Wandering Universes

by Sheila Hurst
They walked on worlds, some burnt out and hollow, some sparkling with life and illusion. The worlds tickled her toes. She scattered lives across galaxies and watched as they flew through the air, perhaps lost but also free.

Sunlight searched the worlds out. They blinked back in blue and green, orange and red or just gray, depending on the materials that happened to meld together once the fire that created them died down for good. Some, the ones that traveled too close to the edge, were picked up by a sudden force. The black hole sucked the worlds in and spit them out, erasing any progress with a final roar.

She shivered. Lately she noticed the merciless aspects of life more often. Even something as beautiful as waves crashing on a beach became a force that erased progress: constantly feeding, constantly taking something away. Whenever such thoughts entered her mind, she wished she could go back. Back to a time when things seemed simple and straightforward. Back to what once was. But of course, such thoughts became a waste of time, merciless in their own way.

Her husband laughed at her. "You're just like a little kid, kicking that sand all over the place, what's wrong with you?"

"I don't know."

She looked up at Richard, feeling his hand clasped over hers, siphoning his energy and reserve. When they first met, she would squeeze his hand every once in a while whenever they walked like this, just to show that they didn't need words, that they could invent a language all their own and let understanding flow between them. But then he asked why she kept squeezing his hand like that. As if the squeezing hurt him. She hadn't done it since.

Now she searched for something to say. Something tantalizing or intelligent or funny. Nothing. They never laughed at the same things anyway.

She remembered one day when she couldn’t wait for him to come home from work because she had to tell him something. Something that made her chuckle to herself all day long as she cleaned and cooked and prepared. When he came trudging in, she practically pounced on him, feeling like she would burst with the news. To build up his anticipation, she told him he’d never guess what she saw that day. When he shrugged, fingered his tie and collar and didn’t seem to want to guess, she blurted out the news:  Bozo the Clown dressed up as a businessman for Halloween.

Once the words she’d been holding back all day long finally came tumbling out, she started laughing hysterically, picturing Bozo again in a suit and tie with orange hair sticking wildly out of his head. She couldn’t stop laughing at the image until she looked up and saw her husband’s face. Then the laughter began sounding more like a nervous giggle. His face, so tired, so serious, made her feel like a child. A ridiculous child laughing at a clown. Without a word or a chuckle, he turned and walked down the hall, pulling at his tie all the way. After that, she decided to go back to school and start working again. Now, looking back on it, she realized even those changes hadn’t really changed anything.

“What do you feel like having for dinner?” She asked, a waitress taking an order.

“Oh, I don’t know. Whatever you feel like.”

What did she feel like? She had no idea. She pulled her jacket closer. Her toes curled around the cold damp sand as she bent down to rub some warmth back into her bare legs. Looking down at her legs and feet, she marveled at all the specks of freckles that had appeared there over the years. So many now that they looked like constellations. Stars and planets formed patterns all over her body and she hadn’t even noticed. She hadn’t noticed the birth of each new world, but seeing them there reminded her of a quote she once heard, something about everyone being a universe unto himself.

She glanced over at her husband again. Such a strong face. His jaw always appeared clenched, as if he kept grinding and forcing his teeth together. She used to love that about him, thinking the lines that declared themselves there made him appear stronger. Now she wondered why he did it at all. What was the reason? Was he worried about something?

Even though they walked down the beach shoulder to shoulder, hand in hand, at times it felt as if universes floated freely between them. It was possible, in a way: the universes of molecules, with their own orbiting electrons. Spinning endlessly around and around, always around the center of something but never fully reaching it, never crashing and melding together. If she concentrated hard enough, she could see those molecular universes flying between them for a brief second. Or was that just dust? Maybe, like the real universe, the tiny ones are constantly expanding. Or maybe, as our universe expands, the spaces between us all expand along with it.

It wasn't just him. She felt this way with others too. People she grew up with. People whose children played with their children. She wanted to know what they really thought about things, about life, but instead details of work or complaints about the kids filled the empty spaces. Real thoughts hardly entered the conversations. The truth is too often reserved for strangers. Not that she knew any strangers she could talk to. She wanted to ask her husband what he thought right at that moment, but she knew better. That was probably the last thing he would ever tell her.

He knew she wondered. She had asked often enough. The truth was he wasn't thinking about anything in particular. He didn't really want to think about anything. He didn't want to make meaningless conversation with his own wife, just for the sake of making some noise. Especially after working all day. He soaked up the silence while it lasted.

Just like walking in quicksand, so thick and heavy, slowing any movement down as if in a bad dream. Richard glanced down at his feet, expecting to see weights strapped onto his ankles. But the real weight came from the mounds of sand piling up in his shoes with each and every step. They had walked this beach so many times, too many times, and he’d never gotten used to that feeling of walking on miniature sand dunes inexplicably stuck within his socks, between his toes, tickling and itching his feet.

How many times had he said they should move away to someplace new? A place with no sand to dump out of your shoes. A place where people didn’t know the meaning of the word “tourist.” He’d always wanted to run a farm but couldn’t stand the smell of farm animals. Maybe he could get used to the smell.

A soggy old sneaker stuck its tongue out at him. He felt the urge to pick it up and then became repulsed by that urge. People. They disgusted him more and more. Why did they have to clutter up the world with such filth? Another reason to move away, get out and go someplace with more breathing room, before people ruined everything.

Her first thought was that the sneaker must have a story behind it, probably a funny one. After all, how could a sneaker end up sitting there by itself in the sand? It made her think of running on the beach. The memory of a night from years ago rose up and washed over her with the refreshment of a wave. They had come out to see the stars, but the night was so dark that not even a twinkling could be found. They could hardly see each other or themselves, and celebrated the invisibility of it all by running around in the dark, feeling their way toward each other. They eventually lit a bonfire. She breathed the memory in as if she could still smell the burning driftwood and held it inside for as long as possible.

