They Were the Storm and the Town and the Poison

 

            They met one moonless winter night. She was warm ocean air; he was a frigid cold front. Where they met, the deep waters churned, waves lifting themselves toward the sky, marine life diving deep, seabirds flocking for land. They were nothing alike, but he liked her smile, and she liked his laugh. She liked his eyes, and he liked her accent. They both had loved; they both had lost. That was enough. Something drove them together. They were not sure what it was. She called it fate; he called it luck. Whatever it was, they were happy they had found each other. The night ended. They parted ways. The air calmed, the seas slacked and went glassy, life returned to as it had been, but the world bore the indelible traces of their meeting. He called her; she texted him. They met again, and the seas churned once more. Soon she was his, and he was hers. They did not know it, but they were a brewing storm.

            Nor did they know they were also a small coastal town that was yet to be built. She took him to dinner; he took her to the movies. They took each other to bed. The time they spent became frail coastal shacks of memories, and inside each memory dwelt a moment. Shacks soon dotted the coast. Roads of remembrance stretched between them. Stores of sympathy and shared love fed them. Signs and fences sprung up here and there, announcing future sites of future memories: hopes and dreams. Shacks became houses, houses became neighborhoods. Though not every memory was peaceful, and not every experience was pleasurable, it was all beautiful. But it produced things that were not beautiful, waste and toxins and poisons that seeped out of the town and into the ground and water and air and circulated through the world, mixing with the past pollution of distant towns, ruined and abandoned.

            He did not want a serious relationship; she did not either. So they believed, so they told each other, and so the town’s limits were fixed by charter.

            They were the storm and the shelter. He thought she was silly; she thought he was arrogant. She wanted to go out; he wanted to stay in. Winds howled, waves surged, clouds twisted, and the sky moved. West of the town, the crimson sun set, as the first storm came from the pitch-black east. The town shuddered its windows, battened its doors, huddled within its walls. When the storm came, it sunk a few boats and toppled two or three trees, but nothing more.

            When she became pregnant, they both wanted the same thing, so it was not hard to decide. Their relationship was never supposed to be forever, and they did not wish that to change. That is what they said, anyway. That is what they told each other. He said he loved her, and she said she loved him, but in their minds they added “for now.” This storm was a small one. A few houses lost their roofs. A few streets filled with a little too much water. But nothing was destroyed. No one was killed.

            When they decided to move in together, they said it was for reasons of finance and economy. She was not rich; he was barely not poor. Their city was very expensive. The coastal town that they were purchased land extending miles along the coast and deep into the interior. Their relationship was expanding beyond the limits of its initial charter. As they searched for a home to share, one that would satisfy her need for luxury and his want to live within his means, minor storms touched the coastal town, but nothing was flooded, and nobody was hurt. Storm levees sprung up here and there, just to be safe. By the time he and she settled for something they could both live with, the coastal town was fortified against the weather. Nothing could harm it. He sold his furniture; she moved hers into their new apartment, where the walls were glass and looked down upon the twinkling city lights, and where everything else seemed solid.

            The next storm hit the coastal town in the dead of the night. She told him something about before, when they had been sort of in their relationship, sort of out, right before her pregnancy, when she had kissed another man. She had felt ignored, lonely, she said, used because he had said he did not want to be so committed, so she had lashed out. She had felt bad about it ever since, and so she told him because she loved him and wanted to be honest with him. The first storm surge hit the town, crashing over the levees as if they were not there, flooding streets, invading homes. He pressed her for details. Who was the other man? How had she known him? Had she only kissed? Was she sure she had only kissed? Absolutely sure she had only kissed? She swore that was the truth. He was not so sure. He chose to believe her, or at least that is what he said, that is what he felt, but in reality he simply chose to push his fears and doubts and jealousies out of the way as tons of toxic waste dumped into some river just beyond the coastal town’s limits to be carried away, disappeared beyond the horizon. The river currents swept the poison into the unknown beyond where it could not harm the town, and the skies above the town cleared as the storm lost its energy and dissipated into the pre-dawn stillness.

            She caught him texting his ex-wife. He swore it was nothing. After the last storm, he had run into his ex-wife at a play. They had exchanged a polite but terse salutation. Nothing more, but it led him to reflect, something he had avoided doing too much of since the divorce, and he had found he knew nothing of his ex-wife’s experience of the slow and painful death of their marriage. So he had texted her: Do you ever think about us, about where we went wrong? She had replied: No. Not really. He had not responded because his girlfriend had seen the response before he did. She was furious. The coastal town had barely recovered from the last storm. It had plowed the levees higher. It had dug its drainage ditches deeper. It had built its walls sturdier, so it was not afraid of the storm when it hit. But this storm was the first of the superstorms, and when it fell upon the town it came as a leviathan that crushed homes beneath its feet, toppled trees, uprooted roads, scattered the frail things that lived upon the land, drowning everything in its watery wrath. He discovered they lived in an apartment of something finer than glass when she threw the stone that shattered it. He cried and begged her to stay, not to be so angry. She was reading more into the text than was there, she was overreacting. She did not like hearing that. She was afraid she had been fooled. She was hurt he had hidden his feelings from her. She swore she was going to leave. She said it was over. She locked him from their bedroom. But he refused to relent. He pounded on the bedroom door until his fists were red and numb. He begged and pleaded until his throat was raw and his voice was hoarse. The other storms had passed before dawn; this storm raged into morning. In the end, she unlocked the door. The storm broke. The town was devastated, but determined to rebuild. The apartment that was finer than glass was put back together, carefully, piece by piece, over the course of a long time.

