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The Perseids

I've been working for a little while on a book-length CNF project, a memoir. Ten or eleven years ago, I took my first real class on creative nonfiction, and when I was in it, I wrote this essay, "The Perseids," which was later published in the Duck & Herring Co. Pocket Field Guide. Since tonight is the last and best night to view the meteor shower, and since I've been spending a lot of my time lately writing stories that kind of really happened, I'm thinking it's timely.

*     *     *

The Perseids

Jane and I had been in Southern Illinois less than a week, and we’d spent each of our early August evenings alone with one another, drinking. We were unhappy with but still romanticizing the lower half of our home state—the sheen of sweat on our skin that never seemed to dry, the gas station clerk’s accent—and waiting for our lives to begin. Jane was about to start a job at the university press, a just-above-entry-level publicity position; I was going to graduate school.

And then we read about it in the newspaper, and we had a plan: the Perseid meteor shower. We were going to get up at four in the morning and drive seven minutes to a dark spot outside town on an, I don’t know, slightly sloping hill.

Jane and I are fantastic drinkers, fabulous dreamers. And when we combine the two—when we drink and dream—the world becomes right and just and conquerable. After we read about the meteor shower, we drove to the liquor store in the early afternoon, came home, and tinkered with our plans for the next morning.

We would get up at three, not four. We would make a pot of coffee. We’d pour the coffee into a thermos I had just washed, and take along fruit, too—peaches from a local orchard and Bing cherries. We would take cheeses, and breads, enough food for ten or twelve people. We would make friends.

Our thermos-lid cup would steam in the cool, early-morning air, and we would hold one another, one couple among dozens, on a night-lit hill in Southern Illinois.

Jane logged on to the Internet and printed out a map to our location. Then she downloaded a video of the meteor shower we would see in the morning and called me into the office, and we held sweating bottles of Coors Light and watched the brief streaks of space dust brighten the screen.

We both talked a lot about being writers then but didn’t ever spend much time actually writing, and we were silent as we drank beer and watched the computer screen. I can’t say what Jane was thinking about, but I was thinking about how I could use the experience we were going to have in the morning. I was thinking about a drunken but lovable husband whose wife is going to leave him. On the morning the man’s wife plans to leave, he would wake up hungover but with the best intentions and take her to see a meteor shower at four in the morning. She would be sleepy and uninterested, and he would try to impress her by saying something clever about the sky falling. Or he would know, as I learned from the website with the video, that the Perseid meteor shower is named after the constellation Perseus because the meteors appear to radiate from Perseus’ star-body in the sky. But, the man would explain to his wife, this is an optical illusion, the way driving through a snowstorm with slow-falling, big, white flakes makes the snow seem to come from some unseen spot on the road ahead. He would tell her all of this, not quite understanding what he was getting at, but later, much later, it would seem like an amazing moment the two had shared, one of their finest.

Jane and I continued to drink and make more plans for the next morning’s meteor shower, buzzing with expectation.

For a while Jane disappeared and came back with six lines of a poem that were pure genius. She showed me more pictures she’d printed, too, and we were certain for a little while that our time in Southern Illinois was going to be fine. That the next three years would pass and I would have a master’s degree and three years of teaching under my belt and she would have a total of five years’ experience in publishing. We would leave this place before either of us turned thirty, ready to begin our lives all over again.

A few hours later we were getting into bed, drunk, our words working against one another, but gently.

“It’ll be great,” I was saying. “Seeing this. There are a million things like this we can see, you know?”

“We could sleep in,” Jane said. “And go out for breakfast in the morning? We could read the newspaper, eat greasy food.”

“We could,” I said. “That sounds nice.”

“And the meteor shower will be bright two more nights this week,” she said. “I’ve printed out all the best times. We’ll see it. It’ll be great.”

“Yeah,” I said. “It will be.”

A few minutes later, we were sleeping, and a few minutes after that, we were dreaming.

And in a few hours there would be people sprawled on a hill outside town, watching something fantastic. They would be silent with one another, taking it all in, thinking about the last time they laid their hearts bare, or pondering their minute places in the universe, or who knows, maybe something else entirely.

But we would sleep great sleep, Jane and I, pressing our bodies into one another, sweating out the night’s liquor, while all of the night sky’s stars streaked overhead. 

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