Eclipsed

By JESSAMYN HOPE

no trespass

Normally along this straight back road in Idaho lay only quiet flatlands stippled with clumps of yellow grass, but today the prairie was bustling with cars and RVs and people gathered around camping chairs and telescopes. We were all here to see the Great American Eclipse of 2017—not only the first total eclipse of the sun to cross the country from Pacific to Atlantic in a century, but the first to grace the mainland at all in thirty-eight years. Since thirty-eight happened to be the median age in the United States, this meant roughly half the people readying to see today’s eclipse hadn’t yet been born the last time, and half who witnessed it then, in 1979, had since died. My husband and I, driving down the road in a blue compact, were a man and woman on the sadder side of the median, but only by a few years, so we weren’t used to it yet. Maybe that’s why I couldn’t decide how much this was worth, witnessing a total eclipse of the sun. I feared I might have lost the ability to distinguish true excitement from an admirable effort to keep life exciting.

“How about there?” My husband, Nadav, pointed through the windshield at potential viewing spots. “Or there?”

Eventually we turned off the road and jounced over the plain. Like everybody else, we didn’t park on our lonesome but joined a cluster of cars. Human beings really are herd animals.

Nadav turned off the ignition. “One hour to showtime!”

I took a deep breath and pushed out of the car.

The cool midmorning air smelled like wet sawdust as I walked around reading the license plates in our huddle of seven or eight vehicles—Washington (Evergreen State), Montana (Big Sky Country), and Idaho (Famous Potatoes)—but who knew where we had all traveled from to be in the path of totality, where the sun would disappear at midday for two whole minutes. The license plate on our rental, picked up in Missoula, boasted Washington, yet we were two Jews from New York City, and unless the surrounding “unincorporated community of Howe”—population 210, density zero people per square mile—had a large Asian population, we weren’t the only out-of-towners. On our left was a silver van belonging to a posse of mostly Asian college-aged boys; and behind us, a fedoraed Asian hipster was setting up an orange beach chair for his frail, silver-haired mom and the perky bichon frise cradled in her arms. The rest of the cars belonged to one giant white family, all generations on deck, from a piping blond four-year-old boy—“How much longer?!”—to Great-Grandpa, already ensconced in his camouflage camping throne, staring skyward in an old yellow welder’s mask. Behind our circle of wagons, two yellow No Trespassing signs guarded a vast plain, empty all the way to a hazy mountain range aside from one undulating power line.

Despite my strong dislike of selfies, I snapped one against this barren landscape, and when the image turned out to be a good impersonation of my younger self—the diffused light washing away the wrinkles around my gray-green eyes, the wind blowing my black hair without revealing the gray at the temples—I paced in search of a phone signal, determined to post the image to Facebook, another thing I disliked. Why did I need to let everyone know that I was here? Would their knowing make being here better? More significant? And if the picture made me look young, did that in any way make me still young?

While passing the large family, I glimpsed the mom handing out Coke cans from a blue cooler, causing me to pause once again and try to retrieve this memory that had been niggling me all week: no older than four or five, I’m sitting on the summer grass, staring at the stars, surrounded by my extended family. For years I had believed we were all there, in the backyard of our house in Dollard-des-Ormeaux, a suburb of Montreal so new the trees were too young to block any of the night sky, to watch a lunar eclipse; but then, while preparing for this trip, I read that lunar eclipses aren’t at all rare, so now that seemed an unlikely reason for us all to be staring together into the firmament. Were we watching Canada Day fireworks? Halley’s Comet? No matter how hard I tried to re-see the extravaganza in that sky, I couldn’t; all I could remember for sure with the vague but powerful intensity of earliest memories was the feeling of sitting on the grass that night. I can’t even see my family exactly; they move and laugh hazily under the patio lights, though subsequent years suggest the details: Mom was probably going in and out of the patio doors, carrying plates of dried figs and sliced cantaloupe, shouting in Italian and smiling most energetically at her mother and brothers, trying as always to keep her family entertained and happy, while my dad stood beside my sister and me, pointing at the sky with his thick finger, gold chain dangling from his wrist, eager to teach his young daughters something about the moon or comets or fireworks, leading in his thick South African accent with “Now, kiddos, what most people don’t know is….” Maybe because Mom, Nana, and Uncle Tony haven’t existed for decades and several other families have since grown up in that house, long ago dwarfed by the trees my father planted when he was still a young man who could plant trees and expect to see them grow, the feeling of that memory is heightened: the feeling of sitting on the grass and thinking, for perhaps the first time, I would like to hold on to this.

“How many sides in a cube?” The college boys were throwing each other trivia questions.

