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Mote of Dust
She repeats the two words in her head over and over again. The news she discovered just three hours earlier is like a firework that has gone off in her face. Her vision seems distorted, the noise surreal. She doesn't remember there being this much talking at her graduation. Students keep filing in and they're all talking. Every single one is speaking: to a friend, to a professor, she's pretty sure even some were just talking very loudly to themselves. The faces blur together and the voices morph into a monstrous roar as she paces back and forth offstage. She would have much rather have been sitting on stage with the other "esteemed guests," but speakers were always brought up offstage for her alma mater's graduation ceremony. What are the former students expecting from her? Jokes about debt from student loans or how poor the job market is? She thinks about how she doesn't care what the students expect from her, then reassures herself of that fact. It's just her nerves, she supposes; she's never been good with public speaking.
The lights seem brighter than they did when she attended the last graduation in this room: her own. Though the lights do not, oddly enough, seem even remotely as bright as those at her high school graduation. Those lights had blinded and burned her.
Maybe she only imagined the intensity of those fluorescents as she had cursed Ms. Post for instructing the students to grab their diplomas with their left hands and shake Principal Walters' hand with their right. Why had it had to be her left hand that was outstretched to comical proportions across the stage, her one-size-fits-all robe's sleeves riding way up her arm as the students, faculty, and family members all gasped in horror (some even fainted, for all she knew) at the ghastly sight of her mangled wrist. Even now she pulls the sleeve of her blazer down, gripping the cuff in her palms.
It feels like just a few weeks ago rather than twenty-one years. She remembers the look in Gary's eyes as he did it. The cold, emotionless look. The tapping of her pacing heels against the concrete reminds her of the soft banging of his head against the white-board after he'd done it. She hadn't even said much to provoke him; he just snapped.
Molly sat in the small, stuffy room that was her principal's office and waited. She tightened her grip around the bag of ice nested within a dampening paper towel. She glanced at the clock; time was a funny thing. Just seven minutes ago she'd been in class, acting out a completely normal day. Mr. Pennington was lecturing his class of tenth graders on the arguments for and against global warming. As Molly sits in Principal Walters' office, waiting, she recalls the lecture. Or rather she remembers attempting to listen to Mr. Pennington's words on melting ice caps and greenhouse gasses while a noise prevented her from doing so. There was a high pitched, rhythmic squeak emanating from behind her. It sounded as if someone was taking the world's rustiest door hinge and opening and closing it ever so slightly, over and over again. The worst part was the lack of a reaction from anyone around Molly; she was either the only one capable of hearing such a high pitched whine or the only one awake. Molly also knew exactly what the sound was: Gary.
Gary was a special needs student who was intelligent enough to be placed into on-level courses with an aide in class with him. Gary's aide, Ms. Jackson, was constantly setting Gary up in class and leaving to make a phone call or smoke in her car. This left Gary unchecked, but he only occasionally acted out. Gary’s tantrums involved throwing erasers, making noises with his mouth, or challenging whoever would talk to him on everything they said; nothing too bad. This day, however, he was clearly not in the mood when Molly whirled around in her seat and half-whispered “Gary stop!”
No one except those immediately surrounding the two had heard, and those people didn’t care. Mr. Pennington certainly did not hear, as he continued speaking of polar bears. Gary had been opening and closing his old, dirty pair of scissors, but now he stopped to look up at Molly. "What?"
"That sound, I can't concentrate." She turned more and placed an arm on Gary's desk. Why, for the love of God, had she placed an arm on Gary's desk?
"Your concentration doesn't sound even remotely like my problem." He said, returning to his scissors.
"Retard doesn't have to mean asshole Gary, you can-"
"What?" Everyone heard this bit, as Gary had nearly yelled it. Mr. Pennington went into Gary-mode, ready to defuse another incendiary situation, but it was too late.
Before Molly could apologize or defend her hastily delivered comment, Gary reached out and dragged his open scissors along Molly's wrist.
The aftermath was something of a dream. The crimson liquid gushing out of her wrist, Gary's sobbing, the growing nausea in her stomach as she lost more and more blood. The nurse had come and partially patched her up, telling her it looked worse than it was. And it really wasn't that bad, in retrospect. She ended up in the principal's office before she ended up home or in the hospital. And there she sat waiting when Principal Walters finally entered.
"What happened, Molly?" He said as he sat in his rolling, faux-leather chair.
"Nothing happened, Gary just had one of his freakouts."
"'One of his freakouts.' That's why Mr. Pennington sent you to me-"
"Instead of to the hospital where I should definitely be right now?"
"I can see your wrist, Molly. It's not that bad." Molly had forgotten her dramatics and let the bag of ice slip past the admittedly small wound. Not so much a gash as a scratch. There wasn't blood gushing out as much as there was some blood, period. Molly looked down, feeling a mixture of shame and anger. "Gary told Mr. Pennington that you called him retarded."
