We're in a coffee shop where it's warm and cozy. The rain is falling outside the windows, and she's telling me this horrible story about how she caught on fire as a kid. But she's weird about it. She's laughing, not horror-stricken like she ought to be, like I am. Or, rather, like I want to be, but she's somehow managed to add a hint of comedy to the story and I'm having a hard time being horrified like I should be. I'm having a hard time feeling sorry for her.
I briefly wonder if she's in denial or if her emotional scars are just too deep, so I try to think of a probing question I can ask. I'm not great in the probing question department, but I have to give it a try anyhow.
"How old were you?" I ask her.
"I was five," she says. She's so matter-of-fact, it's unnerving.
"That must have been awful!"
"It's just something that happened," she tells me with a shrug.
'What the hell is wrong with this girl?' I wonder.
"Do you remember any of it?" I figure maybe she blocked it all out, so she can't really feel upset about it. Maybe she doesn't remember a thing.
"Yeah, actually. I remember a lot of it. We were watching cartoons when it happened -- I think it was Woody Woodpecker, but I might be making that part up. I was standing by the fireplace and I didn't know what happened, but I remember just knowing that something hurt behind me, so I ran, which is basically the worst thing you can do if you're on fire. Oops. So then I looked at my sister and she started screaming. I remember thinking, 'if she's screaming, it must be bad,' so I screamed, too. My mom was wearing a yellow dress and she ran in and tackled me and started rolling me around on the floor while my dad beat us with a pillow." She chuckles a little.
There goes that theory.
Maybe she really doesn't have emotional scars about it. Maybe she's actually fine. I'm having trouble figuring out how to react to her story, though. She's talking about the ambulance ride now and the hospital they took her to. I space out a bit, because I'm trying to figure out how I should be reacting, and because she has one of those voices that it's easy to not listen to. I drift back into the conversation and she's talking about skin graft surgery now and I hear myself saying, "How horrible!" I say it several times throughout the conversation, but she just kind of shrugs it off. No doubt about it, this girl is weird.
But I already know how it ends, of course. She didn't die. She didn't have lasting complications, and she has no visible scar tissue, although she's wearing long sleeves and pants, so maybe she does. I come to the conclusion that it's something she dealt with a long time ago, and I wonder how many times she's told this story. She's probably told it so often that it's not real to her anymore, like something she dreamed or read in a book. I wonder if this version of the story is the one she's settled on after years of whittling down the details. Maybe she likes telling it this way because if she told it like some people would, staring off into space and showing the horrors of her memory, I would pity her and be even more uncomfortable than I am now.
"Wow," I say when she's done. "That's crazy."
"Yeah," she shrugs. "I always win the 'I-got-hurt-worse-than-you-as-a-kid' contest, though." Then she smiles, and takes a sip of her coffee and asks me what book I'm reading.