Some people think they have to go somewhere exotic to see a good sunset. The kind of dream location a couple of moonstruck newlyweds go for romantic honeymoons to engage in toes-curled, mouth-agape, pupils-rolled-up-in-eye-sockets wild sex on red satin sheets as a gentle breeze floats in from the open window, blowing the lovers’ disheveled hair around their moist faces. Wild sex that could make the complimentary wood bowl of green grapes, peaches, cherries, and strawberries on the corner table tremble, shake, and fall onto the smooth wood floor. Somewhere in the distance, champagne glasses cling and young, square-chinned business partners with identical five o’clock shadows lay on lounge chairs. The dashing duo dead-set on taking over the world of commerce, blessed with classic features and dressed in white khakis and floral print shirts, make a toast to good times past and future. Out on the fine, pink sand, a brother and sister watch silently as a flock of seagulls fly overhead with fresh seaweed in their beaks.
That’s the kind of place people think they have to go to catch a decent sunset. But I beg to differ. I’m from a place no one in their right mind would call exotic. Maybe if they’re from another planet and have never seen sleepy towns of 30,000 surrounded by corn and soy fields a couple miles from a few other sleepy towns of 7,000 surrounded by more corn and soy fields; that whole cluster of sleepy towns separated from a semi-big Midwestern city by about 20 miles of interstate surrounded on both sides by corn and soy fields. Maybe if they’re fascinated by the idea of four dollar stores competing with each other on the same two-mile stretch, with two more on the way. Maybe if they’re excited by fast food chains, grocery store chains, gas station chains, and a dozen other categories of chain businesses, all answering to some portly middle-aged rich man greedily grasping and sucking dry the teat of luxury. Living fat and happy in a posh urban penthouse at the small expense of a million people’s entire lives of hard work. Maybe if they view with reverie a single mother consoling a crying bastard son while using a Brillo pad to wipe the grease off the skillet she received from a cousin as a wedding gift. Except there was no wedding, because the man she refers to as That Sonofabitch stood her up at the altar, leaving her to raise a child conceived and born out of wedlock in a mice-infested trailer with rocks for a driveway; with a double set of unused train tracks behind the house; with a run-down tavern next door; with a family on the other side consisting of a drunk, woman-beater husband, a gap-toothed wife with a speech impediment, and a lazy-eyed fourth grader son who prides himself on being the neighborhood bully; and with an oil refinery across the street.
There are good sunsets in places like that, too.
I remember the first time I really noticed the sunset. I was in second grade. It was during a five-hour drive home after visiting some relatives upstate. On a trip that was basically a straight shot on an empty road with only corn and soy fields, trees clustered around farmers’ houses, and the occasional patch of prairie to look at, boredom was inevitable. My mother fought against the temptation to fall asleep at the wheel like a pro, singing along with all her favorite rock ’n rollers on her mix tape. She wailed with Janis Joplin about the lost love of that unscrupulous Bobbie McGee; she sympathized with Mick Jagger, for she, too, could get no satisfaction; she dove underwater and joined the Beatles on the yellow submarine; she and Chuck Berry cheered on Johnny B. Goode together, grooving to Johnny’s hot guitar licks.
Meanwhile, I kept myself occupied by filling in a Mad Libs book with curse words and potty language. Eventually, I became bored with writing “poop” and “pee” in as nouns, “damn” and “crappy” as adjectives, “Hell” as a place, and “Shut up” as an exclamation. I ensconced the Mad Libs book in a secret compartment in my backpack, just to make sure my Mom would never find the dirty things I wrote (which she actually did find under my bed years later, when I left for my freshman year of college). Then I unbuckled my seatbelt and snatched a pillow and blanket from the front passenger seat.
I laid sideways the full length of the back seat, closing my eyes in hopes that I could while away the remaining hours by dreaming about Jenny McKinzie, my second grade crush. The engine of our wood-paneled station wagon hummed solemnly, a constant source of white noise that almost put me to sleep. Almost. Cracking my eyes at that moment was supposed to be my last check-up on the world, after which the Sandman would drive me in a shiny golden chariot into a dreamland where Jenny and I would frolic in a meadow and ride unicorns over diamond-studded mountains and under waterfalls of chocolate milk. Yet it just so happened that I opened my eyes while the interstate momentarily snaked in such a fashion that I faced directly west. I witnessed the bleeding sun sink into the faraway forest.
The car changed directions slightly so that the light display no longer shone directly into the window. But I wasn’t finished with the sunset. I’d always read descriptions in stories that seemed to hint at the celestial beauty of the event, but I never took much interest in observing the sky. Even in a somewhat mundane smallish town of 30,000, I found enough interesting things to do that I never really took the time to just sit and watch the atmospheric effects of the earth’s rotation in thoughtful silence. As a child, I searched for insects under bricks and large rocks in my front yard and either collected or squashed them. I pretended to be a spy hot on the trail of fresh mysteries, carrying a blue pen and a black-and-white speckled Mead composition notebook to take down all the clues as soon as I spotted them. I scavenged for interesting artifacts in the woods near my house, which sometimes included tattered diaries, rusted garden implements, Tonka trucks missing wheels, broken antique medicine bottles, and even a washing machine on one occasion (but more often I discovered scattered beer bottles, empty spraypaint cans, busted cigarette lighters, and rotted wood with nails in it). In short, I always set my eyes on the ground when entertaining myself outside, never bothering to behold the sky’s majesty. But that’s exactly what I did on that car ride home, until Mother Sun kissed its daughter, Earth, goodnight and its esoteric outcast sister Moon resumed the night shift. I took in every cloud shape and every subtle variation of yellow, orange, pink, and purple, making a list of them all in my mind as if my teacher were going to quiz me on it the next day at school.
