When I was a kid, my sister’s room had a splatter of glow-in-the-dark sticky stars on the ceiling. They had been put there by the previous occupants; college-aged tenants, since the house was a rental before we bought it. And the ceiling tiles in her bedroom were painted alternative squares of blue and white, except where they weren’t, because someone’s final exam had gotten in the way of finishing the job. Or maybe a girlfriend stormed in demanding answers.
Whatever the reason, the stars, constellatorily incomplete, and the half-painted tiles remained, unaltered, throughout our adolescence.
I used to do a lot of staring at the ceiling. And the walls. As my sister sat up wondering why her private heavens were so half-assed, I’d lay awake focusing on one gray, shifting point. If you stared hard enough, everything else in the room seemed to fade away, or rather, not to fade, but to become obscured, consumed, enveloped, by a manufactured darkness darker than the night itself.
There were the full-moon nights. When it seemed a giant man with a giant flashlight was standing outside my window. And shivering tree branch shadows would drift delicately in every direction, until tackled and knocked back by a sudden gust of wintry wind.
And late night headlights. From cars captained by older, freer people than I. People who did driving at ten, eleven, and even midnight-o’clock. And who, on summer nights, drove up our block with windows down, elbows resting half-out in the warm night air. In January they drove bundled, freezing, scarved and hatted, watching the engine temperature light on the dashboard, waiting desperately for the moment it blinked on so they could turn the heat up. Their lights slid across my bedroom walls, pushing weird geometries along a conveyor belt.
The trains were half a block away, just past where the dense brush separated the neighborhood from the tracks, hiding teenagers and train people with their ancient rotted mattresses and stick igloos. They ran fast at night; 60, 80, 100 miles per hour. And long, impossibly long. How can a train moving that fast keep moving that fast for that many minutes? I would try to calculate the number of boxcars required, but I lacked the basic information on which to base the exercise (length of one boxcar, speed of the train, etc.).
I hated and loved being the only one left awake in the house. Sometimes I’d creep out into the hallway and stand looking at the other bedroom doors. I knew they were sleeping. I hated that they’d gone to bed without me, but I knew it was my fault; I’d stayed up reading, or thinking, or looking out the window. I also loved the weird silence and stretchiness of late night, when no one was doing anything and standing in a hallway for two minutes felt like twenty.
I didn’t venture further than the hall outside my door. Downstairs, I knew, were chilly hardwood floors and sheer curtains and a nosy orange street light giving familiar things an unfamiliar rendering. I wouldn’t like it.
A trip to the bathroom, more perfunctory than pensive, was the beginning of the end, like the taxi ride to the airport at the end of a vacation. Still technically part of the vacation, but not really. With the light off, I sat and peed.
And then back to bed, all thoughts of ceiling-stars and moon-shadows lost in the receding the throb of the world’s longest train.