Not long after the house across the road was demolished, my parents pulled me outside to watch Halley’s Comet drift past our barn, our grain bins. I’d be in my eighties—an old woman, my dad said—the next time I’d have a chance to see it. A light flying alone in the darkness. That was all the comet was to me in 1986. Were it anything besides what astronomers say it is—a ball of ice and dust, a remnant of the formation of other stars and planets—the comet would be me, untethered to this world, this body. Something in which I may have had more of an interest.
Outside in our yard, still within the weak glow of our kitchen, I dug my toes deeper into patches of dirt where grass had trouble growing beneath the magnolia tree overreaching our flowerbeds. I have no memory of seeing the comet, only of standing there restless, waiting to go back inside again. I never ran to try to keep pace with it as some part of me imagines my parents may have wanted, performing the wonder that was theirs instead. I was seven years old and humoring them. My toes dirtied themselves, fidgeted. For what seemed like some time then, I had already been deeply certain other worlds lay beyond this. I was aware I had access to only my own, to only one of them. The comet proved nothing, did nothing to bridge the distance.
Shifting my weight, I watched the whites of my parents’ eyes glint. A mist was falling inside them, shooting sparks off their eyelashes, slim swords of iridescence that quickly evaporated. A gentle rain was washing their skin from within. They clasped hands and stretched their necks up toward a sky enfolding our farm in an indigo blanket as the earth dampened my feet, blackening their bottoms. Looking back, I can see I missed the comet for their faces, which were shining with an ease of never knowing all that mattered, of never seeing all the beauty burning beyond them. A quality I still consider their shared essence.
The house across the road—razed into a heap of siding a couple weeks before we saw the comet—hovered half a mile away at the end of another driveway overgrown with tawny grasses. From our front porch swing, it stood visibly collapsing, an island of dusk and shadow spaces. No larger than my fingertip from that vantage, I could pierce it with my fingernail, toppling it if I wanted. Though whenever I was tempted, I put my hand back in my lap, resisting. Were anyone living there, they would have been our closest neighbors. Friends maybe even. As it was, the house only reminded me we didn’t have any. After the corn and soybeans were harvested in autumn, the fields sat empty. Few trees were left growing at their edges. Most farmers preferred to cut them down as saplings for easier mowing.
I was left alone enough that I could walk there often, no one asking where I was going, no one pausing to worry about the splintering floorboards or rats burrowing beneath them, the fallen shingles or lopsided ceiling. Born amid wide, open spaces, I longed for walls, enclosure from what now feels like the beginning. I stuck a couple crayons in my pocket to color in pages of black and white drawings—of unicorns scaling mountains, of octopuses splaying tentacles across beaches, of children lost inside forests whose leaves hung like tangled hair no one ever bothered combing. I walked past a door long fallen off its hinges and ran my fingers along the iron legs of a wood-burning oven at the center of the kitchen.
Sitting on the bottom of a staircase I never summoned courage to climb because it looked too rickety, I never made it to the second story. Still for as long as it existed, our lifetimes briefly overlapping, the house stood as an invitation for me to come examine the husk of things, to investigate how much life lingered there or didn’t, to see how much we may have had in common. Encased within its dust placenta, hemmed by walls slanting closer toward each other more each time I went, I savored a stillness not normally found among the living. There in my privacy, I sometimes pretended I had not been born yet. With no one watching, I fed passively on my surroundings, did nothing except observe decay in progress. In my home only half a mile away, we were always busy. We still cleaned, swept, folded things.
My parents had little way of knowing the real reason the comet never cleansed my own skin from within—the reason it never moved me—was because for weeks I had seen a comet already, every time I closed my eyelids. The boy I sat beside in school had eyes so blue, so underwater-blazing, I could not stop seeing them for hours after the school day ended. I needed—I still need on occasion—time for certain faces to fade within me. Even though my husband’s eyes are the color of a clouded ocean, sometimes I still need time for lights from other faces to darken so I can fall asleep, see nothing, melt back inside space’s fabric. Back then, I found a house falling into the earth again a form of healing. For love I felt too intensely even at seven—for love never returned to me—the house felt sympathetic.
