If You Could Explain It by Patty Somlo

starry night skyIt won’t happen again for a thousand years, the article said. That was enough for me to set the alarm for fifteen minutes before four on a Saturday, even though Richard and I were warm under the hand-sewn quilt, in a cabin whose walls gave off the aroma of wood smoke.

Fortunately, I thought to set out the cups the night before, the brown plastic filter on top filled with dark roast coffee. Even though summer hasn’t officially come to an end, we are close to fall and the morning is cold. There’s no time to start a fire and we don’t want the light. Darkness is what will allow us to witness this once-in-a-lifetime spectacle.

We’ve timed it perfectly, though we only learned about the meteor shower the other day and we had planned this four-day getaway at the river months ago. We packed the car early and headed south. Few other cars were on the road as we passed farmhouses first and then reached a point where both sides of the road were bordered by Douglas fir and mountain hemlock.

The cabin sits just a few feet above the roaring McKenzie River, out a narrow back road, surrounded by the Willamette National Forest. A few other summer cabins, a handful of permanent homes and several campgrounds are scattered around the valley. But there are no streetlights cutting through the dark. No light from any place, except the small kitchen of our cabin.

While I wait for the water to boil for coffee, Richard stumbles around outside, trying to get his tripod and camera situated in the best spot for sky shots. I don’t want to think about him out there in the dark, on a cliff above the river. Here in Oregon, the newspaper runs stories every week about people getting lost on back roads, slipping off trails and disappearing in the brush—people that have gone missing or injured. For decades, I’ve enjoyed isolated places and only saw beauty in the wilderness, but after several prominent tragedies this year, I have started to see danger lurking around every turn.

The show is scheduled to begin at 4 a.m. and peak a half hour later. As many as a thousand meteors will screech across the sky, and the West Coast is the best place to witness it. We read that seeing the showers will be a pretty sure thing if it’s not cloudy and you’re in a spot with little artificial light; if yesterday’s perfect, blazing blue sky is any indication, we should get a clear view.

I step on the deck to check out the sky—and to make sure Richard hasn’t fallen in the river. Outside it’s cold enough to be November; the world is silent and black. It takes a moment for my eyes to adjust, and when they do, I see Richard standing up ahead, below the deck. I can even see whitecaps in the river on waves as they rise.

Yesterday, I discovered a place on the deck where one of the boards was higher than the rest, so I step carefully as I move across. As soon as I reach the railing, I grab hold, steadying myself, and then I lean back. Right off, I see: the stars are a disappointment.

“Have you seen anything?” I ask Richard, whispering even though there’s no one around to wake up.

“No,” Richard whispers back. “The moon’s too bright.”

Behind me, a three-quarter moon hangs just above the treeline, bleaching out the black of the sky, allowing us to see only a handful of stars.

Standing in the dark, I’m reminded of another time Richard and I were out in a place with few artificial lights and we saw what looked like a thousand stars flung across the sky. That night, we took a tram ride through Yosemite National Park. At one point, the driver stopped, and we faced the massive rock known as El Capitan. The driver told us to aim our eyes a short distance down from the top. When we did, we saw the flashlights of climbers wink on and off. Tomorrow, our guide said, those climbers would attempt to scramble to the top.

The driver must have known the effect this would have on us. I sat looking at those tiny winking lights enthralled. It was the closest I’d come to doing anything daring.  But in that moment, I shared an embrace of wildness and the thrill of sending light out into the dark with people who would cling to a narrow, rocky ledge the rest of the night.

In recalling the moment, I remember that Richard and I were going through a bad stretch, fighting all the time. The weekend in Yosemite had been particularly rough. All these years later, I can’t remember a single thing that we fought about. I only know that I felt bruised and tired from crying so much.

Richard reached for my hand in the dark. We held onto one another on that tram, as we looked up, watching and waiting for those winking lights to reappear. Several times, I leaned my head back to see the stars.

That night healed us some. After all the ugly words, we could see there was a place beyond the old wounds we were so adept at re-opening in one another, a place of peace and beauty and light, even in the dark.

“There,” I yell, as a bright white light streaks across the faded gray background of sky. I keep my head back, waiting for the next one, as I’m certain the show is just about to start. It’s still quiet, except for the roar of the river, and cold. I shoot my gaze northeast, the direction we’ve been told the shower will be best seen. There’s nothing in the sky except scattered, dull white lights.

