In the copshop, in RC– Fire Camp Training at the California Institute for Women.
Mr. Darr leaned in on his chair, his body lazily relaxed, his eyes tense and alert. He had called me into the office, staring in silence before speaking. “We don’t listen to rumors, usually, but this one has some meat on its bones. Did you get punched on the yard last night?”
It was more of a slap.
In my family, we say how you spend the start of the new year is how you spend the year. It won’t be the first time they were unfortunately right.
Outside RC. Fire Camp Training at the California Institute for Women.
Mr. Miran was slow to warm to anyone, but the Sinatra smile fooled most. I told him how to find my blog in order to bridge the gap, and I knew he’d been thinking on the words he found here ever since.
“I figured you out, Ra. You want everyone to feel important.”
“Everyone is important,” I tell him, having to lift my chin to stare him in the eyes. “Even here, even me.”
He doesn’t argue.
California Institute for Women, Medical Center
The doctor finishes signing the form, explaining to me that she doesn’t see anything wrong enough to warrant a break from the firefighting training program. I am shocked. She reads my facial expression and says, “You seem upset.”
I watch the bruise on my hip spread upwards. I am internally bleeding in front of her, and I think about how even a broken clock is right twice a day. The doc finally nailed it.
I am very upset.
Outside RC. Fire Camp Training at the California Institute for Women.
“Ra, sometimes it’s hard to know whether or not to believe you. It’s hard to know if these people you talk about are real.” His tone was reasonable, even when he was being completely insane. It was why he was my favorite.
I smile calmly. “One day, Mr. Irube, I’m going to write about all this. I’m going to tell people I went to prison and worked for a bald man with aviator glasses who would shine a flashlight on the floor to make sure I mopped evenly. And they’re going to wonder how much they should believe me, and if this character I talk about is even real.”
His laughter booms through the tiny room, but I’m not joking.
California Institute for Women, RC Kitchen
It’s 4am in the morning and I’ve been stewing on life. We’re preparing the kitchen for breakfast and I finally just have to ask, “Imagine you have a puzzle, and it’s all put together perfectly. Then you remove one piece, and the shape of that piece changes, and the picture of it changes. What is the smartest thing to do? Find a new puzzle, change the old puzzle, or the change the piece?”
The girls stop washing dishes to look at me. Mr. G wipes his hands on a towel, concern filling his eyes. I suppose it was too late to add the famous addendum — asking for a friend.
Coach’s Office, California Institute for Women
She pushes the papers to the side, her manicured fingernails and crisp makeup a sharp contrast to her work out clothing. We call her Coach, though I’d never seen her do any such thing. “No matter what I see with my eyes, you have to understand that I have to go by reports. I’m removing you from the FireCamp program and not recommending you for recycling.”
My bones grind as I walk out of the office, but I refuse to limp– or show any fragility– in front of a woman who could be so careless with the body and future of another woman.
I trust hyenas more.
Committee Meeting, outside of RC.
The Captain is tall and tired, always. He seems exasperated by the tears falling down my face. “Why are you crying? You’re acting like you lived there. No one lives in RC.”
I did. It’s not the first place I’ve lived that other people only visit.
This was the Fire Captain who said he wouldn’t even bother to learn my name, because I’d be in and out of the program too quickly to notice. He was talking to our lead, spitting bricks because she wanted to know what to write in an incident report.
“What do you mean, “What do I write on this report?” You tell the truth — whole, even when it damns you– ugly, even when you want it to be foofylala– because that’s what integrity is. You tell the fucking truth, even though we all know nobody around this place would ever recognize it.”
I fell in love with firefighting right then and there.
… it was an unrequited love.
Corona, California – Funeral Home
I suddenly remembered the first time I met them, and how Dave said they’d love me because I was part of him. I don’t know what to say to people who just said goodbye to the little boy who ate all their wedding favors. The one they loved the same, even when he grew up. Apologies fell from my mouth.
“Stop it. You loved him, what else could we have asked of you?”
In his death, they weren’t regretting or judging what he did or didn’t do. They weren’t labeling him with words he never was or wanted to be. They were just loving me, because I was part of Dave, even now. Even though he is in a maroon box and I am in prison blues.
Chino Hills, California – California Institute for Women
The Fire Chief walks by the site and we scream our hellos over the racket of the running apparatus. He jokes, “Remember when you didn’t want to go home two weeks early because you didn’t feel like you earned those firefighter credits?”
It was muddy now, and my boots were sunk, my hip jutted to the side with a firehose perched on it. Hundreds of pounds of water coursed through and splashed against the flames as they lick the ground. Steph is covered in soot, and we’d been standing for hours.
We look at each other and laugh like maniacs.
Long Beach, California – In the city
Another new friend, I think as I walk down the stairs, wondering if we would have been friends before this year, grateful that he was able to travel so we could be friends now, nervous about how badly all these new friendships might end as I reshape myself. My emotions spark wildly, and I pause to calm. I watch a moth flutter around the warm outdoor lamp
“They think it’s the moon,” he explains, his voice soothing and wise. “They find their direction by it. It’s an heirloom skill, but the world is a different place now.”
“They still think it’s the moon,” I repeat, filled with the terrifying wonderment of instinct, and the sadness of sticky memories. The cold carries the thought straight to my bones.
The world is a different place now.
Long Beach, California – In my blanket fort
“Does it make you feel strong? Brave? Protected? When people tell you that you are?”
“No,” I laugh. “Often, just the opposite.”
The unasked question lingers in the air. The heat spreads the smell of it through the air, weighing it down. It tastes like fire, funerals, forgiveness, and truth. It tastes like burnt moths, and false moons, and prison yard slaps.
Why do I share?
Because I wouldn’t write if there was no one reading. It is a manifestation of my extroversion, and a salve to my loneliness. Maybe it’s wrong, maybe it’s unhealthy, maybe it’s narcissistic, maybe it’s selfish–
But it definitely is what it is.
Over the Internet, California to California
I’m chatting with him when my family calls. Another new friend who never knew me before– not when I was Radhika, or Radha, or Rara. A new friend who only knows the Ra that survived, and doesn’t seem to mind her.
I give him the highlights of the conversation, and even I know they don’t sound real. My family is almost harder to explain than prison. He calls me Princess Caraboo and I ask why. I hardly need more names.
“I never watched the movie, but it was about a girl who used to live in a magical kingdom that may or may not have ever existed.”
I smile because my only job is to tell the truth, even if no one recognizes it. I follow that light, even when it’s not the moon. The world is different now, and I am broken, but I am important and I am loved.
And this new kingdom I am building?
I plan to make it pretty magical, too.