By Joe Baumann
They called him Hot Lips, not because he had a beautiful mouth—he did—but because he could breathe fire. Every belch after chugging Natural Light came with a small burst of flame. Every exhalation while he ate triple-pepper spicy chicken wings or grilled cheese from the campus dining hall was like lighting a blow torch. If he coughed, the blue heat of a Sterno canister flashed between his teeth. He could make smoke seep from his nose if he held his breath long enough, and he could puff out little rings of flame like people did with cigar smoke. When he showed strangers what he could do, they would clap, then go back to playing beer pong or Fuck the Dealer or slip into the crowd of drunk kids sloshing beer from their Solo cups as they danced to the heavy rap music his fraternity brothers played at parties. No one ever asked him his real name.
The fire didn’t hurt, he said. It was like a feathery tickle, a relieving scratch along an itchy patch of skin. Yes, if he went too long between exhaled flames he started to feel weird. It built up, like a belch waiting to get out.
People asked how he slept, if he had to worry about roasting his pillows or setting his sheets on fire.
No, he told them. He breathed like a normal person most of the time. He was pretty normal, he said.
This made people laugh, even though he was being serious.
Sometimes, people wanted him to open his mouth wide, jaw stretched to the precipice of dislocation. But he could see their disappointment when all they saw was a set of normal—and perfectly white—teeth, a regular tongue, a standard uvula and epiglottis. Then they would wander away, watching his tricks with vague disinterest. He felt each dismissal like a tiny, bloodless stab.
He spent lots of time at the college gym, lifting weights and running HIIT sprints on treadmills. He filled barbells with forty-five pound plates and let out small bursts of flame as he pressed the weight up, feeling power in his chest. As he ran, he let out heaves of fire that licked toward the mirrors along the wall, leaving small circles of soot he wiped away with his towel so the student workers didn’t glare at him. He wore tank tops because he liked the way his shoulders swelled with blood and lactic acid. He’d been blessed with Swedish bone structure and thick blond hair by his Nordic parents, and when he told people about his background they laughed, wondering how someone with roots in such a cold place could be so hot.
Some girls wanted him to go down on them, to know if the heat of his tongue would do new, spicy things. His friends laughed about paying him for blowjobs, his mouth warm and welcoming, and he laughed with them, never admitting that he had, in fact, never gotten a blowjob of his own. He wasn’t afraid of sex, didn’t view his virginity as something pure and porcelain and needing delicate safe-keeping. But he always saw himself as a farce, a thing drunk sorority girls and his fraternity brothers laughed at, well-intentioned joking that he was supposed to be on the inside of.
Hot Lips was voted fraternity vice president at the end of his sophomore year, which meant he got to share a private bathroom with the president and had a room of his own; he wasn’t subjected to a tiny space with bunked beds made of rough-hewn two-by-fours etched with the fraternity numbers of everyone who’d slept on them, and he didn’t have to contend with roommates bringing home girls, wasn’t subject to their sex noises while pretending to be asleep, didn’t have to avoid them by passing out on a couch in the foyer. He didn’t have to cram his clothes into a doorless closet with makeshift shelves that fell down under the weight of too many hangers. Hot Lips kept his room clean; when he moved in, he painted the walls a light lilac and didn’t pin up any cheap posters of beer bottles and half-naked women, nor did he hijack and hang stolen bar signs. He vacuumed the throw rug he settled between his bed and desk every weekend with a Hoover he kept in his closet, and he even Windexed his windows and his flat-screen television. His room smelled oceanic and beachy thanks to expensive air fresheners he plugged into the outlets near the floor. The fraternity liked to feature his room during tours, ignoring the crammed, gross rooms that the rest of the guys occupied. Hot Lips would be sitting at his computer during rush week, playing video games or, more often, writing something in a notebook, “Poems,” his friends would say. Hot Lips would smile and lean back, not arguing with them.