“Do you see anything else?” Richard whispers loudly from below.

“No,” I say, and give my neck a rest while I sip my coffee before it gets cold.

We used to rent a cabin about an hour and half’s drive north of San Francisco, where we lived before moving to Oregon. The cabin faced a wide meadow, at the top of a tree-lined gravel road. We’d sit on the deck in the morning sipping coffee, and if we were lucky, a deer might show up. At that hour when the sun was still low in the sky, the meadow grass glowed golden and the tan deer’s hide would disappear into and out of the glittering yellow stalks.

At night, we’d sit in the Jacuzzi and look at the stars. Richard, who as a child begged his parents to buy him a telescope, would point out the Milky Way and tell me the names of the planets and constellations. We repeated this activity countless times but I never grew tired of listening, awed by the immensity of the universe and the sheer beauty of all those stars.

At the time, we were living in the city, on the first floor of a building with tissue-thin walls. Several times a week, we’d get woken up in the middle of the night by our upstairs neighbor’s high heels clattering across the bare wood floor or the creaking of the bed springs, as she and her boyfriend made love. The only sounds at the cabin were the whispers of crickets and the hum of the hot tub motor turning on and off.

The cushions on the wrought iron chairs are damp, so I continue to stand on the deck. My feet grow colder by the moment. We’ve seen a handful of shooting stars but nothing like what we’ve gotten up so early for – hundreds of fireballs whizzing across the sky. Because we both suffer from self-doubt, Richard and I keep thinking we’ve done something wrong.

“Are you sure it was supposed to be on Saturday?” Richard asks.

I move my fingers and toes to get the circulation going before I respond.

“I’m not sure,” I say.

The moon was full the first time Richard and I went out. It was late September, the one part of the year when San Francisco is free of fog. We followed a line of cars up and around several nearly ninety-degree curves to get to Coit Tower, at the top of Russian Hill. The moon was so huge—and slightly orange—that it looked like a fake. Even with the city lights, we could see stars. By the time Richard leaned over to kiss me before we headed for the car, I felt dizzy from looking up so long.

By the following Saturday when we took the crazy coast road that winds and climbs above the Pacific north to the town of Mendocino, the fog had blown back in. As we hiked along the headlands at the edge of town, a thin layer of fog hovered over the water, softening the horizon, so it became impossible to tell where the sky began and the ocean stopped.

For some reason now, I’m thinking about Mendocino, where Richard and I first made love. Over an hour has passed and the sky still refuses to explode with light. Richard is standing in front of his camera, ready to take a shot. I’m happy we got up, regardless of whether the meteors ever arrive.

If asked, most people couldn’t explain the initial attraction they felt toward the person who later became their lifelong partner or spouse. I recall an interview with the great Italian tenor Luciano Pavarotti, in which he was asked why he fell in love with a woman 34 years his junior and left his wife. Pavarotti’s face shifted from the seriousness it had held while waiting for the question to a wistful sadness, before he shook his head and smiled. If you could explain it, he said, his heavily accented English making his speech sound like a song, then it wouldn’t be love.

I’m disappointed, of course, that the meteor shower we’ve anticipated hasn’t materialized. Yet standing here listening to the river now, I’m suddenly feeling thankful for something more. Mostly, I’m grateful to have found a husband who wouldn’t think twice about getting up in the middle of the night to look at the stars. Even now, as the sky begins to lighten, making it almost impossible to see a single pinpoint of starlight, Richard still waits, gazing off into the sky. And watching him there, on that narrow ledge, I am convinced that he hasn’t yet given up.

patty somloPatty Somlo has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize three times and was a finalist in the Tom Howard Short Story Contest. She is the author of From Here to There and Other Stories, published by Paraguas Books. Her work has appeared in the Los Angeles Review, the Santa Clara Review, the Jackson Hole Review, WomenArts Quarterly, Guernica, Slow Trains and Fringe Magazine, among others, and in several anthologies.She has work forthcoming in the Evening Street Review, Shaking Magazine, Slow Trains, and in the anthology, Human Nature: Call of the Wild.
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