The Universe Constantly

by Elizabeth Cantwell

illustration by Brianna Ashby

illustration by Brianna Ashby

Two people have become adults feeling alienated, feeling unlike anyone around them. They have been diagnosed with various disorders. They have scars on their bodies. They have trouble sleeping. They have perhaps fucked up in the past in ways they don’t even understand, ways that have driven others to dislike them, ways that have made them feel they are probably better off alone. They have lied. They have hurt themselves. They have decided not to engage.

But their paths cross, and they see each other—on a train on the way to work, in a small apartment on the beach—and they feel the first shock of that thing, that thing maybe other people feel all the time but which is completely new to them. An apprehension. A recognition. A sudden awareness that one has been perceived. That one has been known.

The flash of a mirror in front of the breath.

And those first, grasping, desperate kisses, the mouth on top of the mouth: I see you. Do you see me.

Two people believe they should be alone but now that they have felt the flesh that is scarred in the same way as their own, this is impossible. Perhaps one writes to the other: I would like to leave this city and move to the forest somewhere. I don’t know if we can be together here but I will take you with me when I go. Perhaps one resists making eye contact. But soon they are both in the middle of a busy street, or they are both drunk in a cab taking a detour in the early hours of the morning, and there is only one thing to say: we’re going to get married.

This marriage may be difficult. It will be strange. It may involve tears in hotel rooms, earrings on the floor, panic attacks, days spent alone without each other picking scabs. It may involve a certain amount of paranoia. Remember that these two people have compulsions they can’t explain. They may believe their bodies have been invaded, operated on without their knowledge, modified to be less functional, to be missing certain vital things. They may be right.

These two people may hear noises in the night that keep them awake. High-pitched beeping sounds. Low rumbles. One may find himself furious, suddenly—feeling trapped, feeling set up, feeling surrounded on all sides by a hostile world. What else is there for him to do but fight. The other may find herself diving over and over into a deep pool, retrieving broken things, repeating lines from books read long ago. What else is there for her to do but cry.

We will never understand all of the strange and horrible and perfect and wriggling things in nature. But they will understand us. They make noises that were the first noises we ever heard. We are tuned to them against our wills. So we chop them down, we throw them up.

Where is the mirror. Where is the art.

We will never understand them, but we can dig them up and swallow them and bang our heads against them if we want to.

It is easier to do this with another person by your side. It is easier to do this with another mind that is like your own mind: anxious, problematic, twisted, defensive. One must hold the other’s hand. One must trust the other one to drive the car, to write the mutterings down, to fill the cabinets with gallons of water. One must carry the gun.

And then - just when nothing seems to promise any escape - how wonderful - how full of the sun - to find something else that is like you, some other living creature that carries inside of it the same worm.

To cradle it.

To promise it a bluer sky.


Elizabeth Cantwell is the Managing Editor of Bright Wall/Dark Room. She is the author of one full-length book of poetry, Nights I Let The Tiger Get You (Black Lawrence Press, 2014) and a chapbook, Premonitions (Grey Book Press, 2014). She lives in Los Angeles with her husband (screenwriter Chris Cantwell) and their son, and teaches Humanities at The Webb Schools.