Light

 

By Casey FitzSimons

 

 

It would be like flicking a switch,

blindness, when it came.

Sudden darkness. Or so

she’d thought. Instead, a wall

nears, recedes, nears again, a feint, not only

of illumination, but of depth

and distance. A swimming dimness, premonition

of motion, removal, an encroaching veil.

It came wailing, it did—

she could hear the noise coming from somewhere—

the moment she knew that the light

she saw and the light he saw

had no correlation.

 

There was light. She did see.

And there was the light of the world outside.

But they had nothing to do with each other.

All the phenomena of the universe

were related, obviously or remotely,

except these. There was light,

but it lurked darkly

in the periphery of what had been

vision, an aura of false promise trading

places with itself from time to time, reddening,

extinguishing itself, piercing with white flashes

its own absence.

And it smelled of dog-breath.

Her other senses went haywire

in sympathy, aiding, abetting each other, failing her

in collusion, malfunctioning

along shared circuitry. Static

blackness—placid, unredolent, antiseptic—

would be an improvement.

Everything done with.

 

Naked side by side on the first

hot night, they take turns

billowing the sheet, releasing it, adding

their bodies’ heat to the oven-hot room, stifling

with wall-stored sun.

Exhaled in short puffs, his chuckle

collapses, huffing him into a brief

illusion of cool air. In the respite

he turns onto his back, his left hand

slack but still acknowledging her, brushing

her slim arm, barely touching her skin

under its soft hairs.

Into his left side she turns and he adjusts

for her, moving, in his

surprise, the crook of his arm

under her neck.

 

Their energies are stripped, run off

in months of trial—trips, treatments,

shock, dread, futility, devastation.

Their relationship? Drained

of every intimacy—kisses missed,

avoided in public corridors; expressions

averted, worn to unreadable glyphs

in currents of rushing people;

hearing overworked, damped

with urgent summons flatly

chanted in haunting code.

Anxiety and fatigue had eroded

supple layers of caring, exposing

gaunt ribs of civility. If it is familiar,

this together-coming, it is also and only

well remembered: How long since

she’d seized him in fear? How long

since he’d comforted her the best way

he knew how? Ten months?

Had they named it, they might have said

making love. That might have been

some part of it.

 

Items imprinted, absorbed, assimilated,

fastidiously catalogued—her visual library

had accumulated them in the years

of sighted consumption: Indolent, purposeless gazing.

Blatant, promiscuous watching.

Prurient snooping. Officious vigil. Idle notice.

Its collection would remain in her mind, secure

against damage and diminution, intuitively

arranged for nimble access, for

swift, obliging retrieval.

Or so she’d thought.

She thought that’d be what she’d have

from now on—a vital, eidetic memory

to mobilize and steer, peer into

from any vantage. An animated,

three-dimensional compendium of

experience, customizable

and maneuverable according to supplied

description, verbal or tactile.

 

True enough, when it comes to

coordinates in space—knickknacks

in the living room, latches

in the car’s interior. She can

navigate the house, find things

in the bathroom and kitchen, shower

and dress unaided. Kinetic memory of where

she sets down a spoon, a pill, a ring?

Uncanny. Accurate to a hair’s breadth.

But when it comes to anything truly

worth looking at—color, pattern, shine?

Facial expression? Beauty? No.

A loathing unto death

at the paucity of recall. Anything

worth a thousand words?

There is no picture.

 

She had fingered the loose weave

of her summer shift, its color

a vague, unascertainable attribute. Perhaps

it’s all still there, guarded

by the ironclad portcullis of traumatic stress, occluded

by the stygian pyrotechnics of false-firing optic nerves.

Will a robust visual memory return?

The argument with herself has the arc

of every attempt she’s made

these last many months

to bargain with fate: The skimming

of hope from the welling-up, brimming-over

of despair; the very clinging to hope

an impediment to acceptance.

 

This evening, wine on the deck.

Dave was moved (or had he

planned an experiment to see

if it would help to interpret the view?

Did he steel himself? How could she tell?),

moved to the challenge of describing

the sunset. The sunset!

She’d listened

to his painfully articulate, literal

parsing (rehearsed in part?) of fog advancing, rays

of crepuscular light escaping

through rents in clouds, the fading distinction

(loosening seam) between sky and sea,

the sinking dwarf (yellow) and its hovering

orange mirage. Did he watch her, waiting

for her upper lip to steady itself

against her teeth? For her chin to tremble? Of course.

It’s his burden, too. But she was stoic, stony,

could not engage. Couldn’t

bring herself to it. Next,

science: Astronomical sunset versus

atmospheric refraction. Finally, inept similes:

cotton balls, silk scarves, watercolors.

 

Her visual memory, when present at all,

malfunctions. Clatters, just about.

Careens, even, like a broken appliance.

Hearing a rustle in the hedge today, she tried

to call up bird. Got turkey skin, plucked,

greasy, stretched lavender. And dog, summoned,

got only dark, bared gums.

Might some visual-verbal tangle unravel

if she relaxed? Some fey algorithm decode itself

if she concentrated?

Every day a failed image-search

for something quintessentially visual

hails new loss. Rainy streets.

