Black Holes

Lora woke up half past noon. The beam of sunlight slanting through the window hit her full on the face, harsh and heavy, until her brow furrowed and her eyelids flickered. She shut her eyes and twisted to her side, and stretched out her arm to reach for Eric.

It fell upon empty space.

In an instant she was awake, sitting up, her head swiveling from side to side, a heavy throb in her ears. A full minute of panic and consternation passed before she sighed and slumped back into bed, remembering he was gone.

She lay buried in the sheets another half-hour, struggling in vain to drift into sleep once more, before standing up, washing her face, and making breakfast. While sipping her coffee, she mused over her morning rituals of late, and how they had changed. Just last month, mornings like this, her arm would stretch out and drape around his sleeping body. Then after she had washed her face and made breakfast, he would be sitting across the table, sipping his coffee in silence while she flipped through a textbook, preparing the lecture she would give her freshman Physics class that day. After breakfast he would take out the shirt and slacks from his duffel bag while she ironed her skirt and blouse. Then they would set off for the university, he driving while she continued her reading.

It had been like that since they graduated and began teaching while simultaneously finishing their master's degrees (he in English Literature, she in Physics), and did not look to change for years to come. They were going to marry eventually, but not just yet, not when there were renewals and permanencies to ensure, graduate and post-graduate studies to finish, not when money was tighter than how they held hands.

Then the letter came.

She wondered why the news had shocked her then, how she could have been unprepared. He must have told her he had applied for scholarships from schools abroad for his Ph.D. She must not have been listening, busy computing grades or finishing a segment of the paper she was writing, or attending to whatever else needed her attention. When he told her, she merely nodded and chewed her lower lip, unable to ask what was to become of them, afraid of the answer he would give. While he fixed his passport and travel papers, she began buying him small gifts, writing him letters, postponing urgent work to stay out late on some carouse downtown, then responding passionately in bed later.

The last embers of hope were finally doused when the English department chair asked her why he had not secured a leave of absence. She confronted him and begged him to stay, telling him how they had their moments when they were together. He answered, almost apologetically, "You can't build relationships on moments." A week before he left, they broke up, both aware of the futility of long-distance relationships. She did not see him to the airport. Sprawled on the couch in her flat, she watched the airport schedule channel. A shudder, then her eyes rippled into twin puddles as the flashing "boarding" signpost of his flight switched to a cold, irrefutable "departed."

She checked her palm top. Like most Saturdays since Eric had left, her day was empty -- only a trip later that afternoon to the university to pack the last remaining things from her cubicle and bring them home. After that, nothing, no dinner out, no show to watch. Just another long vigil alone in her flat.

A long sigh escaped her. When she sipped her coffee again, it was already cold.

- - -

There were no footsteps, no voices, when she entered the faculty room. Only Maribel, the young secretary, who engaged Lora in perfunctory small talk as she passed her desk, cut short when Lora waved her hand in a dismissive gesture.

She walked along the empty aisles on her to way to her cubicle, sighing in relief for the absence of the other teachers. She had just accepted an offer as a researcher for the government-run Quantum Physics lab and resigned two weeks ago, a month after Eric had left. The two events elicited the expected responses from her co-teachers; all she had been hearing since was the din of congratulations and condolences.

But inwardly, she reveled in the achievement. She knew it was an unprecedented, tremendous honor to be offered the post at such a young age, a suiting culmination of all the years she had put in, all the sacrifices she had made. And in the wake of Eric's departure, it was the only thing she had.

She sat down and surveyed the few things she had not yet taken home - mementos of their relationship. She had planned on packing the various trifles first, but upon touching them, an almost physical pain ran through her, like something inside her chest had caved in.

There were only a few items, hardly enough to fill a fourth of the box: a framed photograph, an old paperback of Crime and Punishment, and a thick bundle of miscellaneous souvenirs and letters, some of which she had yet to read.

Picking up the picture frame, she noticed the dust motes that specked the glass window, took out a tissue from her purse and wiped it clean. The colors became more vibrant, the photograph more real. They were locked in an embrace, wistful smiles penciled on their faces, against the backdrop of a glassy lake punctured by the small cone of a volcano.

They had been in Tagaytay that afternoon. It was a month after college graduation, and the trip had been their first date out of town, at least without friends. Over lunch, they giggled at the Koreans who raucously played a peculiar kind of hopscotch along a path of stone steps lining the picnic grounds. Then an outrageously priced jeepney ride took them to the Palace in the Sky, where they stood whispering as they watched the mountaintop view. Later, nestled in each other's embrace as they silently watched the sunset, she felt like the wind caressing their faces: light, gentle, carefree; she had never felt as in love. She fingered the photograph as she tried recalling other similar moments they had stumbled upon amid the preoccupation with their M.A.'s and their teaching posts that soon followed and never let up. She soon realized there were no other moments. At least none she could remember. The photograph in her hand was the only proof there had ever been such a moment at all.

She tucked the picture into a corner of the box, and picked up the copy of Crime and Punishment. Ever the literature professor, he made it a point to regularly gift her with novels he had read and was eager to share with her. Almost every month, he would give her a classic he had dug up from some random Booksale branch, always carefully scotch-taped at the corners, until she had a small library crammed with books she had neither the time nor the inclination to read. The Good Earth. Heart of Darkness. Madame Bovary. Howard's End. Also, Without Seeing the Dawn. Dekada '70. Even an autographed copy of Killing Time in a Warm Place. Crime and Punishment had been the last. A week before the letter from the US arrived, he left it on her desk, as he often did. When she came upon it, she had offhandedly shoved it into her cubicle's shelf, along with the textbooks and science journals lining her desk. She thumbed through the unread pages, brittle and yellowed at the edges. A folded slip of paper fell out. She had not noticed it before and immediately hunched to pick it up from the carpet, eager to read what he had written, hear what he had to say, even if it was then, and it no longer mattered now. Soon as she read it, she shut her eyes and crumpled the note in her fist. It was the book's receipt.

