During a total solar eclipse, the moon glides in front of the sun, blocking his energy from earth. The moon draws a curtain of darkness, our cue to find our seats, and her shadow stirs our anticipation of the approaching show. She drops the temperature and hushes our voices so birds can nest in peace and frogs can sing their night song. Orb-weaver spiders consume their homes and prepare to build again somewhere else.
But we might not notice any of this as her shape grows and fear dances at the root of our open mouths. For a moment, we aren’t sure if we want to gape in awe or scream in horror, and we teeter between the two for longer than we thought we would. Some of us may conjure the ancient belief running through our blood that a giant frog, a celestial dragon, or Rahu’s severed head is eating the sun. Others might feel the urge to bang on pots and pans like their ancestors to ward off the demon who has orchestrated such horror. Eventually, some of us find enough stability to ooh and ahh. Others, needing to connect, hit the upper arm of the person next to them to ask, can you believe this? Can you believe what you see?
But what is it you see, exactly?
Do you see a swallowed sun?
Or a moving moon?
I am getting married one month from today, and I am afraid this means I will disappear. I understand this is in no way logical. No bride slides that band down her left ring finger as the flames of her nuptials clamber up her white dress, incinerating her, her goals, her voice, until she diminishes into an anthill of ash that shrinks with the breeze of each guest passing by. I’ve imagined it this way, but I know that’s not what will happen. I think it might happen slowly, the way coastal villages take decades to disappear beneath rising water levels before an advocate says, “Hey, everyone that village is underwater!” But it’s too late. Nothing can be done to surface a home that will collapse once it tries to exist in air again.
Before I continue, I have to tell you that my fiancé, Joe, has little to do with this fear. His salary supports my current pursuit of a graduate degree. He insists on doing my laundry so I can spend all the time I need researching and writing. His most repeated phrase second only to I love you is what do you think? This isn’t to say he is perfect—but I don’t disappear when I am around him. This worry only ignites when I am alone and think too hard about how other people’s perception of me might shift after “I do.”
Which is odd, because I have never been one to mind other people’s ideas of me much. I tell dirty jokes when children are within earshot. I take dinner table debates to an uncomfortable level and volume. I wear unwashed sweatpants in public. Yet I can’t restrain the urge to craft a lengthy Facebook manifesto when 177 more people like my “We’re engaged!” post than when I announced my new job as the editor of a literary magazine (my first job aligned with my career goals in years). I don’t know what to do when people see me as “engaged” before they see me as “writer,” or “independent,” or “Nora,” or anything that doesn’t imply someone else’s stamp of approval.
Or when my female coworker snatches my hand to gaze into my ring before looking me in the eye to say good morning.
Or when my cousin questions why I am keeping my last name instead of acknowledging that Seilheimer is what connects us, so why would I throw that away?
When others look at this ring, what do they see, exactly?
While the total solar eclipse in March of 2016 did not cast any shadows over my Chicago apartment, it did inspire change. This was when Joe accepted my invitation to leave our Windy City lives behind and see what the Big Easy had to offer us. One year later in New Orleans, Joe and I rode our bikes to City Park on a cloudy Saturday morning and took a break under the Singing Oak. I was going to meditate beneath the wind chimes, but he took a knee. After I said yes, a storm rolled in, so we rode our bikes in a downpour to the nearest beignets and champagne. We toasted each other, our wrinkly toes wriggling in soaked shoes.
The Monday after Joe proposed, I walked into my office clutching my coffee with my work bag, my gym bag, and my lunch bag sagging from my shoulder. Between the champagne and all the planning I insisted we get done that very weekend because, like I told Joe, anyone who is taking more than 72 hours to plan a wedding has the wrong priorities, I hadn’t slept much. I still had not decided on a color palette, so on top of minimal rest, I also hated myself for being exactly what I had wanted to avoid becoming: an average bride. Anticipating a long day of sitting in front of the computer answering emails while trying not to fall asleep, I greeted my coworkers without stopping for a conversation.
“Oh my god, let me see it!” Debbie said as she sprung out of her chair.
Debbie charged toward me, both arms reaching forward, her gaze fixed on my left hand. Her smile and eyes widened and burned.
“The ring!” she said.
“Oh. Shit. Hold on.”
I took a step toward my desk to put my bags down, but Debbie started to follow like the ring had lassoed her into some magnetic field I couldn’t see. It seemed important to her, so I dropped my bags to the floor by my feet. Debbie reached for my left hand as I showed her my right.
“O-ohh!” she said. “It’s on your right hand. Very European.”
