AND YOU CAN NEVER QUARANTINE THE PAST
There are ten times more bacterial cells than human cells in our bodies. Beneath the parched earth of our skin throb the germy coral reefs in those mouthwash commercials, creatured with ballooning anemones, quivering cilia. I imagine my skin aglow with these bacterial bouquets, as I stumble around like a bioterrorist, leaking my Petri dish-life onto everyone I meet.
I often wonder what it is that makes me not-my-sister. Bred in the same habitat, the same genetic strands helixing from our heels to our hair, our dresses trimmed with matching ribbons. When did we deviate from nature and nurture and unsuture into our two separate selves?
My great-grandfather was a lighthouse keeper along the Potomac River, sending messages with a candlestick. Both of my grandparents were born as twins, but neither of their siblings survived past infancy. They were both haunted by a lost replica of themselves.
There were days when my grandfather would only speak in Morse code, Dit dit dah, dit dit dit dah, a language like drawing stars.
During my summers at the River, I sought love among the loam, collecting carapaces of crabs the color of gunmetal, oysters like black eyes, and the shrapnel of broken shells.
The dock floated away one year. The clay banks along the coast collapsed. The tides brought us the carcasses of deer, cataract-eyed, necks twisted towards the nowhere of heaven.
Those years, I found hundreds of sharks' teeth, like magic in the marl, fossils from a now-extinct relative of a sand tiger shark, a shark that swam during the Paleocene Age, sixty million years ago, before humans, before Neanderthals, even. From before geography as we know it, teeth from sharks who swam in an ocean when Greenland and Europe were still connected, when North America and Asia were still yoked together by a land bridge. The tooth's trip from the shark's mouth to my child palm, longer than light years.
My college dormitory was built over the site of the world's first self-sustaining nuclear reaction. A Henry Moore sculpture commemorated the incident. Bronze and bulbous, like a mushroom cloud, a sinister jellyfish, a melting human skull.
My neighbor Alex was born in Ukraine, and had been spending the last ten years eschewing his Communist upbringing and embracing Americiana. One winter, we both had a layover in Zurich and were unexpectedly on the same flight back to Chicago. We watched the Alps recede as our plane tore through the glassine clouds.
Alex's skin was pale as moondust, because, he once told me, he had been born so close to Chernobyl, a place where the branches of trees do not stretch towards the sky.
A black hole is the ghost of a large star that has already died, lacking the fuel necessary to sustain its own nuclear reactions. Pulled inward by its own gravity, the starving star eats itself.
In 2010, astrophysicists in Maui spent fifteen months watching the gaping maw of a black hole rip another gaseous star asunder. From their laboratory atop a volcano, the astrophysicists watched the unfolding of this celestial drama that had taken place over two billion years ago. The black hole first devoured the star's outermost hydrogen layers, spent a year feasting on its helium-carcass, and then burped a bright burst of cosmic light.
I live mere blocks from the East Bench fault line, a tenuous strand cracking through Salt Lake City. Subterranean geologies rumble, the twitching muscles beneath a staid face before a snarl. Our mountains frozen as if in denouement. I think of the someday when we join the jagged plotline of geography's unfinished novel.
Utah discloses its age with its dusty skin, in its topography, vertiginous and cratered. Comparatively, my Midwestern cornscapes, strung with arcs of powerlines over fields furrowed by the farmers, feels quite fingerprinted. Land in Utah tells a different type of narrative. Our Great Salt Lake is the saline shadow of ancient lake that evaporated long ago, leaving us a hoof-print puddle of minerals.
What I mean is—time here is a material thing after all, in the pink-and-red strata of desert canyons, you can actually see the scar tissue of a geologic timeline too old to fathom, tidal flat deposits, sand dunes, lava beds, long-gone oceans that left rings of ripples, all compressed into layers. Each gale-worn rock-spire tells a different story with every stratum. Geology is an experimental fiction.
My friend Luis fled Cuba when he was ten. His mother, father, and a handful of other families spent their life savings on a leaking, rust-eaten boat. As they sailed, his father emptied buckets of the seawater pooling at their feet, as his mother fed him spoonfuls of brown sugar to keep him hydrated.
When their boat began to sink, they were forced to stop on an uninhabited key. They spent weeks there, trying to repair the boat, drinking water from coconuts and hunting fish and sharks. After depleting the island of coconuts, they decided to try to sail the leaking boat. They were picked up by the U.S. Coast Guard, and for a year, Luis and his family slept beneath a peaked vinyl Army tent in Guantanamo Bay.
Luis is perhaps my most glamorous friend, with an unapologetic faith in capitalism, urban gentrification, and fluorescent martinis on a Caribbean luxury cruise through a lacquered sea, back towards the moon-bleached sand he'd come so far to leave.
