For my friend
*Names have been changed
At the fire arts school, we played with fire. We had a warehouse full of torches, tanks, welders, furnaces, and other machinery. We blew glass, fused steel, bronze, brass, aluminum, and any other metal we could get our hands on using MIG, TIG, and Oxy-Acetylene welders. We made molds and poured metal into them. The way metal looks when it’s liquid is a glow like you’ve never seen (unless you’ve actually seen it, in which case you know exactly what I’m talking about). Light that comes from pure heat burns hotter and brighter than electric light, neon light, or LED’s— though we had all that there too, and we made it our business as well. Molten metal glows hot Day-Glo orange like lava just shot up from the center of the earth. To pour it we wore silver moon suits that made us feel important. Some of the people at the fire arts school would rather be on fire than make things with it, and so they danced with fire, ate fire, spit fire, hula-hooped with fire, and shot fire out of various gassed-up parts of their outfits.
This is more specifically what I did for the fire arts school: I wrote descriptions of fire. I wrote descriptions of the classes we taught and the parties we hosted and convinced people to take them and attend them so that we could keep playing with fire. In exchange, I got a paycheck and an all-access pass to any class and to the toys in the warehouse. When the men who worked in the school left at night, I considered it an unofficial part of my job to squirt lighter fluid behind their motorcycles and skateboards and light it as they peeled away into the darkness.
When I first met Kyra, I was sitting at my desk in the front office, surrounded by metal and glass objects on pedestals, donated by artists to be auctioned off to raise funds. The woman with skin as pale as unset plaster and hair that looked as if a chestnut boa had been wrapped around her head began trying on a bracelet that was one of the pieces to be auctioned. It was made from an aloe plant, cast in iron.
I got up and walked across the office to where she was standing. We then entered into a conversation about the challenges of casting a cactus, and whether these warranted the hefty price of the bracelet. The lost-wax process used to immortalize an object in metal is lengthy, too long for a moist living thing to survive inside the many layers of industrial strength materials that need to be nested around it and allowed time to set in order to withstand the heat of molten metal. After much debate, we decided it could be done, but would require a plethora of extra steps to preserve the original aloe before the mold was made around it. Perhaps the plant could be dipped repeatedly in hot wax or painted with liquid fiberglass. But even these precautions could fail, given the fragile nature of the membranes that made the shoot keep its shape. Essentially, aloe is made of water. It is a delicate, thin sac of water. Almost all the steps of the mold making process involve excesses of heat or weight. One false move and the original plant would shrivel, wilt, dry-out, collapse in on itself, shrink, and die inside the heavy mold that one had taken so much time to form around it, before the mold had enough time to set and preserve its shape.
The next day, I walked out from the office and into the workspace, where there was the clatter and buzz that accompanies heavy machinery. Kyra got down off a crane to talk to me while I set up some tables for the upcoming fire arts festival and invited me to the after-party at the house she shared with her husband, Carl, who worked at the fire arts school as an electrician and taught the “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance” class, in which students learned to soup-up and decorate old motorcycles, often with the added benefit of sequins, beads, bottle caps, neon puffy paint, and streamers.
Kyra and Carl lived on a side street in Berkeley in back of a nail salon. Once you turned the corner, however, it felt like you were on a farm in the middle of Missouri, where I would later learn Kyra was from. Carl was from Berkeley, had grown up in the house next door where his mother still lived, and the entire dead-end alley was taken up by parked clunkers that he was in the process of resurrecting.
The fence around their property was composed of driftwood, rebar, and old car parts they’d welded together. Once they let you in past the barrier of metal and wood, there were birds of paradise, calla lilies, elephant ears, four-o’clocks, hydrangeas, poppies, roses, and succulents, aloe among them. Kyra and Carl had a farm in the middle of Berkeley and they threw the best parties in their garden that went late into the night. Sometimes, when I stayed until morning, Kyra served coffee, eggs, bacon, and homemade scones hot from the oven with butter and lemon curd.
The way they acquired the house was complicated, and eventually, it would be taken from them. It had belonged to Carl’s mother’s aging neighbor, and, as he was dying, Carl and his mother had taken care of him. He left them the house unofficially, and when Kyra and Carl moved in after his death they cleaned out jars of urine they found under the bed. Kyra and Carl were wonderful that way —rabble-rousers whose rabble-rousing involved the care of a dying man and the fixing up of his dilapidated house so that they could turn it into a way station to feed and entertain their friends.
