A STUDY OF THE CIRCULAR VELOCITY OF A SHOOTING STAR
Morgan von Ancken
oh, oh, oh, oh, oh and yes ha, ha I'm back finally back, crashing through the horizon, ripping a hole through the pink tissue paper of the sky, I can feel the fire and the pressure all around me and I can smell the sharp burnt ozone from the atmosphere and oh look at that I can even see myself down there, so young, standing right where the rocks meet the ocean, mouth comically agape, watching, watching, look at it go, moving so fast now, there it is, the first star of the night, there it goes!
I watch as the comet hits into the bay, not half a mile from where I'm standing. There's a huge, joyous splash and then everything is still and quiet again. Ah. It was so bright that I can still see it when I close my eyes, it's still burnt into my retinas. The way it fell through the sloppy watercolor sunset, charged with residual speed, like it couldn't wait to dive underwater.
I look around to see if anyone else noticed. It doesn't look like it, except, wait, I think maybe she has actually, that girl there, that pale blonde girl with the glasses. She's looking right at the spot where it landed, that's for sure, staring at the ripples, and wait, oh no, no, not anymore, oh God now she has turned and she looks at me and we see each other. She's wearing a white wool sweater and she pops sharply against the faded autumn background.
Sometimes when something big enough happens, it's an excuse to talk to anyone. Moments that qualify are so rare that we forget this, but it's true. I could talk to her right now. I could. I look away, down at the ground. But she's already coming towards me.
"Did you see it?" she asks.
"Did you see it? The shooting star? Did you see it?"
"No, no I didn't," I say. "Nope, I must have missed it. I'm sorry."
"Oh," she says, surprised. "Well, don't apologize. It's not your fault. It's just too bad, it looked so wonderful against the clouds."
"I'll just have to imagine it then, I guess."
"I guess so."
A pause. I look back at the ground. Tiny rocks in the sand. I can feel her studying my face.
"Do you come around here often?" she finally says. "It's so strange, you look very familiar. I think I've seen you before."
"Well, that could be. I come down here sometimes, you know, to think about things. To get inspired."
The way I say this, I subtly emphasize those last three words "To get inspired."I think this sounds cool and vaguely enigmatic, so I glance up at her but oh man. She's not buying it. I quickly look back at the ground.
"So, what," she says, "you're down here every night, skulking around, looking for inspiration or whatever, and the one time a shooting star streaks by at sunset, the most perfect thing I've ever seen in my whole life, you miss it?"
"Well, I wouldn't say I'm skulking," I say. "I'm not skulking."
She walks all the way up to me, suddenly very serious.
"Look, are you sure you didn't see it? Because I did, and it was so bright and sad that I don't really understand the way I feel right now. And I was hoping you could help me."
She's really close. There's a tiny, fragmented crack in the lens of her glasses. It starts at the corner and peters out as it runs towards the middle.
"I don't, I really don't know what to tell you," I say. "I can't help you. I didn't see it. I really didn't. I'm sorry. Believe me. I wish I did. I'm sorry."
"Well," she says, "maybe you will see one someday. And then you'll know what I'm talking about."
Then she turns and starts to walk away across the jetty towards the boardwalk, crashing out of my life. And oh man, I think, I'm seeing one right now, this is the second one tonight that's shooting away from me and it's even more beautiful than the first. It's like one of those moments, you know, when you are absolutely sure that a great thing, maybe the best thing you could ever have, is leaving you and fading away. Most of the time it's easy to just cram it down there with everything else and accept it but now, here, possibly for the first time ever, the prospect of coping with this in the future actually outweighs my fear, outweighs everything. I see myself two hours later re-enacting this conversation alone in my room. I see myself a year later in a diner eating pasta and imagining what I should have said. I see myself old, alone, dying in a bathtub, flipping the drain on in a final, jerky movement and reliving this moment, regretting it even as the water is sucked down around me along with the last pulses of my life. Oh no. I run after her; I mean, I don't really have a choice.
"Wait," I say. "Wait. Wait."
She turns around, looks at me.
"I did see it," I say.
"I knew you did! I knew it! But why'd you lie to me?"
"I don't know. I'm sorry. It was very weird, I know."
