Chasing Aurora


Daniel stopped the truck. He punched it into reverse and drove backward the block and a half to his door. In front of the apartment, he stomped the parking break and hopped out of the truck with it running. Daniel hadn’t kicked hard enough and the truck started to roll backward. He cursed and jumped in to kick it again. Then up to his apartment and back down with his backpack and tripod.

He’d seen them again. They were his obsession, these aurora borealis. Their helter-skelter movement, their colors that defied the hues of earth, the lonely silence in which they danced: all these things fascinated him.

Daniel threw his camera and tripod into the passenger’s seat. Looking at the dancing figures in the sky instead of at the road, he stomped the gas and went speeding towards the aurora.

Daniel had received his camera as a birthday present three years ago. With his newly acquired eighteen-year-old hands, he had taken the camera solemnly out of the box. He didn’t consider f-stops and shutter speeds; he simply wanted to capture all that was significant and beautiful. It couldn’t be that hard.

This often drew him on clear nights to the silence-soaked woods, trying to capture a perfect photo of the aurora. The results littered his desk. Too blurry. Too dark. Too unlike reality. He’d spent roles of film on a single night. Pointing the camera into the vast northern night he would push the button greedily, afraid that they would disappear. His camera had too many automatic features, and every picture taken sent a pathetic flash of light into the night.

~

Leah left yesterday for London. She was part of an undergraduate exchange and wouldn’t return for four months. He brought her a soy latte that morning as a sort of going-away gesture. Sitting in line at the espresso stand, he watched the previous night’s frost slowly retreat to the edges of his windshield. The intricate patterns of ice on the window decayed into solitary droplets. Then they disappeared, evaporating into the morning sky.

He put the drinks into his cup holder, but Leigh’s espresso spilled on the way to her house. Daniel looked for napkins, but finding none, used the sleeve of his blue and tan sweater to clean the cup. He hoped she wouldn’t notice. Tossing a mint into his mouth, he knocked on her door, shivering from nervousness and cold.

~

Daniel had met Leah three years earlier in an English class. He’d been afraid of her then. He still was. She was beautiful — uncommonly and naturally so, but it wasn’t her beauty that intimidated him. She always seemed above him: more aware, more intense, more alive. It was she who had introduced him to poetry; it was she who encouraged him to take up photography; and it was she who had shown him, for the first time what it meant to live deeply.

He had gone through a transformation that year and she had been at the center of it. He’d taken a momentous step from childish naivety to adult awareness. Life until that point had been unholy pragmatism: college applications, GPA’s, and dreams of graduate school. She tumbled into his sphere and dissolved all that. Where he fretted, she laughed; what he ignored, she appreciated. She had torn him from his myopic views with her own youthful excitement, and he felt deeply indebted. He never spoke to her of these things; he couldn’t afford to spill himself so completely.

Despite every subtle and striking way she affected him, it seemed to Daniel as though he had never inspired the same response in her. His attempts fell inexplicably short. He’d run to her with a poem or photo he thought she’d like. She would smile or feign amusement, but he knew he had never produced in her the reaction he was seeking. Regardless of how much time they spent together, she always seemed like a figure in the distance. Unreachable.

~

She ran down to meet him in her flannel pajamas and invited him up to her room. It was scattered with clothes, books, and shoes waiting to be packed. Daniel always felt a little hesitation in crossing the threshold of any bedroom. Every picture, every object had an important story or some hidden meaning. It felt too intimate. He had no desire to probe into a past he had no part of; it only served to further his sense that his role in her life was merely incidental. Her stuffed animals were shoved onto a shelf in her closet. Pictures of Leah as a young girl stood beside photographs from the previous summer. He stared at her floor.

Leah yawned loudly and started rummaging through her room in an effort to finish her last-minute packing. Her actions, as always, were erratic. As if she needed the right mood to pack, she lit a stick of incense, put on some music, and looked down critically at her belongings on the floor. Daniel watched her as she squirreled around the room, mumbling to herself. He loved the way she moved: the way she gripped a book, the way she brushed back her hair, the child-like excitement in her steps. She picked a sweater off the floor.

“Do you think this and my blue sweater will be enough?”

Daniel pretended to give the question serious thought. The triviality of the question, the triviality of the entire scene, suffocated him. There was so much that needed to be said.

“Yeah, that should be enough. It’s warmer there than here, you know.”

