My Long and Tearless Night by Meghan Lamb
You mustn’t touch me.
No one must ever touch me.
I don’t know.
(He is never touched by anyone in the play.)
– JM Barrie
The room has paled from black to gray when I first see the shadow man. He comes at a strange hour. I can’t tell if it’s morning or night. He drifts through the door—already cracked to let a little light in—and creaks the hinges just enough that he seems human. For a moment, I think it’s my father. I open my mouth to ask him something. Then, he disappears into a streak of passing headlights.
My mouth stays open, but I squint to block out all the other shadows. I narrow my gaze to find him, just as I closed my eyes to hide the dark while sleeping. His movements flash, like scales gleaming in an unlit tank. The shadow flickers as it folds into my rocking chair. He breathes so gently. I almost think that he’s part of the wood grain, but his body seems to billow as the curtains catch a breeze. I remember, Peter Pan came through the nursery window at night, looking for someone to mend his shadow. I remember, sometimes shadows can escape you. I never learned to sew, but I guess I could try. I scan the room for a boy in a green cap and stockings.
“Peter?” I whisper. But speaking makes my thoughts feel silly. Anyhow, the sewing kit’s in my parents room, tucked safely in the closet, guarding needles and thread and myself against shadows of boys.
Morning comes, and I call for my father. I tell him about the shadow, and he smiles. “He sat in my chair,” I explain, “so he could’ve been real.”
He sits in the chair and pulls up the sleeve of a sweater. He gives it a good look-over, like he’s giving me the benefit of the doubt. He says, “Are you sure it was this chair?”
The sweater is thick and gray, but I know that the shadow was light, catching the night sheen of all surrounding objects. “It was, “ I tell my father, deciding that I’m old enough to keep a secret.
It’s no coincidence when—years later than expected—he answers the door in a thick gray sweater. His shoulders are strong, but they slouch in a delicate way, as though he has trouble supporting his shadow. We’ve only just met, but I already wonder if I could stitch him into place. His name is Alex. He’s a photographer. My friend, a model, wanted me to pose for him. My friend is prettier than me and cares enough to seek the source of difference—she says, “You need to be more confident”—but she wants me to be more like her. Alex is a study in that difference. I’m nineteen and he is thirty-four.
“Hi,” he says, “have a seat.” He leads me toward his kitchen, where I sit in the sunny breakfast nook. He offers me coffee or wine, and I choose coffee. “It’s old,” he warns me, “but I can make a fresh pot if you’d like.” I tell him not to bother; I don’t mind.
He pours a cup, puts it in the microwave, and sits across from me. His sleeves droop down over his hands. Alex has a pale but olivine complexion, and he’s very thin, almost girlishly thin. He has a peculiar mole underneath his eye. It’s strange to see it there, a bit of flesh that doesn’t quite belong, though he’s probably used to it. I wonder how long Alex has let himself look this way.
“You’re a student?” he says.
“Yes,” I answer, “I just started.”
“Do you like your school?” he asks.
“Yes,” I say. “I think I might study abroad though, next semester.”
“You should go to Ireland,” he says. “I went my junior year.” We talk for half an hour about the rolling hills, the rain, and his dingy apartment over a pub. He doesn’t tell me anything I can’t already picture. “I mostly just sat around drinking wine, eating apples, and smoking hashish,” he explains. His stories are all very short and vague, like he’s worried what will happen if he lingers over them.
He says, “I might know someone you could stay with.”
“Who?” I ask.
“Her name is Kathy,” he says. “I have a photo of her saved on my computer.”
He shows me. I can tell that they probably dated at some point. The back light frames her much too softly for a friend. “She’s beautiful,” I tell him, complimenting the picture.
Now the sun shines brighter on the left side of my face. I wonder if I’m beginning to look like a photograph. I take an apple from a bowl on the table. I turn it over in my hand, guessingly. Alex aims his camera. He shifts out and approvingly inward. I see a flicker of my movement on the lens before it flashes. My reflection prepares to accept me.