"You apologize too much. Did you know that?"
"Yeah, I probably do. I'm sorry. I'm not good at talking to people, really. But listen. I know what you're feeling. It's sadness."
"You're feeling sadness. And it's only natural. I mean, think about it. That star came from the other edge of existence, the hazy edge of the universe. It traveled for billions of years through that empty lonely void, it saw things we can't even imagine, it listened for eons to the howls of the, uh, you know, the howls of the cosmic winds or whatever. And then, after an eternity of traveling on its lonely journey and by an incalculable chance, it hit into our planet, burnt through the atmosphere and crashed into the bay right in front of us."
"Okay, but why..."
"Look, when you saw it hit the water, you were really watching it die. Because that's what happens when a star loses its velocity, it dies, just like everything else. And the fact that it traveled such a long way and spent its whole life alone and waiting for something only makes its death that much more tragic."
She looks out past me, towards the ripples. Endless circles in the water.
"But is that right?" she asks. "That's so sad."
"Well that's the thing. It seems very sad, I know. But when you were walking away, I realized that maybe it doesn't have to be so sad. Because I think that there's a way to keep it alive. I mean, we're the only two people who saw it, right? Look at us. Look what we're doing right now."
She looks back at me.
"What are we doing?" she asks.
"We're talking. And we wouldn't be if that comet hadn't traveled all that distance and died right in front of us. Do you see what I'm saying? It touched us, it transferred its velocity to us. And sure, if we go on from here back to our separate lives and never see each other again, it dies down there alone in the mud at the bottom of the bay. And that's sad. Sure. But if, you know, if this is the start of something more then it can live on through us, we can carry its momentum with us. I mean, we have a responsibility now."
My heart is pounding, bump thump bump thump, rapid fire. I keep going though:
"I mean, basically, what I'm saying is that if you don't at least go and have coffee with me, or something, right now, all the billions of years and trillions of miles that that star traveled will be in vain."
She takes off her glasses. Big, brown eyes.
"That's a lot of responsibility," she says.
"Yeah, I know it is. I'm sorry."
"What's your name?"
"Well, it's nice to meet you, Alice."
and oh, there, right in that moment I am the happiest I'll ever be. And it's a familiar kind of happiness because somehow I know this girl better than anyone else I've ever met. I can see what she will look like when she's old, I know the strange cooing noises she makes when she is sleeping, I know what her skin smells like, and I know the last thing she will whisper to me before she dies. And I'm so happy that I can't help it, I start to wonder how I know all these things, which is a mistake, a big mistake, because something lurking on the edge of my mind wakes up and knocks me over and I'm suddenly sprawled out on the ground.
I look up at her but she's not there anymore, she's gone. It's night out now, which is totally impossible, but it's true because look I can see the big red moon up there in the sky, suspended over the bay. Where is she? I look around for her and I can't see her anywhere and that's when I begin to feel it, I begin to feel myself falling away from this moment into somewhere else. I fight to stay. I don't want to go, come on, please, no, I don't want to, no, no, no, not without her, but realization is flooding into me and now the moon is huge and red and it dominates the sky and it's pulsing, like a giant red heart, beating for me, and while I think this is romantic in a morbid way I can't see her to tell her and since she's gone, oh what the hell, why not, I embrace death and give in to it and I'm crashing through the ground, shooting into another world and oh, oh ...
...oh, oh, no, no, no, no. I open my eyes and look up but the moon has shrunk so much that it's nothing more than a tiny pinprick of red light. It's winking at me, implying something and oh. Okay. Realization washes over me, a tidal surge. It's the smoke detector on the ceiling over my bed. That's what it was, a smoke detector moon. The happiness from the dream is slowly leaking out of me, but there's still enough of it inside that I think this is funny. I turn to her. I want to tell her about everything.
"Hey, honey," I say, "Do you know what I just dreamt about? Do you remember the jetty? When we were so young? I was so weird, I forgot how weird I was."
But no one answers me. And then the second wave of realization hits me, and this one is like getting stabbed in the stomach, because I remember that of course she's not there, she hasn't been for like oh, nine years. And when I remember this I just want to laugh because otherwise it's so sad, so ridiculously sad that I'm all alone talking to no one in this big empty space that it's just absurd.
