FRIDAY: The Lighthouse

BY JESSICA BOWDEN

Copyright is held by the author.

 

Dubito, ergo cogito, ergo sum

That was when I started sleeping with the light on. Whoever said things will look better in the morning has never truly felt the need to extend the day.

My life has become a series of twilights. Of in-betweens. I’m caught between the two people that occupy my mind’s space. That eternal tug-of-war. One that can only determine a loser. I remind myself that only someone with a soul could be so tortured.

Who knew a person could come into your life and, in a moment, take you so far away from yourself?

My thought crimes leave me exiled; leave me estranged from the person I wish to be. I keep copies of The Colossus, On the Road, and Crime and Punishment next to my bed to legitimize my own torment on some tangible, academic level.

They must notice. I ask them to leave, but sometimes they stay.

I don’t stay.

***

The morning sun bleeds through the crack in my curtains. Silhouetted in the doorframe, his long figure is cast in backwards shadows in the hallway. His body looked pale and whitewashed even against the cream of my bedroom walls. He is so thin; he loves me. I know it. He had that look every man gets when he thinks he’s in love. His eyes lit by the very thought that he is a part of some secret — he knows me. Why do they always feel the need to figure me out? He must have noticed the books — thought he got it. I had to fight the urge to beat that knowing look off his face, to scream and punch the air until he understood that he’d never know me. I am simply unknowable.

“Good morning,” he said. His confidence made me wince.

I stretched on the bed and made exasperated sounds to avoid talking.

“I thought we could get some breakfast.”

I looked around the room. Was that a question or a statement? I waited for an excuse to enter my mind.

“I’m visiting my grandparents. I can’t.”

“Oh . . .”

“Yeah, they’re probably waiting for me, so I should jump in the shower. Think you could let yourself out?”

The room darkened suddenly. A cloud outside loomed, blotted out the sun. He was disappointed and he didn’t try to hide it. I hate when they do that. Aren’t men taught to play it cool? To suck it up?

I got up and reached for my house coat and towel from the hook on the back of the door, and manoeuvred awkwardly around him focusing on the floor. Our naked bodies came close, but I refused to meet his gaze.

“Have a good day,” I called from halfway down the hall. I closed the bathroom door.

***

The day maintained its furrowed haze. The snow was dirty and everything was grey. Riding the bus seemed a particularly lifeless exercise. Muted passengers in oversized woolen winter jackets stared blankly at the breath in front of their faces. I accidentally got caught staring at an old Asian man . . . or woman . . . with silver hair and a deeply lined face. I wondered what his-her eyes had seen. A lot, no doubt, and mostly bad judging by the severity of his-her wrinkles. I got off at the next stop.

I stepped down from the bus and jumped to make it over a puddle of gasoline-tinged slush. The toxic rainbow stood stark against the browns and greys of the sidewalk, the buildings, the sky. I wandered south without much purpose except to remain free during the daylight hours. Meandering about, I checked out some vintage stores and played dress-up in the long coats and furs. I couldn’t resist and left with a men’s bowler cap and a fur wrap. With my dark lipstick, it made me look like Louise Brooks. I left the boutique in more of a parade than my previous saunter. It can be expensive playing pretend.

I decided to take the main street north. The road came to an oddly abrupt end — the street ran directly into two steep staircases that led up a hill, on top of which stood a massive cathedral. I looked up at it. Churches always made me uncomfortable, but today I could see people filing in by the boat load.

My curiosity got the better of me. I started to make my way up the stairs. They’d been salted and the bottoms of my pants turned white. As I neared the church, I realized that everyone was dressed in black, their faces were somber and they barely spoke. It was as though I had met my own kind. I filed in alongside of them through oak-coloured doors. No one noticed me, or at least, no one seemed to care.

I had never been in this church before. I almost walked by the fountain of water without making like I belonged, and hastily dipped and made a cross on my forehead. I was surprised to see that in spite of the ornate gothic style of the outside, the inside was lacklustre. There were holes in the runner carpet from wear, and the kneeling benches on some of the pews were completely detached. Loose pages from the bibles and hymn books stuck out from the bindings and the cross behind the altar looked tarnished somehow.

