Kristin Lee Jensen
They said we would never make it past the Mississippi. You and I taking turns riding shotgun under a light blue sky stretched taut from coast to coast. Our rearview mirror flooded with the white caps of Lake Michigan and the thousands of small holes drilled into its sandy beaches from Chicago’s summer storms. It was June, just four days after the first lunar eclipse of 2012. We packed three duffel bags in the trunk, a Styrofoam cooler in the backseat and a full tub of licorice in the center console between us. There were two hundred and forty pieces of candy inside that plastic container. It was more than I could say for the number of days since I’d worn that flowery green dress and you’d asked if you could kiss me.
Lunar eclipses occur two to five times a year when the sun, Earth and moon are in full alignment. During the phenomena, the moon appears to glow with a murky shade of crimson as the light from the sun refracts off the Earth’s atmosphere and sends an array of red hues onto its surface. The effect is similar to that of sunrises and sunsets, when sunlight is forced to bend around the Earth as the fiery ball drops beneath the horizon.
Our tires rolled over the bridge above the winding river about three hours after we left Chicago. We were veiled in darkness, but I could still make out a handful of rickety wooden docks on either side of the shoreline as the light from the moon shimmered across the surface of the water. When we reached the other side of the channel, you lessened your grip on the steering wheel and leaned back in your seat with your arms at full extension, beaming with a defiant smile that crinkled the brown and auburn beard you kept unshaven for me. That was what drew me to you; your irresistible ability to live in the present with no regard for the past, which so often held me back. That and the fact that you had knocked on the door of my heart for two years until I finally said yes to a date. I had always been known as the good girl: I sang on stage in front of our church congregation on Sunday mornings, wore a gold band on my left ring finger to symbolize my decision not to have sex until marriage and had never been in love. You, on the other hand, had been in love, traveled to all but two continents before you turned twenty-one and spent your days in the basement of the engineering laboratory on campus, surrounded by whiteboards covered in equations that I couldn’t even begin to understand. You coaxed me with notes on lined paper tucked under my windshield wiper and pebbles tossed at my first-floor bedroom window late at night. Within weeks, I learned what it meant to ache for your quiet confidence, and there was no doubt in my mind that we’d make it well past the Mississippi. But I returned your grin across the center console with a reluctant smile. As the road took us further and further away from the Illinois state line, I realized I had no idea how to fall. I kept quiet in my seat– turning around to watch the current ripple through the river behind me– silently wondering how the moon kept itself from getting pulled under.
The first stage of a lunar eclipse is called a penumbral eclipse, which occurs when the moon first makes contact with the Earth’s shadow. The moon does not yet appear red to the human eye, but a section of the sphere looks darker as the Earth’s shadow envelops a portion of its lunar light.
We pulled off the highway three hours past the Mississippi, our headlights mirroring a pair of street lamps on either side of an off-ramp just outside of Iowa City. We found ourselves in a podunk town: one gas station, two run down motels, population less than one hundred. It was 2:00 AM when you jogged into the lobby of the Motel 6 while I waited in the driver’s seat, silently preparing to set more boundaries than the six state lines we’d have to cross before reaching southern California. Five minutes passed before you started waving out the window, and I looked down to find your wallet in the cup holder beside me. After running it into you, I stood on the linoleum floor and crossed my arms over my chest, trying not to make eye contact with the motel manager, who looked like Mr. Gower from It’s A Wonderful Life and eyed the gold band around my left ring finger. He awarded us a keycard and the last vacancy. Our room reeked of burnt cigarettes. Without flipping the light switch, I made my way to the bed first- the comforter feeling like tin foil under the weight of my body- and then watched as you flipped the brass deadbolt over the door, locking out the rules that were so easy to follow in the light and locking us into our own dark solace of secrecy. You set down your bag by the television stand and walked over to the bed, then tipped my chin up with your fingers and gently laid me down with one hand resting on my hip. The bedspread crackled. Your lips found their way down my neck, my collarbone, my stomach; and my hands felt like fire as they combed through your hair, lifted your shirt up over your head and gripped the bare skin on your back. Your kisses trailed down my ear as your arm became submerged beneath the back of my shirt. Take it off. Please, take my shirt off. We tore our lips apart, and I could hear myself gasping as we both grabbed the bottom seam of my blouse and tugged. My shirt is coming off. MY SHIRT IS COMING OFF. My hands were burning now. I twisted out of your reach and used your shoulders to push myself back off the mattress, stumbling over to the window where the moonlight was pouring in through a translucent cream curtain. I was sure you could see my shoulders heaving, one arm still in my shirtsleeve and one arm dangling bare. The panic and craving in your eyes mirrored the alarm and desire coursing through my abdomen. My body screamed for your hands, the pulse at my throat begging me to cross the room and press my skin against the length of yours. You sat on the tussled sheets and dropped your head. “I’m sorry.” I wrapped my hand around the back of my neck. “I’m sorry, too.” We brushed our teeth in silence after that, your arm around my waist as both sets of our eyes darted to keep from landing on the other person’s reflection. When we returned to the bed, we put space between our bodies while we slept, making the deep canyon that already existed in the middle of that Motel 6 queen bed all the more vast.
