I often see small flashes of light. A bonfire spark in the corner of my vision, an orb the size of a fingernail hovering for a moment or two. If I blink fast in bright light I can see latticework, tiny bluish branches of electricity. And as I fall asleep I get treated to gently pulsating, rolling shapes in fuchsia and navy. The things I see are not always unpleasant.

These are all variety of entoptic phenomena. Entoptic means “within the visual” and so when I see these zips and flashes I’m actually seeing the weird flotsam and jetsam inside my eyeball. Not dangerous. Very common. In fact, you probably see these things too. If you stare long enough at a blank white space or inside the warm dark of your eyelids, you’ll never see just plain blank. There is always something there.

The problem is, even when you know what it is, even when there is a perfectly benign and reasonable explanation, when you start seeing things—well, you’ve started seeing things. You’re never sound in your judgment anymore because the line between healthy and not healthy is blurred. You always have something on your mind.

Put another way: You’re never alone again.

• • •

We moved to Terre Haute, Indiana about a year ago. My response when people ask how it is ends up being something about how Terre Haute is the smallest town we’ve ever lived in. I often follow it up with a list of all the things we lack—we’re such a small town, we don’t have a Target, we don’t have much of a downtown, we don’t have art and culture and life and interesting ethnic restaurants.

Recent census data, however, puts Terre Haute at around 62,000, which is 40,000 more people than my hometown, which makes Ypsilanti, Michigan the actual smallest town I’ve ever lived in. It didn’t feel like that at the time of my girlhood; it felt like endless dirty streets to wander.

Why do the numbers lie to me? Why do I feel like I am experiencing this smallness of scope for the first time?

Here’s why: One winter’s day, we drove through a deserted neighborhood and stopped where a dog with no collar picked its way through the ice. Shovels were stuck upright in the frozen snow like scarecrows. Last month’s unlit Christmas lights wound their way around unpainted porches. I got out of the car and held my hand out to the dog. It limped away from me, wretched, numb in its movements. While my husband kept the car running I knocked on doors up and down the street. When no one answered, I started trying knobs. The house closest to where we found the dog was unlocked, I let him inside and shut the door behind him. He howled inside. I was furious when I got back to the car. A whole street’s worth of houses and no one to help.

And then this: After watching an empty street for hours, I saw a trio of babygirls emerge from the smoke shop next to the café where I was sitting by the window. I was happy to see people. One of them, a skinny white girl in cut-off jean shorts and a dirty blond ponytail, clutched a lighter and a pack of cigarettes, newly purchased, still in their twinkling plastic wrap. She laughed and revealed a mouthful of braces.

Or maybe it’s this: We discovered that the grocery store by our apartment keeps its condoms locked being a glass cabinet in the pharmacy section. We jiggled the handle a few times, then stood around feeling like we were breaking some kind of rule. I made a loud joke and I was about to get even more crude when my husband asked the woman behind the counter to unlock it for us. She mumbled something about teenagers stealing them. Then she shoved the shrink-wrapped box into our hands with high colors in her cheeks. We didn’t believe her.

• • •

We moved to Indiana in a blind rush. Immersed in mid twenties’ panic at being the age for adults and having nothing to show for it, we went into survival mode and I took the first real job I was offered. I have always balanced my introverted artistic daydreamy side with my high powered businesswoman side—the side that likes being successful, likes seeing a certain amount of work equal a certain level of success. Though we weren’t over the moon to move—Terre Haute wasn’t exactly on our radar, we’d joke—we decided that it would be good for us. A year of drinking Miller Light in smoky bars, of being among real people, of learning to get by Where Real America Lives, seemed like the right thing. It seemed a noble thing. Streamline and simplify. Pare life down to its essentials: husband, apartment, work, cheap thrills on the weekends.

• • •

When orbs, colors, and visions unknown start swooping into your line of sight, your first thought is that something is deeply wrong. Remember this lesson from grade school, some fact about how dogs can smell one thousand times better than humans, hawks can hear forty-five times better, a fly can taste the intricacies of your garbage disposal through its feet? Do you remember what humans can do? We can use our judgment. We can take whatever half-assed input our senses give us and complete the picture ourselves.

When you see shapes, your thoughts spin in an anxious loop. Something is wrong. Something is deeply wrong. You must be going mad.

