Authors: R. A. Nelson
It’s Saturday morning.
My heart tells me first—the world is still here. I’m letting it settle around me. I would have spent all morning in bed if I could. Reliving it all. Everything, him. Us. The outlines on the wall. But maybe I would never get up ever again.
But I have to. I’m helping Mom make my cake. There wasn’t time yesterday since I was gone. Gone. Is that what I was? I have never been more Here. We’re using my favorite green ceramic bowl. I inhale the scent of vanilla extract, touching my fingers to my lips, my tongue, remembering.
The candlelight, his bed. Emily watching over us, a pearly, schoolmarmish god. The end of it all, when I opened my eyes just in time to see him open his. The paradoxical feeling of safety and release in his arms. I didn’t wash his scent off. He’s still there.
“No,” Mom says. “Oh no.”
She has to run to the store for lemon juice. While she’s gone, I sit at the table stirring languidly, letting my eyes go in and out of focus, staring a thousand yards out the window at nothing.
This seeing without seeing is comfortable, reassuring. I don’t want to lose it. Then it hits me: this is the single happiest moment of my life. It’s funny Mr. Mann is not here to share it. He’s the engine of its existence.
“You want to talk about it?” Dad suddenly says from behind me.
He approaches life the way he pores over an electrical schematic. Missing the wiring necessary to intuit, he has methodically, patiently learned to observe.
I know I’ve heard his voice, but I keep staring out the window. You can always talk to people. A moment like this might not come again.
“What?” I say finally.
He gives my shoulder a paternal Vulcan pinch.
“What are you thinking about? College? Moving out?”
How could I even begin? I can’t. I turn on my toes and stretch to kiss him on the cheek. His big gray eyes are watery and golden at the center. He sighs.
“You remember, I’m sure, there are several different types of Nothing,” he says. “There’s the Nothing that is pure zero and the Nothing that is a negation. One is just before the birth of everything, the Nothing of not having been born. The other is the Nothing after the death of everything, the Nothing that is beyond all existence.”
“Charles S. Pierce,
Logic of Events
“I never thought about it before, but he’s talking about the Big Bang, isn’t he? Before the creation of the universe and after its death.”
“So which Nothing are you thinking about?”
I rock my chair back with my sock feet. “Neither.”
“Then, by process of elimination, you must be thinking about a Something.”
I sure am. The biggest Something ever. The Something that has cracked open my life and set me free. “I don’t think I can’t put it into words.”
“Like to try?”
“No. I’m happy, that’s all.”
His shoulders relax. “I’m glad. I’m going to miss you something terrible. Where do the years go?” It’s his turn to stare out the window. “Do you remember when I carried you over the Haunted Bridge at Moore’s Mill? That tree fort we built that almost killed the sweet gum? Do you—?” He stops, eyes misting, unable to continue. “Come here.”
I put down the spoon and he hugs me into his Old Spice. It’s been a long time since we’ve done this. His gray hair needs a trim; the way it floats above his collar in the back makes me need to cry.
Love must be an electromagnetic field that attracts like particles. Then I think of it—just as there is more than one kind of Nothing, there’s more than one kind of Love, too. I’ve always had the kind that was there before there was anything.
Now I have the kind that is there after everything else is gone.
The Marshall Space Flight Center.
This is my birthday treat.
Well, second best.
I can’t stop thinking about the first. To be apart from Mr. Mann tonight is exquisitely painful. But there’s a deliciousness to my agony that wasn’t there before—I know he’s not going away. I know it’s real. It’s real inside my skin. It’s real throughout my bones.
Tonight I’m sitting with Dad in the Morris Auditorium. The same place where Werner von Braun used to speak to the troops. We’re waiting on a film.
“Hi, Dan, Pete.”
Dad knows just about everybody here, some of them going back to his Apollo days. I know a lot of them too. There are two hundred people in the audience, almost all engineers and aerospace types. Chrome domes, black eyeglasses, and mismatched clothing are inordinately well represented.