"I didn't call him retarded, I said he was a retard."
"In a way that's worse, Molly. It worries me that you're speaking about this so blatantly and without consideration for others. Especially those with a learning disability like Gary. You know that word is becoming more and more insulting to people like him, so why would you use it specifically directed at him?" Molly looked down at her cut. The blood had clotted and the pain was mostly gone. "Look, I know it can be hard to handle people different from you, but-" Principal Walters was cut off by Molly's scoff, and he looked at her gravely.
"Principal Walters, I know it's insulting to Gary to call him what I called him. I'm sorry, and I'll apologize to him too."
"Then why did you do it?"
"Not because I was scared of his 'differences.' I was just trying to listen to Mr. Pennington's lecture. It's my favorite class, I want to be a physicist. He just wouldn't let me focus and I knew he would keep not letting my focus unless I... I don't know, unless I upset him. I didn't think he'd get mad though, he usually just gets quiet."
"You've talked to him in this way before?" Molly says nothing. "Molly, you're a very bright student. But you're awful with people." She couldn't help feel something along the lines of pride at these two statements, which only confused her. “Wasn’t there another incident last year in which you and another student got into a fight because she wouldn’t let you focus in class?”
“Lily and I didn’t fight. We just raised our voices a little. Why do you keep punishing me though? I’m just trying to learn, why is it me who has to pay?”
“I know you’re just trying to learn, but what’s going to happen down the line when you have a job and there’s an incompetent co-worker?”
“Get them fired.” Principal Walters chuckles, which takes Molly by surprise.
“I wish it were that simple. But let’s take it a step further and make you the boss of a big company. Are you going to fire an employee every time they screw up?”
“That’s not what you said-“
“It doesn’t matter, it’s all the same. Like I said, you’re a very bright student. But intelligence is a gift and a curse, Molly. No matter what you do in life you’ll always be surrounded by people that are smarter than you, and people that aren't as smart.”
“You’re calling Gary dumb? Now whose politically incorrect.”
“You asked why you’re the one who keeps getting into trouble over these things. It’s always going to be your fault, Molly. It’s unfair, but that’s the way it goes. It’s not your job to be the most intelligent. Because you’re intelligent, it’s your job to use that to benefit everyone else. People will try to distract you from lectures for the rest of your life. We have to walk as slow as our weakest runner in order for there to be any progress. Trimming society’s fat points to your mindset, not their IQ.” He leans back in his chair and begins filling out Molly’s detention papers. She remembers her cut and slides the ice back up her arm to cover it. “Gift and a curse, Molly.”
Her name is spoken and the crowd begins to clap. As she walks up the shaky stairs onto the fold-out stage, her stomach is either in her chest or her throat. She can't tell which, only that where her gut was yesterday is now a swirling mass of doubt and unease with a hint of nausea, all coming together and sending messages to her brain that scream at her to get off the stage and catch the next flight back home. As she approaches the podium, she clears her throat and does a quick run-through of her speech. She pulls the sleeves of her blazer down again to be safe and turns to face the podium and the mass of eyes beyond. She does not see Lily.
For a moment, she fears she'll either throw up or pass out. Perhaps both. She opens her mouth and words fail to meet her. Her voice box has fled her body; her throat a desert. How long has she been standing in that spot, motionless, while hundreds of pairs of piercing eyes stare her down, as if to say "I knew she wouldn't be able to do it." She mentally shakes her head and once again clears her throat, forgetting the microphone inches away from her mouth. Her guttural atrocity is amplified tenfold, reverberating off the walls of the stadium, threatening to collapse the very roof itself. The stone floors crack and the cement walls shudder as the sound of thousands of perfectly capable voices join in laughter, both a speaker's inability to speak and the wound on her wrist, which is now once again a geyser of obscenely red blood.
For the split second that all of this rushes through her head, she allows the nervousness to consume her. Then, flashing a wide grin, she composes herself and addresses the graduating class of 2017. After the salutations, formalities, and even a risqué anecdote regarding one of her college experiences, the crowd has warmed up to her, and she to it.
"And now, I'd like to speak of one of my heroes: the astronomer Carl Sagan, he's a bit before your time but I'm sure you've all heard of him. There are two famous instances of Earth being referred to as a Pale Blue Dot. The first is of a photograph taken in 1990 by the Voyager 1 space probe in which the entirety of our world appears as one tenth of a pixel among the 640,000 that composed the frame. The second instance is a book, published in 1994. Sagan is responsible for both instances. It was he who suggested Voyager 1 take the picture of Earth. He knew the photograph would have little to no scientific value, but that it would help to illustrate our place among the stars. 4 billion miles: that's how far away Voyager was when it captured the image. Sagan believed the image would help us visualize our place in the universe. Our vast unimportance within such a massive universe is, admittedly, quite daunting. But Sagan didn't believe our infinitesimal size was anything to be saddened or scared by. He claimed that it 'underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another, and to preserve and cherish the only home we've ever known.'"
