I Wanted to Eat Light Bulbs–Steve Fellner

I wanted to eat light bulbs.  I wanted to hear my teeth crunch the little pieces.  I wanted to swallow them.  I wanted to feel them cutting the insides of my throat.

On some days, light bulbs scared me.  There is a light directly above my treadmill.  When I ran, I was afraid that the light bulb would burst and some pieces would pierce my skin.  Maybe one would even make its way into my eye, blinding me.  During my exercise, I would unscrew the light bulb and put it on the dryer, and then get back on.  Everything would be fine for a few minutes until I realized that there was the possibility the light bulb would roll onto the floor and then crack.  My husband Phil would hear the noise, and then yell at me, I imagined, for not keeping the light bulb in a safe space.  “Why are you down here in the dark,” he’d say, “You’re going to trip and break your neck.”

*

I told my psychiatrist about my run-ins with light bulbs.  She wasn’t as amused as I pretended to be.  “Why do you think you’re having these thoughts about light bulbs?  What’s a light bulb standing in for?”

That’s when I knew I hated her.  I needed to find a new psychiatrist.  I humored her and offered some possibilities.  I felt bad for her.  If she failed me, no doubt she had failed a lot of other people.  It’s not like I was anything special.

I told her that I’m afraid of the dark.  When I was a child, I would curl up in bed, my blanket over my head, and no matter how hot it got, I would not come up for air.  I’d sweat.  I’d anticipate the morning when my mother would turn on the lights.

I told her that my dad worked for Commonwealth Edison.  He was a meter reader.  Perhaps the light bulb was a stand-in for my father.  I was sad.  I was processing our relationship which had been estranged for a number of years.  (Happily, it’s now better than it has ever been.)

I told her that when I was young I used to burn myself.  I liked the way the skin peeled back.

I told her a lot of things.  I can’t remember a lot of them.  All I remember is the resentment in trying to find a metaphor for her.  Perhaps madness is when you can’t control what you’re substituting things for.  Everything becomes something else and you lose track of the literal, the real.  Or you believe that the real was never there to begin with, and that begins the descent into paranoia and anxiety.

I don’t know.  After I started to rehabilitate myself, I began to grow resentful towards metaphor.  The Universe, I made myself believe, is a beautiful and troubled thing.  And no matter how troubled, metaphors are a lie; the people who feel the need to use them are weak.  To use metaphor is to sin against The Universe.  God has made everything so unique you can’t replace something with something else.

Maybe I believe that.  Maybe I don’t.  All I know is that metaphor lurks in places that I never willingly want to go again.

The Deep End–David McGlynn

As a younger man, I loved few things more than snowy weekends—those endless stretches of duty-free hours to read or watch movies or hide beneath an old quilt dreaming about my future.

Ten years later, my future has arrived. My sons, Galen and Hayden, are eight and six and snow-bound weekends are seldom restful. Close in age and nearly equal in size, their energy is as contagious as a virus. If one boy’s feeling wild, the other can’t help but join in, and vengeance rides hard on the heels of every provocation. A finger in the ear is met with a sneaker winged across the room. A dollar stolen from Hayden’s wallet results in Galen’s underwear floating in the toilet. Their wrestling wakes us on Saturday morning and continues until we shoo them upstairs at night. Even then, we hear them jumping on their beds, taunting each other from behind their closed doors.

By Sunday afternoon, we’re all on edge and desperate to escape. My wife volunteers to go to Woodman’s, but only if she can go alone. I gather the boys’ swimming trunks and goggles, bundle them in heavy parkas and gloves and set out for the YMCA. We hang our jeans in a locker, tie our suits tight, and exit through the showers to the pool. The boys long ago declared the shallow water for babies. They head straight for the deep end.
When they were younger, the boys used to take turns playing “elevator” by holding onto my shoulders as I slid down the wall toward the bottom. As a boy, I learned to hold my breath this same way: clutching onto my own father’s shoulders as he plunged toward the deep end of our neighborhood pool, the shadowed grates to the pumps like a door in the earth’s crust, a realm accessible only to him and to me. It’s a father’s job to lead his sons into the deep end, to show them that every abyss eventually has a bottom, to teach them not to fear it.

I’ve taken my sons swimming on so many Sunday afternoons that they have become good swimmers by nothing more than repetition. They jump over my head and slither through my legs. They can hold their breaths almost as long as I can. They can touch the deep end without my help. Most Sundays I float beneath them, in the quiet enclosure of the water, watching their legs bicycle above me. When they scurry up the metal ladder and disappear from view, I understand a little of what it will feel like when they grow up and move away. Before I know it, my Sundays will be as quiet as they once were. Already I miss the days when the boys clung to my neck. I call their names, and my words bubble silently toward the water’s mirrored surface.