Ducking my head into our car, where Nadav still sat in the driver’s seat, I said, “Did you hear that? About the cube?” Subtext: Could this get any nerdier?

He looked up from his phone. “So? How many?”

I almost blurted four. “Six?”

His eyebrows popped up, a blatant “Not bad for a math moron.” Nadav resembled those rate-your-pain smiley faces on medical forms: not only was he bald with big round brown eyes, but his expression always equaled his emotion. He couldn’t even fake a smile for a snapshot, and whenever I was adding or subtracting restaurant bills or calendar dates with my fingers, his face showed bug-eyed horror. He just couldn’t believe I hadn’t memorized the math tables, just as he couldn’t believe nobody we knew was bothering to travel for the eclipse, which he insisted—as long as it wasn’t cloudy—would be mind-blowing. But what blew Nadav’s mind often made other people’s go numb. With a PhD in theoretical particle physics from MIT, where he specialized in the bubble dynamics of quantum phase transitions, he was now an NYU professor of learning sciences and educational technology who wrote papers with titles like “Model-Based Collaborative Filtering Analysis of Student Response Data: Machine-Learning Item Response Theory.” His preferred Netflix binge was How It’s Made, and his nickname referred to his favorite attire.

“Tweed,” I said, pointing at his phone, “are you trying to get online?”

Guilty face: downturned mouth, side-cast eyes.

I sighed. “Fucking me too.”

While Nadav climbed out of the car, I dumped the phone in the glove compartment and slammed it shut as if I were doing something important—something curative—but I had begun to doubt it. For the last week, while driving and hiking in Montana and Idaho, we had almost never had a cellular signal—sometimes not even FM radio—and I had hoped, like an ailing Victorian prescribed a leave from London, that the break from Twitter and The New York Times would do wonders for my constitution, but no. For two months I had been unable to eat or sleep, and the vacation wasn’t helping. Instead every night played out worse than the one before, beginning with dinner.

Last night’s dinner had been at Birdie’s Bar & Restaurant, a lively joint in a trailer park, where cowboy hats hung on the olive green walls alongside framed mottos of an upbeat kind seen several times on the trip, like All I need is a little bit of coffee and a whole lot of Jesus. Every evening, after checking into a motel and its Wi-Fi, Nadav and I would scour Yelp for a beloved mom-and-pop eatery, and this one got raves for its chicken-fried steak. Nestled in a cozy wooden booth, I ordered the specialty along with the all-you-can-eat salad bar. I felt optimistic. Determined. Two months was enough, I thought. Tonight I just wasn’t going to let the nausea win.

Only as soon as I returned from the salad bar with a loaded plate, I glimpsed a red-faced man at a nearby table ripping bites out of a rib and then working the meat in his mouth. I couldn’t see his wife, only the back of her short, wavy gray hair, but the couple gave the impression that they hadn’t shared a word that dinner or any dinner this decade. I turned away, telling myself to calm down, to not be ridiculous, yes, the guy was chewing like an animal, but what choice did he have, we were animals that chewed! But it was too late. Once the nausea began, there was no reasoning with it. The more I tried, the more it bloomed.

By the time the waitress was setting the white-gravy-smothered steak next to plates of wet greens and bowls of mushroom soup, I no longer saw a banquet of food, but a banquet of life—not poetic, meaningful life, but life without the consciousness, without the moral of the story, just the grotesque, mindless life of veins and branches of veins and arteries of blood and arteries and branches of rivers and trees and species, nature all climbing and coiling and pumping and dividing and rooting and rotting and molding and birthing and then chewing what was birthed. The meat looked bathed in its own cum.

Nadav: “You okay?”

“Mm-hm.” I forked spinach into my maw.

One chew, two chew. Hoping Nadav wouldn’t notice, I gagged into a napkin.

“Again you can’t eat?”

When the nausea first appeared, on a spring evening in Astor Place, a week before leaving for Tel Aviv, where Nadav was born, I threw away the bowl of Sweetgreen, wondering if this was an eleventh-hour pregnancy. After years of Nadav and I struggling with the decision over whether or not to have children—spending agonizing hours on the couch trying to imagine competing futures—and finally deciding no, we just don’t seem to want them enough, the nausea had me daydreaming once again about a different life, one where I would tell my husband, “Guess what?!” I would be giving him the news in his parents’ apartment in Israel, the country with the highest birthrate in the developed world, where having children was considered not only a personal joy, but the replenishing of a massacred and embattled people. But on the way to Tel Aviv, in the bathroom of a Lufthansa jet, 39,000 feet above Eastern Europe, I found—stab of grief, rush of relief—blood on my panties.

I shook my head at the steak. “I wish I knew what was wrong.”

