Authors: R. A. Nelson
dawn of creation
I’m in a frenzy of anticipation the rest of the day.
His car is still there when I come out of the gym. Kids are streaming past me. For once in my life, I can’t study them. I’m not even a part of their species anymore.
I sit in Wilkie Collins, head down, as if interested in something in my lap. I wish I had a book to read, but the only thing in the glove box is a cheapie Easy Eye paperback from Mom’s seventies collection. I can’t concentrate enough to read anyway, especially
Return of the Native
. I’m parked a few rows from his Honda, every muscle tense, body quivering with questions: What now? Where to from here?
It’s the ultimate exercise in self-control.
I laser beam him with my eyes as he slowly makes his way from the gym to the little green car in the teachers’ lot. How I worship his walk. Why isn’t the ground cracking open in his wake? Why aren’t the clouds above his sweet head moving in a weird new way?
Why do I love him so much? What is it? I think it might be this:
He’s not showing me a new world; he’s showing me an old one. One I’ve kept buried deep inside under layers of science, grades, math, my parents’ expectations, my hyper-developed sense of responsibility, my achiever’s overdrive—
It’s a world without boundaries. One that I remember from being a kid. A world beyond measure, beyond physical stuff. A world that’s more like the universe than science will ever be. That’s what he’s promising me, whether he knows it or not. He said it himself:
It’s a mystery
I roll down the window; he puts his hands in.
I follow slowly out of the lot and we drive forever across town to an overgrown research park waiting for future soft industry. I’ve seen this place before with Dad. Because of NASA, Huntsville is a high-tech boom town, gobbling up land as fast as it can be annexed and zoned.
Right now this place is nothing but monster roads cutting through a lot of meadows and cotton fields gone fallow. We find a dead cul-de-sac and come to a stop at the broken end of the asphalt under the shade of a sycamore tree. We’re surrounded by acres of waving broom sage the color of straw, a massive sedge pond across the way. A long bird with its legs hanging down flaps by and settles in the water. Everything, the world, is so large today.
He slides in next to me. I’m so hungry for him, I can barely breathe.
“It’ll be safe here,” he says, taking my hands. I can’t speak. “This is the worst and the best thing I could ever do,” he says. “I got home last night, told myself,
You’re crazy. What the hell are you doing?
But seeing you here, now—I missed you so much. It nearly drove me insane.”
We kiss for hours or minutes, I’m not sure which. I’m completely smothered by my need for him. Have I ever been anywhere else but here in his arms? Is this our place? Our new home? In between kisses we watch lines on the pond, the bird, the sun pushing the sky around. But mostly we just look at each other. He’s framing my face with his big hands. I love the smell of his hair.
I’ve never seen anyone more beautiful in my life.
He hasn’t gone, vanished, become something that only exists in this universe part of the time. For a very long time we don’t talk as much.
We’re too busy creating joy.
What happens to it?
The hours and weeks run together into May like watercolors.
I’m so hungry for his touch, I could hold him for days or years. We see the unseen side of every shopping mall, the backs of dozens of stores. His car has working air; mine has couches. The state park. Abandoned playgrounds. A particular church. But the place by the pond is best.
Today we’re sitting there in tall grass on the edge of a sheltered meadow.
Mr. Mann is sitting behind me, massaging my neck and shoulders with both hands, his legs beneath my legs. No one has ever done this for me before. Ever. It’s hard to keep still; I feel selfish. But he’s also making me feel so impossibly good, so loved.
In the distance a coyote tracks its way through a deadfall on the edge of the wood. The falling sun is painting the new leaves gold. There is no place on earth but this, a sheltered meadow exactly equidistant between two industrial complexes. But only on Sunday afternoons. The rest of the time it’s a concrete plant.
“The trucks and buildings are just the other side of those trees,” Mr. Mann says. “Oops, there goes one.”
“Nope. I sometimes see tiny spots in front of my eyes. They call them vitreous floaters.”
“Weird. Do they bother you?”
“It’s no big deal.” He moves his hands down my back, around my sides, making me squirm. I am one gigantic nerve ending, raw, but not raw with pain, only pleasure. He goes on.
“I remember the first day I ever saw them, the floaters—I was fourteen and terrified. We were camping, getting ready to go to Six Flags. Nobody would believe me that I was seeing spots. I thought I was dying. Or that maybe there was something in the pool water.”
“What do they look like?”
He thinks about it, squinting. “Tiny corkscrews and geometric patterns. But very indistinct. Diaphanous. I can see right through them most of the time.”
“My, what a big vocabulary you have, Grandma.”
