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The International Writers Magazine - Our 25th Year: Fiction Archives

The Effect of Blue Light on the Human Endocrine System
Richard Skinner

Prone and alone, I luxuriated in the sun. Unaccustomed to the heat, I dozed.
"... hear the gunshots last night?" brought me back to full consciousness.
"Firing? Just before dawn?" was accompanied by the hiss of a drinks can being cracked open.

A shortish man in his mid-twenties was lying close by. The lower half of his body was so heavily muscled it seemed to belong to someone else. He didn't look like an early morning beer drinker. He offered me a Red Stripe.
When I said no he did what people usually do and explained away the drink in his hand. "I'm celebrating."
"I came here at the last minute to take the place of someone who couldn't make it. There's a group of us, arranged by a girl I knew in high school in Maine. She's a masseuse. You'll meet her when she gets up."
"Late night?"
"Went to a place in town for jerk chicken. Never again."
"Too many aggressive hustlers and prostitutes and dope dealers. It felt dangerous then. Now it sounds dangerous ... with the gunfire." He stuck out his hand. "I'm Bo."
"Pleased to meet you. I'm Dawn."
"'Pleased to meet you'? You sound British. Where are you from?"
"Bath. Know it?

He didn't. He was a ski bum, lived in a log cabin high in the Colorado Rockies and skied all winter. Skied high.
So here he was, a snowbird, come south for a couple of weeks to get his head together, to 'kick back'.
"How about you?" he asked.
He's been so typically open, typically American I'd better reciprocate. "I'm celebrating too."
He raised both eyebrows.
Time will lessen the trauma of a divorce I didn't want. "Being newly single," I said. Life will be simpler now, I hoped.
"After how long?"
"Decades - or maybe it just seems that long. Since we were undergraduates." I only agreed to the divorce because he had begged me.
"Oh man." He laughed. "And I'm celebrating being newly double."

Instead of feeling good about my sacrifice, I felt worthless.
"I'd always had a thing for Cheryl but she always said we were just friends," Bo continued. "She didn't want anything to spoil that relationship. Said we should hang loose. Can you believe it?"
"I believe it."
"There was still nothing cooking between us until we had gotten back last night. Here by the pool. Where you're lying. I couldn't believe what was happening when..."
Music blared out. Roberta Flack. Bo glanced across at the previously deserted pool bar. "Here's Cheryl."

As she came across she was firing up a long, hand-rolled cigarette which soon enveloped us in its distinctive incense.
She looked tired, slightly unhealthy. After the introductions she banged on about her holistic therapies. She was excited by some science, new to her, that rationalized some of her stuff. The therapeutic value of sunlight, the influence of the blue part of its spectrum on the pituitary gland, stimulation of serotonin and other endorphins. I studied her do-it-yourself tattoos. She inhaled deeply. "Feeling good." She asked why I'd come all the way to Jamaica. I said for the sun. She gave Bo a grin and added to her thesis: blue light increased your libido.

Cheryl instructed Bo to turn over onto his stomach. He took a quick glug of beer and obeyed. She straddled his thighs and began rubbing aroma therapy stuff into his tanned back. It was too much for me.

I ran and dived into the pool, swam five token laps, then floated to allow the harsh sun to irradiate my face and penetrate my eyelids. I was buoyed in a blood-red world. As safe as in an amnion, nurtured, perfectly buffered.
Sensing a change but insulated from knowing what it was, I opened my eyes. And there, on the edge of the pool: an apparition. My attention was grabbed by its human face, unframed, because the hair was slicked back. I'd never seen anything like it. Perfection. Unlined, uniformly pale, a Grecian mask expressing something between tragedy and comedy. Unequivocally symmetrical. The real world dropped away and I began to drown.

Trying to suppress my choking and coughing, I floundered to the pool steps and got out. I had to confirm that the apotheosis was true, not a figment of my jet-lagged dreamworld. Taking my time toweling down, I was able to make a full appreciation. Now under a palm, he was on a sunlounger and pristine white towel so his body outline was barely differentiated. His small white speedos made him appear naked. I couldn't stop looking. Not just at his perfectly contoured body, but at that unique face, its sleekness and immaculate repose made it seem part of an unpainted classical statue that would remain unaltered by time or the weather, flawless through the millennia.

