Greg is gone—the bright-eyed young man who in her mind is still skinning his knees and getting vexed when other kids don’t get along, the one who has decided in his second year of college to specialize in veteran medical care and who wants to explore other sides of the world, do things like climb Kilimanjaro and scuba the Galapagos—but he’s really only away for the summer and it is for school credit after all, a trip to Spain to fulfill his foreign language requirement, though as his mother sits in California drinking lukewarm white wine, watching heat roll of the asphalt—the only human among three cats in the condo she kept when her second husband left—these facts do not really seem like any consolation. When she knows Greg is at the university just halfway up the state, in his dorm room or at the dining hall, she can tell herself that she could see him in less than a day if either of them really had the time or inclination—but now her son’s absence is felt the way she notices hunger or that her foot has fallen asleep: aggressively and as she simultaneously recognizes a multitude of other feelings.
More often now, she imagines the 6000 miles—roughly 9000 kilometers—of vast country and ocean between them, but sees the distance in terms of tectonics: a path along the hard exterior of the lithosphere from the Pacific plate to the North American, then all the way across, a little skim along the edge of the African and then securely onto the Eurasian plate—but those images always evolve from where he is to what he’s doing: tasting an actual Valencia orange or taking a selfie in front of Moorish architecture, or maybe, really, more likely sleeping at the exact times when she thinks of him. Regardless of what she pictures him doing, at the end of the process she cannot help but go to her bedside table, to the drawer where she quietly keeps small luminous stones Greg used to bring her way back when he wanted to be a geologist too—of course she’d never have enough room to keep all the rocks he had given her, but the ones he’d thought were really special or that she might have never seen before tumble about now as she gently tugs the soft wooden handle. She used to buy Greg books about minerals and the Earth’s core, about magma and fossils and tectonics, fill his shelves with discarded specimens from the lab where she worked, anticipate his excitement on the rare days when he got to go to work with her—she had never thought even once before giving birth to Greg that he might like the same things she did, especially something everyone else found so dull.
So, now, when it’s a little too much that Greg is absent—and enjoying himself no doubt, nowhere near miserable and perhaps even ignorant of her anguish—she pictures the globe and divides the distance in her mind: she watches the Earth’s crust fracture along tectonic faults, the mantle giving way and the magma roiling beneath the hard exterior as the lip of the Pacific plate rises to overtake the North American, sliding its hot belly all the way across the U.S. and then into the Atlantic Ocean, nudging the African toward India—reconnecting Madagascar in the process, surely—and up the underwater shelf toward the Eurasian plate, allowing her to indulge in a new proximity, California touching Spain’s coast like a kiss on the forehead, like a soft hand on her shoulder, like a steady voice in a dark room when she thought she was all alone.
Austin Eichelberger, a native Virginian, now happily teaches English and writing in sunny, sprawling New Mexico and edits Tiny Text, a Twitter-journal (@Tiny_Text). More of his writing lives at austineichelberger.com.