Nadav turned back to his plate. Sawing off meat, he didn’t seem at all concerned that my symptoms might indicate a serious physical affliction, which made me feel again that I should have been able to control the nausea, and therefore I was guilty, guilty of unnecessarily ruining a fine meal and perhaps our whole vacation—an idea that increased the nausea.

Now standing beside me, Nadav squinted up at the August blue sky, saying, “Not a cloud.”

The road was still with everybody waiting in their spots.

“What if one cloud came along,” I said, “just one small cloud, but it sat right in front of the sun? Everyone would totally freak out! Freak out way more than if the whole sky were cloudy.”

Nadav laughed. “Except you. ’Cause if all goes well, you have no story.”

I nodded. “True. The eclipse was amaaaaaazing isn’t a story.”

“Five minutes!” Great-Grandpa shouted. “Five minutes!”

Nadav held up his glasses. “Ready?”

I pulled mine from my shirt pocket and said, slightly exaggerating my enthusiasm, “Ready!”

The eclipse glasses were red cardboard with IDAHO LOTTERY emblazoned across the temples, and we had gone through a lot of trouble to get them after arriving in Idaho without any. We had assumed, with the unprecedented number of tourists descending on the state for the big event, that the requisite glasses would be on sale everywhere. If the sun were vanishing over Gotham, every street vendor and storefront would have been hawking them, but here cashier after cashier wished us better luck elsewhere. Just when we were beginning to panic, Nadav found a seller on Craigslist who lived a three-hour drive away. Luckily, the drive was as beautiful as all the others of that vacation. I had worried that Idaho, like much of North America, would repeat every few miles the same superstores and restaurants that now also lined Times Square—Walgreens, TGI Fridays, Starbucks—surrounded by their seas of parking lots, and that at best in the center of these generic sprawls might be the charming, two-block-long “historic commercial districts,” the original towns, integral but dead, like the heartwood in a tree. Instead we were mostly greeted by a countryside where meadows of wildflowers and sparkling rivers basked between snowcapped mountains and tiny towns with eerily unpeopled streets began and ended abruptly with signs like CLAYTON POP 7. When we reached the seller’s white clapboard home, perched on a hill overlooking the sweeping blue of Lake Coeur d’Alene, a wiry guy—one of those middle-aged men who somehow manage to appear both boyish and weathered—came out with a stack of red glasses. Later we learned these glasses came with “qualified purchases” of Eclipse Cash—a commemorative five-dollar scratch game that was “out of this world.”

Glacier National Park

“Yo, yo, yo,” one of the college kids shouted, “one more minute!”

The prairie hushed, aside from the rustle of people making last-minute adjustments: double-checking cameras, crumpling closed potato-chip bags, lying back on the hoods of their cars.

Nadav counted in a whisper: “Ten, nine, eight…”

 

“Whoa!” cried the blond boy. “It’s started!”

Nadav popped on the glasses. “Here we go!”

“Oh,” I said.

The sepia lenses erased all except the glowing sun, nipped by a wee black bite. I had imagined the moon would be visible too, overlapping the sun like a cosmic Mastercard logo.

I peeked under my lenses at the crowd, looking so anachronistic, gaping up in those paper glasses. The glasses resembled the ones all the kids on my block wore in the summer of ’82 to watch the first 3-D television broadcast: the 1950s classic Revenge of the Creature. Maybe when my little sister and I had settled down in front of our wood-paneled TV, our paper glasses had transported my father back still another thirty years and to the other side of the world, where his ten-year-old self might have walked through the “Whites Only” entrance to see this very movie in a Cape Town cinema. Today, however, it wasn’t only the glasses that felt anachronistic, but the whole event, hearkening to a time far before my memories or my father’s, to when people would gather on plains not to marvel at a man-made show on a screen, but to look to the heavens for a spectacle of God.

“So cool!” oohed the boy and his lankier older sister.

“Just wait,” promised their dad, hands crossed high on his chest. “It’s going to get waaaaay cooler.”

The kids nodded, having no doubt, still inhabiting that earliest chapter of life when everything was just an impressive opening act. When I was that boy’s age, I would snowplow down the bunny hill, heart pounding with excitement and terror, while off to the side, chairlifts waited to take me up and up and over the steep base of Mont Saint-Sauveur into disappearing heights. Pedaling on the tricycle, splashing in the shallow end, kissing a boy for the first time in the basement locker room while other seventh-graders snickered in the dark—it was all too exciting, and yet a kid knew that right around the corner waited something far bigger.

