OFF by Suphil Lee Park
by Suphil Lee Park
You wake up in complete darkness. It is the kind of darkness that strikes you as a jolt of realization that you’ve never found yourself in complete darkness up until that very moment, not that terrifying night at a cabin nestled deep in the Norwegian woods, not when every ion of light is strangled out of an airtight, soundproof Broadway theatre just before a burst of spotlight, and not even that one time you crawled into a washer full of dirty laundry during a hide-and-seek turned competitive sports and fell asleep. The first thought that hits you, still hazy with sleep, is that Dax must have closed the blackout curtains before you went to bed. With one arm, you swipe what you think is the perimeter of your bed. Your voice comes out shrill, unsure: “Dax?”
Sound and space have an odd relationship. Even though your spatial perception is generally far from that of a bat, you sense something’s off the moment that one syllable leaves your lips. The sound’s missing the treble and resonance with which it’s supposed to return to you. Like a speech given in an auditorium, instead of in your bathroom, in practice. You are not where you thought you were. Which is to say, you’re likely not as safe as you’d like to be. And it’s probably best that you utter not a single word more without thinking twice. You try to stop your mind rushing to the movie Buried Alive where Jennifer Jason Leigh comes to in a coffin, underground. Blinking doesn’t change the dark before you. Not a hint of gloss or moist that usually gives darkness a textured presence, the way the nighttime ocean surfaces from within itself with the evidence of undulation. But when you try, your invisible hand stretches out in front of your face without hitting the lid of a coffin. You realize you’re without covers. No bedsheets under your back, either. The sleek, dry surface of whatever is underneath doesn’t remind you of anything at home you could be possibly lying on. Definitely not your room. If not so sure, you would have thought this complete darkness was due to your temporary blindness. And you would have thought, great, now this is the backwash of last night, faintly recalling the rumor you heard back in high school that someone drank the contents of a laboratory alcohol burner lamp and turned blind. And you would have heard the voice of your permanently pucker-faced aunt who begins every conversation with “I hate to say but,” like some untimely narration: bad habits catch up.
Last night. Dax went overboard with his silver-tongued flatteries last night. He rotated Janet’s newly furnished living room like a medical intern on his first shift. As if in competition, you went overboard with the red wine and capped off a nearly full bottle only halfway through the night. The cheese board fell short of the scale of the party Janet was hosting and most guests had been sipping patiently on their empty stomachs. It’d become clearer to both of you, each obligatory gathering like this, how embarrassed you felt of each other in general. In public, you greeted in unison at the doorway and were quick to drift apart. In private, you’d settled into that feeling of sitting in a bathtub full of tepid water, where there were dead skins of half-hearted affectionate gestures, no longer recognizable as your own. Last night, you found yourself trying yet again to ignore Dax talking over others; he was yet again an all-too-eager participant in the usual match of wits, during which everyone takes turns to mock a present or absent friend with the adult charade of congeniality. You knew all too well he’d be deep down criticizing you as judgmental or aloof, even. Past the point in a relationship when foibles somehow endear the person, however, you rarely knew what to do with them anymore. And you had no better idea what Dax must have been thinking, helping you into the car last night. Did you retch in the irrigation ditch, swaying on the curb? Did you two Uber away together as always? You bickered dispassionately about a weekend ski trip. But the rest was all a blur.
When you exhale, your throat burns with the tang of hangover and dehydration. The darkness doesn’t budge. It occurs to you that you could have fallen in a manhole, or even in a sinkhole, had you gotten into a real fight with Dax and managed to scramble to your feet and off on your own, couldn’t you? You did once wake up in your friend’s moldy basement, way too late in the day, just when Dax was getting serious about reporting you missing. You let out a sigh. That doesn’t hurt, surely a good sign. It doesn’t feel like you broke your rib, but the alcohol—still far from wearing off—has probably left you under the spell of this blissful numbness. So you slowly test your limbs and bones, stretching and contorting, bracing for a pang of pain. Nothing. Now you bring your hands to your face, which feels uninjured to the touch, before gently patting yourself down. Oh, you say almost out loud. You’re stark naked.
