The Lighthouse – By Omar Essa

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The lighthouse was built with faith and it was sturdy against concussions of doubt. It was weather-worn and stained with lichen, but age only contributed to its demands for admiration. It had not been modernized since the mid-20th century and the light had to be turned on manually with a large switch at the top of a winding staircase. It was built on the edge of a cliff that overlooked an often irate Atlantic.

Erin felt the impending need to do something extreme. He had always intended to expatriate. Cities never agreed with him, despite his love for them. Anonymity was always accessible; one just had to avoid love. He had run out of places to collect scars. He left New York, in the end, for the lighthouse.

It happened abruptly. It happened the way one forgets the words to their favorite song. There were events that contributed to Erin’s change. There were losses. It happens like that: you feel as though losing one person dominoes into a whole life disappearing. Some things are lost, but some people you simply can not hold on to. So, he abandoned his life.

Displaced, all that remained was a dull drone of grief; a numb sadness that was incurable but manageable. Songs could be painful. Silence could be unbearable. There were often times during bright, clear afternoons in the small garden out in front of the lighthouse when loneliness felt like an identity, felt chronic, clung to his breath like the taste of whiskey. He never felt lonely during storms, when the light shined like a more intimate Moon and he felt necessary instead. No longer would he fear the having of something and the knowledge that he would not always have it. He dreaded the accidental memories of when they were happy together: sharing tacos on 43rd Street, taking showers together, playing with the dogs together in the fenced-in area behind their building. Laying naked on the couch and watching television together. Being alive in each other’s presence. These memories were tumorous.

He told his family he was leaving to write his novel. The novel did not exist- never existed – it was an excuse for everything in his life. During his most suffocating moments of pain, remorse, grief (all the aesthetic emotions that make living both valuable and insufferable) he would say,  “This is good for my novel.” At the lighthouse, he had a computer without internet access and he used it mostly for listening to music and journaling. He always preferred to type when he wrote.

Erin no longer felt things viscerally. He was an observer of his own life; disconnected and indifferent. Although he had rarely acted out on his anger in the past, he had become comfortable in a silent and perpetual rage. He was conjured into this world with the unmoderated conviction that he was unfortunate. He had always believed that Injustice targeted him directly. Most importantly, he felt eternally misunderstood. But now that he was with the lighthouse, isolated, he found a way to eliminate the curse of feeling invalidated. Had he known satisfaction was unachievable, he would have embraced solitude sooner.

*

There were ways to move on, strategies Lilly had implemented in the past to let go of a man. What was he thinking, anyway, when he pulled that shit? Water was the same as concrete? It was a cry for help. No- that was too compassionate an accreditation. It was an excuse. He figured if he tried to kill himself- knowing he would fail- all his transgressions would be forgiven. Maybe they were overlooked, but not forgiven. Never that. She no longer believed in forgiveness. Love did not require forgiving because it did not permit someone to hurt the person they loved.

And to just leave the hospital like that? What kind of man abandons everything? She felt stranded and lost in the city she spent most of her life. It’s true, she wouldn’t have taken him back, anyway, had he tried to return. Not after she spoke with his side girl. Not after she pieced together the way his relapse had happened long before that night. She’d found Percocet missing from her medicine cabinet; empty vodka bottles stashed around the apartment; cash missing. She wasn’t even surprised or upset. She felt nothing about the deception. The way one touches fire, she couldn’t blame the flame.

A lighthouse, though? He was always hyperbolic, ridiculous even. She had stopped writing since he left. He took that away from her, as he took away painting when she discovered his affair had been with a fine arts student. She had written such vulnerable poetry when they were together, but now the thought of putting pen to paper made her physically ill. Her pets knew she wasn’t the same as well. They could tell something was gone from her. The two dogs and cat were quiet and well-behaved and always on the couch or bed with her. She could tell they missed him too. His way with the animals when they first started hooking up was a major contribution to his emotional attractiveness.

She worked overnight at the veterinary hospital. Her nights used to be filled with music and coffee and long text conversations with him through the night once he was home from the restaurant. Sometimes he would  visit her with an energy drink and his frigid clarity which made him both enigmatic and deceptively transparent. Sometimes she saw him as an abstract painting of a man. Other times he was just a finality that did not adhere to the typical constraints of romance. During sex, though, he was nothing but pure love.

