map Light and Shadow

by ung lee

Published in Issue No. 53 ~ October, 2001

It’s a bright gray afternoon, air vivid and bristling with that light
just before a snowstorm. The salt on the sidewalk sparkles beneath
Alex’s boots. The rush hour sounds fade as she heads north, cutting
across the huge park that bisects the city. An oasis in a desert of
metal and cement, she thinks. She climbs an embankment and makes her
way through a stand of trees to a long field. Silence clings to her;
she imagines it dripping from the bare trees and coating her in an icy
balm. The hypnotic flash flash flash of her black boots across
dead grass and drifting snow. There are occasional puckered clumps of
white where the snow had settled, then melted, in a warm spell after
the last storm.

Strange how her body reacts to the cold, precious liquids seeping out
like some internal melting. The wind brings tears to her eyes, makes
her nose run. When she breathes in deeply, the air seems to bypass her
prickling nose and go straight into her lungs, warmed only by the
beating of her heart as she crunches across the icy field. Gradually
something unfolds in her chest, like a fist unclenching, something
soothed by her rapid progress across the field. Her eyes fixed on the
horizon, a watery band of evergreen beneath smoky blue, Alex sinks
into a familiar, formless stream of images: the frozen wind’s gnawing
translates into wolfish teeth at her cool neck, a morbid fairy-tale
scene, white, black, red. Girl in a jet coat on ivory snow, something
silent at her throat and the scarlet surprise of a kiss. Ex, ex, ex,
and – Oh. How it presses, presses so the hot love gushes up; she
imagines the relief of that dark eruption.

She knows it’s silly, comical even, but Alex always imagines it the
same way, the profound, polar silence that would follow this draining
kiss: crawling into a giant freezer and stretching out among the hoary
vegetables and mysterious cold-burned packages of meat, just another
shining form blind and dead in her winter-white fur coat.

She arrives at the lobby of his apartment building and pauses to let
the mist on her glasses dissolve. When he buzzes her through, she
takes the tiny mirrored elevator up to his floor. Cramped silver box
and she is surrounded on all sides, the image of three short women,
shapeless in long black coats. A pinched, foxy face in triplicate.
Stray snowflakes glisten, melting in her tangled hair, escaping from
three identical braids. The elevator creaks and shudders to the top
floor, and she avoids her own eyes in the spotted glass, relieved when
the door slides open. He lives at the end of the narrow, rust-carpeted
hallway, and when he opens the door a wave of heat and the oppressive
scent of clementines creep out like dazed prisoners. He hovers near
the entrance, unobtrusive as a shadow, and as always protests that
Alex shouldn’t have come, that she must have nicer things to do, all
the while waiting anxiously for her to come in so that he can close
the door behind her. He waves a trembling, puffy hand toward the coat
stand, indicating that she should hang her things up. “I’m sorry
dear,” he begins, breathless, tugging at the frazzled edges of his
burnt straw hair, “I’m just such a wreck today. I know I must look a
sight…and this place,” he gestures hopelessly at the dusty carpet
covered in crumpled tissues and dried gold trails of clementine
peelings, “I just can’t seem to keep up with anything.” He begins this
way every time.

They proceed with this familiar ritual of his apologies and her
reassurances, until he is satisfied that he is forgiven and they can
settle on the cluttered couch. He pushes ineffectually at some of the
mess before dissolving into tears. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” he sobs, “I
can’t help it, I feel so weak, I’m sorry.” She has stopped telling him
that there is no need to apologize, simply holds the spongy hand that
is not covering his eyes. They are cloudy, his eyes, the colors
indistinct and bleeding together like watercolors. They seem
incongruous in his mahogany face, as out of place as she must look in
this dark shadow of an apartment, clean and healthy, holding his hand
delicately like a wound.

Her gaze drifts around the room, not really taking in anything, until
it alights on the television. He seems to sense what she’s looking at,
because he sniffs and pats around for the Kleenex box, asking, “Is it
time, dear? Are they on?” She squeezes his hand before going over to
turn the volume up. He pats the lumpy corduroy couch, releasing small
puffs of dust, so that she’ll settle next to him to watch his girls.
Stifling a sneeze, Alex sits, drawing her legs up under her like a
folding chair.