How many times have you been so cluelessly and defenselessly naked in your life? At least never since you were old enough to want something only noncommittally and still work as hard, if not harder, on getting it. It was probably since that night you stole too many bloated olives from cocktail glasses and ended up in bed with an ex, as you liked to say back then, on a whim, your nudity feeling like a nuisance and hers, a kind redundancy. Or it could have been further back, like that muggy evening when everyone in your family went out and you sat in the massage chair butt naked, straight out of the shower, only to doze off and wake up to your stunned parents. When did the general matters of the body, your own as much as others’, become so unsurprising, so generic? The warm burst of shock that ran through your body—when you stripped down to a pair of socks and compared your adolescent body with your friends’ in one of those moles and all dares, when you sampled a box of condoms until your fingers were slimy and smelled of rubber, when you placed a tampon between your lips like a cigar, when you slipped your tongue in your friend’s earlobe in the back of the school bus, tasting her tart citrus hair spray—all of it felt like a world away. Oh, it was a world ago. Speaking of moles, once, you found a nipple-shaped taupe mole sitting at the dome of a shoulder. This unusually hairless guy next door, whom you slept with every time you knew your then-boyfriend was off to see this girl, laughed it off when you poked at his mole. He had an old dripolator that squirted grainy coffee you always politely declined, and you also never mentioned the boredom that comes with the scenario of betrayal and its petty details, although you had a feeling he understood; how what could have been, years back, ingredients for a heartbreak now did not amount to much: irritation at someone who’s chosen to be enough of a hassle to necessitate supervision when old enough to have a child himself, and the romantic overtime that went into finding someone to cheat with and keeping this side business afloat, just to make it even, out of self-righteousness. With only mild interest you watched both relationships not pan out in their own ways, got tired, and moved out at the end of your lease, without telling either man. That was the last time you noticed the shape of anyone’s mole. But you could not quite put your finger on any of it still, how each turn of sexual events reiterated itself with ever-diminishing potential to be less repetitive, which you might have still made work with some deft articulation, which, unfortunately, turned out to be something you lack.
The fact of your nudity has put you on a brief hold, but finally, your thirst forces you into motion. Not now, you tell your brain prone to thinking the worst, I could have very well taken off my clothes god knows when. As suddenly and uncontrollably, thirst is all that’s chanting through your veins and holding your body together. You fumble around. Support your weight with two hands and manage to sit upright. For a brief moment, the darkness comes swirling into your head and you fight the gravity of dizziness. You can sniff yourself out in the dark that tightens around you in fluctuating knots. Maybe I’m dreaming, you entertain a possibility that seizes you out of nowhere, trying to steady yourself. But how does one find a way out of a dream like this? Your chest contracts with a violent feeling you’re unable to name. Your palms pushed against the lukewarm floor. A waft of sweat and a night without shower from your stray strands of hair. The soured woody notes of fermented grapes. Standing on your feet is out of the question, so you’re soon on all fours, feeling your way around. For all you know, you might be in a dark room the size of a football field, but it could also be the very opposite. Either way, you think. On you crawl.
Your mother used to say that you were such a pleasure before you started to crawl. With crawling came the possibility of small accidents that could prove to be catastrophes on a new, fragile human body. She had to strip all of her walls bare, extricate, in her own words, all the keepsakes that once hung there without much imposition, from a set of Derby on shelves that were once considered perfectly safe to decorative spearheads, all suddenly bad omens in the presence of your frail, uncertain life. She said “uncertain,” as though that were a limited edition gift only she could have bestowed, which was probably true from her perspective. Uncertain, with a savory ring to it. It took a leap of faith to tug at, stumble upon, or taste anything during those first years of your life. And your mother, who used to dream of living in a tiny house on wheels or piloting a commercial plane across various latitudes before marriage and its ramifications got in her way, liked to think of those first years as forgotten bliss, an offering born of her sacrifices, the best of times when everything held potential. Whenever she brought that up, you could have pointed out how affordable a mobile home actually was to her now, or mentioned Blanche Stuart Scott, the first American woman pilot who was born nearly a century prior and was married, but as a child, you soon learned that such good points would only make your mother answer out of spite, “Sorry for being not so extraordinary.” The first decades of your life were predominated by equally unhappy or far unhappier people who seemed to think life is supposed to be unhappy to begin with. To whom a downside of anything is the more important side. So, as it goes, when you headed for college, you were determined to make a set of entirely different choices. But you didn’t understand those choices would not necessarily entail an entirely different life, but can only guarantee a considerably different kind of unhappiness.
