Authors: R. A. Nelson
my personal planet
We’re moving slower than I would like. Maybe he’s afraid of losing me.
We haven’t said where we’re going, but it’s in the opposite direction of Sunlake. Everything around me is alive, bursting with feeling, meaning. But I’m a little sad for the other cars, their destinations.
I can’t believe this is happening. But somehow I can.
We turn off the parkway, enter a service road. It’s easy to see where we are going now. A massive wall of gray-and-crimson buildings pushes itself in front of us: the Wal-Mart Rule the World Super Center. I’m surprised. Not as many shoppers this late, but it still feels a little too public.
Now I see where he’s going. We circle around back to auto repair and park away from the lights next to a line of stunted trees. I’m on the left, he’s on the right. We sit.
First Act of Societal Defiance: getting into his car.
This is not as simple as it sounds.
Stepping out, touching the silver handle of his door, hauling it open, heavy in my hands—each action shimmers in my brain like an aurora borealis. His car could be touched with St. Elmo’s fire. It’s not a car, but a ship at sea in some far northern place. Taking me somewhere.
“Hello,” he says, as if we haven’t been talking for the last couple of hours.
But everything is new. The interior makes me dizzy for a moment, the exciting scent of his concentrated presence. There’s a stack of papers on the floor; he reaches down self-consciously while I hold my feet up and tosses the stuff in the back. I look, making the moment last. There’s some kind of case on the backseat. I don’t know what it is; he never brings anything but slides and printouts to class.
Seeing the teacher sticker on the windshield in reverse, the way he sees it every morning, makes me feel a little weird; this place is amazingly forbidden. I’ve broken and entered.
“Does this make you feel uncomfortable?” he says.
I don’t want to answer the question. I turn to look at him.
“It’s okay. I like it.”
“It’s okay. Really.”
I’m not sure what to do. I’m waiting for him. He seems to be waiting too. Maybe I should say something.
“Are you an atheist?” Too much. Way, way too much.
“No. No, I don’t think so. No.”
“So you believe in an afterlife?”
I like that he doesn’t hesitate on that one. Bonus points: he doesn’t question my question. I talk quickly, suddenly afraid of thinking.
“Nothing against atheists. But, I mean, look at the world.”
He smiles. “But an atheist might say the world is evidence there is no God.”
“I’m talking about nature.” I point my fingers at the strip of woods straddling a culvert where a stream used to run. “The real world. You have to believe in God to believe in trees.”
Be quiet. I settle back in the seat. I’m talking too much.
“So, your family, do you go to church?” he says.
“No. We used to when I was little. We’re Methodists. I think my parents finally just got tired. All that extra stuff you have to do when you belong to a church. Fund-raising for stuff that doesn’t really matter, plus all the social junk. So I kind of have my own thing.”
“Church? Or religion.”
“I don’t know what you’d call it. It’s really important to me. Being spiritual. It’s just that—it ’s just I feel closer to it in a forest, under the stars, than I do in a building.”
“Yeah. I understand that. Me too.”
If I gulp air any faster, I’ll be hiccoughing. But I can’t stop; stopping might let in too much.
“See, I have this theory. In the afterlife we’re all gods. So after I die, I’ll come back to Earth and stitch together all the overlooked, abandoned pieces of city forest into an Undiscovered Country. Then I can be its king.” He’s supposed to laugh at this last little part, but when it comes out, it doesn’t sound like something funny.
“King Carolina. I like that.” He touches my hand—it ’s the first time he’s touched me since I got in his car. It sends a delicious shiver up my back. “I don’t like to think about you dying.”
For the millionth time I secretly guess his age. I would ask, but asking would bring the difference into it. Let’s say twenty-seven. I’ll be eighteen soon, so when he’s seventy-nine, I’ll be seventy. Practically no difference at all.
“Boys?” he says.
I suddenly realize he’s asking a question.
“A few should be allowed to live.”
He laughs. “No, I mean, you don’t have a boyfriend, do you?”
“I know what you meant. Maybe I just don’t know how to answer the question. I have a friend who’s a boy; you’ve met him. That’s about it.”
“Do you date much?”
What should I tell him? That I haven’t been on a date my whole senior year? That I haven’t wanted to? That the sum total of my experience with the opposite sex consists of a few fumbled moments with Schuyler in the snow?
I study the Wal-Mart wall. “I’m afraid of stopping,” I say.
“I don’t know if I can explain.”
Now I am getting light-headed, drunk on contact with his skin. “Stopping my life,” I say. “Stopping my dreams. I think maybe—I think I’m afraid sex will strand me with some stupid guy who won’t understand me, won’t let me do the things I’ve come here to do. I—”
“It’s okay,” Mr. Mann says.
As desperately as I want him to hold me, it helps that we are just sitting here first. That he has this perfect chance, but he’s showing control. The door can still be opened. I can still get out, walk away.
“I’m sorry,” I say. “I’ve never done anything like this before. Ever. I don’t want you to think—”
“I know. I know.” He looks at me. “It’s okay. I’m not like this, either. I mean, I’ve never done this before. Well, not with a—not with someone from school. I’m not like that. I want you to know that. You’re just so . . . different.”