“No, no, we are wearing rings on our right hands because—”
“Oh, it’s beautiful!” Debbie said bringing my hand closer to her face. “This ring. Is. So. You.”
I wanted to tell Debbie that Joe and I decided to wear rings on our right ring fingers during out engagement and move them to our left ring fingers at our ceremony. I wanted to tell Debbie we came to this decision after discussing how engagement rings have historically been used to mark women, to declare them off the market, a dazzling warning sign to ward off other suitors. Did she know the intention behind an engagement ring is not unlike calling dibs on the front seat in a carpool? Or licking the cookie you want from the batch before they’ve had time to cool? Did she know it was territorial?
I could have told Debbie all this, but the magic dancing in her eyes made me reconsider. Maybe she already knew these things and didn’t care. Perhaps she cared about the ritual more than the symbol. She probably wanted to show she was happy for me and my choice, not be lectured on why her ideas on rings aren’t woman-friendly. Or perhaps I’ve sold Debbie short. Maybe she would totally dig the thought behind Joe and I both wearing engagement rings as a sign of equality. But was potentially hurting her worth feeling proud of my choice?
I didn’t know.
So I heaved my bags onto my shoulders once more.
“I am just so happy for you, Mrs. Robinson,” Debbie said leaning in for effect.
“Oh, I’m going to keep my—”
“We’ll have to start singing that song,” Debbie said, dancing back to her desk. “And here’s to you Mrs. Robinson…”
At a loss, I shifted beneath the weight of my bags and held my coffee up to Debbie.
“Cheers, Deb” I said.
I stayed at my desk until lunch.
Consider that the name “solar eclipse” tricks us, that it turns our attention to the wrong celestial body. We hear “solar.” We think sun. We don’t hear “lunar,” so we forget the moon and her power. We mistake her for a demon or a dragon or a hungry wolf. We overlook her effort. She’s the one orbiting. She’s the one right in front of us. She’s controlling the light, the temperature, the sound, every sensation flooding our insides in that moment of totality. She strikes us with awe.
Of course the term “lunar eclipse” exists. But during a lunar eclipse, a name that directs our attention to her, the Earth’s shadow—our shadows—eat her until she appears to bleed. In this moment, she finally has the spotlight, but it burns out. She catches on fire.
We don’t notice her until she is in flames.
All we can do is watch.
On March 29, 2006, a total solar eclipse skated up Western Africa, Greece, Turkey and Northern Asia. I was a sophomore at Kalamazoo College in Kalamazoo, Michigan at the time, so this eclipse hadn’t even occurred to me. Regardless, it sparked a transition as I prepared to tell my boyfriend, Chad Patrowski, I’d be leaving him for six months to study abroad in Thailand the following semester. Study abroad was engrained in the college’s culture and its nationally ranked program was at the top of many students’ list of reasons they’d applied. Chad completed three months in France before we started dating and loved it. A big part of him had to see this coming, but I was still worried it would crush our five-month relationship regardless of how many times we had gotten drunk, said I love you, and then confirmed such allegations the following morning in our underwear while chugging Glacier Freeze Gatorade to cure our hangovers.
Turns out I was worried for the wrong reason.
“Thailand! That’s great, babe!” Chad said twisting the orange cap back on his Sunday morning vessel of electrolytes. He tackled me with a half-naked hug. I landed on my back. His chest covered my lips.
“You’re not mad?” I said into his skin, my words muffled. He squeezed me tighter and his brown curls flopped in front of my eyes.
“Of course not. This is great news!”
I rapid-fire blinked as his hair tangled with my eyelashes.
“So we aren’t going to break up?”
Chad sat up and stared at me with his mouth open in shock. Then it seemed a thought had crept into his mind that melted his muscles and he smiled.
“Why would I ever break up with the future Mrs. Patrowski?”
At first I thought he was talking about his mom and wondered, what does his mom have to do with this? Then I realized he said “future” and that meant me and that he didn’t see me as a Seilheimer. Then I realized he pretty much just said he wanted to marry me.
That’s a lot of things to realize at one time.
“I can’t tell you how happy I am to hear you say that,” I said suddenly aware I was topless. “But you know I am keeping my last name, right?”
“Why would you want to keep it?”
“Why would I want to get rid of it?”
“It’s my name,” he said. “I am giving it to you. It’s a gift.”
Then return it, I thought.
“I get that,” I said. “But my name is Seilheimer.”
About eight years later, I was drunk at a Chicago bar and talking to a really tall guy with sculpted shoulders whose name I learned was Joe. When he told me he was an English teacher who had played the sousaphone in high school, I didn’t know he’d be my husband someday. Still, I wanted to be clear with him.
