The fat housecat twitches in her sleep.
Paws kick. Soft whimper. Ears perk then fall.
[And I watch longingly, jealous of her peace. The only world she knows is rise, eat, relax. Afternoon nap. 2 o’clock crazies. Smash the laptop keys, wonder why the human hates this. Spy on the neighbors from the window perch as they water the grass. Spy a squirrel. Beg for lunch scraps. I envy her easy living. The privilege of knowing nothing of the plague staining the world she reigns over. Her small corner kingdom knows no such evil. I wish I could still sleep. Like that, or even at all.]
Pink tongue peeks out. Sudden jerk. Perfect, unbelievable calm.
[What do cats even dream about? If the only life she knows exists within these four walls– does that limit her subconscious? Or is she hardwired, like us, to dream of the impossible? Of escape? Freedom?]
Steady breathing from the softest parts. Eyes like crescent moons.
[I still dream of freedom.]
She wakes. I hardly notice her sleepy stare.
[And I wonder what went on. How she does it. Why I can’t.]
Carl Sagan once said, In our obscurity, in all this vastness, there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves.
We sent a rocket to space today with two fathers tucked away inside, onlookers watching with heartbeats lodged in throats and eyes threatening rain. Brave hope, I call it, when the ship shuttles skyward. There is more to our world than the pain we inhabit. How we welcome the unknown, yet tethered to our soil are fathers dying. Tear gas and milk and piles of bodies lacerated by shards of glass. Tug-of-war for barricades, cars set aflame, rubber bullets lacing skin.
On this pale blue dot, pale blue fire. Everyone burns.
Yet still, the darker man dies.
Today one man’s son watched his father’s ship shatter the atmosphere. Another man’s son watched his father battered and bleeding on the littered streets of a city that refuses to claim them.
Do you love us? Do you still care? I asked whatever benevolent force can still hear me. Of course I still love you, it replied.
It’s the 30th of May in the year 2020 and love isn’t enough anymore.
It goes like this.
Wake up, fall into the abyss of timeline updates, scroll through the carnage I slept through. New day, new wrath. I grow more weary of the world every day I am forced to wake up in it. Tell me, where is the world we remember?
I am weary of those who have a voice but do not speak. I am weary of those who claim their rights have been stolen from their hands when all that is asked of them is patience. The world will open again, that is a promise. But now! Now! they won’t be commanded to wait. I wish I could give them grace.
I used to write letters to my children. Addressed each of them by name, signed them Mom, wrote of how proud I am of the faces I do not know yet. There’s one for when my daughter turns sixteen, when she’s twirling in a silver dress with her eyes lined and hair curled. And another for my son to open in his college dorm room the night we leave. But it feels wrong now, to bring innocence into a world tainted by this much blood. I do not know whether to hold onto those envelopes, safekeep them under layers of dust, or to tuck them into a glass bottle, say goodbye, and let the river do what it will.
It goes like this.
One day you’re young and you dream of your own family and you’re going to name your daughter Ava and teach her how to be happy since nobody taught you. You’re naive and you’re sparkling and the world still feels good enough, not perfect, but still a world in which you wouldn’t mind one day having a handful of laughing angels sprinting around the kitchen island, their laughter spilling everywhere. One day you still keep a broken-winged bird fluttering in the cavern of your ribcage, a fledgling thing called Hope, until you wake up to another day, realize that nothing flutters inside of you anymore, and when you breathe out to ask Why? the room fills with feathers.
I can’t breathe, that’s what he said with a knee against his neck. And thousands of others like him have sung that three-word chorus, all of their gasping voices still echoing, still ignored as we turn a deaf ear and stare numbly, turning the street corner to avoid taking the side of the dying man.
Hatred is viral evil. A communicable disease spread in our streets, raised in our homes, still no known vaccine to stop its transmission. This morning I woke up to a world with my breath nowhere to be found. Land of the free, an illusion we were bred to believe, home of the…. hurry! There’s blood on the burning flag now. We wave it, we pledge allegiance– to bodies littering sidewalks, grocery store aisles boasting Buy one get one free!, gas stations under the afternoon sun– black bodies, black lives, blackness an unforgivable sin.
They say look the other way. They say they deserved it for resisting. They say it’s not me, it’s not someone I knew. But complicity breeds more fathers wiped from history books. Privilege erases them as if they never existed. If you can still breathe easily in a world like this, then we do not occupy the same world.
