Everything is Luminous
Ever since the summer of 1969, I have seen gray as a poignant color. Before that summer, gray didn’t mean anything to me. I didn’t believe in many things, including gray eyes and dreams and destiny. They were myths to me, because I believed that if an assertion couldn’t be backed up with evidence, it was false.
That summer, Americans were blasting off to the moon. I was going to be a senior in high school, and I had never before seen a person with gray eyes. Back then, I described myself as an intellectual, which meant I read books and cranked out geometric proofs in my free time. I was rather into mathematics then, before I left my small South Carolina hometown to study literature up north.
In 1969, I lived according to strict rules I constructed for myself. Those rules meant avoiding anything too trivial, such as conversation over breakfast cereal. They required me to count my hours and days by learning—how much I could read in one hour, how much of a theory I could develop in five. I avoided sleep because I never dreamt and learned best at night. To me, life was methodical, like mathematics.
I studied Euclid and Euripides, but I didn’t believe in sleep or gray eyes or destiny. I knew calculus, but I hid in corners as my classmates chatted. I was just a seventeen-year-old girl, and I thought I knew everything until Ingrid Isaac came to town.
Ingrid was a stranger from Wisconsin. Her Midwestern accent was alien among the Southern flares and drawls, her body unaccustomed to the humid, sticky soup of the South Carolina summer. She was three months older than me, and she was a painter. I knew a bit about art history, and that’s what we spoke about the day she moved into the other side of my family’s twin house—art history. She was well versed in French cubism and the work of Marie Laurencin, which she raved about while clutching a big cardboard box to her stomach. I didn’t know anything about French cubism, but I pretended I did.
I thought she’d come right out and say, “Charlotte, you know nothing about Marie Laurencin,” but weeks passed and we talked about Emily Dickinson and began to eat lunch together, and she didn’t ever mention Marie Laurencin. That was my greatest fear back then: hearing those words, “you know nothing.” They dug deep inside my heart like coring an apple, exposing its raw inside. Because I knew something about geometry and something about Greek tragedy, but I knew nothing about Marie Laurencin and dreams and gray eyes. Because beneath all of that knowledge was the deepest truth, the dormant discovery that manifested itself one night when Ingrid and I walked home together.
We were walking back from the brook, where we often ventured. It was a little streak of water that ran southwest, only a short distance from the house. The water was slow and meandering, never in a hurry, dappled with shade from the ancient live oaks and fuzzy Spanish moss. Ingrid and I discussed anything and everything with our feet dipped into that brook, our conversation drifting from politics to astronomy to literature, her white feet shimmering beneath the water. That night, our conversation about Romanticism faded and I felt a churning guilt inside me, the sickly sensation that I was doing something wrong.
Back then, I had no idea of the magnitude of this single moment. I would later reflect on it in my bookstore up north with sunlight filtering through the window panes, recalling how this night opened me up and set me on a wildly new course.
As I traveled home from the brook with Ingrid, my insides began to freeze up. I had to tell her that I knew nothing about Marie Laurencin. That inflated cover-up had been haunting me for weeks, gnawing at some deeper place inside me, dredging up pain I couldn’t pinpoint. I wasn’t entirely sure why, but I had to tell her.
“Ingrid,” I blurted.
She glanced at me, still walking.
“Ingrid, I—” I began, but I couldn’t finish. I often couldn’t finish sentences, as if the words died in my mouth. We stopped in the middle of the path, mosquitoes dancing in the humid air between us, nighttime critters singing in the bushes. That was the first time I noticed her eyes. I didn’t know how I missed them before—they were like two pale moons, mysterious and silvery. She peered into my eyes and I felt a shiver down my spine, like she just told me I didn’t know anything about Marie Laurencin. I knew that sensation well—that deep, grinding feeling that I didn’t know anything at all, not about this girl, not about my mother and father, not about myself.
Some time passed. I usually kept track of time ticking steadily, but then I didn’t know if one moment passed or two; all I knew was that time had elapsed and I was still looking into her eyes, trying to find something inside myself. “I’m sorry,” I murmured, but I didn’t know why.
“Why are you apologizing?” she asked. “You don’t need to apologize.”
But I did. I needed to, and again I didn’t know why. We continued walking; lightning bugs floated between us like lanterns, bobbing in the darkening air. Ingrid plucked a pebble from the ground and tossed it down the path. My stomach churned. That grinding feeling rose up in me and I admitted quickly, “I don’t know anything about Marie Laurencin.”
She tucked a strand of light brown hair behind her ear and smiled, amused. “I gathered.”
“But you didn’t call me out.”
