Looking for Neowise
Give it a name. Call it “cosmophobia,” for what could be more threatening than a vast black continuum of giant flying objects, poisonous gasses, physics that devour time? Who’s to say it couldn’t all just explode at any moment for any number of reasons? I heard once, this abrupt ending is called the death vacuum. It’s the most brutal thing that could happen to the universe, but the best way to go. It would be over so fast you wouldn’t even realize you’d disintegrated.
It’s all a bit too much.
But so is any day in a 2020 quarantine, when the earth starts to seem far more frightening than its lifeless planetary neighbors. With life, quite possibly with the origin of life, came viruses. And I am doing it again. “Nosophobia,” fear of becoming sick.
Maybe I didn’t have to fear space. Maybe I could make room for it in the rational parts of my brain as other fears crowded it out of my hyperactive amygdala.
We’d seen the pictures of the comet Neowise, my partner and I. It didn’t look like much to be afraid of, with its fairy dust tail arcing down toward the horizon. Pictures taken at long exposure with rose-tinted snow-capped mountains in the background. With the Space Needle in the background. With the northern lights below. It was this great mystical thing that anyone could see. Anyone in the northern hemisphere with a naked eye. It didn’t spell earthly doom in its oblong orbit around the sun.
This meant, for the first time in 2020, we could witness the threat of untimely demise from a safe distance.
In 2014, at the onset of my panic disorder, I blamed space-time relativity for all my episodes. I first encountered this concept inside our grease-coated college town movie theater. In the middle of Interstellar I couldn’t stop my hands from going numb. My throat from constricting. Hyperventilation commenced as the astronauts entered the wormhole, but when Anne Hathaway and Matthew McConaughey got stuck on that planet that was nothing but tidal waves, only to return to the spaceship and find out that ten years on Earth had passed in the space of an hour, I had to go. My legs just got up and went, tripping over purses and crushing pieces of popcorn gone overboard, stumbling past the legs of my friends, who probably assumed it was just me and my small bladder once more.
But it wasn’t. Not this time.
The soundtrack to the movie tracked my exit from the room, escalating like an endless spiral staircase with its tinny sequences. The exit door was a portal, its tiny square window peering out into the buttery beyond. I watched my hand reach out and push it open, unsure of what I might see on the other side.
Don’t look at me as I fly down that hallway toward the bathroom and stay there an hour, a woman on the verge of her twenties already losing her mind, hyperventilating into her tear-drenched sweatshirt because of space-time relativity.
I’m just a speck. Call it “astrophobia.”
When we go looking for Neowise, we think we are getting away. Getting away from frozen dinners, the sound of the alarm clock each morning with no purpose behind it, the nowhere we are expected to be, the remaining hour of a new Scandi crime drama and its eerie soundtrack on our TV screen.
Getting away, even, from babying the tiny garden of greens on our micro-balcony, the aphid invaders we watch for obsessively, claiming the Black-seeded Simpson. Escaping the variety pack of seltzer water we thirst for at five p.m. each day as if carbonation and hints of citrus will grant us new lives. Escaping the neighbor in a distant open window who coughs every ten minutes like someone concerned they have swallowed a spider. Humans aren’t meant to be bottled up like we are. Call it “claustrophobia.” Perhaps this is why humans everywhere are breaking their seals and spilling over into the outdoors; the only sanctioned escape left for us. I can’t go to a grocery store to escape my home and call it fresh air. I can’t face the invisible possibilities, the visible noses of half-hearted mask wearers, the loud talkers, the Walmart parking lot deniers with no masks at all. It’s even too crowded outside.
All the same, we get brave. We don masks. We go. We narrowly avoid agoraphobia.
It stays functionally light until 10 pm on midsummer nights in Bellingham, so we park on a hill overlooking the bay an hour after sunset. It’s almost serene, the San Juan Islands framing the open water, basking in the sun’s afterglow, becoming silhouettes of themselves. Herons and gulls make final flights with purpose through rising winds. But I know that beyond the safety of those islands lies the vast Pacific, no land for hundreds of miles at a time. Nothing to interrupt the flat nothing that is the ocean. Call it “thalassophobia.”
In droves people enter the park, bumping music and sticking their arms out the windows. A caravan of headlights zoom past the flashing alert board: WEAR A MASK. STILL IN PHASE ONE. Phases have all but ceased to exist, I think. This is not a phase; this is life now. Closing in.
The first of many cars to form a viewing line along the hillside pulls up behind. Other bottled-up people also looking for Neowise.
An unanswerable question—where was I?