In age-old mythology, lunar eclipses have traditionally been considered a disruption of normalcy. The Vikings believed the phenomenon resulted from sky wolves chasing the sun and the moon, while the Vietnamese believed frogs ate the orbs. The first word used describe an eclipse in Chinese was shih, “to eat.” Subsequently, many cultures played drums or banged on pots and pans to scare the animals away. However, there have been a handful of exceptions to the negative connotations. For example, in Togo and Benin, the Batammaliba people believe the sun and the moon are fighting during an eclipse and see it as an opportunity to come together. It is a chance for resolution, for hope.**
It took us the entire next day to drive through Nebraska, a one lane-highway dotted with stalks of corn and orange cones. In the span of one state, we stopped at two fast food restaurants just to buy milkshakes and in between sips, you told me that over the past few months, I’d “proven to you that a girl like me actually existed.” By “a girl like me” you meant a Christian girl who owned Daisy Dukes, considered her faith a “relationship” more than a “religion” and had gone streaking one or twice with her girlfriends. I had smiled and set my bare feet up on the dashboard, cranking our Mat Kearney CD up as loud as it could go. By dusk, we were descending a sloping highway towards the base of the Rocky Mountains, the range unfolding before us in a line of high peaks rising up on either side of the road. The sun had just fallen behind the jagged row of pointed tips, spraying an array of oranges and pinks across the Colorado sky. That moment is the one from our trip that I remember most vividly: the urge I felt to lay my head on your shoulder; the earthiness of your stubble on my forehead; your arm around my shoulder and your fingers lightly trailing back and forth across my bicep; the way my heart felt perfectly in alignment driving straight into that sunset splashed across the sky; and the obvious absence of the sun, missing out on this explosion of color as it hid beneath the mountaintops.
As the moon continues to move into the Earth’s shadow, it results in a partial lunar eclipse. The distance between the Earth and the sun increases, and a portion of the moon takes on a deep shade of scarlet as it absorbs the sunlight that is sent bouncing off the Earth’s atmosphere. From the moon’s perspective, it appears as though the sun is setting behind the Earth.
We didn’t make it to Las Vegas by the end of that second night. Instead, we pulled off the highway in Beaver, Utah to find a gas station and the Country Inn. The only vacancy was a room with two double beds, so I clutched my pillow and waited as you turned a brass key in the lock of our door. As soon as we laid separate in the darkness, I was sure you could hear my heart beating loud from across the bedside table. I thought back to an hour earlier, just after we’d passed through Salt Lake City, when you pulled the car over on the side of the road and made me get out to look at the stars. We stood with fingers entwined as the wind ripped through strands of my hair, pine tree-covered mountaintops rising up on all sides to encase the small pool of lights above our heads. You squeezed my hand and smiled before traipsing off into the woods to relieve yourself, and I stood holding onto the car bumper with my neck still craned to the sky. The moon soaked my face with lunar light, boldly beaming down in the midst of all those twinkling glories. Its radiance was what I thought of when I saw your shadow crawling towards my bed in the darkness of the Country Inn. I remembered the way its waxy glow had felt on my face as you drew closer, closer, and I wanted to break the belief I’d held for twenty-one years in that moment with you. For so long I’d believed that love and sex could not be equated until marriage, but right then I was sure that my body could show you what I was too afraid to say. I wanted to believe that one could eclipse the other so I could freefall straight into the center of you. I wanted to erupt in an array of colors and be able to stand, unbroken, amidst the splendor. I wanted to absorb the fear and glow a brilliant blood red.
But then you pulled back.
You reminded me of the promise, gave me one last kiss on the forehead and crawled back into your own sheets. In the darkness, I laid gasping on top of mine.
The next morning, we soared through Nevada with the windows rolled up, its cracked red desert stretching infinitely in our peripherals. I sat in the passenger seat in a sweatshirt shivering, while you drove shirtless and sweaty with all the air conditioning vents turned towards your chest. I remember because I tucked my legs up under that oversized sweater, rested my head on my knees and traced your calloused hands on the steering wheel with my eyes. You were nothing like me, and everything I wanted.
A total eclipse occurs when the moon fully enters into the Earth’s shadow. At this stage of the phenomena, the moon appears to look like a milkier version of Mars. Sitting amongst the stars and smoldering in scarlet, the moon arrives at its peak when it is closest to the center of the Earth’s shadow.
When we finally crossed the California state line, farmland stretched out on both sides of the highway. Long extensions of corn stalks filled up our windows, rows and rows of unplanted earth that made me dizzy when I stared at their blueprint too long. You were driving when we came up on a field of sunflowers, doused by oversized sprinklers moving back and forth, back and forth. “Let’s pull over and run in them!” you blurted out. I blinked. Oh, how I wanted to say yes. To run with reckless abandon through those green shoots, hair damp and eyes full of mischief. To have you grab my waist under the spray and kiss me, soaking, our lips slipping and sliding across each other’s faces. But I didn’t. Instead, I told you that you were going to meet my family soon, and why didn’t we wait until the return trip to give ourselves over to that kind of whimsy? Again I looked out the window, pulse racing. The plowed rows moved diagonal as we passed them, swerving from their meticulously positioned straight lines.
After we reached southern California, you slept in my childhood bedroom and I bunked with my sister. That first night, I sat cross-legged at the foot of her bed and dumped out the contents of my purse on the carpet; a stale piece of licorice, two gas station receipts and two tubes of chapstick all tumbling out. Stuck at the bottom was my Motel 6 keycard with a piece of chewed gum in the wrapper stuck to its side. I twirled the piece of plastic between my fingers, not sure if what I felt was guilt or defiance or both. All I knew was despite the fact that my heart was eclipsed down the middle, the only thing I wanted to do the next morning when my toes first felt the salt of the ocean was make a u-turn.
**According to “Solar Eclipse Myths From Around the World” by Jane J. Lee, published in National Geographic in November 1, 2013.
KRISTIN LEE JENSEN’s writing has appeared or is forthcoming in the Chicago Tribune, Timeout Chicago and ESPN RISE, among others. She is currently earning her MFA in creative nonfiction from Northwestern University and longs for the day when she can return to the road leading up to Convict Lake in California’s Inyo National Forest. This is her first published piece of nonfiction. Find her online at kristinleejensen.com or on Twitter @byKristinLee.