I desperately wish Mr. Mann could be here. I wish everyone else couldn’t. We’re watching a blank screen on a stage surrounded by walls built of local limestone. The head of the Chandra X-Ray Observatory comes out and speaks.
This is a movie of a pulsar in the Crab Nebula. A pulsar is a rotating neutron star that spews radiation out from its poles. The movie was made by stringing together photographs taken by the Chandra over a period of months.
The lights go down; the film begins.
The nebula is rippling, pulsing, enormous, alive. A gigantic red heart twenty trillion miles wide.
I miss him with that kind of ache.
I’ll let you in.
There’s a halo around the moon tonight. This happens when ice crystals refract the light in high cirrus clouds. Right now I could hug the world.
We’re standing in a field behind the Sunlake tennis courts. The johnson grass makes my legs itch. Somewhere a bird thinks it’s morning.
“When the Chinese look at the moon, they don’t see a man, they see a rabbit,” I say. “What do you see?”
I jab him in the ribs. “Pay attention.”
Mr. Mann hovers clumsily over the eyepiece. Finally I see the full moon painted in miniature on his eyeball. “Well, I’ll be switched,” he says in his best faux hillbilly. “It’s shot plumb full of holes!”
I push him out of the way and put my eye in his place. “Stop teasing me about my accent. You come from a state with toll roads.”
“And better schools.”
“Kids on crack.”
“Swordfish. With almondine sauce.”
“Pork barbecue. With white sauce.”
“Got me there. Truce.”
“Truce.” We shake hands.
I feel him behind me now, his breath on my neck. His arms encircle my waist.
“Besides,” he says, “that’s not teasing; this is.”
Slowly he brings his hands up my stomach and then my chest until they surround my breasts. His touch spreads heat throughout my body like a fast-acting drug. We rush to pack the scope away.
Sex is more intimate than stratospheric.
This is what I’m thinking about as he’s lying in my arms after it’s finished. I watch a square of reflected light above the bed. The feeling is this: not being able to get close enough.
I’m desperate to occupy his exact same space-time coordinates. The largest expanse of his skin must touch the largest expanse of mine. Dad could calculate the total area in square centimeters. I do it in kisses.
“How many?” I say.
“How many what?”
“Women?” He scratches his hair. “I can count them on one hand.”
Somewhere inside I’m infinitely glad he said
. I guess I should have known there were some. There had to be. Now I know I can finally ask it.
“Why didn’t you ever get married?”
“Ah.” He stretches out to his full magnificent length. I marvel at my access to his body, how I can study every part of it; he doesn’t mind a bit.
“Now that’s the great mystery, isn’t it?” he says.
“Not another one of those conversations. Let’s keep this one a little more anchored, Little Cloud.”
“Ouch.” He smiles. “Well, I did almost get married once.”
I look at the wall teasingly. “Like Emily?”
“A really sweet girl from New Orleans. She had black hair, liked to eat rocky road ice cream. Her name was—”
“I don’t have to know that.”
“Okay. I’m sorry. She tried to get me interested in Cajun music by taking me to see a bunch of awful zydeco bands. We were living in this dinky rental house close to Lake Pontchartrain—”
“I don’t want to hear about it.” The more he talks about this girl, this
, the more real she becomes and the less real I become. Living together. That’s not an arithmetic leap from where I am. It’s exponential.
Should I push it? How much do I want to know? What is it like for him, on that side, the decision?
“How old would I have to be?” I say.
“No, really. What are you thinking?”
“I don’t know. I’m eighteen now. When I’m out of school— would it be okay?”
He sits up on his elbow. “Okay to live together?”
“My parents would kill me.”
“Your parents wouldn’t kill a flea. Carrying bubonic plague.”
“I know. But it would be worse. Worse than if they were just mad at me.”
“They would be so disappointed?”
“I guess. Yeah. I don’t know. Horrified. Shocked. But.”
“Would it be okay then?”
“Well. Depends on your definition of
. If you mean legal, sure—”
I’m up on my elbows now, talking fast to get it all out. “Like you did with her. Going places out in public, not caring what anybody thinks, who knows. Waking up together. Going to sleep together.” I make a sour face, letting my thoughts swirl. It seems impossible.