You try standing on your feet mostly to fathom out the height of the space. But as soon as your weight shifts, you realize even your sense of balance is under the influence of darkness. You tilt like an hourglass slipping out of grasp, sand inside running amok. Once you manage to pull yourself together, you stretch your arms and make a cautious arc with them. Nothing. You even dare a timid jump, expecting, or rather hoping, to hit a low ceiling or a beam, an exposed pipe, anything. Still, nothing. Your lack of vision did not only completely take away any sense of confidence that you’d need to freely navigate the world on your own, but seemed to have wrecked your awareness of self, and even your ability to keep track of time. How long has it been since you started crawling around in this dark? You have yet to come across a sliver of light or any spot where you feel the impenetrable darkness has watered down even slightly. Never in your life have you experienced the kind of depths you feel this present reality must be built upon. You imagine a hole, a bunker, giant and deep enough to make you lose your sense of space and time so utterly and to drown out light to this extent. The existence of a place like that, or the chance of you being transported and situated in that kind of facility overnight, seems like such a remote possibility that you find yourself leaning toward an equally implausible theory that the world might have come to an end, and that you’ve awakened to an apocalyptic world drained of the ever-illuminating, always-dependable light that you’ve never not taken for granted. It is this thought that sends you into a bout of full-blown panic, which first comes out as a shriek in two syllables: “HELLO!” into the unanswering, impervious dark.
Before your life was in full swing, which is to say, before the consequences of your choices took real, tangible shapes, as they do—from frown lines and the type of car you feel comfortable driving to the dating pool you get stuck in and the surprisingly narrow list of new dishes you can safely digest—you considered unhappiness a state of conscious need, possibly for antidepressants. So, even as you came to associate the grey carpet of your office floor with concrete slab, and couldn’t feel any spark of interest in the designs for hardwares you could only identify as serial numbers, from a wheel bearing for a dump truck to off-road tires, you didn’t deem yourself particularly unhappy. Even when your mother finally decided to end her marriage and remained unhappy all the same, you didn’t take it hard. Statistically, it all fell within the range of a perfectly normal, comfortable life in America, and you were not about to add to the whiny list of first-world problems, no thank you. Statistically, you found a much-sought-after footing in the thin middle class slice, of the much-fantasized country with the number one GDP per capita in the world, with much luck. You amicably albeit dutifully greeted your adjacent desks every workday. You accepted the fact that, as a designer, and one of a certain caliber, you would never get a glass-doored office of your own or a corporation card to whip out as you please, and that only your ability to compromise and level-headedness—a set of your “entirely different choices” with some pivot, but mostly the focus of your grad studies on industrial design, instead of rustling, crumpling, slithering fabrics and a sewing machine—secured you this title and coworkers, places of residence and go-to entertainment, and the certainty of those premises around which you built your life. Nor did you feel entitled to more than your social life cycling in the familiar conversational orbit, or the repetitive way in which you decompressed every weekend: Netflix, old and new rooftop bars, and unhealthy foods in rotation. A bottle of different ibuprofens became part of the routine to manage your chronic wrist ache, which soon spread to your shoulders and back. But it was no more than a pinprick of discomfort. As is everything in the beginning.
Filled to its brim with darkness, the world is still empty of light. You’re washed of most sensations but an undeniable knot of dread at the bottom of your stomach. You’ve virtually lost your voice from having screamed far too long, to no avail. To an inaudible, invisible audience that might be lurking in this dark, you’d be washed of your gender, race, age, any such visual signifier of your social identity. You’d be bodiless. You’d be mostly scents. Little clues, just glimmers of who you might turn out to be in the light. At least until you start to speak to get yourself across, or until you’re touched, probed, prodded, and investigated. But as long as you stay out of reach, you would not be identified. You’d be an impersonal, directional you. You’d perhaps even pass for a slightly warmer segment of the darkness, if you could steady your breathing well enough. But the darkness breathes, too. It heaves as your lungs swell, your chest more accentuated than usual from hyperventilation. It wrings you out like a reptilian constrictor as each horrible thought passes your mind. It threatens to flood your mouth, nostrils, mind, seep into your veins and blot out the increasingly indiscernible border between you and itself, until you’re completely awash with its crushing presence. It clinches around you as if you, and only you, are an area of concern. You shut and then open your eyes, no visible difference taking place during the short transition. You breathe in, thinking, is this it? Then out: is this death?
