The Sun Setting Where It Always Does

On the 38 acres in Oregon where I grew up, there was a big open field a short walk from our house. Every couple months, during a meteor shower or just because, my dad would take my brothers and me up to the field to look at the stars. Us kids would fight over the prime spot on the ratty sleeping bag we laid over the sharp ryegrass (as if the horizon-to-horizon view was a finite resource) and my dad would stare skyward and wax poetic about the cosmos.

“The universe is expanding faster than we can measure it,” he’d say. “The more we think we know the more we realize how much we don’t know.”

He’d point to a bright spot that looked like a single star and explain that it was actually an entire galaxy. “Billions of stars,” he’d say. “Billions and billions.”

Sometimes when he talked about the relative insignificance of humans — of us — he would burst out in an unbridled fit of giggles, his volume rising with every word: “We are tiny specks on a tiny planet floating in an infinite universe!” We bought him a telescope for Christmas once, thinking it was a home-run gift, but it sat in a closet unused. I don’t think he wanted to get a closer look. My dad loves feeling small.

I would lay in bed after these stargazing evenings fighting off the panicked breaths of an existential crisis. I couldn’t wrap my mind around the scope of the universe, and the sense of unknowable vastness that delighted my dad absolutely terrified me. I did not love being a speck. I wanted to matter.

——-

We were halfway through Nebraska when the radio went out.

Nick and I were driving away from home for the first time, toward a new one across the country in Tennessee. With all our belongings crammed into the trunk of my Volkswagen Jetta, 1500 miles under us and about 1000 to go, we stopped at what may be the saddest Mexican restaurant in America for dinner.

We were already tired and cranky when we pulled off the highway into a parking lot surrounded by cornfields and walked into the squat concrete building (“bunker” might be the more accurate term). I don’t remember what we ordered, but both of our plates contained cold, congealed, neon orange cheese formed into the general shape of a burrito, and I started crying at the table as soon as the server delivered it. I hadn’t slept well in Wyoming the night before, and the gravity of our choice — the scale of it — was starting to sink in.

In elementary school, my best friend Rachel asked her dad why it seemed to take so long to drive to the beach, but the drive back felt so short. “Whenever you drive away from home, you’re stretching out a big rubber band,” he told her, “and when you drive home, it snaps you right back.”

I felt the rubber band stretching, stretching, stretching. I knew this time it wouldn’t snap back.

The congealed cheese on the plate in front of me was the only food for miles, and we didn’t have a bed to sleep in until Kansas City. So I ate it, each bite like mortar between the bricks of anxiety stacking in my gut.

By the time we got in the car, Nick and I were bickering. Why didn’t we stop for food earlier? Whose idea was it to book an Airbnb in Kansas City instead of Omaha? Was that actually cheese or some kind of repurposed toxic waste? What the fuck were we even doing?!

While we argued, the sun set over the cornfields.

Many years after this, I will open a book of poetry and read this line: “The sun setting where it always does, Iowa.” I will have to put the book down for a second to soak in the truth of it, learned over many more trips across the Great Plains, running to and away from home: there’s something final about the way the sun sets in the middle of the country.

That night in Nebraska, the sun set where it always does, and the truth was flat, uninterrupted, unrelenting darkness.

And then the radio went out.

It happened like an old school TV turning off: a buzz, followed by a sort of sad kazoo sound, and then the music that had been playing in the background was gone. The digital display turned off too, robbing us of the glowing clock on our dashboard.

I started hitting random buttons furiously, begging the dashboard for mercy. “Please come back,” I said out loud, unable to fathom the reality of this night, this stomach ache, this unending highway without music to distract us. After fifteen minutes of mashing buttons with no results, we had no choice but to accept our fate: we’d be driving through Nebraska in silence.

I have never felt more untethered than I did that night. There were no streetlights or mountains on the horizon to orient us in space. No clock or soundtrack to orient us in time. Just flatness. Darkness. Silence. The state of Nebraska expanding faster than we could measure it.

Did we drive 10 miles or 100 miles before the radio jolted itself back on as suddenly and inexplicably as it had disappeared? Did the quiet last 15 minutes or 3 hours?