“I just want you to know now, my last name is Seilheimer, and I am keeping it,” I said before taking a long sip of beer for effect.
“You should keep it.”
He clinked his glass with mine and took a pull of his own beer. I liked the way it sounded, but I wondered if it was for effect.
I wonder if all of it is for effect.
On July 15, 2017, about one month before the Great American Eclipse, Joe and I drove to the Seilheimer Family Reunion at my Uncle Randy and Aunt Donna’s house a bit outside of Kalamazoo. We drove past fields of knee-high corn and cows grazing in the sun as our iPhones struggled to detect our location. We worked off my memory of previous trips out there until we spotted a tree with a balloon tied to it. When we pulled up, two lanes of cars boasting license plates from Michigan, Illinois, Wisconsin, Colorado, and Texas lined either side of the driveway, so we half-parked in the road. Joe grabbed my hand as we walked up the blacktop path that led to the open garage full of food, family, and beer. He remarked that this was the first time we’d see my extended family since we got engaged. I predicted they would have lots of questions about the wedding and would want to see the ring.
Not a ton of questions.
Very little ring-gazing.
“So I heard you’re keeping your name,” my cousin’s wife, Whitney, said across the food line. I placed two deviled eggs on my plate, one at a time, as I contemplated the response she wanted to hear and the response I wanted to give.
“Well, you heard right!” I sang with my freehand on my hip and a soft bounce in my knees, a weird physical reflex I have in moments when I don’t know how to act.
“Well,” Whitney started as she put the lid back on the crockpot of baked beans, “I think that’s really cool.”
“Thanks,” I said easing back into a normal posture and register.
“But you do know that if you decide to take his name, that it’s just something you do. It doesn’t mean anything.”
I popped one of the eggs in my mouth and did a slow nod as I chewed. I held my index finger up to her as if to say, just a sec, I can’t speak with all this egg in my mouth when I was really communicating, just a sec, I don’t know what to say when other women tell me the name I have been signing at the bottom of my rent checks and typing at the top of essays means nothing. An awkward amount of time had passed, so my extended index finger morphed into a thumbs-up and I went looking for Joe.
Whitney had a point. Giving up a last name might just be something women do, and marriage isn’t the only circumstance under which any person might do it. It does keep things neat and orderly when the parents and the children all bear the same name. Teachers at conferences won’t wonder if you’re the new girlfriend instead of the first and only wife. I’ve heard the paperwork to change your name is a nightmare, but that in the end you feel like your husband is your teammate, not your superior. Giving it up might not mean anything.
But keeping it might mean everything. And I want a shot at everything.
Still, I wonder. I wonder what keeping my last name proves.
I wonder if I’m keeping it for the effect.
Even if we think we see a moving moon during a solar eclipse, we don’t really. We see her shape, but with the sun sending his rays around her edges, we can’t see her face. We can trace her outline in the air with the tip of our index finger, and we can stare into her silhouette, but we aren’t privy to her texture. We are blind to the scars slashed by asteroids, gashes gouged by meteorites, smooth spots of hardened lava. Some scientists say that because she does not erode, she wears the entire history of the solar system on her face. But with him behind her, with him around her, we don’t see her.
One of my closest friends, Angela, was the first from our group of friends to get married. When she told us she was engaged, we were all 24 or 25 years old, drunk, and dressed up like Vikings for her annual Nordic-themed holiday party. We had just finished cross-country skiing out to a bonfire blazing in a patch of snow covered Michigan woods when she and her then-fiancé, Steve, made the announcement.
Donned in fur cloaks and horned-helmets, the couple stood on top of a wooden bench behind the fire and leaned their heads back, howling a Viking battle cry toward the moon. When it appeared, we were all fully summoned and in tune, and Angela raised her drink in the air and curled her arm around Steve’s back.
“Vikings! Gather round, hush your voice, and lend an ear,” she said. “Under this moon, before this fire and all of you, we wish to share some news. Steve and I are getting married! Arrrrrggghhh!” she cried.
“Arrrrrggghhh!” we cried back.
I can’t say my first response was happiness. It was definitely my second response, but only after a wave of uncertainty rushed through my body quicker than the vodka had. I looked at my friend between the flames as she danced atop the bench and wondered why she seemed so far away all of a sudden. She was right there, right in front of me. If I could reach through fire I could have touched her. But I can’t reach through fire, so I just watched her get smaller as I slowly disappeared behind the group to let a tear slide down my cheek in the dark.
