For much of my childhood, I lived with my parents and seven siblings in a shabby, wooden tenement in Bridgeport Connecticut. The splinters from the ragged wooden stairs leading to our third-floor bedrooms would catch our socks, pinching our feet and ankles, as we ran up and down the narrow staircase. The building was a fire trap, and my father was haunted by thoughts of our apartment catching fire and his children dying in their bedrooms as they desperately tried to escape the deadly flames. For a while, he considered stacking thick coils of rope near each upstairs bedroom window, allowing us to rappel down the sides of our burning building and escape to safety. But he feared – quite reasonably, really –that the ropes would encourage simulated sibling hangings and wild, pirate-like swings through open windows. The rope plan was reluctantly abandoned.
Although, or because, my parents were by necessity rigorous penny-pinchers, they splurged on us at Christmas. On that morning, we rushed down the narrow stairs and were transported from our dreary surroundings by a mountain of presents extending beyond the base of the artificial tree (sagging under pounds of tinsel and heavy multi-colored lights) and covering most of the living room floor. My oldest brother handed out gifts one by one as we side-glanced each other to see who had the largest haul. Three hours later, the floor was thick with discarded wrapping paper, and we retreated upstairs to our bedrooms to re-examine and play with our new toys. One Christmas, when I was nine, a towering box of the discarded, gift wrapping was stored temporarily in a corner of my bedroom. One of my gifts that year was a science kit. The kit included directions for simple – and, frankly, boring – experiments, including an “invisible ink” experiment. As directed, I used lemon juice to write an invisible message paper, and then held it above the candle flame until the writing appeared.
I don’t know why – a perverse desire to liven the proceedings? – but I poked the paper into the flame to watch it catch fire. The flame shot up quickly and I tossed the paper to the floor, stamping mightily with my new, furry Christmas slippers. My slippers singed, but the fire did not go out. I looked in a panic for somewhere to hide the evidence and spied the large box of Christmas wrapping in the corner of the bedroom. I threw the smoldering paper into the box.
Within moments, the box was in flames and my pajama-clad, barefoot father was running up and then down the winding stairway holding aloft a veritable pyre of Christmas wrappings. He raced through the kitchen and out to the porch, where he beat the flames with a blanket, but not before the porch’s wooden railing itself began to smolder. By the time the firemen arrived, my father had snuffed out both box and railing. (The firemen marched through the apartment in their muddy, December boots just to be sure.)
Shortly thereafter, his worst nightmare almost realized, my father announced that our landlord must – ABSOLUTELY MUST – provide an emergency escape from the third-floor bedrooms.
A few days later, workers arrived and broke through my bedroom wall – and into the bedroom of our next-door neighbors. They then installed a thin wooden door and hung a red metal, industrial-sized “EXIT” sign at the top. No lock was installed – or permitted. (The door proved very convenient a few years later, when I began babysitting for the neighbor’s two small children. Rather than wait sleepy-eyed in their apartment for their late-night return, I simply retired to my own bed and left the door ajar.)
I was never punished for the near incineration of my entire family; my generally strict parents deciding that soul-crushing regret and shame were sufficient punishment. But for many years afterwards I refused to light matches – terrified that some thoughtless, destructive behavior would immediately follow.
Then I entered high school, with its requirement of science lab. Initially, I nonchalantly tasked my unwitting lab partner with anything requiring the lighting of matches. Then one morning the teacher, in obvious possession of some sadistic sixth sense, called me to the front of the class, handed me a book of matches, and ask that I assist her by lighting a Bunsen burner.
I felt trapped: be labeled the 14-year-old freak who was afraid of matches – or swipe?
I swiped; the match flared.
I had made my escape.
Jan Bartelli lives in a tiny town in upstate New York and for many years lived in a very big city in downstate New York. She is a (probably) retired attorney; a former, published journalist; and an optimistic writer of creative non-fiction.