December 1, 2003
If I miss this, I'm blaming you
by Gieson Cacho
e had no chance to see them in the city so we escaped to the empty Missouri highway where the glare of arc lights couldn't touch us. The heater was on full blast. It was a cold October and I wore a T-shirt and K. was in her pajamas and we were in a car rocketing us north. The newspaper laid across her lap like a dinner napkin, and though we had just eaten, for some reason, looking at her stare out the window made me hungry, starved for something, and she asked, "Is something wrong?" when she turned back to me, and I, wearing what must have been a look of longing, shook my head and kept driving, always driving, my arms holding the wheel at ten and two.
We rushed on with a mad sense of purpose across the four-lane U.S. 63. The northern lights wouldn't be here forever and it was so rare for them to shine so brightly in the lower Midwest that we had to see them because we might never have a chance to do so again. As we got farther away from the city, K. kept gazing at the sky asking, "Can you see them? Can you see them?" And I couldn't say that I did except for a red tinge hovering above the horizon. I pointed at it and she burst out, "I think you're right!"
She always talked about the lights and I knew all her stories, mostly her mother's, about trips in a Boeing 777 from London to Chicago. K. said seeing the aurora borealis from a plane was like sitting front row at a loud rock concert. "They're like curtains of light, all different colors, shimmering," she said, and I wasn't sure if this was her or her mother talking, but she waved her arms wildly, trying to turn words into movements and movements into reality, and for me, she could do that.
We both had midterms the next day, though at the moment I think that was the farthest thing from her mind. We zoomed past exits for Mexico, Glasgow, Parissmall towns with the names of famous places that confused all out-of-towners so that locals had to say, "I'm from Mexicothe town, not the country." We looked for a state park that was advertised down the highway. It would be our second stop that night.
Our first stop had been at the Pinnacles, a small, Christian-owned park where a brook cut through a mass of limestone and carved cliffs that towered above the treetops. The park was closed and we tried to sneak in, but the security guard, still awake and watching, caught us and said with a gruff, anonymous voice that the place was out of bounds and that we should leave before he called the police.
"You should have driven quieter," K. said as I turned around and peeled out of there. "Doesn't this car have a mute button? You should have turned off your lights."
"Yeah, so we could fall into a ditch or crash into a tree," I said, pulling back onto the highway.
"Well, maybe we could have parked farther away and walked."
"Yeah, we could have done that."
As far as I could tell, our course was taking us to what the sign said was "Finger Lakes State Park 5 miles." I navigated the road and she kept watch, counting down the distance, but I still missed the exit. K. was upset and panicked, saying, "If I miss this, I'm blaming you. I probably won't ever talk to you again." The phrase added to the strain of a tiring day of classes and a seemingly endless drive. I asked her how long we'd be running around like maniacs looking for pretty lights. She looked at me for a moment, stern, reproachful.
"We'll do this for however long it takes," she said, smacking my arms. "This is the northern lights we're talking about. You can't miss a show like this." K. was so certain and stubborn about a phenomenon she'd never seen but in pictures. We had no guarantee they would even be here tonight or tomorrow or the day after that.
I turned onto a gravel road, following a hatchback whose driver may have had the same idea. He was probably as lost as we were, though we couldn't be sure. Small pebbles plinked against the undercarriage of the car and K. opened her window because the car was too stuffy. Cold air poured in and the night sounds of crickets, frogs and owls lilted in the distance. We passed through wooden gates, open like welcoming arms, and stopped in a parking lot.
"This is sort of random isn't it?" she said, sitting back and stretching. We watched a man and then a woman get out of the hatchback. "We're following strangers out into the middle of the woods."
"Wow, you've finally noticed? You know, we could be walking right into a double homicide."
"No, you're just being paranoid, again. I'm talking about out of all the places we could be. We're here and we're going to see the northern lights! What are the chances of that?"
To me, K. was a traveler from some fantasy land, the way she saw the world so differently. Where I saw imminent death, she saw statistical probability. This unnerved me. We had pointless arguments over my fears, like the time when her water heater broke and I could smell the gas all the way upstairs. We crept to her basement and I read the different labels on the unstable contraption, the ones with the vague warnings. She pointed to a knob and said, "I think you're supposed to turn that to shut it off."