Up ahead on the right side there was a drawn curtain. I supposed that’s where the immediate family were sitting. From the outside it seemed as though a lot of people were coming into the church, but in the immensity of the inside it felt empty.

I took a seat at the back. I was surprised several others did the same. I suppose no one is comfortable being close to death.

The contrived and yet honest nature of funerals had never really occurred to me. People squirmed in honest discomfort, yet provided only admiration through faces that refused to light or smile.

The ritual began. First the priest spoke about the nature of life and then it was the turn of the family and friends to read passages and praising speeches. Everything was standard until he spoke.

He walked to the podium with a confidence that was neither conceited nor humble. He took his place, stood on the “x,” and looked right at me. I thought for sure I was caught, the game was up, I’d have to leave my people, but then he began to speak.

“My father . . . a man who loved not wisely, but too well . . .

Othello? What was he doing?

Of one not easily jealous but, being wrought, perplexed in the extreme; of one whose hand like the base Indian, threw a pearl away richer than all his tribe; of whose subdued eyes, albeit unused to the melting mood, drops tears as fast as the Arabian trees their medicinable gum. My father loved my mother. And he gave his life for it. I guess the only thing to be learned is that all tales of life end in dying alone.”

His father knew true blue. This explained the closed casket. He walked down the step and resumed his seat behind the curtain. No one’s face flinched except mine. What had he done? I felt panicked. My fear of exposure was gone. I had an overwhelming sense that I had witnessed a car accident, and I thought I was going to pass out. The massive room felt like it was caving in, and I was having a hard time breathing. The vaulted ceiling seemed to be crumbling, pieces of gilded angel wings falling from their great heights. The priest cleared his throat and continued his speech about the valley of death. This brought me back, but I was changed. My lord is not my lord. The indissoluble pretense had evaporated and left me stagnant and stark naked. I saw him, and he saw me. He’d never try to figure me out.

When the service was over, the procession began. First, people lined up to wander past the casket, then a line formed going out the door, then came the queue of cars heading down the street to the cemetery. I skipped these lines and instead ran for the cemetery. I squeezed between the yellow stone pillar and the winter-worn bush and waited on the inside of the gate. It was iron-barred. It stops me here. This need to keep life separate from death seemed at odds with the Church’s acceptance of death as a part of life.

The initial car rolled up, and the gates widened as if on command. The hearse must have been equipped with a remote opener. I waited until the final car was through and followed behind. I figured that I could pretend to be visiting another site if they saw me. The cars went deep into the cemetery; they must have purchased the plot a long time ago.

The people got out of their cars; it seemed as if the journey had relaxed them somewhat. Some of them laughed together, as they made their way over to the grave. Some of the bigger men served as pallbearers and hoisted the casket onto the machine to lower the coffin. The crowd had enough of crying and only two women stood wiping away tears as the final prayer was uttered and the device lowered the man with the true-blue heart into the earth. One looked like his wife . . . or ex-wife, and the other was much older, younger than the Asian he-she on the bus, but into the vale of years and older than the other woman . . . maybe his mother. The expressionless division nestled in between the two tear-torn women was him. I made my way behind a tree to get a closer look.

He was around six feet tall — maybe a bit shorter. He had dark brown hair and most likely the same coloured eyes. His mouth was a reddish hue, darker than most boys’ pink lips, and he wore a tie that matched it perfectly. As his lips parted with a heavy breath, I imagined him kissing me. Not on the mouth but on my face. I wanted him to kiss me and then release the same sorrow-filled breath of desperation, to long for me with that intensity and that honesty that he had displayed earlier.

The crowd began to thin, paying their final respects and making for their cars. I sat perched on a cold stone of praising words for a loving wife and mother. The stone stood bare of flowers. The women finally parted from around the hole. It started to snow. He stood in place, feet planted to the ground. His head fell. He was waiting for something. I stood and I felt ashamed for witnessing this moment. My movement caught his eye and he looked up at me.

