We didn’t know why it happened. Some of us wondered whether it was our fault. Whether we had been praying to the wrong gods, or whether we had said the wrong things. But it wasn’t like that—the world simply turned upside down.
Scientists lucky enough to survive the event said that it wasn’t so much that gravity had disappeared, but that it had flipped over, as if our planet had suddenly lost all of its mass and was surrounded by some colossal object. Religious people, unlucky enough to survive the miracle, said that life was give and take, and that God was now, after so many years of giving, finally taking. But there was no colossal object, and being taken by God is a dubious given.
It happened like a bolt from the blue, at ten-o-five AM. There was a moment, one magical moment, when you could see us all floating in mid-air halfway up our living rooms, upside-down in whatever pose we had been in at the time—coffee drinkers drinking coffee from inverted coffee cups, lovers clinging to each other’s falling bodies, old men groping for slipping hairpieces, children crowing and cats screeching, all of us surrounded by the asteroids of our possessions. It was a moment of perfect madness, frozen in time.
Then began the groaning and the clattering, the roars and the screams. It was pandemonium. We crashed against ceilings and got crushed beneath the rubble of our old lives. Skulls cracked. Necks broke. Babies bounced. Most of us died on the spot or protruded convulsing from holes in plasterboard ceilings. Those who survived lay bewildered on top of them, trying to comprehend what had just happened.
But woe the ones who were outside. Before anyone even realized that the sky was no longer above, but below us, people started falling from the face of the Earth. In no time, the sky was dotted with tumbling people, fluttering clothes, floundering dogs, careening cars, clattering roof tiles, mooing cattle, and whirling autumn leaves in colors that set the sky ablaze. People sitting on their porches somersaulted until they landed on creaking awnings and stared out over their rims into fathomless depths. A mole sticking its nose up from the ground was seized by reversed gravity, and a whale jumping from the waves would never dive back into the sea. Tired of her burden, Mother Earth shook off anything that wasn’t tied firmly down to her surface. In one upwards thrust, it all fell into the atmosphere. Planes, satellites, and space stations disappeared into the vacuum, and even Father Moon was pushed away from us. We saw him dwindle and dwindle, until he landed in his own sad orbit around the sun. He never even said goodbye.
I was lying on the couch, not doing anything really. I wasn’t reading a book or watching TV. If the world had come to an end, I wouldn’t even have noticed.
I was staring at my phone, waiting for you to call.
• • •
It was the second time in two days that the world had come to an end. The first time was when you lowered your eyes the day before and said: It’s not you, it’s me. It was the last lie between us, or actually the first lie of not-us, because you no longer wanted an us. What I felt was the best thing in my life, for you had been a burden. Without me. You wanted to be without me.
My heart shattered to pieces on my abdominal wall. Large chunks of deep, staggering hurt and dismay at how calmly you announced these words, without the tiniest clue that this was the most painful thing you’d ever had to tell me, that you would die a thousand deaths rather than having to tell me this. You were the love of my life, and it had never occurred to me that you might take that away from me. I tried to pretend I understood, that I didn’t blame you for not wanting to try anymore, that all my frustration and pain were no match for your frustration and pain. I loved you too much to even be mad at you.
We stood in the corridor as I choked out the words. “Are you really, really, really sure?”
“You said no.”
“But couldn’t we . . .”
“But couldn’t we . . .”
“No, Toby. I’m sorry.”
In the silence I heard my shaking breath. You fidgeted nervously with your purse, searching for some way to open the front door. What a horrible, horrible place a corridor is: halfway between staying and leaving. I gathered all my courage and asked, “So we’re no longer . . .”
Finally you looked at me, with tears in your eyes, and then you slowly shook your head. I struggled to hold back my tears, but they came anyway. That broke you down as well. We held each other for a long time, close and tight, and holding you like that was the hardest thing I had ever done. Then you let go.
I smiled through my tears.
You smiled through your tears.
“Omnomnom?” I asked.
“Nomnomnom,” you said. And then you disappeared down the stairs.
For the first half hour I resolved to show myself a valuable and sound person and not throw in the towel. I forced my tears back into my eyes and started doing the dishes. But as your lips on the glasses dissolved in the suds, I was constantly being haunted by visions of other men caressing the skin I wanted to caress, kissing the mouth I wanted to kiss, and fucking the girl I had made love to for such long nights. Visions that made me attack the crockery with so much aimless remorse that trembling glasses took cover beneath dinner plates, and I started toying with the terrifying yet tempting idea of smashing a glass on the kitchen counter and slicing my wrists with the shards. Later that same afternoon, I discovered you had changed your Facebook status to “single,” even though it had taken you weeks to reluctantly agree to the opposite, and I dumped my laptop in the cold dishwater. And early that night, the emptiness you left behind descended on me altogether and I was alone, alone in the full extent of my grief.
It was late when you texted me. I was lying on the couch, not really asleep and not really awake. The shards of my heart leapt up in my stomach.
Bubbles is still at your place. I’ll come pick him up tomorrow.
That was it. No Are you home tomorrow? or Maybe we can talk about it some more. No How about you brew us a pot of Minty Morocco, which you always liked so much, and not even How are you now? Just: I’ll come pick him up tomorrow. From across the other side of the room, Bubbles stared wistfully in the murky water of his fishbowl, and more than anything else, that stare made it irreversible.
Oh, Sophie, you are so incredibly, immensely, inimitably dear to me. Why did you have to do this?
• • •
When it all happened, I had a throw cushion pressed to my face. Maybe it was some sort of effort to close myself off from the world tumbling down around me a little too literally. And so my landing on the ceiling was remarkably gentle. The plasterboards broke my fall; the backrest of the couch guarded my bones from breaking. In a daze, I crawled out from underneath it, without so much as a scratch.
