Reckless Burning

By Jennifer Fosket

Iweb was at Jason’s hearing when the thought first came to me: I want my babies. It was as if a curtain opened and in they waltzed, singing a tune as familiar as my own face. They’re not really babies, I corrected myself. They’re embryos. Tiny globs of cells.

It wasn’t lost on me that this thought marched in precisely at the moment my actual baby—the one whose cells had by now multiplied into the prickly reality of a fifteen-year-old boy—was being sentenced on charges of arson. Not that I was feeling any more defeated than usual. By now, disappointment had settled into my bones like the chill of a drafty house in winter. I could throw a blanket over my shoulders, but it wouldn’t change the fundamental truth of the thing.

***

“Well, it wouldn’t be the first time someone in this family screwed up,” my mother had said when I told her Jason had been caught setting fire to the dilapidated shed in the empty lot near Petco.

I didn’t have an answer for that. Who was the first to screw up? I wanted to say. Was it me? Her? It could have been any one of us. In this family we passed on failure like the baton at a relay race.

***

I watched Jason fidget beside his lawyer two rows up. He was dressed nicely—a button-down white shirt, navy blue pants that actually fit—and his long brown hair was combed. All of this without me having to nag, which had seemed like a miracle when he stumbled out of his room this morning. But now, all of his squirreling had untucked the shirt andhis hair was messy from touching. Stop wiggling, I willed. How many times I had said those words, “Sit still, Jason. Stop wiggling. Calm down, Jason.” They’d never taken hold. Sitting still was not in Jason’s repertoire. So different from his sister: for Julie, sitting still was like an Olympic sport she was training for.

I don’t know why my brain seized on those six tiny embryos at that moment. I’d thought about them over the years, sure; when I paid the annual bill for their storage, certainly. But I’d not thought about them as my babies in years. It felt like optimism, as if stumbling around in a dark hallway, I suddenly remembered I had a flashlight in my pocket. Those six potential lives seeped underneath my skin until I felt like I was already pregnant.

***

Jason was convicted of Reckless Burning—the mildest possibility—and sentenced to 105 hours of community service. With his lack of priors and the fact that the fire took place in an empty lot, the judge deemed the whole thing accidental—a kid doing something stupid that got out of hand.

It wasn’t an accident. I’d seen enough melted plastic doll heads and charred patches of grass in our yard—one that snaked up the side of the house, dark fingers reaching from a pile of ash—to know that the shed wasn’t just him being a stupid kid. Whatever demons battled inside Jason, he was working them out with fire. Maybe I should have told the judge, but I was relieved for the easy sentence. I hoped it would be enough to scare him, to show him the potential consequences of his actions, to make him stop.

***

“Community service?! That’s fucking bogus.”

His anger shrank me. Jason never took responsibility for anything and I felt powerless in the face of it and culpable: I made this. I thought about the smell of his newborn head, when loving him was as simple as taking his featherweight into my arms.

“You’re lucky it wasn’t worse.”

“That shed was a heap of shit. They should be thanking me for burning it down. That should be my fucking community service.”

***

What would it be like to start again? I imagined the petal-soft baby arm, the folds of fat, the warm, yeasty neck, the open mouth, wet and vulnerable, beaming happiness at the sight of me. Was I romanticizing? Probably. Still, the image of that wobbly baby was irresistible. A universe of promise lay in all that unformed flesh. Given another chance, could I do a better job with it? Or was Jason’s defiance built right into those cells from the start?

***

There were nine embryos after that successful round of IVF, nine potential babies. Greg had whooped right there in the office, picking me up and swirling me around like we were kids at a dance. We decided to implant three. Two took—Jason and Julie. The other six we kept stored in case we’d ever want more, an eventuality I took for granted. The idea of a large, unruly family was like candy to me, sweetness to overcome the bitter, dry wasteland of my own childhood.

***

“You’re joking,” Julie said the next morning over breakfast. Stopping mid-bite to stare at me, her blue eyes a storm of adolescent judgment. “You’re way too old to have a baby.”

