Hanif Abdurraqib: On Seatbelts and Sunsets
I was born to a woman who died because she took medicine that was supposed to make her less sad, but instead it forced a hive to swell in her throat while she slept. And I guess that’s an act of God.
We buried her the summer and the sun stayed out for weeks after, sitting wide and low over the blacktop, so that it was the only unforgettable presence the city could claim, and that was an act of God.
Once, someone built a boat out of sinkable materials and told the world it was impossible to sink, and that was an act of Man.
The ship was so massive that it couldn’t steer out of the way of an iceberg which tore through the ship’s hull, sinking it and claiming the lives of over 1,500 of its passengers, and I am sorry, but that was probably an act of God.
The Julien Baker song “Hurt Less” is about loving someone so much that they make you want to stay alive on whatever corner of Earth you figured was wretched and unbearable before you met them. And, look, it ain’t nobody’s job to keep any of us alive other than ourselves, and I get that. But I’ve been to the funerals, and I’ve held friends on the cold tile of their apartments with pills spilled out at their feet, and I’ve washed bed sheets three times in a row to get blood out of them, and I have been both the arms reaching and the arms pulling back. And so it’s all a matter of perspective is what I’m saying. On “Hurt Less” Julien Baker opens with a statement about how she never wore seatbelts in her car because she maybe wanted to be alive, but not enough to stop herself from dying if she happened to be thrown from a car. This is a small measure, in some ways: the choices we make to stay alive or not are sometimes a matter of the smallest circumstance. To unbuckle a seatbelt on a highway and to take a knife to your own skin aren’t equal measures. One action, once taken, forces a darkness to descend, and the other is taken to not prevent the darkness from descending once it arrives. But what Julien Baker wants a listener to hear is that life was something she was willing to opt out of.
I haven’t always wanted to be alive, but the only time I ever thought I might actually die was in an airplane over what I will remember as somewhere in the middle of the country. There was an unnatural turbulence – the kind that even rattles the pilots, when you can hear in their voices that they themselves aren’t sure the plane is going to descend safely. Turbulence isn’t something that often causes planes to crash, but it’s easy to forget that when wrapped in the arms of it, tossing a plane from side to side. I remember, in the moment, running my hands along the frayed edges of my seat belt’s thin fabric and wondering if it would hold me in place while the plane broke apart over a field, or became swallowed by a river. The thing about Otis Redding’s plane crash is that he died because when the plane crashed into the river, his seatbelt got stuck and trapped him in his rapidly sinking seat. No one ever talks about that part. How that which protects us can also be our undoing. And so sometimes it’s our saviors that do us in. I have played the card of God on the table so that I can say I think sometimes there is a God who wants us to arrive earlier than we normally would, because the party has gotten boring up there. I was on a plane that felt like it was being stretched to its limits. I think life flashing before your eyes is a cliché. I remember, instead, the future parading itself in front of me. All of the things I wanted to do, but hadn’t yet. Death is a bed of unkept promises, and in the moment I thought I might die, I got to see all of them, and how happy I would perhaps be reveling in them. And then, like that, the plane steadied. I had unbuckled my seat belt without even realizing it.
Once, I was in Ohio, in the middle of a summer where it rained so violently and consistently that I spent what felt like hours at a time in the driver’s seat of my parked car watching the water gather and then cascade down my windshield outside of the grocery store or the post office or the bar where my friends sat inside laughing, waiting for me. And I could convince myself, briefly, that the world outside was flooding and I would be carried away to anywhere else. And I’ve read enough of The Book to know that floods and sickness are both acts of God.
In that same Once, I lived in Columbus, Ohio and liked a woman from miles away, a woman who was almost an entire country away from where her father became sick, and laughed at her jokes on twitter and read and re-read her poems and we sent each other copies of small books we wrote and then the only plane she could take that would get her back to her sick father in time had a long layover in Columbus, Ohio. And nothing else makes sense but for that to be an act of God.