“Excuse me, I just . . .” I completely blundered. My heart was pounding.

“No, no . . . it’s fine. It’s just hard to believe he’s gone — like, actually gone.”

I considered running, but I stood there paralyzed. “I’m sorry.” I blurted out. Was that even my voice? Sorry? What was I sorry for now?

“It’s okay. He wasn’t exactly meant for this world.”

What did he mean? Who was meant for this world? An awkward laugh, if you could call it that, was all that came out of my mouth.

He started toward me. I recoiled slightly, sinking into my men’s bowler cap and fur wrap. I thought I may actually disappear.

“Do you want to go somewhere?” His voice held that same confidence as his amble to the podium.

“Yeah.” I half-smiled to allow the fear and elation to escape slowly like breath from a balloon.

We walked in silence. It continued to snow. We made our way back past the church and down the salty staircase. We continued on westward toward the river. We paused on the bridge; the river was half-frozen. Pieces of angular ice floated along, some colliding with the bank. The water moved rapidly despite its muddy appearance, and there were some birds floating on its surface farther down, like they missed the memo to fly south. Methinks the wind does speak aloud at land.

“Did you enjoy the service?”

He looked at me knowingly and all I could do was return his gaze.

“Do you like Shakespeare?”

“I studied Othello in 12th grade.” I left out that I had read it six-times-over since.

“The stories seem extreme — exaggerated — but they capture something that speaks true.”

I couldn’t think of anything clever to say so I remained silent.

“Where do you live?” he asked, looking from the birds to the trees and then to the houses up the hill.

“By the shopping centre,” I lied. Why did I lie?!

“Oh,” he seemed disappointed. “Well, I’m staying at my friend Christian’s house. He’s out of town, but I couldn’t stay in the house any longer with my mom and grandma. He lives just over the hill.”

“That’s nice.” What was he getting at?!

“Do you want to go?” he asked with a slight laugh and a smile.

“Sure,” I said, finally allowing myself to clue into his angle.

We head up the hill. It took longer than I expected because of the slush and ice. It was only early afternoon, but it felt like it was getting dark. We turned onto one of the side streets. The trees were larger and seemed less stick-like than the trees by my house. Some of them still had a few straggling crumpled leaves clinging to their branches. We walked toward a brown brick house with white shutters. It melted into the landscape. We headed around back to the entrance of a basement apartment. Our footsteps echoed off the concrete steps of the stairwell. He opened the door and it occurred to me that I didn’t even know his name.

“What’s your name?” I asked from outside the doorway.

“Dillan. Yours?”

“Leala.”

I walked through the doorframe and into a tiled kitchen. On the other side of the wall, I could see the door that led to the bedroom. The apartment was small, the counters of the kitchen ran halfway down the length of the apartment and divided it from the living room. Directly across from the entrance was a door, behind which were presumably stairs connecting to the first floor of the house.

There was no more talking at this point; there was no need for words. Dillan put his arm around my waist and pulled me in. We kissed a bit awkwardly at first but then passionately. I put my hands on his face and felt his freshly shaven skin and the small patch he missed. We stumbled instinctively to the bedroom. Happiness to their sheets.

I woke hours later. I desperately searched for the light. I couldn’t stand the thought of losing him to the blackness. I was beginning to panic. In my frenzy I grabbed his arm and he jolted awake. He turned the lamp on next to him by the bed.

“What’s wrong?”

I struggled to come up with an excuse. I put my hands over my face in an attempt to hide. The light was on, he was still there; I was completely exposed.

“Bad dream, I guess.”

He lied back down and rolled in toward me. He kissed my forehead and when he drew back his eyes were closed. He opened them slowly and stroked my hair, pulling it back from my face.

“I need a cigarette,” I said.

I don’t even smoke. I just need to escape.

This was the moment, the threshold that put the others over the edge. The moment where they came to know me, and he couldn’t even see my books.

“Just relax,” he said as he reached back toward the light.

“Leave it on,” I said in a tone that came across stronger than was intentioned. To make up for it, I stroked his chest but quickly wished I could take it back. He left the light on.

