*Image: Untitled by David Sapp, 40 x 32, graphite on paper
By Abi Newhouse
Olivia and I drove through the canyon in the dark. The only light came unnatural and electric from street lamps or the car clock or the bright headlights behind us. I followed the road, the curve of it, and the hill, and did all of this with tears dripping down my face.
We rode in silence, though moments before I’d lurched through words asking, “How do you feel knowing that nothing will ever be the same in our family?”
She sat in the passenger seat, her legs tucked and feet propped on the dashboard. She swiped her phone screen, and the light made her face glow. She said, “I never thought of it that way. I never meant to hurt any of you. Really, I’m doing quite well.”
The end of her response made me realize she couldn’t see what consequences swirled around her. The world is fine if she is fine, so I told her how we suffered. I told her how Mom cried on her own birthday, alone on a park bench for five hours. I let her know that I couldn’t focus on school, because I had this cloud that hovered over me. I said Dad had trouble sleeping, and our other siblings waited by their phones to finally hear from her. I told her the scary part was all the hiding, how she changed completely on a one-week trip to California, where she turned off the tracking setting on her phone.
I didn’t tell her I was sad that she left our religion. I’ve come to terms with the fact that not everyone can believe the same thing, even if they belong to a family that lives a specific way. This is something I learned long ago. However, Olivia brought it up herself, because she’d decided that was the problem. But that’s not the problem—the problem is her loss of voice. How simply she could give herself up for a boy she’d only spent a week with. But how to communicate that without accusation? Religion was easier to fight about.
So we fought:
“You don’t know what I’m going through. You don’t listen to me.”
“I’m listening. Talk to me.”
“No, see there? You’re interrupting me.”
“I’m not. I want to know what’s going on.”
“You did it again. I can’t even talk to you. I’m not talking to you about this.”
And she stayed silent. No matter how I pleaded, what words I said, the sound of my sniffs, she curled against the car and stared at her phone.
I thought for a moment about pulling to the side of the road and refusing to move until she spoke, but my heart was exhausted, and I needed to be alone. So I drove and cried, and she didn’t talk. In the silence she brooded, and I could feel it.
My mind had been in turmoil for weeks, always revolving around a lack of answers: how should I act, our family feels like it’s in pieces, it’s my job to love, to say sorry for the fights, to act like nothing is happening—but I should talk, I can’t just pretend, I need to remember to breathe. And maybe saving her is not completely up to me.
I would wake up each morning to dusted sunlight, and for seconds I could stare and stretch until I remembered. And I would picture his body and her body moving together, her crooked fingers rubbing his back, his smile with too much gum. I remembered how she told my mom that they used “condoms and other things” for protection. Olivia told my mom this reluctantly, claiming at the beginning that it was personal.
And I thought of when Olivia first learned about sex, only in fourth grade. When I came to her room to see how she felt about it, I paused to watch her as she stared at the sheep painted on her old dresser. She wouldn’t look away. She held a glass animal in her hands, twisted it in spirals.
In the June before the teary car ride through the canyon, she told my mom it seemed weird to think that her sisters have sex with their husbands. That they actually participate in the act. She said she didn’t want to do it.
In July, she created an account on Tinder.
At the beginning of August, she started texting a boy regularly.
At the end of August, she went to visit him.
And when she came home from visiting the boy, Brenden, in California, she wore different clothes, and she suddenly didn’t believe in the religion she grew up in, the same religion that Brenden had just left. My mom and I sat on the porch; flowers bloomed all around us in hanging pots, large painted or wooden barrels, and the garden. We watched her drive away but didn’t cry that time, because it seemed like a joke. No way a person can completely change their life over a one-week trip. The porch light cast rippled shadows over each of us.
She had told my mom, “I’m just taking a step back.”
And my mom said, “You’re taking a step back off a cliff.”
I let the silence drag for the remainder of the car ride. I sang along to a Men at Work song. I helped her unload all her belongings—I carried all I could hold, while she took her pillow and backpack. My arms weighed heavy. Olivia said goodbye in an upbeat voice, because her roommate sat on the couch and watched. I turned around and walked through the hall, ran my hand down the stair railing, and cried again in my car.
