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Jasmine’s Fire

Photo by Ariel Bravy

Jasmine sat on the window sill and smoked, her feet dangling over the small fire escape. This was the best time of any night, when she could be alone, look up at the looming Empire State Building lit up in red, white, and blue this time, and listen to the night sounds of the city. Whenever she thought about giving up smoking, she would imagine herself sitting in this very same spot but without a cig. No, it wouldn’t do. It was a routine, it was part of the night, it was part of who she was; she liked the feel of the smoke in her lungs. She liked to watch it float out of her body like a spirit.

She started smoking when she was just a kid. Her mother hated it, but then there wasn’t much Mama could do about it. Both Aunt Selma and Mama would sit most nights and go through a pack and a half at the kitchen table on their own. ‘Course, back then, cigarettes were cheap. Everything was cheap, but not cheap enough; never enough money to buy her something nice. She learned how to be clever with the old stuff. She had to make herself look on purpose. So she teased up the big hair and drew on the dark make-up and kept all her clothes nice and tight. That’s how she kept their eyes lookin’ at her and not at the clothes she wore. She kept them imaginin’ what was underneath.

She hit that puberty pretty early. What was she, twelve, maybe eleven? Well, Bobby Stillman didn’t care about that anyway. And neither did Uncle Ralph or Brewster or that army boy, what was his name? She couldn’t remember. It didn’t matter. She got what she wanted too. She got her own bedroom up in the hot corner of the attic and she got all the cigarettes she wanted and she even got stuff she could trade in the neighborhood. And sometimes, those boys would take her to the movies if they could feel up her bizkit.

That summer was fine really, until she had to go to that damn school. She told her mama she didn’t need no school. She hadn’t gone to school in Sebreeze much, why bother? But it didn’t matter what she said or did, they made her go; sometimes she got stuck with the little fat foreign girl, but sometimes Brewster would give her a ride on his bike. Either way, when she got there, it was always the same, humiliating. For God’s sake, she was twice their age and twice as tall. Just because she couldn’t read didn’t mean she had to be with the little kids, did it? Did it? How many times did she ask them?

How much can a persona take? How many times did she sock the big boys in the face for mocking her? How many times did she sit out in the hallway by herself? How many times did she burn that teacher’s ears with her cussing? Burn. Yeah, well, that’s where the real power was in the end. She caught the power of fire and when she did, they left her alone. She singed a few boys; torched some books, and she charred a few bathroom wastebaskets.

In no time at all, she knew fire was her closest friend. She learned how to light a match from a matchbook with one hand. She could drip wax in just the right amount to get a candle to stand up next to the bed without leaving a mark. She could light brown wet leaves and make smoke scares. And she could burn a house down.

They said nobody died in that old house and in some ways, that was true, except Uncle Ralph, he had passed out so he got burned pretty bad; little Jo-Jo was the one who smelled the smoke and woke up the whole damn house. Kind of a shame. So Jasmine just sat on Kenny’s porch next door and watched it burn. They never knew it was her; they never even considered it. No one never did. It was time for another one, soon. Yeah, her cigarette fingers itched.