EX-MAGICIAN / STILL KNOWS THE TRICKS
I think that to write is to be a parasite. I make my living off of dead trees.
"My consuming lust was to experience their bodies," said Jeffrey Dahmer. The same is all too true for me, I wonder if I, too, fuck like a cannibal.
I think of the way our bodies absorb everyone we've ever loved, how we mirror each others' lilts and head tilts, the angles of wrists, how my speech still sculpts words in ways that echo others, certain cadences like caves.
I am in a classroom fifteen hundred miles away from a love beyond biodegrade, struggling to speak of Heideigger, gesticulating as if my arms might enfold words, and I notice how my palm pirouettes the same way as an erstwhile lover's did, I stop, I scatter, my silence long as a libretto, and I wonder if my gestures will forever contain someone else's calligraphy.
CURRICULA OF WONDER
At the Tate Modern, I read a plaque that quotes a Professor of Biology: "Most of the cells in our face have migrated forward from a region at the back of our head," as if our skin could continental drift. In pregnant sharks, the most developed embryo will feed upon its siblings, a reproductive strategy known as intrauterine cannibalism. A Hindu temple was buried beneath sand for a thousand years, until unearthed by a recent tsunami, pre-Tamil scripts on eroding stone. Bright green monk parakeets from Brazil escape their cages in O'Hare, and re-nest along Chicago's South Side lakefront. Utah's canyons are the same color as the striations of my heart's muscle underneath a microscope. Pavement goes on a motherfucking a reunion tour! The teeth of sharks evolved from their skin. A ship is sunk in Japan yet reemerges in Alaska. Pink salt from the Himalayas. Ernest Shackleton, nuclear fission, Manx cats, the magic of math. There is nothing not to be amazed at.
NOSTALGIA WITHOUT NAUSEA
I once loved a Sanskrit scholar whose finger would absent-mindedly trace Devanagari script into my shoulder, whose crumbling posture and long strides were like living a Giacometti sculpture, me, jeteing along the path to keep pace one day as we walk home, and without missing a step, I stoop to pick a four-leaf clover I had somehow espied, as if the clover had its own gravitational pull, this impossible world unfurling itself at our feet.
Some days, I'm filled with a love so seismic that I want to touch the face of everyone I meet, as if the past four billion years of evolution have been tapering towards you in your existence so exquisite, the calcium in your bones, as old as the Big Bang.
THE SOMEHOW STILL
To warn people of the future who might stumble upon our nuclear waste millennia from now, nuclear semioticians struggle to construct a pictorial linguistic system. Because our nuclear waste will outlive the etymologies of every existing language, the nuclear semioticians must invent an immortal language. Which makes me wonder, how long is the half-life of a language?
I often think about the grapevine scrawl of Sanskrit and the art of translating a dead language, the sense of loss therein. Isn't all language a ghost? Do I only speak because I cannot touch? I could say more with my hands.
The half-life of love, scientists have determined, is forever.
I GOT A HEAVY COAT, IT'S FILLED WITH ROCKS AND SAND, BUT IF I LEARN HOW, I'LL BE COMING BACK TODAY
The word water quivers on our tracheae, a thrashing fish, tethered only by the tongue. The taste of a word like a madeleine. The smell of low-grade petrol, a glass bowl of bird feathers, the weight of a handful of seeds, the muscle memory required to draw a stick figure.
The incest between life and the memory thereof. The flotsam left by every love.
Splayed over the light-lorn shoreline, time might actually be something you can touch, each wave wrenched by the moon's invisible kitestring, the years eroding and accruing, gushing towards our toes. The drowned music of an old cassette tape woven into the grey-green kelp, driftwood sarcophagi, strips of used tires, shells furled like ears. A throbbing as if my limbs are tapered by tourniquets and the water withdraws, leaving seastars strung out to dry, the black mussels yawning with ennui, a gull's beak slashing open the gut of a still-twitching salmon, its roe spilling out like pomegranate seeds.
My head on your chest, the sound of your heart beating back: BOOM-er-ang, BOOM-er-ang, BOOM-er-ang.
When I was writing this essay, although I was slightly younger then than I am now, I felt quite old, but in a mystical, rather than a mortal sort of way. One of these vignettes began as a letter to a former lover, an impossible attempt to describe the magnitude of Utah's mountains, which daily remind me of how ancient our black earth is. I almost always have shards of Pavement songs sedimented in my head—the voice of Stephen Malkmus flies me back to the past faster than Doc's Dolorean. Everything I encounter acts like a time machine—how I can see the wildcat ancestors in my cat's face, how the etymology of my English words are tethered to ancient languages I do not speak. All things worthwhile of our wonder seem to teleport our sad little hind-sighted hearts to impossible elsewheres.