“I didn’t need to.” She peered into my eyes again and for the first time, I wondered what hers had seen. Not what books she’d read or what films she’d watched, but what life she’d lived before she moved to South Carolina, before we ate pimento cheese sandwiches together while discussing Descartes, before I lay on my bed on my side of the wall and she lay on her bed on hers. Did she like Wisconsin? Was her childhood like mine—eating biscuits across from my father and silently begging him to speak, sitting across from my statue of a mother and silently begging her to smile?
“I know you don’t know anything about Gertrude Stein, either,” Ingrid teased. “Literature is your weak point.”
“Yeah, it is,” I replied, but my throat was tight. The air felt warmer now, like the humidity was pressing down upon me. I tried to ignore it, but the more I ignored it, the more apparent it became.
“Ingrid,” I blurted again. Words rose up in my throat, jumbling into a mess, fighting to escape. “Ingrid, what’s your—do you have a middle name?”
She blinked, but she went along with it anyway. “Gale.”
“Ingrid Gale Isaac,” I began, ignoring the feeling that I’d uttered something sacred, “I don’t… you’re right. I don’t know anything about Gertrude Stein, and I don’t know anything about cubism.” Deep breath. “I don’t know anything about you or Wisconsin. And I don’t… I don’t even know anything about myself.”
She gazed at me with her silvery eyes. Above her head, the moon shone brilliantly. Behind its bright face, the unknown remained hidden.
“Why do you like books, Charlotte?” Ingrid asked finally, lifting her shoulders. “Why do you like math?”
I paused. I never questioned why I liked to learn; it was simply intuitive, a magnetic pull, a hidden desire. “I began learning on my own when I was little,” I explained. “Because… well, my mother got me a book on the solar system, and I…”
We were halfway down the hill to the house. I stopped walking; Ingrid stopped too. I remembered now—it was at a bookstore. My parents and I were in Charleston to see my uncle, and my mother picked out that astronomy book for me. “She kept giving me books,” I recalled. “She’d take them out from the library in stacks. Every night, I had a book. Eventually, I… I don’t know. I never really spent much time with people.”
Ingrid drew in her lip. “Did your mother ever read with you?”
“No. Never.” I gazed out at the white house, which was almost silver in the moonlight. “My parents never paid much attention to me, especially not now. I don’t know if it’s my fault. Maybe they don’t like me how I am.”
Ingrid glanced at me as we continued moving again. “Do you like the way you are?”
Did I? I didn’t know. All I knew was that my parents whispered about how I wasn’t quite right. They transformed into statues around me, not daring to breathe, like my presence would shatter them. My classmates avoided me like I was dangerous, as if they’d combust if they were seen around me. To everyone but Ingrid, I was a freak not worth talking to. “I don’t know,” I answered. “I like spending time by myself because there’s nobody to talk back. Nobody to judge me. Nobody to say I’m…”
Ingrid stopped and leaned closer.
“Strange,” I finished quietly, realizing we were now at the bottom of the hill. Before Ingrid, my few friends had drifted in and out of my life like balloons, temporary and short-lived. It had been so long since I’d shared a peaceful moment like this with someone my own age. I had never stood next to a girl from Wisconsin on a humid summer night, her face half cast in moonlight and half shrouded in shadow. “You’re not like them,” I continued, meeting her eyes briefly. “You talk to me, and…”
My chest constricted. I felt like I was lying on my bed at night, my yellow wall dividing Ingrid and I. Behind that wall was a stranger I was just becoming acquainted with, and yet she was a true friend who illuminated everything I didn’t know and somehow made me feel safe.
“And?” Ingrid prompted.
I couldn’t add the and. I couldn’t vocalize it, just as I couldn’t vocalize many things—my denial of destiny, my suppression of sleep. So I let it drop just as I let everything else drop. We crossed through the backyard and scaled the porch steps and I sat down on the porch swing and Ingrid leant against the railing with her back to me, her gray blouse rippling in the soft breeze. I noticed the moon’s brilliance probing the shadow surrounding me, and I began to cry.
Ingrid turned when she heard me. “What’s wrong, Charlotte?”
But I only sobbed and shook my head because I had no words. I hated how I always had no words, always backed down. At dinnertime every night, I told myself I’d ask my father how his day went and ask my mother if she finished knitting her shawl. But every time, my insides coiled like they’d detected poison. Some deep place inside me constricted into a tight ball and after dinner I was off in my room again with the door shut, working at a math problem. I was tired of dancing around issues, of ignoring that constricting feeling in my gut, the want to shake my father by the shoulders and tell him to stop looking through me, the need to toss all those books back at my mother and tell her she should’ve read with me. I was tired of convoluted diction and complicated philosophy. I was feeding myself my own poison, and it was killing me.
“It’s okay,” Ingrid consoled me, lowering herself onto the swing. She placed her hand on my shoulder, and I began to cry harder.