The first thing one experiences after gravity has flipped and the initial turmoil has died down is not shock, but disorientation. I didn’t even realize I had landed on the ceiling and my living room was upside-down. I didn’t think of an earthquake, even though the air-raid alarm was whooping. Before I had a chance to form a thought or two, I saw something between the ubiquitous chaos of shattered furniture, snapped houseplants, strewn potting soil, dangling electrical wires, and splintered pictures of you and me—something that froze my blood.
Bubbles’ fishbowl had shattered.
He was floundering in a puddle of water between the shards, panicked.
And that’s when my phone rang.
I found it beneath a flap of carpet, but right then the air-raid alarm outside stopped and the phone went mute. When I checked the display and saw that you were the one who had called me, my heart started pounding. I immediately tried calling you back, but there was no signal. I tried again and again, over and over, whatever it was that had happened, you had survived, you had tried to reach me before the network failed, and Bubbles jumped up in a final effort to draw my attention, gasping like a fish on dry land, and then lay still, dying.
I was alive.
You were alive.
Bubbles was alive.
I jumped up lickety-split and started rummaging between the wreckage, but the best thing I could find on such short notice was your half empty bottle of 7-Up. I started shaking it like mad to let the carbon dioxide out, dipping my fingertips into the puddle of water between the broken glass and tenderly wetting Bubbles’s orange scales. But then the impatient goldfish swished his tail, as if to spur me into action. I took a sip, found that all the carbonation had dissipated, wriggled Bubbles in through the bottleneck, and held my breath until I heard a satisfying splash.
Fish and lemon go well together.
When I glanced over at the window and looked outside, the world instantly started teetering. I lived on the third floor of a three-story apartment building. The houses on the other side of the park were hanging upside-down from the surface of the Earth, which was above me now, groaning under its own weight. The roofs had released their tiles, and also the trees hung upside-down, just like the swings and slides and the laundry on the lines in the garden of my neighbor across the street. Utterly speechless, I grabbed the bottle holding unfortunate Bubbles, his pouting lips gasping for oxygen just above the soda surface, and crawled across the ceiling, over the upturned couch toward the upturned window. That’s where the depth of the atmosphere washed over me in a dizzying wave, and for a moment I sat there, frozen, afraid to even shed any tears, worried that they might prove too much for the wobbly ceiling. The scene outside was so incredibly at odds with the laws of nature that I wanted to grab on to the window frame to keep myself from falling up, but gravity held me pressed up against the ceiling and it was only my stomach going topsy-turvy.
I didn’t see any people, except for one: a woman dangling from the playground fence.
She was hanging from the bars, her knuckles white, her legs in the void, and her back turned so I couldn’t see her face. On her arms, two oh-so-bothersome Kroger bags were trying to drag her down.
With extreme care, I raised myself up and opened the upturned window. My heart in my throat, and my hands on the window frame, I leaned out. “Ma’am?”
My voice startled her, but she was afraid to look down, worried that the least little shift in balance might make her lose her grip. “I need help!” she shouted, remarkably calm for her remarkably precarious position.
“What happened?” I yelled.
“It’s Christmas time, all right? I can’t hold on for much longer!”
“Wait! Hang on there!”
“I had no other plans!”
“Sorry! I mean . . . I’m coming to help you!”
But by some unfortunate coincidence, the rusty axle of my bike, dangling twenty-five feet higher up from its chain lock fastened to the bicycle stand, chose that exact moment to snap. As the wheel dangled up there, the frame tumbled down and, in passing, smashed my open window to pieces. Startled, I let go of the 7-Up bottle. It flew out of my hand and landed on the bottom of the gutter, rolled away from the window . . . and stopped right on the edge, out of my reach.
Bubbles, in the throes of an acute case of hyperventilation, darted from one end of the bottle to the other as quickly as his delicate fins would carry him. I looked from the tormented goldfish to the unhappily dangling woman—“Please hurry!” she yelled now—and suddenly I saw your face. You had tried to call me.
In a world that wasn’t upside-down, you were the only thing that mattered.
I scrambled up and worked my way through the tumbled-over living room, over the knee-high threshold into the corridor, where strips of linoleum were hanging down and water from the toilet cistern had collected on the ceiling, then over the knee-high threshold into the kitchen. If possible, the mayhem was even worse in there: cupboard doors ripped from their hinges, open drawers, strewn cutlery, pots and pans thrown from the shelves and a ragged hole in the ceiling panels where the fridge had burst right through and from which daylight now shone. Quickly, quickly, balancing on my toes, I reached for the bottom cupboard, got buried in kitchen gear when I opened the door and, inside, found what I was looking for: the lashing rope for the trailer.
The end of the world creates two sorts of people: heroes and cowards. When the dangling woman had finally gathered enough courage to glance over her shoulder and saw me clambering from the open window, one end of the lashing rope tied around the couch in the living room and the other end around my waist, she must have thought I belonged to the former. Unaware of something cold that had seized me that same moment, she mumbled, “Thank God.” And not much later, as I reached and I stretched, as I tensed and I leaned, engrossed in efforts to try and get a hold of the goldfish in his bottle on the bottom of the gutter, the woman plummeted down, thinking of a long and fertile life, and neither you nor I would ever know her name.
At the end of the world, it’s every man for himself.
You had taught me that, Sophie.
It was as perilous as it was impossible to reach the blasted 7-Up bottle from the window. After two deep breaths I finally ventured out onto the gutter, keeping the lashing rope loosely in my left hand, and started shuffling forward inch by inch along the edge of the immeasurable abyss, my cheek pressed against the glass. I was terrified. Six feet . . . four and a half . . . three . . . until the rope pulled taut, and I bent my knees extremely slowly, reaching out, my fingertips grazing the bottle cap—that’s when the gutter snapped and tumbled into the abyss with me.
Everything spun; I squeezed my eyes shut and clamped my jaws and waited for the snap of the rope and then dzinng the yank and my stomach flap from my abdomen and the couch smack against the window frame and myself whoosh, shaken like a ragdoll.
