I spent years lying awake at night, consumed by an obscure conception of eternity, both of time and space. I would lie prostrate and uncovered, an electric dread coursing through my flesh, dowsing me in sheets of sweat from the inside out. Overhead my ceiling fan whirred and the roof creaked in the gale and stars punched light through a sea of ink and the whole universe spread for ever and ever in that direction as well as in every other direction, a limitless number of directions as each one could be divided into two smaller, almost indistinguishable directions. Though seemingly identical, the paths would eventually, if you followed them far enough, diverge and continue with more than a billion, trillion miles between them. And in that billion, trillion miles a billion, trillion other directions, extending forever and ever into a blackness interrupted by any number of hauntingly beautiful wonders the human eye will never claim.
When I was small and my dad first told me about light-years, I stopped talking for a day and a half. Six trillion miles means very little to someone who can only count to one hundred, but the distance light travels in an entire year—how could I speak? What could I say?
Somehow, without being told, I had concluded that the Sun was at the edge of a finite space, and that past the Sun, well, there was no such thing as past the Sun. Never mind the planets with larger orbits than Earth’s, I wasn’t thinking that clearly. I had seen a model of our solar system (the solar system—I thought) and so retained a clear portrait of the universe: Sun, Mercury, Venus, Earth (the center of it all), Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune, Pluto (before he was stripped of his planet-hood). And past it all—the Sun in the one direction and Pluto in the other—nothing. Not empty space, not a vacuum, more of a black wall, a forcefield keeping God’s six days of creation inside a neat box, a bit like an aquarium.
When I heard about those light-years, the first thing I thought to ask was how many light-years away the Sun was. My dad looked right at me and serious as sin told me that the Sun was not any light-years away, but that the light from the Sun, that boundary of the universe, takes only eight minutes and twenty seconds to reach earth. The length of time it took us to drive to the store.
He laughed when he saw my face—wide-eyed and ashen—mistaking my stupor for pleasure, not suspecting himself guilty of ripping the breath from my lungs and pulling an irreplaceable stability from beneath me.
And so it began, the madness, the flashes of panic, the internal rage that nothing could quell, a horror that left me limp and breathless. It was a pernicious cycle: the more I learned the more I longed for ignorance, but I couldn’t stop or slow myself, not with the earth racing around the Sun at 67,000 miles per hour. I would lie on my back in the yard, dead foliage crackling beneath my weight, and I would try to feel the speed of it, would close my eyes and concentrate so hard that sometimes I grew dizzy, and other times staggered inside with a budding migraine and the feeling of being hopelessly lost in the blue-black enormity of space.
As a homeschooler and the oldest child in a family of six, much of my education was left to my own discretion. I spent an hour or so each morning racing through a bare minimum of English and math and history, then dedicated the rest of the day to poring through books and websites, reading everything I could find about astronomy and deep space, absorbed like I might have been in a dark mystery novel. I read things that shocked me, things that made me feel smaller than a wisp of dust, things that chilled me to the bone and set me to biting my nails, chewing lower and lower until all that was left to do was gnaw at the lightly calloused skin around the nailbeds. “Get your fingers out of your mouth,” my mom would snap when she saw me, but I hardly ever listened, how could I? Didn’t she know that Earth was even more miniscule in the universe than a single grain of sand in the whole of our planet? Didn’t she wonder at the stars so large our own Sun would scarcely be visible next to them? Didn’t she startle to think of galaxies millions of light-years long?
In the dark of my bedroom, I shivered, watching my younger sister sleep, seething with jealousy. I was twelve years old and thinking about how twelve years was all but a nonexistent blip of time within eternity. I weighed eighty pounds, and that was equally insignificant.
“Emma,” I whispered, but my sister never stirred. She was a deep and soulful sleeper, full of tranquility and dreams. Even when I confided in her my concerns of space and time without bounds, she would only shrug and give me a bored look and tell me to stop bugging her, she was trying to read Harry Potter. To which I would persist, trying to startle her with intergalactic factoids and pictures of the Helix Nebula. To which she would roll her hazel eyes and drift off, inside some paltry fantasy or other.
There was no doubt in my parents’ minds that I was bound for an esteemed university, maybe even Ivy League, bound for greatness, bound for science, bound for lucrative employment at NASA. I like to think it was their own faulty expectations that disappointed them, not me.
I was eighteen, graduated, and the proud owner of a Honda Accord with just under 200,000 miles on the odometer. I had applied to several universities, been accepted to all, and chosen none. I was sultry and spacy and uninterested in all things human. My hair was long and wild, my dark eyes set deep and rimmed in shadow, my lips and fingers chapped. I spent my days adrift, hovering from room to room, peering out the windows at a sky tainted by light. At night I would stand on our back porch and my neck would grow stiff from staring up, and sometimes my dad would come to join me and it would take me awhile to notice him, even when he had one hand cupped over my thin shoulder. And I would start telling him about the fourth dimension and its implications for an unbounded universe, talking like we had been having a conversation for many hours, and sometimes I would think about the warmth of his hand, and shiver, unable to conceive the pleasure of human touch, only that I knew there was a certain indulgence to it, had a sense of it being a thing fashioned and even ordained.
