by Jan-Erik Asplund
Desire not the night, for that is when people will be destroyed. Or perhaps: to drag people away from their homes. Or maybe: when people vanish in their place.
(Job 36:20), variations
The speed was a natural solution to Professor Flowers’s death. The only thing left to do after we had laid it out on the table and crushed it up and all was talk—and it turned out we could do that for hours. It was a beautifully orchestrated display, a symphony of run-on conversation and exuberant denial. We talked shit about the neighborhood, and what it was like to extort your parents for thousands upon thousands of dollars a year in the guise of receiving an education. We wondered if we were doing the right thing. We understood each other even when we didn’t.
“It’s so messy in here,” she said.
“I don’t really like cleaning,” I said.
“I didn’t say that because I disliked it.”
More long, thin, white streaks appeared on the table. Insufflatio in the Latin, she told me. Up and away.
“Your eyes are so big right now,” I said.
“Really? Yours are too.”
“Well, it’s bright in here.”
“Do something about it. That lamp is just—violent.”
I had gone to the wall and turned the light off. A thought had occurred to me in the darkness. I turned the light back on, grabbed the orange shawl she had hung on my chair and laid it on the sconce. The transformation was instant. A warm, red glow covered the entire room. We were silent. It could only have been a moment, but it seemed to be hours, like in a dream. I sat still and watched her.
She leaned back, completely at peace, as if she had come to an irreversible understanding. Then a muscle jerked somewhere near her mouth and she was back.
Her neat little finger reached to pick up what was left of the speed and then disappeared into her mouth. Her eyes lit up. Then she brought her hand down to her chest, and with that same finger extended, as if by reflex, made the sign of the cross.
“You’re so pious,” I laughed.
She pointed at me and intoned. “And are you among the believers?”
I crossed myself. “Lapsed,” I said.
“All the better,” she said, “so was He.”
She pointed out that God and Christ were the same; any forsaking of his son was a forsaking of Him. We did some more of the stuff. The taste of it dripped into my throat and I gulped to clear it. She kneaded the side of her nose with her finger.
“So God was a suicide,” I said. “Why?”
“So we’d be free,” she said, “and I think St. Paul said it best—sapientiam sapientum perdam—to ‘destroy the wisdom of the wise.’”
“Destroy the wisdom of the wise,” I intoned.
“Yes,” I said, kissing her.
In the red light, we are all beautiful. Blemishes, stains, pockmarks, bruises, sickness, death, all fade away under its soft glow. It must have been visible from the road, because not long after that, some people showed up at the apartment. A blond man uncorked a bottle of wine and everyone cheered. Drinks were poured, cigarettes were lit, and everyone had a lovely time, drinking and carousing in its amiable light. Given the right ambience, even strangers can be friends. And I didn’t spare a single second to think about the old man.
Sometimes I close my eyes and try to remember the way she appeared the night she first showed me her hair loosed from that messy blonde bun. If I could just recall exactly how she lay down, how she reached back and let her hair fall, and how exactly it splayed over my pillows, maybe I could open my eyes and find every little thing restored to how it was. We all think like this from time to time.
One day she came in and told me that she had been lying in bed in the dark when she noticed something strange in her vision, something the Professor had once told her about. It had something to do with prolonged exposure to darkness. Astronauts, prisoners, truck drivers, devout practitioners of meditative techniques: all types of people had reported seeing these spontaneous shows of varicolored lights, often without discernible form but occasionally resolving into human forms. Apparently, it’s caused by sensory deprivation coinciding with the arbitrary misfiring of neurons in the retina.
Anyway, stare into the sun on a cloudless day, squint tight, and the play of the light through your eyelashes can do something pretty similar. That night, with her by my side, I squinted into the red light until my eyes ached from the strain and begged for closure. Then I saw it.
I was walking through a hallway in a large hotel, carefully checking the number on each door. I found the one I was looking for and a soft nudge got it open. There was a woman lying naked in my bed. Around her was a crowd of observers, each one angling around the others to try and get a better view. The woman was very beautiful, but there was a look of sadness on her face, and she ignored them.
I came into the room, hung my coat and kicked off my shoes. What is going on in here? I asked. The crowd ignored me. I looked to her but she ignored me too. I wanted to scream. But under the red light, I always find it difficult to assess blame. There was a burst of white light. “No flash photography,” I think I said, but the damage was done. She was putting her clothes back on. The crowd was muttering something under its collective breath. She walked toward the door but turned to me as she passed and whispered into my ear. “We tell lies at night,” she said, “because that way, they vanish.” The people started putting on their coats. When they were gone I got into bed and pulled the covers over my head.
