House on Fire – Corey Lof

I squatted with Kara on the outskirts of Salento, Colombia, in her boyfriend Lax’s old apartment. The apartment’s stucco over bamboo walls were so thin, I couldn’t help but visualize the fitful, domestic sagas as they unfolded in the neighboring units. Like on this particular night, a week, two weeks into my stay, when Kara and I were laying around on the concrete floor in a pile of found pillows and the neighbor woman screamed in Spanish, “Get out! Get out of my house!” I swear I could see her by the door, her back to the wall, the pleading mess of her face directed at the floor. And I could see the man in her bed, relaxed with his hands behind his head, laughing, untouchable. “You gotta make me first,” he said, “You gotta hit me.” It all played out, clear as a drive-in screen, on the apartments’ shared wall.
        Of course, I got up and made a show like, this fucker doesn’t know what’s coming.
        But Kara just laughed, then did me the courtesy of making me promise not to get involved.
        I hadn’t seen her in three years but she still knew who I was.
        “Whoever this prick is,” she said, “all he’s gunna see is the gringo next door and you’ll end up with the beating Lax deserves.”
        She couldn’t make up her mind about Lax. One minute she’d be cursing him, all wine drunk and smiling with this explosive child-like courage, saying, “I got this elated feeling. I can’t explain it, but I think Lax is dead. He’s dead and I couldn’t be happier.” Then the next she’d be pacing the apartment, or peeling back the garbage bag window-covering and peering down the street, like, maybe that’s him, maybe he’s coming back.
        But he wasn’t.
        It’d been four weeks since Lax had been deported for running an illegal taco shop—selling tacos and weed to tourists on their way to the coffee plantations through a homemade hole in the wall of this same apartment—and he hadn’t even reached out from wherever he’d ended up.
        “You know he fucked her, right?” Kara said, nodding toward the shared wall.
        I re-joined her on the pile of found pillows—we’d been using ‘em as a bed since she torched theirs.
        “No,” I said, but I did. Lax had told me all about it.
        “Well, he did,” she said. “There’re pictures of them together on the internet and everything.”
        “Like, together?”
        “Not fucking.”
        “I was gunna say—”
        “Like sunset selfie bullshit.”
        “Could be friends, no?”
        “How ‘bout you suck my dick?” she said. “Like friends.”
        She locked her eyes on mine and dug around in my head. I knew if it continued, the digging, she’d have the whole story, everything I knew, laid out on the floor between us … so I looked down into my cup, studied the dregs of boxed wine all mascara-run from its rim.
        “Probably used him to make this guy jealous,” she said, turning her shoulders toward the show. “Didn’t think that one through, did ya?”
        The neighbor’s door creaked open, and again I could see her: standing alone in the concrete courtyard we shared, us and the rest of her neighbors, I don’t know how many, all within ear shot, doing nothing. I could see her pointing into the night, showing the man where to go, her head hung, tears dropping between her feet.
        “Or you think he was trying to make me jealous?” Kara asked, stretching her neck to inspect a zig-zag of cob-webs in the corner of the ceiling.
        “How would I know?”
        “I said, think. It’s called speculation. Jesus, what happened to you?” She pushed herself off the floor, grabbed a dirty shirt and swatted at the cob-web.
        “I hope wherever he is, spiders are crawling in his nose and eating his brain,” she said.
        I grabbed one sweaty hand with the other behind my head and mimicked what I imagined was going on in the other room. I laid back and I laughed. I laughed at Kara, and Kara, after clearing one corner and looking over the cob-webs in the other three, dropped the shirt and gazed at the pasted-up garbage bag like it was an open window.
        “Good view?” I asked.
        “It’s true,” she said. “A true view.”
        “A garbage bag?”
        “A garbage bag gets filled with garbage until it becomes garbage itself.”
        “You can use them to black out windows—”
        “It’s all trash, is what I’m saying. We’re all trash. Out here collecting trash, becoming trash—”
        “Hiding our trashed hearts behind pathetic pontifications—”
        “Eat shit,” she said. And the neighbor woman’s cries came through the door.
        Kara leaned her forehead into the garbage bag and drummed her fingers on the window ledge. “When Lax and I were high and they’d get going like this, I used to trip, thinking, are they real or is it us I’m listening to? Like is it actually Lax and I fighting and this room is some deep facet of myself, some made-up hiding place?”