It was an eternity before I stopped and summoned the nerve to open my eyes.
I hung about three feet underneath the eaves and one light year over firm ground. The rope was cutting into my midriff. I realized I was holding the bottle. Bubbles was floating on his back, but he opened his stunned little eyes when I apprehensively tapped the plastic.
Now that I finally had a moment of peace—a word rarely used in a more relative context—I had some time to ponder the situation. The Earth in reversed perspective is as wondrous a sight as it is a frightening one: a ceiling reaching until the horizon, but nothing below. An enormous nothing. No shouts or sirens anywhere. Only, in the distance, the constant creaking of things breaking off and disappearing into the depths, along with disoriented birds trying to find places to land and sadly tumbling into the cosmos.
“Do you know what time it is?” a small voice suddenly asked.
I tried to turn toward the source of the voice, my legs kicking the emptiness. The two swings in the playground were hanging down in the air from their blue-painted frame. On one of them sat a little girl with three crooked ponytails and dangling legs, looking down at me with her small fists clenched around the chains.
“Er . . . don’t be afraid,” I said, not very convincingly.
“I wanted to go so high I could touch the sky,” the little girl said. “Mommy said don’t go so high, you’ll flip right over. But I did anyway, and now I can’t get back down!”
“That’s . . . inconvenient,” I mumbled. I realized I was immediately trying to distance myself from the girl. There was nothing I could do for her. She was on a swing twenty feet away from me, but she might as well have been on the moon. I started to make preparations to extricate myself from my precarious position.
“My name is Dawnie,” the girl on the moon said.
“Uh . . . hello.”
I slipped the 7-Up bottle into my pants.
“I’m a big girl. I’m five,” the girl on the moon said.
“Uh . . . okay.”
I started to haul myself up along the rope.
“So do you know what time it is?” Dawnie asked. “Mommy said two minutes, then we’re going home, ’cause I’ve got these groceries to put away. Except I don’t know how long two minutes is.”
And I faltered.
I thought of the woman with the Kroger bags, and that’s when then the loss of all the lives in the world crashed over me; that unfortunate woman’s life, but also the life of the girl on the swing, the life of a mother and the life of a child, the lives of lovers and broken hearts, your life and mine. Lives tumbling across the floor like pearls from a string you had broken, rolling around the house and then disappearing. The death of the world is a frequently returning phenomenon, but even the most visionary philosophers could not have foreseen how it had happened this time. Yesterday I woke up with you in my arms, kissed the spot between your breasts where your heart was, and you had been mine. Now I was hanging like an anchor from the bottom of the world, and the world had come to a stop.
• • •
Bubbles revived visibly after I used a straw to suck the water that had sloshed from the cistern and collected on the toilet ceiling and siphoned it into a rinsed-out 7-Up bottle. Next, I sawed the legs off the pine dining table, pulled panels from the hole in the kitchen ceiling and lifted the doors from their hinges. After my struggle to climb in through the window, the walkway was a piece of cake. Working my way up over banisters and landings, I hauled myself to the ground floor; a wobbly tower of mattresses and sofas then took me to the door of the apartment building.
How my heart crashed to my feet at the prospect of having to make my way through that upside-down world, dangling from a ceiling of groaning roots and foundations! But my wish to save the little girl was greater. The first hurdle I took by shoving the longest bookshelves between the railings of the playground fence and nailing them to the doorpost. Across came the tabletop, and behold: The first few yards of my scaffolding were a fact. I worked for hours and hours. My platform of window ledges and shelves, of mirror frames and doors continued to grow; from the stairs to the hanging fence, from the hanging fence to the hanging oak, from the hanging oak to the hanging swings, all of my possessions strung together into a footbridge across the emptiness. Working like this, my hands created a perfect reflection of what had become of my life. Maybe that was the reason I wanted to save the girl: Crawling around an upturned world, I tried to convince myself that it was the world that stood on its head, not me.
By the time I rope-knotted the carpet-covered drainpipes to the blue frame of the swing set, lowered the attic ladder, and told Dawnie to climb toward me, the sun had risen to the horizon and the sky was red as blood.
Dawnie lifted her full moon face up at me. “I’m scared,” she said quietly.
I was on my stomach, arms wrapped around the frame, the ladder an extension of my reaching hands. “I won’t let go.”
Dawnie hesitated. “Are you really, really, really sure?”
“You said no.”
“But couldn’t we . . .”
“But couldn’t we . . .”
“No, Dawnie. Climb up.”
Very, very, very carefully, Dawnie moved her hands higher up along the chains and stood on the swing. She looked at the ladder with fear and revulsion, as if she was afraid to leave the swing behind, as if she wanted to swing some more, back and forth, back and forth between what was behind her and what was ahead. Then she made a decision, placed her foot on the bottom rung and scurried up the ladder, quick and feather-light.
Later, when the sun soared up behind the horizon, we stared out of the living room window at the theatre of Earth’s vomit in the atmosphere. Dawnie stared with unabated wide eyes over the edge of her woolen blanket, Bubbles floated with unabated melancholy in the pure water and I unabatedly mourned my previous life, which had fallen over the edge of the world along with everything else. We heard explosions in the distance and the air was heavy with a burning smell that had nowhere else to go than to spread out against the Earth’s surface. Most fires extinguished themselves as buildings broke off and crashed into the abyss, dragging grey plumes of smoke behind them like falling comets.
“And mountains, are they falling, too?” Dawnie asked, a bit dreamily.
She had entertained herself by throwing houseplants out the window, but it had soon bored her to watch them disappear into the universe. Dawnie was young enough to take to a new normality without much trouble. I wasn’t. In mounting despair, I had been trying to get some news about the catastrophe, but besides the cell phone network and the Internet, all radio waves seemed to have disappeared as well.
“I think it’s raining boulders there right now,” I said.
“How about volcanoes?”
“I guess the fire runs out of them. Dead-straight pillars of lava, all the way into space.”