And in that same Once, I sat in my car on a day it didn’t rain. And I held a bag on my lap. And inside the bag was a nervously written letter, and some candy, and a few books. And on the bag I scrawled the name of a woman who was flying back home to care for her sick father and I sat outside of the airport because in a message, she’d told me that she was flying in, that she had hours to be stuck in an airport terminal, and she’d first asked if there was anything fun to do, and then asked if I could maybe stop by and say hello, and I am saying now that I know a sick father and a worried daughter is not a landscape upon which to prop up a monument to romantics and I think now that when I say act of God I am really saying who will suffer so that I might be able to wrap my hands around the neck of some fleeting blessing.
Despite what I knew in that moment, what I know and have known forever is that the people you dream of standing across from don’t just drift to you on accident, and they may never drift to you again, and so I grabbed the bag and left my car and went to stand at the exit to the Southwest Terminal in the Columbus Airport, and I will call that an act of faith.
Today, months beyond the summer where it felt like Columbus, Ohio might flood and be carried away, the father is healthy again. And on a couch in her city which is far from my city, the woman who flew home to him laughs at a joke on television. When she laughs, she covers her face with both of her hands, so that all that can be seen are her eyes, small slivers of themselves. Her body trembles from the shoulders down. She is the kind of person who laughs as if she knows joy has an expiration date. You can see it vibrate through her entire body before exiting. She drops her palms from her face, and smiles, satisfied. I suppose the mundane things a person does that we imagine as art are subjective, usually tied to how in love we are with the person carrying out the action. I do not know what it is called when watching a person laugh for a brief moment is the thing you want to capture in a bottle. I think you realize that you love a person when they do something they would consider forgettable, but you see it every time you close your eyes. I don’t know what this is an act of, but it is an act of something I don’t imagine myself deserving.
There is a very particular hour in a very particular season in Columbus, and it’s not always the same time. Some moment, where the end of spring pulls its fingers through the start of summer before finally letting go. The college students filling the town go back to their corners of Ohio, and the thick humidity hasn’t settled over the city yet, and the season hasn’t yet turned to a violent coughing of storms along the neighborhoods. The sun stays out late, and really fights to go down, making a mess of colors on its way out. It’s the type of weather that invites open windows before air conditioning.
The central refrain in “Hurt Less” is more of a plea than anything else. With intensity growing after each rotation of it, Julien Baker sings, twice:
Interstate 270 is an outerbelt that circles entirely around Columbus in a continuous loop, taking a driver through the heart of the city, and through its sleepy suburbs, and past the airport where, if you time the drive correctly, you can see a plane pushing into the sky, scraping past the descending sun and the final living moments of its miraculous painting. You can drive past the clutter of chain businesses at the edge of Sawmill Road and see the signs pushing high into the air: Applebees, Speedway, an inflatable car from the Toyota dealership. You can get a glimpse of downtown from two different angles, and then do it all over again. It is the only freeway in the city that doesn’t end by taking you somewhere outside of the city. If you were young and had little money but a full tank of gas and a person you wanted to spend time with in the golden hours when day turned to night, you might get a couple of shakes from United Dairy Farmers and circle the city with a person who looked perfect first in the sunlight and then the streetlight, and you would get to watch the city from all of its angles, in all of its light and darkness. And sometimes you’d talk, or sometimes you’d listen to a single song on repeat, or sometimes you’d roll down the windows and let the wind rush in and kiss every corner of silence built up in the car while the skyline echoes in a rearview mirror. It can take about an hour to traverse the entire outerbelt, and there are times I miss it, even with money in my pocket, I miss the intimacy that financial restraints could grant me. When I first moved back to Columbus, I would miss my exits on 270 on purpose, just to remember the romance of aimlessness.
Few things know loneliness like a highway, for all of the people going to places they don’t want to go, or driving away from people they don’t want to be driving away from. I most love the refrain of “Hurt Less” because it’s begging for a simplicity. Sit with me in this car, and we don’t need to have a destination other than a place where we are next to each other in our shared sadness which seems a little less impossible in a moving car, with only one other person who is there because they want to be there with you, no matter what you both are moving towards.