        “You and Lax fought in Spanish?”
        “It’s stupid. I see that when I’m sober, but when I’m not, I don’t know. Like is this language thing another trick my mind’s playing? Creating separation between me and whatever’s going on in my life?”
        “Seems real to me,” I said.
        “But are you real?”
        “Are you high?”
        “Not sober.”
        “Then there’s no point in me answering that.”
        “It is a little convenient,” she said. “You being in Colombia and all.” She pivoted to face me, and with one shoulder leaned on the garbage bag, she was back in my head.
        I’d spent a year bumming around on the Caribbean coast, only making the odd trip down to see Lax when Kara wasn’t around.
        “Never thought to send a message?”
        “Three years and nothing,” she said.
        “You, too.”
        “I reached out.”
        “Only because Lax is gone.”
        “Just answer me, straight up. You real?”
        “I think so.”
        “Not some remnant of my past lingering in this busted up corner of my psyche?”
        It was hard to imagine. If this was in her mind, then everything had to be: my whole last year waiting for the sun to brand something pursuable into my horizon, the rest of my life before that, Lax, what I know of their relationship, of ours—and that’s the easy stuff, what about the store on the corner, the individually sold cigarettes, the beers the size of dwarves, the horses trotting past at all hours, the clop-clop of their hooves as they’re reined, blinded and will-less, down the dirt road—
        Or the grandmother I walked by every day on my way back from the store with the cigarettes, the beautiful misery of her cratered-face as she stared me down, how it mined my worst intentions, purged me of my sins—
        “Would you help me kill Lax?” Kara asked. “If I decided I wanted to, would you help me?”
        “Hell yeah,” I said.
        “For real?”
        “You for real?”
        She considered the question for too long.
        “If you’re for real, then no. I’m not your guy,” I said. “I’d probably tip him off.”
        “You’re talking to him?”
        I imagined her pulling a knife on me, saying, please. I imagined allowing its point to press into my chest, saying, I’m sorry, I’m sorry.
        “Has he talked to you?”
        “No,” I said.
        She turned toward the window and peeled back the bottom corner of the garbage bag a couple inches. But all it let in was more darkness, more night.
        “What a piece of shit,” she said. She let the garbage bag down, then used both her thumbs to make double sure that the tape had re-stuck.
        The neighbor woman cried out and the man laughed.
        “So,” Kara said, turning from the window and rising to her toes, “I think tonight we should get drunk, and if we end up fucking, then whatever. You know, like friends.”
        It impressed me how much she’d changed, how much more of herself she wore on the outside.
        “Ok, yeah,” I said, though I had other things to say.
        “Yeah,” I said.
        Then the man next door said, “All you have to do is hit me and I’ll leave.”

Kara took her shirt off and stood in the center of the room. The neighbor’s sobs continued to billow in around us like smoke. She cupped her shoulders, Kara did, in what seemed, under the stark, interrogative light, like a resigned mode of defense.
        “You want to do this, then?” I asked.
        “No,” she said, hooking the shirt she’d tossed around her toe and dragging it within reach. “I’m getting naked so you can help me pop the pimples on my back.”
        “Ok,” I said, still lush in the pile of found pillows. “How should we go about it?”
        Her eyes lingered on the floor for so long I wondered if she hadn’t joined the neighbor in sobbing. “Like, how do you want to do it?”
        “Yeah, like how should we do it?”
        “I guess like normal,” she said, taking a dry-eyed side-glance at the garbage bag. “We’ll do it like normal people.”
        “How’s that go?”
        “To start, both of them need to be naked.”
        I took off my shirt.
        She laughed.
        “What?” I asked.
        “You haven’t changed. You’re like—these walls.”
        “What’s that mean?”
        “You’re just ribs and scars.”
        “Thank you.” I suppressed the sudden memory of an entire adolescence spent flexing in front of a mirror that struggled to see me.
        “I could sit on you and kill you,” she said.
        “I get it.”
        She was big. Not really fat, but big. Big hands, big knees. Bigger than me.
        “I wish you’d stop bringing up murder.”
        “That’d be manslaughter, dipshit,” she said, trying not to smile, which in a way, I liked seeing more than her actual smile.
        “Normally speaking, what comes next?”
        “Were we normal people,” she said, “next, you’d seduce me.”
        “You came on to me.”
        “I said it could happen. You gotta make it,” she said, but started to move toward me with her arms out like wings.
