Always Only Approximate
Astronomers have intuited the presence of an underground ocean on Jupiter’s largest moon by watching the quiet dance of its auroras. Salt in the water, they presume, generates tension between the magnetic fields of the planet and Ganymede and slows the rocking of the light. They read water they can’t see in the stillness of the blaze, even that far away. You swim, maybe. Here on Earth, you take your position, wait for the call of the whistle, push off hard into the blue of the pool. Or maybe you no longer swim. Maybe you run or you bake intricate pastries or you photograph songbirds or you Zumba on Saturday nights or manage a fantasy baseball league or write poems about pufferfish. Probably, you fall asleep with your hand on the thigh of someone who loves you. I doubt you drive out to the beach late at night and watch our own planet’s auroras shimmer and register something submerged because that’s what I do, my feet in the cold, cold salt-free water, and then I am drawn home to search for discoveries about the universe, so I can know. Though all news is guesswork and deduction. Astronomers measure distance by noting how stars move relative to what’s around them in our sky, but when stars get too far away they turn to other units, other methods: parallaxes and candles and the globular cluster luminosity function. Astronomers have tools I don’t and imaginations that extend through uncountable space. I work in the dark. I can’t even speculate what’s next to you so far out there.
The Big Rip
The universe is loosening, faster and faster, but sixty million years before it unbuttons, a man who hurt you narrates his imagined fall from a balcony railing two thousand miles away: he has ruined everything, he’s not coming home. A flash flood of charged plasma from the sun means cell service is spotty; you keep getting disconnected. In another town, a friend googles and learns the exhaust systems of newer cars in closed garages don’t build up enough CO2 and she should lock herself inside with a charcoal grill, handcuffed to the steering wheel so she can’t change her mind, and sometimes your father sips probationary amounts of Drano. Who isn’t tempted by a sweet dark after? Even you – the fool this time but often the one who does the hurting – will keep your car in your own lane on the terrifying curve near the ski hill only because the person in the truck coming the other way might not be ready yet, might be willing to wait for the galaxy to startle, for the solar system to unfix, the planet to shatter. Maybe she is good to people and people are good to her. She might choose, of all the ways to end, this one: to stay feet planted long enough to feel the universe’s atoms dissociate, for the tiniest particles of herself to be pulled farther and farther away from whatever is the magnificent crux of her. You keep calling back and every time he doesn’t answer, you leave the same message: Step back, baby. Hold yourself together.
Jennifer A. Howard teaches and edits Passages North in Michigan’s snowy Upper Peninsula.
Photo by NASA Goddard Space Flight Center
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