Nancy Zigler reads ‘Museums in the Sky’
Museums in the Sky
by Nancy Zigler
My name is Cielo Salas, and I am writing to say that I am not sorry. You were a twenty-one-year-old philosophy major, and I was a twenty-seven-year-old grad school dropout. The professor had fallen ill, and the English department had let me sub in exchange for $3,333 dollars.
First day of teaching, you jotted down your phone number next to your name on my seating chart. The number also contained a series of threes. The letters were angular, confident. The mark of your pen almost ripped through the thin sheet before you.
I didn’t call right away, but I did begin to take each comma personally. You wrote about a town where it rained each day for six years. You wrote about a couple who existed in different dimensions of outer space. They kept falling in love over and over again until they woke up as each other. You wrote about how the universe was a hologram, and that we were all just shitty reflections of our invisible selves.
In Spanish, the word for deep space is espacio profundo. Isn’t that lovely?
My mom, Alma, named me Cielo so that I could feel limitless. Personally, I would have preferred she named me Black Hole or Aurora Borealis because I’ve always been drawn to the blankness of the night. She’s the one that liked space, not me, but since she’s been gone, all I’ve been looking for are signs and symbols that she did walk this earth alongside me.
It snowed winter to spring. I spent a lot of time not grading. Or not doing much of anything, if I’m being honest. Online, I found recordings of you from high school, back when you were a junior tennis all-star. I tried to decode the interviews, imagine what you ate for lunch that day. Repeating the words in my head: drop shot, tuna sandwich, number two fade. If we had been high school classmates, you would have been the hot guy who didn’t give me a second thought. I had flowered in later adulthood—like the universe had given us a chance to meet in the middle.
Boy, you could write the shit out of a sentence. Many of your pieces took place inside the same Moscow kitchen. Your characters smoked too much and never spoke in dialogue, then, the twist—how in the dusk, the velvet curtains painted the tile floors pink and it made you want to cry. I’d close my eyes to imagine the satiny wallpaper patterned with ostriches cracking out of gray shells.
By the time the snow had melted, I finally dialed your number. We went ice-skating in Schenley Park, and you made lazy figure eights as if you were born to do it.
“My parents were ice skaters,” you explained simply.
My mother is dead, I wanted to say. Instead, I cupped your hand in mine and we listened to the softness of snow falling off of cedars.
By the time the frost had melted off of crocuses, we finally had our movie moment in the laundry room of my apartment. Wedged in between two machines, I felt a darkness in me slowly spreading, rising and falling like a sine wave. A blurry phone number was written on the palm of your hand, the one you used to pull my hair back before it slipped through your fingers.
The dryer beeped. Wrapped in a hot fleece blanket, we exited the laundry room like two children on Christmas Eve. As we made it to the third floor, the lights flickered on: one, two, three, four. My door was unlocked, the windows wide open to let in the mystery and magic of Pittsburgh at midnight.
You took in my studio apartment thoughtfully, green eyes darting corner to corner, where I had color-coded all my things into artful nests on the floor with gaping holes in between.
“What, you moved in like, yesterday?”
“I’m still figuring out the feng shui.”
“It feels so temporary.”
You tilted my chin towards your face and counted my freckles. My curandera told me I got them from staring too hard at the moon after my mother died. Your hands on my face were the most intimate I had ever known. They traced over the grease burns on my wrists, which I got from working the fryer at Taco Bell in high school.
“Hey, have you eaten?” you asked.
“I haven’t gone grocery shopping. Since I moved in.”
You slid next to me on the floor, in a nest where everything was purple. “Well, tonight you are very lucky,” you said. “You’re having one perfect plum.”
You held the invisible fruit up to the naked bulb of my living room. We both admired it and you whispered stories of its deliciousness into my ear. I drifted off to sleep against the black nest, mostly made up of the contents of my heart.
Before you left, you looked out the window and into the empty parking lot across the street. There was a single star in the sky. I remembered that my mom had once said that the space station belonged in a museum of dreams that should not exist. I wondered if you had a beyond place too.
I’m on a train to Pittsburgh. Tree shadows carve rivets in my mother’s face, one with wide and familiar green eyes. An old ache consumes me.
We talk about what heaven looks like. She tells me that she doesn’t know. I’m alarmed until she says that it’s better not to know everything. She sounds wise, and I marvel at what I do not know. We talk about surrealism, space-time, the stargazing gene in corn snakes.
As the sky fades to black, I realize that we are the only ones here, the sky a mess of red planets.
This phantasm ages with me. In sleep, it’s the only place I don’t feel suspended in time.
In my class, we repeated the word rhododendron over and over, as if we could glimpse the word before it took off, like a swan in flight. After, we tried a few more: strumpet, sunchoke, synesthesia. I had forty more minutes to fill. So, we took turns reading Andre Breton’s poems out loud.