“I should’ve talked with you more,” I choked out. I felt like a smear of black shadow beneath a luminous moon. “I should’ve asked you if you liked Wisconsin, not if you read philosophy. I shouldn’t have pretended to know about cubism.”
“It’s okay, Charlotte,” Ingrid said obliviously.
“You don’t understand. There’s this—there’s this wall between us, okay? It separates us all the time.” I shut my eyes and I was back in my bedroom on my side of the wall. I had always been on my side, ever since my mother bought me that astronomy book and constructed the wall in my face. My eyes opened, but I still felt like I was staring at my bedroom wall at night, its yellow paint pulsing like a longing. “I don’t want it to separate us. I want it to… disappear.”
Ingrid drew in her lip. Some time passed, but I didn’t count the seconds. “I want it to disappear too,” she murmured.
I had stopped crying by now, but tears were soaked into my face like a mask. “I’m a bad friend,” I said. “I’m a bad friend and a bad daughter.”
“You are not.”
“I am. I pretended to know about Marie Laurencin. I—”
“Charlotte, will you listen?” Ingrid interrupted, though not forcefully. I fell silent and she said, “So this wall, it separates you from me?”
“From you, and from everybody. My parents. My classmates.” I took a deep breath, feeling my insides constrict again. “I keep learning and learning. I barely sleep sometimes. It’s a desire, almost, like I have to keep learning and constructing this wall, because if I don’t, I’m afraid…”
She shifted closer to me and some time passed, but I couldn’t count the seconds. “I’m afraid,” I murmured, “that my life will always be like this. So empty. Clinging onto facts and theories.” I squeezed my eyes shut. “I feel like if I don’t know one fact, I’m somehow lesser. I feel like I need to learn so that somebody will look at me.”
“And do they?” Ingrid asked softly, but I knew she already knew the answer.
“No,” I whispered, opening my eyes. “They don’t.”
Ingrid fell silent for a minute, and I swallowed hard. “I’m not a person, Ingrid. I’m just a collection of facts, like a body made of paper.”
She looked deep into my eyes, and I knew she could see my soul. Not those arrogant intellectual conversations, but me. “Charlotte,” she murmured, “I see you.” She pressed her index finger to my chest and held it there. “I see you.”
Tears began to well in my eyes again. “I don’t like the other version of myself, Ingrid.”
She removed her finger from my chest and took my hand. “I don’t know that girl, Charlotte. I know you. And I think you’re wonderful.”
I scoffed. “What’s wonderful about me?”
Ingrid rose, leaving me and the swing rocking ever so slightly. She stood bathed in silver; I stepped out of the shadow in my yellow dress. The air was unusually warm for the hour of night, like a beautiful anomaly of nature. “I see a girl who doesn’t know everything yet,” Ingrid said, “and that’s the beauty of life. You don’t have to know everything.”
I leaned my elbows back against the railing and stood next to her, shoulder to shoulder. The thought of not knowing everything made my insides coil into a knot, but Ingrid was right. I had to stop inflating my own image, filling myself with arrogance and loneliness.
“You’re in there, Charlotte,” Ingrid said, motioning to my head and heart. “The real you is in there. You just have to find a way to bring her out.”
I lifted my head slowly. I could see inside the windows of the twin house; her kitchen was illuminated with yellow lamplight, my living room flickering with the gray glow of the television. In five days, Ingrid and I would watch man walk on the moon. In a year, I’d research Gertrude Stein and Marie Laurencin in a college library and understand why Ingrid mentioned them. In eight years, I’d open my own bookstore and remember the girl who had eyes like moons. But in 1969, I didn’t know what I had in store: one moon landing after another, a series of steps and leaps.
“Can you help me?” I asked Ingrid.
“Yes,” she said. “Of course.”
I drew in a breath and sweet summer air drifted into my lungs, enveloping my body in an embrace. “Can you tell me about Wisconsin?” I asked Ingrid quietly.
“What do you want to know?”
I paused, then turned to gaze at the moon in the sky. It was luminous, like a quiet revelation. “Tell me everything luminous,” I said.
“Everything luminous,” she echoed.
“Yes. Everything luminous.”
She began to smile, and I smiled too. We stood together in a moment of serenity, bathed in moonlight. And although I didn’t know one thing about dreams or space travel or French cubism, I knew that I would be okay.
Joyce Ker is a freshman at Johns Hopkins University whose poetry has appeared in TAB Journal of Poetry & Poetics, Tule Review, Louisville Review, and Boxcar Poetry Review. She is a California Arts Scholar and alumna of the Iowa Young Writers’ Studio. Ker has been nominated for the Best New Poets anthology and the Pushcart Prize.