Is this it? You once asked yourself, when you strayed off the marketplace route by accident and found yourself on a shore. Unimpressed, as you grew to be as a traveller. Beaten from many days of backpacking, and although you’d been refusing to admit, from the repercussions of your twin’s diagnosis that sent you on this trip to begin with. That night, the Balinese moon neared the color of pale egg yolk, caught in a halo. Even though the beach was off a poorly maintained local road, it didn’t prove to be empty and was in fact far from it. A number of tourists were sprawled on sand in twos and threes, one hand resting on their belt bag as if in a bizarre fashion cult. They looked irrelevant to the rest of the night. You felt self-conscious to be of that smattering of foreign faces, even though your parents’ home country was practically next door, so you took out your vape, as you do in order to mask various kinds of feeling. It was then that you noticed a line of marchers approaching. Presumably locals. Gently swaying, like a field stirred by a thorough breeze. Candles in hand. You watched the ocean behind the marchers come alive in a series of faintly glowing horizontal bars. It felt as if the beach fell silent all at once, although noises continued unwaveringly, from the tables under the awning of the nearby seafood restaurant, from the tourists now snapping pictures of the marchers crossing their field of vision in silence. Raising the vape to your mouth, you accidentally locked eyes with one of the marchers. A young man, or more of a boy, with an open face. The unmistakable grief in his eyes made you feel incredibly, indisputably foolish for having come all this way from home just to grieve. He turned his head almost immediately. Instead of smoking, you watched the marchers disperse from the straight line they first formed and disappear into the night together as a dimming impression of light. You tucked the vape in your pocket and plopped down on the cool, powdery sand. A spot in the sand seemed to have come to life, and when you looked closer, you spotted tiny crabs, the exact same color as the sand, no bigger than quarters, crawling all over the place. When you looked, really looked, the moonlit beach seethed with the creatures. You picked one up. Held it between your fingers. Its whole body wrestling to break free felt like a feeble pulse. It weighed so close to nothing that you could forget you were holding it if you just closed your eyes. But otherwise, it was an ordinary, familiar crustacean. One that you’d find anywhere in the world. Just a slightly different kind.
When you finally open your eyes again, everything looks the same at first. You lie spread-eagle on your back staring off into the dark. You blink away drops of salty water, your hair pasted flat along your temples. Blinking slowly, you see a tiny white dot on the periphery, like a puncture in blindness or a crack in a coffin. You try to blink it away, thinking it must be some particle stuck in your eye. It doesn’t go away. You turn your head in the direction of the dot and are now looking at it directly. No, it’s not stuck in your eye. You hold it in your unblinking gaze, light-headed. The dot is getting bigger and bigger, almost imperceptibly at first, and now more undeniably by the second, or getting closer and closer. It widens like a mouth of light, a manhole lid getting lugged open, a nightmare falling apart at the seams, a meteor dashing down for the final blow, the world beyond death opening up, a shimmering raindrop, the birth of a new moon, a sphere of surgical lights calling you back, back to consciousness, or everything at once.
Suphil Lee Park (수필 리 박 / 秀筆 李 朴) is the author of the poetry collection Present Tense Complex, winner of the Marystina Santiestevan Prize (Conduit Books & Ephemera 2021), and a poetry chapbook, Still Life, selected by Ilya Kaminsky as the winner of the 2022 Tomaz Salamun Prize, forthcoming from Factory Hollow Press. She’s received fiction prizes from the Indiana Review and Writer’s Digest and her recent fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in the Iowa Review, J Journal, and Notre Dame Review, among others. You can find more about her here.