“Hm, you’re probably right,” she said as she stuffed it into her suitcase. Awkward silence ensued for several minutes. Daniel spoke.

“Leah?”

Something in the way Daniel said her name made her stop and look at him.

“Are you excited to go to London? Aren’t you going to miss it here?”

Leigh went back to looking for her missing clogs. He knew she hadn’t caught the earnestness of his question.

“Yeah, I’m excited,” she said distractedly, “There’s so much history, so much culture I haven’t been exposed to. I just can’t imagine that I’ll miss it here while I’m surrounded by so much life and excitement.” She began tossing clothes from her closet into her room. “I’ll be back in four months anyways.”

“Yeah.”

Her answer deflated him. He wanted her to say that she would miss him, to say that she would write faithfully. He wanted her to say that she loved him, that she felt anything more than amusement towards him. Above all, he wanted some hint, some slight suggestion that he had affected her the way she had him. But there was nothing. And he wondered whether their time together had been anything more than a goddamn joke, a pathetic pursuit of someone beyond him.

Leah went downstairs to continue looking for her clogs. Daniel didn’t follow her but sat in her room, listening to the lyrics of the CD in the stereo: You’re so serene. Careening through the universe, your axis on a tilt, your guiltless and free. I hope you take a piece of me with you.

Daniel looked around the room and found a pad of paper and a pen. He decided, in a moment of impulsiveness, to write a note and tuck it into her luggage. It all came to him like an adolescent epiphany. Leah, he wrote, I hope that you’re having a wonderful trip. I hope that life continues to amaze and excite you, and that, like we spoke of earlier, you find significance in the little things. And Leah, I want to know what you’ve been to me. I want you to know how you’ve affected me in ways you’ll never know. I’m captivated by you, Leigh, and…

Daniel heard her coming up the stairs. He ripped off the note from the pad and stuffed it into his pocket. He felt the crumpled piece of paper in his jeans for the rest of the morning, a maddening symbol of all the things he could never say.

He said goodbye to her a two hours later. Hugging goodbye, Daniel embraced her tightly, allowing his arms to linger a little.

“I’ll see you in May,” she had said.

“Yeah.” Daniel looked down at his feet. Conjuring up a little courage, he looked into her eyes for the first time that morning. Blue.

“I’ll miss you.”

~

He turned into a pullout by the river a little too fast and spun to a stop. The river was his favorite place to take pictures. Snow-covered spruce stood pastorally in the foreground. The moon-illuminated mountains appeared dimly in the distance, crowned by the aurora and a twelve-o’clock sky. He climbed out of the truck.

It was cold, and Daniel had to stop twice while setting up his tripod to warm his hands with his breath. Shivering, he fumbled with the shutter speed and aperture until he was satisfied. Frame followed frame in rapid succession. Within a matter of minutes, Daniel had shot his first roll of film. More intense than he had seen in years, the aurora borealis set the sky ablaze with rare shades of red and green.

Daniel opened the back of the camera and dropped the used roll of film into his pocket. He ran to the truck for another roll of film, holding the back of the camera open as he hurried back to his tripod and camera.

Before he was fully aware of what was transpiring, it happened. He lost his balance and slipped on the river ice, crashing down onto his tripod and camera. Lying in the snow for a moment, Daniel tried to comprehend what just happened. His elbow hurt. He stood up to survey the damage, and saw the camera lying unhinged in the snow. Spidery cracks traversed the lens, which had disconnected from the camera.

He stared dumbly at the camera for a minute. Snow was packed into the front of where the lens tore off. He rubbed his elbow and looked again. There it lay, broken — unfixable really — on the moon-tinted snow.

Disgusted at his own clumsiness, Daniel turned to walk along the river. He didn’t bother to pick up the camera. He walked for nearly an hour, simply staring at the rhythmic movement of his feet. He lost himself in the crunch of his boots on the snow and sighing sounds of the frozen river. At a bend where open water crossed his path he stopped. For the first time in an hour, he looked up at the night sky.

The aurora danced like drunken deities above the mountains. Red, green, pale and lonely white: all the colors swirled and mingled. Light blue flickers stampeded through the heavens, only to fade into the darkness and be replaced by other hues until they reappeared again. Daniel breathed deeply, sticking his hands is his pockets where he’d left yesterday’s note. They careened across the distant sky. Unreachable.