The freeze-frame was quickened by a slight movement of his head. An annoying insect? Or had he sensed my gaze? I lay back down on my sunlounger and put on my shades and pretended to offer myself to sleep and the rays. In fact I was just trying to calm myself. My stomach was awash with adrenalin, giving a false sense of hunger. I was in awe.
How to approach him? I couldn't do chat-up lines - after so many years of marriage I was out of practice. I feared looking and sounding like a self-conscious teenager. I knew men liked a sense of humour, but I didn't do jokes. I was bad at remembering them and worried they were stale by the time they got to me.

How was I going to meet and melt this heavenly creature? He was lying there still, perfectly still. Would any of my own short story plots answer the question? Or was the answer to be found in the shelves and shelves of novels I'd read? There were too many to think about. I had to simplify or classify. Someone had once said there are only two stories. Someone goes on a journey; a stranger comes to town. But both applied to me and the scatter of other holidaymakers round the pool.

Okay. How about the guy who said there are only seven plots: searching for the Holy Grail; going on a journey - again - and returning; tragedy - male meets female – I wonder what his name is? - falls in love and dies for her - banal and overdone, Romeo and Juliet and a poor ending for me - and it's the plot of King Kong - bad protagonist to be identified with; comedy and –
A shadow fell over my face and there he was. Hovering. Looking down at me from the blue infinity of the sky, a true angel.
"I've brought him over to join the party." Bo said. "He looked lonely."
Why couldn't I have done that?
"I'm Nick," he said, with a tinge of cockney.

Our eyes met and stayed in a relaxed stare. Time stopped. I tried to be polite and look away but failed. I didn't have the energy. I had an overpowering desire to understand what it was about his eyes that fascinated. It was as if we were twin stars exerting a gravitational force on one another impossible to escape.

One element of his perfection was the distance between his eyes, exaggerated by the narrowness of his nose. A distance needed because the eyes were unusually large, captivating. Another element revealed itself. The whites of his eyes were more than white, having no trace of capillaries. Then I fully understood. His pupils had shrunk to pinpricks in the harsh tropical light, and the intense blue of his fully expanded irises had leached out. His eyes were so blue it seemed the very sky was visible through two tunnels in his head.

Still his face was mask-like, unwavering. I could feel my own face become exhausted. I had lost all control of my expression, lost all muscular tension. I now realized that his nose was so shaped that it hid the blood vessels of his nostrils, hiding that normal source of colour in a face.

Then there was a slight movement. The lips had parted slightly as though he was about to speak, but no words came. The tip of his tongue protruded to lick his lips but then jumped back into its refuge on meeting the zinc ointment that masked any colour.

To save Nick any embarrassment, I dropped my gaze from his face but only got as far as his long neck. Again flawless with no hint of a crease. I sensed danger and stopped my eyes from continuing my inspection down towards the valley between his pecs and then down to his abs and …

We were joined by several of Cheryl's friends. They cracked open more beers and fired up six-skin spliffs. Nick was abstinent but enjoying the fun. I felt cut off from everyone except Nick as we had our Englishness in common. The group became boring. The slightest thing became hilarious. Bo looked twitchy and drifted off somewhere. I sought refuge in the pool.

When I came out after fifty laps, everything was different. The same jumble of sunloungers, empty cans, ashtrays and personal stereos but it was quiet. The tape in the pool bar had run its course. Everyone was sleeping. Except for Nick.
He was sitting up, rubbing sunblock onto his skin, seemingly unaware of what it was doing to me. He welcomed me back: "So, it's just us."