Last night, after I had spat up the spinach, Nadav and I retired to an authentic miner’s cabin in Virginia City, Montana, once site of the “Richest Gold Strikes in the Rocky Mountain West,” now a preserved ghost town where the wooden husks of saloons and blacksmiths rotted beside a long-abandoned mine. Nadav splurged on the log cabin to compensate for our having to wake up at five a.m. to drive hundreds of miles to the path of totality, where the only room left on hotels.com had been a La Quinta for $1,866. So far most of our motels, despite the No Smoking signs glued to their doors, had seventies-era carpets and curtains that reeked of stale tobacco, but this cabin smelled more like a stale museum. Unzipping my hiking pants, I feared Nadav would try for sex—having claimed in the past that it wasn’t a vacation unless sex happened every day—but within minutes he was under the quilt, fast asleep. Nadav never had trouble nodding off, no matter what was on the books for the following day—a critical job interview, our wedding. I, on the other hand, after earplug insertion, a twenty-minute progressive muscle relaxation, a melatonin chewable, and a baby-blue Xanax, lay staring at the ceramic bear fishing on the dresser.

Breaking the number-one “don’t do” of sleep hygiene, I checked the time. The iPhone glowed 1:14 a.m. I clutched the phone, tempted to throw it. Even if I fell asleep in the next second, I would get less than three hours, and tomorrow would be another day looking like shit, feeling like shit, unable to fully think, joke, love, create. Another wasted day. The idea was unbearable—not only because we each had a limited number of days, but we had still fewer that would fall under the heading Good Times. And these—if I could only fall asleep—would be Good Times for me: I had working legs and eyes; after years of writing and rejection, a debut novel out in the world; and a partner who loved me.

I rolled over and looked at Nadav. Even in sleep, his face was expressive: thin lips in a subtle smile, long dark lashes peacefully still. One day, I thought, he will no longer exist. This wasn’t an uncommon thought for me, but in the middle of the night death felt less theoretical; its promise lay over my body as plainly as the blanket. That was the one problem with Good Times: the guarantee that they would end.

Closing my eyes, I tried to imagine it: walking into our apartment for the very first time after Nadav ceased to exist. I would be alone. Family-less. Part of the danger of not having children. After closing the front door, I wouldn’t have rooms of loss to walk through, but could stand in one place, our happy home life having unfolded on a twelve-by-eighteen-foot square of parquet. To the left looms my writing station, a vintage secretary Nadav modified to fit a computer screen; to the right, the display cabinet with the bottles collected on our travels, the Tunisian Coke, Thai soda water, Great Barrier Reef pale ale; and over by the windows, the tulip table we would push aside to practice swing dancing while our graying chihuahua watched from the green sectional. But these hefty pieces of furniture, I knew, would be painless compared to the little thingamabobs waiting where he’d last used them: the razor still caked with foam, the book facedown on the nightstand, the orange knit hat left to dry on the radiator. I tried to imagine it all as vividly as possible. Why? I’m not entirely sure, but I don’t think I was only testing whether I could survive it. I think I was driven by the obscure and irrational feeling that if I only pictured it well enough, like a vaccine made of a weakened virus, it would prevent the real thing.

So why—I wondered, also not for the first time—the relief, then, when he hadn’t wanted to have sex? Why did I brush him off when every time I did I knew that one day I would regret it? When he either no longer existed, or was here but no longer interested. Once he confessed—was it two years ago? maybe three?—to picturing me when he masturbated. My wife, he had said, how pathetic is that? But I considered it the exact opposite. It had made me love him more. Because—and maybe this made me pathetic—I dreaded the day when I would be an older woman beyond that kind of love, finished with that exhilarating part of life, no longer desired by her husband, never again to be the passion of any man, who could only remember what it felt like to be longed for and regret not having enjoyed it while she could.

And then my body went rigid. My breath halted while my heart began to pound. What if—I realized—that day was already here?

This question too had visited me several times before. Indeed, it was this very question that had caused Nadav to reassure me with his masturbation secret. But this time, the question came with a different aura, a haunting aura that matched the surrounding ghost town, as if the question and part of the person asking it—part of me—already belonged to the same infinite and irretrievable past.

I wriggled toward Nadav, dizzy from a cocktail of panic and desire, a desire to find it not true, and if it wasn’t, to make the most of our two bodies before it was too late. When I was close enough to smell his neck, briny against the floral detergent of the sheets, I reached down. Early in our relationship, when I still had my own studio, I had once awoken him with a blowjob. For years afterward, he would—hint, hint—bring it up. When had he last hinted? What if he no longer wanted to have sex with me enough to be robbed of sleep? Nervously, I stroked over the stretchy boxers.

His eyelashes flickered. Was he still asleep or pretending? As I stroked, I reasoned that it couldn’t have been that long ago, since the mere sight of me naked would get him hard. How many times had I thrown open the shower curtain to grab my bathrobe, and he would stop, toothbrush in his mouth, and gape? Maybe that still happened, and I just wasn’t paying attention. Maybe I was panicking for nothing again.

