The Black Light

The Black Light

By Jessica Xing

My girlfriend and I were extremely functional.

“Mature.”  I guess that was one way to put it: everything about our relationship was very level headed. Georgie and I got together through a quiet, two-hour-long talk on a park bench outside my apartment; in that time we made quick work to lay out our expectations, our weaknesses, our hopes for where this would go.

More importantly, we came out of it with a conviction to fairness — under no circumstances were we to drag each other down, that we were together yet ultimately separate entities.

I made a concerted effort to do everything right. When Georgie would get busy with work and blow off dates, I would ignore the initial bite of anger, of unplacatable sadness. During the first few months of us dating, I would suppress the suffocating swells of passion during unexpected moments of sweetness. Everything I did was measured: I waited exactly three dates before kissing her, I waited one month before I suggested seeing each other more than once a week, I waited a year before I told her I loved her.

We had been dating three years when Georgie asked me to move in with her.

Fairness and autonomy. We prioritized that over tenderness. I suppose because of that people were within their rights to say our relationship was loveless, cold. But that didn’t change the fact that Georgie just…  made me happy. And that was worth being careful over.

So when Georgie sat me down, told me she got a two-year-long research opportunity studying the reef on this island off the coast of California, what was I to do but to just let her leave?

Georgie was a scientist and a good one at that. She wasn’t one of those people that would blow through four years of undergrad so they could go get a cushy job in the military-industrial complex — she wanted to change the world, a simple as an ambition as that was. Oceanography wasn’t exactly a field that is easily studied in the landlocked, urban comforts of our apartment, so of course, Georgie would need to often go on month-long research expeditions, chunks of the year where the only time I’d talk to her would be through the shaky, tinny quality of Facetime. Two years, however, wasn’t exactly a short amount of time.

I kept my sadness buried deep; I nodded understandingly as she rattled off what the research project would entail (“underwater diving, data collection, oh god and have I told you about the Professor! God he’s brilliant, and the team —”).

When the time came for her to leave, I drove her to the airport, making small talk the entire time. I did everything right, that was what was important to me — I was supportive, I validated her decision. I repeated it reassuringly to myself, that if I had nothing I at least had the fact that I had packed myself neatly for her to come back to. Only when we got to the security checkpoint, did I finally have the courage to turn to look at Georgie.

She was crying.

When she saw me staring at her in horror, a stubborn look came over her face. She wiped her tears with the heel of her hand, and instead of saying anything I just patiently let her clean off what sadness remained on her face. When she was finally ready to speak, she let out a shaky laugh and asked me:

 “Is there any version of you that would possibly agree to come with me to California?”

And before I could even open my mouth, her face shuttered like she already knew the answer.

Of course there wasn’t, the same way that there was no possible version of her that would give up California to stay with me. But the unfairness of that fact, in the middle of this busy airport, became unbearable to live with for a moment, so we both just stared at each other in silence, unmoving. Georgie smiled, looked back at the security checkpoint; she quietly kissed me on the cheek before disappearing into the nauseating swell of people away from me.

Sistine Point is a remote little dot “near” the Catalina Islands the same way Ohio is “near” New York. From what I managed to understand from it, the expedition is a part of a larger project looking to chart and map reef ecosystems in, as the website states, “the Pacific, Atlantic, and the Indian Ocean” and the project “aims to examine, enhance, and educate scientific and regulatory organizations on potential conservation strategies.” It is incredibly altruistic, and the exact type of project Georgie had been hoping she’d be able to work on for her entire undergrad.

Georgie didn’t call me until a week into the expedition.

“ — I mean, I hate that I barely get to do any actual research with what we collected, but I guess I should expect that since I have the audacity to still ‘be in grad school’ and a ‘female.’”

“No one on the team has actually been giving you trouble right?”

“Why? If I tell you, are you gonna beat them up for me?” I could hear her smiling into the phone. I gripped mine tighter.

“Oh yeah, I’ll really know how to make them hurt.”

“Wow, my hero. You need to remind me when we get off the phone to send you some of the photos I took of the reefs.”

“They will look like absolutely nothing to me, but I will be happy to look at colorful sea plants and ooh and aah at your big brain.”

“That is always well appreciated,” she said, still smiling. She fell silent as I gave her space to think.

“The coral looked like cities,” she said after a while. There was a dreamy quality to her voice that made her seem really far away, which I didn’t like. “God, I was just floating there and they were just towering over me.”

“Coral reefs are pretty.”

“It just felt so simple. I was weightless and they had structure. I wanted to belong there.”

I guess with Georgie I have gotten used to a pretty fundamental truth: she is completely unaware when she is being cruel. There were times where I wondered if I really loved her or if I just wanted to be like her: as someone who deliberated everything to the point of exhaustion, there was something intoxicating about someone like Georgie who was ambitious, fearless, and was, ultimately, unapologetically selfish.

Maybe that’s why our relationship worked  — she accomplishes, and I compromise. There were worse things to be, someone whose purpose it was to yield. I bet she looks at me and probably questions herself as well. Do I really love her, or do I just need someone to come back to?