This simple sentence instantly expanded into great significance. I was now propelled into a new and unfamiliar world. And all because of one word: 'us'. I smiled in acknowledgement and at the irony that he was totally unaware of what had happened. He had missed the fact that the future had suddenly split. At the fork, I had chosen to live in the new universe of him and I bound together. The other universe where there was no 'us' was redundant. Before, we had both spent our lives unaware of one another's existence. Now we were a unit, an item.
I forced the conversation along. "What factor sunblock do you use?"
"The highest. I worry about the effect of ultraviolet light."
Say something interesting, for God's sake. "Did you hear the gunshots last night?"
"The waiter said they were celebrating what would have been Bob Marley's birthday."
That's a relief. I had been worrying that the taxi wars in Kingston had spread up to Negril Beach. I didn't want to be an accidental part of a body count. "How long are you here for?"
"Two weeks. And you?" I sensed a possible sadness in him - he still hadn't smiled.
"Like it?" He lifted a leg to rub on more sunblock. His thigh and calf muscles flaunted their definition.
Like what? This dream? This paradise? I forgot to reply.
"What do you do?" he continued.
Again, I couldn't look away from him. A trickle of sweat was running towards his swimming costume and I needed to know whether it would reach its destination or evaporate first.
"Me?" For God's sake, who else. "A writer and ..."
"Really?" When he did smile it was controlled. His lips remained together. "What do you write?"
"Fiction. Short stories mostly."
Be modesty personified. "Some."
"Make much money?"
"Some. But after ten years I'm still waiting to be discovered and become an overnight success."

This brought another closed smile. "What do you do?"
"Same ... I also do some bar work."
"What do you write?" Of all the places in the world, he comes here. And now we share a vocation.
"Just poetry. Maybe I'm really a barman who does some writing."

Funny. Funny ha ha and funny strange. Strange that I too have my other job: psychotherapy. And also a coincidence: that I worked in a bar while I was doing my training.
"I’ve never sent my stuff out."
"Isn't the point of writing to communicate with people?"
"I communicate with myself. Anyway, it's old-fashioned stuff. Rhymes, rhythms and things. Structure."
"I admire that. To make tennis a satisfying game you have to have a net and lines. To test the players' skills."
"It brings together unexpected words, phrases, ideas."

He knows what he's talking about. "It's a weapon in the war against cliché- to use a cliché ... I'd love to read some of your stuff. I promise not to make any unsolicited comments on it. Maybe I could show it to some of my friends in the business? Have you brought any poems?" Reading your poetry is the most important thing in my life.
"May have done. I'll show you mine if you show me yours. Have you brought any stories?"

He was not in the restaurant that evening. I waited and waited. When I got back to my room, I found an envelope had been slipped under my door. After skimming through the poem, I determined I would never tell what was in it. The words were his. His alone. To repeat them verbatim would be stealing. And if I tried to put the poem into my own words would be like translating 'I love pork' to 'I fuck pigs.'

How can I be so crude in Paradise? Maybe it's the thought of what Bo and Cheryl did here last night. Nick had said words were to communicate with himself and I respected that. All I can say is that it was a sonnet and brilliant. On a close reading, it was better than Shakespeare. Not just because it had tremendous clarity, accessibility and contemporaneity, but because it had a deeper understanding of what it is like to be human. It showed our increased self-awareness since the Enlightenment. It contained useful bits of Freud and Jung. It mentioned our relation to the cosmos since the theory of the Big Bang. But all that was merely background.

In the foreground was immense love, passion, sex, lust. How could I have missed that depth of understanding in him when we had spent much of the sweltering day together? Was I so incapable of seeing myself through his eyes? He wasn't some pathetic juvenile blinded by love. He was an artist. Delete that. He was an Artist. Artist. He saw me through his heightened sense of awareness. All this in fourteen lines. Lines that must have been written in the last few hours as it was on the hotel stationery. I wondered how many drafts it had taken. I lifted the paper sideways to the light. I saw no indentations caused by the page above being written on. So it had issued from him fully formed. What inspiration. No subject had ever had that effect on my writing. What I would give for that to happen.

I read and reread the poem until I knew it by heart. Then I tried to sleep so I could experience the whole day again in dreams with their new uncensored possibilities. But I was restless, too aware physically, mentally, emotionally, sexually. There was no chance of sleep until that immense potential energy had been released ...I woke early feeling guilty. I hadn't returned the favour by giving Nick one of my stories. I was a parasite, consuming his work and not sharing my own being. Not sharing. The pig's main complaint during the divorce: I didn't talk enough. I had tried to tell him that if I did talk about important things then I lost them. I talked them out of existence. They had to stay inside me in order for them to become part of my writing. Just as abstinence from sex allows a potent build-up of life-giving energy that demands release.

