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The Absence of Light
It was in the dark that he used to come to me. Like a dream, like a fantasy. I would lie in my narrow bed, tossing and turning. Everything would always come rushing back to me then. Not because I had shoved it to the back of my head throughout the day for safekeeping, but because there was nothing I loved more than going over everything that had happened, so as to try and understand. That was all I wanted in those days, all I strived for: to understand.
And then in the middle of all of that, of my clumsy clutching for comprehension, he would suddenly be there. By the side of my bed. Always so tall, the sandy hair swept back, the dark eyes that gleamed, and the skin, far too browned to be from around here.
The first time, I guess I must have been a little surprised, but somehow, I don't think so.
It was as if I had always known somewhere in the back of my head, in that space that I never made much use of, that he would be there one day. And I didn't ask him any questions. Not because I didn't have any, or because I didn't want to ruin the moment, but because I knew that if I gave it time, I would have all the answers.
The first time, he stood there for awhile. At least, it felt like awhile. And then he sat down, and he touched my hair, and I felt as though I had long, flowing tresses of beauty. He pressed his lips to my forehead, they were warm and soft and ever so slightly moist.
Later he asked me what I wanted, though I don’t remember him ever speaking.
And that question puzzled me. For the first time, he gave me pause. What I wanted? Was that a question people still asked? I knew that somewhere deep inside of me I must have once had an answer, but I couldn't quite remember it. I struggled and struggled, but the harder I tried, the more it eluded it. And he saw my efforts, all in vain, and pressed a warm hand to my cheek, soothing me. And he told me that it was okay, that I didn’t need to have all the answers, though I can’t quite remember which words he used.
Of course in the morning, the days were still all the same.
Ten years on the space station, and its constant tremors still rocked your stomach so that you could barely keep food down. The classes, the training were all so routine that they blurred together like a thousand raindrops collecting into one messy puddle. Not that messiness was tolerated. If there was one thing you learned, within minutes of being aboard, it was that cleanliness came before everything else.
Second came success.
And not just success at classes, or at training, that was a given, that got you only so far. They wanted success at succeeding. Everything had to be suave, smooth like clockwork. When people didn't smile at you, when the words were just somehow wrong, you knew you were not succeeding. And when the others frowned and scribbled on their clipboards, you knew you weren’t just not succeeding, you were failing.
The failing felt like you were a bottle and you were slowly leaking, drip dripping out a hole that no one else seemed to have. You knew that you were dripping, knew that everyone else could see it, but you just couldn't quite figure out how to plug the hole, how to make it all flow smoothly out the right way.
And you longed for the nighttime, for the dark.
He was always there without fail. I never told him that I missed him. I'm sure he knew, like he knew everything else.
The space station had never really felt cold, until I felt the warmth of his palms against my body. And then I suddenly I knew that when the darkness faded, I would never stop shivering.
He loved asking me questions, strange ones. What I thought had come before, what I thought was coming after. They confused me, so that I tripped over myself, but I loved them. They made me dig into the sand all around me, scatterbrained and frantic, but when the random bits of something came shooting up, the sweat on my brow felt good. Good, like I’d really done something, something more even than succeeding. I was journeying to these strange existences, of the maybes.
But when you woke up, it was only about now, about what was in front of you. Because if you didn't do this right now, well nothing after would matter. And you sweated and you struggled and sometimes, for a moment, you were whole and holding everything like you were supposed to and you knew that you had succeeded. And you guessed that this was how it was meant to feel, to feel good. But somehow before the end of the day, that hole would always reappear, and the drip drip dripping would start again.
But I would lie down in my narrow bed and I would wait. And then he would come to me.
He taught me new words, foreign and sweet. He told me they were words I'd always known, but had never learned. They were words that somehow sounded like how I imagined my parents had spoken. They were words that tasted ancient and royal on my tongue, but at the same time, so young, and soft, and new.
He would hold me, touch me, make me feel in ways I didn't know I could. And I ran my hands through his sandy hair, and I pressed my cheek to his soft lips, and I touched my fingers to his browned skin, and I waited for answers.
It got so that you hated the light, hated its harsh, brutal, blunt glare. In the light there was always more dirt to be cleaned, because in the light everything had to look right, or else it would look wrong. In the cold, unflinching light, you cracked, a little more each day.
You once asked someone, someone older, what came after.
They looked at you, and responded wearily, "Worry about getting through this, okay? If you get it right, they’ll take care of you.”