He smiles. “Your friend said you were cute,” he says, “but you’re prettier than I expected.” He’s smiling now to show he understands; I’m not sure what he understands though.
That evening, I walk home feeling strangely embarrassed. I go to the bathroom and strip before the mirror. Alex says I’m pretty, but I know I’m missing something. I have to balance on the toilet seat to see my legs and, shifting not to fall, I notice it at once.
Kneeling over the shower drain, I shave all the hair off my cunt.
Kathy—in the photograph—is slim and blonde. The sunlight—filtered through his cheap pull-blind—only catches her hair at the edges. Her eyes are pale slits beneath their lids. The light has a cooling effect on them. It must be cold even inside his apartment, because she’s wearing two jackets on top of a vest and blouse.
Her body’s propped against the window, languorous, unable or unwilling to sustain itself. I know it’s still a pose; I can’t tell if it’s hers or his idea. A rooftop slants toward her from behind the glass. One leg bends sharply through her tailored skirt. The angles trouble me. They mimic one another, but only enough to disturb the picture’s harmony. The other leg hangs loosely, but the photo cuts it off mid-thigh.
I think, He didn’t have to shoot her from so far away. He could’ve taken her from just the shoulders or the waist. The image is a challenge to her body, sheltered in its winter clothes. I can imagine Kathy all the more for this, her stomach squeezing inward, nervously, her breasts pricked pink. I think that Alex knows her body, though, but I do not.
She’s turned toward the outside as though waiting. Something in her eyes seems ready to look back. But only one leg points in his direction, the part that he’s hidden from view.
A week later, Alex seduces me by laying his head in my lap. We’re sitting in the tree house that he built when he first moved here. The tree house wraps around the middle of a tall pine, hovering above his bedroom window. It’s cozy, with a trap door, a spy hole, and a shelf of water-damaged books. All the books are boy books like Huck Finn, Watership Down, and The Snows of Kilamanjaro. There are needles all over the floor and two half empty bottles of beer. The sun shines through so amber liquid seems to seep along the walls.
Alex tilts his chin toward me and shuts his eyes. I have to bend uncomfortably to kiss him. I say nothing. I had planned for this to happen. I do get nervous when his breath begins to warm my legs.
He pauses for a moment. “Are you…” he starts to ask, but trails off.
I think I know what he means now. “No,” I assure him, “I’m not.”
He smiles, his eyes still closed. “Good,” he says when I glance downward. “I guess we’ll go inside then.”
I move slowly down the ladder, careful to watch my footing. My head aches in a feverish way, the kind that makes me almost want to fall. I feel so tired around him although we’ve just met. Going to his bedroom is the natural thing, I decide.
Once we’re through his front door, though, he makes me question him. He comes behind me, grunts deeply in his throat like he intends to lift me whole. I think, he can’t be serious. He’s two inches shorter, and thinner than I am. Nevertheless, he carries me, stumbling through the dining room, across the hall, and into bed, where he falls while I balance beneath him. Now I feel uneasy; it’s as though he understands how tired I am. I strain a little, back curving upward, legs pointing inward as through to push all the way through him. But it’s plain to see the obstacle, in this case. If I want to still be elegant, my every movement captures me. Perhaps he’s making plans that I’m too slow to trace.
I shudder when he touches the hem of my skirt. I suddenly remember where I shaved. I feel childish; I’ve made a mistake, so I tell him, “I’m sorry.” He squints a little when he sees it. He looks like he wants me to apologize for something else.
We fuck. He lingers on me when it’s over, nestling into the other half of my pillow. I notice it’s getting dark outside. I can hear the dull buzzing of late summer insects, the clink, clink, clink as they flutter against the glass.
“Were you in love with Kathy?” I ask.
“Maybe,” he says. “We thought about getting married, when I was your age.”
I turn toward his dresser, where we’re framed by a long black mirror. “Why didn’t you?” I ask him.
He yawns. “Oh, nothing special. We stayed together ‘til I moved to L.A. She would visit every few months, and sometimes I’d fly out to Dublin. She got sick of it though. I think she got sick of L.A. She wanted us to live together, and we couldn’t.”
