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Light Up My Life

by Walter Giersbach

Sylvie was flighty, losing her pocketbook, glasses, cell phone — something — every time she came back from one of those lab visits that paid for her rent. “I can’t hold onto anything,” she said in mock horror.

More horrifying: when she lost an arm on the West Side, and her torso was found in the Bronx.

We met while I was working at a coffee house on Avenue B. She referred vaguely to her job at a university uptown, but then always changed the subject.

That was the summer of 2003. New York City’s temperature topped a hundred degrees by August. As the temperature rose, so did my obsession with her.

Sylvie’s last name was Lumière, and she became — literally — the light of my life. I called our affair “tsunami passion.” She washed into my life on the heat wave, coming into the coffee bar one morning to chill over an iced latte. Quite the hotshot at that time, I smooth-talked her into dinner and a concert in the park.

“But I have to be home by dark,” she insisted. “Rules.”

“Cinderella liberty? Parental leash?”

She shook her head violently. “My rules.”

We only saw each other daytimes, and I soon ran out of werewolf jokes. That was okay. The sun never seemed to go down over the Hudson River. But, before it finally dipped to the rooftops, Sylvie would slip away from my arms.

She and I were a beautiful fit, like a Lego construction where you connect pieces to build a relationship. The parts were a host of adjectives. I’m socially conservative and she was libertarian. I guarded my counsel while she erupted emotionally. Where I’m stable, she was capricious. At the end, however, it was a noun called death that ripped us apart. Our separation was punctuated by an exclamation mark.

Sylvie replenished my spirit and I refilled hers as we crashed madly into each other in green parks and blindingly white art galleries, in clever bistros and my third-floor walk-up. I was a sedentary barista and she was a quixotic captive of a laboratory each day until we fell into a tangle of each others’ perspiring arms and legs.

The exclamation mark happened in August, in what became known as the Great Blackout. We were in the St. Marks Theater on Second Avenue watching a one-night revival of Touch of Evil. Sylvie turned to me in the ambient light of the silver screen and lip synched Marlene Dietrich’s words, “You are some kind of man.”

“And you, some kind of...” I echoed. The projector suddenly wound down to blackness. The theater plunged into total darkness. The hum of air conditioning stopped. And Sylvie’s face and hands pulsed with a greenish-yellow light. Sylvie was blinking like a Walk-Don’t Walk sign.

“Why are you glowing?” I whispered.

“Baranski did it!” she cried, then pushed past my knees and rushed onto the avenue.

“Your boss?” I shouted the question as she loped into the burning daylight.

“Go away! You’re not supposed to know!”

Those were her last words, to me anyway. I searched the streets, called her, texted her, but she was gone.

I had to read it in the paper a day later. Sylvie lost her torso when it fell off a truck heading to a meat-packing plant in the Bronx. An arm — the New York Post didn’t say if it was right or left — showed up in a litter basket in Harlem.

Of course, I was shocked, even devastated. She was a crazy kid, a willful girl, a secretive person — but she was my crazy, willful, secretive lover. So I got drunk, followed by a crying jag until I passed out.

I don’t know why Baranski and his colleagues chose her for their lab experiment. Maybe they — he — knew Sylvie had left the Midwest and any family ties far behind. New York is the destination people choose when they want to escape the world.

I took the subway up to the university with questions, but no one there knew anything about Sylvie. Baranski, they told me, was on sabbatical. I called the school in succeeding days. Once I got a “Nothing to tell you” comment. Another time, “You don’t have the need to know.”

I lay in my flat on East 11th St. wondering what had happened. My love had been scattered around the city and I could only parse the movement of letters, transforming lust into lost, and love into lose.

A week later, while I searched for sleep, an unfamiliar female caller asked cryptically, “Do you remember running barefoot across your lawn at dusk trying to capture those magical bugs that lit up a summer evening? Lightning bugs?”

“Fireflies.” I was addressing the woman’s whisper. “Who is this?”

“Bioluminescence is the phenomenon that lets an organism like a firefly illuminate itself. The military is sponsoring studies of fireflies, hoping to find ways of using this glow light.”

“But why?”

“For lighting up landing zones or marking battlefield weapons for tracking. The military believes studying firefly secrets can result in technology that might save soldiers’ lives. They’re especially interested in the way this phenomenon produces light without heat. Objects marked with glow light wouldn’t be detected by an enemy’s heat-seeking technology.” She added, “Neither would a soldier who could turn on his own glow.”

“But, you can’t do that to people, to Sylvie.”

I was rewarded with bitter laughter. “Children have always known that fireflies have magical properties. Goodbye.”

Haven’t the poets and song writers always said love’s passion provides enough heat to warm a body? But a firefly? Light without heat. Like the moon. Lovely to look at but no place to warm your hands. I’ve always thought any really advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic, but you can call me illiterate.

Baranski’s people injected Sylvie with something magic. I believe she demanded that they turn off her light, that it was more important for her to spend her nights with me. So they made the magic disappear by distributing her body parts to control the secret.

This hubris, their prideful indifference to a fellow human, screamed for vengeance.

The cops at the 9th Precinct were indifferent when I told them to visit Baranski’s lab. “That case belongs to the 6th Precinct on West 10th Street,” the nameless person told me. The police in the Bronx said the torso was now identified as a shaven chimpanzee on its way to a Hunts Point animal rendering plant. End of case. Vengeance was mine by default.

Every moment I wasn’t pouring espressos and lattes, I snuck around the university. I told lab workers I was a graduate researcher who wanted to meet Baranski for my thesis. I explained to the security guy, who had backed me up against a wall, that I was waiting for my grades to be posted. At the end of the first week I learned that Baranski wasn’t on a sabbatical. Then, that he was the wizened little fellow with a goatee who always wore red bow ties. It was a matter of time until I spotted him on campus, followed him and returned the evil onto him.

“What do you want?” he asked when I confronted him walking on Broadway. We were in the median strip between the uptown and downtown lanes.

“Answer my question. Why Sylvie Lumière? Why kill that kid? She was hapless. Flighty, foolish sometimes, and often fatuous.”

“Who’s Sylvie Lumière?”

Did I sense a sudden nervousness in this Dr. Frankenstein? “She’s the one you left in pieces. In the Bronx and Harlem and wherever her other body parts were dumped.”

“I did not—”

“But you did.” I lowered my voice even though the traffic hissed loudly. And, I opened my Swiss Army knife, letting the stainless steel blade glint in the sun. “She told me you planned to eliminate her. The experiment had gone wrong. Or maybe you didn’t need a glowing girl spilling your secrets. Or maybe the government stopped your funding. But I know.”

Like a cricket, Baranski leaped aside and dashed across the street. At that moment, a cruising cab slammed into his little body, catapulting him back into a concrete planter in the median strip.

It’s usually tough finding a cab in the city. In this case, the cab didn’t want Baranski or me, and it accelerated south toward Times Square.

Baranski landed against the planter like Raggedy Andy propped up on a child’s bed. No one had seen the accident. I was left holding my little knife, knowing I couldn’t make him any deader.

Time has gone by, and now I believe that Baranski ended his experiment on Sylvie because it had gotten out of hand. There was no way to bring back the darkness. That’s my conclusion because for weeks the two joints on Baranski’s little finger — the finger I cut off with my knife — glowed like a nightlight on a shelf in my apartment.

Copyright © 2020 by Walter Giersbach

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