From more than three decades’ distance, I can clearly see the time I spent there was my way of reconciling myself to all the light and beauty that would never reach me. By spending time in a place less clean, less comforting, than where I lived with my parents, I was trying to become more like them, for whom the light of comets was painless. I was teaching myself to care less for other worlds beyond this. I was surrendering to the smallness of my world, my body. It was a surrender made more necessary by the fact the boy I sat beside did not pay attention to me, did not find me pretty.
I made a place another family had long left into a means of absorbing my life’s isolation, making my lonely world more lonely yet in the process. I began playing a little dead without knowing this was what I was doing. This became a pattern with me, the breaking of which has been far from easy. I still often feel less real than the person standing next to me on a bus or train. I still often feel a little ghostly, excluded from everyone else’s shared reality. At these moments, I look to my muscles, my tendons—a pain or tingling in the smallest toes on my feet—for grounding. A body falling slowly back into the earth again, growing older every second, can also be a source of healing. Another house I will someday abandon.
Several pairs of children’s shoes, I still remember with some of the same wonder with which I discovered them, were scattered across the floor of the house near the doorway. Seven or eight of them. Sometimes I thought of taking a pair home with me but never did. Still their leather was smooth, unbroken. Cordovan covered toes long absent. Coarse, ochre shoestring hung slack, waiting to be strung into neat bows again. Hobnails dotted soles still firm and solid. Most of the shoes looked to have been worn for only special occasions. Someone had tossed them across a kitchen with arrant lassitude or violence.
At times, the family who lived here seemed less dead to me than taken. Their lives, I felt more strongly each time I went, had ended in a quiet cataclysm. While they were sitting down one morning to breakfast, pouring themselves glasses of juice or coffee, their clothes fell limp on chairs on which they had been sitting only seconds before this. Forks clinked hard against dishes. The wind blew in. Brown birds scavenged then tore off strips of fabric still smelling of oils on human skin. Mother birds padded their nests with swatches of flannel shirts, cotton dresses. A girl my same age in the family may have lived here with less love too than she once wanted. In the end, it made no difference. She left while her shoes stayed. Now only ghost feet filled them.
Sometimes the farmer who owned the field on whose far corner the house stood slanting and somnolent drove his pickup through the tawny grasses to ask me what I was doing. I can no longer remember what I told him, only that the back of his neck, crosshatched with decades of living bared to the elements, startled me when he turned his head toward a flock of starlings or tractor groaning in the distance. I must have been too young for him to have suspected me of vandalism. Fear of the house harming me instead was likely part of the reason he rid his acreage of what remained of its shingles and siding. After the house as good as vanished, I knew I should have taken some shoes home with me before they were buried. I should have made a quiet corner for them in my closet. Yet in all the time I spent there, I never tried on a pair. I never found out if any of them fit me.
Going unnoticed by someone who sits beside you through the school day perhaps should have left me less wounded than it did. The fact I allowed this first taste of love’s absence to inflict real damage likely only speaks to everything else I was given, all the love and warmth of my parents, all the freedom of empty spaces flanked by long grasses. Still the daily portions of non-love I received from a boy whose eyes were blue to blazing reinforced a separation I felt already, from having no one living near me to play with, from having difficulty making friends when placed among those who were also seven.
From all the time I spent alone coloring on the steps of a house long abandoned, I still believe I came closer to acceptance. I still think there was value in this. I went to school next morning then returned home again haunted by a face I saw directly only when he needed to borrow paper or pencils from me. I realized you can spend your evenings haunted by as many phantasms as you wish, but this changes nothing in the world outside your eyelids. Had something brighter than a comet not held me captive so early, I might not have associated indifferent faces with real living. I might not have stayed so long living in the same city where seas of them fill all the open spaces.
After the house across the road was demolished, I didn’t miss it. Watching rats scurry deeper into hiding when I walked beneath floorboards splintering more each time I went was never pleasant. I felt some small relief when I could simply stay in my yard and swing or chase my dog instead. Next year at school, I sat beside someone different. I also fell a little in love with him, this time without any hurt from no love flowing my same direction. I knew now not to expect it, though secretly I hoped I had some pure, some blazing essence as compensation. I developed some of the arrogance of a comet, something my parents regarded as resplendent because of only distance. I hoped there was something of the diamond lurking beneath a face and body too ordinary to be noticed. Later, another pain came from doubting anything good ever came of my isolation.