Dawnie looked suspicious. “But won’t that make the Earth run out?”
I hadn’t considered that.
Were you looking at the same view outside when I did, at the same upside-down world, and did you feel the same bewilderment I felt? Of all the people in the world, why had you called me immediately after the world had come to an end? And why not sooner? Why not all those times when it still mattered? Twice before I had lost love, one to another man and one to indifference, but neither of those loves had been as fundamental and natural as my love for you. If I woke up during the night and missed the weight that had dented the mattress beside me, I was terrified about you getting all too enraptured and wrapped up in the nightlife. And if you crawled into bed just before dawn, drunk and exhausted and instantly asleep, I would lie awake beside you trying not to smell other men on your breath. And so my fear of you leaving me created premature lovesickness: I missed your body as it was lying beside me; I yearned for your touch as your arm was resting on my chest, making the memory of it even more real and my heartache even worse. It felt like I had already lost you.
A downpour of falling stars drew lines across the sunken darkness: the last breaths of objects that had been on Earth this morning and were now falling back into the atmosphere. A fireworks display of thousands of dying things. I watched breathlessly, afraid to make a wish.
After a while I noticed that Dawnie was still awake.
“Mommy is a falling star, too,” she mumbled.
I realized she might very well be right.
• • •
The world hadn’t been on its head for a full day before a general consensus had been reached about how survivors communicated their survival: by hanging white sheets or curtains from their windows and chimneys. They constituted the first independent link in a uniform chain of interweaved rope bridges and gangways, stringing itself out in the days after the disaster like a spider web.
My hope that I could leave Dawnie with relatives soon evaporated. When I asked her where her father lived, she answered, “At Grandma’s.”
“Yes, Mom and Dad got in this fight about all sorts of things and Dad said he’d had to give up all kinds of things to be with her and then Mom said oh, it’s that again and then they yelled at each other and then Dad went to live with Grandma.” She was silent for a moment before adding, “Do you think Grandma is upside-down now, too?”
I felt my stomach twist. “Do you know where Grandma lives?”
“Somewhere we always went by car,” Dawnie said, tugging at her crooked ponytails. “But I don’t wanna go to Grandma’s. Grandma yells at Mommy, too.”
“So where would you like to go?”
“I want my Mommy.”
I realized that Dawnie didn’t have anything left as well, just like me. So we had to share.
“Then you’re coming with me,” I decided. “And on the way, we’ll try to find Mommy. But you’ll have to do one thing for me.”
“What?” Dawnie asked.
I gave her the 7-Up bottle. Dawnie took it in her hands as if it held the weight of the world. She looked wide-eyed in through the plastic, and Bubbles looked wide-eyed out. For a second, something of immense significance seemed to be exchanged between the goldfish and the girl, as if her desire to see her mother and Bubbles’ desire to see you, which was really my desire to see you, were just one and the same thing. Then Dawnie’s face lit up in a wide smile, displaying her entire gappy set of teeth. From that moment on, Dawnie never left Bubbles’ side. If he was hungry, she flaked fish food in through the bottleneck; if he was thirsty, she added more water; and if he got short of breath she blew in air through a straw until Bubbles regained his luster.
At the end of the world, we all need something to hold on to. If we don’t hold on, we’ll have to let go. And if we let go, we’ll have to find our own orbit in the universe.
And so I held on to the playground fence. Tightly! We had reached it by climbing through the walkway door and over the tabletop bridge, but once there, the unnatural depths below our feet affected me so acutely that I seized up against the fence for several minutes, my hair streaming in the wind, unable to go forwards or backwards. I only dared to look up when I felt Dawnie’s soft hand touching mine.
“You don’t have to be afraid,” she said, showing me the 7-Up bottle in her little backpack to urge me on. “There’s nothing down there.”
That wasn’t just the truest, but also the loneliest thing she could have said. The abyss instantly lost its meaning. It turned into just another obstacle, one of the obstacles I could lower Dawnie down along or lift her up with the rope between us. Inch by inch, we shuffled toward the edge of the park and, deftly manipulating the attic ladder, reached the first treetop in the row of lime trees lining the street. Even though many branches had been ripped off by falling cars, it was relatively easy to use the ladder to climb from tree to tree to windowsill and back to tree. And so we zigzagged forward, a ripped-open Earth surface with power cables and sewers protruding like dead veins and bones over our heads, and every step brought me closer to you, every step took the sting out of the cruelty of your last words and transformed them into a message of hope: Bubbles is still at your place. I’ll come pick him up tomorrow.
“Hey, you there!”
In an easy chair on a timber platform, hanging a little ways below an attic window from a makeshift assembly of furniture, sat a short, balding man. On the boards beside him stood a thermos, and a steaming mug of coffee. When we spotted him, the man waved his binoculars.
“Relief troops are on the way!” he yelled good-naturedly.
“Really?” I yelled back, feeling a spark of hope.
The man burst out in a roar of laughter. “Of course not! I thought you were the relief troops!” He smacked himself on the thigh and took a sip of coffee. “From what I can see from down here, things are not looking good!”
I sighed, nevertheless glad to be able to talk to an adult. “What do you think happened?” I asked, gesturing around.
“Hanged if I know!” the man yelled. “The Earth pulled a fast one on us, now didn’t it! No Internet, no phones, no information! Last night I heard a loudspeaker message from downtown, but it was too far away to make out what it was saying! I’ve heard rumors that they’re building rope bridges and structures down there! You know, plenty of food for survivors and all that! But you’re only the second group I’ve seen come by here all day! The first one made it to the end of the street before they fell into the sky by accident!” He paused for a second, and then added, “We’re doomed!”
“How about you? Aren’t you going to try getting downtown?”
“Now you listen to me, son!” the man yelled. “I’ve lived here all my life! As far as I know, I’m the only one who’s seen both the construction and the demise of this street! What do you think about that?”
• • •
On the second day of our journey, we saw injured people on ceilings behind windows, waving curtains and begging, their hands pressed up against the glass.