“The better to eat—”
“Uh uh uh.” I wag a finger over my head; he closes his teeth over it.
“My ears ring all the time,” I say, touching his lips behind me when he lets my finger go. “It’s called tinnitus. It’s not bad. I only notice it when it’s super-quiet. A kid threw a bunch of cherry bombs in a campfire when I was lying beside it.”
He’s nuzzling my neck now, moving along the hairline, lightly nibbling. “Lying?”
“Okay, gutter mind.” I laugh. “It was a church picnic. There were a bunch of kids around. I was thirteen. The big drama of the evening was a girl who tried to run away from home with a Barbie suitcase full of five hundred pennies.”
His hands move down and he hugs me around my middle, face against my cheek, his legs thrown out on either side of me now.
“Why? Why did she want to run away?”
“She thought she was pregnant.”
“God. At thirteen!”
“From French kissing.”
He laughs and kisses my right ear, takes the lobe gently in his teeth. “I’m sorry. I’m sure it was sad. Did she make it?”
“We never do, do we?”
I turn in his arms, straddling his legs so I can look at his face. His eyes are the color of newborn stars. “Did you try to run away?”
“I tried a lot of things. Almost.”
“There you go again. No Emily talk today. So you were a messed-up kid?”
He doesn’t talk much about his childhood. I have to wonder how happy he was.
“Yep, pretty much. But I can touch my elbows behind my back,” he says. “If I stand holding a door frame and push. At least I think I still can. Tell me something about you.”
I think. “I have to spit in every river I cross. It’s almost a compulsion.”
“Ha. I like that. What if you’re in a car?”
“Then you get to experience what engineers call a little blowback.”
“Hee. Okay. My turn. Let’s see. I won a national poetry award back when I was dumb enough to think it was easy.”
“Really? Why didn’t you keep going?”
“Health benefits sucked.”
“No, really.” I run my fingers over his eyebrows, smoothing them.
“There’s not much to tell. It just wasn’t going anywhere. Poets get paid worse than hamburger flippers. No offense.”
“None taken. Can I read it sometime?”
“Okay. Here’s something. I cried the first time I saw a Hubble picture of Supernova 1987A.”
He touches the tip of my nose with the point of his tongue. “With a name like that, sounds like a tax form. I’d cry too.”
“You wouldn’t say that if you saw it. I’ll show you on the net. It looks just like the symbol for infinity with a ring of fire superimposed over it.”
“No shit, really?”
He suddenly kisses me deeply; we don’t speak for a while. All thoughts are pushed out, replaced by sensation.
“Apples?” he says when we pull apart.
“Gala,” I say.
“I can live with that. Sure.”
We move ever closer to a center.
It’s my birthday today.
What does this number mean to me now?
It used to mean graduation, freshman year at college, one more candle on my cake.
Now it’s something waited for, yearned for, desperate, dying, living, hungry, howling—
Am I scared? I am.
Am I brave? I hope.
Somehow I don’t feel one bit different.
Somehow everything feels different.
Has he touched me?
Yes. A thousand times.
Has he touched me?
A mountain of fire rushes at my head.
I’m back to Earth.
Oh—I’m here. It’s my birthday dinner.
My folks, the Greens, Schuyler. We’re all sitting in my favorite Japanese restaurant. The hostess is beating a gong; the chef is juggling eggs with a spatula. Skewers are whirling in front of my nose around one knuckle of a single finger. Now he’s threatening to singe off my eyebrows with fountains of flammable saki. Anything to snare my attention.
I’m barely noticing. Schuyler pokes me with a chopstick, missing my right boob by the width of a bra strap.
“Hey!” he says. “Snap out of it. What are you thinking about? You’ve been on Planet 9 all day.”
“Earth to birthday girl. They’re about to sing.”
“Oh no, you didn’t.”
“Don’t look at me.”
I endure it. I have to.
I know I’ve been neglecting Schuyler, and he knows it too. But what can I do? What can I tell him? This thing I have going on, this love, is so huge, so real—Schuyler would never understand. It would freak him out completely. I don’t know if I could ever get him back. As much as I would hope he of all people would get it—he wouldn’t. I don’t know if anybody on the outside can.
He might even turn Mr. Mann in.
Schuyler would say, and dock me a quarter. But this is the first time I’ve thought of that possibility. Now I’m eighteen, sure. But for the moment, Mr. Mann is still my teacher.
And the longer the deception goes on, the worse it gets. I hate lying. Like the way I’ve been lying to Schuyler about the water-color lessons I’m supposedly taking on the nights when I don’t work. Luckily, he hates art, so there haven’t been many questions. Which of course would just lead to more lying.
