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 and thoughts sprawled out across a thin rubber mat. Sitting up, you reach forward to your quads, past your knees all the way to your shins where you cross into uncharted territory. 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 shins where you wait until something gives, then gives up entirely, sending your fingertips to the tops of your bare feet.
You grew up looking down at black cleats, scuffed and stained, laced tight, ready to tear up grass and 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, you’d wait, a gladiator in the stadium, a hunter in the endzone, adrenaline coursing, time slowing. Someone would appear wearing a jersey that wasn’t yours. You’d come in full speed, set your shoulder in their sternum, and knock them clean of everything they had.
The crowd’s breath lost, wreckage smoldering, you’d get yourself up and look down at what you’d done: a busted body with emptied eyes next to two cleats breaking ground, holding power. You stood over it, but you weren’t above it. With every impact, there was an equal and opposite one. It hit back all the same. Leveling bodies filled one hole by making another, each leaving you more empty than the last.
Pressing onto your arms, you extend up and 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 of yourself. Two halves are easier than one 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 today you sit so softly, you sink into the floor. You point your toes to 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 just the way they are. Go ahead, hold your hand over your heart and see.
The television blares, the coffee machine drips and the basement door creaks open like the opening of a horror movie. The black space eats up the warm glow pouring in from the kitchen. Mom keeps the Santa shaped cookies in the deep freezer toward the back next to the furnace. There’s a lamp at the bottom of the stairs, which means you’ll have to walk through dark to find light. You look into the void for the freezer or furnace, 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.
The only recorded January tornado tore through town, throwing hail and bits of houses, knocking out windows and 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 tree branches that tangle dreams. A small flame burns inside the furnace, the pilot light gives off a single flicker and sends an oak swaying 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 stand on one leg. You reach for the open ceiling, moving toward light. You grow 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. You take on new heights. Everything’s different up here. There’s a clarity at this altitude, the thin air makes it easier to see. Your trunk roots further into the floor as the wind howls around you. Your arms sway and your shoulders creak. The planet’s forces push down and 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, you know they’re there, but you’re also 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. It disappears into the dark telling you that this time, someone’s really there.
A push from behind sends you into the dark. The pilot flickers sending 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 pilot light vanishes and the room goes black. You leave your body, you float from yourself and watch from above. The empty skeleton is bent and twisted 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 millions of 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, and 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.
There’s a man laid out on the ground. His finger twitches, sets still. There’s a girl packing a bag. She clears her nose, wipes her cheek. A little boy with blue eyes and a bloody nose is stammering to say something into the dark. He stomps his feet, holds his head. A woman comes out of the shadows holding a mutilated Santa cookie. The head is missing, the body is broken. She looks right through the boy. 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 drags the boy into the dark and you’re left alone, holding everything you are in your two hands.
Standing on your palms, you push into the earth. 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 empty eyes says, “Can you be okay?” There’s a loss in his voice so deep, it echos 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 for dear life, and let go.
You float to your back, 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.