Her nights had dissolved into a nothing now that was so specific and unbearable she feared she was slipping out of existence. Coffee reminded her of him. Music was the worst. She sat behind the desk in the often vacant lobby and listened to absolute loneliness. When people did come in at these hours, it was usually to bring a dying pet or a helplessly injured wild animal. So her nights became a void sometimes filled with grief, and her only comfort came from blaming him for all of it. Even the good memories were a curse now.

*

“Just trust me,” I told her with those eyes that whispered “I am safe,” and a kiss on the forehead. I placed the buds in her ears. She looked at me as though I were removing her clothes for the first time. I pressed play. At first, she stared blankly at the area of my chest that contained my heart. Eventually, she let her eyelids go as though she were drunk. It happens just like that: You think you’re doing her a favor by showing her a song and then she kisses you and you forget all about Springsteen. You are grateful to be alive and uncertain. You question reality; clench and release your fist to ensure consciousness; take a step back from her, smile, realize something wordlessly, and return with eyes closed.

Her hair smelled like Central Park in spring and her skin was cherrywood. I sat in her car and made a move for the cord to plug in my phone. There was rain on the windshield that had accumulated while she waited for me. This area was dimly lit by the occasional beige streetlight and the distant glow of Downtown. A plastic bag drifted across the street in the breeze like a tumbleweed, a cliche in the bad part of town.

“Why don’t you ever listen to the radio?” she asked with limited passion.

“They play too many love songs,” I responded, as unintentionally as blinking. She glanced at me and asked, reaching her hand out for mine, “But isn’t that so relatable?”

“It’s not honest.” I said softly and started to play “Sweet Jane”. She rolled her eyes and smiled saccharine. I cracked the passenger window as we pulled up to a stop sign and lit a cigarette. She was attracted to my habits. She told me the smell of coffee and cigarettes had begun to arouse her. I was just trying to keep my heart beating.

*

Erin shut the laptop and refilled his glass from a cheap bottle of bourbon. He noticed it was almost empty. By harvesting from the garden and fishing, and eating too much instant ramen, he was able to spend most of his modest monthly stipend on liquor, beer, and tobacco. He had made sure to turn on the light before the sun had set and he was too drunk. The rain began to rise in aggression against the concrete bricks now, and thunder had been ever-approaching since mid-afternoon, now accompanied by lightning flashes in the windows at the top of the staircase. The lighthouse was small and only contained one spacious, tall room. There was a table in the center, curved shelves lining the circumference, and a small bed off-center. Most of the shelves were filled with books and one that held pans, dishes, liquor, dry-goods, and a small fridge stocked with beer and a bottle of Chardonnay that Erin used for cooking. He lit a cigarette and finished the bourbon from the bottle. He went to the shelf and decided to switch to gin. He was feeling particularly melancholy tonight, despite the beginnings of the storm that had come to therapize him.

Perhaps, he thought, there is no story. Perhaps it was all for nothing. It could be a story no one cares about. It could have all been nothing in itself.

Sometimes it felt like he had finished a thing. Other times it was as though he had only just begun. Sometimes the lighthouse was purgatory, but most of the time it was the only thing that kept him alight for long. He did not miss people, but he missed being listened to. Although his relationship to the lighthouse was more intimate than any in his past, he refused to speak to it. He refused to mistake all this for insanity. So, he began to drink the gin, disregarding the glass on the table.

He grabbed a towel and fresh underwear and laid them on the table. Then he stripped. He was losing weight, and he wished he had a mirror. He had never relished looking at himself before, but he longed to now. After storms, in the garden, he would be startled by his reflection in puddles.

The bathroom- with his only source of running water and an old but functioning shower- was separate from the lighthouse. It was a small brick cube on the other side of the garden. Erin wrapped the underwear, a bar of soap, and the bottle in his towel, hugged it close to his chest, and took a deep breath.