“You didn’t want to move to Ireland?”
“No,” he says, firmly, “I liked L.A. It was kind of ugly, I guess, but I always liked it.”
I’ve never been to L.A. myself. I hear you can’t walk almost anywhere. Most people drive for hours just to get to work in the morning. I wonder what the roads are like in Ireland. I can’t imagine anything besides the rolling hills. No houses, no yards, no land that doesn’t twist and turn and try to push you off it. But people can live almost anywhere, I think, if they really want to.
I ask, “Was it strange that months went by when you couldn’t see her?”
“Not really. Strange how?” he says.
“Oh, you know,” I search for the words. “You never saw what she did, day by day when you weren’t there.”
That isn’t what I want to tell him. “No one knows what happens in another person’s life,” he says.
No, I understand, I think, but that isn’t what I mean. I try to explain, “You only saw her in those little blocks of time. You knew when she’d come and go.” When she had to go, I add in the back of my head.
He doesn’t answer. I wonder if my question was a bit too mean. I decide it’s best to close the conversation, so I ask, “What does Kathy do now?”
“She’s married,” he says, “and she has three kids.”
An image of Alex, age nineteen. He’s standing in the room where he photographed Kathy. The shadows are darker, the blue less bright, so it could’ve been taken a few hours later. It could’ve been taken a different day. It could’ve been taken by Kathy, or maybe he simply arranged his tripod. Perhaps he set the camera to her level, a few feet away, just after she boarded the plane.
He really hasn’t changed. He’s in the same Doc Martin boots and the sweater I like to wear around his house. He looks smaller, I guess, but that’s probably due to the angle as much as anything. He looks the same, but somehow he still looks younger. Maybe it’s because he spent the week with Kathy. I almost think his eyes look green, though they’re usually gray. That’s silly, though. He’s smiling in a way I haven’t seen, but then again, I’ve never seen him in a photograph.
It’s ten ‘til four on a Saturday afternoon. Alex usually finishes his photo shoots around 2:30. It takes twenty minutes to walk to his house from my dorm, but I give him an extra hour, just in case.
He doesn’t look up when I open the door. He’s pushing his furniture back into place. “How did it go?” I ask.
He gestures toward his laptop. “Would you like to see?” I’m flattered that he trusts me with the untouched photos, but he doesn’t sit beside me to look through them.
This week, his model is a girl about my age. She’s elegant. Or, that’s my first impression. Everything, unedited, still tapers very finely. Her nose—of all her features—is the most distinguished. It arches at the tip where most of its type turn downward. Her cheeks and collarbone become the same arch, mirrored by the camera’s perfect placement. Her body almost seems to smile without her. She must be trying something different, I decide.
The model is pressing her lips into a long dark line.
“She’s cute,” I comment, not quite ready to commit.
“Yeah,” he says, “and she just broke up with her boyfriend. Who would dump her?”
“Beats me,” I say, which is basically true. I click until I reach the last three photos. Here she’s sitting, looking downward like she wants to close her eyes. Her hands are even folded up in front of her. I almost ask the model’s age, but that’s not fair. She doesn’t know me, and she doesn’t know I’m looking.
The model is wearing his sweater.
I move into his bedroom after dinner when he goes to take a bath. I look at myself in the mirror on his dresser. At first, I try to press my lips together, wondering if I can make a face like hers. The model’s lips are fine though, and they flatten nicely. My lips are fat and pink and always close to trembling.
I remember making faces as a child, squinting in front of the medicine cabinet, trying to look like actresses whose names I didn’t know. Even if I’d known, it wouldn’t have mattered. I tried to see them as a stranger would, approaching them. I wondered how they looked when they were acting off the screen. I tried to imagine them sleeping, running lines through their dreams while millions of people stayed up, passing long nights in their dimly glowing living rooms. I studied them through myself. I tried to copy them in private life. Gradually, I taught the bathroom mirror to be my television.
