Alone in a cloud

What comes next?

The Heartstrings (1960) by Rene Magritte

Reports stream in, updates expire rapidly, the newest news grows less new by the second. Fresh angles replace old takes, each image grows sharper and more detailed. Zoom in and zoom out, headlines melt into tiny print, broad strokes and fine points, mysteries underneath puzzles, masks beneath masks.

I’m the only one on the plane worrying, sitting over the wing, bouncing across the surface of a 500-mile-wide cyclone. One more hour of turbulence, a voice tells us. Three more hours of wandering around in the dark rooms of my mind, a haunted house suspended over the Pacific Ocean.

Sensations flood in, impulses expire rapidly, the newest images grow less new by the second. Bent elbows replace bent knees, each moment grows murkier at the edges and more precise at the center, like that one filter on Instagram, like a hailstorm, like a sigh that tries to resolve something important but lands in uneasy territory, less a period than a question mark. Zoom in and zoom out, sweeping resolutions melt into fleeting urges, restraint and regret, imaginary questions cede to incomplete answers. That’s not it, I wouldn’t say that, not quite… Polite restraint. And then nothing, a void, like miles of cold air beneath metal wings.

I can’t afford the luxury of silence the way you can. I never found a good way to avoid explaining everything. I always look as I leap and now I can’t even leap. Where are you? Words are translated into Swahili and German and back again until they’re just tangled vowels, a low whine, a staticky dispatch from thousands of miles away, lives barely visible through the telescope even when you squint with conviction, almost silent beneath the grumbling of engines.

What is Thurston Moore doing right now?

I’ll bet he’s standing in his kitchen, eating a sandwich. The lettuce is wilted, almost transparent, so he peels it off and it drips off his fingers into the trash. He’s thinking about Kim Gordon. I know that’s way too obvious, but that really is what he’s doing, trust me. He’s thinking she was magnificent and terrible, thinking that no one had what she had, sick and magical and empty, a rough ride, eternally gritted teeth. She always stretched while she smoked, dignified but wretched, at once divinely anointed and cursed. But maybe that’s how they all are, he’s thinking, but he’s wrong. No one else is like her. Not even close.

Fresh blood doesn’t replace old angles. His new girl is sharp around the edges, fuzzy in the middle, a hailstorm turned inside out. Nostalgia sucks the charge out of new longings, vertigo erases forward motion, time stops and the ocean shoots straight up to meet your wings.

I am just an old guy now, Thurston thinks. Eating a sandwich, reading the paper. Maybe the girl pities him already. Her presence is an act of mercy leavened by ambition. How do you bend your knees like that?, he asked her last night on the couch, and immediately he could see her eyes calculating, imagining their next trip out of town, jets heavy with old bones and good luggage, pink wine in the green room, adding and subtracting, old hotel rooms and good antibiotics. Mattering to complete strangers is lonelier than anyone will admit, Thurston thinks. All complete strangers remain strangers forever, but grow increasingly incomplete.

But a stranger can still disrupt your peace like a headline in 40-point font. I can read the finest print without opening my eyes, I tell myself as the plane teeters like a seesaw. Trust that, trust that, trust it. Trust what is inherently untrustworthy, like a metal bird thirty thousand feet above the wide ocean. Train yourself to crave silence. Good lessons never involve blaming yourself for not knowing everything already, for not predicting the mask under the mask. I used to blame myself for my own racing heart. I used to blame myself for the swaying wings and swirling clouds. I don’t do that anymore. The rhythm of my blood is steady now, like an elegy for all the dead rock stars.

We’re at the edge of the cyclone. It wasn’t as dramatic as I imagined it would be. Nothing ever is. How can I change that?

Old truths replace new takes, sharp inhales replace wilted sighs, the cyclone dissolves into layers of scattered clouds, infinite layers with no ocean beneath them. I can find a way to sharpen the edges without losing the center. Incomplete strangers can’t perform this trick, but that’s not me. It takes a soft heart and slow hands. Put away your telescope and feel what’s already within reach.