The rain was violent. He ran barefoot through the garden, hunched over to defend the bundle. He was drunk and slipped in the mud, but caught himself before he fell. He cursed the rest of the way until he reached shelter. In the garden the light had filled the clouded sky so he could see, but in here it was all shadows and echoes off tile. He flipped the light switch and nothing happened. He sighed because he knew he would not remember to change the bulb in the morning. In the camera-flash illumination from a bolt of lightning the room was seen as a shameful, naked creature. In the sample of visibility he saw a shadow move and froze. He was still. For a moment he could not hear any rain though he knew it had not gone. He shivered and drank long from the bottle, then he showered with the gin on the floor next to him. The shower was baptismal, and the gin was an anaesthesia for his discontent. The soap filled fresh scars as he lathered and exfoliated his durable skin. He ran his fingertips along his shoulder blades and arms and felt in the dark the outlines of all the marks. Lillian had said she loved his scars because they were brush strokes reminding us that wounds can be permanent.

Erin shut off the water and heard the muted roar of the storm and the louder, nearer drip of a leak on the acoustic tile. Then, in the non-silence, he heard a scratching. It was like listening to a powerful stream from a busy highway that cuts through mountain ranges. It existed underneath all other sounds. Erin was very still for a time after the scratching stopped. He continued to drink and eventually he toweled himself dry and put on his boxers. He ran back through the muddy garden in the warm light to the door of the lighthouse that stood ajar.

*

Lillian allowed the fury to consume her. She was fully prepared to die of it. As she lay on her back and he climbed on top of her cautiously, she cupped her hand on the back of his neck, pulled his ear to her lips, and whispered like a specter, “Use me”. She was stoned on Jack Daniels and Ambien and wanted to be crude.

He was too respectful. She needed something to validate her rage; her equally intense contempt and passion for living; her feeling of utter uselessness. She would have liked to be choked or slapped across the face, anything that demanded of her a feeling. But all he could be was gentle and it only made her angrier. Erin always knew. He knew what to do to her even when she didn’t. She hated him for it. He had stolen that from her too. He always told her she had an apartment full of ghosts, but the only one left was him. His toothbrush remained untouched in the bathroom, his set of keys on the mantle above her faux fireplace, his black suede shoes hidden away in a corner of her closet.

After the man left she lay naked, uncovered, cradling the whiskey bottle in her trembling embrace with her pets nearby. It was not until the sun began to trickle out over rooftops and waterfall into rays like streams over the hardwood floors that she cried. Three silent tears, followed by an exhalation of everything that was filling the hollow of her insides. Her black-and-white Maine Coon, Monkey, came and pawed once on her bare collar bone, then lay down next to her head and started to purr as Lilly fell asleep.

*

As she drove with one hand on the wheel I held the other in my palm. I held her hand like a small animal with an independent heartbeat. I always had her attention. We passed a streetlight and it flashed through her eyes like a comet. In my memories, we drove away from our separate pains into nothing.

The tears always came quietly at first. We cried often. Compassion meant caring and care meant pain. She wept oceans and I collected each tear as a reminder of what love feels like. There were times when I thought we were just a song that played well on stereo. There were other times when we felt like the substance of a poem and nothing else. Then there were the silent moments at night when she slept and I couldn’t and I had to understand this as reality. In those moments I allowed myself to cry. In those moments I would sing love songs in my head and compare them to the truth.

*

Erin blinked himself back into consciousness with razor blades in his mouth and a foghorn behind his eyes. He was on the cool cement floor, laying on his back and staring up at the still-shining light, dampened by the morning sun. He was in underwear and had scabbed over scrapes on his shoulder blades that were still tender when he felt them with his dusty fingertips. The gin bottle, nearly empty, stood within arms reach. He sat up and drank from it.

His morning ritual was always the same. He started a pot of coffee. While he waited for it to brew he drank a can of beer to settle his stomach and help his head, followed by a bottle of water. He was running low on water. Then he filled his mug with coffee and a measure of bourbon. Starting this way, if he ate around noon, he could usually pace himself until evening set in and he would stop measuring.

There was a time when this absence of life was total misery. When he existed in society and had people close to him who wanted to help him, this survival was agonizing. Now, without consequences, it became clear to him the drinking was not the cause of so much pain, it was the world. He felt, after every failure, the lighthouse had always been inevitable. He had held different notions of what it might be for much of his life. It could be closure, love, beginnings and ends, even an art. He never thought of it as a lighthouse until it became one. Ultimately, it arrived as the only thing that made sense.

