Fluorescent Insects – Matthew Lovitt
March 21, 2019
I spent first period in the library adding new design elements to the star shapes burned on the insides of my arms and legs. Burning was the only way to numb the guilt knotted in my chest. If I’d only paid better attention, maybe I would’ve noticed whatever it was about me for which Mom left. But then the Vice Principal came upon me between two non-fiction stacks, holding a molten bookend to my flesh. He snatched the implement, threatened to call Dad, then sent me to the guidance counselor, Ms. Libby’s office.
There she banged away at her decades old IBM, the frilly collar of her blouse lapping against the lapels of her purple pantsuit, straining at the buttons held across her substantial breasts. On the wall above her bookshelf stuffed with therapeutic kitsch and several editions of the DSM hung a poster of a cat dangling from a tree limb, suggesting that I hang in there, don’t quit. I laughed under my breath, then considered the consequences of my actions. If it were a question of in-school suspension or expulsion, send me home where I wouldn’t have to watch the other kids struggle with rote memorization. At home I could daydream of a time when life wouldn’t feel so pointless.
I cleared my throat, and said, Miss?
She peeked over her winged glasses. I didn’t expect to see you back so soon, she said. How are things at home? Those burns on your arms look bad.
The light above her desk clicked and whirred like fluorescent insects.
She continued, Many people smarter than me believe that such behavior is an attempt to manage new or unfamiliar feelings. And your test scores…you’re quite intelligent. I imagine it’s hard to connect with the other kids. Maybe that makes the self-harm more necessary, almost compulsive.
I scoffed, then said, As textbook as it may seem, burning is the only thing that makes sense. It orders things in a way that allows me to see the world from front to back. There are no surprises and everyone wants to be my friend. Or the fact that nobody cares isn’t all that important. But there is no need to intellectualize my punishment. The sting is all I need to live.
Your mom, she just passed.
And just like that my will melted like skin held beneath the business end of a fire poker or some equally perfect instrument. No matter how many scars I would never be able to escape my sins. Mom was this perfect woman and I but a piece of shit. Or that was the lie that kept me certain when certainty was a gift.
I said, Fuck this.
I can’t help if you don’t—
I don’t need any more of this garbage.
She followed me to the door, nodding, pursing her lips. A boy I later learned to be Julian was waiting just outside her office, rolling a spliff. Ms. Libby asked me to come back the next week, and Julian whistled that cartoon whistle, suggesting that she and I might be participating is some illicit student-teacher contact. He slapped me on the back, said he was kidding, then handed me his eighth of weed wrapped in a tobacco leaf, sealed with a lick.
At home I passed the time eating snacks. Food was another one of my favorite anesthetics. When Dad called to ask why I wasn’t at school, all I told him was that I’d gotten sick. Although I may not have said even that. He hadn’t paid much attention to me since Mom’s death, instead running for Congress. Most of his energy was spent travelling our district, listening to either side berate him for his positions. But anyway I was home alone when my new best friend Julian banged on the front door, as if the condo were his.
Open up, he said, lowering his voice an octave.
I answered the door. Ummm…yes?
This field south of downtown, tucked behind a warehouse, wrapped with a sweep of trees. It can only be seen from the highway, which makes it the perfect spot to drink and smoke and do other kinds of bad things.
I shifted on my feet.
He said, Exactly.
When will we be back?
And how’d you find me?
He smiled and waved for me to follow him to the elevator at the other end of my condo building’s main hallway. In the brushed stainless steel doors, my reflection was a blur of color split down the center of my body. Probably on the inside I was empty. All I wanted was Dad, but he couldn’t be bothered with the rigmarole of me. Was my need for him selfish? Maybe. But in my child-mind selfishness was to be expected when every minute was a fight against grief. So I followed Julian to that overgrown field, to lie on the moist earth, and stare up into a tangle of trees.
Between exhalations of smoke and swigs of cheap whiskey, I told him how Mom had been the lynchpin that held together the disparate parts of our family. And when she threw herself off the balcony, our family crumbled to nothing. Now the days were a matter of filling the maw opened up in my chest cavity.
