Brief Spaces of Light

by a contributor

Susan L. Lin

The night starts like all others seem to—someone says something about me that I don’t like and I throw it back at them.

Stop making generalizations, I want to say but don’t. I try to laugh instead but come up short. My trachea tightens, makes a sound like someone being strangled. Someone, not me.

Nights like this I feel myself flatten to the floor, like construction paper glued to Bristol board, a bookend being pulled away from either side of me. Am I just everyone else’s collection of body part cutouts, mismatched and held together with brass brads, I’ll move when you want me to?

At Mallory’s place, my mom leaves messages on the machine: Baby, I miss you. I haven’t even spoken to her since I left home after high school graduation to move in with Mallory. “It’s only an hour away. I’ll come visit,” I’d said, knowing what I couldn’t leave behind would fit in a recycled chocolate tin and a pillowcase with a train running across it. On the recording, her voice sounds like an unfinished jigsaw. Her words are incomplete, almost like they’re missing their vowels, almost like I’m standing on one side of the railroad tracks, only able to catch glimpses of the world on the other side as they appear, filtered through those brief spaces of light between moving train cars.

I m—ss y—. C—ll m— b—kkk.

When I see a blue Chevy Impala speeding down the freeway, it turns into a bed rolling down the hospital hall. My father is lying down on it, connected to half a dozen feeding tubes—he’s smaller somehow, younger, thinner than I remember. I can see his bones sticking out in strange places.

I wake up not knowing where I am, lying next to a head, connected to a body, the taste in my mouth like I don’t know what, pretending I don’t remember anything. I roll away, untangle myself from habit just so I can fall into it again some other night.

On my way home, I stumble over the word—H-O-M-E—wondering where it is. Lift my foot to look under my shoe—no, not there—for some reason I think this is hilarious and laugh so hard I start to cry.

Everyone I pass on the street starts looking like a stranger with familiar eyes. I see them all pale blue, something recognizable on their faces: concern maybe, disgust more likely. There’s a bum standing next to an intersection a few blocks away from Mallory’s apartment, wearing a red knit sweater with a huge likeness of Santa’s jolly face emblazoned on the front. It’s the middle of April. The glow from street lamps, blue reflectors on the road, the red-yellow-green pattern of traffic signals, all become oversized strings of Christmas lights decorating the city.

“Please, can you spare change?” the man on the corner says. He’s carrying a cardboard sign with the word HUNGRY scrawled on it in all caps. I shake my head, no, Santa glaring at me through his woven eyes.

I have to swallow as it gets later, earlier—what time is it?—to keep myself from hurling, losing more.

Susan L. Lin hails from southeast Texas and holds an MFA in Writing from California College of the Arts in San Francisco, CA. Her novella Goodbye to the Ocean, which these pieces are excerpted from, was a semifinalist in the 2012 Gold Line Press chapbook competition. Her short prose has recently appeared in Hayden’s Ferry ReviewGhost Town, Hypertext Magazine, Gravel Magazine, Portland Review, and elsewhere.  She blogs intermittently at