Stupid Lovely Confidence

Nazifa Islam

She walks the edge of the field setting fires. Smoke wafts in the sweet evening breeze and she looks behind her thinking the darkness sets off the flames beautifully. When a wavering orange ribbon lines the grass, she retreats to the patch of dirt at its center. She played baseball here as a child. It was years and years ago, but she remembers those summer days in loving detail.

A swarm of boys and girls scrabbling in the broiling heat. They sunburned. Freckles erupted on their arms and shoulders. They scraped elbows and knees. But that was the worst of it. They trooped home at sunset absolutely filthy, but their parents didn’t mind. Just sent them straight to the tub before dinner.

She remembers soaking in warm water, gingerly cleaning dirt from her knobbly knee with a yellow washcloth—she’d scraped it sliding into home. She always went for home every hit she made, couldn’t stand the idea of waiting at first or second or even third base. It drove her teammates crazy. They would have refused outright to play with her if there wasn’t something intoxicating in watching her run.

When she ran flat out, she bore a path you could see through the summer dust. You could barely, just barely, keep your eyes on her. She was always across first base before anyone had figured out what to do with the ball. No matter how many games you played, you forgot for a dizzy moment what to do with the ball when she dropped the bat and began to run. She was worth watching.

A spry figure flying across the earth with the speed of a bird, she had feet instead of wings somehow. Her body was a blur; no one ever saw how broadly she smiled. More often than not, she’d come sliding into home right alongside the ball and no one could guess which would make it first. Sometimes it was the ball, sometimes it was her. She didn’t mind either way. It was the running she was after.

She sits down in the middle of the dirt patch, dark gray smoke thicker and thicker in the air, the sound of a bat hitting a ball echoing in her ears. She is done with running. She listens to the faint sounds of children playing—yowls of fevered hope, shouts of encouragement, a few hisses. She listens until the game is eaten up by the roar of flames licking the dirt.

She studies the wall of fire and heat. It is eager to race across the bare earth before it. Eager. She remembers being eager. She remembers waiting for the pitch, adrenaline making her hands tremble. She never wanted to win, just to run the bases. There was something about the chatter, the dust, the joy that was layered thick on everything and everyone. She didn’t know it at ten but she needed all of it to run.

She stopped playing baseball in middle school—outgrew the patch of dirt, the field of grass, couldn’t find time for bat and ball—but she never doubted that she could still run if she wanted to. She held memories of racing across the earth close to her like a talisman and walked through the years with a stupid lovely confidence. It was a decade before she learned she couldn’t pick up her feet and bolt anymore.

His name was Garrett. Their story was familiar: he was kind and then he wasn’t. He broke her wrist and two ribs. She moved back home. She moped. It was natural. Anyone would mope. That’s what her parents said to one another. That’s what the whole town said. But no one understood. The ribs and wrist didn’t matter. They hurt, but they didn’t matter. Garrett grabbed her, she tried to run, and her feet faltered—they were clumsy. She discovered in that awful moment that she really had feet, not wings. The shock cushioned the pain when he began breaking bones; she didn’t care—she almost wanted him to kill her.

To be so human. To be ordinary. She came home and lay in her childhood bed and remembered again and again the dumb, startled feeling that sunk in her stomach when she needed wings and all she had were feet. Shame ate at her. Despair joined. She was a girl like any other—hadn’t even realized she’d been going through life thinking she was special.

She didn’t plan on setting fires. Just woke up one midnight with an urge to stare at the field—the grass, the packed dirt, who she once was. She stole out the backdoor and walked to the field and lay down where she remembered home plate and watched fireflies twinkle and twinkle. Their soft orange light appeared and vanished, appeared and vanished. The night was sodden with a sweltering humidity but a chill chased through her again and again as she watched that light fade and reappear until all she wanted was to stay warm. A lit cigarette, a dry tree branch, and there were flames. There were enough flames. Then she lay day down, and the night was roiling with dry heat and bright walls of fire.

She knows flames can jump stretches of dirt if they really want to—if they’re eager enough. That’s what she’s waiting for now that she’s finally warm all the way through: to see how eager these flames are to bound across the dirt with enviable speed.

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