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Old Flame

My girlfriend was a wildland firefighter.

Panel 1: Old Flame
Panel 2: I thought I was dating this girl, Sheila, but then she set me up with her ex.  Sheila: Hey, Lydia! I think you’ll like Joan better than me.  Lydia: Oh.   Panel 3: Joan and I kissed for the first time to the 100 percent least sexy song in all of human history.   	Background music: A-B-C, it’s easy as 1-2-3.  Panel 4: I got so drunk that I hardly remembered the kiss. Both my foster dog, Maralynn, and I barfed the next morning.  	Lydia (to dog): Yours looks like cottage cheese.        	  Panel 5: Joan called to see how I was feeling and offered to stick me with an IV.  	Lydia: That sounds scary.  	Joan: But it’s the best hangover cure!   Panel 6: I became more intrigued by Joan when I learned she was a wildland firefighter for half the year, out in Klamath Falls, Oregon.  	Lydia: Whoa, like you fight fires? 	Joan: Yeah. 	Lydia: Like actual fires?  	Joan: Yeah. 	 	Lydia: Like in houses?  	Joan: No.  	Lydia: Like in buildings? 	Joan: No.   Panel 7: I soon noticed that her palms were a grayish color, which concerned me because of where they went.  	Lydia: Um, what is that? 	Joan: It’s ash.  Panel 8: She insisted that the ash was “super embedded” in her “deepest pores” and could never be washed off.  	Joan: Hey, come over here. 	Lydia: Maybe in a minute.  Panel 9: But finally I forced her to wash her hands in front of me, and the ash came right off.  	Joan: Oh. Weird.  Panel 10: She lived in Brooklyn in a desolate gap between neighborhoods, in the shadow of Woodhull Hospital. Her apartment building had been condemned and gutted after an incurable bedbug infestation.  	Lydia: Um, does this place have heat?  	Joan: No.  	Lydia: Do you have a blanket? 	Joan: My cat sorta died on it, and I haven’t washed it yet.   Panel 11: But we stayed up for hours every night as she told me all about fire season.  	Lydia: What’s the weirdest thing you’ve seen?  	Joan: Animals falling out of trees as the fire came, like snakes and rats.  	Lydia: Have you ever gotten injured?  	Joan: I have a permanent bruise on my ass from carrying my ax and shit.  	Lydia: What if the flames overtake you?  	Joan: They give you this pouch you can hide inside. 	Lydia: Does that work? 	Joan: Actually, no.  Panel 12: She told me about all the guys on the crew, and this local girl who slept with all of them — including Joan.  	Joan: She stuck her tongue out like this before she kissed me. 	Lydia: Cool!   Panel 13: I wanted to come with her to Klamath Falls in the spring, but she pushed to stay with me in Brooklyn.  	Joan: I don’t need to fight fires anymore.  	Lydia: But it’s who you are! It’s YOU.  	 Panel 14: I think she knew we’d break up out there if I followed her. But the firefighter girl was who I loved.  	Joan: If you want to go West, we can drive my Bronco home from Santa Cruz. 	Lydia: YES.   Panel 15: I’d never been west of Wisconsin. Together, we drove the ancient truck through California and the Southwest, surviving on Joan’s pre-packaged rations from the last fire season.  	Joan: I love vegetable omelet, because it’s the yuckiest. 	Lydia: It’s like congealed sap.   Panel 16: We ran out of water on a brutal desert hike, were almost struck by a rattlesnake, and slept through a savage windstorm. Every day was scalding. 	Lydia: It’s so hot. We must’ve slept till noon! 	Joan: It’s six a.m.   Panel 17: Our relationship died after that sweltering, endless trip. There was nothing left to talk about, somehow, after she started her new life in Brooklyn. But I still think of her out there, fighting fires, though she isn’t anymore.

Lydia Conklin is a writer and cartoonist who’s received two Pushcart Prizes, fellowships from MacDowell, Yaddo, and Emory University, and lives in New Jersey.