One of the clouds looked like Australia, and I imagined little cloud kangaroos hopping about on the fluffy surface, as well as little cloud men roving aimlessly throughout the Outback in their jeeps, stopping periodically to throw boomerangs for sport. Another bore an uncanny resemblance to Abraham Lincoln, complete with top hat and small beard. I tipped my baseball cap to him and imagined him returning the gesture, but only after, I pretended, he pierced through my physical body and into my inner being with his deep-set grey eyes in order to conclude whether or not I was as pure of heart as old Honest Abe himself. Later on, two clouds flew by together more quickly than the other slowly-drifting ones. They actually appeared to have legs, and the leading one looked to be holding some bulging round object in one fist. The second cloud had one arm branching out that held up some sort of long, narrow object perpendicular to the ground. After a few moments of contemplation, I realized that this was a policeman chasing a bank robber. The first cloud’s prize was a money bag, and the second cloud’s possession was a night stick. As if God were listening and willed the collected pockets of evaporated moisture in the heavens to follow my story’s plot, the robber ran out of steam and slowed down while the cop maintained the same rate. The constable’s night stick battered the lowly thug about the head and shoulders, and justice was served.
At the outset of my sky-gazing fancifulness, warm sheets of orange light framed the cloud scenes and added a yellowish tint to the normally white clouds. As dusk neared, the clouds’ color transformed from a joyous Easter yellow to a sleepy violet, starting from the upper tips and spreading downward, until the sun vanished and the clouds made a brief stop at midnight purple before blending in with the black New Moon sky. When I saw the Night wake up and blink its starry eyes, I decided I was satisfied for one day. Contented and happy, I laid down my head again, this time entering a deep sleep. Unfortunately, unlike the vivid details I can provide about the car ride sunset, any descriptions of the subsequent dreams I had would be purely speculation. Perhaps I dreamt of using the wide stripe of yellow sky as a blanket and a cloud as a pillow. Perhaps I dreamt of squeezing every ounce of pink out of the sky and making raspberry lemonade, sipping and savoring the sweet prayers of little children. I would like to believe, however, that I dreamed about lifting off the ground and joining the action in the atmosphere, having great airborne adventures and meeting new friends, if only for a few minutes. The kind of strange and wonderful friends that speak with equal parts nonsense and conviction, bearing a coy smile that alludes to both comfort and mischief. The kind of friend, in short, that one can only meet in a dream.
One time I watched the sun set with my girlfriend. An ex-girlfriend now. It was one of our earliest dates. We laid blissfully on my Dad’s red plaid picnic throw on a grassy hill that was as green as life itself. We held hands and said all the things that you’d expect naïve middle-and-high schoolers in their first real relationship to say. I wooed her with my clever comments, read her corny love poetry that I wrote specially for her. The kind where I compared her eyes to the darkest depths of the ocean that were a complete mystery, even to scientists—her hair to sunbeams that provided the warmth and energy I needed to survive. The usual. In turn, she gazed at me almost as amorously as she would when ogling jewelry. Her eyes widened and stared into mine with longing. Her head found comfort on my shoulder. I remember looking up from our little spot on that living hill in between poems and noticing that the sun was setting. I viewed with rapture the pinks, oranges, yellows, and violets all over again. At the time the display seemed symbolic. I whole-heartedly believed that the breathtaking array of multicolored streaks and swirls in the sky was God’s way of saying, “You’ve done well, my son.” My passion overcame me, and I kissed my girlfriend at that instant. We held hands and kissed. Kissed like we knew a thousand-year era of nuclear winter would commence at any moment; like we could hear the clopping hooves signaling the arrival of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. Embraced and kissed until our faces, limbs, torso, identity, soul melted and became one. And all the rest of that romantic bullshit.
I should have known from the start she was not the genuine article, my soul mate, the One. At first the truth about her hit me like bugs smacking into windshields on an interstate: somewhat frequent, but small and easy to wipe away. The way she subtly but repeatedly hinted that I should shop for clothes at the same trendy stores as her; the way she tugged my hand as we passed mall jewelry stores and begged me to buy her this bracelet, this necklace, this ring; the way she wrinkled her nose when sitting down in my admittedly deteriorating ’89 Chevy Celebrity wagon; the way she shivered when I described to her how sad it was to watch my grandparents suffer from Altzheimer’s (after which she told me I shouldn’t say things like that to girls because it gives them the idea that I come from “bad stock”). All of these clues bothered me some, but thanks to a serving of passivity, a double-helping of denial, and a side of pathetic desperation for her affection, I decided to stash these offenses in a dark corner of my mind to deal with later.
