Maddy and I slept through the total solar eclipse. We slept through everything; we were three months out of college and we slept like vampires. Days started in the near-dark of evening, when we often watched the sun fall into the teeth of pine trees on the horizon, our hair exploding in every direction, coffee steaming in our hands and fogging up the big window in the living room of our two-bedroom, flat-carpeted, popcorn-ceilinged, chipped-paint apartment on Hawley Street, which curved around the northern edge of Marquette, Michigan.
That day, Maddy looked through our big window at the un-eclipsed sun and sighed. She said, “Well. I bet it was beautiful.”
Maddy and I had broken up as soon as we moved in together. We agreed: we came from different worlds. The fact that she and I chose to live together anyway might have said something about how little else we had in the world to fall back into, but I liked to think, maybe, we really were just great friends.
But I wasn’t always sure. I said, “Well, if we hop in the car right now, we could make it to Echo Lake for the sunset.” Without moving, she said, “Oh, sure.”
Echo Lake reminded me of home. It was a man-made lake, but the way its hills sloped, the peninsula cut into the water, and the frogs swarmed on the slate shore, disguised the truth—that the basin was cut deep into the clay and left alone to fill itself with underground springs. When I stood on the shore, and skipped rocks that rippled the surface, I felt like it had been there for the same eternity as every other lake I knew.
Maddy and I did not make the sunset. It took an hour to drive my 2003 Volkswagen Jetta, with its quarter-million miles and groaning joints, the two miles down the rain-gutted gravel road to the lake’s trailhead. When finally I parked, and with the car ticking behind us in the twilight, Maddy asked, “Where is the lake?” And I said, “Well, it’s a little hike from here.” She sighed, started fast-walking down the trail, and said, “Well let’s get on with it.”
I was six. It was dawn. A bat flew laps around my room. It flew wildly, an untied balloon slipped from the pinch of fingers. It flew over my head, into the closet, over my head, into the closet, and then it stopped, clutching the curtain rod over my bed with its needle claws. We looked at each other. It had an auburn tuft of fur on its chest, and perfectly dark eyes. I think we were both scared. Backwards, I slipped off the bed and crept out the door. I ran downstairs, to the kitchen, where my dad was standing in front of the coffee pot, rubbing his eyes.
“There’s a bat in my room,” I said.
He scratched his head, and without a word grabbed a towel from the bathroom and walked upstairs. He saw the bat, and the bat took flight again, but my dad snatched it from the air in one practiced swoop of the towel. It bounced against the taut bubble of polyester. Dad nodded toward the window, and so I scrambled over my bed to open it, and once I did, he snapped the towel and sent the bat into a nosedive outside. The bat tumbled through the air, found its composure, wheeled around in an arc, and took flight for the trees.
As he folded the towel over his arm, Dad said, “It’s almost fall, they’re getting cold. You’ll have to learn how to do that soon.” I looked at my dad with the buggy eyes of a six-year old. He sighed, stood in the doorway. “I know you like them,” he said. He picked his words carefully. “But there are things in the house that it needs, that we don’t have.”
Fake cobwebs manifested in the corners, plastic pumpkins with their grins sprouted from every piece of furniture, ghosts played in the windows, bats hung from the ceiling, candles illuminated candy dishes, strings of green lights glowed down the hallway. And in that hallway, Maddy and I strutted up and down the flat carpet, swapping on and off thrift-store finds from the Halloween section: black wigs and dark glasses, masks and fangs and tight shirts.
She conjured the idea one night, as we lounged on the couches wordlessly, as we often did, watching The Great British Baking Show, to have a Halloween Party. “A baking-competition-themed Halloween Party,” she said, shooting up straight. The last three weeks of October featured my birthday, then Maddy’s, then Halloween. It was the sliver of the year where spirits were high in the apartment, even if the cold was beginning to sneak in through the loose seals on the windows, the big cracks along the ceiling.
Maddy came down the hall in black leggings, a black sweater, and a pair of wolf ears.
“So you’re a wolf?”
“A regular wolf? You’re a regular wolf for Halloween?”
“Oh, shut up,” she said before she hopped into the bathroom and drew wrinkles and angular whiskers on her face with a charcoal pencil. She popped back out.
“Okay, I’m a werewolf.”