In September, Olivia announced that they would be married in my grandparents’ backyard, and I was in charge of making the backdrop.
All my life I’ve been taught that Einstein first discovered black holes. And I’ve been fascinated with that idea—this old man with crazy hair looking through his steel shined telescope to see a giant rotating halo of fiery light surrounding nothing but black. He’d be in a clean room, white, large and open, full of scientists scrambling back and forth, each discovering in their own way. Einstein would announce to this group of helpful admirers: “I’ve discovered something incredible.” The crowd would clap. Reporters with cameras would document the discovery.
Well, it wasn’t Einstein who first came up with the idea. When I dove further into history, I met Reverend John Michell, the man who first hypothesized “dark stars.”1 Not much is known about Michell, except that he was a “little short man, of black complexion, and fat,” born in 1724.2
So this picture in my head—Einstein in the midst of fame and fortune—is nothing. Now, to be historically accurate, I need to picture Reverend John Michell looking through his telescope in Thornhill, England. I imagine him in a small room, the attic of a cottage, telescope pointed to a hole in the ceiling. The walls studded with vacant nails, theories torn down. He’d stand on a stool, his dark skin contrasting his white shirt, unbuttoned at the chest after a long day of preaching to his congregation. He’d rise on his toes to see through the little telescope into the depths of space. He would jump when he saw the black hole, rotating and shooting fire. The stool would probably fall over and he’d tumble to the floor, then crawl to his desk to start a letter to Henry Cavendish about dark stars. He would try to draw the shape, try to explain in words how he felt watching the black hole move. Anything to own the idea.
But he could not see the black hole, not really. No one can. The black hole is a dark mass, found in many different sizes, and essentially, invisible. We only know that it’s there because of its gravitational pull, the X-rays it emits, and the occasional fiery dust it spurts. It exists among us, it pulls and twists and destroys. Only a hypothesis for hundreds of years.
Michell said that for every system of stars, a dark star exists, pulling the others to rotate around it. He’s right. I wish he could know now that he guessed correctly.3 Black holes float, scattered everywhere around the universe, messing with the stars around them, disrupting, but also containing the energy in a system that hasn’t failed yet. Michell’s journal was filled with theories on magnets and earthquakes, and luckily someone looked down to the footnotes, his small and scraggly scrawl in the corner of the page—notes on dark stars. He said they were “somewhat beside [his] present purpose.”4 Maybe he thought no one would believe or support him. Maybe he thought the dark stars could remain as a mystery for a while, until he could accurately prove it.
Discovering Michell seemed like I’d stumbled onto secrets. I felt sad for him, not just because of his physical description, which is lacking in civility, but that he got no credit. That he’s a man we buried, even if unintentionally. Hidden within history. Overshadowed by Einstein’s head of frizzy hair.
Clouds cover the sky, rain falls and pools in dirt and sidewalk dimples. I walk with my hood up and head down; my sandal-clad feet feel every splash. I figure I already seem strange—a creative writing student who comes to bother the biology department about different kinds of worms—but wearing sandals on a rainy day doesn’t help my case much. Getting to the point where I actually have an appointment involved a long and branched calling tree, where more than one person said to me: “I’m sorry, did you say ‘worms’?”
I enter the lab and smell ethanol. Large and small beakers fill the shelves, different chemicals in bottles slotted in the spots around them. Mustard seeds in Ziploc bags slump against the backing. The walls are papered with posters outlining different insect anatomies, and fridges most likely full of preserved animals hum in the otherwise silent room. I am out of place here.
A girl who stares into a microscope and wears red headphones sits at one of the counters. I ask her, “Are you Madeleine?” The name rolls familiar in my mouth—the same name as my older sister. The girl takes one headphone out and says, “I think she might be back there.” She points to a small office, which I hadn’t seen before.
The office can’t be bigger than a five-foot square, but three desks are crammed in a U shape. Madeleine sits on the left, Steven on the right, and their professor in the middle, facing away from me. I ask Madeleine the same question, and she turns to me and says, “You must be Abi?” She’s different than I imagined—she seems like a skinny, against-the-system type of girl. She wears a large plaid shirt, and one side of the collar stays tucked underneath. I point at Steven, as if pointing is a way to ask a question, and he half-waves and says, “And I’m Steven.”