I woke up next to her and thought I was safe. She was still asleep. I glued my eyes to the high lumen fluorescent overhead and lay perfectly still so as not to wake her. After staring for a few minutes, I noticed a single fly stuck dead inside the dome of the fixture.
She woke up anyway, yawned, and asked if I could grab her something to eat while she went back to sleep for a while. Since I’m already “up.” It took me a few moments to respond because I was busy with the fantasy of being there, in bed, with her. She groaned when she realized I was not going anywhere, and we started to talk. Lying there together under the red light, I had no trouble mishearing when she said things like:
“Just to be clear. This all doesn’t mean we can keep doing this.”
Not like this, I agreed.
“Right. Not like this.”
But maybe some other way?
She closed her eyes and I followed her into sleep.
When I awoke she was already out of bed, sitting at my desk and checking her e-mail. Our times were always out of joint. She turned around as I climbed out of the covers and looked at me in a state of nervous agitation. Father sent me an e-mail, she said. Father does not like the things I am doing with my life, she said. Father thinks I am sick. Father thinks I have spent my life following in the footsteps of the lost. There are verses that support this: “Can the blind lead the blind? Will they not both fall into a pit?” I got out of bed and read it out loud off the computer, looking up at her and laughing into the hard-boiled light of day at what I thought were the funny parts. She does not find it funny when I offered to help her draft a reply.
“You shouldn’t take stuff like this so seriously,” I said.
“How can I not take this seriously?”
“It’s just scripture.”
“Well, that stuff about St. Paul. Destroying the wisdom of the wise.”
“What about it?”
“I guess we must interpret that differently.”
“How do you?”
“As an attack on little-minded people who claim to be wise.”
She didn’t say anything right away and I knew I had hit the wrong note.
“Are you saying my father is little-minded?”
“No, no,” I said, “I’m just trying to say that, well, we need to do what’s right rather than let others tell us what is right.”
“And how exactly,” she said, “are we supposed to always know just what’s right?”
“I don’t know,” I said, “I guess you just do.”
She moved across the room, toward the door.
“You just do?”
“I just mean, I don’t see any theologians around here.”
“Well you,” she said, “know nothing of the Torah.”
I followed her and put my hand on hers, tried to kiss her.
“Fuck off,” she said, and opened the door.
“I feel miserable. I need to go see the doctor.”
I reached for her again but she had already slammed the door closed behind her. After she left, I got back into bed and stared at the ceiling again. A chill ran through me as I realized that I had missed something. There wasn’t just one dead fly: there were dozens, maybe hundreds. They had a proper cemetery up there, all to their own. It still eludes me how exactly it is that flies make their way into those domes which look so airtight.
She came by the next afternoon and told me that she had been to the doctor. I just wondered which one. She said she was sick. I put my hand on her shoulder and told her nothing was wrong, that it was all going to be okay. Sometimes—rarely—you tell a lie so blatant you can’t even believe it yourself.
“But the doctor told me I was sick.”
“You’re not a doctor.”
I know that, I say, and squeeze her shoulder a little tighter.
“Why are you touching me?” she asked.
“I’m sorry,” I said, pulling away.
“You always put your hands on me to say that everything’s going to be fine.”
“But it doesn’t matter whether or not you touch me.”
“Because the truth is that we’re both sick and you’re just denying it.”
“I thought things were going really well,” I said.
“Well, frankly, I do not know how you got that impression.”
A few days later, the crowds came back for more. Emily was nowhere to be seen. A man wearing his black sunglasses inside pulled a dartboard out of his duffel bag and a game began. The darts, as if defective, flew wobbly and uncertain: my plaster walls sprouted deep track marks from drunken blunders. Someone, in a bout of curiosity, pulled the orange shawl from the sconce and threw it across their shoulders. The crowd erupted in a disdainful shout and the shawl was replaced.
A few more days went by. Emily was still avoiding me. I didn’t know how to convince her I was right—and her doctor and father were wrong—so I decided to stop trying. I went to the mailroom to invite her out on a little adventure and she was already standing there by her box, as if she had been waiting for me.
“I’m going to leave,” she said. “I’m just picking up what’s left.”
“Because I’m sick.”
“No you’re not.”
“It’s not like that.”
“Then how is it?”
“I can’t be here.”
“What does that mean? Here with me.”
