One day, when you’re five years old and made out of fractured sunlight and mirror shards, you sit down on the bench of the MAX train. You’re dressed in your winter coat and boots that are too big and one of your parents has pulled your hat too close over your ears.
You’re sitting next to your mother, and on the other side is a man that smells like loneliness, something that you’ll later know as cigarettes and alcohol and homelessness. He’s crying quietly into the top of his jacket and you’re scared to look because you’ve never seen an adult cry.
The train ride goes on for five minutes, which is a long time to you, and eventually you sneak a look at the crying man who smells like Portland and loneliness, and he sees you. He leans down until you can see the red lines in his eyes and he whispers to you.
“Do you know the taste of the universe?”
And you look up at him with your little-girl eyes and shake your head because you can’t speak to strangers. And his smell is on your skin and in your nose so you shake your head and shake your head until you’re dizzy.
He nods at you and looks away, and in three minutes he’s crying again and you can finally swallow. And your teeth are dry, and your tongue is dry and finally this man gets up, still crying, and walks off the train into the dark.
And that’s that.
That question will keep you up for several nights, lying with your blanket all bunched up around your chin and your stuffed animal pressing into your spine.
Do you know the taste of the universe?
And that question will wrack you senseless and leave you broken the way children seldom are because you finally understand that you don’t. You don’t understand. A man who smelt like loneliness asked you a question and walked away and you don’t understand. You. Don’t. Understand.
A few days later you’ll be sitting on the playground looking at your hands and someone will ask you what you’re doing. And you’ll look up with those same little-girl eyes and you’ll say that you’re grieving. Because you know that word, even if they don’t, and you're grieving because you’re finally coming to grips with a universe where adults cry and loneliness is the sort of smell you taste on the back of your tongue.
That question will flick in and out of your brain like your heartbeat. One day when you’re ten some adult will ask you when you become a grown-up, and you’ll want to say that it’s the day when you taste the universe but you can’t. Because that’s a secret not-answer, because you don’t know what the universe tastes like and they don’t either.
By the time you’re eleven you’ll have the beginnings of insomnia because you’re always awake at night. Not because you’re busy, and not because you’re trying, but you’re getting to the point where the day isn’t long enough for all your thoughts and you’ll just think. And you’ll think and listen to your heartbeat and as the thoughts swirl and go down your spine like the water in a drain you’ll hear the smoky sound of the man’s breath. Do you know the taste of the universe?
And you’ll sit upright because you don’t. You. Don’t. Understand.
And one day when you’re fourteen someone you love and trust will betray you. Your best friend will betray you. They’ll betray everything, what they said, what they promised, your friendship, your love. And you’ll cry so hard that your throat will hurt and you’ll taste salt tears and the heavy, thick taste of despair. And somewhere in between that despair and the resignation you’ll think. Because you’re crying so hard you taste blood and that’s how you’ll know your heart is broken. You’ll think that this is it. The taste of the universe.
That must be why he asked it, because that day on the train he was tasting the universe and alcohol and cigarettes and there you were in the boots and the jacket thinking about Christmas. And of course he had to ask. Because you were there.
And you’ll ride the MAX train to Portland over the next few years and some days you’ll be alone. Because you’re coming back from school trips and you’re by yourself because you don’t have a place to be with friends. And you’ll taste the universe a little because of that, you’ll taste the echoes of that heartbreak and you’ll look for that man. You’ll look and you wait for him, because you need to tell him that you do. That you’ve tasted the universe and it tastes like heartbreak.
But you’ll never see him. And maybe that’s a blessing because you’re sure that if you tell him, if he knows that you know while you still have the remains of your little-girl eyes and childhood, he’d cry because that day he asked you he wanted the answer to be no. He wanted to know that there are still unbroken children in a world of broken hearts.
So you sit on the MAX and wait to go home and you’re almost sure you’re going to cry and you hope that a child doesn’t sit next to you because if they do, you’re going to ask them. Because what else can you do? And you’ll ask them and you’ll hand them that one last part of your heart that doesn’t know you. That doesn’t know you know. Because maybe then you can forget the taste of the universe for half a second. Because you’re so tired of thinking and thinking and you just want to be that little girl who shook her head so hard she was dizzy and didn’t know the taste of a broken heart.