Only Light, Until
BY EMILY HARNDEN
The center of the world was a flash of feeling she couldn’t see because her eyes were closed tight as Tupperware. As if she were underwater, and the idea of letting anything else in would make her grow soggy and bloated, would distort the electricity she felt baking inside her. Opal had come to crave it: the moment when she came so slowly and wonderfully she let no words out of her being, only light. It had happened so far only when she was on top, only with the nice man she had just started sleeping with, which she was glad for. It should be rare—the silent, bright center of the world—otherwise it wouldn’t be the center. It’d be someplace else and to the left.
At the beginning it was a little alarming, sure. Opal had figured she was just having some weird reaction to actually pleasing sex. For she had never had this kind of good sex before. Balancing on the balls of her feet, Pete’s mouth teasing between her legs kind of sex. Pete’s voice against her shoulder, his whisker-breath a radio-static of fuck and you and god. She remembered her old photography teacher’s favorite word: texture. Tongue on shoulder blade, lower back. Cheek against thigh. Texture, texture, texture, she could hear her practically singing it in that chirpy little voice she had. But then the thing with the light happened and the idea of texture became somehow less compelling. Lack of texture, somehow sexier. She was no longer interested in friction so much as reflection. What it could show her, even with her eyes sealed shut.
The thing with the light was this: it came streaming out of all the holes in her body. The first time it dripped like sunshine out of her eyes, nose, mouth, ears, pussy, and yes asshole—she didn’t notice until later when she opened her eyes voluntarily and saw Pete’s face and chest freckled with what appeared to be glow-in-the-dark paint. The kind her mother used to use to paint stars on her bedroom ceiling. The second time it happened, she got a closer look. Saw Pete’s abdomen covered in light as if he’d been yellowed by a friendly sort of bruise. Upon seeing the concern in her face, Pete told her it was okay, that he was into it. He said he liked to stick out his tongue, catch the light as if it was composed of warm snowflakes.
When Opal asked what it tasted like, the warm snowflakes, Pete looked down at his groin thoughtfully then back to Opal’s blue eyes. “Like a lemon poppy seed muffin, except in Listerine form,” he said. “It’s got a bite to it.”
Opal rolled her fingers over his stomach like little roller blades. “Is that your favorite kind of muffin,” she asked.
“It is now,” he said, grinning.
This felt like a good answer to Opal. A sign that he wanted her light and wouldn’t want to see what normal dark sex was like with a different girl underneath him, her eyes wide open and empty as a broken refrigerator at midnight.
Since Pete, Opal thought about sex often: at work rolling pastry dough, on her drive home, when she was at her mother’s house making ratatouille. She thought how she had never said fuck me so much, over and over, and wondered if what she was really trying to say had something to do with love. Was the light a product of love? She chopped zucchini. Sliced tomatoes. Julienned what needed to be julienned. His voice in her ear. His laugh a gruffy sound, playful as a growl that turned into a yelp when she kissed his thin throat. The light covering his face in patches like a leaf turning into fall.
This kind of sex didn’t make Opal think about coffins the way sex used to with the boyfriend from Germany. How she would lay there so rigid all his weight carving her further into the mattress wondering if she would ever get up, would she ever come just once without having to train her mind on other kinds of human love—startling, aching, hungry. The last couple months of their relationship, all Opal’s effort had been poured forth into imagining porn stars kissing each other’s ears delicately as the German tunneled into her.
She had been young when they met, and he was the most interesting person she had come across, being so young. She left the house she grew up in for his, her language for his, had not realized what she was losing. Then interests had changed. She wanted to take a class other than German, wanted to take pictures again, find portraits in people on the street. She wanted see Midwestern sunsets, ears of corn streaked in pink like paintbrushes. Have good sex. Go to her mother’s for breakfast, go to her mother’s whenever she wanted her voice close to her.
Opal only found an excuse to leave once it became life or death. The German’s life or her mother’s death. This is how she explained it to him: My mother isn’t a can of nonperishable soup.
The German looked at her, surprised. “Have you no heart?”
“No, I have jokes,” she said, and then left.
