We can’t miss a trip out west to see the total eclipse, according to Mark. I said yes before knowing the whole story. Turns out his girlfriend is going. And his girlfriend’s girlfriend. Weird, to say the least. Blame a relationship without balance or purpose. Anyway, not the point. Thing is, as soon as I hung up, I felt it in my bones that by the end of the trip someone will be dead.
I could live without these premonitions, that’s for sure. They always catch me by surprise and find me unprepared, like now. There’s no use to them. They are imprecise, unspecific, sterile. No time, no location, no subject, only a vague certainty. It’s baseless doom serving no one. All I know is that it won’t be me. Or Guinness, my cat.
And, yet, I can’t ignore them, not until their conclusion, sure to be bleak, if not disastrous. Can life continue unperturbed when fate is about to strike? I don’t think so. At least I’m not my sister. Sylvia keeps a freaking diary of hers, tracking their epiphany, metamorphoses, and outcome. She deals with them regularly, though. That’s what she gets for caring about a lot people. I, on the other hand, am a lone wolf. I live and work in a tiny studio apartment buried in cascades of concrete. My best friend is Guinness, a gentle but distant ball of fur, immune to premonitions.
Sylvia mentioned them for the first time when I was fourteen. We lay on Mom’s quilt in the park, mesmerized by the sight of the ducks sliding smoothly on the surface of the pond.
“Do you ever feel things?”
She didn’t need to be more specific because I knew what she meant, and she knew I knew. We can’t hide things from each other, a perpetual invasion of privacy I did not sign up for. I lied and shook my head.
“There’s a reason for them. I know. One day we’ll find out.”
Sylvia believes we have superpowers, but I disagree. There’s no reason, and there aren’t superpowers. Who do we save? No one. I think we call them premonitions when we could use other words. Hypersensitivity. Pessimism. Madness.
I force myself to forget about them right after the disaster occurs, my go-to defense mechanism for all things awful. There’s only one premonition I vividly remember. It has to do with my father’s death ten years ago. The tumor had infiltrated every cavity in his lungs. No one needed to be a psychic to guess he didn’t have much time left. As he lay in bed, the death rattle grew louder, and I decided to give him a straight-razor shave, of all things. I pulled the skin with the tips of my fingers as delicately as I could. Moments later, in the bathroom, the tiles turned whiter, and pressure closed up my ears. I knew it was time. Sylvia’s cell phone didn’t ring once. She answered saying, “I’m on my way.”
“It’s happening now.”
In the bedroom, Dad smiled with his eyes closed. He took one shallow breath, then no more.
I often think about that afternoon for obvious reasons, but all other premonitions go straight into a dark area of my mind, safely guarded by denial, out of reach. Without words to shape them, memories disintegrate.
Sylvia insists on talking about them, to no avail. At first, she thought I’d be a companion of sorts, someone who understands what it means to go through life one announced disaster after the next. My lack of collaboration upsets her, though she’s getting used to it. Now, we give each other knowing stares when businesses go bankrupts, nature rebels, and people get hurt or die or both.
She calls as I board the plane to Las Vegas. No surprises there.
“Do you have anything to say?” she asks.
“You know I don’t.”
“Who are these people anyway? Why do you want to put yourself through that?”
“They are friends. And it’s just a road trip, Sylvia. Chill.”
A lie makes things worse. What am I supposed to say, though? That I met Mark four years ago? That he’s been my lover all this time?
Every year, Mark spends the month leading up to Christmas in my neighborhood, selling trees and maple syrup from Vermont on Hicks Street. He sleeps in a beige RV parked in front of his stand.
It was the scent of pines unleashed by a light rain that caught my attention first, but soon I marveled at his blond beard and broad shoulders under layers of plaid. He seemed warm and cold at the same time, delightfully vulgar and at peace. He caught me staring and smiled, his teeth a white mirror. I asked him questions about the syrups. From there, the conversation veered toward good scotch and dive bars. After he closed the stand for the day, we grabbed drinks on Atlantic Avenue. The night ended with the RV smelling of Christmas and sex. The proximity of the street was unnatural, but the rhythm of Mark’s chest under my arm felt like a lullaby, and I eventually fell asleep. I dreamed of a simpler life on a farm in Vermont.
Those images vanished by morning, but Mark and I became something—lovers, I guess. An easy pair untested by boredom and routine, we spend rare weekends together at the beach, camping, partying. We don’t talk a whole lot about our lives. He’s with someone, and I’ve never been proud of that, but love turns people selfless and selfish in equal measure. Why Mark asked me to join them on this trip remains a mystery, like the reason behind my blind acceptance. Her name is Ellen, and soon she’ll have a face. It’s not as easy to dismiss someone with a name and a face.
Our planes land at about the same time, mine from JFK, theirs from Burlington. I meet Ellen and her friend, Lisa, in the terminal where looking disoriented is acceptable and almost expected. I shake their hands and give Mark a brotherly hug. So far so good.