“Madam.” You paused to look at me hard. “A pair of silk stockings.”
I didn’t hear the tail end of the poem.
Did you know that Venetia Burney, an eleven-year old, gave Pluto its name? After the Roman god of the underworld, with the peculiar talent of making himself invisible.
I ended class early and my students filed out of the classroom. You didn’t wait for them to leave as you stood over me, gripping the sides of my podium in a way that felt familiar. Rogue planets are not attached to any star.
“You teach us about writing,” you said, opening the door as if to leave. “What about living your truth?”
My truth was that I was actually a reluctant astrophysicist moonlighting as a writing teacher. My mother had died the year I was supposed to defend my thesis, so I said no thanks and dropped out of school. Then I crawled into myself and never came out.
You gave me your stories. I gave you your grades. You gave me your coat. I gave you my hand. Gemini. Pisces. Moscow. Texas.
I’ve beat my brains out over it: how did our stars align? What did we have to offer each other other than refuge? We were two meteors shining past each other, lighting the other’s path.
A renowned physicist once told me that most life events are due to chance. People thread the stories of their lives together because life is not nothing.
Once, when I was about your age, I tried to understand string theory by holding my pen up to the light. A dot, a line, a cube. I reached this nirvana—dimensions begged to be understood. I knew the fourth dimension would bite me in the ass one day, the spin that becomes more than a sum of its parts.
My last week of teaching, I got drunk with a saxophone player with kind eyes. After I grasped his collar and told him about your intonations in the words silk stockings, I ended up alone in a jazz club downtown. Gathering my purse, I began to head east, towards a bench that was not a bus stop. Murphy’s law, I stumbled headfirst into you.
You snapped my keys out of my hand and said a quick goodbye to the redhead from our class. After I got into your car, you sped down the icy freeway with animal grace. I could make out your fine lines drawn against the night. We drove through a tunnel carved through a mountain. Your car was littered with gym socks, beef jerky, and R&B cassette tapes. The music blasted through the speakers.
“I’m from Philly,” you said.
“I can tell.”
“Everybody knows about us.”
“Yes.” I said.
“How do you know?”
“Their stories have a lot of May-Decembers.”
“Are we in trouble?”
“I’ll deal with the dean later,” I said, not mentioning that I had put in my notice of resignation that morning. I wouldn’t get the last $333 dollars, we had agreed.
“Did you like my story?” You smiled, the lights of the tunnel whirring past, making your pupils seem deeper.
“I liked the scene with the herring in a fur coat,” I said. “What, in Russia all you ate were little salads?”
“If you live in Russia you better like mayonnaise,” you said. “And never-ending winter.”
“Like Narnia,” I said.
We came out the other end holding our breaths. If you know Pittsburgh, you’ll know the tunnel—when you’re submerged in the belly of the beast and then the skyline knocks you out cold. That night, it was one for the books.
You felt indestructible to me in that moment, among your mess and faded R&B.
Beyond the skyline and city limits was your home. I had imagined you above something ordinary like living in an apartment. I was dying to see your kitchen. Once you unlocked the door and we went inside, I was sobered by the mattress on the floor, a grease-speckled window, peeling red walls.
“You look about 1000 years old,” you said.
You looked so young.
“And you’re a Halley’s comet,” I said, leaning into your chest. You came into my life like a prayer. A blip later, and you’d be gone.
In that dim apartment, it dawned on me that my life was unspectacular. In my museum of dreams, the ghost of my mother followed me close. That black hole October when she died blew me right open like a kite and ended with a lifetime of me waiting for the train to come.
I ran into you many many years later, beneath a bridge with a highway rattling above us. The story that we told ourselves about each other a bold blot on the horizon. What came to me at that moment was the last story of yours that I ever read. You said to the woman with no food at her apartment: “inevitably, your skin was my autobiography.”
You were older now. Perhaps you never knew me, yet you traced the grease mark on my wrist before saying goodbye, and I felt a pang in my heart. The ice had melted, and spring had arrived.
“Godammit,” I said into the wind, thumbing my mittens against the railing. “We never could see each other clearly.”
The train passed overhead, and you were already gone. I have a fourth dimension, I wanted to shout after you. It’s pure as light, as sound, as song. Maybe I’ll write that on my gravestone. Grief, love, relative spacetime—it’s not linear. Back then, I had nothing to offer you except my sadness.
And maybe I am sorry. We write so that we can be seen, and because life is not nothing. That morning, the sun rose before a brilliant purple sky. I noticed when you turned away that your eyes were blue. I went to put flowers on my mother’s grave and buy a couch, a telescope, a tiny salad.
When I finally made it home, I frantically looked for my book on Andre Breton. Page 3.
“Madam,” I whispered. “A pair of silk stockings.”
I turned the page.
“Is not a leap into the void.”