He was a good vice president, staying sober during big parties to make sure no one called the cops and issued them a noise violation; whenever drunk sorority girls started screeching on the lawn or in the basement stairwell that led up into the side yard, he let out a warm, glowing breath and asked if people would please go back inside. He had a nice smile—those beautiful lips, the color of cherry, those white teeth, like fresh snow—and people complied, asking if he would like to dance.
He did like to dance, but he always said no, imagining his body up against strangers. Hot Lips had dreams of dancing, sexy bodies slithering around him, pawing at his arms and his chest, which was always stripped bare in his dreams, the hands touching him as hot as the fire that churned in his throat. These faceless bodies whispered into his ears, things like, “Light me up,” and “I want to burn, please.” They would reach down between his legs, and he would shiver awake, erection throbbing under his body weight.
Hot Lips knew everyone knew of his solitude. They knew, too, that it would one day get broken apart, that someone would show up and free him of his virginal loneliness. What none of his fraternity brothers knew was that it would be a kid with hair dyed the blue-green of a pond with matching eyes. Clive Lewindowski stumbled into their house on a Friday night early in spring semester of Hot Lips’ junior year, four girls from his dorm in tow. Clive had been heavily recruited by every fraternity when he rushed in the fall; rumor had it he was excellent at sports and would boost the chances of whichever house he joined winning the annual intramural competition for the next four years. But Clive didn’t join anywhere that semester, telling recruitment chairs that he needed more time to decide what was right for him. No one wanted to frighten him away, so all of the fraternities welcomed him with warm greetings and slaps on the back whenever he showed up to their parties. It didn’t hurt that girls followed him around, a cluster of freshman women, some of whom had joined sororities and some who had not, all chasing after him as he party-hopped.
Hot Lips was playing a game of beer pong in the house foyer when Clive walked in, stomping his snow-crusted shoes along the welcome mat on the front porch before heaving himself inside, shaking flakes from his thick hair. Clive and Hot Lips had not met in the fall because Hot Lips had come down with the flu during rush and had kept to his room, ignoring the wafting voices that floated up through the air vents during the tours and meet and greet. Now, though, Hot Lips found himself unable to stop staring at Clive, who was tall and wide, his limbs bearing the sinewy strength of a tennis player. His eyes darted around the room, taking in the scene of the party, which was small thanks to the weather, clusters of co-eds chatting while gripping their beer cans, some sitting on ratty couches around rickety tables where they played drinking games. His eyes settled on Hot Lips, who missed a shot because he was distracted by Clive’s hard gaze.
Clive wandered, his coterie of girls following him like a flock of gulls after an ice cream cone. He eventually settled at the beer pong table. Hot Lips felt the flame that raged in his throat grow harder, hotter, as if he was flaring with sickness. He and his partner had one cup left to make, and he threw three shots long before finally sinking the ping pong ball with a fluff of noise as it hit beery foam. His partner, a bean-pole studying linguistics and psychology who was terrible at anything athletic except for the game they’d been playing, asked Clive if he wanted a turn. Hot Lips blinked at his partner, who shrugged and said he was too full to play anymore. With a burp that left a spark blinking off his teeth, Hot Lips said, “Okay.” Clive nodded assent, and took the ball that Hot Lips held out toward him.
Clive smelled like the ocean, as if his hair had seeped into his pores. He said hello and offered a tight, strong handshake, his palms calloused. When Hot Lips introduced himself, Clive raised an eyebrow.
“That can’t be your name.”
“Nickname,” Hot Lips said.
“What’s your real name?”
“You don’t want to know why they call me that?”
Clive dunked his ping pong ball in the cup of water meant for rinsing. “I’d like to know your actual name.”
Hot Lips licked his lips, little flames buzzing at the edges. He let out a short breath, his teeth backlit by the light of his internal sun, and said, “Allen.”
They played three games, first against two of the girls Clive had brought along, who were lucky to sink two of their ten cups before Clive, who shot with his arm reached up high like he was going to dunk it into a basketball hoop, swished the last cup, making four shots in a row to end the game. He offered Hot Lips a high-five after every made shot, and Hot Lips let his hand linger against Clive’s, his eyes sparkling with the heat that was usually concentrated in his mouth. They didn’t lose that third game but instead gave up the table when Clive said he could use some fresh air. His gaggle of girls tried to follow, though two of them had split off to play King’s Cup in the tv room, but he shook them off.