He emitted a soft sigh. With relief, I pulled down his underwear, trying not to get too discouraged about him remaining semi-soft. Surely putting him in my mouth would do it. I pushed down my pajama pants.

As I was sliding on my side down the mattress, I glimpsed a fold of flesh at my hip dragging against the white sheet. A loose, crepey, muscle-less slab of flesh, totally unfamiliar. I had always known the skin and meat at my hip to be tightly fastened to the bone. When had it detached? Last week? A month ago? The sight—this exhibit of decay—revolted me, as it must have revolted Nadav when he first noticed. Maybe that’s why—let’s be honest—when I pulled open the shower curtain, he didn’t even turn anymore. He kept his eyes on his reflection in the medicine cabinet efficiently brushing its teeth. When I would undress now by the bed—hadn’t it happened this very night when pulling off the camping pants?—he would lie under the covers, keeping his gaze on his book or iPhone or even the blank ceiling.

He rolled onto his back. What was he thinking? Did he ever wonder about his small belly? Flabby bum? Did my decay make him consider his own? Whatever occupied his head, it wasn’t turning him more than half-hard. I tried to not let it get to me, but I’d only had sex with Nadav—with my fair share of men—when they had been hard the whole time, and it was a sad change to now have to work for that response. A gay friend had once told me that one thing that bugged him about sex with women was how they would just stretch out, expectantly, as if giving the gift of their beautiful bodies were enough, and maybe I had been guilty of that laziness and vanity. And maybe I was guilty now of still worse: guilty of not putting up a better fight against society—against perhaps the very forces of nature—by allowing any of my power or joy to come from youth and beauty. But that didn’t stop the feeling of loss when I put Nadav’s penis in my mouth and it didn’t swell inside. He took my head in his hands and moved it. I bobbed in the smell of ass and sweat and mortality. He stiffened for a second, then returned to dead weight.

I pulled back, thinking a good lover wouldn’t give up so easily. As I crawled up the bed on my hands and knees, it felt as if a jagged rock were in my chest, rolling on the breastbone. I sat against the headboard.

“You don’t get hard,” I said. “Like you used to.”

“That’s not true.”

Number-two rule of sleep hygiene: Delay stressful conversations to morning. But panic was forcing me to seek a reassurance I knew couldn’t be given anymore.

Pulling out the earplugs, I said, “Please, don’t get defensive. I’m not blaming you.”

“Cocoa Nib, I’m still attracted to you…”

I waited: Was he going to say what he always said at this point to reassure me?

“…as attracted to you as I’ve ever been.”

Hearing it said as a lie for the first time was too much. I said, “You don’t have to say that anymore.”

But then again I waited, just in case I was wrong and we were still in old times, when now he would cry, But I am!

Silence.

I swallowed, trying to be the strong sort who accepts change with grace. As matter-of-factly as possible, I said. “Again, I’m not blaming you. It’s probably my fault, for being such a shitty lover for nine years. And anyway, even if we had both been the best lovers in the history of the world, no couple stays attracted to each other forever. Everybody knows that. Everybody knows it but hopes they’ll somehow be the one exception, just like they hope they’ll be the only person to never grow old and die. I know I’m not as pretty as I used to be. I know that. That’s just reality.”

“You’re still pretty.”

Who was I kidding? I was too weak to suffer the truth with grace. To suffer it alone. I said, “I mean, doesn’t it make you sad when I’m not wet anymore?”

Now he sat up, joining me in the darkness against the headboard. Look what I could do to our fun cabin.

He said, “Uh, no. I don’t get sad. I just accept that it’s biology, just a part of getting older. Like with me and…”

“Oh, so now you’re admitting that you don’t get hard like you used to? But I don’t buy it’s just age. I bet you get as hard as ever watching porn.”

He turned to the cabin’s one small window. Gazing at its lace curtain, he looked flummoxed. Could he have possibly not noticed? Unless… unless he had a problem then too. And for one last time, I waited, waited to hear that I was wrong, that he still loved me in that way.

“Yes.” he said. “I guess that’s true… about the porn.”