The chef has made a volcano out of an onion. He’s slipped it next to my plate.
Time to go.
“I’ve got to run some errands before the places close,” I tell Mom and Dad when we’re done.
“I’ll help,” Schuyler says.
“Nope. It’s not anything big. Just some things I need for my art lessons.”
“Oh.” No way he’s coming now. Great.
I thank everybody and pull out from the curb before he gets a chance to climb in.
I hate lying to Schuyler—I hate lying in general. But I have to get rid of him somehow. If he finds out what I’m up to, what’s going to happen tonight—he would call me insane. He just might try to stop me.
I have the inertia of worlds on my side. He might as well try to stop a spinning planet. Try to stop the seasons from the tilt of the earth’s polar axis. Try to stop the tides from the pull of the moon.
the house of tomorrow
My last chance.
This is it. I have arrived at every parent’s nightmare:
I’m not as terrified as I should be. Everything is golden. The sun is falling into the lake—you can see it from here. Mr. Mann goes up first, unlocks the door, slips inside. I wait a few beats down in Wilkie Collins, realizing I could wait much longer, even forever. This is not something he is making me do. I’m choosing this, to be here, now, with him. He’s giving me the best way out.
I don’t take it.
I climb the wooden stairs, hands not even touching the railings. There’s a moment on the landing when I’m looking at the lake, still have the choice before me. I rap the knocker, feeling elated and electrified.
The door to number 220 opens.
Mr. Mann appears, pulling his fingers through his hair, a well-fancy-meeting-you-here look on his face. The door clicks shut behind us; the moment is over. Mr. Mann throws his keys on the table, eyes apologetic.
“Welcome to Casa Mañana,” he says.
“The House of Tomorrow?”
“It’s small, but I like the location. Close to school.”
I hear myself in the single word:
I look around. His apartment is a pepperoni pizza: Papa John’s, thin crust. Wal-Mart bookshelves. Particleboard furniture. White plastic chairs. Not enough light. A cretaceous-era Macintosh squats in the corner. The sink is a ziggurat of dishes.
“I meant to get to those,” he says, as if I would care.
There’s a gift sitting in the center of the small table, silver foil tied with a green ribbon curled at the ends with scissors.
“Happy birthday,” he says.
My eyes fill. “Really? I can’t believe you got me something too.”
I tear at the foil; it’s a heavy glass jar with something golden inside. I hold it up to the light. The label says TRAPPIST, below that, SEVILLE MARMALADE.
“The monks! You didn’t.”
He doesn’t answer, instead unscrews the cap, dips his index finger in. The scent of oranges floods the room.
I take his finger in my mouth.
We move together in the center of the room. Circling each other, almost a dance. He’s constantly touching. My cheek, my back, my neck. His fingers are as long as mine. Through a narrow door I see his bed waiting in sallow dimness. He catches me looking.
“What are you thinking?” he says.
“You once told me teaching is your second-greatest passion. I was wondering about your first.”
“Ah. Here we go.”
But instead of leading me to the bedroom, he’s rummaging on a shelf. He pulls out a square brown case. What’s he doing? I make a grab at it. He holds it away.
“But what is it?”
“Nope. I’m master of this box.”
“Let me see, please.”
He fends me off, laughing. “Nope. You’re in here.”
“I am?” I can’t describe how good this makes me feel. “How can I be in there? Is it a journal?”
Instead of answering, he swings to face the shelf and unsnaps the box, extracts a CD. He drops it into a Bose Wave Radio, the one nice thing he owns. I pick up the CD cover, puzzled:
Wall of Voodoo
. Who are these people?
“New Wave,” Mr. Mann says. “Circa 1982. I was just hitting puberty. Huge vinyl albums were still the rage. Music videos were brand-new. MTV wasn’t even a year old.”
I don’t hear any of the rest. I’m frantically doing the math:
Just hitting puberty = 1982.
He’s in his thirties. Maybe as old as thirty-five.
Nearly twice my age. This is a body blow. I realize my mouth is gaping; I snap it shut and do my best to recover. Does this make a difference? Is he changed because he’s older?
“You—you said I’m in there.”
“You are. All that longing. All those crushing feelings. New Wave helped me get through it. We didn’t know it at the time, but New Wave was just an extension of disco. The anti-disco disco. A lot of it was atonal as shit but still danceable as hell.”
He turns up the sound. A driving guitar begins thumping the walls.
“Billy Idol, ‘Dancing with Myself,’” Mr. Mann says.
