The air was thick and close, and the restless wind tossing the treetops did little to relieve it. The earth rumbled with the reverberations of a distant summer blitzkrieg, and every so often a quicksilver vein of fire would race from the darkened clouds to strike the horizon.
She leaned out the open window, longing for the storm to come and cut the humidity. The wind whipped her hair around wildly, now ruffling it into a haystack, now plastering it flat against her head. A changeful gust blasted her in the face, smelling of rain-soaked vegetation and back-alley dumpsters. She grimaced and snorted slightly, trying to rid her nostrils of the scent. She inhaled again, this time catching a whiff of spicy pine on the heavy air. Then, with a sudden uprush of wind, the rain arrived. She ducked back inside and closed the window, listening to the raindrops’ futile attempts to batter down the glass. A bolt of lightning seared the sky, and almost simultaneously came the echoing report of thunder.
Fear no more the lightning flash
nor the all-dreaded thunder stone …
That evening long ago had also been in summer, but unusually cool and clear. They sat side by side in the twilight, enjoying the fresh breeze blowing through her open windows. He was unusually talkative, and they were discussing his favorite song.
“Why do you like it?” she asked, modern music not being her forte.
“Because it’s authentic. It’s raw and disjointed and funny and random and real.”
“That’s quite a mouthful.”
“I’m serious. I think everyone feels like that sometimes, that they need someone — that they need to have someone. That they need to have someone understand them.”
“Do you feel that?”
She turned and looked at him for a moment, but he was staring out the window.
“How much have you had to drink today?” she asked abruptly.
He started out of his reverie. “Nothing, unless you count water or coffee. Why?”
“Never mind,” she said, ignoring his questioning look. “That sentence might ruin your life. Come on.”
She hopped up from the sofa and headed for the door, catching his hand and pulling him up as well. He started, and she realized it was the first time she’d voluntarily made physical contact with him. She dropped his hand as soon as he stood up, but still …
“Wait, where are you going?” he asked as he followed, stumbling over his own feet in his surprise.
“You need to see something, she said, grabbing her keys from the rack by the door. “Come on.”
He followed her to her car in bemused obedience and slid into the passenger seat without further inquiry. Her hands were shaking slightly, and she tightened her grip on the steering wheel.
All traces of sunset had left the sky, and the atmosphere was dreamlike as they drove through the midsummer darkness. They rode with the windows down, and the city smells of diesel exhaust and greasy spoon diners soon gave way to the sweeter scents of mown grass and clover as the number of buildings dwindled and the fireflies increased. After about an hour’s ride in silence, she turned off the highway onto a gravel road and drove another mile or two before turning down another, narrower, unpaved track. There she stopped.
“We’re here,” she said simply, offering no further explanation as she retrieved a blanket from the trunk of the car. “Follow me.”
And again he did, wondering what on earth he was in for if it could possibly, as she said, ruin his life. “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn,” he thought. He didn’t have much of a life to ruin.
She shook the blanket out and spread it on a level patch of ground where the grass was shorter, then sat down, motioning him to do likewise. He stretched his legs out and leaned back on his elbows, awaiting — but not overly expecting — an explanation.
“Now, look up,” she said.
Away from the lights of the city the stars shone bright against the darkness of the sky. Back home he’s always thought of the stars — on the rare occasions he had raised his eyes to the heavens — as cold and insipid. But now, without the garish glow of streetlamps and with no competing brightness of moon, he saw them for what they were: spheres of fire burning white-hot in the frozen loneliness of space.
It was breathtaking.
“I usually come here alone, but tonight you needed to see them, too,” she said quietly.
She was lying on her back now, staring upward, hands clasped beneath her head. He lay back as well and waited for her to continue.
“I come out here to remember,” she said after a moment. “I like in the darkness and look at the stars and remember how vast they are, and what a tiny, insignificant person I am on this huge ball of rock and water that’s hurtling through space. But then I remember I am here — I am here, out of all the thousands of combinations of genes that could have produced anyone but me — and that every moment of my existence is a gift. And the fact that I was chosen for this gift … well, even though I’m still a small person on a very large planet, it takes the loneliness out of that smallness.”
As one loathe to admit to anyone, including himself, the possibility that he might be lonely, it had never occurred to him that she might be. In all of his resentment of her ironic scoldings or silent criticisms he’d never have pegged this as her ulterior motive for mysteriously assuming command of his life. Having never entertained this thought, he now did not know what to think.
“Don’t worry,” she said, chuckling softly as they lay there. “I’m not kidnapping you. I just wanted ….” She hesitated. “I just wanted you to see for yourself.”
“Thank you,” he said, unsure exactly what he was thanking her for.
They grew quiet then, a million miles between their minds as they stared up at the sky, shoulders nearly touching. Questions of where and what and why raced through his brain, but she seemed to have reached the extent of her explanation, and he didn’t want to break the silence by asking. Although her gaze was intently fixed on the stars, she was also acutely aware of his presence beside her. She could sense his arm mere inches from hers, and every so often she’d catch the spicy scent of pine that she knew wasn’t coming from any tree. An exhilarating calm, she thought, as she watched a meteor blaze its way across the sky. An exhilaration and calm neither of which was hers to keep.