AUTHOR: Beth TITLE: The Asteroid. DATE: 1/03/2005 10:03:00 PM ----- BODY:
Thursday. The second-to-last day of the year. "Look." K says. She's hauling pants, shirts, socks, underwear in fistfuls out of the industrial-sized washing machine and into the little waist-height basket on wheels. She holds up a pair of jeans that only got halfway dry, clucks at their twisted, wrinkled legs, then throws them into the basket again. "You can't take on the world's problems. You know? You're only twenty-four years old. You know that you think about things. You know what you think about things. That's all you need to know right now. Most people don't even get that far." "But it feels irresponsible," I tell her. "It doesn't seem right." "Right, but that's because you don't believe things happen for a reason. You don't have a belief system. You have to do things the hard way. But think of it like this." We're folding, now, on a plastic counter set up for the purpose at the front of the laundromat. Outside the window, Fitchburg wheezes by. "There was plenty of tragedy and shit before you came into the world, and there'll be even more when you leave it," K says. Her socks are so small. They look like a child's. Between that and the somehow profound thing she just said to me, I begin to feel suddenly protective, which is what she hates. I quash the feeling and soon we're talking about something else. Back in the car later, hauling the laundry back into her house, we're back on the subject again. "Well," I finally say, half-kidding, "There's going to be a huge asteroid that hits the Earth in 2029 anyway. So we won't even have to worry about it then." K stops, turns around, balancing her laundry basket awkwardly. She looks me directly in the eye. "You know that's a really twisted way to think, right?" Twisted, maybe, but I'm not alone in it. Over the past week or so, news has been circulating that an asteroid 1,300 feet long has a 1-in-300 chance of hitting the Earth in 2029, which still doesn't sound like much, but it's much better than most people's chances of hitting the jackpot in the lotto, and they play that anyway. Now the same scientists that gave the odds in the first place (even naming the damn thing, after a Chinese scientist) are saying the asteroid won't hit earth, won't even come close, and in case you were worried, it probably won't hit the moon, either. So plan your moon-vacations accordingly. But it was still quite the meta-narrative, wasn't it, the stories of our imminent Earthly destruction (and the destruction of 140,000 in actuality, which of course is where we prefer least to live) as the calendar turned to a new year? Of course, I can hear her right now, K, telling me, just because you're not the only one thinking it doesn't mean it's not still a twisted idea. Later on, we see a commercial for a reality TV show, forget which one, but it has K rolling her eyes, gesturing at the TV and asking me, "What the hell." "Don't look at me, man," I shrug. "I'm just waitin' on that asteroid." And despite herself, she laughs. New Year's Eve. Boston Common is overrun with people, so many that the hillsides between the paved walks are impassable thanks to millions of footprints tamping the snow into a sheet of muddy slush. Andy, with his new camera, slips and slides down it anyway to take a picture of the ice sculpture, a frog balanced on ice letters that are supposed to spell out FIRST NIGHT, but the "T" in "NIGHT" is missing by the time we get there. The rest of us stay behind on the walk, interrupting the flow of people, but staking our claim to a spot to watch the fireworks. Last year, because it was overcast, the fireworks looked more like aurora borealis, vague pinks and greens tinting the horizon. This year it looks as though things will be the same, but when they start the falling sparks were surprisingly clear. Fumbling with my camera, I try to take pictures of the fireworks themselves, but the shots are unsteady and messy. I switch to shooting the people watching, instead, and that works much better. I watch a little child hold up a blinking plastic light-scepter toward the sky, while her father leans down to smile and point with her, and I take their picture, and if it comes out the way I hope it did (and the way it looks on the camera's digital screen), it'll be among the best I've ever taken, and it is a beautiful moment I'm glad to capture anyway. The fireworks build toward a finale, rumbling and cracking and growing ever louder, from "pops" and "booms" with space in between to one continuous explosion, and one very loud shell in particular explodes relentlessly with a sound like machine-gun fire, and suddenly, I am thinking of that desert around the world where these same sounds are far from celebratory, where