Her shaming worked. I backtracked, “I didn’t say I was going to get pregnant. I just said I’d been thinking about the embryos I still have in storage.” I sipped at my lukewarm coffee. Why had I mentioned anything to Julie? Some days, interacting with her was like walking bare-legged through a patch of stinging nettles. Other days it was the softest grass. The problem was figuring out which Julie you were going to get before launching into a conversation. I’d gotten the wrong Julie.

“Anyway, forty-one isn’t too old to get pregnant,” I added just because I couldn’t stand the way she’d gone back to eating her cereal, smug in the knowledge she’d put me in my place.

“Whatever, Ma. I think you should ditch them. Give them to science or whatever.”

***

That’s what Greg had suggested once the divorce set in: Give the embryos to science. “What’s the point of keeping them?” he’d said. “It’s not like we’re ever going to use them. It’s a waste of money to pay for the storage.”

Divorce had been like an unraveling sweater. It had started with the smallest loose bit, but we kept pulling at it until it was just a puddle of yarn at our feet. And then Greg took a pair of scissors and cut himself clean out, while I remained tangled up in it—the kids, their schools, the house. When it came to the embryos I just couldn’t let go. I guess I didn’t want everything to be so easy for him.

***

Thinking about Greg, I crossed over to the window and looked out at the red roofs of the apartment complex visible two blocks over. It had seemed like such a good sign when Greg moved back to town last year. Before that, he’d changed addresses as quickly as I could scratch one out and write in the next—Tucson, Phoenix, Bakersfield, even Iowa for a while—and never made keeping in touch a high priority. I’d had to track him down in Flagstaff to finalize the divorce papers, and in the ten years since then his relationship with the twins consisted of the child support check he usually remembered to send and an occasional phone call. So when he moved back—so close we could see his red roof—I assumed he wanted to get back into the kids’ lives, help out, be a dad. But we’d barely seen him. It was as if he’d picked that apartment complex by accident, forgetting that we were just around the corner.

***

I called the fertility clinic from work. The phone number, once I looked it up, hopped right back into my memory as if I’d dialed it yesterday. For a time the clinic was number one on my internal speed dial. The command center in the battle that had cut a ragged hole through my twenties; a hole I’d filled with generous helpings of self-loathing. The fact that I couldn’t conceive became proof to myself that I was still that ugly, stupid girl who’d had no friends in high school.

My mother gladly supported this view by assuring me that men don’t stick around for barren women. “Mark my words,” she said on more than one occasion. “That man is gonna find himself a real woman if you can’t deliver.”

***

My mother had been as surprised as I was when Greg had first come along. Given my lack of dating up to that point, we’d both thought marriage wasn’t in the cards. But there he was, the new guy in the office where I was working as a secretary. He was funny and charming if you didn’t mind that he talked mostly about himself. I didn’t mind. The moment he directed his antics my way, I was smitten, the perfect audience. It was as if I’d been given a last minute ticket to a blockbuster show I’d assumed I’d never see. And not being able to get pregnant was like being chucked out before it even started. My one chance at a happy, normal life and I was blowing it.

In the midst of all this, the clinic was a sanctuary, with its pink and beige reception room, its new paint smell. The ladies who worked the front desk showered me with compliments as if they were my suitors. And contrary to my mother’s dire predictions, Greg didn’t run. In fact, the trying to conceive project became the best thing we ever did together. Greg use to call the clinic as much as I did; he’d research options, chart my basal body temperature. My infertility suited him. It was a puzzle to crack, a problem to solve. It was only after the twins were born that he began to lose interest. It turned out the messy, open-endedness of actual babies wasn’t the kind of challenge Greg wanted to wrap his brain around.

***

“We’d be happy to schedule that appointment for you, Ma’am.”

“What if it’s just me?…I mean, what if my ex doesn’t want to be involved?”

The woman at the other end paused and I thought she didn’t understand the question. Finally she said, “Um, well…we just need you both to sign off on it. What you do from there is your business.”