On the third day, we found a string of knotted sheets dangling down from a bay window, where someone had gone in search of solid ground.
On the fourth day, my heart sank, because the hours and minutes were raining down in the universe and we were making such slow progress, and because I missed you so much, and because all ordinary and extraordinary speculations about the catastrophe turned out to be pointless. We had climbed on the underside of the bridge, now suspended below the river. The road surface had fallen off, but the iron frame was still intact and a few concrete slabs were still fixed to the pylons. And believe it or not: the water was still there. Flowing like liquid lead across the ceiling of the Earth’s surface, it spat the laws of nature in the eye. In places where the surface heaved, the water rained down in a soft, windblown mist, as if the river surface itself was the plane where gravity flipped over.
“Why isn’t the river falling down?” Dawnie asked.
I wanted to say something—I think Earth was simply fed up with us—but before I had a chance, Dawnie got bowled over by a hang glider that suddenly came hurtling through the space between the river and the bridge. My hand darted out to grab her little backpack before she and Bubbles in the bottle could tumble away. The aviator whooped, circled around in the airspace below us, and came flying toward us from the front. For a second, it seemed like he was going to crash, but in the last instant he pulled the hang glider’s nose up, slowing down and losing lift right over the underside of the bridge. He landed with a clumsy, stumbling step and stopped, dragging the delta wing behind him. “Rescue-squad, at your service,” the aviator said. “Women and children first, please.”
“That was . . . spectacular,” I stammered.
“Thank you, thank you,” the man said, unclipping himself from his contraption. “Municipal service. Only way of picking up survivors and getting them to the evacuation centers.”
“There are evacuation centers?” I asked incredulously.
“In the basement below city hall.”
“And the city had one of those . . . flying things?”
“Three, actually,” the aviator grinned. “Haven’t you seen my associates around? Maybe they haven’t been to this part of town yet.” He lowered himself to his knee in front of Dawnie and took her hand. “Hello there, big girl. How would you like to go flying?” Then he looked up at me. “Sorry, children first. It’s protocol. I’ll come back for you later.”
Dawnie shifted a forlorn look from the aviator to me. Something in her eyes alarmed me. Something wasn’t right.
“Isn’t that dangerous?” I asked, in an effort to stall for time more than anything else.
“Thermal holds the wing up,” the aviator said, straightening and moving his hand to Dawnie’s back. “Warm air rises up and all that shit. Now that everything’s upside-down, it’s all thermal. Falling crap, that’s what you don’t want.”
“And where do you land?”
“Bridges, roofs, hangars with loading bays . . . even trees will work, but they’ll screw up your wing.”
“I meant at city hall . . .”
“Holy fuck! Look at that!” the aviator said, turning toward the river flowing past over our heads, looking solid. “That’s like magic.” He had shrugged off his harness and started stripping off his clothes, as if he was planning on going for a swim. Suddenly I was sure. There was no evacuation center, no municipal rescue-squad, no protocol. The man was a flying predator. He had been circling around like a hawk and had spotted his prey. He would fly off with Dawnie, and I would wait, but no one would come back.
In his underwear, the aviator started climbing the iron frame around the bridge pylon toward the river. He had all the time in the world. We had nowhere to go, and he knew it. But just then, Bubbles jumped up from the water in the 7-Up bottle with a significant slosh, and Dawnie and I exchanged a glance. In an instant, I slipped into the harness and fastened the straps. The aviator had reached the lead-grey surface of the water and carefully lifted his arm. Gesturing frantically, I urged Dawnie to hurry. The aviator’s hand slipped through the surface . . . and water from the river started trickling down his arm in small rivulets.
“Awesome . . .” he breathed, his gaze following the water drip onto the bridge below . . . when he suddenly caught sight of us and yelled, “Hey, what the hell are you doing!”
“Hang on!” I shouted, hurling Dawnie on to my back, grabbing the hang glider’s frame, fastening carabiners and fastening Dawnie, hoping-praying-begging let the belt around her pants carry her, small arms around my neck and the aviator jumping down right behind us and me running with my breath in my throat and my eyes closed and one second to think: Are those carabiners clipped on right? And then we plummeted from the bridge and started spiraling down like madmen.
And a yank and a dizzying nose dive, and the world contracted. The hang glider righted itself and we were flying. I screamed, realizing I had never flown before, not without wings and not with them. The aviator screamed on the bridge, already far behind us now. And Dawnie . . . she didn’t scream, but held on tightly to my back, her hands covering my eyes as she herself gazed around in delight.
• • •
It is relatively easy to fly a hang glider if the need arises, but landing while there is no ground to land on? That’s a more complicated matter.
I was afraid to fly more than a small distance beneath the Earth’s surface. That turned out to be simple, since the thermal from the fires hovering between the splintered rooftops and the smoke did indeed continue to lift the delta wing up. By moving my balance on the bar to the front, I dove down and prevented us from slamming into the Earth, and after some experimenting I could steer the delta wing by shifting my weight to the left and right.
For the first time since your it’s not you, it’s me, a new feeling washed over me: a sense of freedom, at least temporarily pushing my desire to be someone else and somewhere else into the back of my mind.
After a while, a flock of geese came flying in our tail. I wondered where they had come from; they were just there, suddenly. I set a course for you and the geese winged along beside us.
The dead Earth was a thing of fabulous beauty.
We saw lovers, hugging each other in trees. We saw children, pulling small buckets of food and folded notes back and forth on clotheslines between upside-down windows. We saw people finding each other on the jumbled strings of assemblies they were building, forging the umbilical cord of a new society. And after a while we had left the city behind and all we saw were trees, their branches drooping sadly and their leaves fluttering away into the bottomless depths of the atmosphere, making it seem as if the Earth was weeping green tears.
We were very close to where you lived when Dawnie pointed and said, “There’s where we can go and see Mommy!”