children that age don't point to them and laugh in delight while their fathers hold them, where young men and women my age aren't shooting with a camera. You can't take on the world's problems, K's voice whispers through my mind. And my own, "But..." The colored lights illuminate my friends' faces, new shadows on familiar cheeks. I take some pictures of them looking up together. Who knows if they'll come out. And eventually, we're in Kim and Cory's apartment, watching the ball drop, and everyone around me is shouting, "Five...four...three...two...one..." I'm quiet, with my plastic cup of champagne, and I toast and drink up and kiss everyone but I'm still not sure which direction to feel in. Last night. A Major Television Event (tm)-- a made-for-TV docudrama called Smallpox, which is you might imagine it. It tells the story of an epidemic unleashed by a terrorist on New York (and consequently, the rest of the entire planet, nice going there, genius!) in the style of a documentary, complete with "news footage", "interviews" with the characters, "amateur footage", etc. Highly realistic, and merciless in the story it tells--not enough vaccines, not enough resources, not enough security to combat the attack. The strain India-1 leaks every which way from former Soviet bioweapons labs, into the hands of the deathly ill young man in a windbreaker who stumbles onto the New York subway system one morning to spread a disease as virulent and toxic and pointless as his hate. And I wonder, even as I watch in morbid fascination, what is the real point of this movie? To prepare us for something? To scare us? Just to sell advertising, because it is a lurid subject and therefore will fascinate the morbid-minded like myself? Or is it just another asteroid story? I want to watch the whole movie, but I know given my mental state, it's probably not the best idea. What's more, I am exhausted after attending the Patriots game in the bitter cold with my father, and drowsing in the aftereffects of a hot shower. I finally shut off Smallpox and head to bed. Stephen is not home from his rehearsal yet. I lie there and finish my book. It's been a good book, but now that it's ended I'm not sure how to feel about it, either; part of me is furious with the author for what she ended up doing with the characters, and most of me is simply respectful of her for even making me feel that disappointment and anger, because it takes strong characters to prompt that kind of reaction, and how is it her fault her book told me something I didn't want to hear? Suddenly, in bed with this book, (and Smallpox probably didn't help, either), I feel small and alone and scared. I want Stephen home now. Suddenly the apartment and I both feel so useless without him, like husks, like empty skins. When he finally knocks at the door and I clamber out of bed and open it to see him standing there juggling a MacDonald's bag and his music and his horn and his lunch-cooler, it's all I can do to hide my relief. Later, though, when we're both in bed, in the dark, and Stephen is clearing his throat and snuggling around in his blankets trying to get comfortable, I'm lying there awake. This time, between being awake and asleep, is and always has been and probably always will be the worst part of my day. There's nothing standing between me and my thoughts. And the worst one, the one I have right then, is this one: I, Beth, am going to die someday. And so is everyone I have ever known. And none of us know when that is. It seems like such a truism, but have you ever really thought about it? I mean, really realized it? That's my ultimate problem, I think, and maybe everything in my life, from writing to my bouts with insanity to my workaholism boils down to a simple inability to make peace with that fact. Every time I try to relax, I remember that and feel like I'm running out of time. And now, another year. Another 365 under the bridge, through the hourglass, whatever. How many do I have left? I mean, I don't know what to do. How do I go about understanding things? Is the idea to live as consciously as possible, as mindful as possible of the fact that life is finite? Or is it to live as heedlessly as possible, as relaxed as possible, to spend time as if it's unlimited? In other words, is it better to regret having been unhappy, or wasteful? Maybe those fantasies, whether toxic virus or chunks of flaming space-rock, whether mine or society's, are just a longing for meaning. Focus. Immediacy. Certainty. Rather than, well...the opposite. When it comes down to it, we're all waiting for something--asteroid, smallpox, Jesus, whatever--to save us. Redeem us. Give us closure and understanding. And, barring that, destroy us.
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