My first car was a 1995 Nissan Maxima, and it was a hideous shade of brown. The car had automatic seat belts. In 1996, when side airbags became mandatory, most vehicle companies did away with the automatic seat belt. The automatic seat belt was a hassle, but its main function was to exist in a way that made safety something a driver didn’t think about. When you opened the door, the mechanical seat belt would jerk forward, inviting you to sit down. When you closed the door, it would retract, clasping around your body. They were faulty though – if your car underwent any impact, there was no telling how they’d react. Some of them would stick, trapping people inside. My car was the last Nissan model that had the automatic seat belt. I would often forget my seatbelt until it briefly malfunctioned, staying stuck to my body when I opened the door, or staying still when I closed the door. In a car with a loud muffler and a broken car alarm that would go off at will, the seat belts were the least of my problem.
In 2004, my car was stolen from the apartment complex parking lot it was in. Because I didn’t trust my car alarm, I had no idea it was taken until I went to go grocery shopping and saw my spot empty. Having a car stolen is one of those things which creates an absence that doesn’t seem real, where you stare at a space where something familiar lived and try to will the familiar thing back to you.
Two nights later, a friend called me and told me to turn on the news. There was my car, flipped upside down on I-270, surrounded by the flashing lights of police cars. The person who’d stole my car got into a high-speed chase with police, but he made the mistake of thinking he could get out of the city by getting on I-270. I never found out how long the chase lasted, but I imagine long enough for the culprit to realize that the freeway would only take him in a circle. In a panic, he attempted to swerve off of an exit ramp to avoid a police car, and the car flipped over and rolled three times. With the car upside down, the airbag deployed, trapping the car thief’s neck around the spiral of the automatic seat belt, which had tightened, due to impact. While police officers drew their guns and cautiously approached my car, he was strangled to death. That’s the thing about something holding you so close that it actually becomes a part of your body. You can forget about it until it consumes you entirely.
The thing about being in love with someone who does not live where you live is that the two of you have to think of new and inventive ways to see each other, sometimes based around a shared hectic travel schedule. And so, through the winding roads of New Hampshire, cloaked by ice, I am driving to a place where someone I love is, because I could afford the few days, even if they will skip by quicker than I’d like. There are several churches, all of their signs offering advice, or statements:
TO BE ALMOST SAVED IS TO BE TOTALLY LOST
START YOUR WEEK IN THE ARMS OF THE LORD
DON’T WORRY ABOUT THE THINGS YOU HAVE NO CONTROL OVER
And God, if you are listening, I do worry. God, if you are listening, I count the miles between my body and the body of the person I love and I worry about each of them. God, I worry about the planes we take to each other and the sky that might not hold them. God, I wear seatbelts and visit the graves of my friends in spring to kick away the dirt from winter. God, it is just us talking now, and I worry about everything I can’t control. God, can you tell me how much longer I’ll get to be alive and in love. God, I am sorry for the times I didn’t want to stick around. God, there is a scroll of things I have taken for granted in order to survive this long, and it is endless. And it is maybe too late to want to live forever after everything I’ve seen and done. But there are freeways between me and the person I love, God. And I don’t have enough time to travel all of them. I worry that I can’t bend them all into a giant circle from where I begin to where she begins. God, I don’t know what I believe in except the shrinking of distance. God, do you worry about the things you can control? I am enough in love to worry about everything that might cast a shadow over it. God, I have touched the living face of a person I love with the same hands I have touched the dying face of someone I love and none of that seems fair. God, I am enough in love that I want to make everything about it an endless circle, with a sunset at the top of every hour. I know this is all too much, God. But as long as you’re not tired yet of talking, it helps.
Julien Baker sings the last lines of “Hurt Less” with nothing but a faint piano, growing fainter as she squeezes each syllable for all it is worth:
That’s the thing about something holding you so close that it actually becomes a part of your body.