I hadn’t really expected anything different but I still felt like she was snatching my babies away. “What if I don’t know where he is?” I said.

No hesitation now. “The rules clearly state that both parties need to be in agreement in any decisions regarding the embryos.”

***

When I got home from work that evening, Julie was on the couch, remote in hand.

“Hi, Jules,” I said. She waved limply in my direction.

I sat on the arm of the couch. “How was your day?”

She shrugged and I could feel the tingle of annoyance creeping in. “My day was long,” I said as if she’d asked. “Debra quit and so I had to take all of her calls.”

“Hmmm,” Julie murmured.

When I’d first learned one of the babies I was carrying was a girl, I was determined to have the kind of relationship with my daughter that my mother had never tried to have with me. We’d be friends. I’d praise her, make her feel good about herself. But Julie didn’t seem to want to be my friend. Even when she was little she never looked to me for reassurance, my compliments embarrassed her.

“Where’s your brother?” I asked.

She shrugged, not bothering to turn from the television, crumbs from a Little Debbie snack tumbling down her pink sweatshirt.

“Was he at school today?”

“I think so,” she said, eyes still on the screen where Bart and Lisa squabbled over the remote control.

Any fires? I wanted to ask. But Julie wouldn’t tell me. Though they talked as much as strangers on an elevator, those two had a code. They didn’t squeal. So I wandered into the backyard and scanned for burn marks. Seeing nothing new was like a thin edge of sunlight. Hope.

***

“You didn’t come to the hearing,” I said. It wasn’t the friendliest way to start the conversation, but the sound of Greg’s voice untapped a well of hostility inside me.

“Hearing?”

“Jason? The arson thing?”

“Oh shit. I totally forgot that was this week. How’d it go?”

He was sentenced to three years behind bars, I wanted to say. “It went fine. He got off easy.”

“Great.”

“But I’m worried he’ll do it again. He’s really angry, Greg. I think you should spend time with him.”

“Is that why you called? To lay a guilt trip on me?”

I tensed at the accusation. No matter how outrageous his behavior, Greg had this way of making me feel unreasonable, like I was making a big deal out of nothing. “That’s not why I called,” I said. “I want to talk about the embryos.”

Silence stretched across the phone line. “Greg?”

“Are you finally ready to give them up?”

Asking Greg for something was never easy. The only time he freely gave was when it was his idea, and I used to twist myself in knots trying to invent ways to make him think something was his idea. There was no way to do that now, nothing to do but put the thing out there, give it my best shot. “Actually, I was thinking of using them.”

“Are you kidding me?”

“I wouldn’t expect anything of you this time. It would just be me. We could sign a contract relieving you of all responsibility.”

“Wait a minute. Are you seriously considering having another baby? Your first-born is out there burning shit up and your response is to run out and get pregnant?”

“I’ve been thinking about it for a long time,” I lied, humiliated by the version of myself—a desperate, irrational woman— Greg was conjuring up. It was a familiar humiliation, marinated in the years when the twins were small and Greg was still around. He used to find fault in everything—the dirty dishes in the sink, Julie’s snotty nose, Jason’s inconsolability, the baby weight I never got rid of—turning things I hadn’t noticed into things to be ashamed of.

“And anyway, he’s not our first-born,” I said, giving up any shred of hope he was going to let me have the embryos.

“They’re twins. What’s the difference?”

***

When I got home from work that evening, Julie was on the couch again. A box of Oreos lay open beside her and the television blared. Her hand gripped the remote.

“Don’t you have homework?”

She shrugged and I wanted to slap her. I should make her turn it off, I thought. I should tell her there’s no eating on the couch. But the energy drained out of me. I looked at Julie on the couch, surrounded by cookie crumbs and bathed in the blue light of the television, and felt nothing.

Upstairs, Jason’s door was open and I could see him sprawled out on his unmade bed, leg pumping up and down as he played a video game. The sound of gunfire and sirens filled the room.