The phone call had only been an hour-long: the comment she made pissed me off enough that I told her I had to go, and she let me. Like clockwork, she sent me the photos of the reef, and she wasn’t wrong, they were really beautiful. They looked like ribs.

After that, I didn’t hear from Georgie for weeks.

Anytime either of us has to go away for a long time, we agreed we would, at the very least, call each other once every two weeks. That if we didn’t hear from each other, whether it be through text, email, etc., we could assume the person was dead, and that we were then fully within our rights to go to whatever lengths necessary to get in contact. Of course, oftentimes this would have to apply to Georgie, as she hurriedly would tell me that she couldn’t call, but that she loved me of course, and that the second she gets a moment of free time she would call me back.

The surety and the swiftness in which she would hang up was brutal enough for me to hate her. But to be fair, there were times in which the rule finally got to apply to me. Like when I had to go back to Boston to take care of my sick dad, and she would call me every Saturday, her voice almost shy, apologetic. Like she was afraid of asking me for too much space, and this timidity was enough to make me forgive her over and over again when she would leave me.

It had been three weeks and she hadn’t even sent me an email. I was calmly booking an overnight flight across the country just when she called me. Ugly, terrible anger quickly overtook relief as I picked up.

“You ever do that to me again.” I said flatly, “I will not hesitate to end this.”

Georgie was crying.

Not even in a way she usually cried, or for that matter the way normal people cried. She was bawling in the way that she was trying to exorcise something from within herself — piercingly loud and wailing. I could barely work up the courage to even start asking if she was okay before she would just start screaming louder, cyclical bouts of just incomprehensible moaning.

“Georgie, wait — wait stop Georgie you need to tell me what is going on—”

My name. She said my name, and the pleading in her voice had been the only thing that had been clear in the past ten minutes. She said it again, again, with increasing panic before she started to sob again; but the noise, it kept fading in and out, the sobbing becoming echoes before the quality rejoined it, the screaming becoming bottled, like — like —

“Hey — Hey listen I am right here. I am right here I won’t let anything happen to you —”

She hung up.

A number of things happened at once. I screamed and reigned in any and all self-control I had not to throw my phone at the wall. After keeping it so tightly clutched in my hand the side buttons started to cut into my fingers, I took three deep breaths.

With my phone that, due to my good sense, had stayed intact, I called the cops.

But.

The phone rang once, twice, three times. I could hear my heart choke out my own lungs.

When the phone finally picked up, instead of the operator, or anyone talking to me at all, all that played were the calming, churning of the waves.

There was a moment I was lost in it, this dynamic yet immoveable reassurance of noise. I imagined Georgie floating there. I imagined the content little smile she’d make in the vastness. I smiled absentmindedly, at the thought of being untethered. At the thought of finally becoming ungrounded, and drifting listlessly into the black light.

The happiness it filled me with, to finally become nobody — the ocean roared in my ear, and water started to splash against my kitchen floor, yet I stood there, dreaming.

When I finally came to my senses, I was on an island.

Sistine Point was beautiful. This was one of the few things I’d latched onto when Georgie first told me she was leaving. It was gorgeous, in the easy way places rarely touched by human beings are. It was all neon green trees, waning sunsets, nearly viridian blue oceans that revel in their own un-pollution. Most of all, as it turns out, it was quiet.

Completely, and totally quiet.

Shivering, I started walking toward the distant sound of waves. The biting cold was characteristic of a violent, buffeting wind, but the trees stayed oddly still — their weeping branches and nodding leaves frozen in their own hiding. My footsteps then, in contrast, cracked brutally against the wet dirt, and as I went the grass gently and half-heartedly clung to my ankles, shrinking away almost at the last second, almost like they were trying to hold me back. To warn me.

Georgie told me a story about her mother once.

Greatness and rebellion ran side by side in the women in her family — it made them charismatic, intelligent, ambitious. The good qualities that make people fall unquestioningly in love with them. But well. It also made them… mischievous is a polite way to put it. The way Georgie’s grandmother had put it, and the way her mother put it to Georgie, it made all the women uncontrollable, hysterical cunts.

They all hated each other. Her grandmother hated her mother, and most of all her mother hated Georgie — a matter-of-fact inherited hatred that went entirely unquestioned.

We had been dating for about three weeks. She told me this story sitting on the curb outside of her apartment, a happenstance that occurred because she was too shy to ask me to stay, and I was too scared to ask her to invite me in.

“One summer, my grandma decided if she had to continue living with my mom for another minute she was going to kill her and then kill herself. So she sent her away to this, like, reform school for girls, which is a really dressed up way to say that she had her daughter committed to a nuthouse,” she said. She was picking relentlessly at the label of her bottle, and at the time I kept zoning in and out trying to figure out how to get her to stop.

“At this place they made all the patients tend to this sheep every day, and they were all kept in this smaller pen inside this huge electric fence that completely encircled the entire school. One day my mom, whether by accident or just to see if she could do it, opened the pen gate, and immediately all twenty sheep booked it towards the hill.