Suspended in the air in front of us was a seemingly endless rope ladder, undulating calmly in the sultry breeze. As we neared it, I saw that the ladder hung from a trapdoor in the roof of a caravan, dangling from the face of the Earth by iron chains. A higgledy-piggledy board walkway connected it to a small, ramshackle, upside-down house from which enormous amounts of flaxen rope moved toward the peculiar trailer in spun cobwebs, as if some kind of machinery in there was perpetually working.
I circled the rope ladder and decided to crash in the apple orchard around the house. Slender tree trunks, lots of branches, and a lower boundary consisting of a thick canopy: It was iffy at best, but I guessed we wouldn’t find a better place.
“Hold on to me very tightly,” I told Dawnie. “And whatever you do, don’t let go!”
Next thing, everything was jolting and swishing around us. Branches whipped, leaves swirled, shrieking birds burst off in flight. The delta wing snapped and tore and suddenly we stopped, the twisted frame pierced by branches. They broke, and we fell down through a nauseating air pocket, surrounded by the sickly smell of apples, before the canopy caught us and I managed to grab onto a tree trunk.
A window in the caravan popped open and a frail woman looking older than the Earth itself leaned out. “My goodness!” she yelled. “Are you all right?”
“I . . . think so . . .” I stammered. And promptly Dawnie rolled off my back and ended up dangling in the vacuum beneath the apple tree, her face a mask of bewilderment, a thousand thanks to the carabiner on her belt. I hoisted her up, unclipped her and put her in the crown of the apple tree. We had survived the impact with no more than a few scratches and some ripped clothes.
“You’d better hurry inside,” the woman said. “You two look like you could use a cup of tea.”
A little while later we shuffled across the rickety footbridge, fastened to large hooks drilled into the Earth, toward the hanging trailer, careful not to get entangled in the rustling cobwebs of flaxen rope. Inside, my jaw dropped to the floor in surprise. The small caravan was literally crammed full of flax. The woman who had hailed us from the window now sat in a rocking chair and was twining the flax together in thick strings. A second, almost identical old lady was knotting the strings into a rope ladder and feeding it through the trapdoor in the floor.
“Be careful,” the second woman said worriedly. “You don’t want to fall through that. You have no idea how deep it is.”
“Of course they do, Junilla,” her sister argued. “They’ve just come from down there.”
“But do they know how deep it is?” The little lady gazed at me expectantly, and I shrugged to be polite. “That’s my point, Leonilla,” she said, resolutely fastening a knot. “No one knows.”
They gave us steaming cups of herbal tea. Then the woman named Junilla turned to Dawnie like only old ladies can, her industrious hands never missing a beat. “What have you got there, sweet thing?”
Shyly twisting her body back and forth, Dawnie showed her the 7-Up bottle. The woman peered curiously inside from behind her thick lenses and Bubbles looked out through the thin plastic with unwavering melancholy.
“A goldfish!” Junilla cried out in dismay. “What a terrible, terrible place for a goldfish.”
“Terrible!” her sister Leonilla concurred. “A goldfish! That’s the most terrible thing anyone could put inside a bottle.”
“Gin, yes . . .” Junilla said.
“Or a love letter . . .” Leonilla backed her up.
“But not a goldfish!”
“It is a love letter,” I blurted out. Suddenly my voice trembled. “Or maybe not really. Well, actually, basically it is.” And before I knew it, I told the two women my story. I told them how your last words had prematurely ended the world, and how your last phone call had offered sufficient justification to try and bring you Bubbles—an impossible quest in an impossible world as a last impossible token of my love for you, because nothing was right in the world without you anyway, at least not for me, and never could be again. It didn’t come as a relief to talk about it, my heart didn’t feel an ounce lighter. I only realized I was crying when Dawnie caught my tears in the 7-Up bottle, making Bubbles think it was raining and to everyone’s surprise, urging him to somersault playfully.
“Poor thing,” Leonilla said, shaking her head.
“Poor, poor thing,” Junilla put it more strongly.
“A goldfish in a bottle . . .”
“Forever trapped in the same circle . . .”
“The same, depressing circle . . .”
“You should let go of her,” Junilla said decidedly. But how, how, how could I ever let go of you, when there wasn’t a moment that passed without me wishing I could hold you close to me—so that, just for a short while, the world would no longer be upside-down? On an impulse, I pressed Dawnie close to me, and there and then, I was overwhelmed by grief and I cried, inconsolable and heart-broken. Not just because of the void you had left behind, but also because I now had to fill it with someone else. When a person’s dreams are taken away from them, they will desperately cling to new ones, no matter how empty those dreams are.
Oh, Sophie, I miss you so much.
“Things change, sweetheart, that’s just the way it is,” Junilla said, laying a frail hand on my heaving shoulders.
“It’s better to be prepared for change,” Leonilla said.
“So that it doesn’t take you by surprise when it comes.”
“Take the world, for instance,” Leonilla declared.
“The Earth!” Junilla emphasized. “What if the Earth, every once in a while, simply lets go? Takes a good look at what it’s got, shivers, and shakes it all off?” And the old woman shivered after her own words.
“It’s a good thing we were prepared,” Leonilla said, giving a disconcerting yank on the flaxen rope entering the trailer through the window.
“Were we ever,” Junilla confirmed. “We’re packing our bags!”
My eyes hot and wet, I stared at the trapdoor in the floor. “Where are you going?”
“Haven’t you seen all those falling stars at night?” Junilla asked. “It must be wonderful down there!”
“Oh, yes, wonderful!” Leonilla said. “Miraculous, I’d say.”
“That’s where we’re going!”
Dawnie’s little voice was almost lost amidst the lively exclamations of the old women when she peered around the 7-Up bottle and said, “My Mommy is a falling star, too.”
There was a brief silence. “Really?” Leonilla responded. “How wonderful for her! That means you get to make a wish, my dear.”
Dawnie’s eyes widened and she writhed in embarrassment. “Can I . . . can I come with you?”