I gripped the quilt, bracing as if sadness were an actual wave coming at me across the cabin. I squeezed my eyes shut, and as soon as I did, my brain dropped me at the back of an empty public bus. I was surprised to find myself there, but it didn’t feel random. It was the February afternoon, twenty-seven years ago, when the bus driver woke me up at the end of the line. Only five p.m., but the bus was florescent-lit and the world beyond its windows dark as I gathered my school backpack and groggily stood up, only vaguely aware that I had done it on purpose: slept past my bus stop, slept past the house where Mom’s lipstick still lay open on the bathroom counter; where her red velvet housecoat, still smelling of Estée Lauder’s Beautiful and Aqua Net and sweat poisoned from too much radiation, hung over the chair in my parents’ bedroom; where every carpet color, curtain pattern, tabletop, and fridge magnet was handpicked by her. I remembered walking away from the bus, alongside the tall banks of snow lining Gouin Boulevard, inhaling the cold air and hoping the walk home would never end, without wondering why I would hope such a thing. I didn’t know what that airtight feeling was; I thought I was trucking along, if anything, trucking along too well, like a psychopath, like a fifteen-year-old girl who hadn’t loved—and hence hadn’t deserved—her mother. And then it was obvious why my brain had connected tonight with that distant wintery afternoon: because now I could recognize that airtight feeling. The feeling of grief.

Eyes still shut, I could only get the words out in small stammering chunks: “Th-that this… this part of l-l-life… of l-l-l-love is over… mmmmakes me…” Could he follow what I was saying? Had I gotten out the word “love”? “…makes me severely depressed.”

“Well, then don’t be.”

“You can’t say don’t be s-s-sad about something that’s ssssad.”

“Sad is different than severely depressed.”

I opened my eyes. No more waves. The cabin was a dark, stagnant lake.

“It’s been hard,” I heard Nadav saying, “these last few months. You don’t eat. You don’t sleep. And because you don’t eat or sleep, you don’t feel good, so I hesitate to, uh, initiate anything. And when I do, like the other week in the kitchen when I put my hands on your hips, you barked, ‘We’re not having sex now!,’ as if that were the most obvious thing in the world. I guess… well, maybe I got so used to not doing it, to not even letting myself want to do it with you, that… that it had an effect.”

“Okay. I hear you.” What else was there to do? “I guess we can try again another time. Tomorrow’s a big day. Let’s get some sleep.”

Lying back down, I worried that Nadav’s night had been ruined for good, but thankfully, impressively, he nodded off at once.

Reinserting the earplugs, I thought, of course, that’s your mysterious Illness, you fucking idiot, you weakling: you’re not anxious and depressed because you can’t eat or sleep, but the other way around.

You just couldn’t admit it, could you? Because why in the hell should you be unable to eat or sleep over the most ordinary of woes? Aging, death. The lot of everyone—if they were lucky to live long enough.

Only, it wasn’t entirely clear why it should give me comfort or strength, the fact that everyone has to endure losing, bit by bit, themselves and everything they love. Instead, it was staggering to think of how much heartache that amounted to over the ages—and all with the added indignity that much of our individual suffering was cliché.

For as long as I could remember—perhaps since I first thought, I would like to hold on to this—I had been trying to find the line where reasonable grief and dread and guilt ended and the unreasonable began, and it seemed I still hadn’t found it. For not only had I failed to notice when, at some point over the last few months, I had crossed it, but I honestly didn’t see how I could carry on from here like a reasonable person, a person who could eat and sleep, unless I found a way to ignore reasonable grounds for dread and sorrow. Could I do it? Could I find a way?

after forest fire

When the alarm went off, to my surprise, I was no longer staring sleeplessly at the fishing bear, but hiding in the overhead storage space in the washing-machine closet of my childhood home, trying to breathe as quietly as possible.

“How’d you sleep, Cocoa Nib?”

Nadav and I stared at each other, heads on our pillows.

“Oh, lately the Nazis have been jihadists. And just before they came and started searching the house, you told me you didn’t love me again. That you were leaving me for somebody else. So I was hiding alone.”

“But I do love you!”

“What did you dream?”

“Nothing. Oh, no, I remember: We were in that field of wildflowers, the one from two days ago, remember, with all the teeny purple and yellow flowers?”

“I was with you?”

He nodded.

“So strange to think that on this bed, at the very same time, I was hiding from terrorists and running through wildflowers.”

cont divide

Minutes later we were driving down a dusky highway, the eighth car in a line of red taillights. The lane for oncoming traffic was empty. Nadav turned up C. W. McCall’s “Convoy,” and we sang along as more and more campers and motorcycles and subcompacts joined the growing caravan. Over the last few days, the news kept repeating that ninety-four percent of the counties in the path of the totality had voted for Donald Trump, the complete flip of the percentage that voted for him in my district. After a divisive year of #MAGA memes and Resist marches, it felt nice, if only for one morning, to all be headed happily together in the same direction, excited to witness a phenomenon that not only transcended fake news and social justice warriors, terrorism and nuclear power, but cars and telescopes and the Parthenon in Greece, and ultimately every city and kingdom and every human being that ever was and ever will be and all the fruits and rots of their labor. In the rearview mirror, a blood-orange sun burned above the dark horizon.