We all gather around the sink area in the lab, and I keep apologizing—“Sorry, I know this is so weird”—while inside I tell myself to be cool.
As Madeleine explains the difference between nematodes and earthworms, she peeks at Steven for confirmation. Steven seems humble. He wears a Utah State University polo tucked in and stands with his hands in his pockets, staring at the floor—I assume to listen without distraction. I wish I could sit with my feet under a desk to hide my sandals, but instead they swing from the bar stool, bright orange and commanding attention.
Steven tells me that most of the animals on earth are worms in terms of abundance—flukes, nematodes, hook worms, leeches, earthworms, worms in Australia that can be up to 9 feet long and as big as a human arm. We go to the back of the room where a large fridge stands, and Madeleine pulls out a tray that holds tiny nematodes inside. She thinks they might still be alive, maybe. But the nematode is stagnant in incubated water—probably in the fridge for far too long. So instead she shows me a picture where nematodes surround moth larvae, the designated host. The nematodes look like fresh-cut fingernails, ready to be tossed in the trash.
Steven has left at this point to see if he can find an earthworm body. It’s strange to think that worm carcasses of all shapes and sizes infest the fridges, the shelves, some back rooms I probably don’t know about, as well as the earth all around us. It’s strange that we keep them. That we wait until the right moment to bring them out for dissection or inspection. That we all have to show what’s inside at some point.
When we were younger, my sisters and I turned my grandma’s backyard into a stage. The backyard has two large trees that stand about fifteen feet apart, connected by a linen laundry string. The trees were riddled with cancer, huge bumps and knots I’d touch, and the bark would rub off in small shingles. Some sadness in beauty.
We flung blankets over the linen string, and they folded over all lopsided and still three feet from the ground. Not the most sophisticated stage curtains, but we pulled them together and told Olivia to hide behind them.
My parents and grandparents sat in lawn chairs in the shade, where they sipped lemonade and complimented our creativity. I went to check on Olivia, to see if she felt ready to start the show. She stood behind the curtains in my mom’s old white cowboy boots. The boots were too big for her, and she took wide steps to make sure they’d stay on her feet. She cupped a marigold flower in her hands. A straw hat on her head.
Olivia has always stepped into the spotlight. I’ve thought about it in multiple ways—psychologically, she could need more attention. Mentally, she could thrive off the presence of others, an extrovert. Perhaps narcissism, which is an angry word. At that moment, when she stood behind the curtain, took a deep breath and looked at me, we shared this knowledge—that we might never really understand each other.
Although we called ourselves The Glory Girls, I only remember Olivia singing that day. My older sister Madeline and I each pulled one blanket apart from the other to reveal her. The audience smiled at the small girl in an outfit so clearly a costume. A little performer.
She sang a song about marigolds she’d just made up, then a Dixie Chicks song with improvised lyrics: “Cowboy take me away, cowboy give me a pile of hay.” She flourished in her element, and we celebrated with her. We laughed when she sat on our cousin like a horse. We regarded the marigold as beautiful because of her song. And behind her, marigolds lined the garden, though there was one empty spot where she’d plucked one as her prop.
I couldn’t find that little girl in the months that followed August. I held her in memories—the way she’d traipsed on her tiptoes for so many years, and consequently her feet looked wide with bone stretch. How she’d loved cats, so she acted like one for so long, growling at us if we made her mad. How she’d planned her wedding, searched for dresses online, hoped the season would be spring for peonies. Her dreams of starring on Broadway. Her collection of tiny glass animals. The times we sang together.
So much changed. We asked her what she wanted, and every answer started with “Brenden thinks…” or “Brenden wants…” Brenden had a dog for them, even though she’d hated dogs until he brought them up. The wedding would take place in the fall—colored leaves instead of pink blossoms. Brenden wanted to settle in Kamas, Utah, a small town on a mountain bench. She found her wedding dress at the mall.
My parents were moving from my childhood home and planned to settle in the lot next to my grandparents’ house. I helped them pack, and I wrapped all of Olivia’s small glass animals in tissue paper and put them in a shoebox. When Olivia comes home, I don’t know that she’ll ask about them. I don’t know if she can find that little girl either. I wanted to ask her who she’d been lying to for so long—her family or herself?