I glanced through the batch of stories I'd brought to edit and none was good enough. I had to find something to give him. Share something of my life. And then I was inspired, as he must have been, by what was happening between us. I would do the same. Write about our time together, and how important, life changing, he had made it. And how it had all started. That face. The first time / ever I saw your face …

I wrote rapidly for several hours, that classic number resonating behind my thoughts. The result was as poor as any first draft can be. But I was impatient for him to read it. Sounds from the kitchen substituted for Roberta Flack and told me it was almost late enough to go to his room. So I decided to be totally honest and allow him to see this first draft, something I had never done before, aware of Hemingway's dictum: 'The first draft of anything is shit'. My story was me. The truth, unexpurgated. Just as his poem had been totally revealing of his inner passion.

I put the manuscript in a hotel envelope and wrote NICK - ? ROOM 22. As it was for him and him alone, part of our secret life together, I carefully sealed the envelope and my fate.

I crossed by the pool and knocked on his door. After a while he opened it. Nick was stunningly disheveled, still half asleep, seemingly vulnerable, in need of protection. I handed him the story, and apologized for waking him but said I was overwhelmed by his poem. I told him how much it meant to me. How inspired he must have been to write it so quickly.
"I didn't. It's just an old poem I copied from my journal."
I smiled stupidly.

I must have walked back to my room. An abrupt change in me had taken place. No longer the unconscious progress into the future that steadily revealed itself. I was now stationary. In a temporal cul-de-sac. I wanted to go back in time to some junction where many futures could happen, branch into multiple universes of my own choice. Go anywhere except the way I was traveling. A word - inevitability - rattled round my brain. I had lost all freedom of choice. I was in a universe where everything was preordained.

Had he actually said I didn't write the poem for you? I replayed the scene bit by bit. Time's arrow reversed. No. Definitely not. He had said 'It's an old poem'. I became ashamed of all my negative, self-denigrating, destructive thoughts since fleeing from him. What would he have thought of them? Stupid. Emotions of a shy schoolgirl.Late morning and it was the same group round the pool. Nick was the last to arrive, refreshed and even more enchanting. He sometimes caught me looking at him but didn't smile or anything. But that was part of his character and gave a sense of unrequited feeling in our dance of love to which no one else could hear the music. Who cares about clichés? Nick was deep in conversation with Cheryl when he saw me looking at him again. I heard him say, "Hang on." Then he quickly got up and walked towards the pool jerking his head for me to follow. We silently swam a couple of lengths breaststroke together. He was deep in thought. I was just enjoying the moment in total awareness, beginning to understand the word satori. Unexpectedly he began to climb the steps out of the pool and quietly said: "I didn't write it for you ... that poem."
"I know, but why -?"
"Just take a look at yourself." He smiled for the first time. It exposed a lot of gum. And his teeth were horsy.
Then he was gone.
Take a look? I stared at the bottom of the pool. The ripples from our swimming were refracting the light into a dancing pattern that contracted and expanded, forming a stretch of chicken wire made of light. I'm penned in. Trapped in rejection. Helpless.

When I finally got out of the pool I looked at him again. He had changed: yesterday's initial blast of sensory information that had created an unforgettable image, was now degrading - attacked by some virus. The face that had been flawlessly white, a canvas primed to display the sky-blue eyes, now had some colour: the tip of his nose had become red. Later I noticed his hair was no longer slicked back with water. It was straggly as though he had chopped at it himself without the aid of a mirror. Its texture was unwashed, oily.

His portrait was ever changing. It was as if he had gone through another sitting with the artist who had scraped away the still soft and malleable oil paint of his face and thickly layered on another mood and insight into his true nature. More impasto. As though the painter was working to a theory that each removal of paint would leave an impression behind. A ghost.

The face, the palimpsest, had lost symmetry. But in doing so had become more attractive, human. And it had aged, engendering even more wisdom, knowledge, experience.
He sneezed. As he searched for tissues in his bag, I saw the envelope I had given him. It was unopened.
He was staying for another twelve days. Time enough for him to get round to reading it. Our relationship, although a little up-and-down, was already well advanced considering the short time we had known one another. Maybe he hadn't written it for me. But he had chosen that specific poem to give to me. Happy again, I relaxed in the bone-warming sun.
"... come into town?" brought me back to full consciousness.
"Cheryl has just blown me ... out." It was Bo. He broke the seal of a bottle of Bacardi. "I need to score. Wanna come?"
"Thanks, but no thanks."
"Aren't you bored? Just hanging round the pool with nothing happening?"
"I'm happy here enjoying the sunshine."


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