Under a pine tree, I called our friend, Christine, who was unable to come to the party.
“Dude, Christine,” I said. “Angela and Steve are engaged.”
“What? Really? That’s great!” she said. “Right?”
“Yes, completely, this is one hundred percent great,” I said. “But, what does this mean?”
“I don’t know. I mean, there will be a wedding.”
“Of course, but what does that mean?” I asked.
We both paused. I heard Christine exhale.
“I guess this means we are people who get married now,” she said.
“Are we really though? Are we ready for that?”
“I’m not. Are you?”
“Hell no, I’m not.”
I turned to face the group again and saw Angela and Steve leading a choreographed chant from the bench. The fire lit them from below and the moonlight bathed them from above. While the others watched Angela and Steve for the next step, the couple looked at each other and laughed. I couldn’t tell who chose what move to make next.
“Do you think we will lose her?” I asked.
A month or so before Angela and Steve’s two-year anniversary, Angela and I met for a yoga class and a hike in Traverse City, Michigan on a sunny July afternoon. We hadn’t shared these sacred spaces since her wedding, so I was anxious to see if it would feel differently to be with her on familiar territory. She had recently returned from a month-long trip to India where she had stayed in a few ashrams exploring yoga. Or so I thought. Sure, she had done yoga, but when she returned, it sounded more like she went to hit the reset button on life. Still pretending I wasn’t hurt that I hadn’t been invited to come along as drunken promises might have suggested, I reserved sorting my feelings for a private moment later on and acted like I knew why she needed the fresh start.
Parts of the path narrowed to about a foot wide, so every now and then she or I would take the lead. We moved seamlessly from side-by-side to single-file and back without pausing the conversation. It felt good to be in sync with her again, but something was still off.
I was proud to stand with her and Steve on their big day, but any distance I felt growing between us at Viking Bash seemed like an entire continent on the hike. I didn’t blame either of us for this gap. I figured it was just life playing out as it should—friendships adjust to make room for other partnerships. Our number ones become our number twos, and that’s ok. Silver has its value. So I happily received whatever it was Angela would share with me. I figured it wasn’t my place to ask about her marriage, and I certainly was in no position to be giving her marital advice should she need it. I wasn’t sure what value I could add to her life at that point or what probing I could do into her private, #1 relationship. She was one of my closest friends, but did that make her marriage my business?
When we were far enough into the trail that the city disappeared behind walls of trees on all sides, I asked her what her biggest discovery was while she was in India. This felt like a pretty safe question to ask since we shared a love for yoga. The path narrowed and Angela took the lead.
“Dude, that’s such a great question,” she said. “Honestly, my biggest discovery was how happy I am to be married.”
I let out a laugh as the path widened again on an uphill. I picked up the pace a notch to catch up to her.
“You didn’t know that already?”
She turned her head to look at me and I noticed her brow furrowed the same way it did when I confessed I was blackout drunk at her wedding and don’t remember anything after the first dance. I still hate myself for that laugh. And for that drunk.
Her face relaxed.
"I thought I did,” she said. “But I really didn’t.”
Angela went on to explain how much she had been struggling to understand who she was in her marriage and what that meant for her outside of their union. She never questioned marrying Steve, but she did question the timing of it all and if she had ruined the possibility of their marriage being a happy one by not speaking up and saying she needed more time before “I do.” She said she started to blame him for taking something away from her, what it was she wasn’t sure, but she was sure he had taken it somehow.
“I was mad at him all the time and never talked to him about it,” she said. “I guess that means deep down I knew it wasn’t about him, it was about me, but it took going to India to figure that out.”
We paused at the top of a hill for a water break and faced each other for the first time since we met at the trailhead.
“I feel like the worst friend for not realizing any of this was going on,” I said.
“It’s not like I was talking about it to anyone,” she said. “How could you have known?”
“I could have asked.”
Angela shrugged again.
“Honestly, if you had I might not have told you. It’s hard being the only one married.”
All this time, I thought I was the one tiptoeing across new territory within our friendship; I missed the fact that Angela had been doing the same. Even though we shared similar reservations about her decision to get married, she never talked about them because brides aren’t supposed to have them, and I never asked about them because bridesmaids aren’t supposed to doubt the couple. I looked her in the eye for two years without seeing her, really. Even over the phone when it was just us talking, I sensed Steve in the background listening to at least half our conversation. Focused on his presence, I censored myself and our friendship changed. Without meaning to, we had made each other disappear.
“Still,” I said. “I could have asked.”