When it rains for days and days, worms appear above ground. The rainwater fills the worm’s space and displaces the surrounding air so they can’t breathe. Though most of their movement occurs below ground, they sometimes take the opportunity to leave the soil they’re used to in order to travel through water to another home.
Steven tells me this and then says, “They’ll come up at night. Have you ever walked around and looked for them with a flashlight?”
I try to make my laugh sound friendly. “No. I haven’t done that.”
“Apparently I just do a lot of weird stuff that nobody else does.”
Madeleine laughs. She adds in details here and there, but her specialty remains nematodes.
Steven tells me I can find worms on a softball field at night. They’ll pop up between blades of grass if the field has been watered, but if I keep the flashlight on them for too long, they’ll burrow back into their holes.
I remember back to fifth grade, exiting the yellow school bus to a sidewalk stippled with dried-up worms. The rain had continued all night and almost all day, until the sun broke through the clouds like redemption. I wondered back then if the worms challenged each other to races or planned to meet up on the other side. Regardless, many worms didn’t make it, and they coiled in different shapes all over the ground.
Somehow, in my young mind, I thought that maybe I could save one. I pictured placing the dried-up worm in a puddle. It would rehydrate itself and delve into the earth once more, a second chance.
I picked up a worm and cradled it in both hands, careful to watch each crack in the sidewalk so I wouldn’t trip. I gave myself time limits in my head. It had to be done before I counted down from ten.
When I reached the empty lot across from my house, I knelt down by a leftover puddle. The dirt looked thick, like it might anchor the worm, but I dropped it in the water anyway, expecting it to wriggle back to life and float around before diving back. I wanted so badly to be its savior.
But the worm sunk. It looked so heavy. It crashed to the bottom of the puddle, and the dirt formed around it like a cloud. When the sediments settled, the worm lay half-buried, and I could only see certain parts showing through. I stood and brushed off my knees. I didn’t feel sadness—instead I just knew, somewhere in the rational part of my mind, that the revival wasn’t really my job.
Professors considered John Michell a “natural philosopher,”5 and he took part in the prestigious Royal Society Club, where the biggest names in science would meet each Thursday to speak freely of their different hypotheses. He was published in several different scientific journals for his initial findings. Many men associated with this club held positions in universities and businesses, but others, including Michell, worked in clergy. I wonder if Michell chose this himself or if his father prompted him in a religious direction, because that’s what his father did for a living. In all the information on Michell, I can’t find his feelings. In the 457-page book I have on him, I find only facts about religion at the time, or science at the time, or the men he worked with. The book states, “Michell is not mentioned in an account of the origins of the Society, and there is no record that he took any part in its proceedings.”6
Regardless, from the formal information I can find, Michell was a fellow at Cambridge University for thirteen years. He became a lecturer for geology, due to his findings on earthquakes and certain rock properties. Michell left to pursue a new post within the Church of England when a new university High Steward was elected, leading to a failed attempt at becoming a professor of science. He tried once more to enter the astronomy world by nominating himself for a head position in the Royal Society Club; however, he was outvoted and underqualified, and the position went to somebody else.
I wonder, for them, how science and religion might have mingled. If maybe people looked down on him for combining two subjects that, in our day, don’t belong together. He did it anyway, without the access to accurate proof we have now, and despite his failures. Regardless of what post he took in life, he kept discovering. So he went on to first study properties of magnets, then causes of earthquakes, and then he turned his eye to the sky. This gives him credibility, I think, because he stayed rooted to the earth so long he was able to keep his footing—despite me picturing him stumbling over stools while staring at stars.
In the back of the large, proper book, I find John Michell’s letters to colleagues. I can see more of him here, and though his language is highly scientific and separated by generational changes, I know he was a humble man. He thanks his friend, Henry Cavendish, many times for correcting his blunders.
I can see him. But I can’t really see him. I can describe him as “smart” and “short,” but he’s more of an absence, simply a name on a page. A person mixed with words and sucked into his timeframe—just another scientist in another society trying to make something of himself. He whirls too, in space, lost in history, living somewhere in the realm of math and God.
