A Trillion Lights
It was a dream I had once; no, it was a dream I’ve had a hundred times, that has made me think of all this.
I’m in a boat at night, while trillions of stars above me reflect off the calm ocean, so much so that I can’t tell where the night sky ends and the ocean begins. Sometimes I’m the old man in the little skiff, rowing big oaken oars against the meager current. Other times, I’m in a sail boat, wind filling up the dark, triangular sails above my head. Sometimes the boat has an engine, a low rumbling thing, steady, frothing the water behind me into white foam. There is no point or star or destination that I direct my bow towards. In this dream, I just push forward aimlessly, peering straight ahead into the infinite, unchanging night. What strikes me, though, is this feeling of searching for an end somewhere; the idea that just up ahead, I can reach what I’ve been searching for all this time. But I never seem to get any closer.
When I wake up, I can still see the trillion lights blurring together and smell the ocean air and hear the calm water lapping off the sides of my boat. I still feel that cool, windless Atlantic air. And above all, I still feel that searching feeling, that striving for an end that is just out of reach. Anyways, the dream has made me think of all of this.
I see the minds of my generation destroyed by madness, but none of us even know who Allen Ginsberg is.
Last Saturday night—well, it doesn’t really matter which night it was—I found myself at a friend’s apartment drinking a lukewarm beer from a twelve-pack at my feet. We’re aren’t saying much.
“Are you enjoying your beer?” Rob, the friend of mine, asks me. He’s sitting on a dirty faux-leather couch he had probably found in someone’s front yard.
“I’d like it better if it was cold.” I like to find smalls things like this to complain about. It sparks conversation, I tell myself. I start to get up to put the twelve-pack into the refrigerator.
“Where are you going?” he asks me.
“To put these in the fridge.”
“Well, it won’t be any colder if you put it in there.”
“Why not?” He takes a sip of his beer and wipes his mouth with the back of his hand.
“It broke last week. The fridge is out of order.” He grins his toothy grin. I sit down and take a sip from my beer, growing warmer from the heat of my hand. He shrugs his shoulders and makes this clicking type of sound with his teeth, drinking his ice cold light beer. He reaches into a big red cooler at his feet and pulls out another can, handing it toward me. I shake my head, but I’m forever grateful. I hope he knows that; my eternal gratitude, I mean.
They say we’re not lost, or silent, or booming. We’re not the greatest, or some combination of letters and numbers. So who are we, those who drink warm beer from bottles and actually enjoy it? Who are we who spend our paychecks on these things while ignoring our cell phone bills?
I could say my hometown is like any other person’s hometown in America; filled with people we dread seeing, lonely, familiar, distant. Our hometowns always seem to hold that strange mix of loathsomeness and love in our hearts, that feeling of wanting to hate something so bad, yet not being able to bring ourselves to do it. We can’t hate it because we are it and it is us.
At some point during that Saturday night, and this point always comes, we begin running out of things to talk about. At this point in the night, I’ve consumed just that right amount of alcohol that makes me want to stand up and do something. Sitting on other dirty couches are some other friends of mine. We glance around the room at each other with looks that say: “Well, what the hell else are we supposed to do?” So we stand up, and begin walking; somewhere, anywhere other than where we are at that particular point in time. Someone hears of something going on at a local bar, a “so and so girl who I haven’t seen in a few weeks,” or something along those lines. Whatever causes us to stand up and venture out into the cold night is alive and well in our hearts.
There may be other reasons why we do what we do. Some of us make our way into town just to have someone to talk to, even if we know they aren’t listening. Some of us hope to see that pretty blonde bartender at that dirty piano bar. Or, some of us do it holding on hope that we may get laid for the first time in three months. But at the heart of it, we want to do something to avoid the prospect of staying still for too long in one place. I think that some of us do it for that.
Four or five of us step out into the cold, late fall air, testing the waters with our half-drunk toes. Piles of dead, soggy leaves are rotting all over the lawn and the street. I step in one of the piles, which only brings that special type of sadness that transcends from seeing something so useless and forgotten that once grew proudly green, protecting us from the sun that wanted to hurt so badly only a few months before. In the too-dark, too-early late autumn dusk, I wonder if anyone else feels the same way.
The moon looks like it was painted in water colors by a child.
“I hope that blonde girl is here tonight,” Ryan, someone I went to high school with, says. He’s wearing a grey polo tucked into dark jeans. He sells insurance now and complains, among other things, that he’s enslaved to the bank because of his student loans. “What’s her name again?” he asks us, but more so asks himself.
“Where are we going?” I ask him. I get the impression that he has some idea of where we’re going.