At age ten or eleven, I learned that gravity is nothing more than a large object warping space’s fabric. Our science teacher said the sun sinks inside its weave the same as an apple does a flimsy basket. Both comets and planets slip inside the grooves formed around it, assuming an orbit. Even the heavens, in other words, experienced warping and depression. Even the heavens are easily wrinkled, dented. They are forever changed by something rolling thoughtlessly over the top of them. After I moved away from wide, open spaces and accepted some small love from boys, from men, I felt unoriginal, common. My body’s responses to touch made the thought of its absence into something meaningless.
Not long after I moved to Chicago for college in 1997, Comet Hale-Bopp blazed a thousand times brighter than Halley’s did eleven years before this, though again I have no memory of seeing its tail, its brightness. I don’t remember ever hearing much about it. When I visited home again, my parents never pulled me outside to witness another light sailing through the darkness. The comet’s visibility outlasted the school year and will not return within my lifetime. I suppose my parents must have lost all interest in the heavens. That or in the years since I have simply forgotten them trying to tempt me out again, to stand once more in the weak glow of our kitchen as my feet began to fidget.
Of Heaven’s Gate, the cult whose mass suicide was widely reported in the wake of Hale-Bopp’s appearance, I paid just as little attention. However much the news might have covered 38 people abandoning this world for one they considered better than this, I remained oblivious. Even had I known, there was nothing I could have done to stop them from attempting to board a spaceship they believed to have been trailing the comet. Still I like to think that, had I heard what happened, I would have been more sympathetic than only a year before this, still in the small town I went to high school. In Chicago, I was finding even some boys’ attention does not end all longing, solve all problems.
Deranged as the cult’s leader must have been, I also believe he was sane in knowing he needed healing. I consider myself fortunate to have learned early on that salvation lies in the opposite direction of the heavens, which are no more capable than our planet of resisting gravity’s depressions. There is no pure life of the spirit as far as I can determine. The lonely are no wiser than happy children. A feeling of isolation does not make you a purer person, only someone who spends too much time examining the husk of things, seeking life amid the lifeless. I once thought I knew how to divorce life from longing, but I was very young then.
Last evening, I met some friends in a hotel lobby, where we sipped wine and played board games. I sat to the left of them both, two pretty women wearing dresses, when a man with dark hair walked toward me. He seemed confident yet apprehensive, his blue eyes bordering on enormous, his eyelashes long and distracting. He cleared his throat and asked me if I knew how he could get some service. I told him he had to wait for a waiter to come to him, to just be patient. He nodded toward the couch opposite and asked if he could take it. I found him attractive, brazen.
I studied him a moment and thought for the first time in ages of the boy I loved when I was seven, a boy whom only a few years later I found conceited, obnoxious. Despite the differences in the ages between the images I held of them both, there was a striking resemblance. When I asked his name after we fell more deeply into conversation, it was the same as the boy I had almost forgotten. The coincidence did not surprise me, because of his eyes’ burning blueness, because I have now lived long enough to know the same people often come around again, traveling their orbit. When I asked what he was doing here, he said he was meeting a woman he had met online, never yet in person.
Before his date walked in, he showed me photos on his phone of his ceramics. The bulk of his pieces were teakettles glazed black and cream. An unexpected hobby; he looked muscular, athletic. He leaned in closer to me and said he lived in a suburb, not the city. Taking a ceramics class was one of few reasons he had to leave the house weekday evenings. He had moved here a few months ago from Maryland, hoping for more excitement. He confessed this while knotting his fingers then unlacing them, saying where he lived made sense for his work, though, his company. He asked where I lived, and when I told him he confessed his envy.