Depending on the exact flavor of what you’re seeing, possibilities for seeing things include: brain tumor, optic nerve damage, glaucoma, retinitis pigmentosa, brain tumor, Stangardt’s syndrome, drug hallucinations, brain tumor, Charles Bonnet Syndrome, diabetic retinopathy, retinal detachment, brain tumor.

What is it likely? Absolutely nothing. Maybe myopia, which is the clinical word for nearsightedness, an eyeball shaped like a football from reading in the dark too many years. Shortsightedness. An inability to see too far in front of you.

• • •

Indianapolis is our closest big city. I hadn’t heard much about it before we moved here but the townsfolk in Terre Haute often roll their eyes, I think to hide their fear of dirty urban pathways, diversity. We shrugged and went anyway. Being from Michigan, I like my cities gritty. They should be forever in transition, the promise of bigger and better things on the horizon. One afternoon we went to the Indianapolis Museum of Art and stared at its collection of Matisse paintings until our eyes watered.

The paintings were on loan from Baltimore, another city that whispers in my bones, as they all do. I have craved tall buildings since I was a girl and no amount of growth or marriage can disabuse me of that notion. Our tickets told us that the exhibit would be gone by Thanksgiving. Culture passes through the Midwest like a sieve; we catch glimpses of what it means to be cool from the coasts and let it pass through us, sucking the marrow from its bones before letting it float on. For me as well the city was nourishing and refueling. Filling me up, filling this new space.

• • •

The Sheldon Swope Art Museum is a surprising thing to find in a town like Terre Haute. A few fluttering flags on the lampposts hail a “downtown arts district” that, as far as I can tell, is two blocks long. It makes me laugh a little. It becomes a funny detail, something else to say when people ask So what’s it like there. I shouldn’t say that too loud. There are people who hate this town but there are also people who love it, and they will hunt you down when you insult it. I appreciate them and I want to cry when they catch me dogging this little city on the river. What can I say? I am not from around here.

Inside the Swope is surprising too. We have a Warhol print, for example, and an Edward Hopper painting. When I’ve stared at it for too long, the snowy-haired docent in a red jacket tells me it was the last picture Hopper painted before he died. I’ve been to the Swope more times than I can count, to look at the same five paintings. They don’t get a lot of new additions. There is a gallery reserved for rotating exhibits that’s usually lined with crayon drawings from the local elementary schools. As a child of midwest diaspora recently returned, it’s a new experience for me to stay in the same place long enough to have a routine. To make the most of what is here, whatever that is.

• • •

I have always been an anxious person, a full-to-the-brim person, a person whose feelings were never able to be contained. I’ve been known to roll my eyes in staff meetings, yell back at catcallers on the street. I get loud very quickly. I have a recurring dream in which I scream at someone with all the force of my being, for hours. I wake up with my tongue stuck to the roof of my mouth and my eyeballs glued in their sockets.

In the winter the body collapses. Immune systems sag. I have anxiety, an actual diagnosis just fresh last spring, and my health anxiety specifically tends to spike in the winter. Three years ago, I spent a few weeks sure I had not just a pregnancy, but a dangerous one at that. Two years ago, it was a rough red patch by my right nipple I became convinced was Pagett’s Disease, a rare precursor to breast cancer. Last year I didn’t bend so much as snap, and spent the months of January, February, and a hefty chunk of March experiencing near constant panic attacks. Shooting pains wracked the back of my skull. The bits of light and fuzz in my vision multiplied and I catalogued them obsessively, though my long-suffering optometrist confirmed their benign nature again and again. I didn’t sleep, seemingly, for about a month.

What did I think I had? Try Googling such abstract symptoms like “fatigue,” “headaches,” and “sadness” and you get everything from overactive thyroid to Multiple Sclerosis to brain tumors. Worry is no help but it’s all you end up with so you hold it close and nurture it like a pet, a house plant, something you could never let die.

Due to the lack of sleep I began to suffer from hypnagogic hallucinations. It’s another type of thing you see when you can’t see. They might take the form of vivid pictures, sounds or voices you’re sure as daylight you hear. Or physical sensations, as in a hard jerk like falling as you drift off. For me it was visual. A parade of faces, movie scenes, memories replayed I couldn’t escape. Identifying causes is an inexact science. A popular theory is that as you fall asleep and move into unconsciousness, the sudden flood of sleep chemical makes your brain think your body is dying. Floating toward the abyss. The dark tunnel, the end o’ the line. Your instinct for life and light is what snaps you awake.