“Hi, Jay,” I said from the doorway.

He grunted.

“How was school?”

He didn’t even grunt as he stared into the screen with more concentration than he gave to anything else. A bowl of chocolaty milk sat on the bed next to him, threatening to spill with each pump of his leg. I looked around at the rest of the room and saw an ocean of mess. But instead of getting sucked into it, I just turned and walked out.

In my own room, I collapsed onto the bed and shoved a pillow over my head to quell the creeping panic.

***

It was dark when I woke up.

‘“Ma! Ma!” Jason was standing at the foot of my bed. “What’s for dinner?”

Dinner? I looked at the clock: 8:49. I’d fallen asleep and forgotten to feed them. I started to get up, guilt working its way through my body like my morning coffee, springing me into action. Then I looked at Jason, impatience plastered across his face. I imagined myself rushing downstairs, searching through the fridge for something quick and protein-rich to blunt his sharp edges, something healthy and light to balance the cakes and cookies Julie’d shoved into her mouth all afternoon. I thought of how I’d do all of this and then listen to them complain about it being wrong or not enough. The guilt evaporated. I lay back down.

“What are you doing, Ma? Are you sick or something?”

I closed my eyes and turned over onto my side.

***

“Is this about the pregnancy thing?” Julie asked the next morning. She was sitting on the edge of the bed I still hadn’t gotten out of.

“They won’t give them to me anyway. You don’t have to worry.”

Julie was silent. What will she do? I wondered. I had become a scientist observing my own children as specimens in an experiment. What will Child A and Child B do when their mother refuses to get out of bed?

“Ma? Are you going to get up?” Her voice was small. A pinch of tenderness almost nudged me out of bed, but I ignored it.

***

The next time I opened my eyes the sun was blazing through the window and I felt like a piece of dry wood inside one of Jason’s fires. I threw off the blankets and let the heat dig into me. The house was quiet, no television, no computer games, no whining or yelling. I melted back into oblivion.

***

“I’m going to get them for you, Ma. Just tell me where they are.”

I turned over. It was dark again and Jason was standing there, looking agitated in his torn jean jacket and falling down army pants. He was like the tough kid in some after school special, going to beat up the bully. Let me at ‘em, I could almost hear him growl.

“What are you talking about?”

“I know about the babies, Ma. Julie told me. She said they wouldn’t let you have them and that was why you were lying up here.”

“That’s not exactly…”

“No, let me say this. I want to help you, Ma. They can’t keep them from you. I won’t let them. I…I’ll make them give them to you.”

I imagined Jason storming the doors of the fertility clinic, demanding his mother’s embryos, roughing up whoever stood in his way. Triumphantly, he’d bring me the frozen vials. It was one of the nicest images I’d had of Jason in a long time.

“It’s not like that, Jay. Dad doesn’t want to. Both parties have to agree.”

“Fucking Dad,” he said. “What does he care?”

***

I got out of bed. Suddenly things didn’t seem so bad. In fact, they seemed sweet. Jason’s threat to liberate my embryos reminded me of those macaroni necklaces and those pencil holders decorated with a mess of construction paper and glitter, all of those perfectly imperfect tokens of childish love. Here was another example of Jason’s sticky fingers cobbling together something like gratitude. It was enough.

I got in the shower and stayed a long time, letting the steam seep into my pores and wash away the resentment I’d been carrying around for days.

As I dried off, I opened the window and looked out toward the red roof of Greg’s apartment, the hot summer wind brushing the last drops of water off my clean skin.

“You don’t know what you’re missing, pal,” I said.

It wasn’t until later, after I’d made supper and wondered where Jason was, that I saw the black cloud over the red roof, stark against the clear sky, and smelled the smoke.

___

Jennifer Fosket is a writer living and working in Berkeley, California. She used to spend her time conducting research and writing academic treatise on the sociology of the body, health and gender until she realized she’d be so much happier filtering those stories through the lens of fiction. Her fiction has appeared in Literary Orphans.


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