Edited by Andrea Spofford | Barry Kitterman | Amy Wright
Marina in Blue
It was during the brunch for planning the bridal shower that the connection was made. No one had mentioned anything during the bride’s endless emails about color schemes and silhouettes. No one mentioned anything during the other planning parties. Even during the final
decisions on hemlines, when someone said cheerily to Marina Thompson that the just-above-the-knee skirt would cover her scar, no one mentioned the royal blue.
But then at the brunch conversation turned to how grateful the bridesmaids were to the bride for picking such flattering dresses.
“It looks especially amazing on you, Marina,” someone said, “but then I guess blue dresses are your signature.”
The table fell silent. Then a few pretended to misunderstand and said something about blue matching Marina’s eyes while others covered their mouths with their hands in exaggerated gasps or scolded the girl who had spoken. The bride ended up crying in the restaurant’s bathroom about her color scheme being ruined, and the maid of honor dragged Marina in to assure her the bridesmaids’ dresses were not at all like the other blue dress, since the bridesmaid dresses were strapless and had no sequins. The bride and maid of honor discussed removing Marina from the wedding party, but decided against it as the groomsmen had already ordered their custom tuxedos. Instead, they decided on adding yellow ribbon belts to the dresses—the wedding’s other main color. They decided this was even better, as the bride’s bouquet was going to be dyed blue roses and yellow daisies. All was well, and they returned to their table.
The brunch was in Santana Row, an upscale shopping center in San Jose. It was built to resemble a European plaza: fountains, balconies, facades. Years ago Marina had dreamed of living in one of the overpriced condos above the shops, but now it was too crowded for her,
too loud. And even though it was near the Santa Clara border, she didn’t like knowing she was in San Jose. She knew that hang-up was pointless; you could hardly drive anywhere in the South Bay without crossing San Jose’s octopus borders at some point. But right outside Santana Row was wide, loud Stevens Creek Boulevard, which would turn into San Carlos
Street, which would lead to downtown. And there would be the lot—apparently being built upon, she had learned from Aimee.
So she was glad when the brunch was over and she could drive in the opposite direction, past the endless shopping centers of suburban west San Jose and over the invisible border of Saratoga. She still drove with her left leg, even though her physical therapist had told her not
to, and by the time she got home her ankle and calf were tired.
Her mother’s Saratoga house was large. Its exterior was stone, and there were five bedrooms and a pool. It was her childhood home, but she wasn’t sure if that was what it felt like. Her mother had bought the house with her first husband, Marina’s lawyer father. But Marina could barely remember the three of them living there together; her parents divorced when she was in preschool. Her mother kept the house, and soon a boyfriend moved in, the father of Marina’s sister Terra. After he left, there had been another man and another marriage, which produced two more sisters. That marriage was also over.
Marina hadn’t even gotten through the foyer when the older of these two youngest, Emma, ran towards her.
“Is Terra coming over? Mom won’t take me driving.”
“I said we’d do it tomorrow,” their mother called from upstairs.
“Why can’t we do it now? You’re not doing anything,” Emma yelled back.
“I’ll take you,” said Marina, “just let me get changed and sit down a moment.”
“But you drive weird,” said Emma.
“I have swimming,” called Mabel from her room.
Marina went to her mother’s crafting room. Two card tables were covered with painted flower pots, balls of yarn, bags of dyed feathers, stacks of felt, and bottles of glue, but her mother was at the desk, looking at her computer. She worked sporadically as a freelance interior
“Is Terra coming by?” Marina asked.
Terra was twenty-four and in graduate school at UC Santa Cruz. She drove up over the mountains to Saratoga almost every weekend.
“I don’t know.”
Marina went to her room, to the room that was now her room. She had had the biggest non-master bedroom growing up, but when she went off to college, Emma had gotten it and Mabel had gotten Emma’s old room. When Terra went to college, Terra’s bedroom had been turned into the crafting room. Now that Marina had moved back home, she stayed in Mabel’s original room, the smallest. It still had Mabel’s old twin bed with a pink lamb comforter and a set of drawers with a giraffe stenciled on the side.