“Join me?” he said to Hot Lips.
They grabbed beers and marched outside, not to the front but to the deck at the back of the house, which was empty, its composite planks swept with a thin coating of snow. Neither Clive nor Hot Lips wore a coat, and both shivered, but they drank their cold beers, Hot Lips leaning against the porch rail while Clive blew into his hands and pulled a Zippo from his pocket.
“I don’t smoke,” he said, as if Hot Lips had accused him. “I just like the feel of the flame close to my skin. I’m always cold.”
Hot Lips smiled, beer churning in his gut. His breath came out in puffs of condensation full of tiny flames like the butt-ends of fireflies. “I’m always hot.”
“So I gathered,” Clive said, “from the nickname.”
“That’s not really why they call me that.”
“Then why do they?”
“You really don’t know?”
So Hot Lips showed him. He did all his tricks, pouring smoke from his nostrils, grinning so fire seeped between his incisors. He stuck out his tongue, letting a racetrack of cerulean heat screech down its center. Clive watched, eyes lidded. He crinkled his beer can with his fingers and drank. When Hot Lips was done, Clive nodded. “Impressive. What’s it feel like?”
“It doesn’t hurt.”
“That’s not what I asked,” Clive pointed toward Hot Lips’ chest, his stomach. “In there. What’s it like in there?”
No one had ever asked, really. And not the way Clive was asking, looking him in the eye, not ready to move away now that the carnival sideshow had come to its conclusion. His eyes were shadowed by the darkness and the falling snow, but Hot Lips could feel their piercing color, the occluded algae-aquamarine that he’d memorized as they stood next to each other, just as he’d memorized Clive’s cleft chin, the slight leftward lean of his nose, the thickness of his eyelashes like he was wearing mascara.
“It’s like I’ve got a furnace,” Hot Lips said.
“Sometimes it is.”
“And other times?”
“Other times it’s okay.”
They drank their beers in silence. They could hear the party on the other side of the door, voices rising to outdo one another, the thrum of the music, now something country that Hot Lips knew the social chair would have turned on, twangy lyrics about red Solo cups that the girls that came to their house loved to scream. A car pulled into the house lot behind Clive, illuminating his ears and mussy hair.
“Would you like a tour?” Hot Lips said. “Of the upstairs?”
“I’ve seen it before,” Clive said.
“Have you seen all of it?”
Clive raised an eyebrow, then shrugged and said, “I guess I haven’t.”
They went back inside, the heat blasting them in the face. Snow melted on Hot Lips’ shoulders as he led the way to the second floor. They passed composites and pledge class paddles. Clive stopped on the landing between floors, staring at the one with Hot Lips’ name on it. “At least they let you put the real thing on this,” he said, running his fingers over the letters.
Hot Lips smiled. “There was some debate.”
“I like Allen. It suits you better.” Clive glanced at him. “Though you do have nice lips.”
Hot Lips swallowed a warm breath.
“They ever smack you with this thing?” Clive asked.
“No,” Hot Lips said, shaking his head. “I’m sure they do that at some schools, but not here.”
“Good. You don’t deserve that.”
Hot Lips took the remaining stairs two at a time. The second floor was a giant horseshoe with a windowless, three-person bedroom in the center, called The Coffin because it received no natural light. The walls had been painted over winter break, a fresh, blank white, a trio of holes made by drunk idiots punching through the drywall repaired and sanded over, and the effect was dizzying in its cleanliness; Hot Lips decided he would propose some kind of décor to interrupt the snowy glare.
