“You want to know how to breathe fire?”
He was talking to a girl too afraid to pinch out a flame with her fingertips.
Was it now?
I distrusted anything that came easy. Easy was ephemeral. Easy was unearned.
The salle was empty, the last regular having shuffled off into the quiet of the night an hour prior. He pulled down a bottle from the middle shelf. Behind the bar, his movements had a sharp precision. He stood with his shoulders back. I admired the way he moved, the surety I lacked. Then again, his work was a kind of performance. Mine was tucked away out of sight.
The click of objects against the zinc bar. Glass. Bottle. The liquid splash of the rhum. He held his hand like a gun, swirling his fingers through the ochre liquor. When they emerged from the glass, two fingers were wet past the knuckles. Then he clicked the lighter and I watched as blue fire flickered over his skin, moving like water. Before I could get used to it, he took a sip from the glass and spat fire. The blast lit the room, shockingly bright. Just as quickly, we descended back into the gloom.
He held out his hands. No harm, no foul. His skin was warm to the touch, but unblemished by the flame. His fingers were short. He had the kind of hands that made piano teachers sigh knowing they would be unable to teach you much, but unwilling to show you the door all the same. I let my touch bleed out over his hand, moving to cover his fingers with my own. I waited for him to pull back.
“You know we met before, right?”
He softly stroked the heel of my hand with his thumb.
It was always this way. I faded into the corners of rooms even after being introduced. It was late September when he rolled in five drinks deep, wearing cut-off denim even though it was the seventh day of rain. His arm was around a girl with a full-face contour and long acrylic claws, Miami style. Her Monroe piercing was a cubic zirconium zit glittering above her mouth. His shirt was patterned with Bird of Paradise. He was loud for Paris, both sartorially and in sonority. His laughter filled the room, but I wasn’t in on the joke. I kept drawing in my notebook—sketching the outlines of a hat shaped like a towering Balinese pagoda, a spindly ship nestled into a Rococo wig, a fascinator shaped like a bat—but it was hard not to listen. They drunkenly circled the same picked-over topics like condors. Around three, they began making out sloppily at the bar and I paid up.
“We were at Soeur. You were with a girl. The one with the nails.” I waggled my fingers.
He frowned slightly, sifting for the memory. I could tell he still couldn’t place me. An invisible woman.
“I find that kind of girl so obvious. Is that what men find attracti—”
He pitched forward and kissed me. His lips were soft and when they moved against mine, I felt the electrical shock of unexpected desire.
“You’re a good kisser,” I said when I pulled back.
“I was thinking the same about you.”
I knew what the chorus of friends would say, well-meaning and in unison: not this one, no; not a bartender, no Magdalena, no. He was leaving too, but when he smiled, I could feel it ricochet through me. Ribcage, breastbone, lungs, heart. Is this a good idea? If you have to ask, you have your answer, but what was I supposed to do? Ignore the boy with the poem’s name? Do you turn away from a sign as clear as a bell?
“You’re beautiful,” he said, hands in my hair.
I knew better than to mistake fiction for fact, even though I wished it were true. It was the kind of perfunctory compliment men toss you while unclasping your bra. A crumb. I am not beautiful, but I make beautiful things. I am intimately familiar with the intricacies of beauty, its underpinnings. I knew the difference. I don’t hide my seams the way I do with a hat. There is no shimmering veil. No, I make myself more difficult: Look, this is what you’re choosing. Are you sure? Really, are you sure?
“I like how smart you are,” he said, weeks later. “It’s my favourite thing about you.” Those were the words I embroidered golden onto my heart.
In the afternoons when he was gone, I worked steadily in my atelier. There were hats to trim, felt to steam and mold to blocks. There were other expiration dates. Carnevale was approaching, the days falling off like molting feathers. I had a final commission to keep my hands busy in the weeks leading up to Venice. It was an elaborate hat, the proud head of a tropical bird. I was given carte blanche, so long as it was extra and the feathers were blue. I wasn’t sure which party it was for or the rest of the look. It didn’t matter. I only worked from the neck up.