Sometimes my dad’s star talks would venture into quantum physics; the theory of a multiverse encompassing many universes, or alternate timelines playing out in infinite histories and futures.

In another universe somewhere, are we still driving through Nebraska?

——-

A few months ago, I went to a comedy club in Vermont. I was there by myself on a press trip, and the Chamber of Commerce gifted me with a single ticket to a comedy show. The hostess tried to sit me in the front row, dead center, and when I said, “Ummm… maybe anywhere but here?” she sat me alone at a round table in the exact middle of the room, surrounded by couples and groups of friends. I ordered a can of hard cider and felt deeply self-conscious and thought, “This is really not the ideal way to see a comedy show.”

But oh well.

The headliner was a comedian from LA I’d heard on some podcasts, and I was looking forward to checking out her set. I downed my drink and ordered another.

The opener finished up a 10-minute bit about using his dog as a napkin and introduced the headliner. She stepped out on stage from behind the curtain, and I choked on my cider — like a legit, literal, movie-worthy spit take.

This comedian from LA, performing in Vermont, was wearing a Banks Warrior Track Team sweatshirt from my junior high school in Oregon.

My tiny school that had a grand total of 70 students. My school that had changed the logo shortly after I left, retiring the slightly faded (and slightly offensive) one on her sweatshirt — the profile of a warrior in a headdress. She was wearing a sweatshirt from my school, from when I went there. A sweatshirt that had, over many years and many miles, made its way from my tiny hometown to this tiny room, tonight.

I couldn’t decide if this felt more like a hidden camera show prank or a glitch in the matrix.

I like to travel because being in a new place lets me feel, briefly, like a new person. Sometimes in a literal way, like telling strangers in Vegas that I’m a Sagittarius hairdresser named Pamela and yes, random frat boy, I would love for you to buy me an amaretto sour. Usually in a more subtle way, though: walking down an unfamiliar street, feeling the city’s energy intertwine with mine, wondering, “Who am I here?”

I had always wanted to visit Vermont, because it was so far away from where I grew up. From where I became me.

And now I was sitting in a comedy club in Burlington, staring at the track team sweatshirt I remember my friends wearing in the hallways in seventh grade. I saw Milena and Rachel and Genny talking by the lockers before practice. I felt the flush of my cheeks when Ben or Micah would walk by, the desperate hope that they would acknowledge my presence. I felt myself folding a note to pass to Brittany in social studies, something urgent about the Backstreet Boys. I smelled the rain and evergreens and ryegrass of home.

After the show, I ran to the side of the stage hoping to catch the comedian and ask her how in the hell she came to own that sweatshirt. She disappeared behind the curtain before the applause had ended. I called her name, craning my neck to see where she went. She was gone.

Sulking out to the sidewalk outside the club, I ran into the dog-napkin guy. “Can I tell you something crazy?” I asked him, and then spilled out the story before he could answer.

“Wow,” he said, vaguely amused. “That’s crazy.”

“No,” I said. “You don’t understand. This school is tiny. It’s in a tiny town in Oregon. I live in Tennessee now. I’m visiting Vermont. She’s from LA. What are the chances of this happening?! There are no chances! This is IMPOSSIBLE!”

(I was three ciders in by this point.)

The guy shrugged halfheartedly and I thanked him for listening, then walked down to the waterfront while dialing the number of my brother in Oregon.

“Hello?”

“I’m in Vermont and you will not believe what just happened.”

I told him the story, and his reaction was much more appropriate: “No. Fucking. Way.”

“Can you believe it?” I said, sitting on a bench on the edge of Lake Champlain. “Seriously, what are the chances of seeing that exact sweatshirt ever, let alone here, tonight?”

We were both quiet for a few moments, shaking our heads in disbelief on opposite coasts. I looked up at the stars coming out over the water. Sailboats were heading in for the night. Kids were running around eating ice cream. A little ways down the boardwalk, a dad pointed out an emerging constellation to a disinterested son.

“Damn,” I told my brother. “It’s a small world.”