The Butterfly Nebula 11 — Night Drive on the Great Plains

July 1, 2014

Night Drive on the Great Plains

“It is hard to understand how the ancients maintained a geocentric view of the universe. I don’t feel this planet is the center of anything. Out here I can see and feel the rotation of Earth. I can feel the great turning of our sphere because there are no tall buildings out here or any obstruction to block the movement of our planet in relation to the stars and other planets. Everything is moving. Nothing is fixed or stationery . . . ever.”

The last time I had seen a night so vast was in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, but instead Beatrice and I were driving across Oklahoma at 1:00 AM in the early part of April and she was talking, and talking. Night on the Great Plains or the ocean is astonishingly similar. We had decided to drive all night, or through as much of the night as possible. We were on a fairly tight schedule and hoped to reach The Empyrean Observatory in Arizona by the following evening. We traveled into a cave of stars; the flat horizon before us tricking the eye so it appeared to ascend at a 45-degree angle, climbing into the heavens toward Taurus and Gemini, the twins Castor and Pollux glimmering down. On this dark and endless prairie my pickup truck felt as small as a microbe making its way through the body of a whale.

Beatrice gazed out the passenger’s window, her legs on the seat pulled into the sinuous bend of her torso, her arms hugging her knees.

“We’ll be up there soon,” she said wistfully.

“Yes, we should be at the observatory some time tomorrow night.”

“I didn’t mean the observatory. My God, you’re so literal,” she said, her stunning profile contemplative as she continued gazing at the skies.

“And we will never travel through space,” she added, stifling a yawn, her blue and her brown eye dulling. “I think dying may be our only mode of space travel. We’re finite creatures, frail mammals, and time-bound. We’re not biologically designed for getting to other planets and out further into our own galaxy, no less travelling to other galaxies.”

And those were her last words before she drifted off to sleep.

Back in January, and two days after finding out about Beatrice and Laura, I received a letter from “Patio Astronomer” magazine congratulating me on the discovery of Scorpius-429 (a.k.a. Burns and Allen) and offering me a prize. The magazine traditionally offered prizes to amateur astronomers who’d made discoveries of new stars or comets and other stellar objects, and my award for discovering, announcing, and having Scorpius-429 cataloged would be a three-night visit at the Empyrean Observatory, situated on a 6,870 foot peak above the Sonoran Desert in Arizona. I would spend each night in the company of resident astronomers and be able to look through one of the largest telescopes in North America and follow the work of professionals up close. It was the opportunity of a lifetime and one I had waited years to experience. Ecstatic over the good news, I had temporarily forgotten Beatrice and what I’d recently discovered concerning her.

Now, some three-and-a-half months later, I knew that what happened between us on Christmas Eve had been born of impulse and would not likely be repeated, though the trip might be the best opportunity for making a making a repeat possible. I drove on in silence while Beatrice slept, the highway a hypnotic seam cleaving the prairie. No matter where you were the night had a rhythmic eternal character, a country I had long taken up residence in with my telescopes and star charts and notebooks, familiar terrain for two decades, a province of insomniacs, whores, drinkers, truckers, musicians and entertainers, criminals, sometimes writers, and definitely astronomers. I have spent a significant part of my life up at night, alone. I haven’t thought about it too often because the nocturnal habit has become so ingrained in me. You can hear everything in the dark: the OM of the refrigerator, the conspiratorial hiss of radiator steam, the distant blast of a car horn. The words inside your head grow more clear and resonant with no audio distraction. On certain nights Time will appear to stand still, and on other nights an hour or two will pass when you thought it had only been five minutes. And often in my dreams I’ll still be lost in the heavens, and the boundaries between what I had seen or thought and dreamt will dissolve in the Great Womb of Night so that upon waking I won’t remember if I’d dreamt an observation or actually made the observation, or if what I’d observed was later expanded upon in my dream and that I’d been afforded some unique and rare insight, and then in order to corroborate what I’d actually seen prior to dreaming I always referred back to my notebook, to entries made in consciousness. A good half of the astronomy dreams were not about observations themselves but merely a continuation of my presence in the observatory, slightly altered, with maybe an occasional visit from Beatrice, or the anima, or a small child.

Beatrice awoke. She’d been asleep for nearly an hour and a half. She didn’t say anything at first; she simply stared at the long road and the heavens and said, “’The night has been going on for a long time.’”

“Did you make that up?”

“No, it’s from a novel called ‘Nightwood’ by Djuna Barnes . . . what time is it?”

“Almost three.”

“Do you want me to drive?”

I shook my head.

She continued staring out the passengers’ window, the sleepy blur of her features suspended like the stars as windmills, grain silos and billboards passed hypnotically in the background.

“I’m going to have this baby, Soren.”

“I thought you were,” I said, “and I want you to, but it’s entirely your decision of course.”

“Of course, but you’re the father . . . strange, I’ve had an abortion before, but this time I’m not even considering it.
Maybe because Laura wants the baby too.”

“What happened the first time?” I asked her.

“I was a senior in high school. There was no way I could have been a mother then.”

“When did you first discover you liked women?”

“Sophomore year of college.”

“Do you like women better than men?”

She turned and looked at me.

“What a stupid question.”

“I guess if you’re living with a woman it may indicate preference.”

“It’s not that different you know, having sex with a woman or a man.”

The end of my participation in the USS Shostakovitch Astronomy Club had not entirely been the result of my needing to work on astronomy alone, though there had been a falling off in interest among the other club members which pretty much left Radioman Lester Benson and me. Apart from the astronomy club, Benson was mainly a hermit and difficult to know. The only other times you would see him was at the shortwave radio or Morse signaler, or at mess. He wasn’t bad looking—a slightly shorter bespectacled likeness of the British actor Michael Redgrave, but soft spoken and reclusive, kind though inaccessible and bookish, a pleasant harmless introvert overall. He barely talked during our astronomy sessions, just enough for him to point out constellations, planets, novae, a lunar sea. Our other shipmates in the club eventually grew bored and I believe that before the incident I’m about to relate I was ready to break out on my own too because of the lack of communication with Benson. Think of it—a Navy communications man who has trouble communicating.

