Nina MacLaughlin’s six-part series on the sky will run every Wednesday for the next several weeks.
Objects we use to flirt with the sky:
In November, the last time I was on an airplane, it was a rainy day in the Northeast. As the plane picked up speed along the runway, we were pressed against the seats in a sensation I always associate with sex. I inhaled and held my good-luck rock. The moment when the whole heft of the airplane leaves the surface of the earth is a moment of enormous erotic charge. The rise and press and all-at-once feeling of elsewhere, a temporary reprieve from the regular pull. In liftoff, in the erotic moment, we are freed of something.
What are we freed of? Gravity’s tug, time’s nonstop forward surge. Time surrounds us, spreading forever in all directions. And gravity still applies, but we are entered into a changed awareness of weight. There is more and less of it at once. We are both relieved of it (I’m flying! I’m dissolving!) and under a stronger spell of its power (shoulders pressed against a cushioned place; gut in hips).
Like the sky, the wind has moods. Sometimes gentle; it caresses your neck, the back of your knees. Sometimes mischievous; it flings your skirt or thwaps your umbrella inside out. Sometimes angry; it snaps a branch and slams it to the street. Sometimes furious; it raises waves so they smash over seawalls and rush into roads and homes; it shatters glass; it hurls rain that floods the basement and wrecks the box that held the Christmas ornaments. Sometimes sorrowful; it flutes into your bones to make you cold and moans against the windows. Sometimes mean; it needles your cheeks and moves your blood away from your fingers to your organs, blackening those fingers and killing them dead. It kisses, claws, and bites. Wind is experienced through its interaction with matter. A flag whaps with force off the pole. Whitecaps spray their spindrift over the surface of the sea. Meat and onions get carried from a kitchen to the sidewalk to a nose on an evening walk. “Wind’s ontology refuses to take separateness as an inherent feature of the world,” writes Cymene Howe. I like to watch it bend the grass. Wind, writes Howe, “has an existential precondition that appears only in the context of contact. Wind is touching, mutual, moving.”
Not long ago I walked across the Mass Ave Bridge, which spans half a mile across the Charles River connecting Cambridge with Boston. Day-bright at seven in the evening, soft sky, and breezy. I wore a skirt and the wind rustled it around my knees. It flung it left and right, and pressed it against the front of my body, making it billow in the back. Not obscene, but a little flirtatious. Maybe more than a little. Touching, mutual, moving. I liked it. I liked the sky moving my clothes. I liked the wind up my legs. The river rippled below me.
When we feel the wind, we feel the sky. It’s an intimate touch.
The wind moved down my shirt and pressed itself between my breasts and traveled to my belly. It spread itself across my chest. The wind finds its way in. It touches where it wants. On the bridge, it reached in, whirling, and twirled around my nipples, I felt it there. Second base with the wind! There on the bridge! It pressed my shirt against me, it pressed against the whole length of me, the sky did, the wind, it pressed my clothes against me, revealed my body to the world, to the cars driving west across the river toward Cambridge. I felt my body. I was aware of my edges, of my contours. I was in the sky. The wind made me know.
It did not touch me all the way as I walked across the bridge, almost, but not all the way. I am alone. That is why I know about being teased and turned on by the sky. Is this lucky? I decide yes.
Not far from the bridge, on Mass Ave, the MIT Chapel sits set back from the street, a low wide silo made of brick. A place I’ve passed thousands of times and not quite noticed, it disappeared for years into the landscape of the familiar. One weekday afternoon, I looked.
Designed by Finnish American architect Eero Saarinen and built in the middle of the twentieth century, it is surrounded by a moat, and a spire bell tower made of metal rises from the roof. Cast in the MIT foundry, the spire was designed by an artist named Theodore Roszak and looks a little like a rocket ship, upward-aimed, sleek and sharp, pinpricking at its highest point, like a lightning rod, an antenna, needle, probe. Something waiting for signal to come down. A phallus, a bell at the base, and I do not know if it rings, but what I hear in my mind is a chime that echos out to infinity, into silence, a slow spasm of noise, deep throb of gong, up and out.
Elsewhere, Roszak’s sharp sculptures allude to the crescent moon, bird beaks, macabre creatures in stretch and coil. A lithograph called Sky Divers from 1974 shows six figures. In the upper left, against an eggplant sky, a woman, blue purple, floats as though part cloud. Bottom right, a male falls, naked save a white belt. In the center, a thick woman splays herself, her spread legs pressed up against thin rods in a display of stilt-like acrobatics. Her left leg is torn and stitched, her body porcine, butchered. Ham hocks come to mind. Her anus is the focal point of the image. Of all body parts, the asshole is furthest from the sky, but here, Roszak defies the rectal darkness and in her spread opens that aperture to be tickled by the sky. There’s a slight absinthe tint to her skin, and her expression is blasé, almost lifeless. It is unclear, not in a nice way, whether these bodies are falling or flying. There’s a discomfiting sense of uplift and drop.
This was the brain that designed the spire on the chapel at MIT and we’re back to the erotics of rise, the erotics of moonward motion, the erotics of lifting off and being touched. The possibility of reaching the lawless weightlessness. Roszak’s spire rises to the sky, touches the sky, hopes for touch from the sky, touch from infinity, and connects us here, on earth in our pigpens, to all that’s beyond. “His interest in astronomy, his fascination with space travel and his excitement about the moon landing sparked bizarre, libidinous outer-space fantasies,” writes Isabella Kendrick.
I have an outer-space fantasy, too. It doesn’t look like Roszak’s. I am above the earth, in the high night sky darkness, and stars are more and brighter than we have ever known. And I am six miles tall, taller, a thousand miles, taller. Chest as wide as Iceland, legs as long and as strong as the Rocky Mountains. Arms to embrace the up-and-down entirety of California, molars like boulders, teeth as long as diving boards, longer. Ten thousand miles tall, a light-year. And you, as large, larger, there in the high night-dark sky, and we join. We press together in full-body embrace, my legs wrapped around, your hands on my hips, one arm over your shoulders, so broad they’d span length of the Ganges, larger, so broad you could carry a planet. We thrum and throb, we are weightless, pressing together, and up and down become an irrelevance. We are massive, filling the sky, filling each other with each other and it is so simple to move. We press against the galaxy, gravitationless, joined, giants, via lactea, a surging new river of milky way. To fuck with no sense of up or down. To fuck with no weight. To fuck so large that we become time itself. To fuck so large we become the anticenter of the universe. To fuck in the middle of infinity.
Which is where we all are, all the time.
Read earlier installments of Sky Gazing.
Nina MacLaughlin is a writer in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Her most recent book is Summer Solstice.