"Of course, size is relative, and what we perceive as being large when we're twelve, like the Empire State Building, turns out to be not so big when we learn about Mount Everest. Then we discover how massive our world around us is, and subsequently how small it is within the solar system around it. Take our sun, that seems huge. But when we put it next to the star Antares our sun itself becomes just another pale dot. Carl Sagan mentions the 'folly of human conceits' when speaking of the Pale Blue Dot. All the senseless war and violence carried out in the name of momentary rulers with self-imagined importance. In the grand scheme of things, we are simply children on a playground, too smart for our own safety and carrying weapons too deadly."
"Perhaps, though, we're not too smart for our own good. If we judge human intelligence from exemplary minds such as Carl Sagan, ours is a beautiful sentience. We strive to be explorers, pioneers, and discoverers. We crave remote lands and new horizons. But Carl Sagan does not represent all of humanity. If we took every human who ever lived and averaged them all together, what would that human look like? They would be rash, conceited, and above all they would hunger for power. Let's face it, people on the whole are idiots. That's wildly cynical to say, I know, but we all think it from time to time. Or maybe some of us, like myself, think of it quite often. Maybe, if you're like me, we're reminded everyday that there are people on this Earth who would rather increase military spending and tuition costs every year rather than continuing efforts in space exploration. But for those of us who realize that we must always, as a species, strive for what's next, and that the inevitable 'next' is out there, we have to remember one thing: we are more than the individual. Homosapiens are the most intelligent species we've yet to discover, and it's within our power to cure disease, explore what's around us, and understand our universe. But we must do it as a whole. We must accommodate those who drag their feet if there is to be true progression in noble human endeavors."
She takes a deep breath, worried she's lost the crowd. She notices a woman playing a game on her phone and a man checking his watch. She pushes them out of her mind, thinking only of Lily as she moves on to the final portion of her speech. The lights seem to fade and the industrial air conditioners above quiet as the screamed obscenities and tearful admissions come to her in hushed tones. She's there in that final day. She sees the lawyers leave the room after the papers are signed. She hears Lily's soft but ardent voice.
The door closed as silence descended upon the two women. Molly looked over to Lily, disbelief and horror cascading onto her in an unforgiving, torrential downpour. She had tried to practice saying the words; the new label she would forever have to place on Lily. That new label stuck in her throat every time she tried saying it out loud. 'Ex-wife.' That's not what Lily was. She was Molly's best friend (ex-best friend) and strongest supporter (ex-supporter). What killed Molly the most, what tore away a fraction of her resolve every time she thought of the divorce was that 'wife' was still a part of Lily's new label. There was still a clear, ringing reminder of the life the two had built over the course of seven years. Seven years together. That's two-thousand, five-hundred, and fifty-five mornings on which Molly woke up married to the most incredible woman she'd ever known. Her mortal enemy in high school, her passionate secret in the early years of grad school, and ultimately her beautiful wife. And she was beautiful-
"Stop looking at me like that Molly." Molly was shaken from her daydreams as Lily looked down at her lap, speaking sternly.
"I know we were waiting to divide up the stuff in the storage unit until this was all finalized, so if this weekend works we can split all of that up."
"Yeah, sounds good." Molly's heart screamed and she shook her right leg as if it were twenty below. Lily looked up from her lap directly into Molly's eyes. Tears instantly came to both of them, but neither let themselves cry.
Lily spoke in a broken voice, "I'm sorry."
"I just want to understand, Lily. We can make this work, you know we can."
Lily's eyes fell again, "No we can't. I can't."
"Then that's your fault." Molly felt the heat rising in her voice.
"Keep your voice down."
"You're always so concerned with appearances. How can you throw away all we've built together?" Molly was nearly yelling. "How can you just let it end?"
"All things end, Molly."
"They don't have to. You can work and persevere through the hard times."
"You're a physicist, you should know-"
"What, that everything dies? Not everything can be quantified and calculated, Lily. People, relationships, those are more than biology. Love can endure but you have to give it a chance!"
"Tell me to keep my voice down again and I'll..."
"You'll...leave me?" Molly's fists loosen and she leans back in her chair. She smiles.
