I ADMIT THAT WHEN I WALK ALONE, at night, I’m headed nowhere. But for all the world knows I’m on my way to a glittering party, all color and confetti; or to an elaborate dinner, the oblong table covered with thick cloth and the candlelight catching the rims of wineglasses and the tines of forks; or to a bar where I will drink and shout to be heard; or to the home of a friend, where all this time they have been waiting for me to arrive.
Having walked at all times of day, I can assure you that nighttime offers the best walking there is—the trees cutting sharp shapes against the sky; the lights in houses coming on, shedding light on lawns that prickle with grass. Even though I am done with my work for the day, I sometimes find myself hurrying anyway, arms and legs swinging, my whole torso inclined forward as though a hand on my back were urging me forward, on to the next thing, and the next thing after that—
If you saw me and asked me where I was going, I would stare blankly for a moment and then say, wonderingly, “Nowhere.” But no one ever asks me where I’m going, so I must clarify for myself that I’m going nowhere. Once this thought occurs to me, I stop short. I stop just long enough for my secret self—the one who laughs when a funny thought drifts into her head, the one who talks to herself, who is too sentimental, too tragic—to catch up with me, at which point she slips into her warm glove, my body, and I feel rounder, more whole.
Eventually my joints feel loose, and my hands don’t mind their empty tasklessness. I notice the crowned street, the giant black trees, the dark snakes of tar patching the roads. I look at the lit houses whose windows reveal a golden interior. Some curtains are half-closed, like heavy, sensual eyelids; some are fully closed, as if the houses were asleep. And then I study the sky, blue humming with indigo. It would be silly and false to say that my cares vanish, or even pipe down for very long. But out there on the street, I find other cares to consider, and my pet obsessions take their rightful place alongside those of my neighbors. I have my favorite neighbors: an older man lives on a street near mine. The street is called Granger. The man lives in a white house with a neat, flat lawn. He is white and tall and favors University of Michigan sweatshirts. One morning I saw him struggling to wheel his trash barrel down the driveway. He walked with a pronounced limp: one half of his body seemed heavy and unresponsive. A stroke? I would’ve offered to help him with his trash barrel, but there was a stoic silence to his efforts, a patience with his struggle that made me think he was proud of getting his trash up and down the driveway by himself.
At night, sitting near a window in a straight-backed chair, he watches documentaries. The windows of his living room are dressed with heavy yellow curtains and matching valances. I don’t think that man picked out those curtains. I also don’t need to know who did. The fact that I am seeing them even though they are part of the interior of the house, the fact that I am seeing him even though he is inside, the fact that I know the way his white hair is thinning in back and flattened down in a whorl, like a miniature crop circle—I treasure them because they are the available intimacies of another life.
After watching him for a few measures’ time, I walk on. I have no interest in spying. I only look at the things that I am allowed to see from the sidewalk. All I want is a sense of the density that other lives have, the way they fill the houses they live in and leak into yards and streets. When I walk out on the streets of my neighborhood at night, I feel that I am in good company.
The streetlights in this midwestern town are few, perhaps because telephone poles are more often set in backyards or underground than they are where I grew up. When I was a child, walking at night consisted of gliding from one pool of orange lamplight to another, my shadow constantly swinging and stretching out: I was a sundial, and time moved at a breakneck pace. But now, without so many streetlights, the light I see comes from the moon (if it’s visible) and stars (if the sky is cloudless). For the most part, my way is illuminated by the silvery sheen of light pollution: the nearby downtown features a hundred thousand lights, at movie-theater entrances and traffic intersections, at the tops of towers and strung along apartment balconies, and their cumulative, distant echo is enough to lead me home.
I’m occasionally invited to take part in some noisy nighttime activity. Sometimes I accept the invitation, and I do my best to be as noisy and bright as I know I’m expected to be. But I’d rather be walking.
When I was twenty-one, I lived in Buenos Aires for five months. It was as winter came to Argentina—a bleak and gray time—that I began to walk alone at night. I remember that it often rained—not a steady rain, not even something that could be called a drizzle. It was a rain that dusted my clothes and hair with minuscule drops of water and misted my lungs when I inhaled. I listened to music and took loops through my neighborhood, streets I knew well by that point, and which therefore felt safe to me (whether or not they were actually safe is a different matter, made complicated by how little we really know of the difference between real and perceived danger). I peered through the open door of a laundromat owned by a Korean couple who worked late into the night; I saw the toddler from the apartment across from mine pick up and discard the same rattle, over and over. I got to know the sun-bleached back sides of cheap curtains that never opened. My walks brought me something that bordered on peace. I felt I was doing something important: witnessing the city, its buildings and streets, tasting the slight sourness of its polluted air. I will not say that I came to love Buenos Aires, but I came to believe I knew my neighborhood and its people intimately, and how can that knowledge do anything but generate a sense of belonging?
It’s now almost winter in this midwestern town. The leaves have long since fallen; people are bagging them or hiring other people to bag them. For some reason, my walking at night has reached a fever pitch—if that phrase can be used for an activity so plain and slow. The night sweeps me into passions I didn’t know were mine. I might feel pangs of wistfulness for reasons I can’t explain, or laugh at a funny turn of phrase I’d heard and then forgotten and then remembered again. Or I walk with a slight smile on my face, as though I were flirting with the evening itself.
Sometimes I’m surprised by a late-night dog-walker, or by the driver of a parked car who starts the engine and flicks on the headlights. Then I am caught doing whatever it is I was doing—emotion writ large on my face—or maybe something sillier: lip-synching the words to a song, balancing on a curb, my arms stretched out—or even something that makes me look forgetful—walking with my face turned toward that deep cold sky or staring at the bobbing shadows of branches on the sidewalk.
On a recent nighttime walk home, I had what I think is called a vision. I was dying, and because I was dying a group of people came to see me. There were about twenty of them, all people I had known briefly and not very well. They included the woman with a son who has special needs; I once heard her describe, with a laugh, how much time she spent in front of her pantry, eating chocolate chips by the handful. There was the man I’d dated very briefly, who—in a rare moment of honesty—put his ear against my heart and said that he was afraid of never doing a single important thing in his life. Another was my tutor in Buenos Aires, who brought me tissues and chamomile tea the day I cried in front of her out of loneliness and sadness, and also out of shame that I was lonely and sad in a place where I was supposed to be happy.
A vision is a truth framed by a lie. Dying isn’t so easy, but that isn’t the point. The point is that the company of these people, even at my death, was somehow proper. They were witnesses, not grievers. If I was surprised by their presence, it was because in all the ways I’d observed them, I had forgotten that they were also observers—of me.
I’d rather die in the company of friends and family. I’d rather not die at all. But whatever else death is, it is certainly mundane: awfully mundane, tediously mundane, piercingly mundane. So while the companionship of unexceptional connections might be a disappointment, it would at least be true.
One other thing about the vision: we were all in a light that had no source—that is, no direction. It cast no shadows; it came from everywhere at once. The light was God, of course, but the instant I identified it as such, the vision vanished, and I was on a sidewalk in Ann Arbor again. How, though, could I mourn its passing? I was still here, and the lamps in living-room windows and the star of my porch light were enough to see me safely home.
Mindy Misener is a graduate of the Helen Zell Writers’ Program at the University of Michigan. Her work has previously appeared in The Common and The Pinch. She lives with her family in Montana.