In his only letter written about dark stars, he explains them as bodies the size of our sun, with gravity so strong that no light can escape, making them invisible to our eyes. That’s unfair to me. What if, one day, I want to go to space? And what if, as I’m flying through space, I get absorbed into an invisible, huge, destructive mass? Today we know that black holes pull so strong that if I really were to get sucked into one, I’d stretch long like spaghetti, my body and organs would warp, and I would not come out alive.
Perhaps it’s safe to know this—that black holes infest the universe, in the centers of galaxies, drinking in stars at random spots. And perhaps it’s better to stay ignorant.
I remember sitting on my couch, trying to focus on homework, but every line I read would seep into the paragraph, into the page, the meaning completely lost to me. Every time my mom called I knew something else had happened with Olivia, and I didn’t want to answer the phone.
But I’d answer, because that’s what I had to do. I’d been there from the beginning. We were in it together. My mom cried to me, over and over, every new piece of information worse than the last. I remember in the seconds before I’d answer the phone, I’d wonder, what could be the next step? Did she run away? Elope? Did she die?
In those moments, I wanted to be isolated from Olivia. I wanted everything to go back to how it used to be, when I could talk to my family about the weather, movies, recipes, anything but the sadness we felt. But instead, my mom and I talked about secrets, how the personal things in life aren’t really personal because they bleed. They get all over everyone else.
Earthworms are asexual. Steven tells me this after I ask him if worms can survive when cut in half. I ask because I want there to be a connection despite separation. He says that by cutting a worm in half, I would actually help it reproduce, essentially become a clone; two little worms would evolve from one.
“Can you guess which is the male and which is the female?” he asks me.
“Is the male the bigger one?” I can already sense I’m wrong, like maybe this knowledge has been imparted to me previously. Madeleine leaves the room.
“So you actually have two males,” he says. “And two females. They are simultaneous hermaphrodites.”
Steven had culled two worms from the soaked dirt outside and put them in a transparent dish. The first worm is long and segmented and follows the arc of the dish. The other smaller, curved like cursive in the water.
Earthworms live in darkness underground and spend their days eating. They swallow anything little enough in their path, even littler worms. After the dirt gets pulsated and kneaded in the digestive tract, it comes out the other end of the worm, its tube-like structure, and gives the dirt new breath. The oxygen is new. Ready for plants to root.
So I feel kind of bad then, when I ask to see inside the worm. I’m stealing it from its purpose. It feels the light, because it doesn’t have eyes, and it knows that the light means dehydration. The worms curl around each other in the water. They know dry death might be coming. Steven, without hesitation, grabs the long worm with sharp metal tweezers and drops it in a new dish filled with alcohol. The worm writhes, and I know it’s trying to use this liquid as respiration, but the alcohol poisons and the worm becomes still. I tell Steven it’s sad, and he laughs.
He hands me a scalpel and asks if I’d like to try. I want to be unattached to the worm’s life like him, so I make the incision.
Perhaps I slice too deep and into the digestive tract, because once we open the worm and we’ve pinned back the sides, wet dirt seeps out. I’m glad the worm is dead already, so it doesn’t feel this vulnerability—open and gushing in front of us.
“That’s so weird,” I say. “Its whole body is just full of dirt.”
Steven takes the tray from me and rinses the worm out. He uses the water in the other dish for this, so the dirt clumps around the other living worm. When he puts the dead worm in front of me once more, its organs, vessels, hearts, and accessory hearts all show. I look through the microscope to see the organs up close, and the hearts look like veins, so small, no longer throbbing. I don’t know what to do with this carcass. I just keep staring through the lens, wondering about this worm’s life, what I may have interrupted.
“How do they just come to earth and know what to do?” I ask Steven. “They’re blind. All they can do is feel around the dirt and follow instincts.”
“They see through their skin,” Steven says. “The way they see the world and the way we see the world is a completely different reality.”
Olivia only talked to me about frivolous things—the weather, her nails, shoe shopping, contouring. But when I asked about the little elastic on her left hand ring finger, getting a straight answer from her felt like trying to open a jammed window. She smiled, excited and ashamed, and said, “Oh, it doesn’t mean anything.”