        Faint blue veins ran down over the top of her tits. I remembered how I used to trace them, the veins, up her neck, all the way behind her ears, how she’d point her chin and we’d spear through the ceiling into a nowhere that was ours, with nothing—
        “Come to bed. Now,” said the man next door.
        His deep voice shook the walls.
        I looked up at the ceiling, playing like I saw God. “Lax?” I joked. “Oh no, Kara, he’s found us. We’re not safe here. We need to go deeper, to more busted up corners of your psyche.”
        “This is over,” Kara said, reaching for her shirt.
        “I’m kidding. Come to the pillows on the floor, now,” I said, and imitated her wings.
        “I’m not. And he’s not either.” She kicked one of the pillows toward the shared wall.
        “You don’t want to do this,” the man said. “Come to bed.”
        I heard the rustling of blankets and imagined dust, displaced and swirling under the single bare-bulb lighting their apartment.
        “We’ve ignored it this far,” I said, but Kara had already wrapped herself back up in her arms and turned toward the wall.
        I heard the man get out of bed. I could see him. I could see him through the wall as he took the last step toward the woman. I could see the woman as she reached for the sky with her head and the ground with her hands and screamed. It was like a scream from the movies. Like the scream equivalent of spit-crying. So lonely, it could only have been dug up from her bones.
        Then a caged groan and a muffled “No,” and I could see the shafts of her forearms coffin-crossed over her chest as he wrapped himself around her.
        “Come now,” he said. “I’m sorry. I’m sorry. Just come to bed.”
        But she wasn’t having it. She broke free, stepped out into the nothing courtyard and fired up her lungs like a beacon.
        The way she screamed, again—shards of her heart were cutting their way out.
        … to be opened up like that … just once.
        The man stepped back into the room and returned to his laughing. I could see him rolling his eyes just inside the door, like he knew, like he’d been here before.
        “Still think we shouldn’t get involved?” I asked Kara.
        She put a finger to her lips.
        Across the courtyard a woman’s voice came from an open window, “Why are we doing this again? Why do you let him in here?” she said in Spanish. Then a door opened, then another, then a voice said, “Leave or we’ll call the police. It’s late. People need to sleep.”
        Kara rushed to the window, peeled back the garbage bag and watched while I listened to the man make his way through the courtyard to the entrance gate. I imagined his hands up in mock-surrender as he laughed it all off saying, “What a community you have! So many good friends here!”
        When the gate closed, Kara let down the garbage bag and stepped back from the window. Whatever history we might have been happily unwrapping, it now lay motionless on the floor between us.
        The doors and windows of the courtyard closed and the neighbor woman made her way back to bed to continue her cries. She might as well have been in the room with us. I could see her body shake and hear her every stifled breath, one after another, like an engine that won’t turn over, until it does, and then it wails.
        “Where’s your cup?” Kara said, struggling with her shirt. “I want to have some more wine. Do you want some more wine?”

The wine was meant for cooking—eight thousand pesos, in a carton, found on the bottom shelf—and so left your mouth with the same dry sensation as desert heat. It was a wild trick to play on your body, to force it into survival mode like that, have it beg for water, then feed it more of the same poison. But that’s what we were doing.
        After a few cups of the cooking wine, when the neighbor’s sobs had tapered back into background noise and it seemed like we had an obligation to ourselves—or at least the selves of an hour or so earlier—to reboot the mood, get the shirts back off and start tracing one another’s bodies with our own, Kara left me on the floor, in the pillows, and started pacing the apartment.
        She worked her way around the bathroom and the main-room, dragging her fingers along whatever surfaces she passed. She traced the outside of the sink, touched the mirrorless wall above it. She walked her hands along the main-room’s window ledge, ran her knuckles over the tape securing the garbage bag.
        I thought about making a joke, something to do with a treasure hunt, a trap door, or a key. But I didn’t. I kept silent on the floor and watched her.
        I watched her stop and hold her palms up close to the apartment’s shared wall, without touching it. I watched her splay her fingers and make circle movements with her hands. Like she was mirroring something I couldn’t see, or pursuing a heat I couldn’t feel.
        I imagined it was a puzzle, that with some sequence of movement the wall would come down, and that when the wall came down, there wouldn’t be just another apartment on the other side, but another life—
        Then the neighbor woman let out a muffled cry and Kara drew her hands back and looked at the floor.