Because of course she had jokes! Otherwise, how else would she do it—all the time away from mother, wasted. Okay, maybe the sunny kinky sex with Pete helped. The glowing freckles on his cheeks, his dimples. His lips on her breasts, the walking around naked, the music they danced to and fucked to and slept through into the early morning when he would wake her with his hand on her illuminated underwear, make her late to the shop because his mouth and cold hands and dark dark room where no light could get in or out, unless it was emanating from Opal’s body.
Her mother had said I don’t want you to be alone and Opal wasn’t. She was not alone except the days she didn’t see him, didn’t feel him, didn’t become composed of shadow and sun. This is what she thought on the surface. On those days after the bakery she bought bottles and bottles of olive oil, ran around her high school’s old track with all the young girls just learning how to run away.
She went to Office Depot to buy folders, became preoccupied by ballpoint pens, how it would feel to glide across the page—never come to a full-stop. A Hollywood roll, her mother had called it, when she was teaching Opal how to drive, when Opal hadn’t known yet that somewhere deep down lay a secret splinter to her own personality. An unyielding hard edge.
At the end of these days alone Opal would go to her mother’s for ratatouille and warm washcloths and stories she had missed because of the German. On those nights she watched old television shows—sitcoms from the nineties when no one left New York and everyone dropped by each other’s apartments unannounced. As with shows one watches over and over, Opal let herself think of old tired things she could dress up. How the German used to say Opal you’re not even trying to make friends or find work or make me happy, and then she would laugh at the wrong times in the show because she was preparing all the mean things she could have said to Jannik. Like: Man, are you even trying to get me wet? I am a porcupine of desire over here. A porcupine, and the image of this animal—Jannik’s dick covered in needles, his mouth a hole of exaggerated pain—made her calm, helped her sleep so it would be tomorrow and there would be Pete. Pete who used to be just an old neighbor-boy, someone her mother would call over to come get extra basil from the garden because she was the kind of mother who gave and gave until nothing remained.
But now Pete was someone else. A body she could love without words, a face that would help her edge closer and closer to the unnamable pain without knowing what it would be like when it finally hit, when it finally came in the middle of the night, in the middle of a sentence not enough warning. Only startled eyes and last shudders and I want you to know I love you, don’t you know that I love you. Only then did she think she would come nearer to understanding: the difference between feeling lonely and being alone. The difference between being held in a man’s arms and a mother’s. Only then would she understand what it meant—the light coming out of her, providing her a mirror no language could construct. Someone who she could look at and see how she’d changed them. Freckles she could touch. A bruise she could lay on top of, keeping her afloat in an abyss too deep to look up from and recognize anyone’s face but her own.
But Opal was wrong. When her mother died she didn’t understand anything. The night of her mother’s death Pete lay underneath Opal, her body trembling.
Opal’s eyes and mouth were fused shut, trying to hold it all in, every drip drop stream of light in his dark dark bedroom. She held and held and held and then she came so hard it looked from underneath her closed eyelids like the world had exploded. Like she would never see the same way again once she opened her eyes.
“You taste so alive,” Pete said, “God it’s like I don’t even know what. I’ve never tasted anything like it.”
Opal didn’t say anything. Her back remained very straight, very still.
Pete’s breathing normalized. “Are you there?” he asked, his voice a distant whisper. He sounded very far away, as if he’d fallen through multiple tunnels and was now two floors below her.
Opal nodded her head. Gently she lowered her palm onto what felt like Pete’s face. She brushed his eyelids, his mouth. She knelt and kissed the part of his face that seemed to beam brightest against her closed eyes. “Oh,” she said, closer to understanding. “Oh, wow.”
“What is it?” Pete asked.
It tasted inexplicably tangy, rich, deep. Like something that had been cooking inside the earth for a long time, roasting and roasting, gathering up everything it had to give; something that would last and last and last, no preservatives required. Opal licked her lips, opened her mouth wider. Knelt again. This time she let the light move quietly over her tongue, let it come into contact with every tooth, as if her mouth was a cave ready to be studied, discovered, believed.
“Opal,” Pete said again, “what’s wrong?” His voice was urgent and thick with love.
Opal felt for his stomach. Tasted it again, smiled. Then opened her eyes, so she could see for herself.