Not where I was, as in the much-too-small and dark movie theater bathroom, with its naked lightbulb and dripping faucet and its sharply cinnamon-scented hand soap and its slanted ceiling, crowding me as I stood in my stall and wiped the mascara off my face with toilet paper. No, it’s where I was, as in my mind, as in what broke it. Rather, where we were. Where was this movie theater bathroom in a map of the universe? Was it in danger of being sucked into a black hole?
Are we plural, in the multiverse, crying in more than one bathroom? You are here.
And here and here?
No, I was there, on the edge of a toilet seat on the edge of a building on the edge of town on the edge of a continent on the edge of a planet in a solar system on the edge of a galaxy on course to collide with another galaxy, with a supermassive black hole at its center. At the center of a universe whose edges are still expanding.
When I left the bathroom, it felt as though ten years had passed outside, that I was another victim of space-time. Food poisoning, I mumbled to my questioning friends as we filed out of the theater.
I don’t know what I’m looking for, exactly. I follow the ladle of the Big Dipper like the instructions I read online, imagining Neowise will have fallen from it as a sparkling drop of water.
I thank the internet for its reassuring instructions on how to look. I think many of us have forgotten. I trace paths in all the cardinal directions, beginning to believe that Neowise is a Santa Clause’s sleigh of sorts, that the entire ogling line of us are about to be flooded with fluorescent lights and cameras capturing our “Punk’d” moment. A masked father-son duo down the sidewalk from us heave deep, muffled sighs, get in their car and peel away.
Neowise tests its watchers. Its human fans who act like they’ve paid for a canceled show with no chance of a refund. And so many of us have. Canceled plane tickets and concerts. Canceled dates and weddings. Canceled hope.
“Turn off your headlights,” yells a woman down the line to a fresh arrival.
An hour and a half after sunset and patience is wearing thinner than the cloth barriers over our faces. Thinner than the remaining light on the horizon.
I sometimes fear that I will spend my whole life being afraid, drifting from fear to irrational fear in a constant state of low-level paralysis. A fear of being fearful is called “phobophobia.” And this phobia is perhaps the worst, if not the most absurd, because of its inescapable layers. “Phobophobia” means your body has become twisted in the bedsheets of fear, wrestling with its own blanket of nightmares. To become untangled, to face a phobia, is to watch it happen in real time. To walk away unscathed, if not with slight abrasions.
I can’t tell you how I first see it. It simply appears as soon as I stop paying attention, a shy little thing. A minuscule smudge frozen mid-fall toward the horizon. It is like looking at a star through a light veil of fog. It’s the ghost of a star. A faint smear on the margin of the universe. And it keeps disappearing if I look too long.
“That can’t be it,” I say out loud, but my sighting is confirmed by an enthusiastic man nearby shaking his head, “Isn’t that neat?”
It is neat. And tidy. It doesn’t spew glowing cosmic horrors out from behind it like it did in the pictures. It doesn’t make a mess of reality. I’m not afraid of it, though I think I want to be. I want to taste a different kind of doom than already inhabits my brain.
Neowise hides from the visually impaired. Call it selective “scopophobia.”
For my partner, it never appears at all. He’s blind in one eye. I try to guide him to it, drawing a sky map with my finger between scraps of clouds and stationary stars. But how do you explain to someone about the gap between cloud banks as they drift? How do you say the comet is just below the second-biggest cloud in the sky, not the flat one but the one just to the left of it? And no, slightly underneath it, but not fully. The treasure is just to the left of the X on the map. We could dig for hours and not find it.
We drive home in the dark with nothing else to say. His eyes are closed, fatigued from searching the night sky in vain. We could try again soon, I say. But I know next week will be overcast. I know that we are done looking for our distant visitor, our “Near-Earth-Object,” neither our savior nor our end.
I decide to finish Interstellar. I do not break down this time as I watch actors shed light on a fifth dimension across my screen. I look around and see only my own little corner of the universe, too far from Neowise to scare me, just my too-familiar living room which grows smaller, more constricting by the day. Viruses, the crumbling of democracy, and space-time relativity all hover outside, racing for the rights to my anxiety. Space-time speeds and speeds and still loses its lead.
The credits roll and I have survived. Call me a triumphant speck.
Neowise slips further away each day, a fading stain on a glow-flecked canvas. As its light continues to ebb, the people below continue out of their cars and space themselves in varying approximations of six feet, each looking up at the deepening sky. There could be something to see beyond the crust of this sick planet.
Something to see as we turn and turn in spite of ourselves.
Katie Higinbotham (she/her/hers) is a nonfiction writer and poet from the Pacific Northwest who enjoys capturing nature in its many collisions with human nature. She holds a B.A. from Linfield University and an M.F.A. from Western Washington University. Katie has served as an assistant nonfiction editor for the High Desert Journal and a nonfiction editor for the Bellingham Review.