The elastic came back with her from her first trip to California, after she’d spent one week with Brenden.
“It’s on your ring finger,” I said. “So it’s a placeholder. Right?”
She stared at me, and her wide and feigned innocent eyes made me want to scream. “Yes,” she said, “but it’s not a real engagement ring.”
“So it’s a promise ring? Filling the space until the real ring gets here?”
“I guess so.”
Brenden had told her to only wear the elastic on her left hand in private, but I guess she’d forgotten. And I hoped that maybe she was tired of the secrets but didn’t know how to stop. Maybe forgetting to switch the elastic was her subconscious acting out.
Most of our conversations were a struggle, because my family and I didn’t get answers from her. The story never felt complete, and I had to fill in the spaces. She told me herself that her “blinders were up.” I explained to her that when I got engaged, I shared it with the whole family, because I was proud and excited and had nothing to hide. I told her that she was living in shade. I asked her explicitly to not marry Brenden. She just stared. The staring had been her go-to move for weeks. I think she was still trying to fill in the spaces too—trying to figure out who she’d be in this new body, this new version of herself.
After the drive, after the fight, after days of not speaking, I went to a bonfire—our creative writing department social event. We set up a table full of different program fliers, but the clouds came in, dark and full, and the wind threw the papers around like a tantrum. We all gathered them together, laughing, as small raindrops fell on our heads and bodies. My phone rang while I crawled on the grass. I paused, crinkled papers clamped between my elbow and hip, and answered to hear Olivia asking me for a ride home.
She lived about three and a half miles from her work. The rain fell harder. Faculty in charge of our event herded all of us into a building nearby. I helped plan the event, I had signed up to read, and I could not leave.
“Oh, you’re busy,” Olivia said to me. “Don’t worry about it. I’ll walk.”
When I stood inside the building, I couldn’t stop staring out the windows. The trees leaned and bent from the wind, and through the branches I saw lightning flares. The clouds unloaded the water that weighed them down. I thought of her walking, hopefully with a jacket and good shoes for rain. I wondered if maybe I didn’t know what was important anymore.
I stood up in front of the small creative writing crowd. My voice shook more than I would have liked when I announced it was my first time reading. My friends cheered for me.
I read a poem I’d written only months before titled “Space Song,” and after the title I mentioned the poem was an ode to black holes. The poem talks about black holes in fancy language, an attempt to try to understand them, and now I wish I could go back and call it an ode to John Michell. Without him, would we even know? And yet not knowing about him seems so inconsequential.
I was still looking out the windows in between the lines I read. The sky strobed and churned. Clouds lit up around the edges, making the inside look like a dark tunnel.
I read for myself. Because I needed it.
Black holes, the evolution of dark stars, the evolution of John Michell to Einstein to fact—dark masses on a dark surface, not brought to us by light.7 We can only see black holes because of the havoc they wreak on the stars around them. They curve so strong that space rains into them; space itself arcs like a waterfall flowing down its throat. Light drags down the hole, and becomes something different than it used to be. It becomes a dark shadow in the universe.8
Black holes form from the corpses of heavy stars. Each star reaches the end of its life and implodes, and all the energy and particles radiate and push against gravitational waves, creating this terrifying black mass. The star that purposely shined and lived in light and sent that brightness to the universe becomes a black hole.
Escaping the black hole is futile. The only way to leave the huge gravitational pull would be to travel faster than the speed of light, so light can’t escape it, either. We see a black sphere, reflecting nothing.
Any information that gets sucked into the black hole will not come back out. Scientists still have not found any indication of what the black hole contains, if anything. A portal to a different dimension? Different universes? Brave astronaut bones? Lately they have observed fire chuffs, like the black hole has swallowed its meal and belched with approval.
But really, this is my imagination making the holes scarier than they are. What if I were to say black holes are not sinister at all? Because John Michell was right—they live in the center of galaxies, and their tug keeps the star systems moving. That image I’ve stored for so long of this monstrous hole engulfing and gnashing objects like trash compactors is nothing. Non-existent. In fact, a black hole could replace our sun right now, and the only thing that would change would be a lack of light. We don’t have to stretch and dissolve to comply.