“I’m sorry,” he says. “I wasn’t thinking. I shouldn’t have said anything about it.”
“Goofy.” I tickle him, brightening, clouds gone. “No more talking, not right now.”
We hold for a long time.
Then we work on the stratospheric part. He promises to be my teacher. An uncomfortable moment:
I take a bowl of Corn Pops to my computer.
Eating is changed for me. It is one of the most beautiful things on Earth. I could stop tomorrow. I don’t care. Either way, I’m filled.
My home page is a push cam with a shot of Niagara Falls. Like God, I watch from above as a white bus smaller than a grain of wedding rice parks in front of the Niagara Fallsview Sheraton. The refresh is fast. Cars on the highway lurch forward like snap beetles. The falls in the background form a smoking horseshoe. I stare hard to see if I can see any tourists at this distance.
They are getting out of the bus now. They crawl like microbes toward the roiling water. What thoughts are they thinking? Are they married? Do they love each other the way I love Mr. Mann?
How do I love him?
Our love is spiritual, slow, rushed, hidden. It’s punctuated by vows, tears, narrow escapes, plans. It changes so beautifully from day to day, like the weather. Today it is fall, today it is storms. And it sounds like this:
“I don’t really deserve you; you know that, don’t you?” he says, voice muffled. We are kneeling in bed; I take his head against my shoulder.
“I love you,” I say. “So you deserve me.”
“I love you too, but it’s all so crazy.”
“That’s one of the things that makes it so good. It’s crazy, but without the crazy, it never would’ve happened.”
“But it’s—I just wanted you so much.”
“Is that bad?”
“But maybe you should have gone to college first, Nine. Seen what things are like out there. I’m taking all of that away from you.”
“You’re not taking anything away; I’m giving it. And who says I’m not going to college? I’ve got the papers to prove it. Come here.”
I hold him close, smother him with my need to absorb his love.
“We’ll need a bigger apartment,” he says.
I love how he can blow from one emotion to the next, effortlessly. Without all the thinking, the processing, the steps.
“Marry at the end of your sophomore year.” I feel the rumbling timber of his voice in my collarbone.
We’re both laughing now. “Why sophomore?” I say. “What’s this prejudice against freshmen?”
“Who knows. You might get rushed. Some big asshole from the football team, a tight end—”
That does it. We collapse in a heap, shaking with teary-eyed laughter.
“I know where the honeymoon will be,” he says after a while. “I’ve got it all figured out. That’s the easiest part.”
“You do? Where?”
“The archaeological complex of Cacaxtla.”
“Really? God, I love you. Do you love me?”
“Cacaxtla? Is that in Mexico?”
“Yes. Descendants of the Olmecs. It’s amazing.”
“How long did they last?”
“I can’t remember.”
“Forever. I promise.”
Now I’m back in my room, looking at the computer screen, Niagara Falls.
More honeymooners get off the rice bus.
The hurt of his love is there every time. I’ll never be rid of it.
After I ace his test, I won’t have to take a single one.
Mr. Mann is quiet. I keep track of his eyes as my hands jitter over the paper. He’s sweet, trying so hard to look at anyone else. All the other heads are bowed. I cross my eyes, point my tongue at him; he pretends not to notice.
I scratch away at the paper, answering questions about Emily. Is there something I can put between the words, a hieroglyphics only he will understand? A chemical signature of the elements that make up my heart?
I love you
in Assyrian cuneiform?
There’s a shape to happiness that can’t be described, only experienced. I’ve been inside his arms so much I’m taking it on.
I’m not making sense. I can’t.
The world doesn’t make sense. My thoughts jump to the evidence of our love. His eyes in the night, his smell in my clothes hamper, the squeak of our combined body weight on his bed— nothing is linear anymore. This is what is real: the times we spend together and nothing else.
By the end of the period my hand is cramping. I can’t remember writing anything. Last night he kissed the shiny bump on my middle finger. It’s almost over now.
I wait until I’m last out of class. So he can do this:
Touch my arm.