“Any particular werewolf?”
“There aren’t enough famous werewolves.”
I slipped a black button-up shirt on, slicked my hair back, strolled down the hallway, stopped, shoved my fists into my hips, and waited for her reaction. She looked bemused.
“I’m a vampire, for Christ’s sake,” I said, throwing my hands in the air.
“Are you fucking kidding me?” she said, grabbing my hand and pulling me into the bathroom. She laid out her eyeliner and things and held my face with her warm hand and drew Byronic lines under my eyes. We hadn’t been this close to each other in a year; that, although in the mirror now I looked eternally tired, this was the first night in a long time that I didn’t feel that way. She stepped back, peered at my face with dark eyes. She held up a finger as if to say, “Wait a moment.” She ran to the kitchen, returned with a small red washcloth, and tucked it into the pocket of my button-up. She patted it twice, and said, “There. Now you are Dracula.”
Maddy threw her hands in the air. “I can’t do the smoke,” she said. She sat up on my bed. It was my birthday visit to my parents. Maddy and I were still trying to make it work.
“I can’t help that she smokes,” I said. “I talked to her, honestly.” Which was true. I had called my mom a week before our visit and basically begged her to smoke her cigarettes outside while Maddy was there. I told her that it hurt Maddy’s lungs, that Maddy didn’t even want the heat on in the Jetta on freezing evenings, because she hated the smell of exhaust so much. I told Mom that I couldn’t even fathom how she’d feel about cigarettes. But I could smell the vodka on Mom’s breath through the phone. I knew she wouldn’t remember. As Maddy and I talked, she was downstairs at the head of the dining room table, blazing through a pack of Marlboro Lights.
“It’s just not healthy,” Maddy said. “Don’t you worry?”
My guts smoldered. “Well fucking obviously,” I said. She recoiled. “I’m not an idiot.” I did some ridiculous dance. “We all have cancer!” I said. “We think that’s great!”
Maddy stared at the bedsheet, despondent. After a minute of jaw-clenching anger, it occurred to me, in a wave of cold guilt, that that was a pretty fucked up thing of me to do.
I sat down next to her. I explained that I’d always tried hard to keep at least my room smoke-free. I didn’t leave sweatshirts hanging on the chairs downstairs, I washed my hands before making my bed or folding my laundry, I never let the door between the upstairs and downstairs be open for any longer than it took for my body to pass through it. I said that nobody ever mentioned it before, the smoke, and it hit me that Maddy was the first person from college – from a world beyond my own – that had ever visited my house. But I didn’t mention it. I set my hand on her knee, and she held it. I said, “We can leave.” And she nodded. She nodded and said, “Let’s do one more night.”
That night, after my mom had gone to bed, I opened every window and turned on every fan downstairs. It was freezing in the living room, but it smelled like the cold grass, like the dew in the air. Maddy leaned on me, and I leaned on her, and all night we watched a vampire movie marathon. They were all terrible, save, maybe, for Bram Stoker’s Dracula. When Dracula finds his wife, Mina, he holds her and says, “I have crossed oceans of time to find you.” Maddy grabbed my hand and held it tight, then. But I could tell by the way we didn’t look at each other the whole night, how we slept on opposite hemispheres of my childhood bed, that we both knew there were things we each needed, and neither of us had.
Our Halloween party was in a day. While Maddy was at work, I pulled the bleach and Windex and paper towels and everything else from their hiding spots beneath the sink, and I spent the afternoon on my knees, scrubbing the dirt of time from our floors and the counters and the sink and the toilet and the shower, and when everything was shining, I opened all the windows and turned on all the fans and blew the fumes away and collapsed on the couch. Maddy did not like chemicals, but I couldn’t stand the thought of scrubbing the kitchen floor with a cotton cloth and a cup of organic vinegar. I just wanted a clean home.
I awoke an hour or so later to the apartment freezing, and Maddy shaking me awake. I asked, “What’s going on?” She cradled a hand towel like a hurt animal. It was baby-blue, the softest one we had. She pinched one of its corners and held it up. It was bleached pink. Wind whistled through the open windows. I must have made a mistake somewhere.
She stared down at me, face like I’d never seen it, and asked: is this fucking bleach?
