Our flight was delayed. It would be more accurate to say your flight was delayed, and my flight was delayed, but we cannot know now what belonged to one of us and what belonged to the other. The most that we can know now is that a flight from New York to Los Alamos was delayed, and a flight from Baltimore to Los Alamos was delayed, and we were on both of those flights. It was dark by the time we left the Los Alamos airport.
A person who we may have thought of as you or me drove west in a rental car, towards the town proper. Call her ‘you.’ The car’s headlights lit up the road in front of you and made a gray scale gradient out of the scrub grass and gravel that lined either side of the road. The horizon was marked by tall lit signs—Sunoco, a Waffle House. The mountains were marked by the absence of stars.
When you had applied for this residency, you had argued that you needed to be in Los Alamos to shoot a full lunar eclipse. You talked about light and dark and the human condition in the post-COVID era, but all it really came down to was the astronomical calendar. The eclipse would take place on the sixth and final day of your residency. You had never been to the Southwest. Nearly a week in a new place, alone, with a specific goal—you hoped this would be enough motivation to break you out of your months-long artist’s block.
The residency coordinator had given you driving instructions to the cabin, said the keys would be in the mailbox. A year had passed since WHO declared the pandemic over, but contactless drop-off and pick-up remained standard protocol. The highway traced the southern edge of the city. The roads were empty, you wished you had insisted on meeting the coordinator face-to-face at least once.
You passed the University of New Mexico—Los Alamos complex, which was darkened; the county medical center, where fluorescent white flooded out each window. You didn’t want to think about the hospital. You had spent enough time imagining the hospital room where your wife had died from the virus, a room you knew only as a few glimpses of beige walls at the start and end of a video call. A Catholic church appeared on your right, with two ground lights angled on a marble statue of the Virgin, just like your parents’ church in Montana. You concentrated on this instead. At your parents’ church, the statue cast two shadows at diagonals onto the pavement, so that they created an image of two conjoined women. The image was darker at the place where they overlapped. When you were very young, before you understood how light works, when the priest proclaimed the words, “The mystery of faith,” you pictured the Virgin’s double shadows.
A mile past the church, you reached an intersection where the four-lane highway unzipped left and right. The traffic lights dangled above you on wires invisible against the black sky. The light above your lane was red. It flickered like a spastic blinking eye, in and out, in and out. You glanced at the clock. It was already so late.
A car pulled up in the lane next to you, the same make and model as your silver rental. The windows of the car were rolled down a few inches, just as yours were, to let in the cool night air. A thread of anxiety circled you as you looked from the car to the driver: a woman with the same dark hair and strong profile as you. We were the only two drivers on the road. You gripped the steering wheel, tried not to think ofghostly travelers or fatal premonitions. I was dictating a text message into my phone and did not notice you.
Hi Alyssa, I said, over-enunciating for the phone’s speech-to-text function. You heard each word clearly. I made it here safely, I’ll give you a call in the morning. Nausea bloomed in your body like algae.Your wife’s name was—had been—Alyssa. You fixed your eyes on the road ahead of you; something bad would happen, you felt sure, if our gazes touched.
Above you, the traffic light was still red, still blinking. Maybe the light was broken. You rarely drove and therefore were a very cautious driver when you did, but you could not bear this waiting any longer, so you inched forward, looked as far in either direction as you could, then made the right that would lead you up to your cabin. In your rearview mirror, you saw me turn left. You exhaled from relief, but the anxiety stayed knotted around your stomach, even long after I had disappeared. You wanted to know where I was going, and for what purpose. You wanted to know why my Alyssa was alive and yours was not.
You reached your cabin a few hours before sunrise. The cabin was small: two bedrooms, a kitchen, a bath. One of the bedrooms had been converted into a darkroom in advance of your residency. When you were satisfied that the dark room had all the supplies you needed, you took a shower, then lay in bed.
Though you should have been exhausted, your heart pounded. You pressed your hand against your chest as if you could hold your heart still. You breathed, slow, slower, until you were on the edge of sleep. Your eyes closed—you pictured me in my car. Your heart beat faster. You pictured my hand resting on the thigh of my wife who looked like your wife.
You sat up. You called yourself stupid. You hadn’t come here to think about Alyssa; just the opposite. You got out of bed, filled a cup with tap water, drank it slowly. Went to the bathroom and peed. Washed your hands—looking resolutely at your own reflection—then got back in bed.