Before the fire, Marina had been living with her boyfriend in Mountain View. She had worked as a marketing assistant at a tech company and he worked as an engineer at another tech company. They had been talking about moving to San Francisco, to the Marina District. Marina in the Marina. She had imagined herself and her boyfriend having mimosas in a waterfront restaurant, walking to the clubs hand-in-hand, decorating a condo with a view of the bay. He had since moved to the Mission.
Marina sat on the small bed and fought the urge to lie down—either on the bed or in the tub in the bathroom down the hall. She knew it was illogical, her desire to hide in the bathroom, as if the tile and water could save her from a fire. Eleven people had died in the bathrooms of the Club Comet. Some had reportedly splashed themselves with water from the toilets to try and hold off the flames. Some had soaked their shirts and held them over their faces as masks. Nothing had helped; the cause of death for all of them had been asphyxiation. But she still imagined filling the tub and lying safely under the water. Like a mermaid. She would look up through the water and see the flames, but they wouldn’t reach her.
She heard the front door open. Terra was home. Marina let herself lie down then, relieved that she could. Terra would calm Emma down and then take Emma driving and she would take Mabel to her swim class.
A minute or so later Marina heard her sister’s footsteps on the stairs, so she sat up and straightened her hair. Terra came into Marina’s room while simultaneously giving a single knock on the door.
“You want to take Mabel to swimming and I’ll take Emma for driving practice?” she asked.
“Sure,” said Marina.
“You all right?” asked Terra.
But Terra kept looking at her. Marina didn’t know how Terra could tell something was wrong—she hadn’t been crying, so her black mascara was perfect—but she knew. And Marina knew that Terra was trying to guess what Marina would do next. If she would say she smelled smoke and force the entire family out of the house like she used to. If she would go to every electrical outlet in the house, pressing her hand against the plastic covers and asking the others if they felt warm. If she would start staying in the pool again, fully dressed except for her jeans,
clinging to the edge and staring up at the roof.
“I’m fine. Bridesmaid drama.”
“Don’t tell me it’s about the dress.”
“I told you they’d notice.”
“You do not have to put up with that.”
She had met the bride at Santa Clara University. They had held back each other’s hair after nights out then, and later, at upscale clubs and private cocktail parties, laughed about those inelegant days.
“It’ll be over soon,” said Marina.
Terra left her alone then, and Marina changed out of the green top and tiered black skirt she had worn for the brunch.
The swimming lessons were in an indoor pool. There was a room for the parents to sit where they could look through a large glass window at their kids. Some of the parents read books or played with their phones. A few watched intently, standing by the window and muttering suggestions to kids who couldn’t hear them. Marina sat and watched silently.
It looked like such a fireproof space. The large pool cast everything in cool blue light, and all the surfaces were tile. But it could still burn. The Sutro Baths in San Francisco were proof of that. She remembered going to the Cliff House with her family and looking down on the ruins: cement pools filled with seawater. The Sutro Baths, a former palace of water, had burned down. Here at the pool, she had her escape route planned. She would run to the water and get Mabel, then run out the emergency exit at the back of the pool. Most people would try to go back out through the front, and that door would become crammed with people.
“You’re Mabel’s sister, right?”
A man, a father maybe in his late thirties or early forties, had spoken. She had noticed him staring at her since the lesson began.
“Yes,” she said.
“I’m Grant, Alyssa’s dad,” he said.
She didn’t want to talk to this man with his wedding ring and forceful eyes.
“Hi. I’m Marina,” she said, still staring at the pool.
“Mabel’s really good.”
She didn’t want to say anything, but felt she should. “She wants to be on the team when she gets to high school.”
“I’m sure she will.”
Marina took out her phone. She had a new email. It was from a college friend with the subject “fucked up blog.” She knew what it was about. There were other unopened emails in her inbox with similar subjects. They had started coming in the night before. She put her phone
back in her purse.
“Did you swim?” the dad asked.
“No. Just Mabel.”
She stared straight ahead. She was used to men talking to her, but now clumsy introductions to conversation were sometimes continued with, “Hey, weren’t you…” Then they would present themselves as the sensitive hero, and any disinterest she expressed would be written off
as her being unable to trust again. Or being the type of conceited bitch who wore slinky dresses and stilettos to clubs.