Days before Olivia got married, she and Mom had lunch together. Mom cried and said, “Can you at least acknowledge that you know none of this was ever the plan?”
Olivia nodded and said, “Yes. I acknowledge.”
Her wedding day looked perfect. The sun lit up the backyard, and trees shaded the patio. We set up macaroons on the picnic table and hung the backdrop—flowers strung together and crepe paper on woven lines. Behind the crafted twine, I could see the slide from the old and rusted playground. Deer waited in the orchard for the people to vacate so they could eat the flowers off the strings.
In the morning, Olivia and my mom walked into my grandparents’ house together. Olivia ran up the stairs to get her hair and makeup done, and my mom told me they had fought in the car. My mom had told Olivia she’d appreciate it if Brenden could just look her in the eye. Olivia said that wasn’t the point.
She only talked to me when she needed things—something to eat, a comb, bobby pins—and when I’d bring them to her she’d remind me how excited she felt.
Dad walked Olivia down the aisle, and my one-year-old nephew burst into tears. Her dress shimmered, and the beads and sequins fell off as she stepped. I’m sure only I noticed this. She got the dress on a discount because of the loose threads. She smiled wide as she walked. When she stood with Brenden in front of all of us, they stared into each other’s eyes, trying to show us just how happy they’d be together. My husband and I exchanged raised eyebrows—we knew that those kinds of smiles are so fleeting. Reality would be a shock.
My uncle leaned over to me and whispered, “I feel like I’m at a sales pitch. She’s like, selling her happiness to me.”
I whispered back, “Yep. I think most of us can say we’re here to support my parents.” And he nodded.
The ceremony stayed simple and to the point. Olivia’s old bishop married her in front of only her closest family and friends, and even though she had specifically requested that no dogs attend the wedding, Brenden’s family had brought their Shih Tzu. The fathers gave speeches afterwards. Brenden’s dad told us that he didn’t know much about marriage, but he did know about love, and he could see it in their eyes. My dad didn’t cry, and it surprised all of us.
We had pulled together a last minute luncheon at a restaurant called El Matador. The hostess had set up a long table for us in the back. The chairs had only inches between them, so we all bumped elbows. My parents sat at one end with Brenden’s parents, my siblings and I sat at the other end with our aunt and uncle. Olivia and Brenden sat in the middle, oblivious. Olivia leaned her head on Brenden’s shoulder, closed her eyes, smiled and sighed. A picture of bliss, I guess, in a crowded Mexican restaurant.
And then she left. We watched them drive away for their one-night honeymoon in Park City.
My mom asked, “What’s Brenden’s last name again?”
We all sat in my grandparents’ living room and wondered together.
Space usually stays silent in all the movies we see. If an explosion occurs, space absorbs the noise. But really, when black holes combine, they create songs—they beat on the universe together. They make space wobble like a drum.9
So imagine here, two huge masses come so close to each other that they start to revolve around a point in the emptiness. They’ve found each other, maybe not on purpose, but there doesn’t seem to be a way to go back. Like somehow choice is absent. And maybe the black holes get pulled from their present purpose. Maybe one is smaller than the other and loses all sense of where it wanted to go in the first place.
These black holes spin hundreds of times a second and revolve around each other at the speed of light. It’s chaos. Everything around this mess could be sucked in, distorted, inhaled. They leave behind a ringing in space, a wave in space-time. Space stretches and squeezes to accede to the disruption.
The black holes bang like mallets. The beats start out slow and spread apart as the two black holes hurtle through the cosmos. When they get closer to each other, the beats get closer too, like slow claps to a drumroll. If I could stand close enough, I’d hear their song. I can’t hear the sounds on earth, but I wish I could reach out to them. Extend one earbud to their side of the universe, and one back in history to John Michell, so they could dance together. So he could know to not be afraid to speak.10
And when the black holes merge, space is silent. It shifts back to the peace it kept before.
In third grade I learned that worms have five hearts that pulse and gather air from dirt. So when it finally rained, I grabbed a butter knife and searched my yard for the worms that emerged to the soaked surface. A long worm, pink and slimy, caught my eye. I watched it squirm like an accordion over the bumpy cement. Olivia and my brother ran to the driveway. Rain jackets partially covered their small, plump faces.