The morning of August 21, 2017, the day of the Great American Eclipse, I sat in our New Orleans apartment updating our seating chart with the RSVPs that had filed in over the weekend. Three construction workers outside my window punched concrete with machines big enough to sit in. They tossed loose pieces that looked like tectonic plates into a section of the street they had blocked off with yellow tape. The first smack made me jump in my seat, so I nosy-neighbored out my window and found that they were adding to a mound they’d been building for days that was already as tall as me. I wondered about the road at the base of the pile and how much of itself it could hold before bursting.
A 5-minute drive away, Joe taught Freshman English. Joe’s classroom doesn’t have any windows and he’d be in the middle of his 6th period class at 1:29 pm, when the eclipse would be at its fullest. I told him I would send him pictures even though I had no idea what I might see or how to see it.
I paused on the seating chart so a quick Google search could tell me how to make “waffle fingers” by laying one set of spread fingers on top of the other in a crisscross pattern. If I turned my back to the sun and raised my waffle overhead, I was supposed to be able to see the shape of the moving moon in the spaces between my fingers’ shadows on the sidewalk. Content with having found something that did not involve cutting up cereal boxes that I didn’t have, I resumed crafting the seating chart. The construction below mellowed into the background and I decided I would write the woman’s name first on every heterosexual couple’s place card. Just to see.
It may have started to get darker sooner, but I didn’t notice it until around 1:20 pm, when the construction workers stopped punching and tossing to acknowledge the moon’s movement.
“Looks like it’s time to go home,” one of them joked.
The light barely reached my window as it softened to a glow that I wasn’t used to seeing unless I was on vacation. I skimmed the waffle-fingers article one last time, grabbed my phone and keys, and journeyed outside.
I found a spot on the sidewalk across the street from our house where the trees parted enough for a sunny patch to spread on the concrete. I put my waffle in the air and searched the sidewalk for a cosmic connection. I couldn’t find it. I tried pulling my fingers apart and then gradually shrinking the space between the cross of my fingers with a slow slide of one hand over the other, but all that did was make the construction workers snicker, or laugh, or maybe not pay any attention to me at all and I was just feeling insecure about my inability to see her. I punished myself for being presumptuous about my relationship with the moon and assuming she’d be present for me. I hadn’t done the work. I didn’t have any cereal boxes. I didn’t make her a priority. I didn’t deserve to see her.
This wasn’t about the moon. This was about me. Debbie noticed my ring was on my right hand, but I didn’t explain it to her. I silenced myself instead. Whitney acknowledged the intention behind keeping my last name, but I didn’t defend it. I silenced myself instead. Angela needed support. I silenced myself instead. I was so afraid other women were letting me disappear that I didn’t see I was doing it to myself. I eclipsed myself.
Now the moon was nowhere to be found.
As I moped back to our apartment, I noticed that the trees’ branches—Mother Earth’s waffle fingers—made baby eclipses waltz along the concrete under my feet. I debated whether or not to take a picture of the sidewalk to send to Joe since these weren’t my waffle fingers and it felt like cheating. After a few deep breaths I realized this was a gift, not a pinch of salt in my wound, from Mother Nature, and snapped a pic for Joe.
This was the best I could do, I texted along with the picture.
Joe responded with how pretty he thought it still was and apologized for not knowing about the eclipse sooner so we could have planned a trip to the path of totality.
Next time, he texted back.
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Bromwich, Jonah Engel. “The Demons of Darkness Will Eat Men, and Other Solar Eclipse Myths.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 18 Aug. 2017, www.nytimes.com/2017/08/18/science/solar-eclipse-myths.html.
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Lee, Jane J. “Solar Eclipse Myths From Around the World.” National Geographic, National Geographic Society, 25 July 2017, news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2013/11/131101-solar-eclipse-myth-legend-space-science/.
Lewin, Sarah. “A Brief History of Solar Eclipses, From 1900 to 2017 (Gallery).” Space.com, 10 Aug. 2017, www.space.com/37762-history-of-solar-eclipses-since-1900.html.
NASA. “How Are Craters Formed?” NASA, NASA, sservi.nasa.gov/articles/how-are-craters-formed/.
Nora Seilheimer is a Michigander and nonfiction MFA candidate at University of New Orleans. She is the Co-Editor of Bayou Magazine and teaches a weekly yoga class to female inmates at Orleans Justice Center. She is currently working on an essay collection about her competitive figure skating career. Her work is published with Midwestern Gothic, Longleaf Review, Memoir Mixtapes, Door is a Jar, and Longridge Review. You can also find her on Twitter @nslhmr