That was all you had to do: get it right.
And then there was the boy.
Even though you had him in the darkness, you still noticed the boy. His skin was deathly pale, of course, everyone's was. But he had soft green eyes and a lazy smile and arms that bristled with muscle against the tight spandex of his uniform.
You were in the same classes, but sat so far away. And then one day you were training together. You wanted to talk to him, but in your stomach you felt the hole, and you were ashamed. You wanted so badly to understand why you couldn't just ignore it, why you couldn't just get it right with him. But you also wondered why you cared so much.
A few days later, he spoke to you. A joke, wasn’t it? Something like that. And you laughed and felt dizzy.
I told him about it that night, about the boy. And in the darkness I could smile, unashamed of my stupidity. And he told me, though I don't remember how, that it wasn't stupidity. He told me that it was something much more beautiful. He pressed his lips to me and promised that there would be so many stories.
That was the night he kissed me; the night I started telling him stories.
I knew that with that browned skin and those gleaming eyes that he had seen so much more than me. But somehow he still sat, silent and fascinated, when I told him my stories. I had never known before about telling stories, and I'm not sure that he taught me. But one day I started and just couldn’t stop.
They were silly stories, about before. They were stories that would have made no sense in the light. But he kissed me and I told him stories about before, about ten thousand different befores. He never told me what was right or wrong. He only held me and listened.
Soon I began to lose the days.
Perhaps I’d stopped caring about understanding.
Soon they began to notice. You can't do everything on automatic, you discover. When you do that, the hole becomes bigger, and they scribble on their clipboards more.
“Pay Attention!” One of them yelled.
“Your training becomes more important every day," another explained, this one softly, like you were still five years old and a trembling newcomer, "In the war you will need to be prepared. And even in your life after, you will need these skills.”
These skills. Yes, it was always about skills. Skills you were tired of practicing day after day, because that was the way it was done. That was the way everyone said it had to be done.
She even noticed. Not that you had ever been what they call, "friends," but she knew you better than any of the others.
And one day during a break, when everyone was drinking water and wiping away some sweat, she asked, “Is everything okay?”
You nodded hurriedly and replied, “Of course, why do you ask?” trying not to fumble, to sound frantic.
“You seem, well…different. Like you’re off somewhere else.”
And then for some reason, you decided to try, just this once. "Don't you ever wonder about if it was different? About actually being somewhere else?”
And she didn't respond, she only looked at you, and you took that for encouragement, you confused her with him. And you continued, "It's just hard sometimes, always having to get it right.”
She shrugged. "It's hard for all of us. That's just the way things are. You have to follow the system to get to where you want to go.”
And you were about to ask her, "Where do you want to go?", but you knew better than that.
When I told him my story that night, for the first time he seemed troubled. I'd never known he even knew how to look troubled. He asked me why I hadn't asked her the second question. I laughed softly, touching his arm, and told him that he didn't understand. That in the light, where you can see, it's not so simple as it is here with us. When you ask questions out there, you leak, and everyone can see.
But he didn't seem satisfied. For once I had an answer, and for once he didn't like it. He pressed his body to mine, and he spoke no more that night.
When he came to me the next night, he lay down without a word. I didn't mind; I told him stories and stories until the darkness melted away and he with it.
It went on like this for a long time.
You watched the boy during the day and you still wondered. At night things might have felt one way, but during the day you still couldn’t help wondering
One night it just overwhelmed me. I clutched him and cried and asked him why.
He shook his head and spoke for the first time in weeks, or was it months? He told me that in the darkness we had discovered something magical, something different, completely different than anything that was or had been or would ever be. And I smiled and held him even closer and didn't say a word. But, he continued, that was not enough. The two of us are not enough.
I didn't understand, and I wanted to so badly. I wanted to understand him. I realized now that wanted to understand him so much more than I wanted to understand the days. And he knew that, like he knew everything else. And he kissed me, and touched me, and to me stories that made me dream.
But the next night, he told me again, that the two of us were not enough. In that narrow bed in the darkness I had found something, he told me, but it would be nothing if that was all it was.
That night seemed longer than most. I huddled closer to him in the cold. And in the darkness he was more extraordinary than I ever remembered. I blinked, each time expecting him to be gone, and each time he was still there, and the dark made each time feel more miraculous. He asked me so many questions that night that I grew overwhelmed, but he didn't seem to want to know the answers. And then at some point, when those dreaded fingers of light began to poke their way through the portal on the wall, he whispered to me once more, in words I can't quite remember, that the two of us were not enough.