“But of course, darling!” Junilla said. “If Toby here doesn’t mind . . .”
I nodded mutely, swallowing back fresh tears.
“Oh, sweetheart,” Junilla sighed. “Why won’t you just let go?”
“Nothing is worth clinging on to like that,” Leonilla said.
And then, shaking her head, “A goldfish in a bottle . . .”
Right then I lost track of whether we were talking about Bubbles, about you, or about me, and whether or not it made any difference.
• • •
All the times I had come in here before were like drops of honey sticking to my fingertips as I jammed the gangway between the final oak tree and the kitchen window frame. Mad with lust as a teenager in love sneaking through your bedroom window, whispering so your parents wouldn’t hear us. Shaking with laughter as I carried you across the backdoor threshold after a morning stroll filled with calm nonsense out by the lake. With leaden feet after more new tales I knew to be lies, still desperately trying to believe them—because after all, lies are meant to fill a void and I didn’t want you to have to live with a void. And now with your decision to go on without me heaped in the palms of my hands, and the power to reconsider in yours.
My heart leapt into my throat when I saw the white-painted, mirrored letters on the window in the façade:
So you were still alive. Your house hung upside-down and it was a ruin of crumbling memories, but you were still alive.
I stood on the ceiling of what remained of the kitchen and listened to the inverted silence.
And then, a landslide: “Toby?”
I clambered through the door into the living room. I found more ravages of tumbled furniture, piled up all the way to the sagging floorboards. But you had cleared the middle of the ceiling and there you were, lying on the couch.
“It’s really you,” you said, trying to push yourself up.
I shrugged, embarrassed. “Of course.”
“I thought you were dead.”
I took the 7-Up bottle from my backpack and held it up. “I brought Bubbles for you.”
Your incredulous gaze moved from the goldfish inside the bottle to me. “But how did you get all the way . . .”
I shrugged again.
You grinned. “You’re insane, aren’t you?”
“You know that.”
I descended as you rose and I folded you—the fragile reality that was you—in my arms. You pressed stiffly against me and we sank down onto the couch. Your smell—evidently and impossibly Sophie—was so overwhelming and carried so much weight that I had to surrender to it utterly, no matter what might come after. It drove me mad. It didn’t matter. And so I buried my face in your neck and inhaled your scent like a drug, immersing myself greedily in your presence. We lay there like that for a long time, intimately entangled, in a perfect, pure state of being.
“Everything okay?” I asked, moist lips against your earlobe.
“Yes. I think so, yes.” Hot air from your innermost self in my hair. “I think my kneecap’s broken. And my back hurts really bad.”
“Were you in bed?”
“It’s okay. I’m here now.” I caressed the gossamer, downy hairs behind your ear, the curve of your neck.
“But . . .”
“Everything is truly, seriously fucked up, isn’t it?”
I pushed gently away from you so I could look you in the eye. “You called me.”
You let go of me and hoisted yourself up, because you couldn’t handle the situation.
But I clasped your hand and said, “I’ve missed you, Sophie.”
“Stop it.” A tear trickled down your cheek. “I’m so worried about Mom and Dad. I haven’t heard from them. I haven’t seen anyone since it happened, not a single soul. Do you know if help is coming?”
I felt myself growing faint inside. “I came, didn’t I?”
You looked at me for a long time. “I’m sorry about how it all turned out.”
“Yeah. Me too,” I said. “I liked it better when everything was still right-side up. Made it a lot easier to see each other.”
“Well, sorry—” My voice shook, looking for purchase. “—I just don’t know how to deal with it. Everything has changed now, right? Can’t we . . .”
“But couldn’t we—”
I couldn’t hold back my tears. “But I’ll do everything differently.”
“You weren’t the one who had to do things differently.”
“I can’t handle this alone.”
“Sure you can.”
“But I love you.”
Remember how you looked away then, like you always used to? Your eyes too heavy, a bottomless depth inside them. I was torn away from you; I fell and I fell, and then splash into a bottle full of fizzing tears. A whirling vortex sucked me deeper and deeper below the water, propelled by the force of you looking away. In a panic, I kicked my legs and vainly groped for purchase on smooth, plastic walls.
“I love you!” I tried to scream, but my love rose in bubbles to the surface and burst apart. Weakened, I wheeled my arms, pounding on the plastic. And behind the label you looked away; you didn’t see that I was drowning. I sank down in a slow spiral, hitting the bottom of the 7-Up bottle with a muffled thump.
My lungs filled up with tears as I whispered, “Please . . .”
And you said, “I need time.”
I came up then, spluttering and gasping for breath. Soaked and flabbergasted, I let the lie of those words descend on me. As soon as I was able, I clambered up and staggered out of the living room.
“Where are you going?”
“I’ll get you some aspirin,” I mumbled stupidly.
But I had already gone through the kitchen and didn’t hear you. Hanging from the banister, I lowered myself to the upstairs floor. After everything I had been through, after the countless times I had risked my life to take Bubbles to you, trying in vain to still my love for you with my love for you, and scrambling up from the pounding surf of a dying Earth . . . you need time? How much more time do you think the world will give you, Sophie?
I crashed into the bulging ceiling, and it groaned beneath my weight. If the house had given way right then, I wouldn’t have cared. But I wasn’t even granted that much mercy—I was predestined to go down in your cold reality, not in my own illusion.
The bedroom. My picture wasn’t on your wall. I wanted to believe it had fallen and splintered, I wanted to believe that more than anything in the world. Other photo frames lay broken on the ceiling: holiday snapshots, family, your friends. I knew them all intimately. Bunched-up sweater, the one I bought you in Paris. Open backgammon board. Dented candles. Upside-down bed. Broken glass. Buddha figurine. Not a trace of my picture.
The Earth turned away in shame.
Bubbles rolled on his stomach and floated to the surface.