            Life in the town returned to its normal rhythms, unassailed by fear of storms. She forgot and forgave the incident. That is what she claimed, and probably what she meant. She probably intended it to be true, and in that sense it was true when she said it. But she was unaware of the toxic sludge that had long ago seeped into the ground beneath the town, into the subterranean aquifers, into the rivers to be carried away beyond the horizon, poisoning everything it touched. This sludge had been the byproduct of an admission he had made to her, motivated by the best of intentions. When he had been younger, when he had married his wife, it had been for all the wrong reasons. They really had been in love, but they had married when they did because they had been college sweethearts, and she had been a Canadian citizen, and she was going to lose her citizenship after graduation because it was nearly impossible to find a visa sponsor in their industry, so they had married for a green card. They had been young, and they had faced problems they had not known how to solve. He had struggled with unemployment resulting from his obligations to the Army National Guard, with the death of his father, with the death of several close friends, with the violation of his general expectations of life, with his slowly eroding dignity and self-respect. The marriage had degraded along with everything else. His wife had become distant. He had traveled, and in his travels he had found what he had felt he had lacked at home, and he had slept with another woman. After months of attempting to hide the truth of his actions, from himself and from his wife, he had told her everything on New Year’s Eve, while they were on vacation abroad. That had been that. He never slept another night in their home.

When he had met the woman who was to become his next girlfriend, he had told her all of this, on the very night they met, when he had been a frigid cold front and she warm ocean air, when their meeting had stirred the seas and moved the sky. He had not wanted to feel he had deceived her into believing him a decent, honest man, and in this sense his admission was a success. But it also produced the toxic sludge that poisoned the ground and water and rivers that stretched away beyond the horizon. It vanished from view, but it haunted them like some dark, unseen power.

            Their relationship grew, and the town wanted to become a city, but it was not to be, for cities have a future, while towns have only a past, and neither he nor she wanted anything more than a present. Storm after storm assailed the town, each worse than the last, but always the town rebuilt. It was committed to rebuilding, even though expanding was forbidden. The town became skilled at weathering storms, at rebuilding after storms, at constructing great obstacles to hold back storms, obstacles that succeeded only at creating a false sense of security from storms. The town committed itself to surviving, but it had no notion of what it was surviving towards, for it had no future. Purposelessness haunted the town, and in attempts to assuage its hunger for meaning, it turned towards consumption. Food, experiences, clothing, entertainment, drugs, parties, it produced and consumed in staggering amounts, always aimed at filling the void in its being where a future should have been, always watching with despair as the void only deepened and widened. And as the town consumed it produced waste, and the waste it produced seeped beneath it and above and into its water and away beyond its horizon.

            She was sick of fighting, and so was he. They had wanted to be happy together, and they still did, so they committed themselves to avoiding arguments, to redirecting the patterns of hot and cold air that condensed into swirling clouds and raging winds and surging waters. She tried to be more understanding of his wants, and he tried to be more attentive to her needs, but the storms still came, each stronger than the last. They did not know why the storms came. They tried everything they could think of to avoid them, to prevent them, to redirect them. He tried closing his eyes and taking long, deep breaths. She tried going elsewhere to calm herself. He tried walking in her shoes. She tried seeing through his eyes. They tried clarifying their thoughts, their speech, their language. They performed never-before attempted emotional contortions that they hoped would release pressures, ease tensions, cool tempers. But always they fought, and always worse than before. Once, he called her a name, and she hit him. Another time, she screamed so loud he was sure the neighbors would call the cops were it not for the nearly soundproof walls of their apartment. It became a common feature of their fights that they would end with her breaking up with him, him begging to be taken back, and her reluctantly agreeing to give him another chance because she loved him. They were an isolated world, a feedback loop of love and hate and happiness and anger and desire and repulsion, a closed system feeding on its own waste and wondering why it was ill.

