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Exchange of Fire

Susan Musgrave
From:   Things that Keep and Do Not Change. McClelland & Stewart, 1999

When your left arm touched my right
as we both reached for the dessert
menu in the all-night diner, a spark
began smouldering in my sleeve, broke
a hole the size of a heart in the patched
elbow of your jacket.

Dirty white smoke enveloped our bodies
as the conversation turned
to the underground fire we'd all seen
on the news, a fire that had raged up
to consume everything in its path.
The air in the diner stank of charred meat;
under the table I took my husband's right
hand and placed it on my left thigh
where flesh and garter meet.

I wanted only that, until your left knee
grazed my right, and this time
there was an explosion, just as our waiter
lit the Crepes Suzette your wife had ordered
for you. Flames engulfed our table
and we moved to another booth, my husband
and your wife saying we can't take
you two anywhere simultaneously.

I had to decide: should I risk
asking for something sweet now, or abstain? —
when you said think of the women on the Titanic
who pushed away from dessert that night
because their skirts were getting tight.
It made me think all right

and then when we were all friends again,
laughing, the whole length of your left leg
rubbed the length of my right and every
light in the joint went out, life stopped
for me, it meant a scandal somewhere in the future.

I tried to focus on the scorched dessert
menu feeling the beginnings of violent
pleasure. I reached for my knee where the hair
had been singed off, where the flesh was
already oozing, and I remember thinking,
I like this. It was the beginning
of loneliness, also.

For when the lights came back on I was
afraid to move from my seat; when we rose
to say goodnight we would be expected
to embrace. We had to: the flesh

of your body down the length of my trembling
body, the thin cloth covering my breasts
covered with flames, the apologies to your wife
for the plastic buttons on your shirt front melting,
your belt buckle welding us together in our heat.

At home I'm still burning when my husband
pours lighter fluid on his hands and feet and sets
himself on fire: only by entering fire can I
put the fire out. This time I might finally
do it. It may be a threat, an end to pain,
or all there is left to make of love.

Susan Musgrave's works copyright © to the author.

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