“I don’t know, I thought you knew.” I have no idea where we’re going. No one does. We realize that so much, everything we have ever known and will ever know depends on that decision. So we just keep walking forward because none of us want to hold that type of power.
We continue pushing on down the sidewalk, past boarded up buildings that people used to sell insurance out of and neon-lit convenience stores, or closed-down fast food stands that were so busy only a few months before. Rob doesn’t say anything, taking a big inhale of his cigarette and stumbling ever so slightly, looking up into the sky at that water-colored moon. Sometimes I wish I were him, just looking up, watching as the smoke disappears into the cold air. What’s he always looking at?
“Welcome to Historic Main Street” one of the signs reads in fancy cursive lettering.
Something makes me think of that dream again. I remember when I was younger, probably seven or ten or one of those ages where you can still remember certain events like this, I was diving underneath big waves at the beach. I’d stand in ice-cold saltwater up to my chest, jumping on my tiptoes on the sandy bottom, looking at each coming wave, bobbing up and down. As each wave approached, I’d dive headfirst into it, letting the saltwater wash over my face and up my nose.
Then, I remember a wave, larger and whiter than the rest, hitting me and spinning me around in the water. I didn’t know which way was up and which way was down and I remember thinking to myself that I was in trouble when things went black. This is when it first happened.
I remember seeing the stars then, the trillion little lights and their reflections in the water, and the sound of the motor behind me and the smell of the salt air. I remember moving toward what I thought was an end somewhere. Then, I remember a hand pulling me out of the water. When I came to, lying on the sand, I took my first breath and opened my eyes for the first time, as if I had never opened them before. Each color looked so new and each breath so sweet and full of life. I had decided then that I had awoken, born of salt and water and crowded beach.
We walk into a small bar off the corner of Water Street that smells like popcorn and looks out over the rusty draggers sleeping softly in the harbor. The bouncer looks bored as he checks our IDs, and we’re greeted by a loud waitress. She smiles at us. Someone orders some drinks, but Rob and Dave, a friend who just joined us, linger outside smoking cigarettes. Other people walk up and laugh with them loudly. A girl in a dress lights her cigarette on Rob’s. She smiles at him. I’m suddenly envious. Why can’t I experience the relationship of two people sharing a cigarette? Why am I not invited?
There’s a man with a gray goatee and a cutoff flannel shirt in the corner growling some Dylan on his trebly acoustic, though his voice sounds much too “nineties rock star” to be in any way that Dylan would have intended. We order our drinks. Ryan buys some shots for some people he supposedly knows through work. He offers one to me so I take it. The tequila runs down my face and the lime makes my teeth hurt but it warms my stomach and I’m suddenly not so envious anymore.
The man in the corner strumming his acoustic plays a few more songs. He finishes an especially downbeat little number and, after receiving no reaction from the crowd, walks off the stage and sulks at a table, drinking a Bud. His drunk girlfriend or wife is talking to someone else. Somebody buys me another drink and then another shot and then another drink, in that order. Ryan is getting louder and Rob is rapping his knuckles on the bar anxiously. Dave is talking too close to people’s faces, a sure sign that he will soon be fighting.
At this point in the night, I may or may not have had too much to drink, depending on your definition of the situation. I find myself talking to a tall, model-looking girl with cocaine skin who I know through one of my ex-girlfriends.
“I’m still taking classes at State,” she says after a long drink from her gin-or-vodka-tonic. She squints one eye and takes another sip in a way that makes me think she’s thinking about something. I just nod. “But I still want to be a photographer.”
“What type of photographer?” I ask her. She just shrugs.
“I don’t know. I just like taking pictures.” She continues to look like she’s thinking about something.
“Well you should be a photographer then,” I tell her. She laughs and rolls her eyes.
Rob is still looking anxious and starts to tell his war stories to a fellow vet. Ryan sees me from across the bar and gives me a little eyebrow raise and a thumbs up. I repay him with a different finger gesture.
I see Dave at one of the high-top tables in the corner. If he were a boxer, he’d fight at the featherweight class. But he’s as loud as he is slight in frame and I can hear him from where I stand. He’s talking to a small-framed girl and lifting his shoulder up and letting them fall heavily while he speaks. The girl is talking too close to his face. She lifts her hand, fixes her hair, and lets it fall on his shoulder. The girl he’s talking to will be nineteen next month, somebody tells me.
“That’s too young,” I tell whoever told me that.
“Everyone’s too young,” he replies.
“We should leave,” Rob tells me. He still looks anxious, taking big sips of his bottle of beer.
By now, a strung-out looking kid in a dirty flannel shirt hooks up his acoustic and starts flat-picking an old bluegrass song in the corner. His buddy picks up a slide guitar and lays down some little licks. They finish their bluegrass intro, take a sip of their whiskies and start playing a George Jones song.