It wasn’t until he turned to the bed to get dressed that he realized he was not alone. Everything paralyzed except his shaking hand that clenched the mug with marble knuckles. On the pillow was a mound of white fur, steadily, carefully, rising and falling. He took a step forward and a pair of sapphire eyes shot up at him. It was a gorgeous cat. What made him breathless was the shock of being shocked. He realized with an immense regret that he had been this long at the lighthouse and had not shared the room with another soul. The cat did not look at him with fear. He could feel how it saw him. He could feel it’s contentment. He took a sip of coffee too fully and burnt his tongue. His hand trembling more now, he set the mug on the table and began to step conservatively toward the bed. The cat did not flinch at all, it actually blinked long and trusting. Eventually, he reached the bed and sat down cautiously.

“Hey.” He extended a hand and laid it compassionately down on the cat’s center. It started to purr a soft, low appeasement. Its fur felt like silk. He stroked it and then scratched the top of its head and it gave into his affectionate hand. It stood up and began to run its sides against his hip and he saw it was a female. She pawed at his lap and when she was satisfied she set herself down across his legs and purred more intensely. Erin felt something underneath his breastplate, white-hot and incapacitating. He was smiling against his will. For the first time sober since he had come to the lighthouse, he shed a tear. It was not unwelcome.

*

It was a quiet reparation. She smoked a cigarette to tape up her damaged heart. She was cleaning her apartment, music blaring, already drunk. “This Must be the Place” began and she tried everything to carry on sweeping but it was impossible. There was a time when drinking quieted each undulation of sadness that would affect her. Now, it only amplified into tidal waves of feeling. Without understanding, she lay in the fetal position on the floor of her kitchen, unable to cry but gasping for breath.

Was this what the lighthouse felt like for him? Her only solace was in the hope that he felt as much pain as her. That she was not alone.

*

She called me a poet. She was the true poet, and a painter. She was an artist in the deepest place within, where there was an impulse to create. I was a critic, a tourist of artistry. I imagined myself a writer, but I’ve never really finished anything. I would write my best whenever it was too late. I would find the words when she wouldn’t listen anymore. I would only call her when she wouldn’t answer the phone.

She begged me to stay. I was drunk again. I had done it to build up some courage for this phone call. On the bus I drank and listened to the playlist I’d made for her months earlier. I almost cried when Bonnie Raitt came on through my ears into my heart.

There were things I could not tell her. The real reason I had to leave, I just couldn’t tell her. She begged me to stay; I could hear her choke on sobs over the phone. I was standing on the street outside of a bar downtown and drank from a small bottle while I told her I couldn’t stay. It was all okay, I couldn’t feel the loss of a thing.

*

Erin tore the title page out of a 1950s printing of Churchill’s Crossroads. He balled it up and threw it in her direction, then turned back to the shelf and to the right. He stared at his anthology of liquor bottles, lapsing with indecision.

There was a quiet moment in one of the rainy nights months ago when Lillian was at work and he was sober. The first bang of thunder, inexplicably near, shocked him and the animals like a sanctified admonition. He was sober, but had already purchased the bottle of Johnnie Walker that rested insidiously in the freezer. He was pacing about the interior of the apartment, through all the open doorways, as if he were looking for something vital but had forgotten how to identify it. He was running away from the inevitable.

Erin selected the bottle of Dewar’s from the shelf and sat at the table. His laptop was playing a recent acoustic cover of an antique Blues song and was open to a blank document. The cat walked up to him with the ball of paper in her mouth, dropped it at his feet, and looked up expectantly. He picked it up and flicked it across the room. Erin filled the glass with scotch and lit a cigarette to procrastinate considerations on dinner. He had been remembering all day a line from a Frank O’Hara poem that he typed into the computer as dusk crept in through the windows above.

All I want is boundless love.

It was a catalyst.

Maybe.

*

“My God…”

Lillian was taking a sip of her Cabernet when Patrick whispered it, looking at her as though she were a landscape. She sipped again and asked ambivalently, “What?”

