Dec. 10, 2021

Escape Velocity by Brian Bouffard

Escape Velocity by Brian Bouffard

Escape Velocity

I am a speck in orbit
Moving at speed, but regarding you,
Your angry swirling yellow, so far below the soles of my boots
Miles below me
Or above? There is no way to know, and
No way that it would ever matter
Right-side up? Upside down? Meaningless in the face of
The truth
That you loom, and I am tethered
To your well

The strange and unlikely gravity of you, because
You are dead now, but somehow not gone
Not dissipated
Still here, derelict
Even animated
The awful potency of your atmosphere remains
But under cover of your clouds,
   Beautiful, from this safe distance, I have to say
   In the way that a swollen droplet of venom
   At the needled tip of
   A single fang
   Of a hypnotic cobra, swaying
   Or an iridescent chemical spill
   Can be beautiful
Is there a steady place to stand?

Are you a gas giant now? No core, but a crushing end
Beneath your smothering yellow veil?
Or is there some rocky stormswept hell in the mist below, on which
I could stand
Your dirt on my white boots
The crush of greasy sand underneath, felt, but
Unheard over your storm, the shriek of your wind
And the helmet I must wear to even dream of being here
The seal of my suit keeping me clean inside
At least that was its design
Not much light reaches this place; it never has
Buffeted in your gale, nothing to grasp
Visibility zero
Scrabbling, wispy panic

Rising in my chest
Because there is no way to really know now
And there is nothing for me here but death
So heavy in the pull
Of your toxic gravity
I would strain to lift my gloved hand
And watch you sunder my armor like tissue
Your acid
Breaching me, on and through my skin
In my mouth
My lungs
Searing every molecule of me
On my knees, my hands, convulsing, panicking, prone, still
I cannot breathe
Your lifeless soil an inch away from
My eyes
Still seeing
Pebbles, black sand, a ghost of quartz
Scratching and marring the perfect glass of my faceplate
Conscious, and hideously aware, as you finally take me

A blink

And I am back in your silent orbit
I was never that close to you, except in imagination
Safe and drifting here, with thankful distance
Even this cold black is preferable to seeing you
So closely
There is death here too, right on the other side of my pristine bubble
But no poison, no acid, no screaming
My suit is clean and
Inhaling deep cool lungfuls of bottled air
Yes, you are beautiful
From up here
Me, only an observer, dispassionate and still
Imprisoned in orbit around you, as always
Watching you
A dead, but still deadly, thing

Escape velocity has ever been beyond my capacity
Though I wish it were different
A dreamed-of joy
To watch you truly recede, becoming
Smaller and smaller
Dimmer with triumphant distance
Moving fast, no longer a desperate ovalAround your center of gravity
But tautly linear, away from you
Into the darkness ahead
Swiveling my chair
To face backward
      For now
And calmly render what I owe you
Regard, acceptance, or something nameless
Something proper
But silent – we are beyond words
Watching you, still receding, in new clarity
A weary tailgunner, any threat far out of range
Finally able to apprehend your true border
Where you end, and sterile vacuum begins
A death in silence that I would choose
But one only wished for
Because escape velocity
Is beyond me

I wanted to start with him, you see
A reckoning no less important
Yet somehow easier, I thought
But you loom so large
A pus-filled, reeking tempest below me
(Or above, not that it matters)
So my work is here, for now
And it requires

Could you have been other than what you are?
Was the malignancy written in your double helix?
Or did they do it to you
With the post-traumatic stress of their own privation?
As they birthed and raised you with gnarled Depression hands,
Dustbowl dirt ground into the creases of their knuckles?
Hands that would later release you into adulthood
Reluctantly, and oh, forever tethered
Hands, still later, that would deny hope of rescue?
None for you, in your self-made bed of crusted linen
Deep in the trash-warren tunnels of your making, your hoard guarded
More jealously than Smaug
Priceless and worthless
And no rescue for me either, incredibly, or for her
Not even for her
We were not invisible in your tunnels, we did not hide there
We were not trash
It was
None of their business, of course
Ossifying into irrelevance, except for the obligatory holiday
Cigarette smoke, stale coffee, and Mentholatum
And the painted-on smiles, dutifully praising a wholly absent god
And pretending
That we were not suffocating
And burning
Poisoned and alone

I am much lower now
Danger close to orbital decay
I need to get close if I’m going to learn anything
And I have to go fast
Snarling and determined, a speeding bullet above the clouds
Skimming the dirty yellow caps
Like wavetops
I can smell you here, or maybe it’s just
The memory of your scent
I can smell you through my suit and my hull
I realize that makes no sense – how could I smell you?
Another worn memory, then
Stench is nothing new to me, or interesting

There was no hero to offer rescue
No Indiana Jones
No Luke Skywalker
No James Tiberius Kirk
No Batman
But we lived in Arkham, didn’t we?
A filthy asylum for one
    Plus your living baggage, struggling to breathe
    Alive, yes, but just two more
   This one with an uncertain smile and too many questions
   That smaller one with the golden-brown hair and blue eyes
A cuckoo’s nest otherwise abandoned
Ruled by a mad queen
With a glutton’s taste for stuff and lies and the labyrinth
    At least I’ve been released from your words
    Your pious firehose spew, now silenced
    No more fresh, new confusion
    Only the countless piled, insectoid husks of confusions past

Any lower, even at this redline pace
And I’ll be tasting your miasmic grit in my teeth
So I’ll try
To stay
As close to you as I can, but still
Maintain course and speed
Scanning for something
That I haven’t catalogued a thousand times already
The banality of you, well-worn
But still light years away
From being understood