"You have the worst sense of humor." Lily's lips curl into something between a smile and a frown. Molly remembers a time when Lily's awful sense of humor used to get the two into fights. In high school the pair had screamed at each other over petty matters dozens of times. In fact, when Lily had reached out to Molly in her first year of graduate school, Molly had thought it was just to get in another fight, only this time over coffee. Little did she know Lily wanted to ask about an internship at the law firm she thought Molly worked at. And she could never guessed that, after telling Lily she was studying to become a physicist, not a lawyer, Lily would continue to ask her out. Hanging out at coffee shops turned to dinner dates, and dinner dates led to seven years of bliss, culminating in the day their divorce was finalized.
"You think that the last seven years with me were pointless because they weren't eternal, and as much as it hurts me that's why I have to move on. There is no big finish line, no end goal; not for us, not for anything. You always look for the sense in things, but love never makes sense. It exists moment to moment, and you could never be with me in that moment. I'll always love you Molly, I'm so sorry."
She thinks of the weekend following that day. The two hadn't met, and the storage unit was still full of their most prized belongings. She focuses on the crowd once more.
Her nerves have quieted.
"When I was twelve-years-old, I visited the National Air and Space Museum of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington D.C. During our visit my family and I saw one of the planetarium shows called Journey to the Stars. I remember very clearly one scene of the show and not much else. Whoopi Goldberg was the narrator, and she told me something that day; something so profound, yet so simple that it stuck with me ever since. She was speaking of the Sun's end and it's turning into a red giant and consumption of the Earth. She said, 'Now don't worry, this will happen long after humans have moved on, or evolved in ways we can only imagine.' It was the bit about humans 'moving on' that stuck with me. Twelve-year-old me sat in that planetarium for the rest of the show thinking about a universe with no humans in it. After all, the solar system, galaxy, and universe exist only through our eyes don't they? We named it the Milky Way, we differentiate between the Observable and Unknown parts of the universe. Without us in the mix, everything simply...exists. This terrified me beyond belief. I worried that anything I did was folly because not only does each individual die, but the human race must eventually die too. Even further than that, in all likelihood the universe will eventually die as well. Existence will collapse upon itself."
"I didn't realize it at the time, but that showing of Journey to the Stars greatly influenced my life. It's part of the reason I'm standing in front of you today. That day at the Smithsonian planted an idea in my head that we need to do it big. Humans need to move past Earth, past this solar system, and beyond something as miniscule as the 'Known Universe.' We need to discover and take part in everything there is, because we're all headed to the same place in the end. Some people would say I had a great sense of purpose in life, but in reality I had a horrible outlook. I was striving for this ideal reality that may never be realized, and certainly not even close to happening in my lifetime. I only had purpose when I was assuring myself that I was building on concrete. A dear friend of mine pointed out to me one day that life is sand, and anything we shape on it is liable to crumble and fall. Life is moment to moment, and there is no greater purpose. Seeing the beauty in such a doomed existence as the one we find ourselves in is one of the hardest and most rewarding of tasks, but one that has meaning deeper than anything that can be taught."
"In the words of Carl Sagan, 'Every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there: on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.' I believe in one thing above all else: the progression of the human race. But someone once said to me that there is no finish line, and that awakened in me the ability to see humanity for what it is. A species that is built on virtues as frivolous and nonsensical as love, brotherhood, and justice is lunacy. Believing in such lunacy, believing in the group rather than the individual, and believing in the Pale Blue Dot is what will place us among the stars. Thank you."
She collects her things and exits stage left. During her drive to the airport, the nausea returns. She pulls off to the side of the road to vomit.
As she stands on the escalator in the airport, she texts Lily, asking if she'd like to meet at their storage unit to divide up their belongings. She ends the message with wishes that Lily is well. She had sent her ex-wife an invitation to the ceremony, but immediately after had cursed such a conceited act.
As she boards the plane, she feels her stomach. The firework-like news does not seem so insane to her as it did that morning. She thinks of the parents, and how immensely she knows they will love their child. The two words still play on repeat in her head: "I'm pregnant, I'm pregnant, I'm pregnant." No matter the contracts signed and the promises made, she worries that having to hand over life brought into the world by her own body will prove an impossible task. She also wonders why she once told Lily she would never bring a child into a world as meaningless as theirs. She thinks again of the words of Carl Sagan: "A small stage in a vast cosmic arena."
She takes her seat as she receives a text message. Lily would like to meet at the storage unit, and says her speech was fantastic. She smiles, and looks out the window as the plane takes off.
As the plane soars through the cloudless sky, a feat of human engineering, she sees the Earth down below. So many ultimately pointless and utterly profound lives being lived out for their moment onstage. She looks up to the dark blue sky. So many unexplored worlds and such limitless potential. She hovers between Earth and sky, her hand gently resting on her stomach. She thinks of Principal Walters, Whoopi Goldberg, Carl Sagan, Gary, and Lily.
Molly smiles, and speaks so softly that her whisper is instantly lost forever:
"What a beautiful death this life turned out to be."