“Your eyes… they’re like constellations.” The anger returned with a new vindictive sting. She felt I’ll and wanted to weep and also felt freshly cleansed. Fortunately, she had spent her whole life sketching the forest fires inside her with the same straight line across her lips. She forced a grin and said,

“Thanks, I think?”

“You’re welcome.” He was confident and sure of his own attractiveness. She understood he did not doubt himself when he said things, and that there was nothing more unsaid beneath each word. There was no mystery, and he was monotonously genuine. As zealously as she avoided comparing him to Erin, it was irresistible. Everything Erin had said was like looking out at sea from the shore. The truth existed in the massive parts unseen.

“The salad isn’t good?”

She smiled nervously and said, “I just don’t have much of an appetite.” She gulped down the rest of her glass and reached for the bottle.

He was everything she had wanted at one time. But now she wanted nothing- Not Patrick, not Erin or a career or love or to go to sleep and certainly not to wake at whatever time with the familiar migraine. They stepped out of the restaurant onto Jay Street and it was dark now. The lights of downtown Brooklyn satisfied their hunger for stars. They held hands and walked together in silence for a couple of blocks until Patrick said, “Tell me the truth.” She almost seized up, and she knew she couldn’t hide the fear in her mouth.

“What?”

“Tell me a secret. A truth about you I wouldn’t know unless you revealed it to me.” Lilly caught her breath with a flood of relief for a reason she did not understand. She remained quiet, pensive and reserved. He squeezed her hand and looked at her, slowing his pace. “You can trust me.”

She looked away and, distantly, she said, “I miss Albany sometimes. I miss discovering new music. I miss that kind of sadness, as well. It was the sadness we could hold onto when we resumed the struggle. I miss believing that Love cared little about Life. It was like a final gasp before drowning.” She turned her gaze, met his eyes, and whispered, “I miss someone I hate.”

They caught the A train after that and each got off at their respective stops.

*

“You don’t have to do this,” she pleaded through unseen tears. I lit a cigarette. I said, fatally,

“I wish I didn’t. I’m sorry. I really have to go now.” We were both silent. “Okay?”

“Okay.” I hung up, tossed the smoke, and went into the bar. She would be heading into work now. I sat at a stool and realized I was the only patron. A tan girl with straight, jet-black hair was tending the bar. She came to me and asked for my order.

“Johnnie Walker neat and whatever you have on draft.” As she walked away I called out, “And a glass of water,” as if it made some difference. She returned with three filled glasses of various sizes on a tray and laid each down in front of me. I pushed the water to the side, downed the scotch in one shot, and started to sip the beer. It was bitter. I tapped on the empty shot glass without looking up. She refilled it without measuring. I did not have time to smell it first. I took a sip. I held the glass before my eyes and looked at her through the amber liquid. She was leaning against the bar on her cellphone, and the glass distorted her curved figure.

“This is how the world ends,” I whispered with a moderated finality. She looked up at me blankly and then down again. Consecutively, I drank back the scotch, beer, and water; paid in cash and left. Van Morrison was playing on the speaker of the patio outside. It was winter and the chairs were stacked on top of the black, metal tables. It was still winter, I remembered, but it felt like spring. Maybe, this year, New York would have forest fires like the one underneath my skin.

I walked to the bridge.

*

The scotch was almost gone and his ashtray was filled. Erin would not write any more tonight. He stumbled up the staircase and pulled down the switch to ignite the light, as though he shocked the heart of the building back into rhythm. It shined blindingly and he covered his eyes as he hurried back downstairs. The cat was lounging on his pillow. Earlier, he had grilled tomatoes and limes with a fish and shared some of the moist, herb-seasoned meat with her. He had also laid out water in a bowl and filled a box with soil for her to utilize. He would not name her, he decided, because he could only remember the names of ex-girlfriends.

She was affectionate to him, but she did not need him. She wanted his attention, but had already lived a lifetime without it. She was a strikingly beautiful creature, full of an inherited grace and eyes that seemed to withhold. Erin brought the bottle with him over to the bed and sat down next to her. As he stroked her neck and back in long, thoughtful motions he began to think aloud to her.