The four golden girls snipe and quarrel, and he cackles when the
oldest one makes a particularly rude remark. She reminds Alex of a
malicious trained squirrel, with her little features bunched up under
the tight lavender wig. “Oooh, she’s such a b-i-t-c-h! Oh, excuse me
dear, ” he adds coyly. He aims a hazy glance in the direction of
Alex’s face. She reaches into her bag and pulls out the net sack of
clementines she has brought for him, waiting for the next commercial
to ask if he’d like some. As he reaches for the bag of fruit, he
spontaneously begins to tear again. “Thank you dear, I just love these
things. They’re all I can keep down.”

When she first started coming, Alex brought food from the Caribbean
take-out near her apartment: akee and salt fish, roti, sweet fried
plantain, cow foot soup. Even then, he barely ate anything. He picked
contentedly, talking all the while, often describing the beach behind
the house where he grew up. Sucking delicately on the fish bones, he
repeated how he never learned to swim, afraid of the greedy foam
fingers that came skittering up the beach to nip at his tiny ankles,
threatening to drag him under the glinting waves.

The show comes back on, and he asks her what the tarty character is
wearing, because the b-i-t-c-h-y old lady has just said she looks like
a hooker. He giggles appreciatively when Alex describes the tight
leather dress for him, and reaches for one of the little oranges. The
peelings fall, gather around his bare, ashy feet in bright drifts. He
sighs when the commercials start again, popping a section of fruit
into his mouth. He sucks avidly, extracting every drop of sweet juice,
then spits the remains into a ragged Kleenex he pulls from the sleeve
of his blue cardigan. The damp bundle dropped on the floor is full. He
sucks so fervently Alex imagines the juice being drawn straight into
his veins, mingling with the infected ebb and flow.

When the show is finished and the tears inevitably well up again, she
puts a hand on his arm and gently strokes the skin that has bloomed
with tell-tale dark stains. His body has become a topographical map of
illness. The skin is warm and dry, with the rough texture of papyrus.
When she first heard the words “Kaposi’s Sarcoma,” the name for the
splotches on his skin, she imagined something beautiful, like a
stained glass city in the middle of the desert. Hot, silent. A mirage.

“Does it look really bad, dear? Do you think anyone could tell?” He
asks this every time, and Alex always lies and says no, because it
doesn’t really matter anyway. He never leaves the apartment, except to
go to his medical appointments with her, by taxi. “I’m afraid,” he
moans whenever she has to help him get dressed to go outside, and he
clings to her as they shuffle through the drifting snow, with more
strength than she would have imagined in those sick limbs. He calls
her his ray of sunshine, his only light. She is uncomfortable with
these effusions, about the halo he sees above her head, and rubs his
back silently outside the doctor’s office. Don’t, she wants to say,
just don’t. It’s the same feeling she gets in his elevator,
shifty-eyed and fidgeting, trapped in the triplicate embrace of her
reflection. Mirror, mirror – what would she ask, anyway?

“You want to know how I got it, don’t you, dear?” he said once, during
one of their first sessions in the plastic bucket chairs of a waiting
room. Turning to look at him, Alex just shook her head silently,
forgetting that all he would see was a vague bucking of dark and
light. He seemed to understand anyway and smiled. As he grew thinner,
this expression had become painfully minimalist, skin sliding over
jutting bone with the disturbing ease of an expensive, well-oiled

“Well, I wouldn’t mind knowing!” He laughed softly for a moment, then
lapsed into silence, his hands clasped neatly in his lap.

Unsure of what to say, Alex began to describe her neck-biting
fantasies. He rarely asked her about her life, but he was fascinated
by dreams; they often whiled away their waiting room hours, quietly
describing their dreams to each other with the intimacy of an old
couple lying awake in their twin beds.

She was, Alex explained, sometimes just an observer, but most often
The Girl, in a dim hallway or rank forest, the hot star of red
blooming at her neck under the sharp pressure that often sent a
thrilling arrow of pleasure to the corresponding dampness between her
legs. She left out the last part, about the arousal, just describing
as best she could the variable surroundings, how she would wait.
Paralyzed and anxiously expectant, waiting for the indistinct form to
materialize – from behind a tree, from around the corner, features
melting and sliding, unimportant, only this tug, this ache, always the
same, so it was if she said: come.

