Alaska Love ~ under
the Northern Lights
Alaska Love ~ Short fiction about place and the search for love
Story and art
by Mo Conlan
The genesis for "Alaska Love": I envy Alaskans. They find meaning in place. I live in a place that has never felt like my own, a city I am often at odds with, a climate that aggravates my sinuses, under a sky that has never made me giddy. Under the Northern Lights and the brilliant shadow-casting sun, Alaska might have been my place.
They say people go to Alaska looking for something. Gold. Oil. The Wild. I went looking for love.
It didn’t begin in Alaska. It began in Dayton, Ohio, one winter when a boy I knew growing up came back into my life -- though he was no longer that tall, fidgety, boy who chained-smoked Pall Malls and recited Robert Service poems. We were both middle-aged. He taught mathematics in Alaska and was in town for a math conference.
A mutual friend had a dinner party. I recited the first part of my favorite Yeats poem: “I shall arise and go now, and go to Inishfree…’’ I could not remember the next lines. My old friend spoke them for me:
“And build a small cabin there, of clay and wattles made.”
We had dinner together the next night. I went with him to one of his math lectures, something about Fermat’s Last Theorem.
“It’s about connections, isn’t it,” I whispered to him as I tried to make sense of what the lecturer was saying. He nodded.
“Can you give me a simple explanation?”
He shook his head. There were no simple explanations to a puzzle that some of the best mathematical minds had been working on for more than 300 years.
Over coffee he told me he had been in love with a woman in Alaska. It didn’t work out. She was married. Then in his understated, shy way he told me he’d “thought quite a lot of me” all those many years before when we were growing up together.
Snow was beginning to stick to our coats when we hugged good-bye. He flew back to Alaska, where a woman lived who loved him, perhaps, but who would not leave her family for love. I thought that I might.
I wrote a poem about Fermat’s Last Theorem and sent it to him. Only, it was more about the connections between a man and a woman than math. I never understand Fermat’s Last Theorem.
We wrote letters, talked on the phone. The five-hour time difference caused a slight voice delay that made conversations just a bit off.
Then I was going to Alaska for a visit. I’d envisioned it as just above Washington, forgetting about Canada. I should have realized how very far it was - 3,000 miles from Dayton as the crow flies, more than 4,000 by land. Only, you can’t get there as the crow flies. You leap-frog from Dayton to Salt Lake to Seattle to Anchorage and then to the interior towns in Alaska.
Seattle to Anchorage seemed longest - many hours hurtling through darkness. I stared out the window of the plane into black nothingness and thought of the author and pilot Saint-Exupery who disappeared into skies like this, whose Little Prince lands on a strange planet.
A few hours out of Seattle, the man sitting across the aisle took his shoes off, propped his stocking feet up on the bulkhead and smiled at me. It signaled a coming into Alaska territory. The last American frontier. I was a fellow traveler.
When I arrived, the sky was immense with stars. The cold air tasted clean. It was too dark to see the snow.
He was shy and ill at ease, the way he’d been as a boy; only the sun-squint lines around his eyes hinted at the 30 years in between. We used to heist champagne punch after my parents’ parties, smoke cigarettes and read poetry to each other.
When I was 16, he took me flying in a two-seater plane he was learning to pilot. It was my first time up in an airplane, though I’d once jumped off the garage roof, believing I could fly.
What had been between us had been platonic, but somehow charged. Now, I did not know if I was visiting an old friend or a new lover. Perhaps a wiser woman would have gotten this straight before traveling so far.
It was March. I’d come prepared for cold and dark, not the dazzling newborn sun that bounced off the snow and ice the next morning. I took to shielding my eyes from the glare with my right hand over my brow, like paintings you see of Indians.
My body cast elongated blue shadows on the porcelain snow. Washed in sunlight, Denali - Mt. McKinley - rose a giant totem over the immense landscape.
Four days passed. He avoided touching me, even casually. Oh, that’s it, then, I thought, friends.
I told him I would like to see moose, those funny looking members of the deer family that roam alone until they want mates. Then they bellow forlornly. Though we drove around looking, we couldn’t spot any.
“Moose are a figment of imagination up here,” I told him. It became our joke.
His Alaska friends were flower children with a few decades added. Women worked, raised children, skied, chopped wood, got through winter depressions. They let their hair go gray, went without lipstick. A man was jack of all trades - carpenter, car mechanic, bread baker, lover.
They wanted to know what the story was between us. “Friends, I told them, old friends. We lived near each other growing up.”