I shaped the cap onto the block, a dark scratchy helmet, attached to the curving arc of the beak made from metal mesh lashed to thin rods I’d bent into shape. A skeleton, if you would. Then soft felt, sewn in place with careful stitches, perfectly even—straighter than the way you’d sew up skin. There was bias tape to prevent unraveling. I used two layers of cornflower blue, a gossamer netting layered beneath lustrous antique lace. You wouldn’t see the patterns when I was done, just shining iridescent blue shifting between the feathers. The plumage would be extreme, the beak embroidered with sequins and Czech glass seed beads. The sequins came in long skeins like twisting worms. The edges were a mucky, dull grey, but if you separated each sequin from its skein, it glimmered when it caught the light. It would be beautiful when it was done, something out of a Hollywood dream sequence. It was the kind of work I was known for.
Carnevale was something of a cottage industry. You made beautiful things to wear so that next year someone would commission you to make them something even better. You would, and the flywheel would keep spinning. This was how the Vibe was fed. My own looks were finished, already packed away in the fat black suitcase that lurked in the hall. I was afraid to weigh it.
On Tuesdays, I warmed a barstool watching him shake drinks. He ignored me and I stared into the glow of my phone where the chorus was consistent: This is day-old bread behaviour, Magdalena; stop chasing after crumbs. Still, I could see some kinship in the way we were in the world, being people who made tangible things. I constructed hats that transformed people into dreams, careful stitches lashing feathers to felt, attaching 1930s pom-poms to thin headbands with deadstock netting. Behind the bar, he made the bottles and glasses combine, transmuting the ingredients into translucent beauty. Ribbons of citrus. Soft layers of egg white foam. Fat Sicilian olives impaled on picks. Marinated cherries that sank to the bottom of the glass like bloody hearts. It was busy. It was always busy. He punished me later when he felt bad, snapping that I should just go, that he couldn’t give me his attention. There was no use saying I’d never expected it. It became his chorus. Still, I claimed my barstool.
On the days I didn’t, I woke to 6am calls. Staring at the phone for a minute, I watched until the six rings died out. Good news never came that many hours after midnight. Again. Message. Another. For me, it was ungodly early, but for him, it was late. I listened to them on speaker, his voice filling the silent void of my room. They were never about anything. It was the middle of a conversation I didn’t understand, that wasn’t for me. Text. They always ended the same way. “I wasn’t going to do this. I told myself I wasn’t going to do this. I’m sorry. Sorry. Sorry.” It didn’t matter what the first half of the message said. I was the one he called when the gin tipped him from affability into longing.
I kept busy, making headway on another commission: a golden hat taken from a Marlene Dietrich film. I hadn’t sourced it, simply printed it out from the client’s email and taken inventory on supplies. I fired back an invoice. If I was being honest, I hadn’t seen any Dietrich other than her performance in Morocco. The hat wasn’t due for another six months, but I was fresh out of fedoras and I was in the wrong mood to prepare straw boaters. How could I possibly think about July when the branches stabbed the sky?
I kept the portrait of Marlene propped beside the block. She looked up coyly from under her lashes, hands folded below her chin. It was the eyes and maybe the cheekbones that made her. There was something about the wet pools of her gaze—the topography of her face. She wasn’t exactly beautiful. The nose and waxing crescent eyebrows took that right off the table. No, it was more powerful than that. She was striking.
In the cab home, he didn’t hold my hand anymore. This was shit. All of it. I knew it. But he was the kindest a man had ever been, filling a cavernous pit deep inside of me, muffling the shame I felt at my own grasping for someone who did not deserve me. I could feel the tears prick the corners of my eyes, feel him see them. They couldn’t be willed away, no matter what I told myself about the undesirability of a weeping woman. It was funny how he never said my name anymore, not since that first night. I remember the sound of it roll off his tongue, the way I became a different person just for a few hours. Magdalena. Magdalena. Now my bones were hollow.
The sky was lightening, glowing through the thin, voile curtains. The outline of the headdress, sat on its hat block, casting a long shadow across the wall. I curled myself beside him, arm thrown over his torso. That too was different. Now, more often than not, it was me reaching for him while he stared up at the ceiling.