I’d say their names but there are far too many now.
Places are people. When I drive past the landmarks of my hometown all I see are ghosts of varied significance.
Exhibit A: behind the air conditioning unit of our church where I had my first three kisses after stealthily sneaking away from the youth group bonfire held in the parish parking lot, my fifteenth summer. B: the grassy, pesticide-ridden hill behind the tennis courts of my high school where I’d sit for hours making sunflower chains to avoid falling for a boy I only pretended to love out of fear of being alone again. C: me, alone again, rocking back and forth in every quiet corner of that postage stamp world I could find, to silence the scream of guilt in my chest. Only in those hideaways could I make it stop.
Same goes for the mountains. I see him everywhere. His shape in the grass, his fingerprints on the doorknobs leading to our top secret passageways, his feet dangling over the ledges of the rocks where I’d meet him every afternoon to sit, sandwich in hand, and talk about trivial things. Sometimes I pass by and find myself looking up mindlessly, that pull of muscle memory half-expecting to see him there, swinging his shoes like a metronome I know by heart. I don’t know why I do. Even God knows I hate him now.
I read somewhere that the Earth behaves much like a living thing, one mass, one body capable of regenerating. It’s all push and pull, call and response, chemicals mixing, stirring, churning, cyclical. Always in the process of healing itself. Thinking this way, the very land that tethered us close is now undoing us from the landscape. Purging us like an organ rejection, cells uprooted, dust recycled, physical remnants of memories torn to microscopic shreds and separated for good.
No one has to lift a finger. The Earth will erase us and all we have to do is wait.
One day I’ll walk our paths and sit in our hideaways and see nothing but light seeping through the trees, soaking my bones, washing over my body in the city that I chose.
When you share stars with someone on cloudless September nights you so easily fall for the illusion that, just like the lights suspended above your bodies, they too will never leave. Things feel so permanent there, two small frames immersed in late summer dew. Hair tangled in knots between heads, pinkies accidentally intertwined, crickets whistling the tune they save for young hearts like ours.
And then you find yourself alone one night, straining your eyes to make out the outline of an invisible body, an imaginary imprint left in the grass. The phantom limb jolts. No one clutches your hand anymore. You haven’t heard their voice in so long it’s like you’ve never heard it at all. The woods are silent and nothing sings. What is music to a soul that can’t be eased?
But I wouldn’t have been happier in the city. The only home heartbreak knows is the one inside of you. It has no postal code, no coveted brownstone, no return address. I could’ve built myself a new life in New York (or Boston, or Portland, or San Fran)– one without the possibility of ever being hurt by him, but still, heartbreak would inevitably find me in varying substitutes. No one’s city makes them immune to suffering; you can’t uproot yourself from fate. At least there, lying still in nowhere land, I had the stars to hold me when he couldn’t.
What the countryside taught me: long walks can be taken alone. No one has to pluck wildflowers from secret brooks to tuck gently behind your ear. No one has to call you angelic when you twirl down the trail, playing easy and innocent. No one has to wish upon your fallen eyelashes or write you second-rate poems on the backs of dead maple leaves. You can do it yourself. Or not. You can just lie there, very still, letting the earth erase the evidence of him.
Remember when I said he wasn’t the reason I chose the mountains?
It was what they did for me when he left.
The stars know too much about me now. If they could laugh, I know they would, both at me and with me. They’d weep too, at everything I forced them to witness.
Imagine me eighteen, short hair and denim cut-offs, collapsed in wet grass, barefoot and intoxicated by summer petrichor. Call it baptism, liberation, whatever you want– but it was as if I had been transformed into a born again worshipper of a religion I invented from scratch. It wasn’t the mountains. It wasn’t newfound independence, freedom from suburban suffocation. It wasn’t even nature. It was who I became there, alive and musing and enveloped in all of it.
It couldn’t last forever.
Part Three and a Half: What the Stars Saw
On bad nights I used to wander out the doors of my co-ed dormitory in the dead of winter wearing only plastic shower slippers, cotton shorts, and a coffee-stained t-shirt that reached mid-thigh. I’d lie flat under the scattered moonlight veiled by the oak trees, as still as a corpse, and try my very hardest to die. Even the stars could see I was inconsolable: can’t sleep can’t eat can’t believe in anything mutilated arms no eyelashes anymore nothing left to pull. I wondered if I’d be happier in the city, another life, more willing to survive as a pedestrian in a crowded street or as a rush of color in a crosswalk. Maybe there, in that parallel universe, I wouldn’t be so desperate to slip into eternity, to leave my room messy and cluttered for good.