        Again, I couldn’t tell whether or not she too was crying.
        But then she spoke, a jarring pep in her voice: “Do you want to look at the things from my bag of special things?” she said.
        Before I could answer, she darted across the room, pulled a handbag from a backpack on the floor, and dumped out what seemed like a pile of trash in front of me. Driftwood, sea shells. One-off earrings, a faded Polaroid.
        She combed over the pile with the back of her foot, pointing out a tarnished spoon with her big toe. “I stole this from a bougie restaurant in Vancouver when I was a server,” she said.
        I looked up at her, but she wouldn’t look back.
        “Fuck, that sounds so shit,” she said. “Server. Yes, I work as a server. I was a server.”
        “Well, you showed those bougie fucks.” I picked up the spoon.
        “I made a lot of money,” she said, still looking down at her feet. “I did it for two years and it’s allowed me to do this for two years, to travel. And I think I’m in the best shape, emotionally speaking, and literally speaking, that I have been in my whole life.”
        This was something new with Kara, the way she threw out these facts, these pieces. I wondered if she was doing it on purpose, if it was a method of searching. Using these pieces of herself like my mother used to use chewed gum to unstick stuck gum from our hair or our clothes.
        “You know, I never loved Lax,” Kara said, looking straight at me.
        I breathed on the spoon and stuck it to the end of my nose.
        “We were just hanging out a lot. I feel like you should know that. It’s basically like what we had back whenever, it’s just we’re older now, so felt like we had to label it or something—it’s stupid, thinking you’re making something of your life just by being in a relationship—”
        “Back whenever,” I said, hoping she’d elaborate. But she didn’t.
        “So imagine,” I said, shaking the spoon from my nose, “this room was some hideout in your psyche. Would that make this bag another hideout?”
        “A hideout within a hideout?”
        “A hideout made for a situation exactly like this, where the first hideout no longer works because you’ve become aware of it.”
        “Great,” she said, “now I’m aware of the hideout within the hideout and it’s ruined too.”
        “Or is it a portal?”
        “Are you back-tracking to save this ruined hideout?”
        “Or a bag full of portals?”
        “Can you ruin that?” she asked.
        “Not by knowing about it.”
        “Then that’s what it is. That’s what it’s always been.”
        “An item goes into the bag of special things because it has the power to take you somewhere.”
        “Where does this take you?” I held up a spiral seashell.
        She kneeled down and leaned toward the shell for a closer look. “The beach,” she said.
        “And this?” A scarred piece of driftwood.
        “A different beach.”
        “What about this one?” I grabbed a book from the base of the pile.
        “That one’s a little darker.”
        “Like how?”
        “Like that was my Dad’s.”
        “Right,” I said.
        She grabbed the book, ran her fingers over its cover, then sat back on her feet.
        “Do you think I’m going to lose it?”
        “My mind, like my Dad did.”
        “You don’t smoke crack.”
        “Not yet.” She placed the book open on her head, like a hat, and crossed her eyes. “Lax thinks I’m losing it,” she said. “Said it all the time. It made me crazy.”
        “You feel crazy?”
        “Fuck you.” She let the book slide down over her face, into her hands, then trained her eyes back on mine. “You don’t even exist.”
        “That’s as good as a yes.”
        She wound up with the book in her hand.
        “You can’t lose your mind,” I said.
        She lowered the book.
        “You’re already lost in it.”
        She raised the book back up, but smiling this time, and let it go over her shoulder so it clocked the shared wall behind her. When it hit the wall, the sobs of the neighbor woman stuttered, then started again in full force.
        “You know it was me who reported Lax for selling dope and running a cash business?” Kara said.
        “It was.” She leaned forward and ran a hand up each of my thighs. “I used a Spanish-English dictionary to get the phrasing right and everything. I had it all written out before I called. It took me a whole afternoon.”
        “And you still want him to come back?”
        “He could at least call,” she said, rolling up the hem of my shirt.
        “I’d be pissed if you got me deported.” I pushed her hair back. But she wasn’t looking at me anymore.
        “He doesn’t know it was me.” She hooked her teeth on the top of my belt.
        “Not yet,” I said.
        “You want to see me lose it?” she said, coating my stomach with the heat of her breath. “Keep threatening me.”

Of course, the neighbor man came back.
        It happened a moment later. He let himself right through the gate.