"Are you sure? What if it explodes?"
"Oh come on, that's not going to happen."
"Let's just call the plumber."
"No, we don't need to. Just turn the knob, Gieson."
But I couldn't. I stood frozen and refused to do it. I argued, "Why don't you do it? You seem to know it all," and she said, "Because I'm sort of scared, too."
"It's your idea. You do it."
"You're the guy. You're supposed to do this."
This lasted a couple of minutes before her hand shot out, twisted the metal knob and shut off the gas. I slouched and she glanced back to say, "See, I told you."
I lay in bed that night, feeling guilty next to her, and we were talking about the movie we'd seen, a mindless action flick, when I blurted out, "Do you think I'm brave enough for you?"
After a moment of silence in which she could have said a million things, written a book, run for president, she said: "Yeah."
K. left the car and I strayed behind her, worrying, wondering, if that couple pulled knives on us, how long would it take to get back in the car, lock the door and get the hell out of Dodge? But the farther she walked away from me, the more nervous I got, so I had to follow her, and we wandered as far as her courage would take us, looking for the darkest places where the sky would shine the brightest. We met the other couple along the way. They held hands like they were strolling through Candyland and seeing them like that relaxed me a bit and made me jealous. I wanted to be beside K. We said hello to each other as they passed by and confirmed that they were looking for the northern lights, too.
"Do you think that's all we'll see?" I pointed to the shades of red tinting the blackness. It looked as if I was seeing the sky through colored glasses.
"No, I wouldn't be satisfied with just that," K. said. "I'm waiting for the blues and the purples. The shimmer. I want everything." We walked together struggling to find our way through the woods until we reached the darkest part. We could go no further so we turned back and fumbled toward the car. Our shoes crunched the leaves that littered the ground in a scattered, uneven carpet.
In Missouri you know it's autumn because it has four seasons and not a monolithic onesummerlike where I'm from, like in San Diego, and it was distinctions like this one that made me more aware of the separation of things and how life goes in a specific order, and I worried about that order. It made me think of other places like this: New England, the East, and the gold of Robert Frost.
"You live too much in the future," K. once told me when I had a feeling like this. It was winter and I was worried over whether I would get into journalism school. She took me out and we played together in the snow, something I hadn't done in forever. My feet sunk into the fresh snow and we hurled snow balls at each other in Peace Park. I was laughing. "You don't appreciate what's happening now," she said. "That's the trouble with you worry warts."
And before I could reply she sidled up to me and said, "Enjoy yourself a little," and then stuffed cold snow down my shirt.
Now, in the darkness, we found ourselves moving closer, bumping into each other, and moving apart, and doing it all over again as we both searched the sky. We moved aimlessly that way. Each time, I offered my hand, hoping she'd take itI wanted that gesture of reassurance and affectionbut she wouldn't see it, or a cold chill would blast through and she'd cross her arms for warmth. We moved like this, like parts of a pinball machine, eventually making it to the car where I put the heater on full blast and we waited.
The northern lights work like this: The sun emits these solar winds that travel through space a million miles per hour and when they reach Earth, they're manipulated by the planet's magnetic field and… anyway, as these winds enter the atmosphere, they interact and get these atoms of oxygen and nitrogen in the air excited so that in the end, the atoms give off those moony colors.
But unfortunately for us the solar wind that forecasters said would be blowing hard and fast ended up dying on us. K. yawned a big yawn that could have been as much from fatigue as from disappointment. I wanted to stay longer because, sitting there, the lights had taken on a new meaning for me. I had invested hours waiting and I felt the night would be a waste if we left before seeing them.
"It's late Gieson," K. said. "I got to get up early tomorrow."
I looked at her, her enthusiasm wilted away.
"You know I love you," I said, desperate now to hear those same words back.
"Yeah, I know," she said. "I do, too."
I watched her finger the handle of the car door. Thinking the worst, I wondered about everything that went with those words except the most important parttheir plain and simple meaning. Then I shook myself out of my daze, reluctantly, and started the car.
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