“What does Split have on Paris anyway?”
“Yacht Week. The Riva. Lots of things, hun.”
“It doesn’t have me.”
“I thought you knew what this was.”
I sat up like a shot, my throat tight. Words grew cloudy in my mind, but that didn’t stop me from saying them. I spit them out faster than I could think them through, words like a dark current, words that carried us far from the shore.
“You’ll never find anyone like me again. I’m a rare bird. There aren’t many.”
“No, I probably won’t,” he said. “But it doesn’t change anything.”
Whether we’d made a date or not, at three, four am I’d start awake, my eyes bloodshot. In the morning, I was an inattentive sewer, stabbing myself haphazardly as I mistook flesh for fabric. My fingers were sore. This could not continue.
I would make him a hat, molded from bottle green wool felt and lined with taffeta—the sweatband a thick grosgrain ribbon, the kind that made a satisfying sound when I drew my thumbnail across the ridges—but he wouldn’t see what I was trying to say. He didn’t wear hats. He wouldn’t see the care stitched into the lining. He didn’t even properly understand what it was I did all day. He’d pass through the atelier in the velvety shadow of 4am, drink in hand, idly swiping at the swaths of lace trim trailing down from their spools.
No, for this I needed to use my words. I wrote until I felt the restlessness leave me. I hit send. Two blue checks. I waited for a reply. I waited as the hours stacked up, hours becoming days, becoming weeks, becoming his last night, his day of departure, and then he was gone.
He said nothing. I waited.
It was my own fault. In the café, he came over to kiss me and I shifted my face. I drank until I told the truth when he wanted lies of omission. They all did, the men. They were all the same, up until a point. I never knew how to pretend that long.
Reading it back, they were the words of a woman unraveling. That afternoon, folding a satin trim into pleats, I ironed my hand. At Deyrolle, I wandered through the panelled rooms meeting the animals’ glass-eyed stares. Frozen, they were all frozen: lions, tigers, giraffes, wolves. The walls were that soft mint, faint and lovely against the paneling. Deyrolle was better than the natural history museum. I could get up close, rather than press my nose against the glass. Drifting towards the birds, I sketched out their profiles on a fresh page of my notebook: California Scrub-Jays, frowning like old men; Painted Buntings, dressed in flashy colours; Blue ringneck parrots, their beaks clashing like coral lipstick; Great Blue Herons, wings outstretched in perpetual flight; Blue Budgies and Macaws; a single proud Peacock.
There was CCTV here, but not enough staff to roam the rooms. When the attendant turned his back, I reached out to stroke the plumage. Bright and soft as a whisper. Rare birds, they clutched to their perch with clawed feet. Their feathers didn’t disintegrate. Their beauty outlasted death. The parquet moaned under my step and I resisted the urge to make myself smaller, lighter, less present. Goddamn man child, my headphones crooned. Again, I stroked the vibrant plumage of the closest Macaw. This was exactly what I needed, these long, luscious tail feathers. I waited for the other customers to leave the room.
Then, starting with the Macaw, I pulled. Next, the Heron, the Budgie, the Scrub-Jay, my hands tearing at their small bodies. I plucked fist-fulls of feathers, stuffing the plumes into the depths of my bag. I stared up into the black eye of the CCTV, a small globe mounted onto the ceiling, daring it to do something, anything. I waited, holding my breath. No one came. I hustled back down the stairs, bursting breathless out onto the street. Nothing happened.
In Palazzetto Pisani, overlooking the Grand Canal, there was a masked ball. The room was candlelit, towering white tapers crowding the tables, the mantle, the tops of bookshelves. At night you couldn’t see the dust, the cracks in the facade. Outside, Venice flirted with us through the long palazzo windows, like painted panels in a drawing-room. Inside, everything glowed.