Your body was tense; you felt every thread in the sheets against your body. You tried to relax your muscles, to clear your mind. You thought about doubles, and mirrors. There had been a period of months, somewhere around third grade, where you couldn’t go into a dark bathroom by yourself. A classmate had told you the legend of Bloody Mary, and you were terrified.
Exasperated, your mother had tried to reason with you. “What did that girl tell you? Bloody Mary shows up when you say her name? Then don’t say her name, that’s all.”
You weren’t convinced. “But Mom, I did see her, in the upstairs bathroom.”
“It was just your own reflection. You get yourself worked up, you imagine these things—but it was only yourself, I promise.” Your mother tried to pull you into a hug. You kept your small body stiff, refusing to bend to her comfort. If it was your own reflection, it shouldn’t have been able to take you by surprise like that. It shouldn’t have been able to look at you.
You got out of bed again, shook out two Benadryl from the bottle in your tote bag, and swallowed them with more water. You’ll feel better tomorrow, you promised.
You woke up in mid-afternoon. The residency’s coordinator had left a message on your phone. You called them back, assured them everything was fine.
The coordinator asked if there was anything else they could help with. You wanted to ask about the identical woman in the identical car. You thought you would feel better if you told someone else how strangely frightened you had felt—like waking your wife up to tell her about a nightmare and feeling the fear lose its grip on you. But the residency coordinator was not your wife—your wife had passed away from the virus a year ago, two months before the vaccine was made available in New York state—so you didn’t ask. Everything’s fine, you said, and thanked them again for the opportunity to spend a week in the mountains. You meant it; clearly, you needed this time away from the city more badly than you had realized.
You unpacked your supplies, then drove into town to pick up groceries for the week. The sun was setting when you finished. You quickly pushed your cart across the parking lot. You expected to see me with my own cart at any moment. When you got in the car and pulled out onto the highway where other people still drove back and forth, you felt safer. Also, the traffic light at the intersection by the church was fixed now, and moved smoothly from yellow to red to green.
The road inclined upward as it curved around the side of the mountain. Vertical bands of darkness made by tall, skinny trees papered over the lights below and, for a moment, you felt unweighted.
Light did that to you sometimes—appeared against darkness in such a way that the beauty of it pulled your soul against its moorings. You were fifteen the first time it happened. It was an afternoon in late winter Montana. You were walking home from school. You saw the chain link fence around a basketball court silhouetted against a deep blue winter twilight sky. That was all, blue and black. You saw it like a revelation. In a flash, you understood that the world outside you only existed in your experience of light. That weekend, you bought your first camera.
The revelations were rare and brief, but they sustained you, sometimes for years. You could close your eyes, recall the colors and shapes, and feel the sacred relationship between observation and creation. You had seen two revelations since you moved to New York: sunlight on the pleated ripples of a duck pond in Prospect Park, bathroom lights glinting off the metal frame of your wife’s glasses.
You had both been brushing your teeth so you nudged her, pointed at the metallic sheen of the frames sitting by the side of the sink. She spat out toothpaste, then asked what you were on about.
You asked if she saw how her glasses were shining, and she looked—squinted, even, to try to see what you were seeing—but she could not, and then the moment had passed, and the glasses were just glasses. Later, though, you captured it in a photograph: the glint of light on her glasses, her small silver earrings, the little halos that illuminated the stark planes of her brown face. Sometimes you felt frustrated that you needed the artifice of photos to show people what you could so clearly see.
On your second day, you hiked Pajarito Mountain to scout potential locations for shooting the eclipse. It had rained heavily that morning; the dry earth absorbed the water, leaving the air cool. When you reached the summit, you stopped to rest in the shade of a juniper tree. The sharp, gin-bitter scent of the plant rushed to your head. You lay back, looked up at the filigree of needles overlaying the sky.
A water droplet formed on the edge of a branch above you. The sun touched the water from the side so that it was lit through like glass. You watched the droplet grow heavy, the surface tension rounding the water like a pregnant body.
You recalled an exhibit from the Manhattan Project museum, where you had waited out the rain that morning. You had paused in front of a display board explaining nuclear fission. When an atom divides, it splits into two new atoms. A uranium atom might become one atom of krypton and one atom of barium, for example. Or it might become something else. The main thing was that the two resulting atoms were different, and this made you think of yourself, and how the loss of your wife had split you into someone different, someone smaller, someone other than who you had thought you would be. Young widows were supposed to have been married to soldiers and firefighters, women who knew the risk. Your wife had been an executive assistant who, on her lunch breaks, was writing a play.