I told them, “If I cut this worm in half, it will still live. There’s hearts on both sides.”
“Are you sure?” Olivia’s eyebrows came together to worry.
We all watched the worm move so slowly, its segments stretched and met again. The dorsal a slightly darker pink. In my innocence, I thought of the worm’s family somewhere deep in the earth, waiting for this worm to come back home. The kids might be crying for food. The rain could be drowning them. But this worm had left. It had made its choice. I raised the knife.
Olivia and Buddy crouched next to me, and I slit the worm right down the center.
I wish I could say the severed sides immediately sealed back up, and the two new worms squiggled back into the dirt. I asked Buddy and Olivia if they could remember. They each had the same memory: a line of blood flowing down the driveway with the rain, the worm’s body empty and robbed, and Mom calling us in for dinner.
So then why did Steven say the worm could survive in two pieces? Why do we each remember contrary to his knowledge? Maybe the new worms did slink away while we ate inside. I want to believe that. I want to believe that we can carry on, regardless of separation or hurried and destructive merging. I want to change history.
But all I have is now.
And in this moment, Olivia lives in California while Brenden works for the Navy, and it feels like she was never here, like none of the mess ever happened. And when I think about her wedding, I don’t think of the sun shining through the trees. I don’t remember the taste of caramel-flavored macaroons. I don’t care about her walking down the aisle. I don’t think about Brenden’s glasses—how they reflected so much that I could never see his eyes.
Instead I think of moments that give me hope. The first: Olivia, Brenden, my husband, and me, sitting on the trampoline in my aunt’s backyard before Olivia and Brenden left for California. I held my nephew in my lap, and we all bounced lightly to watch him smile. While I still felt apprehensive, I also felt like I was letting go.
The second: Olivia texting me to say she bought a cat. And this helped me believe that she would use her voice again.
When I do think of the actual wedding, I remember walking into the bathroom after everyone had left. I stared out the window at the two trees and garden behind it, lined with a white picket fence. Most of the plants dried-up and withered, preparing for a new season.
I closed the door and cried. I watched myself in the mirror; the tears slipped down my face, cheeks rouged red with feeling. But those tears didn’t feel like weights. They felt like release. And my hope now is that we can one day cry together, open and unafraid. That we can all revolve together. Maybe we’ll even understand each other. I’ll turn up the volume. I’m ready to listen.
- “Dark stars.” McCormmach, Russell. Weighing the World: The Reverend John Michell of Thornhill. 229-231. The name “dark stars” comes from this section, as well as the early information proven to be accurate about black holes.
- “He was a little short man…” http://io9.gizmodo.com/5717082/the-forgotten-genius-who-discovered-black-holes-over-200-years-ago
- McCormmach, Russell. Weighing the World: The Reverend John Michell of Thornhill. Springer Science & Business Media, B.V. 2012. For all other information on Reverend John Michell that has been summarized throughout this essay.
- “Somewhat beside…” McCormmach, Russell. Weighing the World: The Reverend John Michell of Thornhill. Interesting to note that “present purpose” might not necessarily be “only purpose.”
- “Natural philosopher.” McCormmach, Russell. Weighing the World: The Reverend John Michell of Thornhill. The book about John Michell came from a library loan system. My campus library borrowed this book from a different source, and then let me use it. Because of this process, I wasn’t allowed to renew the book. I wrote down most of the page numbers, but this specific quote did not seem to make the cut. The book itself seems to characterize John Michell—limited information and ever so slightly out of reach. Heavy, too. Very heavy.
- “Michell is not mentioned…” McCormmach, Russell. Weighing the World: The Reverend John Michell of Thornhill. 181-182. The book, while characterizing John Michell, also seemed to be a black hole itself. For a book containing information on one person, it’s amazing how little information it actually gave.
- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=e-P5IFTqB98 All of these videos contributed to the black hole strands. These good people helped me with the science behind black holes, the language, and the ideas. Some is actual tried and true science, and some, like the space song, is a hypothesis waiting to be proven. We haven’t heard it yet. But we’ll be ready when it comes.