“We have to talk,” he says.
For the first time he sounds like a Teacher.
I had been planning to pinch him. Now I can only say, “What is it?”
“Not now. It’s something I never thought—no, not now.”
But his next class is already trickling in.
Something inside my chest breaks loose and falls. It never stops falling.
Something final has occurred. He’s not at lunch or his office. The rest of the day is an agony of sickened anticipation. I don’t remember my other classes or how I get through them.
There is one moment of ringing clarity: I see Schuyler coming out of calculus. His face tells me he’s watching a train wreck but doesn’t know how to pull my body out. We are carried away on a sea of heads in opposite directions.
I wait for Mr. Mann thirty minutes after the school has emptied. He motions as he crosses to the teachers’ parking lot. I try not to run to his car but fail.
“What! What is it?”
His voice is barely working. “I’m so goddamn sorry, Carolina. I won’t ask you to forgive me. There is no forgiveness for this.”
My head is mashed into single syllables. “Oh, oh, what.”
“It should never have happened. It’s my fault. I take responsibility. But everything has to stop. Everything. From this moment on. We can only talk in class. Don’t meet me anywhere. Don’t come to my apartment. Ever again. Everything has to stop.”
My mouth opens, but I’m choking on pieces of words.
His hands are shaking. He won’t let me touch them, make them still. His eyes are the color of mountain lakes in winter.
We are pupil and teacher talking. I can’t leap into his arms and beg him to fix me. I suddenly know with a crystal certainty I’m going to be broken forever. The landscape is freezing around me.
“Why? I don’t understand. Why!”
“I can’t talk about it. I can’t. It has to be this way, that’s all.”
“But you have to talk about it! You can’t just say that and go! You have to tell me, give me a chance to make it right!”
“This is not anything that is your fault. You can’t change things, Carolina. It’s just the way it has to be.”
“Please, Richard, please. Richard.”
Saying his name closes his eyes. I stand there unable to do anything but beg.
“Let’s go somewhere, somewhere we can talk!” I say.
“No. I told you I can’t. I won’t.”
“You have to! You can’t just do this!”
“Please, Nine. You’re killing me.”
“What do you think you’re doing to me!”
I scrabble at his shirt. I want to hit him, knock him down. I want to hold him until we both take root and grow together into a laurel tree.
He pushes against me, trying to pull away, then suddenly takes me ferociously in his arms, smothering me in his strength, my arms bent and pinned against his chest. He looks at me helplessly, inhaling the intensity of my need. I look into his eyes, bring my voice down to a growling whisper, speaking through my teeth.
“Richard, you’ve been inside me. Do you hear me? Inside me. You’ve been inside and told me that you loved me.”
“I do. I always will.”
“I know you do! Why—”
“I’m so sorry. I shouldn’t have let it happen. It’s my fault. We shouldn’t have done anything. If I had known—”
“What? Something happened, I know it! Please tell me—we can get past it! I can help! I know we’ve been saying crazy things about the future, marriage, our own place. That’s just how much I love you! I’m not trying to force anything on you. It can stay just like it is! Really! This is not—please—”
He turns my head into his neck, shutting off my words. For a few moments we’re shuddering silently against each other. My cheek is wet with furious tears. He kisses the hair against my temple.
Now he’s letting me go.
I try to take his arms, but he’s sliding away from me. He has his hand on the car door, is pulling it open, sliding into the seat. He’s moving so quickly, I’m in shock. All I can do is cling pathetically to the door. We struggle with it for a long moment, pulling in opposite directions. He wrenches it free and slams himself in. Just before he pulls away, he lip-synchs through the glass:
I don’t want to rap on the window; I want to smash it out. I get my nails on the curve of the Honda, almost daring to slip them in the crack along the roof line. Let him rip them out. But he’s already rolling away. I stand helplessly, arms hanging, the smell of his sweet exhaust hanging in my nose. As his car turns out of the parking lot, the sun on the trunk knocks my eyes back in my head.
A glacier has rolled over my life.
What is after this? What is after this?
Parting is all we know of heaven, And all we need of hell.