And things fell apart. There was a lot of stomping. The black streamers and strings of plastic bats on the walls fluttered in reaction to our stomping, to our huge gestures as we screamed, trying to make ourselves look big, like animals. She said I never did give a shit about what she gave a shit about, and why did we never travel? Why did we never go to a play? And I said, you knew my car would fall apart, or you would if you weren’t used to everything being brand new, and it’s not like I could get you to hike around a lake with me, either. It went on like that for hours. We orbited the apartment until it was too dark to see and summoned the cruelest words we could, little monster sentences, and sang them into the air. She went after my family, I went after her ego. We were nocturnal animals from different worlds screaming at each other’s dark shapes, bouncing echoes off the walls.
Somehow we ended up in her bedroom, and she threw the bleached towel, which she had been clutching the whole time, at me. It lay over my shoulder like it was exhausted. Out of energy to yell, she whispered, “My grandma gave me that towel. For when we first moved in. You never did respect my family.” I leaned against a wall, let myself slide down to the flat carpet. I said, “ I haven’t seen your family in a year.” She bit her lip and tears pooled in her eyes, and they pooled in mine, too. She sat on her bed and crossed her hands in her lap. The green light in the hallway flooded the room. We both finally shut up for the night and stared into the flat carpet of our home, and thought of how it once was.
Maddy asked me, a week after we visited my home, close to her birthday, if I wanted to go to her parents’ house. She didn’t say “home.” She never did.
It was our last gasp at a relationship, my first-time crossing Michigan’s famous Mackinac Bridge, which arcs over Lake Michigan, connecting the upper and lower peninsula. Because it was me and Maddy, we ended up driving over it close to midnight, and of course, the radio station that would normally give a fun history of the bridge just repeated something like: HIGH WIND WARNING – HEAVY RAIN WARNING – HIGH WIND WARNING –
But we made it. We made it to her parents’ doorstep in the suburbs of Traverse City. The door opened and there was no creak in the hinges, I took my shoes off and there was no grit of dust on the floor. On the walls were pictures of Maddy and her younger siblings in baroque frames that reflected the bright globe lights in the dining room. In the kitchen hung mugs from businesses in Marquette.
“We do miss the upper peninsula,” her mom said, setting out the makings for Korean tacos, “But there just wasn’t enough going on, I guess.”
It stormed torrentially all over Michigan the three days we were in Traverse City. Two kids died in Marquette during that time, trying to film Lake Superior, in her breathtaking rage, from the precipice of a cliff of volcanic rocks. They were swept away and never found.
The whole time we were there, the rain pounded the windows, and Maddy was a tripwire of nerves. I kept asking her if she was okay, and she would look off into the distance, dark eyes vacant, and say, “Oh, sure.”
Maddy couldn’t eat gluten. I had once sat with her while she writhed in agony after eating a green-bean casserole thickened with breadcrumbs. It might as well have been poison.
On her birthday, her mom walked out of the kitchen, holding a beautiful chocolate cake. The most glutinous thing I’d ever seen. She set it down, dimmed the lights, lit the candles. There was an uncomfortable pause. We all just stared. Rain pattered the roof.
Her mom said, “Well?”
Her dad leaned over to her mom and whispered: “You know she can’t eat that, right?”
And her mom’s face filled with realization, then turned very red. It distorted in a way I’d never seen, in a way that made a lot of things flash through my head – like Maddy telling me about how her mom had dropped her off at the fire station in a basket when she was a baby, like how she had a restraining order against her, like how she used to make her own mom hide in a closet and pray to God when she was a teenager, like how she remembers dishes thrown and shattered, and cuts on her legs from the ricocheting glass.
Her mom exploded. There was a lot of stomping. There was screaming about no one reminding her, about how Maddy’s gluten thing was bullshit, anyway. Her dad literally ran out of the house to go buy another cake at some point, and her mom chased him out into the rain, shaking her fist. Maddy and I hid in the basement – we pulled a childhood mattress of hers from between a childhood desk, a chest of stuffed animals, and a small music stand, and flopped it on the ground and lay on that, our hearts pounding hard enough to ring the springs. Maddy leaned into me; I leaned into her. We tipped our heads together and listened to the pounding rain, our uneven breathing, the roar of thunder.