When she finished speaking, they sat quietly for a while, both staring
at the corkboard, covered in a bright, dog-eared patchwork of
pamphlets, posters, fact sheets. After a moment, he spoke.

“I had this beautiful Filipino boyfriend, you know, who used to
tremble and twitch while he was sleeping; he used to wake up screaming
every night. Scared me to death every time. I was sooo relieved when
we broke up, after a couple of months.” After a moment, he reached
over and took her hand, squeezing gently as if she were the one in
need of comfort. “What a pair,” he murmured, and Alex didn’t know who
he was talking about – his ex-boyfriend and himself, or the two of

She has been coming to visit him for five months now. The two women
she used to have coffee with most days after class have given up
teasing her, trying to find out who is this mystery lover, this man to
whom Alex now devotes all her free time.

At the first volunteer meeting, the coordinator asked each of them why
they were there. When it was her turn, Alex felt the expectant silence
swell as she hesitated, waiting for something convincing to come to
her. The coordinator smiled encouragingly. Faintly dizzy under the
fluorescent lights, Alex picked a small piece of fluff from the sleeve
of her sweater, rolled it between damp fingers. Somebody coughed,
punctuating the silence. Staring at the wrinkled fabric of her skirt,
Alex finally murmured something vague about having the time as a
university student and there being so few people willing to visit AIDS

She started with a peer tutoring program years ago in high school, and
she hasn’t been able to stop since – burned children, rebellious teen
mothers, glue-sniffing kids, mentally, physically disabled adults.
Cuddling stroking advising listening reading explaining holding.
Giving. Teachers, advisors and friends’ parents marveled, oh what a
wonderful girl so kind so unselfish, asked her if she wasn’t getting
burnt out. Burnt out? In a way it was a soothing image: a crumbling
charred husk, sooty fragments scooped up by a gust of wind and whirled
into a colorless sky.

Alex often remembers the jolt she felt the first time she volunteered
at the children’s hospital and someone placed a crying infant in her
arms. The tiny, straining bundle of wires and tubes slowly relaxed,
and as it stopped crying Alex felt a sympathetic calm wash over her.
Her eyelids drooped, as if someone had injected her with a powerful
tranquilizer. After an hour in the small, overheated room, everything
had fallen away, even the sounds and images of her parents’ latest
fight – the insults and screaming, the final crescendo of breaking
glass and toppling furniture. The silence afterwards. The nurse was
surprised to find her still there hours later. “I wish we had time for
this,” she sighed, taking the sleeping baby from Alex. Pausing to
study the girl’s curiously peaceful face, the nurse added, “You’re
certainly welcome to visit as often as you like.” Alex spent many
afternoons of her final year in high school there, pursuing that fix
with a focused hunger. To give. To give more. It was somehow never

They spend long mornings and afternoons together, Alex and her mystery
man, either in the twilight mustiness of his apartment, or, more
frequently now, under the antiseptic glare of the waiting room lights.
He told her once that he liked how she just sat quietly, rubbing his
back. The last buddy chattered nervously all the time, which got on
his nerves. He hates being at the hospital as it is, always afraid
someone will recognize him from when he used to nurse there. Alex just
nods, strokes the sharply-etched wing blades of his shoulders.

She doesn’t think compassionate, volunteer companion thoughts. Alex
imagines white rooms, endless, without borders. Being there alone and
watching the snow, carefree and alive as it dances past the windows.
She can never get to this place on her own; she only finds it in
clinics and the shabby, complicated homes of people who need things
from her. She watches the clutter fall away, absolved, distilled. A
room empty and pure, furnished only in light and shadow.

He tells her about a dream he used to have as a child in Jamaica. The
hospital room is quiet, high above the lights and noise of the
darkening, winter afternoon city. His story rambles like careless
knitting, with dropped stitches and uneven rows. He occasionally
raises a black-tipped claw for punctuation, weaving in and out of
focus. “You know dear, they can tell … children can always tell if
you’re different. They were so nasty … I spent a lot of time by
myself … once I fell and broke my arm and he beat me for being
stupid.” He laughs, a ghostly, merry cackle. He tells her about the
horrible old woman who lived next door, whispered black magic.
Everyone in the village was afraid of her; she drank chicken’s blood
and could heal any illness just by fixing her rheumy blind eyes on the
spot. On a dare he once ran through her dusty yard shouting curses,
little mouse heart threatening to explode with fear. He places a
trembling hand on his chest, as if to show Alex where.