“Where did you come from? You don’t remind me of any other cat. You are tastefully unique. I’ve been around cats my whole life. I had a cat with one of my girlfriends- she let me name him Hemingway- who used to chirp like a bird and dig through garbage like a damned raccoon. I haven’t thought about him in years.” She rolled onto her back and started to purr.

“We adopted Hemingway when he was a kitten. We got all my cats growing up as kittens. My childhood cat, Mico, died recently. I was in the hospital when it happened.

“But you’re not a kitten. You’ve lived a whole life out there. So why would you come in here, with me? Were you always looking for someone? I came out to this nowhere, to this goddamn lighthouse”- he looked up at the glaring light- “because I gave up looking for someone. I found too many someones, each of them perfect. In the end, they all just wanted to hold my head against their breast in silence when we were finished. Some knew how to be beautiful. Some understood Love. A few could endure anything. But none of them were perfect enough for me. So I stopped looking for someone.”

Erin drained the bottle and stood up. He took a bottle of vodka from the shelf and prepared for his shower. There was to be no storm tonight, but the light shined steadfastly regardless.

*

Lillian was walking through Prospect Park. Twilight made the air aesthetic for a few incomparable moments of the evening before nighttime descended upon the city. She had gone to Manhattan earlier to eat lunch and go to an AA meeting. She left early because the woman speaking knew nothing of her story. She had gone to an Irish Bar on Eighth Avenue afterwards to be with her people. She decided that her problem had never been the drinking. It had always been Love.

Patrick had a key now and she asked him to take the dogs out and feed them so she wouldn’t have to stop by her apartment. She had filled a water bottle with vodka and now she wandered aimlessly through the paved walkways, chain-smoking and listening to music while she drank. She knew it was time. Tonight had developed into a certain ultimatum. She had been seeking absolution for months now. She knew closure was unobtainable, but she also knew something had to change. Patrick had already confronted her compassionately about her drinking. She could not go on allowing her pain to fill her mouth with silence, or let her resentment blaze with a flame that only demanded alcohol for fuel.

It was Springtime and she was prepared to release the past winter into her vast catalogue of hurtful memories. It deserved nothing more. Erin deserved nothing more than to be a mistake. The time had come for her to separate him from her life; for her to listen to love songs again; for her to write a new poem.

As she walked, a stray cat emerged from the wall of bushes lining the path. It was large and striped with several shades of grey. In its mouth it held an infant rabbit that hung limp from its teeth. It froze mid-step when it saw her, and their eyes locked in place for a moment. The cat dropped the small animal and ran off back into the bushes. Lilly rushed to the rabbit, lying motionless on its side. It was leaking blood from puncture marks in its neck, but she could see it still breathed.

She knelt down as if in prayer and touched its rising and lowering fur with two fingers. It felt so intensely fragile as it struggled to carry on through the wounds. Lilly felt she must do something urgently. With great gentility, she picked the rabbit up in trembling hands and cradled it like a baby. She started to walk quickly toward the exit of the park. She had no plan yet. Before she made it out of the park the rabbit had already died.

*

I sat on the railing and licked my cigarette before lighting it. A girl I knew in Monterey used to do that. I was listening to Jeff Buckley, and I paused the song to call her one last time. As the call rang through in my headphones, I remember thinking, “This is what pain feels like.” I was sipping from the bottle when she answered.

“I’m at work.”

“I thought you were the way out.”

“What?”

“There are far too many reasons to love a person and only one reason why you must let them go.”

“What are you talking about?”

“…not with a bang, but a whimper…”

“I have to go.”

She hung up. I flicked my cigarette and watched it fall the immense distance to the river’s surface. I finished the bottle and dropped that too. I did not jump, I simply let go.

*

When Erin awoke he was alone again. He had made it to the bed and the vodka bottle lay at his side, cold and hard against his hip bone. He drank from it and sat up, placing his bare feet on the cement floor. He looked around. He felt his pulse heavily in his temples and blinked a few times to settle his blurred vision. The door to the lighthouse was open and outside the sun glared down on the garden, where the leaves of plants tap-danced in a temperate breeze. There were no clouds in the sky and the salty smell of the sea poured into the room from the doorway. The cat was gone.