The exhibit had said that fission was everywhere in nature. Beneath the juniper, you watched the water droplet lengthen, split, fall.
That evening, while a set of black and white prints dried in the darkroom, you sat on the front steps of your cabin sipping whisky from a coffee mug. The ginger ale you had intended to use as a mixer sat unopened atop the fridge. You looked up at the wide spill of stars. Your stomach rolled. You blamed the whisky but looked away from the stars.
Your parents moved to the suburbs when you were a teenager, but you’d grown up in rural Montana where the big sky was unpolluted by light. Your wife had been from Wyoming. That’s how the two of you met—a mutual friend set you up on a date with her because you were both newly-transplanted to NYC from the Rocky Mountain West. Your first date was at a tapas restaurant where you talked about stars, although by then it had been years since you’d seen the Milky Way.
“We should go camping together sometime,” she had said, and in a surge of infatuation, you promised her that one weekend, the two of you would drive up-state and spend a night beneath the stars. When she passed, the promise was still unfulfilled.
You wondered, if you and Alyssa had made the time to go camping, would the stars still make you nauseous with your own smallness? Or did this feeling unavoidably belong to the you who had spent the last year and a half in isolation, the you who was a widow?
Your mother wanted you to move back
to Montana. You had struggled to find a good reason to say no to her. You had
moved to New York for art school, and stayed because you had found community.
But that had been years ago, when you had truly believed New York was the
center of the art world, you didn’t mind your shitty apartment, and your wife
wasn’t dead. All you could say about New York now was that the lights in the
24-hour stores never went out. You needed those lights. You needed them like
you had needed the sound of Alyssa’s sleep-slowed breath in bed beside you,
like you had needed the thin slice of light from under your mother’s bedroom
door when you were a child—something
to prove you were not alone. Stars were light, but they held no reassurances.
The next night, I saw you standing on the high ridge Cerro Del Medio. From across the wide, flat expanse of the Valle Caldera, you were only a slight figure against the darkening sky. The moon sat low on the horizon as if pulled down by its own bulbous weight. You had a sense you dared to call a premonition, just before you sighted me across the caldera. You focused your telephoto zoom lens on me. I, too, held a camera, and I released the shutter a split-second before you, so that the single strobe of your flash seemed to echo mine from across the flat expanse. You took your camera home, hoping that the light in the captured image would show you some kind of meaning you hadn’t been able to see before, and wondering what I might see in an image of you.
First, the negatives had to develop. When the negatives came out of the fixer, you saw that the photo was corrupted with a dark streak that cut through the inverted colors of the sky and mountains. Despite the damage, you developed the negative into a photo. The final image showed a mountain, yellowish and bright from the camera flash, split in half where I had turned into a swipe of bleach, a white void.
You left the photograph on your desk, then paced back and forth while a can of soup heated up on the stove. You imagined me tearing myself out of the photograph. You looked up doppelgängers, thought about death and ill omens.
One of the few differences between us: while you had only studied photography, I had studied physics before switching to a photography major. To me, the damage on the photographic film appeared to be caused by ionizing radiation. But identifying a cause did not supply a meaning, and I paced while waiting for my soup, too, and thought about matter, antimatter, annihilation.
The night of the eclipse, the light of the full moon shone like a spotlight as we hiked, from opposite sides of the caldera, down into the center of the basin. We had both identified this as the place where the eclipse would be best captured. We set up our tripods close enough that you could have called out to me. Instead, you watched me with your peripheral vision, like I was dangerous wildlife you did not want to disturb. I watched you in the same way.
You placed your camera on the tripod, angled it upward. A second moon seemed to float ghostly in front of the first moon. Adjusting the focus changed nothing. There was so much beyond your control. Our eyes met.
We approached each other. I held out my hand. The moon disappeared; we touched in darkness. You mirrored me, I mirrored you, we were a reflection of a reflection, neither one of us the original or the final image, but when our hands met, we knew what we were. The energy inside our atoms shivered; particles swapped between us; we could not know whether Alyssa was alive or dead. We were the intersection of parallel lines, but how, or why, or who was me and who was you, we could not say.
Mar S. Stratford (ze/zir/zirs) is a third-year student in the University of Arkansas Creative Writing MFA. Find zir on Twitter at mar_stratford or at mar-stratford.com.