Now, five hours later, three quarters of that sun was gone, and yet, a testament to its power, the plain remained perfectly lit.

Great-Grandpa called out, “Fourteen minutes till totality! Fourteen minutes!”

He meant only, but the young brother and sister, seated on the dusty ground, cried with horror: “Fourteen minutes!”

This was another quirk of childhood: it all went so slowly, both the good and bad. After I kissed that boy in the shadowy locker room, we were officially “going out” for three whole months. An eternity! And a couple of years later, when I climbed onto the four-poster bed and lay next to Mom’s cooling body, it felt like I had known her forever—but now I’ve known Golda, my chihuahua, almost as long as I knew my mother, and it feels like I walked out of the ASPCA with the shivering creature in my arms only the day before yesterday. For so long, the time when I would be forty-three years old, the age Mom was when she died, remained in the far-off future, and now suddenly here I was.

“Five more minutes!” shouted the college kids. “Four more minutes!”

Although the moon continued to cover the sun at the same rate, it seemed, as things often do when nearing the end, to be speeding up. The remaining sliver of light disappeared at an alarming speed.

“Ohhhhhh,” everyone cried as the immense shadow of the moon rushed toward us from the mountains.

I turned back to the sky: the manhole cover was almost in place, leaving us trapped down here in darkness.

Vrooooooooom. An eighteen-wheeler, headlights beaming, hurtled down the road. It felt like a fuck-you to everyone and their precious eclipse, but there’s no knowing what was in that driver’s head.

Stillness again as the last rays of light were going, going.

 

“Oh my God!” a woman screamed.

A college boy murmured, “Oh shit oh shit oh shit.”

The sounds of a bewildered crowd tightened my stomach. Maybe if I had been a sports fan who regularly sat in stadiums where throngs gasped together when a ball barely missed or entered a net, I’d have felt differently. But collective “oh my gods”—rational or not—always brought me back to the morning I stood with my yellow bicycle at the base of the World Trade Center on asphalt carpeted by documents that had blown out of the Twin Towers and were continuing to flutter down while we all gaped up at the smoking holes.

“This is noon!” another college kid cried. “This is fucking NOON!”

Nadav sang out, “Cocoa Nib, you haven’t taken your glasses off! You can look with your naked eyes now.”

I removed the glasses to find us inhabiting a different planet. In the sky, a disk of the most immaculate black was ringed by sparkling, wavy rays of diamond-white light, while down below, we stood in a strange twilight, not the usual wistful blue, but a shimmering, granular pewter. Most spectacular of all, perhaps, was the 360-degree sunset. Instead of a sunset blushing on one horizon, ribbons of violet, orange, and yellow glowed all around us, circling from the dark mountain range and back again.

As people’s shock wore off, reactions began to vary: the eerie gloaming percolated with whoops and laughter, whistles and clapping. I didn’t hear crying, but I couldn’t have been the only one. I cupped my mouth, trying to hold back the tears.

This was it: true excitement.

Here it was again, that intensity so common in early adulthood that it was possible to not realize that feeling alive and being alive weren’t one and the same. Here was the giddiness of walking out of a foreign airport with a backpack and no return ticket; the fervor of arguing into the night with an equally fired-up young friend over the latest revelation from college (Yes, yes, the “Ode on a Grecian Urn” is worth any number of old ladies!); the vertigo of walking home after having sex for the first time and finding the leaves of the trees in sharper focus, as if the world had dropped a veil. Here was the thrill of that first apartment, first wind-swept mountain peak, overnight train, tingling taste of a Szechuan peppercorn. First reading of The Remains of the Day, followed by the first realization that The Remains of the Day and all my favorite novels were written by human beings and that I—so inspiring, so frightening—was a human being who could try to write a novel. First time introducing my husband, first glimpse of my name on a novel, first time I noticed I had probably run out of firsts—at least ones that could be filed under Good Times.

But I had been wrong.

I had two minutes.

Two minutes to feel this, take it in, not waste it, and so I turned to what I wanted to hold onto most.

His black silhouette danced against the stripes of sunset. Hands in the air, he cheered and hopped from foot to foot.

Once when I asked Nadav how often he thought about death, he replied, “Never,” and I had assumed that the person who kept in mind how scarce life was appreciated it more. But now, watching him literally jumping for joy, not wasting any of the two minutes worrying that he only had two minutes, it wasn’t clear.

Catching sight of my tears, he ran over. “Oh, Cocoa Nib!”

I wept, “It’s too beautiful.”

Too beautiful? So you’re not disappointed by my nerdy adventure?”

I shook my head, and he looked very pleased.

