When you move your body, you change your mind.
Thoughts like that aren’t always made out loud. Sometimes they’re just there, quietly filling holes, making sense of things. You never put this one into words, you’re a man of few, but this isn’t about talking, it’s about moving: crossing a distance in your mind, boarding a train of thought to an unknown destination. Yes, throw the map to the wind. Know that the compass doesn’t know true north. Not where you’re going — 50-feet underground in the basement of a building 30-stories tall, all 30 worth telling, people coming and going and you in place, moving through everything you are.
You start on your back, arms and legs sprawled out across a thin rubber mat, thoughts spilling out all over the floor. Sitting up, you reach for your quads, then to your knees and onto your shins. You rub your palms over the bone, the sharpness stops you. You try to get a feel for where you are, for these parts unknown.
When something inside snapped, when you ran head-on into yourself, you were paralyzed. You couldn’t reach anything. Snared hamstrings sent electric shocks up your legs through your spine. You were stuck. Now you’ve made it to your ankles where you wait until something gives, then gives up entirely, sending your fingertips to the tops of your feet.
You grew up looking down at black cleats, scuffed and stained, laced tight, ready to tear up turf and running backs. They’d grip the ground, hold you to the backfield where you’d shift from one foot to the other. Weightless, waiting - adrenaline coursing, time slowing as an opponent broke the line and a small fire caught in your chest.
You wanted this person on the ground. You wanted to hit him, to cause an effect, to put him in place.
The impact meant that you were here, that you were, once and for all, part of it all: the goalposts framing the grass and the light rain and a boy too young to know that control isn’t something we ever have, but something always to lose. So small to think that being a man means inflicting, means never bending. Broken enough to believe that if you broke others, you could use what spilled out to fill your own cracks, to patch your own holes.
So you came in full speed and set your shoulder in his sternum, knocking him clean of everything he had.
Now you know that every release is a loss. Each impact has an equal and opposite one. They hit back all the same. Leveling bodies filled one hole by making another, each leaving you more empty than the last.
Pushing up with your arms, you extend back and land on your heels. Your body is split, hands in front, feet behind, one body made two. There’s a symmetry of limbs, organs and atoms. You close your eyes, take in each side. Two halves are easier than a whole, so you stay still and maybe it’s the opening of your chest or the exposure of your heart, but you’re able to let light in on a part of you always in shadow.
Same blue eyes, different head of hair, the smile across your face is as bright as the lights wrapped around the tree. A group gathered at the table lights a candle, a single pink wick among three purple. The flames dance across a spread of deflatable dinner rolls, green bean casseroles and faces from so long ago.
This is you in your childhood home and around the centerpiece wreath are your mom and dad, your little brother, and your aunt. There’s not an empty seat next to her, but your uncle isn’t there. This must be after the divorce, after the prison sentence. Instead, your older cousin sits at the head of the table, pale and alone at the end of the earth, staring off into the recesses of the room. Dark circles empty his eyes while everyone closes theirs in prayer, “Bless us oh Lord and these thy gifts…” A voice goes missing from the choir, a hand grabs your leg under the altar.
The quarter-inch thick mat reminds you that the earth isn’t soft, that at its core, it’s made of metal. It doesn’t give, it stays its course. There’s no softening a stone, but you lighten yourself enough to float above it. You point your toes toward the sky and try to talk to the muscles at the ends of your feet. Neurons firing in your brain get snagged somewhere in your skull. You try to spread your toes. You stare at the tiny fingers at the bottom of your body, and they look right back. Some parts of you have always been stubborn. Some things in you will stay the way they are. Hold your hand over your heart and see.
The television blares, the coffee machine drips, the door to the basement creaks. Black space devours warm light pouring in from the kitchen. There’s a lamp at the bottom of the stairs, which means you’ll have to cross through dark to find light. Mom keeps the holiday cookies in the deep freezer toward the back next to the furnace. They come in different shapes: reindeer, Santas, Christmas trees, oval ornaments with decorative frosting. You look deep into the void for the freezer, but nothing’s there. It’s impossible to face your fear of the dark. You can’t see what scares you. There’s no confronting absence, so you stand at the top of the stairs frozen and afraid, forgetting why you are this way.
