I had an evolutionary biology professor who specialized in insect phylogenies, one of many people collaborating to create the great, shockingly ugly family tree of the class insecta. Each summer Dr. Larsen goes to the Amazon or New Guinea to get a new truckload of previously unclassified insects and put them on freezer trays in nice ordered groups like some eternally preserved family reunion portrait. In order to collect these insects, he turns on a six-foot-wide bright white spotlight in the middle of the jungle. As the evening darkens, the bugs flock to the light, more and more coming as the sun goes down, thousands swarming in the darkest hours.
The insects smash into the spotlight, cling to it, pile on top of one another, shoving, scraping, and stabbing to be closest to the light. Layers and layers of these bugs can cover and halfway dim the light. It stuns them, burns them, scars them, but still they come and come and come. I saw pictures of students lying against the light, blanketed in insects. Some smiled and beamed at the camera while others kept their eyes and mouths shut tight, as if they were drowning in the creatures.
When gathered on the light, the insects, some giant, others minuscule, are easy to catch. Larsen and his students scoop and shovel them, some alive, some dead, into large canvas bags for later sorting, freezing, pinning, cutting, looking, describing, placing, preserving.
Insects’ attraction to light evolved as a form of navigation millions of years before humans came around. Because the sun and the moon are essentially fixed points of light in the sky at any given time, they can act as compasses for the insect to use to maintain a straight line of flight. Up until humans started messing around with fire, the moon or sun was the only source of light. Artificial lights disrupt this navigation system because, unlike the moon, the light will move in relation to the insect, get closer, farther away, or passed by on the side. When the light moves, the insect turns in order to maintain what it senses is a straight line. In constantly trying to keep the light in a fixed reference point, it ends up circling closer and closer to the light until it crashes into it. The bugs are helplessly drawn to the light by a deep-seated instinct that overrides any other mechanisms that would move them on their way, so they stay there, smashing themselves helplessly and painfully into the brightness over and over again.
I’ve never been married. Came close once. Every relationship I’ve had, then, has ended sooner or later in failure. More than half of them were clearly going nowhere from the start. In those cases I was just keeping nice company. Eventually one party or the other gets tired of pretending and quits. But a few times I’ve thought this is it, this is where I’m supposed to go, what I’m supposed to do. This has got to be what they mean, those people who say “it just feels right.”
The last one that got me thinking like that was the fourth-funniest girl I’ve ever met. She swore so well – casually but intelligently. She had a laugh like free money and I didn’t worry where it came from or if I deserved it or not; I just smiled, pocketed it, and felt great about myself. She thought standing ovations were odd. She thought calling me at three in the morning was perfectly normal. Sometimes she would turn and stare at me for a minute and then smile, as if she read my brain and found something amusing inside, but wouldn’t tell me what. I wanted to tell her everything, even bad things, the worst truths.
I saved all my funniest stories for her; she got them first and freshest. I bought her a classic bike, cleaned it up, got white-with-grey-speckles handlebar tape and carefully and so so slowly put it on so each turn was evenly spaced and there were no irregular bumps because I hate when anything is uneven beneath my hands so she might too.
And then I crashed. I vomited my feelings onto her and she said then I can’t do this anymore, it’s just me, I’m sorry, I’m responsible, could I be any more difficult, damn it, I’m sorry, I’m the worst.
Instead of bailing I upped the stakes, thought of bigger and better invitations: Sasquatch Music Festival, rock climbing in Maple Canyon, Lake Powell. She said she forgot she already planned a road trip with other friends, she couldn’t get work off that weekend, she kinda started seeing someone. I clinged and shoved and scraped and stabbed and was stabbed until, exhausted, I fell to the ground beneath another damned camp lantern with one wing bent backwards.
I’m Mormon. I go out to bars with my friends and order a Pepsi. I’m the all-time designated driver. I’m the oldest virgin I know, not counting my other Mormon friends. I give ten percent of my income to the church as tithing, which is going to end up being the second greatest expense of my life after taxes. I spend three hours of my weekend every Sunday sitting through usually-but- thankfully-not-always boring speakers and classes. At nineteen, I left college and served as a missionary in Paraguay for two years, where I walked miles and miles every day in hundred plus degree heat and seemingly hundred plus percent humidity to teach people the gospel. And I did it every single day, even when I got worms in my gut that put toxins in my brain and now I have double vision, when I had diarrhea for weeks at a time, when I was eating chicken neck soup and cow head, when most people only listened to be polite, when others were just rude, and when I got so tired and worried and stressed sometimes that I would just sit and stare at the fan and try to think of nothing at all.
None of it is easy. I have doubts sometimes, I still get depressed, I never feel like I’m doing as well as I could or should be. But I do it because it feels right, even when it’s the hardest. Sometimes especially when it’s the hardest. I do it for the same reason a Muslim prays five times a day towards Mecca, a Jew doesn’t eat cheeseburgers, and a Catholic runs, walks, or crawls across Mexico to the Virgen de Guadalupe.
The Muslims and Mormons and lovers and insects and I are all just trying to fly in the straightest line possible. We smash into lights over and over and over and over, hoping to find ourselves one day scarred and bruised and bent and bloody, but finally flying by the real moonlight, because there’s got to be a moon somewhere we think, we hope. And then maybe, finally, we can cruise in a straight-ass line to wherever we’re meant to be.
Austin Rory Hackett’s work has previously appeared in The Battered Suitcase, Wild Goose Poetry Review, Falling Star Magazine, and Inscape. He won the 2010 Vera Mayhew Essay Contest and was nominated for the Best of Net Anthology.