        Kara and I had spilt my cup of wine between us on the floor, but instead of cleaning it, we were laughing, leaning on each other. She had my pants undone and was tracing the right side of my jaw with the bridge of her nose—
        There were no footsteps but we knew who it was. The guy must have floated over. The next thing I heard was a faint knocking at the neighbor’s door. It could’ve been our door. It was right there.
        The woman slowed her sobbing. Then they both started sobbing.
        And man, did they sob.
        I wanted to get up close, hold my hands to the wall, feel their passion—how it burned with the heat of a house fire too far gone to be stopped.
        Lucky us, Kara and I, to happen upon this particular time and place, this opportunity to watch it burn—how the flurry of it reaches up while its core collapses.
        “We shouldn’t suffer because he’s an asshole,” Kara said.
        I wasn’t sure which ‘he’ she was referring to, but I liked the idea.
        She lifted the bottom hem of my shirt until it bunched up under my arms, then planted her face in the space between my ribs and sniffed. She looked at me as she exhaled, then propped her chin up on my sternum.
        “Can we try again?” she said. “One more time?” But she was already crying.
        Imagine the glug of a jerry can dumping out gasoline and sucking in air.
        The show had come through the wall and was playing out all around me.
        It was like the three of them had experienced something I knew nothing about and they were celebrating it together, cheering each other on. The way their sorrows fattened and filled the room, the courtyard, the planet—
        I was surrounded.
        I pulled a blanket over Kara and I, and I held her.
        I looked at the garbage bag covering the window, covering Lax’s piece of shit-hole he’d cut in the front of the apartment.
        I looked at the bamboo ceiling, the stucco over bamboo walls, the concrete floor.
        I looked in the direction of the store with the cigarettes, to where the old woman sat. I imagined all she’d seen over the years from the vantage of that chair, all the scars she’d watched form over the faces and hearts of her sons and daughters, her grandchildren, her country—
        I wondered if it was fear that kept her in the chair, watching—
        If it was defeat, the weight of her own scars, or the weight of ours—
        I looked at my arm, slung over Kara’s shoulder.
        It didn’t feel like my arm anymore.
        It felt like a prop, some spooky Halloween prop I was holding from a distance and patting her on the back with.
        It really felt like that, like I had gotten up and walked to the edge of the room and was watching us there, on the floor, in the pillows.
        I watched as she dropped her wine cup and rolled onto my body, trying to hide her tears.
        I knew from where I was standing, it was hopeless.
        She’d lost control.
        The half of her I could see was a mess. Snot was coming out of her nose. She had her face scrunched up so tight it was like she was trying to swallow her own skull.
        I danced the fingers of the prop hand over her back, the back of her legs—
        Kept my distance.
        Guarded my bones.

When the cops showed up, the neighbor woman’s sobs turned to screams. “You can’t take him! You can’t touch him!”
        Kara sprang, snot-nosed, for the window where I joined her to see a stampede of feet, cops and neighbors, approaching, as the woman flung her door open, pulled the man in, and locked everyone else out.
        The neighbors pleaded with the cops. They said, he cheats on her, he hits her, he breaks into her house. The cops apologized. They said, as long as she didn’t want to press charges, there was nothing they could do.
        Then the cops left.
        And you can just about figure how the rest of the night went: Kara, sobbing like she was the one who’d been beaten, while the couple made love beside us with such audible festivity, you’d think they’d taken on the world and won.
        I could see the man through the wall, weeping, begging to be eaten, while the woman cradled his raw quivering body and stumbled smoke-blind through the debris, looking for a way out for both of them.

In the morning, Kara rushed off. She didn’t give me a reason for leaving, but she told me to stay. She said I had until the end of the month at least before anyone would come knocking. She said there was lots to see in this town. And if I got sick of it, to continue south.
        I haven’t seen her since.
        A few months after our time in Salento, her sister reached out to me, asking for donations to help pay for a lawyer. She said Kara had landed herself in a Mexico City prison after a manic episode, where she overpowered a bus driver at the airport, then promptly crashed the bus into a telephone pole. I didn’t make a donation, but I asked around and learned Kara’d spent the four days prior to the incident with Lax. What they did over those four days and how that played a role in her winding up in jail, I don’t know.
        I don’t know much about what goes on between people. Inside of people.
        Last I heard she was in jail. That’s the last I heard.
        And where was I?
        I don’t know.
        I don’t know.
        Somewhere, surely