A January tornado - the first of its kind - tore through town, throwing hail and shrapnel from buildings and trees, knocking out windows, ripping up power lines. It took all the light, so you were born screaming in the dark.
Now, you sleep with a little lamp next to your bed which, some nights, only makes things worse. It casts shadows on the walls and if you look at them long enough, they take shape. They twist into impossible figures and unrecognizable faces. They form a head with misplaced eyes or barren branches that tangle dreams. A small flame burns inside the furnace. The pilot light flickers, an oak sways on the back wall. The branches scrape the ceiling, the limbs reach out. You back away from the stairs. You turn to run when a hand grabs yours.
The floor softens, your foot roots and you rise on one leg. You reach for the open ceiling, moving toward light. You take on new heights, growing higher, up into the exposed pipes and wires and warm filament bulbs, a tree towering so tall, you stand against the elements and brace for wind.
Everything’s different up here. There’s a clarity at this altitude, the thin air makes it easier to see. Your entire leg roots into the earth, wind howls around you. Your arms sway, your shoulders creak. The planet’s forces push down as the gravity of what’s coming sets in.
The furnace rattles, then roars. The ducts groan as they expand taking hot air to bathrooms and bedrooms and all the other empty rooms. Sometimes you see people in the house, but you’re sure no one’s home. The lack of bodies isn’t the only criteria for loneliness. A cold draft crosses the back of your neck and disappears into the dark telling you that this time, you’re not alone.
A force from behind sends you into the basement. The pilot light throws a distress call across the distance. Light dances behind you, two silhouettes shimmer against the wall, one overshadowing the other. The older boy backs you up against the roaring furnace, covers your mouth. He presses your head against hot metal, looks dead in your eyes, and a spark goes out. The room goes black and you leave your body.
You float from yourself and watch from above. The empty skeleton is twisted and bent and broken but it’s okay, you’re not there. You’re already gone, catapulting through clouds, soaring across the sky, formless, reduced to a glow, through dark toward a dim speck light years away.
Eyes shot, shirt soaked, you stand tall, spread your arms and fly forward. Your head lands between your knees. You hang off your waist, put your hands on the ground and whiteknuckle the earth. You push with everything you are and rise. Your legs come up over your torso, above your head and your heart. Everything centers, the world turns over. Your hands are your feet, the ceiling is the floor. You hang upside down and look backward. You look at everything behind you.
A man is laid out on the ground. His finger twitches, sets still. A girl packs a bag. She clears her throat, wipes her cheek. A little boy with blue eyes tries to say something into the dark. Blood runs from his nose. He stammers, buries his head in his hands when a woman comes out of the shadows. She’s holding a Santa cookie that’s missing its arms and legs. The boy stomps his feet, breaks into tears so finally, she looks at him. She looks right through him. Her scowl turns you inside out.
The boy closes his mouth, swallows his words and becomes a man of the world. He buries whatever it was in a dark corner. He uses the little light he has on the matter to make shadow puppets out of it. He turns it into abstract shapes and unknown faces, an endless cycle of circles and lines, ears and eyes. The woman grabs the boy by the elbow and pulls him into the dark leaving you alone, holding everything you are in your two hands.
Pushing into the ground, something expands in your chest. A levee cracks, a door unhinges, and your heart opens for what has to come in. You close your eyes and when you open them a pale boy with dark eyes says, “Can you be okay?” There’s a loss in his voice that echoes up from the bottom of a hole, one dug out of a hundred before it. He holds out his hand, a tear runs up your face. You hold onto the floor. You hold on, then let go.
Floating to your back, you feel a bend you’ve never felt before. You realize that even when you’re flat, you still curve with the earth. There’s no lying straight on a sphere, so you allow yourself to be bent. You feel the powerful movement happening beneath you. You touch the immeasurable forces in motion under the surface. The earth grinds on its axis, forward, projecting through space with you on its back, lying still, but still moving.