IN TOTAL DARKNESS, STARS

I asked her to turn off the headlights.

She asked why.

“The stars,” I said.

The beams clicked off. The engine exhaled to a stop. And in this complete void, the speckles dusted the heavens — red, blue, even green.

It didn’t matter that we were 50 feet from wild lions, or that the only thing keeping us from being stranded in this South African jungle was a rickety Hummer running low on gas.

My world was the stars.

But, soon, images of New York seeped into the void. And I felt a sudden panic; it was the juxtaposition.

Just five days before, I was washing dishes in my New York apartment. I stacked them on the drying rack — plates upright, cups facing down — like it was natural instinct. Then I went online and talked to my friends about journalism, food and politics, using a tone that gave it great importance. Man’s creations gave structure to my life, and I worked 22 years to build upon it.

With a flick of the light, it all disappeared.

Sometimes, I wonder what would happen if all the buildings in New York vanished, and the people found themselves stranded on this island. I wonder: Would the Wall Street brokers would still try to make money? Would we, journalists, still try to gather and report information? Would New Yorkers still act like New Yorkers — in a hurry to do something and everything — even though there’s nothing to do? Would we still value what we did before?

With a flick of the light, I knew.

Sometimes, I find myself acting my life. The script says I should learn, so I learned; then it says I should work, so now I work. It says I should put dish soap on the plate, scrub until clean and rinse out the suds. So I do. But, amidst the gaps between scenes, I find nothing to act for. It is freedom

With a flick of the light, another gap.

Sometimes, I get into the “New York rhythm” and hit every crosswalk with perfect timing. My actions fit so perfectly into this city that it feels like I was built for it. When I arrive at my destination, I have the keycard to get me through the door. When I see people, I have the words to get me through the day. This world is a maze, constructed carefully through hundreds of years — and I have the map.

With a flick of the light, my world changed.

I’m the kind of person who likes certainty. That’s why I hate airports. It puts me in purgatory — neither here nor there. Once, I was flying to upstate New York, for a scholarship interview at Ithaca College, and I missed the transfer at JFK Airport. I saw my plane pushing out of the gate, and yelled to the gate agent, “Make them stop!” But he didn’t. I was stuck there, indefinitely, outside my world.

With a flick of the light, it happened again.

In this complete darkness, I had occasional thoughts about jobs and school and baseball. But they quickly passed because, like much of my world, they seemed inconsequential. And that was the source of my panic: A realization of my life’s lack of perspective. So, in that grassy field, I began to build a life that could survive a journey through worlds.

And for a transient moment, life was like a simple yet perfect painting — nothing superfluous, everything poignantly purposeful. Clarity.

Then, a man in our Hummer shattered the silence. He called to our safari guide: “Jessika, I think we lost a member.” She shot the headlights back on to reveal the Frenchman in our group urinating just a short dash away from the lions. She scorned him back into the Hummer and turned on the engine.

The lights, the noise, the voices — it was a sign that ‘normal’ life was resuming, just like when a plane begins boarding. And I was back in my world. From here, the gap no longer existed: The Hummer would drive back to the lodge; from there, we would go to the airport; the plane would take me back to New York, back in the rhythm. My new world was gone.

I resumed my life, thinking, talking and writing about all those things that were inconsequential under the stars. But, in this world, they still mattered — or, at least, the human consequences did. So the world was necessarily cluttered again.

This week was no different. I was on deadline — stressed and frustrated — when my apartment lost electricity. At first, there was anger. But then I realized someone just turned off the headlights and, briefly, the imprints of the dusty stars shined through. I returned to that pensive night, where the heavens were too vast for today’s worries but perfect for infinite contemplation.

Perspective was recaptured and, through it, a vague image of truth.

This picture had something to do with the piece.

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