Then she exhaled and let the memory out. “Remember when we had that bonfire out here? Do you think kids still do that kind of thing anymore?”

“Probably not. They’re all inside playing video games or texting or whatever they do these days. I don’t think I’ve seen a kid playing outside in years.”

Richard remembered that night, the fire burning out of control. Sparks flying everywhere, crackling and fizzing. They even danced around in the disorienting darkness, if he remembered correctly. He replayed the night in his mind, but couldn’t believe it had been them. It seemed more like a movie they might have watched together, a movie with unknown actors.

Beginnings. Thinking about them made his heart ache, so he hardly ever thought about them. Better to think about the present day instead of concentrating on the past or the future. That way, you don’t end up wanting too much.

He wanted too much for his family; maybe that was the problem. Not that he felt disappointed, not that there was even a problem, it’s just that his vision of the future had always been a bit different from what the future apparently turned out to be.

It all seemed so clear back when they first married. They’d both work, start the family after a few years, then she’d stay home to make sure the kids wouldn’t turn out to be drug addicts or total lunatics running around with no parental guidance. Who cares if the world is spinning out of control, they thought, at least we’ll have some semblance of normalcy here in our own little world. At least we’ll have each other. Not only that, but the children we’ll raise will be the best and they’ll change the world somehow. They’ll go out and do all the things we couldn’t do and they’ll make the world a better place. He just wanted too much, that was obvious.

His vision of the future had not included some things. Things like sacrifices and compromises. Braces and awkwardness. Silence and tears and screams. Screaming and crying over such little things. All that energy wasted. Ridiculous. He wanted to grab his children at those times and force some strength into them. But that would have made him a bad father. And he wanted to be the best.

At age seven or eight or somewhere in there, Christopher wanted to be an astronaut. He lived on Tang and believed that was the only real requirement. Richard encouraged his son to reach for the stars, to be anything he wanted to be. The sad part was that Christopher really could have been anything or anyone.

Well, at least he’s still trying, even if he is out there somewhere with nothing but his guitar singing to strangers in nightclubs where no one is listening. Maybe he should have given the boy a little less of that “you can be anything you want to be” speech and a little more reality along the way. Or maybe since Eileen was home with him so much, he became too feminine, too much of a dreamer, through some sort of feminine osmosis.

He looked down at her, prepared to feel at least some animosity for doing such a thing to their son. Instead, he smiled. Flecks of white showed through her brown hair. She braced herself against the wind and scrunched up her face with a funny expression. Her nose and ears started to turn red with the cold. “Should we head back, you think?”

“No, I’m fine,” she said. “It’s invigorating, isn’t it?”

“Yeah, I guess, but so are a lot of things that I wouldn’t want to do that all day.”

She laughed a little, knowing it was supposed to be a joke. Pretending to laugh is better than not laughing at all, she told herself. She looked out at the waves tumbling over each other, missing Chris. If he walked along with them at this very moment, they’d be laughing and giggling at everything and nothing.

Her son’s smile made everyone around him smile, even if no one knew exactly why. He’d always had that affect on people, even as a child. She wasn’t biased either, just because she happened to be his mother. Chris was simply one of those people who spread his joy out to everyone he came in contact with, so easily, so generously. Just having him in the world made it a better place. She was sure of it.

But their son couldn’t be here with them now. Instead, he was out in Seattle with his friends and his music. After staying there for a few weeks, he’d start making his way down the coast, singing along the way, leaving beautiful music in his wake. At least he led an exciting life. She smiled to think of it and looked out at the coastline swerving ahead of them.

A muddy white and brown dog with a tongue that was somehow larger than its mouth came rampaging out of the coastline and sprinted directly at them. She felt Richard tense up, preparing for the onslaught. Just before leaping, the dog made a 90-degree turn and headed toward the ocean, dismissing them.

She looked around but didn’t see anyone else on the beach. The wind called out, “Chaos, Chaaaos.” The voice was so faint, she couldn’t even be sure she heard it.

They watched as the dog jumped on the waves as if trying to crush them or stop them from coming. Then he ran back to the beach, flopped down on his back, and rolled in the sand with legs and paws flailing everywhere. He bounced back up to chase a seagull even though the gull flew high in the air and the dog must have known he had no chance of ever catching it. The seagull let out a screech that sounded like laughter as it soared ever higher.

“Why can’t people be more like that?” She asked while the dog continued to run and jump and play with no owners around to control him.

“What do you mean? You want to be a dog now?” Richard asked with a mixture of surprise and irritation.

“I just want to be like that dog every once in a while. You know, excited by everything and playing and having fun.”

No wonder Christopher turned out the way he did. “Sure, that would be a great way to live, but then you’d never get anything done. If everyone acted that way all the time, the world would be a complete mess.”

“You really think so?”

“Don’t you?”

She tried to imagine such a world. A world where everyone took more than a few seconds to notice the ever-changing sky, the warmth of the sun, the feelings a hug or a tummy rub could create.

The dog, wet and sandy now, trotted up to them again, smiling. He stood in their way as if trying to tell them something. She bent down to pet his wet fur but before she could reach him, he bolted toward the waves again, looking back every few seconds to see if they’d come and play.

Richard laughed. “So you don’t think the world would be a complete mess if everyone acted like that wet and dirty thing over there?”

“Well, it would be a beautiful mess.”  She smiled and squeezed his hand, even if he did look confused.
Sheila Hurst grew up in Michigan and Massachusetts, contributing to a
split personality involving a love of farmlands and the ocean. Her stories
are available at: http://www.sheila-hurst.com.

© 2012, Sheila Hurst