My face painted with the markings of a fox, my bob hidden beneath the towering weight of a powdered wig, I looked the part. I picked up the hem of my russet gown and slipped through the crowd. The theme was “The Royal Menagerie.” It was cheating in a way, but there was always a fox lurking near the aviary. Hungry French girls were laced into 18th-century gowns, their faces powdered pale, ostrich plumes dancing softly above their wigs. Italians were outfitted in animal print waistcoats. The Americans dressed as animals. Artifice. We were already halfway to drunk from aperitivo, roaring with delight as the music shifted.
Stumbling as someone pulled on my tail, I turned. I’d promised myself the ghost would not follow me to Venice, but then I saw the rare bird flit through the throngs. The stolen feathers made up an elaborate crest. The sequinned beak twinkled in the low light. It was perfect, perfect, but my heart was sinking. You did good, I told myself, but it was hollow praise. When it came to millinery, I always did.
The driving beat of Europop rang in my ears. I danced until the room swayed. There again, the rare bird, shaking its tail feathers in the arms of an 18th-century tiger. Staggering to the balcony, I leaned against the cold stone, willing the world to right itself. The moonlight flickered luminous on the glassy surface of the canal. I waited for the roar of a vaporetto to break the silence, but the only sound was the echo of the music, the rustle of the wind.
Remember the night we met?
No, the first time.
The last night, he’d said it. By then it was morning, and we stood wavering on the elevated platform for the line 2. He passed me the paper sack of grapes. They were the sweet, expensive kind. No pits.
What are you thinking? he’d asked. Tell me. Tell me.
I’d shaken my head and leaned against his arm, eyes closed.
Maybe that’s why so many people prefer beginnings. That first night he taught me how to breathe fire. That first night was shockingly bright, a blast that last lit the room. That girl was afraid. Not anymore.
Slipping back into the party, I ducked behind the bar. It was all there, more or less. Liquor, a lighter. I poured a shot. I curled my hand into the shape of a gun and dipped two fingers into the glass, letting the meniscus of the liquid swell over my second knuckle. Pulling them out, the rhum rolled along my palm and down my wrist in rivulets like raindrops running on a windowpane. I didn’t notice, intent on remembering his instructions. First, the rhum. Second, the sip. Third, the fire. Fourth, the spray. Fumbling with the metal striker, I flicked until the flame appeared, wavering like a drunken guest at the ball. I held out my hand, trembling. Drunk, I was drunk. Too drunk? Be braver, my heart screamed. I took a sip from the glass. I set my fingers on fire.
Aerosol, he’d said. I moved the liquor in my mouth with my tongue. Aerosol. Aiming at my fingers, I spat out the booze in a wet spray. It worked, fire shooting out in a bright shocking blast that turned heads in my direction. Laughing, I threw my arms into the air, spinning with delight. I could feel my face flush with the glow of accomplishment. My skin felt feverishly warm. Drunk, I was so drunk, but I’d done it, see. I could be brave. No, he couldn’t see. He wasn’t here. Wouldn’t be here ever again. The joy was deflating, settling into the familiar static ennui.
The heat dripped down my arm rolling towards the point of my elbow. Then the prickle of pain, as the flame burned through the booze, racing, racing towards the antique lace at my elbow. The sleeve caught. Searing pain and the numbness of adrenaline. So this is what it felt like to burn. I cast around for someone, something. They were too busy dancing, drinking, selfie-taking. Of the few that took note, they all hesitated mouths agape.
Tears came to my eyes, tracking down through my makeup, marring the feline contours of my face. Maybe this was why people preferred beginnings, burning bright, unmarred by what followed. Beginnings never lost their luster. In the beginning, the click of objects against the zinc bar. Glass. Bottle. The liquid splash of the rhum. A shit-eating grin. A kiss. In the end, someone was screaming in Palazzetto Pisani. Later, they told me it was me.
Lauren Sarazen is a freelance writer who lives in Paris, France. She graduated from Chapman University and received her MA in Literature from Université Sorbonne Nouvelle. Her words have appeared in Hobart, The London Magazine, The Washington Post, Elle, The Los Angeles Review of Books, The Stinging Fly, and more.
To discover more content exclusive to our print and digital editions, subscribe here to receive a copy of The London Magazine to your door every two months, while also enjoying full access to our extensive digital archive of essays, literary journalism, fiction and poetry.