Gulp. “I hope that’s good.”
“Different? Sure. Different is good. Different is—goddamn amazing.”
It’s too much. I pause to take a breath.
“It’s not that—that I didn’t have chances with guys. It’s just so important, you know? Who it is, why you do what you do. I think everybody’s here for a reason. We’re not supposed to waste our lives just messing around. There are too many fantastic, amazing things to do. You can’t screw it up.”
He smiles with his eyes. “How’d you get so intense?”
I think about it. I remember the message on his answering machine. “I’m like Mark Twain.”
“He said he was
. I understand that. That’s me. I don’t waste time on people who aren’t. I can’t. I have this Master Plan.”
“What? Tell me about it.”
“You’ll think it’s crazy.”
“No, I won’t.” He holds up three fingers like a Boy Scout, making me smile. Making me safe. “I promise,” he says. “Tell me.”
“I’m going to—” Should I really say it? Make it real? Take another breath. “I’m going to discover things people have never seen. Unbelievable things. Beautiful things that will change everything we know about the universe. Where it came from, where it’s going. What it is. Who we are. Someday they’ll all want me, and then—”
He leans over, puts a finger to my mouth.
“It’s all right. I believe you.”
Is that what I’m trying to do? Make him believe?
What if I’m messing it all up?
What if I’m too strange, too stupid, too smart? What if I’ve let too much of myself out? What if the inner, secret Me is a brick in a wall I’m building between us? Maybe he wants someone else. Someone more, someone less, someone braver, stronger, weaker, wilder, crazy, pretty, sane—
Suddenly he circles my shoulders with his arm, pulls me to him. It’s happening. It’s happening. I close my eyes, letting go, letting go, letting go.
We stop. Still holding.
“Bucket seats suck,” he says.
We move to Wilkie Collins.
The reverberating screech of the passenger door momentarily keeps us apart. Now the moment is new all over again. I’m embarrassed. The dusty seats, the french fry smell. Still, we slide our hips together. His arm settles around my shoulders again. I feel the heat of his torso. I’m instantly overloaded. My non-corporeal body blows out to the edges of the galaxy, swallowing a billion billion stars.
I open my eyes and look into his.
I am here.
This is what I’ve wanted. Everything is breaking open. Everything I’ve revolved about, my core. Everything is crumbling, opening. It’s going to happen, it is. His arms are pulling me up to the last, sweet place. Cracking my imagination like a mold that was wrong and small.
Our faces come together. Like people meeting in a hallway, we can’t figure out which way to lean. His eyes are shiny. What does he see in mine? What does he see in me?
I feel a choking coming in my throat. “You could have anyone. Anyone.”
“Your mind,” he whispers, eyes moving as if to intercept my thoughts.
. With a
. It’s luminous. It dazzles me. I wish I could describe how you make me feel. I’m supposed to be good with words. But I’m speechless. Lost.”
But how could he be? How could he be all of those things that I am?
“God,” I say. “You—it’s everything. I’m coming apart, I’m coming to pieces—”
He kisses me.
Until this moment, this time, until my mouth opens against his opening mouth, until his tongue touches mine, gentle, alive—it has always been something that might only be a thought, a wisp of fantasy, a dream. Something that might never happen.
Now it’s very real and I can’t stop feeling that it’s real. The sensations I didn’t know to expect are there, magnified, huge. I didn’t know I would hear the blood moving through my ears. I didn’t know a blue light would turn on in my head, beginning with a tiny dot and growing to become a circle. I didn’t know everything would happen slow and fast.
I didn’t know he would taste this sweet.
My hand moves up, discovering his face. His jaw is lightly bristled with evening whiskers. My hand touches both our faces, feeling the joining of our lips as it is happening.
“I can’t believe it,” I say when our faces move apart.
“No, I can’t believe it.”
I can’t stop shaking, either.
I’m on completely alien ground. Levitation is a possibility. Before I can absorb the consequence of the first one, he kisses me again.
“Maybe you’d better run,” Mr. Mann says when we surface for air.
I open my eyes, try to sound as if my head is still attached. “Where?”
Because there is no other place.
His laugh sounds bitter. “Damn it.”
We kiss again. My head is totally gone; there is nothing left but my heart. Suddenly I’m not afraid anymore.
“I love you,” I whisper.
I hope he can’t see my tears in this light. I burrow my face into his chest and smell the day on his shirt. He clenches his fist against my back and speaks into my neck. His voice is warm.
“I didn’t mean to take it this far.”
I lift my blurry eyes. “That still means you meant to take it.”
magnification of breath
Holy sweet goodness.
It’s with me every waking moment.
But it’s a terrified, shivering, fragile joy. The next morning I wake up silently shrieking, the sheets in knots around my legs. Did it happen?
Has he forgotten? Changed his mind? Lost it?
The world is a whole new place.
I touch my fingers to my lips. Feel him there. I would know for sure if I could see him.
But—no!—I’ve got a dentist appointment today. I miss his class.