“It’s okay,” he said soothingly. “There are no boogiemen here.” He kissed my forehead again, gently rubbing his lips over the length of it. He let out a desperate breath, kissed my cheek, and settled into my shoulder. He inhaled deeply as though to absorb me completely. He held me tightly.

“Thank you,” he said.

“Yeah, I guess you needed that.” I said trying to sound as casual as possible.

He laughed with a bit of a shrug, and I couldn’t help but feel disappointed. He fell back to sleep quickly, his face still resting on my shoulder.

Have you ever wondered what “true blue” really means? Well, I can tell you. It’s not just a mood of loyalty that hangs in the air; it is the air itself. It is the moment that takes over a room and envelops everything in it. I didn’t know this until I felt that paralyzing grip of the mattress trying to hold me firmly in place. It seemed I had found him — the man that exists in the dark. Now art thou my lieutenant.

He stirred a bit and uttered something incomprehensible. He rolled over toward the light. This was my moment. I moved slowly out of the bed, making sure not to disturb him. I quickly but quietly found my clothes and got dressed. While putting on my shirt, as I later learned, I smudged my remaining lipstick down my chin. I walked through the open door of the bedroom and into the darkened kitchen. I stumbled about looking for my shoes and trying to get them onto my feet. I must have made a bit of noise putting on my jacket and fur because he called something from the bedroom. I didn’t answer. Maybe it’s me that doesn’t exist in the dark. I opened the door to the apartment and closed it behind me. My heart sank immediately but I couldn’t muster the courage to go back inside. Thou art rash as fire.

I made my way back down the tree-lined street and stopped at the street corner to get my bearings. I had no idea what time it was. I started walking north.

***

For weeks afterwards I made the same journey into the cold, as if the ritual would bring him back to me. I went to the vintage shop. I searched for something inexpensive to buy and then made my way up the stairs to the church. Some days I’d go into the church; it was always open but usually empty and still. I went to the hole in the ground that used to be, now just a still blanket of snow. It was difficult to know exactly where it was; there was no stone on it yet. I wondered what it would say.

I don’t know what drove me to do this, but everyday held that same muted haze; the day that was indiscernible from night. I suppose that’s why I started keeping my light on. To mark the day. Maybe it’s so that I won’t disappear. So that I exist — or because he knows I exist — and once you’ve been seen, you’re left bare and you can’t hide behind the shadows of books.

To die upon a kiss.

7 comments

  1. Nicosia

    I found this story to be irksome. I feel no sympathy for Leala and probably that’s why I didn’t like the tale. Also, I find Latin and Shakespearean quotations in a story pretentious and therefore annoying. It takes away from what is really going on, making this narrative very busy. IMO

  2. Allie

    I have the uncanny feeling that I dreamed this story at some point…the imagery is haunting and beautiful. I think it would be worth expanding into a longer piece, and delve further into Leala’s character. More please!

  3. frank

    So we got one big thumb’s up and one huge thumb’s down. Welcome to the literary world…..

  4. Michael Joll

    I have absolutely no objection to the use of Latin, or any other language, in fiction. Nor the use of Shakespeare quotations when appropriate. I did not find the Latin here to be relevant, let alone essential to the story.

    I suppose some people live like Leala and Dillon, but I have never knowingly met any. Consequently, for me the story ran hollow as well as unrealistic. But then, maybe it was not supposed to be a slice of realism. I find literary pieces, like the protagonist, can be like that. I wish I could be more positive.

  5. Jazz

    Quotes from Shakespeare ‘…pretentious..’ Unbelievable…

    I liked this story: I liked the cleverness and the uniqueness, I also, (and in this I was proven to be correct) knew quite well that the meaning would be exclusive to readers who would rush to judgement because it wasn’t formulaic.

  6. Jazz

    Michael:
    We all know the adage…”Write about what you know..” But I’ve never come across …Read about who you know..

    I’ve never met anyone like Macbeth, James Bond or Lady Mary……but do I read about them…? Absolutely..!

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