Kyra said she’d lost her family through circumstances too devastating to delve into, and with all the dinner parties and holiday celebrations, she was trying her darnedest to assemble a new one.
There was a Mexican market near where Kyra and Carl lived, so Cinco de Mayo became one of the biggest parties, though certainly not the only one. They would spend days preparing – aguas frescas, marinated meat and vegetables to be grilled outside, stuffed chile relleños and enchiladas for the huge cast-iron stove inside, and plenty of tequila and Corona to keep everyone going until it was time for the flaming piñata. Most of us also spent Christmas and Thanksgiving with them during that time, and I still remember the few I spent there as my favorites, even though I’ve had many fun ones since.
I thought of Kyra as the queen of the fabricators I knew at that time. Fabricators, makers of objects that serve a purpose while adding to the harmony and character of the space they’re installed in, occupy a top spot on the totem pole of the industrial arts world. Kyra helped build gates from tempered steel to go around community co-ops, molded designs out of hot wax to pop up unexpectedly underfoot as sewer caps once they were cast in metal, refinished bronze sculptures in parks so the patina of aquamarine oxidation stayed just so. She was an ideal artist’s assistant because she couldn’t receive a paycheck, and this put her skilled labor in even more demand.
The first clue I got into Kyra’s odd financial situation came on her birthday. We were driving in one of Carl’s half-finished projects, an unlicensed rust bucket that he had just outfitted with a new engine and zebra-print seat covers, to a beer and pizza joint not far from their house that had become a regular destination. As we were parking, Kyra whispered, “Today, isn’t my real birthday,” while giving me a look that said I had to wait until she was ready to tell me the rest.
Later, over the course of many evenings, Kyra revealed that she was estranged from her family not by choice, but necessity. Sometimes, when Carl was out, Kyra would become sad and speak with regret about a “bad thing” that had happened, something that had cut her off from her past, trapped her in the present, and dislocated her from any sense of a future. She did this so often that I began to imagine horrible scenarios, and finally had to ask: Was it violent? It was not violent. Did it involve a man? It did not involve a man, at least not directly. Was it drug related? It was drug related.
It was in this way, over many plates of curried cabbage, onion tarts, lemon bars, and bottles of bourbon and beer, that I learned that my new favorite friend and role model was wanted for a felony, and had been living on the lam for nearly a decade. This was the reason she worked mostly without pay at the fire arts school, for little pay elsewhere, and took cash or nothing at all. This was one of the reasons she spent so much time in the kitchen, cooking elaborate feasts for Carl and all of her friends: to fill the hours when she couldn’t work and wasn’t supposed to be out in public where someone might recognize her. Her present existence, which seemed so cozy and enchanted to me —was to her a cage that she had decorated and filled with charms, but something she was trapped inside of all the same. She loved Carl, but she was also dependent on him in a way she hated. He had to work extra to make up for her getting paid a fraction of what she was worth, couldn’t drive on main roads with her in the car, and hadn’t taken a vacation in the many years they’d been together. They weren’t really married; it was impossible.
What did she do? This is what Kyra told me over many nights: She’d gone to college in Kansas, gotten a degree in biology, and traveled a while in Europe. When she ran out of money she decided to fly to San Francisco instead of going home. Once there, she did odd jobs — refurbishing apartments, painting houses, working part-time in a lab. At the lab, one of the higher-ups stole work from a female student from another country and published it as his own. Repulsed, Kyra quit her job at the lab and started hanging out more with friends who were into acid and other drugs. One of her best friends from that time moved to the east coast and began organizing people he knew back west who needed work. Kyra visited him (he was one of her best friends), let him visit her, may or may not have occasionally helped him move drugs around. One afternoon, she heard that some of her friends’ houses had been busted, that it was the Feds, and that, to her astonishment, they were looking for her. She tried to call her friend who was in charge, learned that he had been arrested, and flew out to the east coast to visit him and figure out what was going on. While she was on her way to jail to see him, she found out he was the one who had been “narcing everybody out” in order to get less jail time, and that while she’d been away, the houses of all of her other friends had been raided, and they had all been arrested.
Kyra had nowhere else to go, so she took a bus back to San Francisco. It was New Year’s Eve, and the midnight hour kept turning over as she rode across the country. There were repeated displays of fireworks outside her window as the bus moved farther west. Kyra watched the choreographed explosions, all meant to mark one precise moment that seemed to keep reoccurring, and pondered the irreversibility of time. Straight off the bus, she went to visit an attorney who told her there was a federal warrant for her arrest. He said a federal warrant never goes away, and her only options were to turn herself in and risk going to jail for years, or to manufacture a new identity and carve out a way to live out the rest of her life without getting caught.
