Do Not Try This When You Were Young
by Lee Klein
Dolores felt her older sister's absence like a death in the family. Her sister called with weekly updates from college, even came home once a month or so, but Dolores felt pushed and pulled by contradictory forces: sadness for the loss of the eclipsing presence that made it so easy to grow however she would, and pleasure in feeling the rays of her parents' affection more directly. And so, pushed and pulled, one night in November, thirteen-year-old Dolores went into her parents' bedroom and asked if it was a bad idea to eat a lightbulb.
Dolores didn't know exactly why she'd taken the 60-watt bulb from the nice lamp downstairs in the family room, why she'd let it cool like a newly laid egg, feeling its heat seep into her palms, and she didn't know why she'd opened her mouth as wide as she could before filling it with the bulb's rounded end.
She sat on a high-armed, high-backed couch facing the street. In the wall-sized window opposite her, Dolores saw herself, on the otherside of the room, twice as far away as she thought she'd be: her legs hidden by a round wicker table, her shoulders swallowed by the pillowy poofiness of the couch, one bright lamp to her left, another missing its bulb to her right, sending the whole scene tilting a touch asymmetrically toward the side wall on which hung an abstract painting of a cow.
The cow looked like it was in Southeast Asian marshes, unable to graze for a lengthy monsoon season, and it had been raining so hard that the patterns along its hide had begun to lose clarity, started to run off into everything around it, as though natural forces dissolved the painting's central object into a streaked mess of blacks and grays, impossible blues, flashes of turquoise. And Dolores, turning her head back toward the reflection in the family-room window, away from the cow painting, wondered what would happen if she closed her mouth around the lightbulb she held in her palms. What would happen if she really sunk her teeth into it.
She hoped the bulb would shine inside her head. The glass, the roundness of it, felt so nice in her mouth, made her feel complete, made her forget about her sister's absence, somehow, although she realized that recognizing she'd forgotten meant she'd already remembered. Her eyes wide to catch the flash of light in the family room window, the enamel of her teeth against the smooth coating of the bulb, its gold-grooved cap more like an antennae receiving the electricity inside the room instead of the stuff running the wires through the walls, Dolores almost began to bite down. And then the reflection in the window, just as she opened her mouth as wide as possible to eat the bulb, disappeared.
She clearly saw the porch, the yard, the house across the street for a second, as though it were noon. Then she reappeared, the room she was in once again translucent in the reflection. She heard thunder. She estimated six Mississippi's between the flash of light and the sound, and she figured she'd wait for another flash before biting down.
It was early November, the last thunderstorm had come and gone months ago. The leaves were mostly down. But it had been warm and windy all day. And now it was raining, she could hear it, and Dolores wondered, for just a second, if biting into the lightbulb would electrocute her. She only thought this for a second since she knew that she was inside the house, that the rain was outside, that the bulb wasn't plugged in, that biting the bulb would shatter it, that she would have a mouthful of shards, that her tongue and the soft walls of her mouth would be cut, and that as long as she didn't swallow any glass she would get over the pain in her mouth. But by that time, seeing the front lawn and the across-the-street neighbor's house lit up repeatedly, hearing the rain come down heavier, the lightbulb was in her lap.
She scampered up the stairs -- matching the diagonal plane of the steps, balancing herself with her free hand -- then down the hallway to her parents' room. Beside the bed, her parents staring at the small television forecasting the rare autumn thunderstorm that was right above them, she held the bulb in her hand and asked them if they thought eating it was a good idea, if it would hurt.
"Don't do that, honey," her mother said, sitting up in bed.
Her father, mummified beneath the sheets, was half asleep, but raised himself and asked to see it. He excavated his arms and Dolores tossed him the uneaten lightbulb. He caught it. Inspected it. "I wouldn't eat this, darling," he said. "It's not the sort of thing you want to have in your stomach, not so close to beddy bye. It'll give you nightmares."
"It's getting late," her mother said. "Time for bed. I'll make some nice waffles in the morning if you promise not to eat your alarm clock."
"I promise," Dolores said. She loved when her mom made waffles or pancakes or french toast or anything other than 1% milk and cereal.
Dolores got back in bed, listened to the rain, and thought about breakfast. She imagined what it would have been like eating waffles with butter and maple syrup, her mouth full of little cuts, with bits of lightbulb glass and filament making their way through her. She wondered how long it would take before she'd begin bleeding internally. How long it would take before she'd vomit or poop blood. And she wondered if it'd hurt more than her father's legendary jalapeno-heavy chili. She never dared to taste it, but he claimed it burned, like the proverbial candle, at both ends.
About the author:
Lee Klein was here.