Eventually he would interrupt me, so soft and at just the right moment so that I hardly noticed being cut off, and he would ask me if I wanted to come inside for dinner, or watch a movie with the family, or even go for ice cream, just the two of us. I would shake my head, knowing I would never want to do any of those things, praying he would never stop asking.
When I told my parents I was leaving, going to drive west for a while, see a bit of the virgin country where synthetic light would not interfere with my already narrow glimpse of space, my mom cried and begged my dad to stop me.
“How?” he asked her. “She’s a grown woman.” My mom laughed at that, not a pleasant laugh, more of a mocking bark. I guess because I was only 5′ 3″ and thin as a twig and her firstborn, she had trouble seeing me as grown. I don’t blame her. I didn’t feel very grown. But I did want to go and see those southwestern skies I had read about, the type of skies you only experience in wide open spaces without much of a population around to sully it. I wanted to go to the Great Basin National Park in Nevada, and Death Valley in California. I wanted to drive through Texas in the middle of the night, cross the border into New Mexico then Arizona, swing up into Utah and gaze at the Milky Way from the Natural Bridges National Monument. But I didn’t say all that, all I said was West, and bye, and don’t worry, mom (because she was crying and, aloof as I was, it still bothered me to see that).
My dad saluted me as I backed out of the driveway, reminding me for the umpteenth time to carry spare gasoline if I was going to be driving out in the desert, and to dress warm (he knew my propensity to stand in freezing temperatures in short sleeves for long stretches of time, not noticing the wind, or my own violent shivering). I saluted him back, maybe for the last time, and thought how it wouldn’t matter at all whether we parted forever then, or in thirty years. In the space of eternity, the two were almost identical points.
Emma and one of my little brothers ran outside to wave me off, and my mom stood there crying and dabbing at her nose, and I didn’t more than glance at any of them, already lost in a versicolor wilderness of stars and galaxies, already in a strange place where my life was both over and not yet begun: a point stretched into a line, curved into a circle, twisted into a sphere, and punched through, as Einstein might say.
I took I-40 west from North Carolina, driving slow as I was known to do, addled by the necessity of remaining present behind the wheel, while my spirit cried out for release into the heavens. I set a timer on my phone so I would remember to eat, promised myself to stop and sleep after twelve hours of travel, made my way west in said fashion, listening to the light thrum and rattle of my car, never bothering with the radio. Usually I forgot it was there.
At night I pulled over and ate quickly in some dingy diner before stretching out on the hood of my car and drifting up into a rich, intoxicating sky full of tiny whites and yellows. The moon was a bright, waxing gibbous and after a quarter of an hour my eyes were full of it, surely glowing and cream-white.
“Whatcha looking at?” The voice was cool and pleasant.
“The past.” I brushed my hand through the dark space, my fingers thin and white in the black. “Most of those stars are more than a hundred light-years away. Some are more than a thousand. When the light we’re looking at now left its source the Magyars were invading Germany, and the Vikings were first sighting North America.”
“Want some company?”
“I’m fine without.”
He laughed, and that startled me. I glanced at him long enough to see his weaponless hands, and to note his silver, moony eyes.
“But you can stay, if you want.”
He climbed onto the hood of my car and stretched his hands behind his head. He folded his legs to fit. My car didn’t have one of those hoods meant for stargazing.
“Do you think Adam and Eve could see any stars from Eden?” he asked.
I gasped. I had wondered the same more times than I could say.
“Or do you think God made it so that light finished its initial journey earthward instantly, that he cut into time and space and drew the light like a knife through water?”
“I think they could see more stars in Eden than I’ll ever see in one place,” I said.
“Me too. I think it must have been hard to sleep at night.”
“No. Too beautiful. I think it would have been a struggle to shut your eyes to it.”
I smiled up at that bright gibbous, so small I could blot it out with my fingertip when I shut one eye.
When the boy left I almost watched him go, but he lost to the jet night and the moon and the twinkling lights and all that eternity stretched out in every direction. And I thought about Heaven, and about how time and space would fall away and suddenly, in a blink, every star, galaxy, and nebula would be revealed, and I thought about how it would be to see, in every direction, creation in its entirety, the masterpiece revealed by the master himself. And I thought about the smallness of my life, and the smallness of the whole world as I knew it. It was a nice thought, unlike my usual, painful suppositions of eternity. It was a loveliness, the thought and the being there, alone in that darkness by the diner, listening to locals stumble into the parking lot and drive off, consumed by one thing or another: the kids, the retirement, the mortgage payment. I felt a giddiness rise in me at the eccentricity of it all, at the banality of specks of dust worrying over the broken dryer and the uncut grass and the academic failures of other such specks.
The madness was a loveliness was a veracity, and when I shut my eyes to the night, for a moment, I believe with all my being that I saw the profusion of those tesseracting stars in Eden.
Anja Benevento is the Head of Product Development at Bright Futures Therapy and a writer and lover of fiction and poetry. She studied creative writing at Pacific Union College. Her work is published or forthcoming in Kaaterskill Basin Literary Journal, The Fiction Pool, and Gamut.