Kyra changed her name, cut her long strawberry hair, and dyed it dark. She squatted on the street and in abandoned houses with punk kids she made her friends, until she met Carl, who was working at his mother’s health food store, where she regularly bought kava kava. Carl was taken with the pretty customer who kept coming in to get holistic downers, and tried to convince her to give him a chance to calm her down instead.
Even after she moved into Carl’s house and made it her own, Kyra lived in constant fear of being caught. If I was walking with her toward the turn-off to her house and a police car drove by, she would clutch my arm and huddle in close until it passed. She had unceasing nightmares —men in suits chasing her, men in sunglasses looking through her windows, the Feds following her and locking her up.
A few years later, I’d left my live-in boyfriend, the fire arts school, and California. From my apartment in New York, I opened an email from a woman named Maggie Clark with the subject heading, “I’m Free!” to a real surprise. She wrote:
Yes, it is true. I am free. I consulted an attorney about my situation and he called me back the same day and told me that I am off the books. I am free! It is legitimate, whew, so I am adjusting. It is a struggle still, after so many years creating a fortress of safety; it is not easy transitioning into freedom. I do have a driver’s license and drive now. Next will be application for a passport — true freedom (well perceived freedom). And now I want to move on from the fire art school to actual art school. Carl and I are engaged. We will get married when I figure out the financial stuff for school. This is all very emotionally heavy right now, a very difficult time in spite of the wonderful nature of it all.
The next day, I called Kyra, who from now on I will refer to as Maggie, because that is how she began referring to herself, to talk about her big news. She’d been in therapy for a few years, and her free therapist had been encouraging her to get over her fear of being found out and to go see a lawyer again. She was reluctant for a long time because the last thing she wanted was to have an attorney tell her a second time that a federal warrant was forever. But her therapist kept at her, and finally, she gave in and went to see a new attorney. When he called her back after looking into her case, he said that every year the U.S. Attorney General gets a stack of files on his desk of people like her who are wanted but have been inactive for a long period of time, and that he looks through the pile to decide whether they’re worth pursuing. The lawyer said that the U.S. Attorney General had decided that she wasn’t worth pursuing anymore. He told her that the gist of the official statement was that she hadn’t been in trouble for so long that she was no longer “a person of interest.”
Maggie was excited about all the changes she was going through, but also struggling to keep up. She felt like she’d tripped on a crack in the sidewalk, and had spent a nine years in the swirling space mid-fall, unable to right herself or reach the ground. She contacted her family and was hit with the news of all the relatives and friends who had died during the time she’d been out of touch. She had to mourn them all at once. Her living relatives were involved in adult dramas that she had been relieved of in her isolation. She wanted to travel with her new passport and realized that Carl actually didn’t like to.
Maggie applied and was accepted into a bunch of art schools. She chose one in Kansas City, because it was close to her family that she’d recently reunited with. She and Carl began renting a house there. Soon after, they broke up, and Carl married someone else. Though they’d been living as husband and wife for almost a decade, they never officially married, so there was no divorce.
Whenever the holidays come around again, I miss Maggie and her parties – I’ve never been to one with the same warmth since (and I’ve been to a lot of really great parties). Her huge iron stove with a dish on each burner, and how her from-scratch eggnog (a completely different beast than the store-bought stuff) each Christmas was like perfect, alcoholic clouds – somehow she’d pour a whole bottle of bourbon into the eggs, cream, and sugar she’d beaten together and it would still form stiff, frothy peaks in the crystal punch bowl she scavenged from I don’t know where. The specific, punky glow of the home she made around herself and the easy, arty joy of all of us who were lucky enough to be gathered in it. I’d like to visit it someday, somehow, or maybe recreate it so she can come and visit it and me. We talk to each other over the internet or cell phone sometimes, but it doesn’t come close. Her hair now is the color of flames. I miss her more all the time.
S.F.Green's essays have been featured in Guernica, Gigantic, Narrative, PANK, Paste, The Rumpus, Two Serious Ladies, and other places. She's currently working on two book-length nonfiction projects that she files under the temporary titles CREATURE and COMFORT and expects to take a pretty long time. She used to write and exist under her maiden name, Sara Faye Lieber, even though she was never a maiden. During the day, she works as a researcher for Women's Health magazine, because she knows both are interesting and important.