But, just as I start to feel sad, Galen dives in. His eyes are wide behind his goggles and his hands are outstretched, reaching for me.

On What the Watcher Wants–Barrie Jean Borich

I am watching a man, what seems a private moment. Though this is a film he appears to be actual, not a fiction. He splashes water on his face. I don’t know much more.

I am in Pittsburgh when I watch the film about the man, the last leisurely night of a work trip. The friend I’m staying with pulls out an old Super 8 projector to show home movies against her white living room wall, old film canisters she’d picked up for fun. The antique store sold each reel for a few cents each. These are not her memories but someone’s, anonymous and random, fished out of a vintage bowl.

The movie we watch is shot in color, a woodsy setting with a mountain, a river and a truck camper in the background. This looks to be the 1970s, and the man has wavy reddish hair grown out to the nape of his neck and jeans hanging loose at his hips. As he takes off his shirt and walks toward the river he flexes his lean copper muscles.

My friend and I lean in close. Was this a gay porno? Who is this man and what will happen here? We lean closer, hold our breaths, but all the guy does is walk down to the river and splash water on his face. Then this little movie comes to an end, the flipflipflip of the film coming loose from the reel.

We will never know more. We can only change our questions. His mystery was what we leaned into then. Since, I’ve lost interest in story. Stories change. Desire changes too, but also sustains. Who held the camera? Who followed him down to the river? What did the watcher want of the redheaded man in this ruddy sunlight, in the cold sting of the river against his skin? His body? His fidelity? His attention held forever?

What do any of us want when we watch? Here is another home movie, three-and-half-minutes by another anonymous watcher, that I fished out of the big bowl of the internet.

One desire expressed six times, or maybe six desires, contained by ground, reach and dahlias. The man’s muscles are copper. The bridge to the city is burnished purple. The road curves against green fields. What did the watcher want of this watching? A respite? A new place? A dog who lives forever? What do I want, aside from another past, already gone?

—Barrie Jean Borich/ barriejeanborich.com/ March 11, 2013

Old Things by Dave Madden

In aging, the body gives in to a whole horde of clichés. I rise from a chair, my hand at my hip, and I’m a faceless man in a TV ad, the red bolts throbbing radially. I’m given the title Professor and within a year go grey at the temples. Something put a hemorrhoid on my asshole, and hangovers last a day. My body, I’ve been forced to see, is so sadly unspecial.

I’m 34 years old. The other thing to know about aging is its privilege. Older people won’t allow at cocktail parties or within web essays the aging of the young to be expressed, much less felt. I imagine the septuagenarian’s despondency at no longer hitting a full swimmer’s mile each morning equates Weltschmerzlich to the tween too suddenly big for her dolls, but to that tween I am old and to myself I am old, and while to 52.3 percent of the U.S. population I am young I plan, as an old man, to wallow in it. We’re all old.

*

Frank Conroy published Stop-time when he was 31. In its weariness does his narrator-self read old. The book came out in 1967 when Conroy was a young nobody no one could trust. Said critic Roger Ramsey:

Stop-time is not read for information about the author nor for the exposition of a philosophy of life. As a consequence, the question of adherence to the facts is beside the point. My own experience with the book tells me that the facts are relatively unimportant, but also that the literary imperatives demand and produce an illusion of fiction in which facts are manipulated and interpreted—“invented”—for aesthetic purposes.

Those words got published in 1974. I wasn’t even born yet.

Stop-time pleased critics and sold modestly. David Foster Wallace once called it “arguably the best literary memoir of the twentieth century.” My Penguin copy reads “A Memoir” on its cover, but these words don’t appear on the first edition. Conroy’s book antedates this marketing category the way I do millennials, which is to say just barely, which is to say I score just 7 points away from true millennial on the Pew Research Center’s How Millennial Are You? quiz.

Now Conroy’s dead, as is Wallace. Once, in a poetry workshop, a fellow student pointed out how the poem at hand captured the experience of a dying person.

“We’re all dying,” our professor said, helpfully.

*

Of siblings, of peer groups, I’ve been the youngest. It’s a way to get away with being ignorant. We expect nothing from them, the young, running at reunions through the legs of the grown-ups looking one another respectfully in the eye.

Youth’s a kind of womb, too safe a place to stay in. We can grin, patronizingly, at the grandma who pronounces herself, delusionally, “eighty-four years young” because to say “I’m old” is, we understand, to take a dim view of aging. It is not. It’s to embody it. “Wherever there is power, there is age,” Emerson tells us. “Don’t be deceived by dimples and curls.” 

Emerson’s older than I’ll ever be, and ditto the genre he climbed aboard. That there is no new thing under the sun is a lie, unfortunately, and so our work slouches on.