• • •

Around here, what rushes in to fill the space seems to be the past. Never have I encountered a people so ready with their lore on their lips than those of Terre Haute. Heritage by heart, recite it on cue. It is a parade of used to be and once there was. We used to be the place of promise. America lit up our avenues and burned through our commerce. Al Capone once stayed in one of our hotels. We used to be the main port of call for savvy businessmen on their way to Chicago from Indianapolis. We once had a thriving red light district. We invented the classically curvaceous green Coca Cola Bottle. When parents and friends visit from out of state, I too regurgitate these fanciful tales in hope that someone finds my stories interesting.

But what of now? What comes next? I don’t think we’ll be here long enough to find out. When you don’t know or don’t want to know the end to a story, it is challenging to write it at all—to know where to begin. Everything you put down is wrong, misattributes, seems like an intrusion. So you delete what you have and go back to blank.

• • •

My favorite painting at the Swope is a piece by former museum director John Rogers Cox, called “White Cloud.” It’s tucked away in a back corner of the upstairs gallery, next to the hallway where they sometimes put out cheese and crackers on Friday nights. It’s next to the Hopper painting, but I like this one better. In the painting, a single white cloud hangs above a farm and its surrounding fields. The cloud is rendered bright, eerie white. The rows of unidentifiable plants are neat, straight, running on mesmerizing diagonals. I want to add an intensifier to each of those adjectives: too white, too neat, too straight. A complicated piece of dangerous-looking farming equipment sits in one corner of the painting, its shovels and stakes rendered in sharp, bright strokes. The rest of the painting is sky. Midnight, cerulean, navy, swirling, smoothly-painted sky.

Majority of the canvas: emptiness.

I stare at that painting for a long time, trying to leech out its secrets.

• • •

Horror vacui is the Latin phrase for cenophobia, or fear of a vacuum. Nature abhors a vacuum, though not so much around here. Something will always rush in if there’s an absence of anything. People seem content with the lack. They don’t trust people like me, who are always asking for more.

Traditionally connected with peasants or similarly uneducated folk, outsider art is the art of the non-artist. It can also be the art of the deranged, the mentally unstable. Art from the asylum. When given paintbrushes, what spills out of the split and lesioned brains of schizophrenics, people who hear voices, witness hallucinations?

It’s not necessarily what you would expect. These paintings, if you care to look, are mathematically fascinating, extremely detailed, and most importantly, full. Not a single corner is left blank. Brushstrokes are heaped upon curlicues basted over repeating patterns of diamonds and polka dots. Repeating and repeating and repeating. The main message seems to be: the unorganized mind fears the abyss. The unhinged mind will not embrace it.

• • •

One of the many colloquial names for entoptic phenomenon are “flying gnats.” Mosquitos, gnats, all manner of bugs are everywhere in the Midwest. They breed and fester and die over our rivers and lakes and streams. They invade our space, our vision. They are ultimately harmless, but that doesn’t stop us swatting. Slapping our arms. Burning them off with matchsticks. Lighting candles, filling our porches with smoke to keep them at bay. I am beginning to understand. Sometimes you just want to be left alone with yourself and the rocking of wind in the trees, the delicate white lightning bolts tracing themselves across an empty sky.

• • •

John Rogers Cox’s biography is short. I can’t get much sense of him as an artist because there’s not much to find. Most of his quotes about his art are tossed off, Midwest-modest things like, “I paint because I’m too stupid to do anything else.” Simple phrases that avoid or divert the question. He’s got a thing for exclamation points. I’m not sensing a huge inward struggle. I thought this was my opportunity; if we here in town are a people of the past, then I too would look there to find my substance, my connection, my sense of solid ground. His paintings—sometimes they end up in Smithsonian exhibits, something you wouldn’t guess would happen to a painter from Indiana—they are so eerie. So much space. In them, you can hear the wind whistle. You can hear distant screaming from the barn.

Another painter described his work as capturing the realism of “imaginary Midwest places.” I don’t know why you would call them imaginary. I see them every day on my drive to work, every night when I go to sleep, every time I close my eyes.

• • •

To combat the winter’s depression, I tried to fill my days with stuff. I picked up hobby after hobby and I always took the long way around. All food was made as homemade as possible. If I wanted to make soup, I planned a week ahead of time, roasted a chicken for dinner, picked the gristle and fat and bloody veins off the chicken bones with my blunted nails, boiled my own broth with carrot ends and mushy onions. If I wanted muffins, I ground my own flaxseed. I taught myself the basics of knitting, thinking—as Amy Hempel once wrote—that knitting was the obvious thing to cure the great unraveling I felt in my bones. I nestled into our couch, lit my light therapy lamp, and practiced casting on, purling, knitting, with coarse acrylic thread. The woman who owned the knitting store insisted I buy cheap yarn to start. No sense in wasting money, she said.