You’re out until later, and
I’m alone in the tunnels
I’m twelve and scared, but so proud
My stomach kinked and knotted
Contemplating my gift
To you
My back a little straighter, because
I didn’t throw up
I’m growing out of my weak stomach
I’ve just cleaned the refrigerator
Its horror show of rotting things
Mold and decay
Gingerly removed, my fingertips pressing too easily in
Hating myself a little for being squeamish
But the smells
In three tight trash bags now
Hardly believing I kept it down, although
I swallowed hard once
Or twice
    I may have tasted bile and I guess
   That’s kinda like puking, but still
The point is
It’s white and clean inside now
Smells like Windex or heaven
Imagining your smile of surprise
You’re home
Look at what
I did
Watching your face change, understanding too late, that
What I had cleaned
Wasn’t THE refrigerator
It was YOUR refrigerator
And it wasn’t even cleaning
It was rape
Your face, rage-twisted and purple
And the animal howls
And the screams
And the tears
Face stinging and hot from the slap I didn’t try to block
Barreling up the stairs
Footfalls on piles of filthy clothes
Jumping over old newspapers stacked on the landing
I’ve learned where to step, what to leap
You’d think I’d have learned whose refrigerator it is
But nope, too stupid
Not quite making it to the toilet
The bile is in my nose and I can’t breathe

Flying so fast now
A meter from no return
Alarms pealing, clanging, hurting my ears
I wasn’t meant to do this
But there’s no other way to know, is there?
And still survive
True knowledge would still not be worth the cost
Of standing on your terrain
Everything is screaming
But not just yet
This is the only way to honor you, finding
Some part that I didn’t see, but that
I intuited
Centimeters from death in your hopeless contamination
Raw lightning in the clouds
Recklessly fast
Hoping to see what I can only imagine

Eighteen and leaving
Getting out
I get to leave
But she has to stay
Because she’s nine
That means
I’m leaving her there, alone
In the warren
I close my eyes and see hers
Do they plead with me, those blue eyes?
I can’t take her to the college dorm with me
How ridiculous an idea
Eyes squeezed shut,
I leave, and the air is fresh
I’m free
Not feeling the guilt
Except maybe a little
It’s not my fucking job
   None of their business, of course
To save her
To save anyone
   Pretending we were not suffocating
Not understanding that I already had
The thorns around my heart
Of a guilt that was now, and would
Always be
Part of me
Ever after
I knew better than to leave her there
And I left her there
I left her in that
I left her with that
I left her

A millimeter from death, so pants-shitting fast
Skimming clouds that feel like treetops now
Slicing them, I am a razor, here and gone
If there is love, I’d better see it soon
Because I refuse to die here
    A doomed Icarus
    Seconds from system failure
    And so far to fall
You will not have that from me
I’ll pull up when I’m good and ready
Wondering now if this speed might be enough
To break my orbit
Alive but forever after ignorant – I could live with that
Because I won’t want to come back here again

To this smell
Dirty laundry left to ferment
A vague suggestion of buried shit
And the roaches
This carpet will have to be replaced
But of course I wouldn’t have thoughts like that until later
Because I’m six
Or maybe seven

And I just don’t have the words for this

I don’t know how to tell you that it’s killing me
I’m six, or maybe seven
Far beneath understanding

Right now I have to focus on saving Gotham City, as that is my mission
Because I’m Batman
Wearing a worn dishtowel as a cape
Billowing behind my shoulders
Chest out, tight fists on my hips, standing in front of the box fan
Next to a dried and scaly bowl of yesterday’s Cap’n Crunch
The hero Gotham needs

I’m Batman
And I can tell you I’m Batman
I can tell you that just fine
But I can’t tell you about the poison
The poison of you
All around me, so huge
And what it’s doing to parts of me
What you’re doing to parts of me that I think I’m going to need later
Because you’ve named it Love
God, you’ve named it
You’ve named the poison Love
I can’t understand why you did this
Why you’re doing this
Why anyone would do this
I cannot understand this
And I cannot talk about this
And I cannot cry about this
Because even at six
Or maybe seven
I’m a big enough boy to ask myself the first of a lifetime’s questions
What kind of ungrateful, worthless son
Would cry
About being so deeply Loved?

My hands and forearms are on fire now
With this effort
Holding this course and speed
What if I just let go?
Feel your atmosphere take me as I tumble down
End over end, a long arc into you
Would I burn up? Or would that be too quick for you?
Tumbling through your poison, speed bleeding off
In a chest-rumbling shriek of torn metal and the howl
Of putrid wind?
Falling into you, helplessly spinning, an echo of tens of thousands
Of earlier helpless moments, smaller ones
Would that please you?

Or would you wail for me like a wounded animal?
Some sane part of the ghost you’ve left behind
A final failure written nowhere on your epitaph
Just known to you and to me?

No, I won’t really let go
I was just wondering
But I’m travelling so fast
So impossibly fast
And my muscles do hurt
To linger here would be foolish
So there will be no lingering
A quick pass, and I’ve learned one thing, maybe
At least
Something is rattling around in there
So I pull back, and begin to rise
Millimeters, centimeters, meters
Above the mottled cancer of your stratosphere
Above the acid that eats at my hull, making it
I’ll have to replace that
I’ve never gone so fast
If escape velocity is possible
Maybe the last time pays for all
Maybe we’re about to find out

Even now, I hesitate to call you evil
And grasp instead at cold exonerating pathology
For how can one be poison and not be poisoned?

You didn’t have to name it Love