The man turned towards her again, but fortunately, her phone pinged. She took it back out of her purse. She had a text from Aimee Nguyen.
“Saw all the crap,” the text said. “Let me know if you want to talk. If you haven’t seen it don’t bother it’s stupid.”
Aimee had also been at Club Comet. She had been burned on her shoulders and upper arms. The synthetic material of her shrug had melted. She had felt it dripping with her skin down her back, but had kept moving forward until she reached the sidewalk. She was the Club Comet survivor Marina talked to the most. They spoke of being asked during bikini season what had happened, of being told not to worry because they were still pretty. They knew they were lucky. They had their limbs. They had their vision. They had their faces. Marina’s only scars were on her right leg: a thick line from hip to knee and suture marks on her foot.
“People sent me links but I haven’t looked,” Marina texted back.
“Don’t. It’s really really dumb. Heather’s making a blog post about it but she says she won’t use your name if you don’t want.”
Marina looked back up through the window to the pool. The students were at one end of the pool, listening to the instructor before the next set of laps. She saw Mabel, her young face focused.
“I don’t really want to deal with it,” she typed back to Aimee.
“Let her call me M or whatever. If people want to find out my name they will.”
She went to the Club Comet Survivors page. A few people had linked the blog post there,
too, angry or resigned. Marina preferred to ignore events like this one on the internet, to let them float by like debris in some distant stream. But she felt that she should acknowledge her defenders, at least.
“Hi everyone,” she typed. “I’m aware of the blog post but haven’t been able to make myself read it. Thank you for all your support. I understand it concerns Jessica. May she rest in peace.”
She hoped it didn’t sound phony. Was it phony?
Marina worked at a fine dining restaurant in downtown Saratoga. She hadn’t planned on staying there long, but it had been a year. A desk job would be easier on her foot, but she hadn’t started looking. Sometimes customers recognized her from the news, and that was awkward to discuss after reciting the day’s specials, but they left big tips. Sometimes customers recognized her from high school, and they did not leave big tips. With those diners, she pretended she was wearing a mask, a smiley mask that couldn’t be affected by smug looks.
The money she earned that didn’t go to COBRA and medical bills went into a savings account. For some day. Her mother didn’t charge her rent as long as she drove the girls around. Supposedly there would be a settlement payout to the Club Comet victims at some point, but Marina knew she didn’t need it in the same way others did. Her father said it would mostly go to lawyers.
She decided to look at the link during her break. Her break was only ten minutes, so she would have no time to obsess over it, no matter how bad. She went out behind the building where the parking lot ended abruptly, the land dropping away to a creek below that was hard to see even during the day due to the dense brush, and impossible now at night.
“This blog is ridiculous!” a friend had written in one of the emails. “What jealous fat fucks! I commented and told them I knew you and that you couldn't lift her anyways. You’re like 110 for crying out loud!!!”
She clicked on the link.
It was the photo of herself she had seen all over, the photo that had become the defining photo of the fire, attached to articles in the local news and on blogs in China. The photo was of the broken window of the San Jose nightclub, and she was perhaps a third of the way out—just
her head, arms, and chest. Her face was grim, determined. Her blonde hair was plastered to her cheek with sweat. Beside her was a shirtless man already half out the window, half his body black with soot. The hands of others reached between them, stretching and grasping. Smoke plumed above them, pouring out of any possible gap. One of Marina's hands grabbed the outside of the window ledge, and the other was on the shoulder of another woman whose mouth was open in a scream.
The text below the photo read: “This is the epitome of thin privilege. The thin girl is LITERALLY TRAMPLING the fat girl to climb out. She doesn't stop to help the other girl up, she just CRAWLS OVER HER. It doesn't even occur to her that the fat girl is human and
just as deserving of life as she is.”
The other girl was Jessica Dobson. Marina hadn't known her before the fire. She wasn't sure she had even seen her face when she was alive. She had tried to remember Jessica: a large girl in a black capped-sleeve dress and dangly fake pearl earrings, dyed black hair in an up-do. When Marina was swept with the crowd into the staff break room, there were already several people climbing through the broken window and several crowded below it. Marina thought she heard someone shouting, “Get us out! Get us out!” Maybe that was Jessica, but she doubted she would ever know. There was so much noise. There were so many arms. There was so much heat and smoke. She kept moving forward as people pushed to the window. Then the tenor of the screams from the back of the crowd changed, and Marina knew the fire had reached them.