Lester Benson and I were on the ship’s port side quarter deck late one evening with a telescope and a pair of binoculars. We stood only inches apart, talking about the constellation Carina, which once belonged to a ship constellation called Argo Navis after Jason and the Argonauts. Argo Navis was later separated into three constellations and Carina was the keel of the ship, and this constellation was only visible in the southern latitudes. Benson had been holding the binoculars as I peered through the telescope, but at one point he placed his left arm around me, the hand still clutching the binoculars, and he let his free hand rest on the metal shaft of the scope. I at first took the gesture as a friendly one, but I felt the tension in his arm, a clinging rigidity. He then removed his arm from my shoulder and switched the binoculars to his right hand while the fingers of his left hand stealthily caressed my thigh. I quickly stepped a few feet away from him.

“What do you think you’re doing?”

“I’m sorry. Please don’t say anything!”

I could barely discern his outline cloaked in shadow near the aft stairs to the main deck, the vague paler shapes where his hands and head sprouted from sleeves, collar. Benson had taken a big risk with me. I could have beaten the crap out of him for violating me that way. Or I could have reported him to the captain and gotten him discharged from the Navy, though reporting that sort of incident had the potential to raise suspicion around me. Or I could have decided to receive his advances and have sex with him, which would have then set off a chain of events with assuredly negative consequences for the both of us. But I wouldn’t do any of these things.

“Don’t worry about it,” I said. “Just stay away from me from now on and I promise I’ll keep my mouth shut.”

And then I remembered Benson joining the others for the last shore leave in Rio when I’d stayed on board to view the lunar eclipse.

“So I guess you lose everyone when you’re ashore and go off on your own.”

“Please keep your voice down!” he whispered.

“Including MPs.”

He nodded his head and quietly snickered. An odd chill passed
through me.

“And you don’t spend your free time with whores,” I said in a lower voice. “Or at least not female ones.”

Still in shadow, quivering. “That’s right.”

“But what if you get caught? Then what? What if someone sees you?”

“My point exactly.”

“So you’re worried you will get caught . . . and you think this might be safer . . on the ship. . . .”

Benson said nothing and I bid him goodnight.

Radioman Lester Benson was eventually transferred by request but also under a cloud of suspicion. I wondered what the transfer had intended to accomplish unless viewed as a postponement of dealing with homosexual behavior in the military and as a way of deflecting or redirecting blame from one ship and one captain to another. I later discovered that Benson had attended seminary school after his discharge from the Navy. He became a Roman Catholic priest. The U.S. military and the Catholic Church were both good families to join if you were uncertain or troubled figuring out where you fit in the larger society.

On my next shore leave I made love to an adolescent puta in Rio. I was trying to dispel the bad ju-ju surrounding my recent encounter with Radioman Benson. I felt sure of my heterosexuality, but I was still insecure over my lack of sexual experience and believed I needed a couple more notches on my belt to prove I could conquer women even when a fee was involved to complete the transaction which would not make it a conquest at all. And for a brief time I avoided my astronomy hobby and punished myself for having become too much of a monk aboard the floating monastery. I should have paid closer attention to women and sex like the majority of my shipmates. My young puta, was named Vega. She’d saved me at the time, and up until the beginning of this year I’d mistakenly believed Beatrice had saved me too.

“So I take it you’ve never been with someone of your own sex?” Beatrice said.

“No. . . Never. . . .”

Our first night on the road we had stopped at a motel somewhere in Ohio and decided to share a room. The arrangement seemed sensible enough and convenient because Beatrice and I had agreed on having separate rooms once we were in Arizona and visiting the observatory. We ate at some cheap family dining place where the food was bland and bad, but we were hungry and the restaurant was the nearest one to the motel. I bought a six pack of Rolling Rock to drink at the motel and gave one to Beatrice. I turned on the TV while she showered because I was trying to take my mind off the image of water threading and sluicing on her perfect wet skin.

“What are you watching?” she asked me a few minutes later as she emerged from the shower wearing a turquoise terry cloth robe and a white motel towel on her hair.

“’The Burns & Allen Show.’ George Burns and Gracie Allen.”

“I know who George Burns is. I guess they were before my time,” she said, drying and patting her hair. “The 1950s. It sounds so funny to be saying that because we’re now in the ‘80s. The ‘50s seem prehistoric, like the Mesozoic Era,” she added with a short laugh.

“I grew up in the ‘50s. When I was growing up the ‘80s was science fiction. No one had a clue what the world would be like of if there would be a world at all.”

“I can’t imagine why you’re still interested in such an old show.”

I didn’t look at her but took a swig of beer and continued watching quaint the black-and-white images.

“They’re a great couple,” I said. “To me George and Gracie represent the best qualities in a relationship: humor, tenderness, understanding, letting the other person be who they are, letting them be a bit wacky or eccentric, maintaining your own sense of self and at the same time thoroughly being attentive to the other and to the relationship which is an entity all its own and stands outside of the individual or the ego . . . and most interaction with the other is undertaken in a spirit of playfulness, and with a mature wisdom regarding love and how it works.”

Beatrice paused, towel in hand, and stared at me.

“How does Love work, Soren?”

“Damned if I know.”

She finished drying her hair, the shiny moist locks of red, gold and brown unraveling in snagged plaits across her nape and shoulders. She then cast the towel aside and sat down on the edge of the bed, watching Burns and Allen along with me.

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