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Leah Johnson

April 27, 2018


Here’s a story. Man says: In order to bake an apple pie, first you must create the whole universe. A woman then donates her brain to science, says something about how falling in love looks like fireworks in the mind. They send this image into space—the Brain Hopped Up on Happy— so that whoever or whatever is out there can know this about the human race: that our minds are capable of things like endorphin and explosion and the man and the woman get married. A Big Bang. A universe unto itself.

I wonder if we say we love each each other for ourselves or for the people we’re saying it to. Or if we do it because we know we’re running out of time, like we must share it for fear of never sharing it. Or if it’s just another way to say I see you. Another way to be seen.

I put the frame with the photo of the two of us at his high school graduation face-down on the mantel. Then I take the clock off the wall for good measure.

I woke up to an email from a doctor this morning. They’re doing a study on the families of trauma victims, he said. There’s no rush, but since you just reached the six-month mark, you’d be a perfect subject, he said. Trauma victim. Six months. Perfect. Perfect. Perfect.

I have a headline: Local Woman Receives Unwanted Email And Takes Baseball Bat to Laptop in Backyard.

They don’t mention this in the article, but as the screen shuddered, it burst with a simple twitch of color, right before it all finally went dark.

Stars are born when clouds of gas collapse, he says, excited to be sharing this with me. They are born, they get old, and they die. They have a whole life. I step over his small form, where he’s laying on the linoleum floor of our tiny kitchen with a book I don’t remember checking out for him from the library. A whole life, huh? Just like you and me? I place two dishes in the sink. Well, only if we live for like, 5 billion years. He is too young to truly understand time, the impossible bigness of it, a smart boy though he may be. Not quite like you and me then, I guess. He hops up quickly, always quickly, and wraps his arms around my thighs. But we do get a whole life together. Right, Mama? Right, baby boy. Right.

They keep saying that he must have been crazy. That he’d had a tough year, a tough life, and that’s what drove him to do what he did. I wonder what they would say about me. A good life, a small and simple and happy life. And then at once a bad day, the worst day imaginable, becomes a bad year, the year that refuses to end, until I too, collapse in on myself.

Here is another story. Boy says: Everything. He feels too much and thinks too much and heard something once about a man who sent sound waves to the moon. His mother can’t afford to send him to space camp, so that year he goes as a tiny astronaut for Halloween instead. And much to his mother’s amusement, the helmet he insists on wearing muffles the sound of his excited trick or treat.

Fact: Stars and patterns dance behind your eyelids when you close them because even in your resting state your retinas are firing electrical charges too fast for the eye to process without light and information to otherwise stimulate them.

Alternative Fact: His eyes were closed.

Alternative Fact: The last thing he ever saw was a galaxy of his own creation.

He came into the world the same way he came at everything: too fast. Impatient, eager, ready for light, two months before expected. He walked early. He learned to read early. Small for his age but eyes too bright and a brain too big for his own good, skipped to the second grade early. I could never keep up with him. I could never—I could never keep him.

I wonder if the man loved anyone. If he had anyone to say goodbye to before he did it. I wonder how fast and bright he knew himself to burn before he extinguished.

Alternative Fact: I trusted my gut, I didn’t let him skip the first grade, he began his freshman year of college the fall he should have. He’s still here.

We toured the campus on a Monday evening in early spring. The ground was still damp from a lunchtime drizzle and he insisted on taking his shoes off to walk through the open field in the center of campus. It’s called an arboretum, Ma. He smiled and shook his head like I should have known that already. Well you’re just asking to get sick, CJ. Compulsory, motherly. I want to feel it. I frowned. Feel what? He wiggled his toes. Just like he did when he was a baby, big one first, then the rest. I want to feel everything.

I sold the house a month ago. A year, they said, and things would reset themselves. I’d begin living in a New Normal. Joke’s on them. It’s been a year and there is no normal anymore. There’ll never be a normal again.

A letter for the next family: To The Remaining, The Left Behind, the Begrudgingly Alive, they won’t tell you about the Day After. They won’t tell you about the devastating, crippling silence of the Next Day. That the noise fades with the news cycle. That the congress people stop calling so the phone stops ringing. That one day your baby won’t have a name, he’ll just be another Dead One that they mention to humanize an inhumane problem. That you won’t even speak inside of the last room he was in for fear of unsettling something, anything, that could still bear his touch. They won’t tell you that, so I’m telling you. Yours truly, The Still Here.

Why aren’t you considering an Ivy? I slid him one of the college brochures that he’d been receiving in the mail since he’d gotten his SAT scores. You could get into Harvard, CJ. Or at least Yale. I pushed. Harvard and Yale are overrated, Ma. He shook his head gently and handed the brochure back to me. He continued filling out his application fee waiver. And besides, I want to stay close to home. There’s no reason for me to run to the east coast when I could get a perfectly good education here. “Perfectly good” meaning “state school.” “Perfectly good” meaning “an education you can afford to give me.” You know we’d make it work, right? If you wanted to go, we would make it work. I needed him to understand. If I couldn’t give him anything else, I would do my best to give him this. He grabbed my hand. You’ve always looked out for me, Ma. Let me look out for you for a while.

Alternative Fact: I never stopped looking out for him. I was his mother, always, put my needs after his, and I never stopped looking out for him.

A different house now on a different side of town, but the same sad clinging to every wall. I can see it now, much more clearly, the thing that I’d been trying to run from. Me, but not me. So the joke’s all mine, I guess. I didn’t escape it, not sure that I’d even tried all that hard, and sometimes I can feel it wrapping itself around my form like tendrils on an aging white picket fence, gripping and crushing until there’s nothing left to hold.

Alternative Fact: Schools are safe. Churches are safe. Concerts are safe. Movie theaters are safe.

Alternative Fact: When people leave home, they always come back to you.

Here’s the last story. In this performance the actress will reprise her role as the mother. Curtain opens, empty stage, single spotlight, a one-woman show now, a real dramatic contender where once was a Vaudeville act. A slapstick duo. A laugh that turns into many laughs, a joke between two performers that grows until the audience, too, can’t resist laughing, though they don’t understand why. But today the woman stands still and silent, weeping. A director says, A weapon in the first act must be wielded in the third. A Big Bang. A universe unto itself.

LEAH JOHNSON is an essayist, fiction writer and hopeless midwesterner currently moonlighting as a New Yorker. Leah is an MFA candidate at Sarah Lawrence College and a 2018 Kimbilio Fiction Fellow. Her work —which can be found at Bustle, Electric Lit, Yes Poetry, Faded Out, and elsewhere— is centered on the miracle and magic of black womanhood.