I was locked in the car. I was a couple of weeks old, dressed as a bat for my first Halloween. The car’s keys were in a little pile on the front seat. The entire town, who was at the bar, came outside in costumes. Ghosts and zombies and werewolves and vampires circled the car, offering suggestions to my parents, who were both in their early twenties, in their first year of owning a home, and beside themselves.
A man from the fire department wandered, drunkenly, across the street to the garage that housed the town’s fire truck, and came back with a pry bar to gap the door from the frame, and a clothes hanger to fashion into a hook to lift the locking latch. They did precisely that, and after an hour or so, my dad pulled me out of the car, lifted me and my bat wings into the air to show my mom, who sat crying on the bench outside of the bar, and said, “It’s okay! Look!”
A lot of our friends from Marquette showed up to the Halloween Party without costumes, and, as Dracula and werewolf, Maddy and I looked at each other and realized we never said anything about it necessarily being a costume party. We laughed – we were monsters of the night, opening our home to our regular friends, and in our little apartment with the flat carpet we laid out cooking stations on any surface we could manage – desks, small bookshelves, the end tables from our bedrooms, the TV stand – we covered them all with black plastic tablecloths, and in a grand voice, Maddy began the two-hour countdown.
For those two hours, Maddy and I rushed back and forth and helped everyone out in little ways. There was a Mexican cuisine theme, and so we flipped tortillas as they popped in the pans and we chopped onions and drained beans and procured random bits of silverware – the reject wooden spoons and things from our parent’s houses, the forks and spoons trapped at weird angles in the cluttered nest of the silverware drawer. Everyone shared one stovetop and a pile of ingredients. It was the biggest fire hazard on the planet. There was a cacophony of chopping and frying and clinking – at one point, my old roommate ran outside to grab something from his car, and when he returned, he said, “Jesus Christ, the whole neighborhood smells like quesadillas.”
Hours later, we all crammed onto the couches and on the floor, watching a terrible Halloween movie, gorged on what were mostly disastrous piles of food, rather than entrees – save for the winning dish, which won for its simplicity and brilliance: jack-o-lantern bell peppers with sawn-off tops and little faces carved into them, stuffed with seasoned rice and baked. We lauded the winner for their creativity, to which the said, “But don’t forget about dessert!” and held up a small plate, on which sat a banana, drizzled with a melted cupful of candy corn.
Eyes fluttering, curled up on the floor, I looked over at the couch and saw that Maddy’s werewolf make-up was dripping from the humidity of the cooking, and I imagine my Dracula face must have been melting off, too. Lying there among everyone, in the light of the moon through the big window, I knew I was swimming in the glow of one of the happiest moments of my life. I didn’t have to look outside to know the mist of the fall was blurring the streetlight into pixels through the glass, and that in that light bats were swooping about in arcs, bouncing echoes off our building, our cars, each other – I didn’t have to look at all of our friends, or the fog in the window from all of our shared heat, to know that this was how you make a home.
Maddy and I caught the sunset. When it was just about time to go, when Maddy and I had been accepted to new schools on opposite ends of the country, and our apartment was packed up and looked the way it did in those early days, we sat on one of the granite slopes that framed Echo Lake and watched the sun fall down. We watched as it sank down over the man-made lake, as something natural fell into something crafted and became the same thing. Afterwards, we lay flat on our backs and stared into the sky, looking for a comet that was supposed to be taking a pass at Earth. We found the Big Dipper and traced lines between the stars with our fingers to where it was supposed to be. Who knows if the speck we agreed to stare at was the comet, who knows if what we were seeing was a once-in-a-several-millennia ball of unknowable matter, or if it was just another long-gone star. I thought, who knew where we’d be in the ocean of time between now and when we swung back around, but who would have known we could be from worlds so incredibly different, that we could be completely unique animals and yet it would be so lovely to fly in our first wild arc outside of our homes, and into each other’s lives. We sat there for hours, gazing skyward, dark shapes close but not touching on the shore of a lake that, at some point, was only a space that someone looked at and decided had everything it needed, every gap in the rocks and every little animal tucked beneath the tree roots and swimming under the surface to be something really special.
Brandon Hansen graduated from Northern Michigan University. He’s from a village in Wisconsin named Long Lake, and if you are wondering, the lake is, indeed, long.