And I am four years old at Maxine’s house. She is in her forties, tall as my mom and plump as a pillow that I crawl on when the other kids aren’t demanding all her attention. I come here after primary school and it must be winter because there is a fire in the woodstove, down in the basement, the place I am scared to go unless I am with a friend.
But today Maxine’s eight-year-old granddaughter, Julianne, helps because there are so many of us. How many? Ten? Fifteen? An odd assortment gathered from the winding suburbs of Portland, Oregon. Some come from my neighborhood, like Spike over there under the old piano, fists pumping the pedals, smile wide as the soundboard, mischief from ear to ear. Tammy and Lenox come from next door, Maxine’s neighbor’s kids, and Cynthia’s mom works with my mom at Tektronix. Brady with the runny nose is from I don’t know and Marsha who rides the bus is in first grade.
In the basement, Julianne is in charge and we’re playing house. We pretend there is a snowstorm and we are trapped, fresh powder up to the first story windows, phone lines down, and all the wreckage of unknown worlds on the other side of the walls. “It’s cold,” Julianne says.
I close my eyes and imagine it all. Colder than The North Pole, colder than the time I forgot my shoes and had to cross Huber Street barefoot in a hailstorm. Cold enough for a fire in the woodstove, warming us as we follow Julianne’s lead and form a single-file line alongside that daring-hot heat.
Fingers pressed briefly to the stovepipe, she tests it for warmth, the back of her hand along the cast iron sides, then, palms down, she presses her skin onto the top of the woodstove and says, “Good enough.”
Turning to Thomas, who is first in line, she lifts him and his dangling, denim-clothed legs on to the top of that woodstove and sits him down.
Thomas is ice-cold still and yet something warms him from the bottom up, feet dangling high above the floor, silhouetted by the glass stove doors that hold back the cherry red fire. The heat comes to his hamstrings first, muscles relaxing into the warmth and then there is the reflex. He looks up at Julianne.
“Are you warm enough yet?” she asks. “Just say when.”
“Ok,” he says, raising his arms so Julianne can lift him, return him to the ground.
I study Thomas’ face. I am fifth in line. I remember how Mom and Dad said No. Don’t ever play around wood stoves. Thomas moves to the back of the line and I follow him. Julianne reaches for Cynthia, her blond curls lifting in the heat blowing off the woodstove.
Cynthia is wearing jeans, too, and she feels the heat along the undersides of her thighs right away. Julianne picks her up. The line inches forward. I keep ducking out, moving in a continuous loop between the middle and the end of the line, caught in the land of no escape, that place where I want to do right but something feels very wrong.
Finally, everyone is satiated, a mass of warm bodies and kid voices. I hope that our game of house is over, but Julianne coaxes me because Wait, everybody gets to have a turn. I take her hand since she loves me, loves me, and I want to make her happy. We walk toward the woodstove and there is a moment before fear takes hold. It is like that moment before a car wreck. The moment that becomes my whole body, my whole mind, the entirety of my voice as I hear it now, bellowing out from some place deep and scared and there’s pain and oh, there is a smell.
I don’t remember Maxine hefting herself down the narrow stairway, something she did only if she had to, wide hands braced against the side walls for balance, feet lifting once, twice, slowly to catch each step. I don’t remember being carried out the front door of the house, across the driveway, the phone calls Maxine’s husband made, voice hushed into the receiver and already a fear of the unknown fresh across his face. I don’t remember the other children, Cynthia as she might have studied her own clothes, then mine, the way everything looked melted. I don’t even remember my mother picking me up or that I lay in the backseat of the Volvo on my stomach, staring without crying or talking or thinking or knowing.
In the hospital I am lying on my back, rolled into a room. There are doctors, nurses. How many? Four? Five? One of them has scissors and he is promising It’ll be ok and Mom leans over me, her face angel soft in the bleached light, hands on my head, tears running endlessly, lips moving, voice cracking, words saying, “Katey, do you understand? They are going to cut your clothes off now.”
My dress comes off over my shoulders. They cut through my white tights and underwear and still, there is no memory of pain. Everybody is holding their breath, holding it, holding it, waiting to see what they will find once they pick the clothing away from my skin. I can feel the breath they’re not letting go of, caught somewhere between.
There is no end to this memory. Only the held breath, and I wait there in that place where no one finds out how bad it really is. I stay. I wait.