Sometimes, I wondered how I looked when I was sleeping. I’d flutter and pinch my lashes. I bugged my eyes until they teared up, then tried to look through them like watery lenses. I’d try to close my eyes and watch them closing all at once. This way, I learned that I could never see myself asleep without a camera.
Tonight, I see just as much of myself as I can. I watch in the mirror while I take off my clothes. I strip down to my flesh-colored slip and my flesh-colored stockings. The window is cracked open, and I tiptoe on the edges of my stocking feet to close it. Shut out, sound rushes violently against the walls. There’s something sad about the wind and all its muted whining. It’s something that I usually forget to think about. The pipes begin to groan. He’s finished with his bath, so I pull the blinds over the glass, prop up the pillows behind me, then lie on the bed thinking, nude reclining.
At some point during the night, the sound returns. I feel a draft, so I think that I’d better get up and get rid of it. But then, I feel something flash, and I think that the cold is a feeling I caught from the light. My mind is now lit, but my thoughts are too bright to trace. I’m not afraid at first because I recognize this feeling. A familiar sort of intrusion, like eyes catching yours from the back of your head.
Another flash. This time I can hear the mechanical shifting. I open my eyes. Alex is standing naked on the bed, leaning the camera toward me.
He winces, sucking in all the shadows from his face. For a moment, he looks horrible. Then something switches off outside the window, and the room goes dim. Now he’s shining as an outline, almost fully dark between the edges. His body seems to cry out from the unlit spaces.
I think, I’m startled, but this won’t be difficult to understand. I ask, “Why were you taking pictures of me while I was asleep?”
He opens his mouth, and then waits for a moment to speak. He probably changes his mind. He says, “You look so sweet.”
The word feels like a warning. I swallow something building up inside my mouth. “How am I sweet?”
He kneels back down on the bed, clutching the camera over his lap. He lowers his head, like he’s trying to hide even though I can hardly see him. Maybe he wants to hide what he’s seen of me.
”I can’t,” he says, “I can’t explain it. You just look sweet.”
In all of my attempts to see my eyes closed in the mirror, I never thought of looking sweet. I wanted to see myself sleeping. I wanted to be seen while still unconscious of myself. But I thought, When he comes for real, I will have to wake up. It was foolish not to wonder if I always could.
“Have you taken other pictures like this?” I ask. He nods. I shiver with nervous excitement. “Can I see them?”
He pauses for a long while. I fill the pause with my imagination of the images. I see myself as Peter Pan would, approaching though the window. He comes in almost as an accident, but with a curious kind of desperation. I think, the desperation is his shadow. The accident is me.
“No,” he says, “I don’t think I can let you see them.”
“Why not?” I ask. My voice is getting smaller. He doesn’t answer. Perhaps he doesn’t hear me. But I answer for him: They are mine now.
“Why not?” I ask again.
It’s such a sick feeling, waiting in the dark to be diminished. I look to the mirror, but I can only see the silvery arc of his shoulders as they rise and fall.
I know that if I stay here, I will let myself be captured. I will become the photographs, the body that I’ve never known. He has denied me access, not only to the way he wants to see me—frozen in sleep, something sweet—but to my most visible self, the very self I cannot see. “Alex,” I tell him, “I’m sorry, but I have to leave.”
He nods again. He’s sitting bolt upright. I wonder if he’s smiling until I start to close the door. I catch a glimpse of him folding into the corner of his bed, clutching his knees to his chest.
An image of myself, asleep. The shadows obscure the top half of my face. They don’t cut across my skin so much as blend apologetically into my features. It seems like there was nowhere else for them to go.
My camisole is pushed beneath my breasts, the hemline rolled over my ribcage. With its fleshy tone, it almost seems a part of me, a strange third appendage created by fabric and flash.
Meghan Lamb is a classicist, a modernist: a contradiction. She stays up writing all night, but only between the hours of 9am and 5pm. She wears her short pants long and her opera gloves cuffed at the wrist. She’s neither here, nor there, but she is someplace, at some time, and will find you when you least expect to be found.