“That’s not what I mean. I just can’t be here.”
“We’re the only ones here though, so you wanting to leave here basically really just means that you want to leave me.”
“I don’t think you’ll ever understand.”
“It’s not you. It’s who you are sometimes.”
“What is that supposed to mean?”
She touched my face.
“You looked so beautiful under that red light.”
“So did you,” I said.
She smiled, weakly. She had expected this. There was a resoluteness to that gesture, an ultimatum embedded inside it, but at the same time I could see that she had given up on something: maybe she just didn’t see the purpose in fighting anymore.
“Will you come with me somewhere?” I asked. “One last time?”
We reached the car as dusk fell and drove until the road became dirt and the truck began to jostle. She groaned loudly, and I just hoped that we were going the right way. Then it came up on the left: a clearing in the woods that Flowers had told me about. He said that at night people saw things here, that they had visions. That kids liked to come out here at night and scare each other silly. I was about to stop when I noticed another car already parked on the side of the road.
“Sorry,” I said.
“Park,” she said.
I turned the car around and parked on the opposite side of the street. She said we were going to get out and cross the street but that we had to do it as quietly as possible. She led me through the woods, treading lightly through the underbrush, until we reached the edge of the clearing. Once there, she took a deep breath, let it out, and screamed. She turned around.
“If I don’t put the fear of God in them, who will?” she said.
I thought one way to clear up the ruins of our language would be to simply fall silent, the way we had done together under the red light, the way we did after she screamed into that clearing. But somehow even in silence there seems to be a speaker and a listener, one who imposes the silence and one who merely obeys or observes. So the possibility is still open for storytelling. One just has to squint one’s ears, so to speak, and allow the story to be pulled out of the silence. Then, like a slide, one can follow it down.
Anyway, the last party. I struck up a conversation with this tall, dark-haired girl. She looked out of place and I guess that’s the kind of thing I sympathize with. It turned out she didn’t go to our school and had just come to visit a hometown boy she had been dating for a few months. When she arrived at his room, she found it was locked. She knocked for a few minutes until he came to the door, disheveled and confused. Not about to calmly accept what was going on, she pushed in past him. Then she saw that the window by his bed was wide open, the curtains softly swaying in the breeze. And the air was thick with it.
“I love the red light,” she said breathlessly, leaning over the coffee table.
“Me too,” I said, leaning over after her. We were a real community of believers.
Emily was with someone else that night. I knew this because someone had gone to her window, noticed a crack in the blinds and looked through it.
I jolted myself out of bed and ran down the stairs to her room. I pulled at the doorknob—locked—and banged on the door until my fists started to scream. It was futile. Someone noticed what I was doing and wanted to know what was wrong, why I had made my fingers bleed. It was the new girl. After I explained, I asked if she wanted to come back to my room and talk. She asked, dazed, if mine was the room with the red light. I said yes, it was, and we went up the stairs.
After we had sex I asked her if she knew the story of Job. She didn’t. Job had lost everything that he held dear in life, I told her. Job’s friends came over, saw him despondent, and tried to justify his misfortune for him. They tried to tell him that his suffering must have been some kind of punishment for his sins, that he should repent and pray for mercy. Job argues with his friends, says he is a righteous man, and cannot believe God would be so cruel to such a righteous man. “Whence, then, cometh wisdom? And where is the place of understanding?” Someone named Elihu chimes in. “If you do sin,” he asks, “how does that affect Him? Your wickedness only affects humans like yourself, your righteousness only other people.” That’s when God appears. He tells Job he’s right, and that everything his friends said was wrong. That there is no meaning in catastrophe.
“You knew Arthur Flowers, didn’t you?” the dark-haired girl asked.
Desire not the night, when people vanish in their place.
I woke up with a headache in the middle of the night. I left the new girl in my bed and went downstairs to try and explain, apologize, make things right. I told myself to tell her that I understood that she didn’t feel well. I did not. But that was what I should have said to her long ago: “I understand everything, that is what makes us special. We understand each other. These trials are nothing.”
The door to her room was ajar. I nudged it open slowly. There were no posters, no clothes, no sheets on the bed, just one thing. It was an old, thin hardcover from which the jacket had been long ago removed. The initials A. F. carved into the front. The title page reading The Red Light. The inscription reading For E. No sign of her at all.
The room was terribly cold. Someone had left the window open.
Jan-Erik Asplund lives in Brooklyn. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Potomac, The Bad Version and The Silo.
Image credit: Shavar Ross on Flickr