In Alaska, people are scarce relative to the land, women especially so. It seemed wasteful for one to go unclaimed, is the message I saw in their eyes.
The Alaskan poet John Haines came one night to a gathering - lamb curry, lots of wine and poetry. One guest was the woman my friend had been in love with - slim, dark eyes full of soul. A poet. He always went for poets. A slight discoloration of a front tooth only added to the charm of her face.
After the party, he spent a long time walking her out to her truck. I wondered why the hell I’d come to Alaska and began throwing clothes into my suitcase, packing to leave early, half listening until the front door opened and closed again and I heard his boots in the hall. I stopped packing.
The Alaska air or something was working on me like a drug; I couldn’t sleep. It was past midnight when one of his friends phoned with news. “Northern Lights!”
We bundled into parkas, boots, gloves, wooly caps pulled down over our ears and went out to look. The black sky was painted with great swirls of neon green… Aurora borealis, overcharged particles from the sun meeting vapors from Earth. Japanese couples come to Alaska to make love beneath them, believing their babies will be born strong.
I don’t remember who took whose gloved hand first. We walked a long time. The air was that dry cold that takes your breath away. But I wanted to go on breathing it. I thought maybe that’s how you could freeze to death - drunk on the air, giddy from looking at the giant painting in the sky and never feeling the cold.
The next day he drove me deeper into Alaska, over the White Mountains on a road only partly paved. Whiteouts whirled like dervishes at mountain passes. Here and there hulking frozen wrecks of cars that had plunged off the road. I was completely at the mercy of this road, this dangerous road, this man driving me. When we got to a place nearly at the top of the world, there sat an old clapboard inn with gabled windows. A sign read “Arctic Circle Hot Springs.”
We put on bathing suits, ran outside and jumped in. The Arctic air meeting hot sulfur water made a heavenly fog. Our eyebrows and eyelashes froze. Swimming in clouds, snow flakes falling on my face, I no longer knew where I was, how I would ever get back.
The news crackled over a radio in the lobby: A blizzard has closed passes over the mountains. The snow fell all that night. Under the gabled roof of the inn, I could sense its falling, falling, blanketing and holding us.
He is a man of much cynicism, few words, but he spoke: “You are so beautiful all over,” in a tone of near reverence, like a boy.
It is useless to try to describe why our lovemaking felt so fierce, necessary, otherworldly. Not what I might have expected from this reticent math professor who had “thought quite a lot of me” when I was a girl.
When I raked my memory, I realized that I must have used that - his loving me secretly, me knowing it somehow, the careless sexual power of girls not yet women. I had married someone else, and divorced. He never married.
The day I flew home from Alaska, he said less than usual. Quiet on the ride to the small airport. Awkward hug. When I looked back at him one last time before boarding, he was unsmiling, eyes dull and, I thought, sad.
Why sad, I wondered. We had found each other again after all these years, hadn’t we? We would call and write and go to Yeats country in Ireland together. Thousands of miles between us meant little compared to the possibilities between a man and woman. That was my theorem.
Half a year later, we went to Ireland. He was careful to avoid touching me, even casually.
We missed Yeats country altogether. I felt loss. Puzzlement.
Over time, I came to realize that the woman he had loved in Alaska was jolted by my visit, seeing me with the man she loved. Jolted them right into each other’s arms. So, this is an Alaska love story, all right, just not my love story.
But why had he not declared himself all those many years before? He and I had taken to the skies, gone nearly to the end of the Earth together. Finally I had to dig out of my psyche a false theorem: That in regaining him, I might regain a piece of that time when we were young. Not an especially happy time - it’s untrue the young are happy - but one thick with the primordial stuff of our lives.
Now, I have another theory: That under certain circumstances, people may become charged like sun particles and collide with great force and little meaning. Little meaning that we understand, that is.
Alchemy is possible: I have pulled out photos from that trip; one taken before the night of the Northern Lights shows a pleasant looking woman of middle age. One taken the next morning - sun streaming through the windows of that Alaskan cabin - a radiant girl of, possibly, 18.
Perhaps I wasn’t looking for love at all - just wanted to fly. And even if things had worked out with us, all that not talking could have driven me crazy.
Fermat’s Last Theorem was finally proven. The same year I went to Alaska, professor Andrew Wiles won a prize of $50,000 for solving it. As complex as Wiles’ proof is at 100 pages, I think it is less complex than love. There are just too many variables. And no proof.
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