Erin put on a pot of coffee and drank his morning beer. He thought of a time when he’d woken from a drunken sleep with Lillian’s pitbull in his arms.

When he opened his eyes she was staring at him, and when he smiled she licked his forehead. Lillian came home from work and found the pair laying together, the dog secured in his embrace like a true love, and she quietly took a picture of them with her Polaroid camera. The flash woke them. She had hung the photo in their kitchen, and Erin wondered what had become of it.

He drank the coffee black, sitting at the table, trying to decide what song to listen to. The sea birds and the gentle crashing sound of the waves breaking against the cliff could be music enough, but Erin felt overwhelmed by the peaceful nature of the air. He was remembering too much.

One morning he awoke in their bed and the window was open. He woke to the sound of Brooklyn and felt the noise in his stomach. He rolled over and stared at an empty pillow that should have been supporting Lillian’s chaotic morning hair. It was close to noon and her shift had ended hours ago. Lillian taught him that messy hair is beautiful. She had shown him the love of people who share a common, individual pain. Waking up next to her was like coming out of a coma inside an ocean.

But where she should have been breathing deeply with heavy eyelids closed, there was only a folded piece of lined paper and the bottle of vodka he had hidden before he passed out. This was the first time she caught him since his relapse. He sat up in the bed and became aware of an unfamiliar vacancy in the apartment. He realized the dogs were gone as well. Monkey was sitting up, looking out the window from the night stand. The breeze from the street ruffled her midnight mane. Erin reached out to scratch behind her ear but, at the sight of his hand, she jumped down and walked away into the next room.

He picked up the note and looked at it. His name was written on the front in her uniquely delicate script, followed by a small heart. He took a few long gulps from the bottle before he opened it. As he read it, his confusion and shame clouded his eyes. She had written:

“I know you probably don’t remember what happened last night. You didn’t even have a clue where you were. I left work early to come to you because of the texts you sent me. When I got home you were in the bathtub. Look at your wrists, babe. Seeing you like that set my heart on fire. Then your phone rang and it was Kasey and the burning of my heart became encased in a block of ice.

I still love you, but we have a lot to talk about when I get home. Don’t call me when you wake up. I need to get my thoughts together. Whatever happens, I’ll always love you, Erin. But remember what I said to you that first night. Some wounds never heal. I’ll see you tonight.”

That was the last day. He never saw Lillian or the dogs again. He would not let her visit him in the hospital.

He felt, now, reading the note he’d saved and brought to the lighthouse, that he must injure himself. Sometimes, the only way to tend to wounds on the inside was to interpret them on the surface in fresh cuts. Before that, however, he would drink tequila. Tequila was the only liquor that felt appropriate at times of such inward contempt. He needed limes, though.

He slipped into sandals and walked out to the garden. Before he reached the limes, he saw her. She was laying in the sun among the ripened tomato vines. Her bright white fur was immaculate and contrasted radically the nearly black soil. The two intense shades reminded him of blood on snow. He knew she was dead before he touched her. He knew she was dead the moment he saw her laid out in the dirt. She was not beautiful anymore.

Erin forgot about the limes and walked stone-faced back into the lighthouse. He sat at the table and chain-smoked and gulped the tequila from the bottle. He would not listen to music. He would not even hear the sounds of the ocean. He would not stop smoking or slow down his drinking. He could not lose consciousness.

Eventually, as dusk turned into a light rain and the shadows of sunset dissolved in the doorway, he stood up and forced himself to climb the staircase. The light on, he took down a bottle of whiskey from the shelf to replace the finished tequila. The light shined and he sat back at the table. The light shined brilliantly and he could not remember why he was drunk. The smoke from his cigarette danced in the light as it floated up in wispy brush strokes. The light shined as he opened up a blank document on his computer.

He was ready.

***

 

Pic by Anand Dandekar

 

About the Author

Omar Essa is an aspiring writer and poet from New York. The son of an Egyptian and and an American, his work focuses mainly on emotional and social conflicts explored through accounts of personal experiences. His short story ‘Summer Storms’ was recently published in the Adelaide Literary Magazine.