He lets go of my fingers and does a goofy Molly Ringwald
kick step. First one foot, then the other, dipping his head to the beat. He looks ridiculous and surreal. I adore him.
He’s saying something.
He stops dancing and turns down the volume. “I knew you would like Billy.”
“I do,” I lie. “But if you’re talking old, my taste runs more to the Cranberries.”
He laughs bitterly. “Ancient!”
“Or Johnny Cash.”
“Good God, prehistoric.” He means it this time.
“Watch his video,
,” I say quickly. I’m not used to defending my love for a man born around the time Pluto was discovered. “A million years old and he’s covering a Nine Inch Nails song.”
Mr. Mann grins. “Tell me something else you like. Something I don’t know.”
Wildflowers. Goofy old musicals like
Meet Me in St. Louis
Seven Brides for Seven Brothers
. Thanks, Mom. Carpentry. Thanks, Dad. Colonial archaeology. Historical trees. These I blame on myself.
“Historical trees?” he says.
“They collect the seeds from famous trees around the country and sell them. You can buy acorns from George Washington’s Mount Vernon tulip poplar.”
His eyes are sadly joyful. To be looked at this way feels . . . spiritual.
“How did I find you in Alabama?” he says.
“And on a Shoe Day, too.”
“Y’all godless Yankees think we’re all barefoot racist rednecks.”
“And your point is?”
I shove him. He responds by taking me in his arms and kissing me hard.
His tongue moves inside my mouth, lightly brushing my tongue and finding the edges of my teeth. My legs go boneless. It overwhelms me that I overwhelm him.
“You’re so damn . . . tall,” he says. “I’ve never kissed anyone tall before.”
I want to tell him the things I’ve never done before.
The couch is fake leather and cold.
My hand moves under his shirt. His chest is unfashionably hairy. I like it. What is he thinking? Touching me. What am I thinking? I’m blown away by competing sensory inputs. The words I need are too big.
There is a shocking pinpoint of decision, then his hand cups my breast. I respond with an involuntary, liquid sigh. It’s strange to be adored, understood, hungered for. Most of the time I’m still not used to it.
He frowns and pulls away. His voice is almost inaudible. “This is where I’m supposed to be strong.”
I twist a piece of his hair around my ring finger. “Why.”
“I’m sorry, Carolina. It shouldn’t be like this. Not your first— I’m not thinking straight.” He sits up and massages his forehead. “All of this, you, it’s making me do crazy—”
“I’m not crazy.”
It’s my turn to stop him with a kiss. We linger, lips barely touching, breathing each other’s air. His resistance without resisting is— irresistible.
We go in.
The bedroom brightens and darkens. The only illumination is a couple of fat yellow candles on a nightstand in the corner. They smell nothing at all like vanilla. He had to take the plastic off them. For all I know, he bought them for just this occasion.
The walls are bare except for a large framed poster of Emily. She floats like a ghost above the bed, neck long, face pale, hair tight as Lycra pants. She’s not smiling but looks as if she could.
The reality of the first kiss was nearly beyond my comprehension.
What can prepare you for a time like this?
As we get on the bed, I’m numb, standing somewhere outside myself. Processing oceans of thought right to the very end. Assembling impressions, observations, moments, touches, exhalations. It’s impossible to keep up with this kind of flow. I’m a satellite passing through a powerful magnetic storm, all my sensors pinging at the limits of their range.
Mr. Mann presses his lips together determinedly, pulls my shirt slowly over my head. I cover myself instinctively with my arms. My skin prickles with goose bumps. He kisses them, moves his mouth up under my arm. The feeling as he kisses me there is indescribable. He helps me to straighten my arms.
My turn. I unbutton his shirt, throw it on the floor. I spend an uncertain amount of time nuzzling his newly exposed skin. Every part of my body is suddenly connected to my toes.
I feel myself changing, shifting. Now I’m tugging at his pants and then at mine. He’s kissing me everywhere, squeezing me, running his fingers over places no one else has touched.
It’s too much; it’s frying my wiring. I close my eyes. The same thin blue light starts up again, just like when he kissed me. It starts as a line behind my eyelids. The blue line grows, becomes an arc, then a circle. I’m suddenly aware of the miracle of my bare skin against his bare skin. Just as the blue circle behind my eyes is completing itself, he—
Now there is no thought. It’s not possible anymore. Everything is scattered. All control and focus are gone.
I break an unspoken promise to myself not to cry.
Not from the pain. It hurts, just as he said it would. But it hurts in more ways than he even knows. It hurts the way dying must hurt, if you truly see a new world rushing at you.
It’s the first time I’ve ever said his name out loud. I try it again and again.