She tried to remember the feel of Jessica's shoulder beneath her hand as she hoisted herself up. It must have been warm and cushiony, but she couldn’t remember it. At that point her ribs had already been broken by the crush of the crowd against the bar and her right foot had been trampled until her shoe was gone and her bones were in pieces, but when she saw the window, those sensations receded. The only physical feelings she could remember from the break room were from moments after that photo was taken. Her hip was impaled on a broken, bent guard bar on one side of the window as more people jammed through the opening. She
was stuck again—and so close to the outside. Even with the smoke she could see the world that was not on fire, and how close she was to it. She pushed with her other leg, grabbed the outstretched hand of someone standing below her, and pulled. When her flesh began giving way and her body moved forward she felt nothing but relief.
She had seen the photos from those moments, too. And video. Suddenly she is out of the window, staggering away on one shoe, right leg torn open. Then she is on the asphalt of the parking lot, watching the building go up in flames. She is covered in soot and blood, but her
blue sequined dress is still sparkling. She didn’t remember the photographers being there, but there she was in the news: a glamorous heap, watching the flames in horror. That photo was also widely circulated. She knew what people said about her online, things like “I’d still hit it” and “bad night, Barbie?”
She wasn't sure how long she sat in the parking lot. She tried to get up and fell down. She called her friends' names, but realized her voice was hardly making a sound. Several people grabbed her by the shoulders and shouted, “Are you all right?” She would nod, and then they
would be gone. The screaming continued, but only from outside the building. A person was dragged by with no hair and no clothes, his whole body in patches of dark and pale, pieces that looked like torn sheets of plastic but were skin hanging from his arms. Marina would later learn
his name was Ryan Hernandez, and that he lived.
Then someone had asked, “Can you walk? People who can walk are being told to go across the street.”
The someone was a middle-aged woman, thickly built and tall. Marina couldn't process the question and stared. The woman was wearing gray sweat pants, a Garfield sweatshirt, and slippers. She had been sleeping. It was late at night. Other people had been sleeping.
“Is everyone out?” Marina finally asked.
Then the woman had lifted Marina into her arms as if she were a child and carried her across the street to the EMTs.
Of the 173 people who died, twenty-one of them had been in the staff room, a little room that would have felt crowded with six people in it. The ones in the middle and front, like Jessica Dobson, died from smoke inhalation and from being crushed by the mass of bodies. The ones
in the back died from the flames.
Most of her family was in bed when she got back from the restaurant. Their mother and Mabel
were probably sleeping. Emma was probably on her phone. Terra was at the kitchen table, reading and highlighting a textbook.
“Would you mind sleeping on the air mattress tonight?” asked Marina. “Or I could, if you want the bed.”
Usually when Terra was down for the weekend she slept on the couch, but during that first year she had slept on an air mattress in Mabel’s old bedroom where Marina was staying. When Marina woke in the night smelling smoke, Terra would tell her there was no smoke. When
Marina woke up crying, Terra would stay up with her until Marina fell back asleep.
Terra had put off grad school for a year after the fire. At the hospital their mother had done nothing but cry while Emma and Mabel huddled together in the corner. When Terra arrived, she asked the nurses questions and called Emma and Mabel’s father to pick the girls up. She called Marina’s father and Marina’s boyfriend. At Marina’s insistence she tracked down the two friends she had been with at the club, girls she knew from her boyfriend’s group of friends; they were fine.
In the following months, Terra took Marina to surgery and physical therapy. She stayed on the phone with the insurance company. She organized co-pay receipts and bills in a binder. Later, Terra and Terra’s father went to Mountain View and retrieved Marina’s things from the apartment she had shared with her boyfriend.
Marina took the air mattress out of the closet again and set it up, covering it with a mishmash of blankets from the linen closet. Then she lay on the bed with her phone while Terra took a shower. She went back to the Club Comet Survivors page. There was a reminder for Ryan and
Andrea’s upcoming benefit concert. She had helped organize it and had designed the promotional materials—leftover skills from her old job. Ryan was on his fifth eye surgery.