Months later, the worst psychiatrist I ever had reduced my suffering to “probably just something about a boy,” scribbling her signature on the Rx slip for the antidepressants that almost killed me for real, even when I didn’t want to die anymore.
I wish the stars could ring her up and tell her what they saw those nights.
Where was he before I grew too cold to keep dying?
The stars are real out there. In the countryside, I mean. My hometown suburb knows no such thing, though it falsely believes it knows everything. I lived eighteen full years blindly believing I knew real stars (or real anything) until the moment I first gazed upward, spine against wet soil, and was proven wrong. I did not know legitimacy until that moment, as I entertained the delusion of my body rising to embrace them, scintillating orbs sinking to meet me halfway, cradling me close.
Stars humble you. Scratch that– real things humble you. Even the girl that, at one point, had fashioned herself to be a god of her own right. Back then I had no interest in love. Only worship. It’s funny, how years of hurt and anger can trick a heart into thinking it is holy.
The suburbs raised me on rage while the idea of running away to a new city burned a hole in my head with the exigent glow of an escape sign at the movies.
But I gave up the city for quiet moonlight painting my skin in the middle of an empty meadow an hour after midnight. For insect bites we couldn’t identify, tender bruises of unknown origin. I gave up the city because something else lives in another place– in the nothingness and wordless dark– something that could shift the innermost self, powerful enough to prove me wrong.
Was I alone in those hours of strange becoming?
In some ways, yes. In other ways, well, ask the stars. They were there. They saw.
I gave up New York City for pale blue mountains, pastures to roam, and a twinkling firmament. If younger Michelle knew what she’d choose, she’d weep until the cows come home. There was a time I dreamt of skyscrapers and luxury lipstick and coffee shop meet-cutes. It was a romanticized version of a city of which I knew no accurate reality– only the perceptions I could conjure from a slew of box office rom-coms and film noir classics. I saw myself a recent Ivy League grad, a real writer (Book deal! Brownstone! Not Daddy’s trust fund money, but money I earned from writing a bestselling memoir! Of what? Well, my suburban Americana glory, of course! Just kidding, no one would buy that. Someone tell her.) I’d only be in New York for the inspiration I’d find sauntering the streets clad in a peacoat and overpriced scarf purchased somewhere on Fifth Avenue. The city would only be of use when I’d need something corporeal enough to fall in love with. The city breathes, after all. But of course, that’s idealism speaking through the voicebox of a teenage girl in pursuit of an illicit affair with the universe. All cities have their own filth. New York is by no means an exception.
I wanted the capital C City for the lovers! The Breakfast at Tiffany’s aesthetics! Book readings and signings at art galleries over wine and fancy bruschetta! I wanted it all, so my heart led me to that image for years. There, in that fabricated Hollywood dreamscape, I yearned to be in the presence of icons.
I don’t know what changed. The scene lost its appeal. I like convincing people that I just outgrew it. It’s easier that way, at least easier than admitting I dove headfirst for a dreamer who called openness his home. A soul enamored of stars and hidden trails and muddy creeks, secret waterfalls and even deeper secrets shared under the shade of oak trees. But we’re not going to pretend he was the reason why I chose the Blue Ridge over the fallacy of fortune. He wasn’t. As much as it may seem like he was, he wasn’t.
I never beg for anything. It’s not in my nature. But this time, you have to believe me.
That feeling— a nighttime walk in the crepuscular light
of late November, leaves crunching under rain boots
I wore by accident, having misunderstood the forecast
while rushing to catch the late bus in the morning.
There’s a certain kind of magic in that kind of being alone,
wandering home at half past seven, taking the longer route
just to bask in the breeze for a moment more. It’s hard not
to peer through the golden windows of other people’s
homes without appearing freakish and unnatural. But I do
anyway, sometimes, as they fold their laundry or put away
dinner plates or chat with their mothers on the phone.
Sometimes I’m lucky enough to catch a warm embrace
shared under the kitchen light fixtures. Sometimes I don’t
catch anything at all, just a dim room and a cat perched
on the ledge. A messy desk. An unwatered houseplant.
There’s a fondness in feeling momentarily at home in the world.