I get up slowly and look around the bedroom, which is totally dark except for the odd, isolated glows of various random appliances. These things. They are stars, and like stars they don't give off nearly enough light to brighten the void. I look back down at the bed, at the three worn pillows stacked neatly in her place. The three pillows that I still need to fall asleep. Oh. Man.
It takes me a very long time to walk out of the bedroom into the living room. I sit down on the couch and focus all my energy on just avoiding looking at any pictures of her. It's not easy because those bastards are almost everywhere, so I end up staring into the empty screen of the television, barely visible in the dim light. My reflection kind of fascinates me. The old man staring back from the void is horrifying, with his disheveled, broken appearance, but he's also so weird looking that I think he's kind of funny. I finally made it, I'm crazy old John. Crazy old man John. I mean, that's kind of funny. Right? I laugh, and then I see myself laughing and I stop.
Then, I get up and hobble over to the big window, where I can look down onto the streets below. Tiny little fragments of society are moving around down there, industrious even in the very early hours. I'm up here in the darkness, separated. I want to crash down onto them, to disrupt their productive little kingdom, smash into everything. Oh. Okay. Okay. I get an idea.
I turn and go across the living room, out my front door and into the hallway. I really can't move fast anymore, so I kind of amble deliberately towards the roof-access staircase at the end of the hall. Too bad no one is here to see me. I know I'd permanently traumatize them. I think about this and start to laugh again but then I'm in pain, climbing the stairs up to the roof, they are a nightmare on my legs and I almost feel like I'm going to wake people up with the series of pops my kneecaps makes as I ascend upwards. But the pain doesn't matter, not really, because I can see the door now. Almost there.
The roof is refreshingly cool, and although we've lived in this building for seventeen years, I can't remember ever coming up here. The view is exceptional though, so I creep over to the edge of the building and look out, down upon the streets and parks and rooftops below, all the light and hesitant early morning movement. I give it another fair chance, to see if it can move me, all of it, any of it.
Well, that's not really true, actually. It's not that fair of a chance.
"Hey, hey, so, I'm sorry, I was wrong," I say. "I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I know you would tell me to not be sorry but I am anyways. I thought we could keep it going forever, but it turns out that it still burns out. We just prolonged it a little. But it burns out. It does. And now all that's left is for it to have another beautiful crash. So...I...okay."
And then, without any kind of second thought, and in what I perceive as a perfect and stylishly symbolic bookend to my life, I leap over the edge of the building and shoot towards the street below.
I have several thoughts on the way down. My first, immediate thought is that this is definitely the fastest my body has moved in the past forty years, maybe the fastest it has ever moved, and I let out a joyous and hopefully extremely unnerving yelp. I hope some little kid looks out his bedroom window right as I fly by.
The next thing I realize though is that I choose an odd place to jump. The street I'm shooting towards, something is wrong with it. In the early morning light I can see now that it has been built entirely out of delicate, black glass. Even stranger though, as I get closer I can make out faint pink clouds and a sunset-stained body of water on the other side, beneath it. There's a whole world underneath that fragile pavement. I can see it. I can see it. And it looks familiar.
Then, as my whole body melts into rock and white, hot light and as I begin to smell the crisp burnt ozone from the atmosphere around me, I find myself thinking about what a truly strange and subtle thing velocity is. It's so funny. It's with you all your life, you walk around completely charged to the brim with it, overflowing with it, almost, but you just never let yourself acknowledge it. It takes a moment like this, where you've completely let go of yourself, for you to realize the kinds of places it can carry you into. Places that are impossible to get to any other way. And when I realize this and when I recognize what's on the other side of that street I can't help but just start laughing wildly because I was so wrong about so many things in my life, all my awkward last words and oh I thought that it would be lonely I think I even told her it was a lonely journey or something like that but now I realize that stars have their memories to wrap around themselves even in the deep cold parts of space and so I think about her and brace myself because I'm about to smash through this brittle black street back into oh into that sweet soft sunset and oh I'm going so fast now oh that oh it won't be long now until I see her again and again and over and over and oh, oh, oh
This story is a story an optimistic tale about the subtle way that life repeats, regardless of time, death or page limits.