I took stacks of books out of the library. The subject matter was mostly urban homesteading or DIY—how to make your own cheese, your own bread, your own pickles, how to sew buttons, how to use vinegar and baking soda and pith of lemon to get the whole house sparkling. I also took out, oddly enough for January, about a dozen books on gardening. I hoped that a dream of waxy herbs, neat wooden boxes, soil smeared on my hands and arms would fill me up. Something inherent in the planting and the sowing and the growing. The imagined life.

I tried to learn French. I read all about natural skincare, homeopathic remedies, the healing properties of grapefruit. I threw away my entire bathroom medicine cabinet and began to buy sweet almond oil for my face and peppermint oil for my constant headaches. I burned sandalwood incense every night, filled my office with thick herbal smoke. I pasted my walls with old photographs and washed my clothes by hand. I wouldn’t make a sandwich in any time less than ten minutes; spending ages bent over in front of the open fridge, asking myself, What else does this need?

What I didn’t do was drink or smoke or disappear in the way my countrymen do. My husband still tells me that I should be proud of that. But it almost made me feel worse. At the end of the day, all I had to be proud of was not giving in to the worst temptations. I had nothing else left. Like sipping on the dregs of satisfaction.

• • •

I worry that my judgments of Terre Haute come from a place of pretension and ego. That ugly distaste of the college-educated feminist intellectual toward good old fashioned America. Maybe I’m too high-minded, too willing to scoff and scorn. Too pale. Maybe I’m sick in the soul because I haven’t worked enough with my hands. You’re telling me (someone might sigh) that you’re depressed because you saw an eighteen year old in braces buy cigarettes? Because the girl in the Nirvana shirt working the coffee counter doesn’t know how to make a macchiato? Because people here without fail say I seen it? That’s making you sad?

It is hard for me to admit how much I hate this town. If I was born here, if my parents were born here, perhaps I would be more forgiving and I would see small steps as true victories. But I am an outsider. I have only my own two eyes to see. Though people here give off the impression of We Are Doing Just Fine, Thank You and though I try to listen, when I go downtown on a Saturday and I see no living soul except dead dried leaves skittering across the pavement, all I feel is a withholding. A denying. Locked doors and circled wagons.

• • •

If you search entoptic phenomena online, you will find some loonies that think they’re auras. Things of a spiritual nature. Like you’re seeing the real energy of the universe connecting us in one giant net: shimmering.

• • •

My darling little flashers and floaters are with me still. Probably forever. Like they were squeezed out into existence by sheer stress and pressure and even when all else is gone, they’re left behind like the residue of dead gnats on a windshield. There is another word for that too, the outlines of cells and body bits that remain after the rest has died: ghost cells.

• • •

Along with many other coping strategies I learned and relearned and unlearned that year, I started doing yoga. For all that we lack in Terre Haute, we do have this particular institution, and I like it. It’s been good for me as a weekly hour where nothing is asked of me and I am forced to ask nothing of anyone else. Tonight, I sit in attempted total silence and hold a comic dialogue with my brain. It refuses to go blank. It leaps forward to anticipate what I will eat when I get home; it replays useless awkward conversations at the gas station; it has little epiphanies of compassion, pleasure, love. Yes, brain, I tell it. You are very, very smart. You are totally right. But just. Shut. Up. I smell pot smoke and gasoline from below the open window. My hands are draped over my knees, my head hovering above my shoulders. I am trying hard to be content. My teacher whispers her directions. Sometimes a blip of light, a gently pulsing amoeba will float through the dark of my closed eyelid. I breathe deep and stretch from the inside. She tells us what to think and I try to fill my brain with whatever it is, from nose to toes.

Driving home, all the streetlights seem very, very bright.


Laura Citino is a fiction writer and essayist from Michigan. She received her MFA in fiction from Eastern Washington University. Her work can be found in various journals including Bluestem, Passages North, and Sou’Wester. She currently lives and teaches English in Indiana.

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BT #016 © 2015 Laura Citino. Published by Little Fiction | Big Truths, April 2015.


ghost cells

by LAURa citino
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