 

 

Soon we were back to the partial eclipse, only the sun was waxing instead of waning.

“I could go now,” I confessed.

I wasn’t alone. Seconds after the splinter of sun relit the plains, everyone began packing up. The dapper-hatted son folded his mother’s lawn chair, the college kids clambered into their vans, the children took to their iPads while their mother gathered the empty Coke cans. What entranced minutes ago now held no interest at all. We’d seen it, done it, some of us even bought the T-Shirt: Totality Worth It.

Back in the passenger seat, I grabbed my phone from the glove compartment and tossed in the IDAHO LOTTERY glasses, planning to add them to our cabinet of travel mementos.

Nadav keyed the ignition. “Why don’t you check for something to eat around here?”

“Still no signal,” I said, feeling ravenous, but knowing the test would come when the food was on the table. “Nearest restaurants are probably in Arco.”

We joined the exodus of vehicles that were no longer happily headed in the same direction, but returning to their separate spheres. Suddenly it was a bright, normal noonday.

As we zoomed onto the main highway, I pictured the people just a little to our east who were now in the thick of it, crying, “Oh my God! This is amazing!” No use being jealous. In two minutes it would be over for them too and, a little to their east, happening for somebody else.

“You know,” Nadav said, “Arco was the first city lit by nuclear power. Maybe we can check out the plant.”

Speeding past the empty plains of Idaho, I was reminded of the Saharan dunes in Morocco, where a twenty-three-year-old me hitchhiked to a one-room way station carpeted by maroon sleeping mats and surrounded by nothing but sand. I knew middle age would bring graying hair and the humiliation of hemorrhoids, but I hadn’t expected this downside to having acquired so many experiences: lately I was always thinking this reminds me of that, that girl’s face looks so much like so-and-so’s, this town has the same feel as yada yada, this movie might have impressed if I hadn’t already seen

It was a good thing the eclipse hadn’t lasted more than two minutes. Three, and I may have been too ready for it to be over.

 

We slid into the blue booth of a Mexican diner. Outside the window lay the one-story buildings of tiny Arco: the gas station, the health clinic, the funeral home. A pudgy teen waitress took our enchilada order without mentioning the eclipse.

Beep.

Cellular service!

I snatched my phone and found two text messages from our dog-sitting friend. First, a picture of his blonde wife, sitting in Washington Square Park with Golda on her lap, smiling in eclipse glasses. Then the question: How was it?

I typed: One of the most meaningful and spectacular things I have ever seen in my life.

Bubble back: Your sarcasm is too much.

He didn’t believe me. Having seen only the partial eclipse, he could have no idea.

As the girl laid down chips and salsa, Nadav said, “You going to be able to eat?”

I placed a chip in my mouth and chewed. It was crunchy, salty. Even delicious.

I said, “Seems like it.”

He took my hand. The expression on his smiley face was hope.

Gazing at our clasped hands, I too felt hope. True excitement would come rarely now, but it would still come, and when it did, it was possible I would appreciate it more. And that, I decided, would have to do.

The waitress interrupted our handhold with the empanadas.

Picking up a fork, I said, “That was some two minutes, eh?”

 

For two minutes, I had stood on the darkened prairie, my arm wrapped around Nadav’s waist, staring up at that pearly corona blazing in the black sky, while the most unfamiliar feeling had spread through me, a feeling neither buoyant nor heavy—a brief but bottomless feeling of peace. Because in that moment I understood that if I were somehow given the choice between being the sun or me, I would choose me. The sun gave life to our whole world, managed the traffic of our solar system, brought the gift of light every day to mourners and celebrants alike, and would continue to do so, to burn with unparalleled brightness for billions of years after my short stint was over—but it too will burn out someday, just as surely, and unlike me, without ever knowing it had shined.

“Don’t forget,” Nadav had warned, “the second the sun peeks through, you have to look away.”

And I had nodded and thought, hold on, hold on, hold on

Nevertheless, despite being all too aware that it wouldn’t last, it still shocked when that blinding light shot out.

 

Photos by author.

Jessamyn Hope’s debut novel, Safekeeping, won the J. I. Segal Award and was a finalist for the Paterson Fiction Prize and the Ribalow Prize. Her personal essays—originally published in Ploughshares, Five Points, Prism International, and Colorado Review—have received two Pushcart Prize honorable mentions and been anthologized in Best Canadian Essays and The Broadview Anthology of Expository Prose. Her short fiction appears in The Hopkins Review, Descant, J Journal, and elsewhere. She was a Sewanee Scholar in fiction and has an MFA in writing from Sarah Lawrence College. Born and raised in Montreal, she now lives in New York City.

[Purchase Issue 18 here.]

 

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