Julian said he understood, then shared with me parts of his upbringing. His biological mother had left him before he was even conceived. There was no room in her life for a baby. But her abandonment of him had been the best thing. If she hadn’t, then he wouldn’t have met his adoptive family. His new parents were kind and loving. They gave him all they had, which wasn’t much of anything. If it wasn’t for all those people with money…
He stopped short of blaming people like me for the hardship forced upon his family. But then said it was unfair that good, honest people must suffer, while I had the privilege to grieve. The poor had to punch a clock no matter how loss tore them apart at the seams. What followed was the loudest quiet I’ve ever known, drowning out any response I might formulate.
Not that any thoughts demanded to be set free. His closeness was enough for the time being. And we stayed beneath those trees until rainclouds eclipsed the sun, casting tortured shadows over our bodies. Where the shadows ended and we began was impossible to say, but in the confusion was a certain clarity that he and I would be forever bound by the gap that separated our families. Life on the other side always looked so pretty. And now we were content in love or boredom or nothing, everything.
The rhythm of rain woke me. The taste of blood tinged with a wisp of whiskey. The sour-sweet scent of gasoline stuck to the blood running down my face. Flames consumed the car’s engine, the hood wrapped around a highway stanchion. A deep black glistened in the shards of glass that covered my lap, burrowed into my arms, and, by the feel, my cheeks.
I yanked at the belt tightened over my hips, wincing as it cut into the wounds in my chest. I touched the tender spots hoping the pain wasn’t real, the crash some sick dream. But the heat. Fingers of flame flicked loose curls of smoke into the sky that flitted and thinned into tiny nothings, as the happiest moments linger just below the surface of memory. And Julian slumped over the steering wheel, unconscious, blood gathering in the crease where his forehead met the steering wheel of his hooptie. He was smiling, as if at peace with the chaos and destruction, us coming upon our ending.
Then smoke billowed into the car, through the broken windows, and the gash the instrument panel spilling wires and clamps and things. I pressed my feet into the dash, and my shoulders into the seat, hoping that I could somehow slip free. But the hinge seemed to tighten, fix me in place. I stomped on the glove box, which popped opened, revealing a knife, the blade glinting the flames that had found their way in, around my feet.
I pulled the knife through a fold in seatbelt, threw the door open, and stumbled onto the highway. Red and blue lights softened the horizon in the direction from which we came. I looked to the forest just off the shoulder, but fell to my knees, vomiting an amber fluid speckled with chunks of throat meat. The sickness mixed with the rivulets of blood that ran through the tears in the knees of my jeans. I closed my eyes, sobbed and heaved. The fire continued to eat at the car, my new best friend or…
A police officer deposited me in the back of his Crown Vic. I told him that he didn’t know whom he was dealing with. He should go ahead and call my attorney before things got bad for him. He did and then left me alone in the police cruiser to supervise two men in high-viz slickers pumping life back into Julian. One held a plastic mask over his mouth while the other squeezed a transparent blue bag.
I banged on the window with my head. He doesn’t want that, I said. But no one noticed. Rather they applied more vigor to the task of bringing him back from over the edge. Julian opened his eyes, blinking real fast, as if to adjust his vision to a new dimension. I imagined him glimpsing a thousand virgins dancing atop rainbows paved with stimulants and depressants. And there was no need to be afraid, not for the promise that the fire would fade, but for knowing that there would always be someone else who felt the same. Hurt and shame—the heavy hand of any mistake cuts both ways. There would always be some terror from which we couldn’t escape.
The EMTs slid Julian into the back pocket of an ambulance, and firemen swept up bits of his vehicle’s charred remains, the tangle of steel stripped of its paint, revealing a mottled gray primer reminiscent of an obstinate blot stuck to the bottom of an ashtray. And in that moment the desire to burn went away. Instead I was the burnt landscape. More drugs, more numb, more okay. There was no order to life. Family and friends and grief were figments of my imagination gone crazy. Better to be alone for the rest of my days. Then the only question was for how much it would take to blot out the emotion, any emotion, for they all trend toward pain.