She thinks I still care, he sings over the metallic hum of the PA system.
Dave walks up to me from the other side of the bar, the young girl following behind him.
“Let’s go someplace else,” he tells me. The girl pops up from behind him.
“My name’s Ava,” she tells me, holding out her hand.
“Nice to meet you,” I must have said. She looks at me with deep eyes in a way that every man is uncomfortable being looked at. I look away.
“We just got here,” I say to Dave.
“I’ve already had six beers. Let’s go.” He most likely doesn’t want his girlfriend to show up. He tilts his head back and swallows the rest of his beer, throwing the empty bottle down heavily on the wooden bar.
By the time we’re all done forcing our beers down, we step out again into the cold and move down the street. The big, steel hulls of the fishing boats are still rocking in the harbor sleepily.
I’m not sure why I listen to them, I think to myself. Why do we have to move? Why can’t we force ourselves to stay in one place for an indeterminate amount of time, no matter how uncomfortable it makes us? Why did they want to leave and move along to the next bar? I like George Jones.
I think that out of all of the things we despise and hate and loath in our lives, that feeling of standing still is what we hate the most. We feel the need to be constantly moving, shuffling to avoid being in one place for too long a time; afraid that maybe our demons might catch us or that we’d be sentenced to a life of long commutes and impending Mondays if we aren’t constantly on the run. That’s what we’re afraid of. We’re afraid of dying like that. I write that down.
“I didn’t even see it,” Rob told me one 3 AM night. “I was supposed to be able to see it.” He looks somewhere far off, past me, past the walls, lost. He’s not even here, really. “They told me I’d be able to see it.” I’m not even sure what he’s talking about, exactly. “The radar was supposed to show a heat signature.”
Suddenly, he’s weeping and punching the wall and slamming his fist on the table. I can’t understand anything he’s saying. “It was supposed to…It was supposed to…It was supposed to be…” I just sit there and look at him.
After a while, he stops crying and his knuckle is bleeding. He looks embarrassed.
“Sorry,” he says. He smiles and wipes his nose with his sleeve.
We walk in and out of bars and little side street shops all night. Everyone is smoking cigarettes and talking loudly but no one is really listening.
We can’t hear each other speak at the next bar we walk into. There’s a DJ with big headphones around his neck on a big stage at the back of the bar blaring radio music through his speakers. The bar is dark but for the sporadic flashing neon lights illuminating the dance floor. The bartender in the middle of the room looks familiar to me. She has short dark hair and a black t-shirt and she smiles at me. I don’t know what to say to her because I might be drunk, but she asks me what I want to drink and I shrug. She smiles again and I decide right there that I love her, the very same way that I love anyone at any particular time on a night like this. I suddenly wish I were her.
I see Dave in the corner and another man yelling at him, but I don’t know what words they are saying. I decide to stay out of it.
I look around and I’m standing by myself in a crowd of people. My friends are gone, so I say something to the bartender but she doesn’t hear me. I walk outside.
There’s nothing left, I realize while I stand on the side of the road. There’s nothing left for any of us. Cars pass in front of me in white blurs and I’m envious of them. I look down an alley and see a small sliver of the harbor, but there are no boats in my limited view and the empty water saddens me deeply, but in a different way than the pile of wet leaves. The water color moon is hiding behind water color clouds, like the painting was suddenly and ferociously brushed upon by a thick, wet brush.
We, all of us, are born again through blaring speakers and slippery, beer-soaked floors, baptized by the hand of the bartender with holy watered-down mixed drinks, born forth into this world in nineteen-hundred and eighty-seven, the year of our lord, fire of fire, exulted in His name. Amen. I write that down.
On the way home, somebody drives and I sit in the passenger seat. I roll down the window and stick my head out, closing my eyes, letting the wind and the fumes and salt rush over me. I see it again. I picture it.
I sail my boat out past the harbor and the spinning lights of the lonely lighthouse above the solemn, white-capped ocean. I search day and night and night without sleep for where it all ends, for my destination. I keep pushing on into that eternal nighttime and squint up ahead, asking myself “Is that it” “Is that where it ends?” But of course, it doesn’t.
We’re all in that boat. We sail for where the edge falls off, for where the stars reflect the trillion and one lights of the cosmos, and where the water meets the sky. We sail for our destination, for where we want to be, where the water drops calmly, fountain-like off the edge of the known world into nothing, into that eternal machine of the rest of our lives, descending further and further away from us. We’ll push ourselves closer and closer to what we think is the edge, looking down into the water, but then cowering back, never going over, never following through, never again peering into, scared of what we saw, of the emptiness, of that great, lonely abyss.