At an age when many of my friends are moving to the suburbs for a quieter, more domestic existence, I liked that he laughed when I said a house with children carried the whiff of death, the end of things. To know your neighbors, to have no way of escaping a life whose future was easily predicted, I have long thought could kill me. So many years spent living in a city has rid me of all stoic tendencies, of striving for purity. To know I will never see him again because there are too many lobbies like this, too many other people to whom he bears a vague resemblance, is something I still consider freedom, consider necessary even while married.
When his date walked in, he made space for her beside him on the couch. He hugged her briefly, and they showed each other no more affection, but sat at a strange distance for as long as we faced them. I thought her blouse unflattering. Pale peach cotton with holes cut through the shoulders, it made her look pregnant. Her voice was pitched at too high a register to last the whole evening without breaking, shattering glasses. After she asked him how he knew us, he laughed and admitted he didn’t. I turned back to my friends, to our board game.
My friend sitting closest to me finished her wine and whispered that he kept looking in our direction. She said he was in love with me, though I am aware she uses that term loosely. I know he was only grateful to find someone to ease his nervousness before meeting another woman. Yet I also left the lobby feeling relieved the dress I was wearing did not suggest I was carrying a baby. I waved goodbye to him with a certain glee at the pain of his existence, his evening. Because of his eyes and their lashes, I felt there was some justice in him living so far from the city, in spending more nights than not wondering if leaving Maryland had been the right decision.
After saying goodbye to my friends, I found myself facing a man who lives his life claiming to be a prophet—one of many who haunt the subway. I recognized him from the last time I saw him, in 1997, when I moved here for college. He did not strike me as having aged as much as might be expected over two decades, perhaps because his hair was gray when I first encountered him, and his complexion was gray as well. His eyes are still green and ghostly. As with the first time I saw him, he had taken two seats, one for himself and one for his manuscript. In 1997, he looked up when I first stepped on the train, recognized someone in need of saving. While Hale-Bopp may have dazzled my parents without me knowing, I had welcomed his attention, thinking he saw something others didn’t.
I can no longer remember exactly what he told me then, but I know he wanted me to buy a copy of the book he’d written. I also know I found him convincing. At the time, I had no money, something I regretted. Still he leaned in close to examine me, to see what we may have had in common. His tongue slid around in his mouth a bit, and he whispered there was something spiritual about me. He said there was an energy, a willingness to move past this all, as he gestured to all the better dressed passengers paying very little attention to a man whose clothes smelled of urine and the woman who needed him. It was only weeks into my first semester, and I already felt a little guilty for not being as pure a person as I had been all my life before this. Badly as the man smelled to me, vacant as his eyes had been, part of me also wanted him to save me.
As I took the train home after leaving my friends outside the hotel lobby, he looked up into my face again and recognized me, I felt almost certain. Because the train was crowded, I had no choice except to stand closer to him than I wanted. He looked to be infuriated as he rifled through his manuscript, as he dog-eared pages. His hair was slightly longer, his body thinner than it had been. Although he made no attempt to attract my attention, I also felt he knew I would not listen to him even if he did. He glanced into my face and saw something in me that displeased him. He turned back to pages promising a life beyond this. He was still enough of a prophet to know who would and would not buy and read it.
Late winter, and he was wearing sandals with fraying canvas straps. His feet, his toes were blackened. The rest of his body was covered with thin, easily dented fabric, but he exposed his pale feet to the elements. His pinky toes had no nails left on them. They were wasting into nothing, as the rest of his feet would continue doing with them, until they vanished. He thought himself capable of transcending all this, and because of his arrogance, I could not feel sorry for him. He looked me up and down, maybe remembering how much more poorly I had been dressed before this, maybe noticing better clothing made little difference.
Another, younger woman asked to sit where his manuscripts rested. To my surprise, he allowed this. Although she tried looking at her phone, facing away from him, he asked her if she had seen the comet—Lovejoy, he said, the first I had heard of it. I have no idea whether this comet will come around again while I’m still living. I only doubt, as with all the rest, I will see it. He said he asked her because it signaled the world’s end, because this was something we should welcome. The woman smiled a little, weakly nodded. He placed his book in her lap, told her this could help carry her to a better life. My stop came. I walked out the train and up the steps to a sky of glowing high rises so it never fully darkened.