On what had been my side of the bed I saw someone else’s sneakers, someone else’s watch, and how can I describe what comes next, how can I continue, I wonder how so much of my life could have occurred outside of me, and I hadn’t known, or had I known after all, didn’t that only make it worse, on to the bathroom, trendy jeans, trendy shirt, blood between the tiles, he must have been taking a shower, the cast iron bathtub had broken off and crushed him, his wallet in his pocket, student ID, Tom was his name, Tom something, fair-haired kid, longish hair, completely your type, the bathroom window was open, what have you done to him, dammit that same fucking night you spread your legs for him, what have you done to me?
Back downstairs you were leaning out of the kitchen window, stooped beneath the weight of missed opportunities. You were crying. Below me, on the gangway leading away from you, the ID cards with his picture on them slowly fluttered down. I gazed at you cold-faced. Yes, you needed time for yourself, and yes, I understood you needed to discover who you wanted to be. I understood your desire for a quieter place without promises and confessions. I would even have forgiven you your mistakes. You were my world. But the world had repelled everything. More logic than any human being could comprehend and more human beings than was comprehensibly logical . . . anything but the revolting image of you crying for someone else and the dawning realization that there was no longer any room for me in this reality you had created.
And the goldfish?
He deserved something better.
• • •
It was like a dream at the bottom of the world: I was sitting on a tree branch stretched out low beneath the shore of the hanging lake. My legs were dangling over nothing and above me I could see my own reflection in the water, burning in the sun dipping up behind the horizon. When I tapped the 7-Up bottle, a shiver ran through Bubbles’s delicate fins and he turned his face toward me.
“Go on, boy,” I said, twisting the cap from the bottle. “You’re free.”
I held the bottle up and poked the top through the water surface. Air bubbles gurgled down and stayed afloat on the scales of gravity. Bubbles watched it all skeptically. Then I reached further, pushing the bottle all the way under and turning it over.
And Bubbles flipped over as well. Suddenly he was swimming upside-down, slithering skittishly from one end of the bottle to the other. The air bubbles escaped and I gently rocked the bottle back and forth until Bubbles discovered the opening of the screw cap and peeked curiously through it.
“Go on,” I whispered, shaking the drops of falling water from my hair. “You’re free.”
For one more moment, the goldfish lingered. Then he swam out of the bottleneck. He looked around, wary. Suddenly his fins whirled and bristled, and he darted away into the deep.
So that was it. Bye, Bubbles. I smiled, feeling a bit melancholy. But my melancholy was soon washed away in a sense of fulfillment when I pulled the 7-Up bottle from the lake and finally, after such a long journey, let it go. I watched as the bottle tumbled down and disappeared from view. Then I straightened up. I was surprised to see Bubbles gazing at me from behind the reflection of my face. He had come back to the surface and pursed his lips over the water, as if he was telling me a secret, causing a minute ripple. I couldn’t take my eyes away from the image. Why did it evoke so much love inside me? And then I understood. Of course: Bubbles wasn’t the one who was upside-down . . . I was upside-down.
It was all just a matter of perspective.
Looking at it from the other side, the world was still right-side up.
I stripped naked and took a deep breath. I dunked my head through the surface of the water, enjoying the sudden sensation of coldness and fizzing air bubbles coming down and rinsing my face clean. Wobbly, I rose up on the branch, groping into the water with my arms, now submerged to the waist. And when I pushed off, gravity took a hold of me and I slipped like a diver into Bubbles’s world.
I came up. Treading water, I started laughing. I had forgotten what normal looked like. Or normal . . . even though I was on the right side of up and down, my hair stood up in wet strands and made it rain in the universe. That made me laugh even harder. On the shore, trees lifted their arms like children being dressed in sweaters by their mothers. Somewhere a branch snapped, falling straight up into the sky.
Bubbles darted playfully around me, a streak of orange in the deep green waters. I dove under and we tumbled and somersaulted until my lungs felt fit to burst. Every time I resurfaced I felt a little lighter. Finally we swam out toward the middle of the lake in our newly acquired normality, side by side, the goldfish and me.
There, in my own little place in the world, I let go.
• • •
I don’t know whether my sleep was dreamless because there were no falling stars or because a teasing twig in the crown of the tree was poking my back, but when I woke up the next morning a dreary fog was clinging to the Earth’s surface. All around me, no matter where I looked, was gray. I wondered where the fog had come from. A muted silence hung over everything, and any sound I made stayed suspended inside it and made me more aware of myself.
It didn’t take me long to return to the hanging caravan, but the two old ladies and Dawnie were gone. The trapdoor in the floor was open and the end of the rope ladder had been left tied to one of the rocking chairs. I imagined how Junilla and Leonilla, hauling their possessions and bickering incessantly, were descending the ladder rung by rung, with Dawnie following curiously behind. Somewhere, much lower down where the stars were falling, they would bump into the woman with the Kroger bags and she would say, Well, imagine that. I was just looking for you.
I swung my legs over the edge of the trapdoor and grabbed the first rung. Beneath my feet, the ladder was calmly swaying and fading in the mist. I took a deep breath and started down, keeping my eyes closed as if I was sleepwalking. Droplets of fog condensed on my eyelashes. When I opened my eyes again, the Earth’s surface had disappeared and all I could see above me were the hazy contours of the caravan. Then, even they were gone.
Now, I am alone, in the mist.
Were you thinking of me? And if you could have seen me descend, would you have wondered where the rope ladder leads? But then I would tell you it doesn’t matter. What matters is the path you take, the journey you make. Once you realize that, it’s easier to let go, at the end.
I think I want you to know that you hurt me so incredibly badly, Sophie. Now I’m going down the ladder. Searching for solid ground beneath my feet. It’s not easy. I’m terrified of what I will find down there. But I close my eyes and keep descending. Sometimes the ropes shake and I imagine it’s you following me, somewhere up there in the fog. But maybe it’s just the wind. And I realize I don’t care either way. I am somebody, too.
Down here, we are all falling stars.