It became impossible, however, to ignore her faults when she decided to break up with me via cellphone call at 7:30 one Friday night while I was waiting for her to show up for dinner at Red Lobster. Not only had she stood me up for a date, she decided to instead go on a date with a hotshot senior from our high school. This guy was the quintessential golden boy in every sense. Standing a solid six-feet-two and weighing in at 225 pounds of pure muscle, he was an All-State Quarterback with a stately blonde crew cut. He charmed adults with his good looks, bright smile, and firm handshake; he attracted girls with his broad shoulders and his sparkling blue eyes; and impressed guys with his laid-back confidence and his amazing sex stories. I hated him.
He took morning jogs in Nike Shox that were an even brighter shade of yellow than Amazonian poison frogs. Like the amphibians’ flesh, his shoes served as aposematic warnings to competitor males: “Watch out— I’m richer, better dressed, and more athletic than you.” He daily wore one of three gold watches that he played with constantly. At times, he would switch the wrist on which he wore the timepiece up to three times in an hour, making sure that in the process everyone around him heard the watch band’s metallic clicking and rattling. Sometimes he would remove his watch, place it gently in the center of his desk, and just stare at the damn thing while teachers droned on about the virtue of the metric system or how to calculate standard deviation. Apparently, even after being himself for 17 years, he could still not get over how amazing he and his possessions were.
And now my girlfriend was one of Golden Boy’s possessions. Her decision came as a complete surprise to me at the time, although in retrospect I realized how foolhardy I had been to neglect the clear warnings. I even heard the bastard in the background asking her who she was talking to. The only thing that pissed me off more than the knowledge he was present at the time of this phone call was the fact that he blurted a bewildered “Who?” when my ex told him my name.
So we were through. And just in time for the seafood to arrive: the Seaside Shrimp Trio and glass of ice tea (with a dainty lemon slice) for the Heartless Bitch and the Jumbo Shrimp Cocktail Dinner and Sprite for myself. I arrived and ordered a little early, thinking it would be a pleasant surprise for her favorite dish to be ready to eat only moments after meeting me at the restaurant. At least, I thought I knew her favorite dish. In reality, I hadn’t known her at all.
The reality of the situation still hadn’t set in when I started eating my dinner. I let her plate sit untouched as if she were about to emerge from the restroom and tell me the phone call was just a joke. A sick joke, but a joke nonetheless. Just another petty offense to add to the rest of the collection building up in my mind. I would nurse the injury for a short while, then repress my emotions, and everything would be back to the status quo.
The shock only faded when I looked outside and observed a spectacular sunset, more breathtaking than any I had theretofore seen. The clouds were steel-grey mountains, the jagged peaks jutting heavenward. I noticed that just beneath the clouds, the streaks of light formed a sideways blood-red Hand: four fingers, a thumb, a palm, and a wrist. All distinguishable from the glowing bronze background. There were no other red patterns in the sky. It was unmistakable. I lost my appetite.
What did the Hand mean? Was it God’s hand reaching to Earth and inflicting wrath upon the faithless millions? Was it the Devil’s hand reaching to Heaven to steal away innocent souls? Was it the hand of Fate reaching out to strangle me as punishment for giving my love so easily? Did the hand belong to the Heartless Bitch, red from the blood of my crushed heart, which I let her hold those 30 eternal months? All of these and more were true.
I cried, right then and there in the restaurant. I cried, and the sky cried with me. The light rain transformed into vapor as soon as it reached the ground, creating a layer of mist that hovered over the Red Lobster black top parking lot. I covered my eyes, but miniature salty streams escaped through the cracks in my fingers. I felt a whole restaurant’s worth of eyes studying me. How strange it must have been for them to witness someone they’d never seen before and would never see again spontaneously burst into tears. By the time I finished bawling, the Hand had disappeared from the sky. With that, I stood up and departed in disgrace, leaving a generous tip because I did not care to ask the waiter for change.
I waited and waited for my grief to heal with time. One day, two days—one week, two weeks. Surely if a cut remains open long enough, the blood will clot and new skin will grow. But I could not move on. Eventually, the painful sensation of being stabbed in the back was replaced with a new sense of profound emptiness. This was not much of an improvement.
After a month, at which point I still could not will myself to forget the Heartless Bitch and the Red Hand, a huge storm devastated four counties in my area. Hundreds of power lines snapped under the pressure of fallen trees and caused five-day power outages. Strangely enough, the most significant memory from the whole experience was not the terrific squall itself, but the sunset that blazed just after the storm ended. In a matter of seconds, the sky shifted from a sickly pale green to a bold, flaming gold that consumed everything. Everything in sight was tinted dark yellow, as if to reflect a giant fire. Here was this storm that caused millions of dollars in damage, but for a long moment I didn’t worry myself with the destruction. I closed my eyes and ascended to the troposphere in my imagination, letting the fire absorb my spirit whole. When I opened my eyes, I was reborn from the ashes like the Phoenix.
Finally, I was free from pain and emptiness. Finally, I could begin anew.