She slid the rubber band off the bundle of letters. It was a sheaf of various communications -- snippets of poetry, short notes he would leave on her desk, five-page letters written longhand. Some were from years ago, when they were still in college; others, just days before he had learned of his scholarship abroad. Some were postmarked Tokyo, Japan, written and sent when he had spent two weeks there attending a literary conference. She brought the envelope flap to her mouth, kissing the traces of his lips.

Towards the end of the bundle she came across a sheet of paper on which formulas and equations had been scribbled in a familiar hand. A knot curled on her brow. She flipped the paper around. It was short note written in his hand. She checked the date scrawled on top, and understood. It had been written the semester she was working on her graduate thesis. In the rush and crush of her work, she had used some of his letters as scratch paper, noting down her precious formulas and equations, intending to read what he had written later. It was only now she had found time to read them. They were mostly of support, telling her how proud he was of her achievements, while a few were more forlorn, asking if they could spend more time together, time she would now give, but could not.

At the bottom of the bundle was a pamphlet from a space museum. Her face softened in recognition as she unfolded the frayed, faded three-fold pamphlet. They were in college then, and that afternoon he accompanied her on a visit to a space exhibit from NASA. When they stopped in front of the glass display describing black holes, he looked up, and said, thoughtfully, almost reverently, "Look at that. Black holes. Think about this -- stars live millions of years. Planets roam about them in unyielding orbit, seemingly unmindful of their existence. But when the stars flare out into the nothingness of black holes, they spawn a boundless force persisting long after the husks have disappeared, pulling across the infinite vastness of the universe, distorting even time and light. That's something." A wistful smile stretched itself across her lips. That was how he remembered him: profound, always seeing things in a different light. It was how he had learned to appreciate her Physics.

She checked her watch: 6:24. Packing the few items had already taken three hours, she realized. She took a deep breath and nodded to herself, resolving not to waste anymore time grieving. The rubber band slid around the sheaf of letters, which she tossed into the box. Smiling, she picked up the box and headed for home.

- - -

Her answering machine reported two messages. A familiar baritone droned through the speaker, asking if she was doing anything next Sunday: Perhaps we could have dinner, watch a movie? She grinned at the invitation. Soon as Carl, her former co-teacher, found out Eric had left, and left her, he had been calling up almost every night and keeping her company at school, with obvious opportunism badly concealed as concern. Maybe if he did not resemble Eric as much, she thought, as she deleted the message.

The next message was from Trisha, a former co-teacher of Eric, asking if she could borrow her copy of Madame Bovary, and adding, offhandedly, if she wanted to go out on a blind date with her cousin. She grinned again, and giggled. Since Eric had left, her girlfriends had been trying to fix her up on dates with all the single men they knew but did not want for themselves. Maybe now she would take them up on their offers.

She deposited the box into a closet, along with the rest of the things he had left -- the crate of books, a small box containing figurines and photo albums, and another stuffed with clothes he had left in her flat and forgotten to reclaim. She tucked them into the innermost corner, far from memory's way, and shut the closet door, then turned and retreated to her bedroom.

It was as she had left it, as it had been the past few weeks. The rumpled sheets were twisted and sprawled around the bed. A maddening silence hummed. Since he had gone, the room seemed bigger, and emptier, filled only by echoes of memories she bled almost every night.

She turned on the radio, something she had not done in a long time because of the love songs ringing all too familiar. As she sang along with Janet Jackson, she unbuttoned her blouse, sloughed off her skirt, and made her way to the bathroom. She tossed her clothes into the hamper by the sink, then took off her undergarments and stepped into the shower.

Clad in a bath robe, a towel rolled on her head, she sat down in front of the computer and switched it on. As the monitor lit up and the CPU whirred, she picked up the topmost volume from the pile of books littered across the floor beside the computer and took out the index cards tucked in between the pages. She was writing a paper she was to submit to an International Physics journal, which, if published, would certainly bring about invitations for lectures and columns for science journals. It was almost finished; just a rewrite of the conclusion, then a complete grammar and spelling check for the whole paper -- the same work that remained the day he told her he was leaving. She clicked the mouse, opening the file, and poised her fingers on the keyboard to begin.

Minutes passed, the silence not broken by the rustle of a turned page, or the clatter of the keyboard.

Sighing, she dropped the book and flicked the switch of the computer. She lifted her knees and drew them against her chest, cradling them in her arms. Her listless gaze shifted to her bed. She could not work, unlike before when she would type until dawn while he fell asleep in her bed waiting for her to finish. Suddenly restless, she stood up and made her way to the window, parted the curtains, and peered outside, her gaze drawn by something unseen.

For the first time in so long, she realized, she saw the night sky -- a blanket of the deepest blue spangled by a million flickering stars. If only he could be here, she thought, if only they could share the sight. He would undoubtedly find something profound, and tell her about it. A film began to glaze her eyes as she recalled his impassioned treatise at the space exhibit one afternoon so long ago and far away. Stars live millions of years. Planets roam about them in unyielding orbit, seemingly unmindful of their existence. But when the stars flare out into the nothingness of black holes, they leave a boundless force persisting long after the husks have disappeared, pulling across the infinite vastness of the universe, distorting even time and light. She shivered. Tears deepened the blue of her sheets.

When dawn broke, in her bed she lay huddled, the empty space around her drawing her close.

About the author:

Asterio Enrico N. Gutierrez is a fictionist from Manila, Philippines. His works have appeared in several local weeklies and anthologies, as well as various international online literary journals. He is currently working on his first novel, "Grace Notes."