The dentist says my wisdom tooth, the one that’s lying on its side, the slacker, should come out as soon as I can schedule it. I’m not listening; I’m staring deep into the oval-shaped light above my head. There are thousands of little golden diamonds glistening there. They help me focus. I don’t want to think about anything that takes me away from thinking about Him.
God, it happened. It did.
I’m sugar-shock frantic by the time I get to school.
Mr. Mann is sitting with the other teachers in the lunchroom.
He’s swinging his fork, legs thrown out casually, ankles crossed. I’m desperate to talk to him, hear his voice, confirm by some semaphore or sign the connection between us. But approaching the teacher tables today would feel like running naked through the mall with my hair on fire.
I hope he can see me.
I watch his mouth move as he talks, eats, smiles—how beautiful. Now it’s my mouth too, in its own way. I have laid claim to it. My lips, my teeth, my tongue. How can he be using all of them without touching some part of me?
But today, in this new light, I’m not sure of anything. The space between us, the emptiness, the distance, could be a guarantee last night was a dream—no, a fever. Maybe if I—
“Where’ve you been?” Schuyler says, plunking down on the plastic seat next to me, making it go
on the floor, pinching my arm. “Listen.”
He’s gushing about something that happened five hundred million years after the Big Bang, the beginning of the universe, perfectly certain that I care. His hair is shaped like a bell with only one side, a living entity separate from the rest of his body. But he’s so cute in a Schuyler way. Red barbecue chicken gore stuck to his teeth, Vlad the Astrophysicist.
“So before stars, galaxies, quasars could form, the temperature drops in all that empty space and it starts snowing!” he says. “All over the universe! Hydrogen snow!”
I sit in my own empty space, the one-half meter of nothingness around my chair, let his voice flurry over me.
The gabble of voices around us makes me feel like I’m in a nuthouse. Excuse me, an asylum. My mouth paradoxically hurts from too much attention and too little. I can’t stand this lack of control, this ache that can’t be instantly addressed, only magnified by all the other aches around me.
Each moment away from him feels like a slippage, a backsliding into the miserable kiddieland where I lived before. I have to be active about this or I will lose him forever. I don’t care how crazy this feels. I only care that I—
He stands up.
“I’ve got to go,” I say.
I grab my tray and rush after him.
I catch him beside the garbage cans. He smiles, but not too hugely. “Carolina.” This is the only name in the world for me anymore. We scrape our trays with ultra-deliberateness.
“Hi,” I say.
“Hi. You don’t have to whisper.”
“I’m happy to see you too.”
“I still can’t believe it. I’m trying to make myself believe. Intellectually I know. I know that it happened. It’s just—it ’s just so good.”
“Yes. It happened. It did. I thought about it all—”
Somebody comes by. Mr. Mann says hello, glances around nervously, hunching over his empty tray as if deciding on a last secret bite of something that is already gone. It isn’t safe here; I can tell that’s what he’s thinking.
“Of course. Of course it happened,” he says. “You were there.”
“I was there!” I’m sounding so stupid, but right now I don’t care.
“But where were you this morning? I missed you in class.”
He missed me! He was thinking about me at the very same time. We have to talk about this. I have to remember it so we can. And try to get the time just right. The exact moment. Crazy. This is crazy.
“The dentist,” I say. “I’m sorry! I couldn’t help it! He says I need to get my wisdom tooth out. Great.”
“Don’t be sorry; it’s okay. Really.” He lowers his voice. “The lucky bastard. That means he gets to see you again. Maybe I’ll be sick that day.”
This makes me smile as though I might never stop smiling.
“Any cavities?” he says.
“Nope,” I say. “Well, one.”
I start to touch my chest right where my shirt is buttoned. “Here,” I want to say. “Right here.” At the very last second, I realize how idiotic that would look. What am I turning into?
“Nope, not really.”
He grins. “How can you
have a cavity?”
“I’ll tell you about it later.”
“Don’t,” he says.
Somebody else has got his attention again.
We shove our trays together through the slot in the wall, meaty steam bathing our faces. He heads out the door into the empty hall.
“We probably shouldn’t be doing this,” he says when I catch up.
I’m wounded infinitely. It’s as if a rogue star has raced across my path, ripped my sun away. I apparently can’t keep the pain out of my face.
“Damn. I’m sorry, no, I didn’t mean to scare you. I didn’t mean last night. No! I meant talking about it at school. It’s—you can’t believe how bad it would be. We have to be really careful. You know that.”
I’m back, out-of-body experience over. “Oh. Oh. You’re right. I’m sorry, that was stupid. I’m sorry. Sometimes it’s just—you know that feeling you get when you’re not sure anything is—”
He reaches over, squeezes my hand. Just as quickly, he lets go, is looking straight ahead, speaking to me sideways. “Don’t be sorry. Don’t ever be sorry at all. Meet me after school. Wait for me in your car. It’ll be about thirty minutes after everybody else is gone. Can you?”
My heart flies away.
His shoulder brushes my hair as he turns to go. Now I’m an exploding star, a supernova, throwing out all my energy in a single titanic burst radiated directly at his departing back:
I love him so much.
For a long time I close my eyes walking up the hall after he’s gone. Knowing there is no possible way I can hit anything. Not now, not ever.