            The worst storm was not the last, not the strongest, but the one that dispelled their lingering delusions and showed them the true heart of their relationship. It began with something so small, so trivial, that by the time it had run its course they had both forgotten the catalyst. But, all the same, despite themselves, it began. At noon, the sky above the coastal town was black, and soon thereafter it was purple and green with spiky clouds that stabbed for the ground. Moments barricaded themselves within sturdy memories, hoping for the best, preparing for the worst. Winds whipped the shoreline, tearing at trees and flags and sails and moored ships, filling the air with a howling wail. She said she did not want to fight, but that he would need to apologize. He said he was tired of apologizing for things that were not his fault. She said this was his fault. He said it was hers. All along the coast, the surf was suddenly sucked out to sea, laying bare to the sky miles of wet sand. The wind calmed, and for a long moment stillness settled across everything, like a thin layer of dust on old photographs. One could have heard sand grinding beneath the legs of a crab from a mile away. But there was no one to hear. When the water returned, it came as a wave as tall as a house, rushing inland with the force of a falling mountain, disintegrating levees, uprooting trees, obliterating walls, submerging the land, drowning memories in torrents of venom.

            When the town had been transformed into an archipelago of rooftops and floating corpses and broken things, when the surging waters had reached the limit of their advance, the winds calmed, the clouds broke, and a patch of placid sky appeared. She looked at him in disgusted disbelief; he looked at her in furious frustration. They did not know what to say, what to think, what to feel. They hoped that the storm had passed, but they knew it had not. There was more to say and feel, but they did not know what. Although they did not know, could not know, they were thinking the same thought, confronting the same realization: Their love for each other was matched only by their hatred, their repulsion resisted only by equal dependency, their desire for freedom tempered only by their need for enslavement to each other. Their relationship had become an indescribable horror that had consumed them and from which they could not escape without facing the emotional annihilation of loss. If they could face loss, they could free themselves from each other. But they could not, would not face that, not again, and so they condemned themselves to each other. The clouds closed, the winds rose, and the waters surged once more. In all, the storm raged for three days. When it passed, it left behind a world scarred by ugly truth. The town rebuilt, no longer animated by desire for life, nor by fear of death, but by a perverse need to be ravaged by storms. The town continued to consume empty commodities and produce vile waste because if it did not it would have to face the truth it had glimpsed in the eye of the storm, the truth that it would gouge its eyes out to avoid recognizing.

            Eventually, they ended. They called the end mutual, but reality was fuzzier. She had left him so many times by then, each time taking him back when he begged. He had never done the same to her, until he did, but when she begged to be taken back, he hardened his heart and turned his back. It was not mutual. He left her. She wanted him to stay, not because she loved him, but because she needed him and the town and the storms. She feared the stillness of calm air, the silence of undeveloped shores and wild lands. He feared these things too, but he would rather drown in silence than face another storm. She was ashamed of this fear, so they said the decision was theirs, not his.

            The storms had kept coming until the end. Neither he nor she were stupid people, but even though they had glimpsed the truth of what their relationship was, they had never understood why it was that way, what drove it, what made the storms grow stronger and stronger. They had obsessed about the storms so much that they hardly noticed the other phenomenon that wore them down, the days that were just a few degrees warmer than they should have been, the air that was just a touch less sweet than it used to be, the wildlife that was present as subtly thinning populations. They had fixated so on preparing for the storms and living between the storms that they had never thought of the connection between the increasing intensity of the periodic tempests and the growing body of waste produced by the town and dispersed beyond the horizon. They had not seen that they themselves were the storms, the town’s waste, and the dirt and water and wind that carried the waste beyond the horizon, altering the world, thinning its ozone, thickening its radiation-trapping gasses, warming the air, poisoning the water, killing living things, giving life to that which had never lived, acidifying oceans, intensifying winds, strengthening the storms.

            They had not seen that they were each other. They saw only that they were themselves. They saw only that they were victims of the storms. They wrote their own demise because they failed to see themselves, their relationship, their environment, and their world as they really were: a single system of things interconnecting, interrelating, interpenetrating, of things that were what they were, not simply because they were not others, but because they could become others, a system that connected them to each other, to the environment, to the atmosphere, to the solar winds, to the climates of other planets, to the flowing galactic currents, to the rippling ancient radiation emanating back to the beginning of spacetime and out to the ends of imagination. They had seen only the illusion of local weather, severed from global reality by the razor of the horizon, a limit of perception only, and so they had been blind to the reality of climate. They had seen the storms as individual events, rather than the footprints of the titan they were inside of.  They had seen only their petty selves, and so they had been blind to their cosmic natures. If they had seen, they could have thought, they could have acted. But they had not, so they could not. They were seduced by division, so division had consumed them.

            The town is now a field of graves and ruins stretched out beneath a slate sky. It no longer pollutes, but it is haunted by spectral poisons that inhabit everything, ooze from everything, threaten everything. Down the coast, beyond its horizon, another town is slowly being raised. This new town knows the history of this dead place. It hopes to avoid the same fate. It knows what this place has done to the dirt and water and wind, and it knows how this town’s dead past threatens its own future, dreamed of in vibrant greens, livid yellows, and dancing blues. When storms come, it will not fixate on them as demonic weather cursing its existence, but rather see them as the footprints of some great and unseen power that it is always inside of, and so it will not hope to hold back the storms, but rather it will seek to soothe them by healing the ecology that produces them and itself. I will not see only my petty self, but will rather dissolve and disperse into the cosmic ecology that I and my new partner have always already been.