The refineries at night look like a sprawling space station repair base, flares aglow against a dark sky full of choked out stars, tanks full of liquids I can neither confirm nor deny. I grew up with those stacks practically in my backyard, but now I’m just a drive-by girl on her way to the beach to spend the weekend with a man who assures me the plants are safe. He’s a safety guy. Safety is his thing.

My roommate says the rate of brain cancer in my hometown is the highest in the nation.

My roommate also says if I burn popcorn in our microwave, she will poison my coffee.

My roommate contains multitudes.

The refineries at night look like an industrial survival course built for a blockbuster reality TV show, scaffolding to climb, aerial walkways to navigate, edges to jump from if the flames get too close. There are precarious traps aplenty beyond those fences. Only the lucky make it out alive, take home the prize. The siren patterns are key, tell the players and the audience alike when to shelter and when to flee. It’s an interactive experience. My instinct has always been to flee, but the safety guy says sometimes staying put is actually best.

Call: A little benzene in the Gulf is good for the shrimp—makes ’em sweeter.

Response: Tastes like money.

The refineries at night look like high-stakes amusement parks, bright lights, twisty heights, hardhats recommended, safety harnesses required, respirators available in the event of an emergency. Thrill seekers welcome. 486 days without an accident. Tick-tock. Tick-tock. Relax, engineers signed off on everything. Besides, a little adrenalin rush is good for the soul now and then. Local danger is diluted by familiarity everywhere.

A full moon conjures the best waves.

A full moon also witnesses the most drownings.

But then again, full lunar cycles go by with no one taken by the water.

Because not all full moons.

The refineries at night in my rearview mirror look like the end of civilization. There are miles to go between those shimmering vapors and the hard sand and broken shells, the rippling edge where the twinkling lights of drilling platforms dance in the distance. That last lonely stretch tests loyalties, raises questions that have no easy answers. There is still solace at the coast, consolation in temporary comfort. It is at once fleeting and the only constant, dependable thing in the whole world.

A Man O’War lies hypnotic at my feet, salted and glistening, reflecting a sunset prism.

Ruffled tentacles, gradient shades of a peacock feather tease in the receding foam.

Its venom could seize my heart, but they’re rarely so deadly.

Most likely, it would just set my flesh on fire for a while. It might not even leave a scar.


© Shelli Cornelison
[This piece was selected by John Haggerty. Read Shelli’s interview]