And that was the last night.
He never came to me again.
The darkness that had once been my friend now swallowed me up, leaving me frozen and alone. The nights and days all blurred together, like a thousand teardrops collecting into one messy puddle.
And even during the day you couldn't forget his face, and try as you might, you couldn't quite remember his voice, though his words rang through your head over and over and over again.
In the dark I dreamed he was there again; at least I tried to dream, but I couldn't. I could no longer dream, could no longer tell stories.
Then one day, right in the middle of training, running just a few steps past the point where you were sure my lungs would burst, you understood. You came to a screeching halt, your chest heaving up and down like a trampoline, struggling to exhale carbon dioxide, to bring oxygen to your racing brain.
“Don’t…stop…” she gasped as she passed you, “You don’t…want…to be noticed.”
But you paid no attention, because you finally, finally understood. Not everything, never everything, that much he'd taught you. But one sentence he'd said, one sentence finally made sense. And understanding just that could have been enough.
You grabbed her arm the next time she passed you, "There's something I have to tell you, have to tell everyone.”
Somehow you discovered that all this time, they were willing to hear you, you just had to truly want them to listen. They gathered around you, when the clipboards were out of sight and waited to be told.
So you told them. About him. About the words. The stories. The questions. Especially the questions.
They were all quiet for a moment.
And then the boy laughed. "You're a dreamer. That's all. You've been dreaming so much you think your fantasies are real.”
Then they all laughed at you, seeming almost relieved, and said, “Darkness is nothing special, darkness is just the absence of light.”
And you hung your head and said softly, "You're right. But only when the light is gone, when there's nothing there but you and the darkness, only then can you finally see.”
But they just stared and shook their heads, and walked away, muttering, in their suave, smooth ways about dreamers and morons, all the while looking over their shoulders, speaking louder than necessary.
You clenched your fists and choked back the anger.
You wanted to stand there, to be heartbroken, to wallow in the pain of the boy's laughter. But you saw his face, beautifully browned, and knew his words deep inside. The two of us are not enough. And you grabbed her arm as she was walking away. "Trust me,” you begged.
She seemed unsure, but she glanced around, and even in the light, for a moment, no one was looking. So she nodded.
And that night, in the darkness, I sat down beside her. And we were silent, for awhile. I wanted to share the dark, to guide her in the way I had entered, but I couldn't seem to find the answers. Again the darkness had closed itself to me. It would not give me the answers, no matter how I pleaded.
But then she suddenly turned to me. She turned to me, swallowing nervously, and asked, “Do you – do you ever feel just a little broken inside?”
“Like there’s a hole, and you’re slowly leaking out of it?”
She was startled, I could tell. Startled like someone who feels their secret has just been discovered, like someone else has see inside of them, into the dark parts of them that they never meant to have in the first place.
But then she smiled, shyly, crookedly, and she leaned in and told me. And I knew. I knew that, that very night, she must have been visited by a stranger she knew better than anyone else, tall, dark, foreign, and closer to her than her heart.
And I spoke to her of things that seemed bizarre and fantastical even as they left my lips, but I forgot to be ashamed, to be nervous, to be right.
And to my surprise, though she didn't kiss me or have browned skin or whisper magical words, I felt something more than I had with him. I felt that something more stirring within me, my chest was lighter than ever before, and I wondered if this was what it meant to talk to someone.
That night passed so quickly that I wondered how I'd ever passed those long, long nights with only him.
Again I dreaded the coming of the light, with its pale sickly fingers and cruel scrutinizing gaze. But she only laughed and pulled me to my feet, as though day and nights were the same, just on opposite sides of the sun.
Enthralled, intoxicated by my victory, I ran to them again. I wanted so badly to make magic, like him, to be a creator of extraordinary things.
But they only kept walking by, and they laughed and asked, “Do you still dream at night? Do you still confuse lies with reality?”
And I saw her on the edges of my vision, like a lighthouse, beacon bright, on my horizon.
And I, I turned and looked at all them, and smiled sadly, sad for them, and I replied, "I know he wasn't real. He was never more than just a beautiful dream. But that's not the point. In the dark it wasn’t about reality.”
And I walked away, knowing that though the darkness would always be my home, I would no longer fear the light.