TOPICAL DIS/ORDER, FICTION
The Entropic Lighter
by Hugo Scheubel
TRIGGER WARNINGS: Depictions of self-harm, death/loss, fire, burning, burn marks, scars
The flames arrive unexpectedly and without welcome as the adolescent is asleep. Patient lovers, they take gentle pleasure in burning down everything he has grown to be familiar with: his grandmother’s porcelain, the cheesy posters on the wall, the filled notebooks, the unfolded clothes. When he finally wakes up, the young man barely has enough time to run down the crumbling stairs of his home to seek refuge in the garden. Smoke is already high in the sky and he is struck by a pain on the right side of his body incomparable to anything he has ever experienced before. His eyes are too dry to cry. He screams.
A few weeks are needed for the recovery. When the nurses remove the bandages around his arm, what is left is leathery and broken skin. They make sure to talk about it in a gentle and understanding way, telling him it will get better with time, assuring him it is proof of his survival, that he is nothing but a strong man, a hero, lucky that this mischance only befell the right side of his body. He wants to believe the caretakers so much. However, he cannot look at his swollen veins without feeling the mounting pressure of tears. The man learns how difficult it will be now, to receive advice from people who never had to run down stairs that were on fire. He eventually gets back onto his feet, his skin gets better, and life is finally allowed to go on the way it always did—without care for his sorrow.
The young man makes a vow to himself: he will never be caught by surprise again. Pain and chaos will not be allowed to find their way into his body that easily ever again. Because of this promise, sleep starts to elude him. Throughout the long nights he spends contemplating his wounds, he does not ask “Why has this happened?” but “Why has this happened to me?” A bittersweet taste coats his tongue and lingers in his mouth as he is being told “I love you” way more often than “How are you?”, and this distinction prevents silence from whispering the kind of stories he’s supposed to fool himself with, at such a young age. Sleep does not come back to him.
He talks about that to his assigned therapist. She’s a joyful forty-something woman with an office that smells both of cedarwood and cheap plastic binders. He did not like her at first—she’s the kind of woman to reply with a long and cryptic “hmmm” after any confession. Despite this, she remains good at her job. The time he tells her he cannot sleep anymore, she introduces him to the notion of entropy.
“It is the physical property of uncertainty and randomness. A measurable and quantifiable state of confusion. It comes from physics. It implies that chaos and disorder do not mean that sense and logic cannot be found.”
Looking at his confused eyes, she adds:
“In other words, your life has literally been turned to ashes, and your arm is nothing like the one it used to be. But you can still be okay.”
Realizing it is possible to make sense of chaos is an epiphany to the young man. That night, for the first time, he understands what he has to do. He picks up a lighter and rolls up the long sleeve covering his right arm. Then, he places the lighter’s flame right under his skin and lets it stay there for a few seconds, until the pain comes and forces him to withdraw. It is both unbearable and controllable. It reminds him that he has now understood how to prepare himself. Now, the fire can come back at any time, and it will not be as traumatizing as it was before; flames will be nothing but old lovers welcomed back into a house haunted by their absence. His therapist herself said it: meaning can be found in chaos.
It is, after all, nicer to see the glass half-empty than to admit that there is no glass anymore.
The man then goes on with living his life. He excels in school and his grades allow him to enroll in the most prestigious university of the country. He leaves his hometown gladly. In college, he studies a subject he likes very much, and befriends many people, joining various clubs, going on hiking trips, drinking beer in parks until they close. He even falls in love for the first time, with a beautiful young man who is very calm and very funny and who lives his life in both a weightless and grounded manner. They meet in the university’s café, and, for a few weeks, they barely leave one another. Two rules are always kept: The young man never shows his arm, and twice a day—usually in the morning and in the evening—he takes a few seconds to burn himself.
One night, after they had made love, the man’s boyfriend sees him holding the lighter to his arm. They fight, and he breaks up with him.
“I always saw you as one of the kindest persons I have ever met and yet I’ve never seen anyone pouring so much hatred onto someone as you do onto yourself,” he tells him in tears.
He does not understand—this has nothing to do with hatred. The young man actually cares about his own well-being. That evening, when he stays in bed and does not run after his boyfriend, he thinks it is because they will never really understand one another. The truth is that he refuses to be turned into a tourist within the homeland of his disquiet.
The man graduates with honors and finds a fulfilling job. He buys his first flat. It’s a beautiful two-room apartment not far from the city center that he saved a lot for, with high ceilings, elegant stucco detailing and a double-winged wooden entry door with bronze and iron handles. The first thing he does after unpacking his boxes is to light a candle. He places it in the center of his bedroom, and he watches the tiny flame consume itself and the wax before dying down.
He thinks “I’m home,” and he believes it.
There is a problem with the notion of entropy. It establishes logic within the absence of sense, but it requires this very absence. Entropy without chaos is nothing but an empty word.
The man has now been burning his arm for a long time. What used to be a damaged but recovering limb is now barely usable—a dark destroyed appendage. When someone bumps into it in the metro or in the street, he lets out long and genuine screams. He adapts his life so it can be lived with the use of one arm only – no more elaborate meals, no more quick and efficient reports on the laptop. He craves certain kinds of caresses that are nothing like the ones coming from the pernicious lovers he summons with his lighter. He wishes for someone to wait for him in bed at night, someone to move their hand on his body, to kiss him behind the neck, to tell him how proud they are of the order he has created within this mess he was forced into. But there is nothing but the flame.
This saddens and frustrates the man. The passing decades had him grow tired of this little kid crying inside of him. He is so far away from the burning house and its ashes now. He cannot help but enviously look at the people who can use both their arms in a healthy and effective way. The man does not think “Why did these people never get burnt?” but “I wish I could do what they are doing.” To thrive, dance, work, fuck, live like these people is what he wants, with their smooth and healthy skin, their rapid movements, their ability to wear T‑shirts or go to the beach without hiding a part of their bodies. Their ability to embrace each other.
The man grasps that perhaps, only perhaps, he has been punishing himself all this time for a crime he did not even commit. Perhaps, only perhaps, adulthood comes with the decision to stop seeking meaning in violence. This realization bears the smell of both cedarwood and cheap plastic binders.
It is easy to seek a violent lover. It is a lot harder to ask yourself what you bury underneath the pain they—you—inflict on yourself. The sad truth is that the answer to this question is, more often than not, nothing.
One day he goes to work as usual. He fulfills his tasks and has lunch with his coworkers who tell him about their families, their all-inclusive holidays, their youngest who’s finally able to walk, and he listens attentively. The man leaves the office lighthearted, in the idiosyncratic way which comes with deciding to make drastic changes in one’s life. That night, he does not reach for the lighter. It’s a quiet summer evening, the bars in his street are filled, purpose is not looked for yet. All is good; the paint on the walls has been dry for a long time now.
Maybe to prove him right, or to reassure him that he has not done all this work for nothing, the fire comes back that very night. Unexpectedly. The flames do what they do best: they devour. He is asleep.
Can a story be a story if there was no intention for meaning in the first place? The regrettable thing about healing is that it can easily convince you that pain is better than scars; but scars hold narratives. Pain hides behind words spoken recklessly in lifeless offices, and it waits.
As the blaze fades away and the pain strikes, the man who had readied himself so much for this very moment looks at his right arm without question. He expects to find the marks and signatures of the abusers he mistook for saviors all his life, since that very night. He is however left with nothing but dry eyes and bafflement as he notices that this time, it is his left arm that has been marred.
EDITED BY LARA HELENA.