in him. I only let him see it when the flames reached knee height. Then he was glad of my foresight. Later, he admitted that if he had known I was so prepared he would have ridiculed my lack of faith. I always knew how to strengthen his pedestal, so he remained above me.
I only do new things when no one is watching. He only had to tell me once that, “it looks like a kindergartener painted this room,” before I stopped looking for praise after the first coat. I don’t tell him when I am in over my head until I have tried to fix it myself, and then I am glad that he knows so much more than I do. He is the person I need to tell me that I am not bad, that the spray paint on the basement floor does not matter. I will not believe it until the words come from his mouth.
It is the same with cooking—I have no confidence in my ability to manage new recipes and need to be alone to figure them out. I take my phone from my pocket and google strange words everyone else must already know, like slurryor zest. I do not know the difference between mincing and finely chopping, and I do not ask and betray my ignorance. Instead, I learn secretly this language of domesticity on the internet. My mother did not show me such things, she thought them beneath both of us. If only she knew how important it would be later, how much I would need to serve others more than just adequately.
I only eat when no one is looking, unless he is eating, too. If he walks into the kitchen after dark, I will have a guilty look when the light is turned on. I am still a child sneaking chocolate after dark and I need his permission to absolve me. But when he eats at midnight, I join him in full-sized portions, cringing at the words I always hear, “you can eat as much as a man.” I have always had too strong of an appetite.
So many hes and hims in this essay and they are all different men, and one is a woman, but that is harder to explain. My first super-ego was my stepmother, but she dressed like a man and walked like a man and had sex like a man. She, too, demanded servitude and her given genitalia did not matter. She always said, “I wish I had been born a man,” but her wish was fulfilled in my child-vision. I knew she was no lady. But one must not speak ill of lesbians, because we can’t prove the right-wing right. Besides, even as a child I knew that gayness was not the issue here. My mother was just as much of a lesbian as her partner and I loved my mother more than anything. She was the one to teach me how to subserve without subverting. I know that is not a proper word—I have to remake the lexicon because I am tired of doing things properly.
My mother held my toddler-sized hand at marches for the Equal Rights Amendment. She slept in a light-bue T-shirt that said, “I swear to you on my common woman’s head, that the common woman is as common as a common loaf of bread—and will rise.” I asked her over and over what it meant, but I couldn’t grasp it. My mother did not rise like leavened bread in spite of her favorite shirt. She was a feminist in public but in private she stayed firmly in the shadows. My mother raised silence to an art form, and I tried so hard to master it as completely as she had. When the kitchen light went out, my mother brought a table lamp in from the living room. She taught me how to always avoid the obvious problem and work around it. In so many areas, my mother was content to settle for semi-darkness.
I have never seen my mother start a fire, or hang a ceiling fan. She taught me above all else, how to watch others, how to listen to others, and how to always stand behind the person you love, so the sun shines on their face instead of your own. And I also talk too much and listen too little around my mother—she makes it so easy to forget that she is filled with unspoken words as well. My mother makes the supporting role look effortless, as if she never bites her lip as often as I do. As if it never cost her anything. I try so hard to emulate, but my mouth is bloody with unspoken words.
But then I found myself single with a child hanging from each arm, and I had to do all those things I had spectated: I mowed the lawn, jumped the car battery, flipped the circuit breakers in the dark. I snaked the drain and killed the necessary spiders. I plunged everything that needed plunging. I made due with a broom and a shovel because I had no rake. And I sewed stuffed animals and rocked babies and cooked and grocery shopped. I paid the bills and got a walk-on part in a zombie film.
When a new him walked into my life, I was tired of independence. I was angry that I still had to shovel my own snow, put air in my own tires, and earn my own paycheck. “I fell in love with you because you are as capable as I am,” he said. I wasn’t sure I liked that—sometimes I preferred watching. When he told me how to replace an outlet instead of offering to do it for me, his words raised the hairs on the back of my neck, made me want to hit things with my un-calloused hands. I knew how to do it—I had watched men change outlets many times. Green is ground, black-to-black, white-to-white. The point was that I had always wanted to be a princess. But this was a man who knew how to do everything and didn’t use it for pole-position against me. He didn’t want to look down on my upturned face, he wanted to look over and make eye contact. When we went flying, he let me hold the stick and dial in the altimeter. He insisted that I was capable of doing things and not just watching. He was gentle when maps and parking garages and diagrams overwhelmed me and sometimes made me cry. Instead of laughing he talked me through it, one turn at a time, because he knew what made me tiny inside. But I didn’t know how to say that I was uncomfortable with this capability. I knew who I was only when I was watching.
Have you ever listened to your voice aloud? When I speak, mine sounds higher than it feels in my body. I’m not used to listening to myself, and I sound more feminine, less sure, when my words are released to the air. But when I became the only adult voice I sounded loud and capable. It is only in relationships that I forget how to articulate. He made me practice reading my words out loud—all the words that I could only type and never speak. He coached me in speaking them, and I did so with a shaking voice at first. But I did them over and over until I owned my fumbling tongue. Until my voice didn’t sound strange in my ears any longer. After you hear your own words long enough, you start to think they matter.
We needed a dock, so he and I sat down with a pen and piece of paper and designed one. He asked me what I was thinking. I argued harder for my design than was necessary. He wanted to build something long and narrow but I knew it needed to be wide enough to lie on side-by-side. I was tired of being mute and I liked the feel of certainty, even though I had never built a dock before. All the surety that I never had rose to the surface and came out of my mouth. What I knew was that I did not want a single-file path any longer. He agreed to try it my way, and afterward, he said that I was right and he was glad that there was room for both of us.
Strength isn’t something we are born into. It starts with tinder, then kindling. You have to protect the flame from the wind until it grows so large that the breeze isn’t a danger but an incinerator. I took one class, and then two, I finished one degree and got another. Yes, I did the work, but he shielded me from all the internal and external things that wanted to extinguish me.
My mother wants me to write a story about finding my strength on my own. My mother wants me to not need a man to shield my tentative flame from the wind and feed it slowly and watch it grow. She wants me to be stronger than either of us are capable of. But what I want to tell her is that once that fire is started, it keeps on burning, and it doesn’t matter if you have help fanning the flames. Once I stopped watching boys start fires and lit my own, I could never go back.
First appeared in Whiskey Island Magazine Vol. 70
Copyright © 2023 Lara Lillibridge
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