The man who played with matches
People use any number of metaphors to describe life. Some say it’s a waterfall, some say it’s some sort of journey. But after he returned, for me it was like being at the top of a water slide into the abyss. I saw what was below, and the path that would take me there, but I couldn’t do anything to stop sliding downward.
The day after he came into the apartment, I took him to an AA (alcoholics anonymous) meeting. I sat with him through the whole thing. People talking about their boring, monotonous life and the shitty things they did when they were high. Big woop. Then I kept him entertained the rest of the day, taking him to the cinema, shopping for actual clothes, a barber shop, etc. By the end of the day he looked like an actual human being.
I told him he could spend some days living with us, sleeping in my bed while I slept on the couch. My friend from school was more comprehensive than I could have expected. She was clearly upset about having him with us, but she said nothing. If only she knew how much I wanted things to return to normal. But I couldn’t let him on his own, at least not yet. I had to fix him first. So the next day I woke him up in the morning to go to another AA meeting, and then we went out for coffee. While we talked, I decided to ask him: “Have you decided what you want to do with your life?”
“I’ll finish my last year of college, then I’ll focus on politics,” he said. “My uncle’s greatest fear is that his political legacy is lost. He meant my sister to become president, you know? He had great plans for her. But now… now he’ll have to make do with me. Even though he really…” he shuts up. There’s something he doesn’t want to tell me, but I can feel his uncle doesn’t really like him. Still, it impresses me how focused he is considering he’s also a wreck. “You focus me,” he suddenly says without me having to ask. “I also wanted to apologize for everything,” he continues, looking down at his cup. “I-I couldn’t control myself after what happened.”
“It’s ok, don’t worry—” I say. “But it’s just,” he interrupts me, taking my hand. “I can’t help but blame you, I don’t know why. And drinking only makes me more sure of it.” I’m almost shaking. “S-sure of what?” I stutter. “That you killed her.” I chug down the rest of my coffee. “Please, forgive me,” he insists again. “Believe me, I’m way more responsible for her death than you are.”
We develop a sort of routine during that week. We get up, go to an AA meeting, then for coffee. By the next week, he feels comfortable enough to talk about what happened to him during these past few months. At first he only speaks about it in broad brushes. But I can tell there’s plenty he’s hiding. Things he’s ashamed of.
He looks like a broken man, nothing like what he was before his sister passed. He tells me he spent the first few weeks after her death at bars and friends’ houses. He drank and got into as many fights as he could. Then he ran out of both money and friends, so he had to live in the street. There he met a homeless man who helped him.
For those first few weeks, he gave me all sorts of detail. But he was completely silent about his time with some drifter that apparently terrifies him. However, today, he decided to tell me… more during our coffee time. He was fiddling nervously with a bottle of water, tearing the brand label with his fingers. “I think I’m ready now to tell you about the man who played with matches,” he starts. “Well, or just matches, for short.” “Who is that?” I asked. “You know, the drifter,” he says. “Anyway, it must have been between two or four am when I met him. I was walking down a street, pretty wasted. And there he was, on the ground, with four guys yelling at him.”
“At first I wasn’t sure what they were saying, but as I got closer I started to make out the words. ‘F-wording human waste!’ ‘Scumbag!’ they yelled at him. But there were four of them and only one of him, lying on the floor trying to cover himself with cardboard. Then they started kicking him, and I ran to help without thinking about it twice. I guess, I guess alcohol really is liquid courage… Anyway, ‘Hey!’ I yelled at them. ‘You got a problem, a-holes?’ They laughed. ‘We ain’t talkin to you,’ said one of them. ‘Just leave, b-word!’ other said as they continued kicking. I took out a pocket knife. They stopped laughing and kicking the man. ‘Look sunnyboy,’ their ringleader threatened. ‘Get the f-word back to mommy.’”
“Then one of them yelled, ‘F-wording hobo, he pissed on my shoes!’ Only it wasn’t piss. Matches lit the guy’s shoe and fire spread through his right leg. The guy started to scream for help, and the others tried to put him out. I just stood there, watching the scene.” He pauses to look at me, and speaks slower. “Have you ever… smelled human flesh burning? It’s quite… something, quite something…”
He stops again, looking at the almost-scratched label on his bottle of water. Then he continues without looking up. “Aaaanyway. I stood by matches, pointing at them with my knife. They put out the fire in the guy’s leg and left in a hurry. ‘Do you need help?’ I asked him. ‘No hospitals,’ was all he said.”
“I offered him the bottle of scotch I had in my hand, and he took a long gulp from it. From that moment, he took me everywhere he went.”