He explains how these people can control your dreams. “One night
I … dreamt that … as I ran across her yard, she suddenly appeared in
front of me … stretchin’ out her ol’ dry-up hands to catch me … I sort
of … jumped … into the air, and then I was just flyin’ over her head,
too high for her short arms to catch me … the sky … really stormy and
I flew into the clouds,” he gestures toward the ceiling, eyes closed,
“and I just felt sooo relieved … but when I looked back there was this
huge … dark bird right behin’ me. No matter how fast I flew, I
couldn’t … escape … it was like my shadow and I couldn’t shake it. I
woke up just as it was … diggin’ its nasty claws in me … had … a
terrible pain in my side for days … kept havin’ this dream for years.”
He laughs, a vague coughing sound. “Now I can’t sleep anymore … so
that’s not a problem.”

Smiling, Alex tugs the hospital sheet to cover the cracked, bony feet.
They remind her of sea-horses, their spiny articulation against the
white cotton. She remains standing by the bed, watching the faint rise
and fall of his ribcage, trapped beneath the blankets. His shallow,
tattered breathing scratches and claws at her.

The red glow of the digital clock on his bedside table catches her
eye, and Alex checks the time, though there is nowhere else she’d
rather be. 4:32. Her afternoon lecture will be finishing right about
now. She has been skipping more and more classes as he grows
increasingly feeble, and now that he is hospitalized, it seems
impossible to go back to the meaningless drone of the lecture hall.
The restless buzz that has been eating at her the past few days has
simply stopped. An incredible calm wells up, envelops her like a fog,
a magic spell. His hand twitches on the pale blue blanket, and she
reaches over to hold it. This is what it would be like, she thinks, to
be at the center of an egg, or the eye of a storm: perfectly balanced,
needing nothing.

A nurse bustles in, does something with the tangle of wires and tubing
that connects him to food, air. She wears a mask and gloves. Her peach
cotton uniform peeks out from beneath the drab green protective smock.
She turns to Alex, and the freckled skin around her eyes wrinkles
suddenly. Alex realizes that the nurse is smiling at her, and curves
her lips in return. “It’s nice to see someone in here,” the nurse
whispers. He hasn’t had any visitors in the week since he was
admitted. There isn’t anyone. “My mother always told me not to be
chat-chattin’ your business at work,” he explained to Alex when she
asked why none of his former colleagues came to visit after he stopped
nursing. The family was all still in Jamaica, and he was adamant that
they never find out. “Trust me, darlin’ – they would rather think I was
married to a white woman, than dying of this.” This was one of his
favorite jokes. Alex was sure his family would be thrilled if he were
married to any woman at all. She said nothing, curled up in the chair
by the bed. It would have been awful, she knew, if there had been
anyone else – the crying, the shouting, the messy grief. This way it
was perfect, just the two of them, in the quiet, gull-colored room.

Evening begins to stain the corners of the room with shadows. Outside
the snow whirls, thick-feathered and profuse. The storm’s billowing
silence wraps them in a mantle of peace: this thin, dark form in the
hospital bed and this woman touching his foot. A metal food trolley
rattles to a halt outside the room, and the swampy smells of
institutional food waft in from the slightly open door. Alex settles
back in the plastic chair, watches the icy window dim as the day
wanes. There is a dull ache in her throat, a slowly mounting pressure.
She does not notice when his narrow chest ceases to rise and fall in
the nest of wool and cotton. She does not notice these things falling

She imagines: teeth, delicately piercing the skin.

She imagines: a frail boy airborne in a warm tropical sky, Technicolor
and punctuated with bruised-looking clouds. The air thick with the
smell of burning flowers, a drunken perfume faintly sexual, menacing.
He beats at the heavy air, struggling, smooth brown skin covered in a
damp sheen of fear, struggling to elude the dusky bird following his
electric movement rapturously, like a lover.

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Ung Lee is a senior at Princeton University, where he is in both the Psychology and Creative Writing departments. He is currently working with Joyce Carol Oates on his thesis project, a collection of short stories exploring the loss of beauty and aesthetic inertia. This is his first published piece.