I dip the torch in fuel and shake it out, and Shaina lights it. I'm sure I won't get it all the way in. She has demonstrated the
movements a few times. I replicate what she's done. I widen my legs into a triangle, arch my spine, tilt my head back ninety degrees, bring the torch above my face a foot or so and, with a dramatic turn of the wrist, beeline it right into my mouth.
I touch the torch to my tongue for one second and then pull it back out toward the sky.
"Jesus Christ," Shaina says. My mouth tastes like camping. My lips tingle. "You just lit your tongue on fire!" she says, and this is
the only time I can imagine that being a congratulatory exclamation. I bring the still-lit torch back above my head, angle my wrist, and bring it down straight into my mouth again.
"Wow," Shaina says laughing. "You don't have many instincts for self-preservation."
I consider telling her the whole story, then think better of it. The back of my teeth feel a little sooty on my tongue.
* * *
Oxygen feeds fire. If you succumb to impulse and attempt to blow out the flame as it nears your lips, you have forgotten about chemistry. An hour later, when I learn to swallow two torches at once, my desperate attempt to blow out the fire does not, in fact, succeed in extinguishing the flame but instead collects more oxygen that grows the torches into a huge fireball that engulfs my hands. It hurts. It "burns". Shaina describes the most common types of burns—the kinds you get no matter what, no matter how careful you are in this line of work—as bad sunburns. I am now in a tradition of performers and mystics and childhood pyromaniacs; I will honor them by burning myself as infrequently as possible.
* * *
As soon as the class is over, I can tell my mouth is burned. Shaina says this is normal. Patches of my face and arms are reddish and tender. And there is creaked skin, almost like little dried-out blisters, on the corners of my mouth. I have a blind date after my class. It looks like I have herpes.
* * *
I avoid remembering this while I'm in the fire-eating class, but I used to be a chicken. My childhood memories are haunted by feeling too scared to do anything—from taking out the garbage at night to striking a match for incense. I watched all the other kids act brazen and bold, as I stood at eight years old, twelve, seventeen, upset with how much I did not want to be the person I was becoming. Later, I told people that I willed myself to stop being a fraidy-cat, but I think, as these things go, we develop personality traits when we need them.
* * *
For my whole life, I have been scared, terrified, of losing my mom.
I am losing my mom.
While I'm standing among explosive containers on a quiet Oakland night, she is humming at a nurse in one of her daily therapy
sessions, because she no longer has language. While I am running a flame along my palm, she is running her hand across the half of her body that can no longer move. She touches it a lot, the paralyzed side. Perhaps it doesn't feel like it belongs to her. She touches everything around her. "Kitchen table, fork, husband," we say as she touches those things, to let her know they still belong to her, too. "Wound," we say as she touches her head where it was opened after her brain would not stop bleeding.
She is a yes person, a woman of adventure. When I begin to doubt that I can pull this off, I stop and think of her.
The only way to do it is to do it.
There is no trick.