“Sending support from Germany,” said one post on the event reminder. It was from someone from another survivors’ group, a girl who had been in a nightclub fire in Berlin. “I know the situation for the medical system in the USA is very bad.”
Neither Ryan or Andrea had had insurance at the time of the fire. Terra came in and settled on the air mattress.
“Thanks for sleeping in here,” said Marina.
“No problem,” said Terra. “What’s going on?”
Marina turned off the lamp on the bedside table and watched the outlet for a few moments, making sure there were no sparks. Her boyfriend had rolled his eyes when he saw her do that.
“It’s nothing. Just stupid stuff. The picture is going around again.”
“I’m trying to ignore it, but others aren’t.”
“I don’t know why they always pick on you. Why not the guys who were there? The guy in the window?”
“They do,” said Marina. “In the video, you can see after he gets out he runs, just runs away. So people call him a coward and whatnot. Say he should face a firing squad. And they say shit about Jessica. That she roasted like a pig—”
“That she probably smelled like bacon. They say that Ryan is probably an illegal immigrant. They say the woman who lost her face got what she deserved for going out to a club and leaving her kids with their grandmother. Aimee gets told she was stupid for wearing plastic. People have told Andrea she must not have tried very hard to help Ryan since she only lost half a hand.”
That she smelled like bacon. Whenever she imagined Jessica’s mother reading that phrase her lungs locked up for a moment. She hoped Jessica’s mother never saw or heard those words or any like them.
“We were just people in a building,” said Marina. “But people want to vote on it. On who should have lived or died. They see the photo of me and Jessica in the window or read about Ryan and make their decision. But it doesn’t change what happened. And here’s the thing: if I
hadn’t been there, I would have done the same. I wouldn’t have written it online, but I would have thought it. I would have been one of those assholes.”
When she saw Jessica’s high school graduation photo in the news, she realized that if she and her friends—girls she no longer talked to—had noticed Jessica that night, they might have given each other a pointed look. Or even giggled. If she had stayed home that night, what would she have thought when Jessica’s picture appeared on the television screen?
“I think everyone has thoughts like that on some level,” Terra said after a few moments. “We want to convince ourselves that bad things only happen to people we don’t like or don’t care about, even though it’s obviously not true.
“This isn’t exactly the same thing, but I first saw the picture the morning after. I went to the cafeteria, and the newspaper was on a table. The blue was the first thing I saw, I guess because almost everything else was gray, and then I saw it was the dress of the girl climbing out the window. And then I saw the girl climbing out the window was you. And even though it was all over, and you were safe then, I wanted to shove everyone else aside and pull you out. I wanted to punch that guy climbing in front of you—the one who ran—in the face.”
Marina sat at a card table in front of the outdoor music venue. She was seated between Andrea’s brother and Aimee, taking tickets and handing out nametags for Ryan’s benefit concert. She had invited the other bridesmaids, but all had declined. No matter. Soon the wedding would be over, and she wouldn’t have to see them again. This event was more
relaxed, more intimate. Most of the attendees were survivors of the fire and their friends and family. Through Marina’s persistence, some city council and chamber of commerce members were there as well. Ryan and Andrea were near the entrance, greeting their guests. Some people cried. Others seemed almost ecstatic, relieved to be in a place where burn
scars weren’t stared at.
Then Marina looked up to hand someone a nametag, and she was looking at a face she had seen that night in the parking lot.
It was the tall woman, the one who had carried her across the street to the ambulances. She had the same glasses, the same graying hair, but wore a brown blouse and sweater instead of the Garfield sweatshirt.
“Oh, my God,” Marina said. “You were there, weren’t you? You’re the one who helped me.”
The woman looked equally surprised. “And you’re the girl in the blue dress.”
“Oh, my God,” Marina said again, getting up from her plastic folding chair. “I never got to thank you.”
She hurried around the table and embraced the woman, whose arms were just as strong and secure as they had been that night.
“I always wondered what happened to you,” said the woman. “How are you doing?”
“I’m fine,” Marina said. “I’m doing fine.”
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