Babies’ hands. Wire fences

in long grass. Flowers. Every day

a stalking, cloying fear about

the content of her life

from here on out.

 

As Dave talks on, she gathers

a tattered fan, only that,

of picture postcards, cheesy renditions

of the ever-popular setting sun that people

in airports send to people in houses. Purple streaks

reflected in a still lake, Mai Tai skies

framed by black parentheses

of leaning palms, a flat red plane

creased by the contrail of a single

jet, a chevron of geese over a reedy swamp. Where

in this miserable stack of dog-eared

clichés is this sunset?

It was only his sunset. She needed

to let that be so.

 

Biding in his shallow umbilical

basin, a savage heat,

and her thumb rises and falls

into it, sometimes catching the thin lip

of skin that rims his navel. Skimming

the soft hairs of his stomach her fingers

move in the slow circuit that had

always, if sometimes unconsciously,

signaled her interest in sex.

He stills her fingers, lets go,

reaches away, his torso tugging

the sheet across and off her hip.

Her abandoned fingers poise static

in the warm air, in abeyance.

But the smooth arc of her desire

shudders into sudden awareness:

He’s reaching

to turn out the bedside lamp.

She hadn’t realized

the light was on.

 

She had never permitted him

to leave a light on during sex.

And why not? What remnants

of pubescent alarm, what plasma

of girlish, fear-nourished shame

had she thought might fluoresce

in the bedside light? What

insecurity not banished

by sincere kisses could conspire

with light to hiss and spit like St. Elmo’s fire?

What would light reveal

that Dave didn’t already, shouldn’t ever,

know about her? Turning it off, does he comply

only from habit with a rule now lapsed?

Must he avoid every infraction?

 

It was hours after sunset. Why wouldn’t

the light be on? While she rifled

and railed at her sensory memory for order,

had he been reading? Was the air faintly laced

with the benzene of magazine pages? Wrinkled

with the autumn flutter of their turning?

Strobing aquamarine, TV sound

on mute? Had he lain there

imagining her thoughts? She was

struck in that moment with the depth

of her self-absorption, with having missed

every clue, every cue. And how had solitary

obsession morphed to carnal desire?

Who was Dave? What did he look like? Why

did she want him?

 

So this is it. A new and permanent

condition of their interaction,

hers and Dave’s: Recognizing by sound, feel, smell

what he sees. No, not (or not only)

what he sees, what he might be looking at, but

reconciliation to rules of engagement

influenced by the fact that he sees.

She did know him. Does.

This very night she had felt

his day’s growth of beard, his breath,

his fingers clasping hers, his voice

forming the word mirage.

 

And now she feels the air-wake

of his muscular rush away from her, a hot eddy

up from where his back had lain,

a sluggish medium uttering the subtle

scent of him. This night, this minute,

she had sensed these things.

What she needed to do was to assemble them

methodically, synthesize them into

the Dave she knew, had known, loved.

Perhaps this prickly gathering

of sensory fact would snag with it

the inattentive, unsuspecting ghost

of retinal image, allow his face to drape

her hollow cloistered darkness,

lessen her panic, attenuate

horror.

 

The itching, crawling self-consciousness

that had been light’s chafe

on her cringing nudity is not there.

She cannot see herself naked—

dimpled or sleek. Or him staring—

in lust, disgust, pity, or fondness. But

not only that. She is more than ever

wretchedly exposed.

Available to his sight, open to light,

glowing and hissing, is her desperate

backward grasp, her empty focus,

her self-determination or her lack of it,

her rejection of his acceptance.

 

Before her mind

registers the click he turns

back to her, scattering her last thoughts

with the brunt of his intention, neutralizing

ions of joint anxiety, stirring

the warm air. And now,

has there been one click or two?

Before or after she spoke?

Leave it on if you like,

is what she said.

 

 

Casey FitzSimons has poems in Red Wheelbarrow, Mezzo Cammin, The Massachusetts Review, and numerous other print and online journals and anthologies. She has first place awards from Bay Area Poets Coalition, Mendocino Coast Writers Conference, and Ina Coolbrith Circle, and has been honored by River Styx, Writecorner Press, The Rita Dove Awards, and the Soul-Making Keats competitions. She writes both formal and free verse and has self-published 12 chapbooks, including Waiting in the Car (2017), Pushing Sky Aside (2016), and The Sharp Edges of Knowing (2015). She donates all her book proceeds to Doctors Without Borders.

     Casey is an Army brat and her work has been influenced by frequent relocations in childhood and a resulting sense of isolation. She taught mathematics and was VP of editorial and production at a math/science textbook publishing house. She has broad interests in visual arts, writing, and music, and taught art in San Francisco for many years. Her reviews of Bay Area exhibitions appeared often in Artweek and her studio book Serious Drawing was published by Prentice Hall. She has done significant pro bono work in fair housing, coaching English learners, and teaching and editing poetry. She has a BA in math from UC Berkeley, a JD in law from UC Hastings, and a master’s degree in fine arts from San José State University.

     You can read more of Casey’s poetry online by following links on her Poets & Writers page at pw.org/content/casey_fitzsimons.

© 2018 by Priestess & Hierophant Press.  All rights reserved.  

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