The Girl in the Flammable Skirt

by Aimee Bender

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 680

“The Girl in the Flammable Skirt” is a series of loosely connected, often symbolic, vignettes narrated by a teenage girl.

In the first section, the girl comes home from school to find her father wearing a backpack made of stone. She tells him to take it off, and he responds by giving it to her. She puts it on her own back and stands bent over in a corner, leaving her father free to move around the house. She asks him what is in the backpack, which is very heavy. He is watching television and replies simply that it is something he owns. She asks if she can put it down, but he says no, it has to be worn. The girl returns to school wearing the heavy backpack. The teacher sits down beside her while the other students do math exercises. The teacher brings her a tissue, even though the girl is not crying. The teacher says she just wanted to bring the girl something light.

In the second section, the girl relates a joke she has heard about two rats, in which one rat is in reality a dog.

The third section returns to the girl and her father. She tells him she loves him more than salt. He is touched by this remark. He had a heart attack two years ago, and because he has weak legs, he must use a wheelchair. Once he asked her to sit in a chair for a day to see what it was like. She sat in it for an entire afternoon and spent an hour of that time knocking against the wooden chair leg with her hands, for luck and protection. This annoyed her father.

She then visited the bathroom and gazed out of the window. The family lives in a high-rise apartment, and the girl often wonders what would happen if there was a fire and they had to evacuate. Who would carry her father? She has a dark fantasy about what might happen in such a situation. The fantasy involves the death of both her father and her mother.

The fourth section is about the girl’s relationship with her boyfriend Paul, whose parents are alcoholics. She keeps him in her closet, bringing him food. He loves sitting in the dark and also the fact that her house is so quiet and sober. She says that it is quiet because her father feels bad and is resting in the bedroom. She also reveals that her home is a humorless one, and she imagines a much more relaxed atmosphere in Paul’s disorderly home. Paul takes hold of her hand and holds it for at least half an hour, then kisses it. He pulls her inside the closet and kisses her some more. However, he lets her out because she begins to cry.

In the fifth section, the girl’s father is on his deathbed in the hospital, but he does not die. The scene has happened several times before, which makes it hard for the girl to take it seriously. She prays for him, but her prayers are strained. When she leaves the hospital, she passes a janitorial supply closet, where two rats poke their noses out of a hole in the bottom. It is late afternoon and she is alone. She does not know what to do with herself and sits down near the closet. She feels free and light but wants her father to come and give her his heavy backpack again; her back is breaking without it.

In the final section, the teenager thinks of a girl in a flammable skirt whom she read about in a newspaper. The girl wore the skirt to a party but danced too close to some candles, causing the skirt to catch fire. Her dance partner rolled her up in a carpet but she received third-degree burns. The narrator wonders whether in the first moments of the fire, the girl believed she had caused it herself in the sheer heat of her passion for the music and the dance.

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