Along the exterior of the horseshoe were half a dozen of the smaller rooms, each with scuffed hardwood floors and narrow desks and lofted beds. Most nights, people could come and go from the first floor to the second, but generally people stayed downstairs where communal beer was within close range. The second floor was quiet aside from the spilled hum of downstairs and the distant tinkle of the one or two occupied rooms. Many of the doors were closed, their occupants downstairs. One was cracked open, home to a sophomore who was constantly high, even though technically their leases forbade controlled substances. Everyone looked the other way so long as he smoked in the parking lot or went on drives and cleaned up his spilled bud immediately after rolling fresh joints. From behind the door of another room came the sound of whispering voices and the low hum of classic rock.
Hot Lips and the president lived in rooms on the left end of the horseshoe, larger and connected by a jack-and-jill bathroom for their use only; as Hot Lips explained to Clive as they approached, the door locked from the outside and in, using a key that only he and the president had copies of.
“Very elite,” Clive said. “I’ve seen the communal bathroom. Have none of you heard of Comet?”
Hot Lips opened his bedroom door. He was grateful he’d cleaned that afternoon, gathering up discarded t-shirts and underwear and stuffing them into his hamper. He’d dusted his nightstand and straightened the books on his desk, secreted away stray pens and his highlighters that he’d been using to mark key terms in his poli-sci textbook.
“Smells nice,” Clive said.
“Thoughtful. For guests, I mean. I like the paint color. Do that yourself?”
Hot Lips nodded, then looked at Clive. He didn’t seem anxious at all, any uncertainty or nerve buried behind those lake-like eyeballs. His hair was shiny in the overhead light, the waves of muted blue, the color of aquarium displays at the zoo meant to recreate the ocean floor.
“I don’t get many guests,” Hot Lips said.
“That’s a shame.” Clive’s eyes traveled around the room, landing on the bed with its crisp hospital corners. “It’s much nicer in here than the rest of the rooms.”
“It’s a perk.”
“Being vice president.”
“Should I refer to you as Mr. Vice President?”
“No,” Hot Lips said.
“VP Hot Lips?”
“Allen is fine.”
“Good,” Clive said, stepping close. Hot Lips could smell beer on his breath, as well as something briny. And something chilly, cool, like an ice pack. Clive leaned in close, his mouth at Hot Lips’ ear. “I like Allen.”
Hot Lips tried to think of something to say, but his lips felt like melted tar, his teeth soft as cheese. Clive didn’t seem to notice, or care. He set a hand on Hot Lips’ right shoulder, fingers pressing down as if his body was a piano and Clive an accomplished player. The pressure was light, not demanding or leading, though Hot Lips wished Clive would take control, show and do whatever it was he wanted. He was tall, taller than Hot Lips by a few inches, his gaze aimed slightly downward, the tip of his nose glowing with grease in the light. Or maybe it was the heat of Hot Lips’ breath pushing onto his body and stirring him with warmth.
Clive let out a breath that pushed toward Hot Lips’ nose. Cool, as though he’d swallowed snow. Hot Lips shut his eyes and let the refrigerator air waft over him. In the dark behind his eyelids, he could hear the party below. But he could also feel the warmth in his throat, the soft heat that surrounded his heart and made its way up to his mouth, cresting the back of his tongue in a rising wave. What he never told anyone—hadn’t even told Clive—was that the heat was equal parts unctuous and acidic, a delicious ambrosia and a nauseated, days-old vodka taste in the back of his throat. That when he did his tricks, he was sometimes feeling joyous pleasure and also a horrified relief, releasing something both wonderful and toxic into the air that his friends and audience absorbed with glee regardless.
Hot Lips felt it coming, that horrible heat, and he opened his mouth to let it out, hoping for a gentle, quick stream of flame. But before he could do anything, Clive’s lips were on his, Clive’s tongue dancing carefully across his teeth, the salty ocean aroma purging any hint of smoke, and Hot Lips kissed him back, feeling something cool inside him as one of Clive’s hands touched the back of his head, gently massaging the nape of his neck, dropping his temperature and wetting his mouth with something from a fresh spring. Hot Lips brushed Clive’s cheek with his hand, and for the first time in a long time he felt like he was not going to burn up.