Our rental is a convertible, a lime-green Jeep, photogenic to a fault. We drive straight to the hotel, an old building located far off the Strip on purpose. If you trust TripAdvisor’s reviews, the place is haunted. Mark, Ellen, and Lisa do, and so at dinner they share tales of ghosts and monsters. Lisa asks if I know any scary stories. Oh, I do. I could tell them one of them will be dead by the end of the week but decide against it. It seems anticlimactic.
On a side note, Ellen is perfect. Lisa, also enjoyable, disappears next to her, one of those friendships. With some effort on my part, Mark fades in the background. I love the man, I think. He goes about life with great lightness as if only gratification matters.
As the night goes on, everything feels wrong. So, when Ellen says they booked only two rooms—one for the boys and one for the girls—I volunteer to pay extra for my own space. The idea receives a tepid response. Mark insists and, true to our history, I give up.
The room for the boys ends up being a love nest, haunted, yes, by guilt, and premonitions.
On the road, northbound, we listen to classics and sing along. Ellen selects tracks from a Spotify playlist titled AMERICA, all capitals. We visit the Valley of Fire, Zion, Craters of the Moon, and no one dies. The trip turns out to be uplifting, reinvigorating. Occasionally, I forget about the dark cloud over us.
The last day, however, I’m restless. It’s still dark out when we leave the motel in Pocatello to drive to Rexburg, Idaho. We hope to beat traffic and land in the heart of the path of totality before the masses. The Great American Eclipse is a big deal. There won’t be another one with a path of totality only on U.S. soil for centuries.
With still an hour to go in Rexburg, people hang out on foldable chairs on the side of the road, day drinking. We leave our car in a McDonald’s parking lot, use the restrooms, then continue on foot in a hayfield. Mark shares anecdotes about solar eclipses. He talks about Christopher Columbus tricking indigenous people, and Katy Bates killing her husband in some movie, and people going insane. I can’t contribute to the conversation because I don’t know a thing about eclipses besides the underlying science. Mark asks if I’m okay. I crack open a beer and nod—twenty more minutes. Locals tailgate nearby blasting “You Are My Sunshine” from a pickup truck.
Suddenly, Lisa doesn’t want to proceed further. Her eyes bulge, and her hands shake. Pale and seemingly scared, she says she’s not feeling well over and over again.
This is it, I think, she’s dying. It’s her. In the sadness of it all, I feel relieved. I don’t want Lisa to die, but, if I had to pick, it would be her. Ellen tells us not to worry; Lisa is not a stranger to anxiety attacks. The sum of it all—the drive, the heat, the anticipation, the crowds—proved to be a lot to handle.
The light changes gradually. People yell as they look up at the sun using viewing devices. It has started.
Mark gives us glasses, their paper frames decorated with stars and stripes, and a bald eagle in the middle of the Sun’s corona. No one wears them, and no one looks up. Ellen takes Lisa—now hyperventilating—by the hand and walks away. She gestures at us to let them be for a while as they seek shelter in the worthless shadow of a dry tree.
“I have something to tell you,” Mark says. The yellow of the field turns duller, the air colder, and the crowd in the distance louder. “I postponed and postponed, and now it’s the end of the trip. It never felt like the right time.”
He grabs my wrist as if he worries I might run away. He grabs my wrist so he doesn’t have to hold my hands.
Long story short: Ellen is pregnant, and whatever we have going on has to end. Game over. He breaks up with me in a frenzy. I won’t make a scene because it’s not my style, and I know better. Our game was never on.
I witness my first (and probably last) solar eclipse on Mark’s face. His skin turns lighter, then darker, from silver to slate gray. Behind his big head, the horizon changes in gradients of oranges and blues, not quite dusk, not quite dawn. I see stars, fucking stars in a crazy sky. Dogs bark, men scream, some people cry—Lisa among them—as “Ride Into the Sun” plays from the pickup truck.
When the shadow passes, a blanket of yellow spreads on the earth, and everything goes back to normal, even Lisa.
“Are you guys okay?” asks Ellen.
“We’re great,” says Mark, letting go of my wrists at last.
I’m still in awe. When the sun disappears in the middle of the day, our minuscule lives fall in perspective.
The airport in Boise is awkwardly quiet, or maybe it’s just us, projecting our tiredness and mixed feelings all over its walls. My flight to La Guardia is delayed. I sit with them at their gate, though I am ready to say goodbye. Our stretched-out separation happens only when they board their plane. It feels real and poignant.
No one died.
Perhaps I was right all along, and these premonitions are nothing other than emotional thunderstorms, a form of fragility I loathe and Sylvia needs. Or maybe I just misperceived the latest one, and no human was supposed to perish altogether, only my relationship with Mark. Or their plane is going down now, as I savor my scotch.