Don’t ask me why she thought this was going to be a good or even beautiful idea, because even if she did set the sheep free from the pen there was still this huge electric fence surrounding the school.

And so it takes only a second for my mom to realize her mistake, and I don’t know whether she genuinely thought this was going to work or if she just wanted to die, but she started freaking out, and so threw her entire body against the fence and thought she could just rip or, I don’t know, tackle the gate open, so the sheep could escape. Obviously this didn’t work, so she ended up electrocuting herself so bad they had to send her to the ER, and just before she passed out she watched all the sheep she let go immediately ram themselves headfirst into an electric fence and die.”

“Jesus christ.”

“She told me this story the night I left for college. We sat out in front of the driveway, and for the first time in her life, she gave me this one thing entirely unselfishly. It was one of the nicest memories I had with her.”

I didn’t think about Georgie once while I was walking. All I thought about were the sheep corpses, the ocean, and my own emptiness. When I finally got to the beach, I noticed the blood before I noticed the coral.

Georgie’s team, when she showed me a photo on her phone, seemed to consist of a lot of kind-faced, like-minded grad students. Of course, now, that hardly mattered, because their bodies laid torn across the sand, this horrible mass of bone and muscle. But more concerning than their blood leaking violently out into the sand, was what came out of them.

From the parts of their bodies that were missing, the coral slowly crawled out. Some reformed to make demented imitations of arms that were no longer there, roiling branches climbing one on top of another until the broken human on the beach became whole. Some bodies, slain but flung in the air in their escape, remained fully standing, their sickly neon arms shooting from the halves that still existed, bringing the half bodies-half coral tall and proud over the wreckage beneath them.

All around me I watched as the coral ate and became, making the muted island around them sing with color, with mutilation, with beauty. I stood there, shaking too hard to approach, yet everything within me just felt so reverent that I just had to take step after terrified step forward, witnessing these people who Georgie desperately wanted to work with fading to become —

Structure. All human beings architecturally still.

In the staff photo, Georgie had her tongue sticking out. She had her arm slung over this stuffy, grim-faced professor who looked so markedly out of place in a group of fresh-faced twenty-somethings that it was hard not to just immediately notice him. I especially noticed him now, because he was the only thing moving.

I wondered if this was because of him. I wondered if he was the one who did this, because even as blood pooled violently out of his side he still crawled, dragging his body fervently closer and closer towards… towards…

What can only be described as a monster beached on the shore.

Because, as it turns out, I was wrong — the coral wasn’t reforming to imitate human beings. The coral filled the human gaps so they could make complete bodies for worship for the monstrosity in front of them. Upon first glance, the monster looked like an anglerfish, all hollow eyes, and harsh light, but the entire thing moved like it had too many bones, like everything in it was collapsing in on itself just to support its size.

Every time it seemed to be seized by these shuddering bouts of pain — it would open its mouth and upon its scream, a thousand yellow pus eyes that dotted the monster’s body would stare desperately out, seeking anything for the brief moment they were open.

And when it screamed there was finally movement — blessed movement, because the coral would shift and grow in time. The professor saw me and he had just a moment to let out a cry, maybe even a plea before the beached creature exhaustively worked its jaw open, and in its flash of what seemed like millions of needlepoint teeth, I watched as the professor was eaten, and at once spat out in parts.

Instantly what was left of him was eaten, reshaped, transformed by the coral.

I wanted to throw up. I had just noticed that I had been walking this entire time. Because this creature was a god, and I could not stop walking towards it — I felt my shoes crunch against bodies, crunch against the plant, and my feet tirelessly, in obedient subservience, brought me closer and closer to the fish, closer to my own perfection, and closer to my own death.

I stared at it. I felt myself go loose.

Upon seeing me, the creature did something peculiar.

It started to cry.

This time at once, all thousand eyes reopened, and instead of searching, they started to well up with tears. As horrible as what was in front of me, the tears it produced were human, watery, painful — I could clearly see into its cavernous mouth, the blood that reeked every corner and cavity, yet it didn’t move closer to me, it didn’t move to eat me. It just stared at me and sobbed, and I barely noticed my face get wet as well, stunned, awful salt pulled from my eyes as I just stood there, silent, pliant.

The monster said my name.

Before I had even a second to doubt the sound, it closed its eyes. It shut its mouth. It reopened its eyes and begged me to understand.

And it said my name again.

In an island devoid of movement, I finally felt something separate from the ocean, separate from the coral, separate from the fish itself shift within me. When I finally regained my own sense of body, I flung myself onto the beach and I wrapped my arms around the horrible thing.

The horrible, horrible thing that chose over and over again to love me — I clung onto it with everything I had within me, and I cried like I never had before in my life.

What does it take to finally become ungrounded? What does it take to become selfish? I have always wanted someone to give me an easy answer. What does it take to finally think for yourself, to finally become someone who can love so wholly and so unrestrained — to love without guilt?

Kill me. The fish begged. Kill me. Kill me. Kill me.

Oh Georgie. How could I possibly kill you?