The Lighter (Summer 2001) – Ana Balka

Ana Balka

“That’s a nice lighter,” Mark says. You hold it in your hand and you and Mark smile like it’s an orb. It is an orange and yellow Bic with a benevolent sun floating among pointy stars and a sleeping crescent moon. A portion of a circle with astrological symbols on it is visible at the top. It’s pretty and pleasing.

“I can’t believe I haven’t lost it yet or that nobody’s stolen it,” you say.

I reach out and grab it and swiftly put it in my pocket. The look of wide-eyed pleasure you wear flies away from your face and disappears with a slipping sound. I laugh.

“Nice trick, Ana,” you sort of laugh, mostly a despising and fed-up laugh. A get-the-fuck-away-from-me laugh. “I just got that.”

“Here you go,” I sneer as I hand you my dark blue Bic.

“Great.”

Later you were avoiding me around the room and I kept finding excuses to continue following you while pretending to myself that I wasn’t. You were leaning against the wall telling Danielle that you were finishing your beer and catching a ride with Mark. We had talked about getting coke but there wasn’t any around and there was no other reason for us to hang out except to fight. I was so drunk I was weaving, and I must have looked at you funny because you returned my gaze and threw a “What?” at me.

I had the foolhardy, charge-into-war burst of confidence one gets before driving home drunk. If I go now, I can make it. I can make if safe without killing myself or anyone else. I handed you the beer you’d bought me and said, “I’ve gotta go. I’ll see you guys.”

I made it home after stopping for a 40-ounce Colt 45.

The next morning I found the lighter in my pocket. It was a peaceful lighter. I thought of the look on your face: that unsuspecting, innocent air you get looking at simple things. I used to like to sit and watch you read books in your armchair because when you have that look it is so utterly pure. Your head floats like the fatherly sun on the lighter while you gaze at the object of your attention.

There have been a few times I’ve slapped that look away from your face. I’ve cried about it like I cried the time I set out a rat trap and found a mouse in it—the kind of sobs that come from the stomach when you’ve destroyed something and the moment happened and you can’t take it back. I’ve appealed to Athena to instill in me more a sense of the gleeful, unrepentant killer, but she shook her head and said I was knocking on the wrong door. Perhaps you can appeal to the scorpion, she suggested. Or maybe Kali has what you need. Look it up on the web.

I see the lighter throughout the day and don’t like seeing it. I don’t like having stolen something from you, even if it’s only a 99-cent flame. I wonder how I can return it without seeming like I’m making any sort of statement. I feel like a jackass worried about having swiped a damned cheap lighter, and what? Hurt your feelings? Christ, Bill was right when he went off on me in the dog park at 4 in the morning.

“You’re being a fucking weakling! And look at you,” he hurls his finger at me, a spear, “holding that fucking 40-ounce like it’s a goddamn baby!”

“I’m fuckin’ wasted and don’t wanna fuckin’ drop it.” I take it by the neck. “What, is this fuckin’ better? Shit.” I say goodnight and hold myself as straight as it is possible for one to do at a weary 4 a.m. and walk across the grass toward home.

Sunday noon I’m sitting at the coffee place with Jeannette and her friend Booty, a downhome Georgia kind of guy. A go-to-the-bar-early-and-order-a-damn-steak kind of guy. “I was pitiful Friday night,” he monotones. “I just went to sleep last night.”

“Friday was a pitiful night,” I say.

Jeannette rolls her eyes and snorts. “No shit.” She looks over at me. “I felt like shit yesterday.”

“Yeah, yesterday I thought about Friday night,” I sigh, “and today I’m trying to fucking forget about it.”

Afternoon slides on with blue sky out the window, my mood a bag of bricks smothering me. I start to wonder if I’m reaching dangerous levels of depression. I’m truly alone and today I don’t like my own company. I hate myself not only for caring, but also for being the lowlife that someone else thinks I am. Something screams in me. The scream hits the inside wall of my shell and bounces back in, a ricocheting pinball. It does not escape or decrease in energy.

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