Just to get this out of the way, I didn’t join a cult. That’s not how it happened. How it happened was this: I was driving and it was sunrise. I was passing through Panorama City, heading down towards Hollywood, and it was weird. The light, I mean — you know how LA light is kind of glowy and strange and filtered through smog and pink and blue all over? It wasn’t like that. It was like desert light. Warm. It reached out to you.
Anyway I was driving and looking for a place to pull over to get the coffee, because ever since the Starbucks by the Korean grocery closed I couldn’t find a conveniently located place that would do all the weird shit rich people like to do to coffee. Everything’s artisanal now. They want you to do it their way. Cashew milk or whatever.
I was concentrating so hard on the coffee that there was no room in my head for anything else, which was good. Not my roommate moving out. Not how the hell I would cover her half of the rent. Not the bills piling up on the kitchen counter. Just getting the coffee. And that thought was like a balloon, in that it took up a lot of space but was completely empty, and was only a pinprick away from popping and leaving me with no distractions at all.
So that was how I was doing in Panorama City around sunrise, surrounded by this yellow-orange light. It was turning concrete and stucco into something that looked almost like Sedona. It was truly beautiful. It almost made me forget about the coffee and about the empty balloon, too. There was this big mostly empty strip mall I’d driven past a hundred times and never noticed, but in this light for some reason I did. It was made of something that was supposed to look like adobe but wasn’t. There were a few cars, mostly pretty beat up ones like mine, gathered around the entrance of the big main building, which looked like a movie theater. Except — and this is what made me turn away from the main highway and head towards it, when I was already late for work — the letters on the sign didn’t spell out the names of new releases. They said “THE CHURCH OF ASTROCHRISTIANS WELCOMES YOU”.
I live in LA and I grew up in the weird part of Arizona so I know all about cults. But this didn’t feel like a cult. It felt like something beautiful and secret was reaching out to me, and I decided to answer it, and if it turned out to be a cult then I would get the hell out of there and be half an hour late to work, and if they fired me, well, it wasn’t like I could get that much more broke. But even just the word Astrochristians felt both bizarre and oddly comforting. So I pulled into the parking lot next to the most beat up convertible I’d ever seen and got out. And then out of the corner of my eye I saw a wing. A wing, attached to a man. A man with wings. There was a man with wings sitting on a bench in the parking lot outside the Church of Astrochristians.
Of course I got out of the car and walked towards him, because whether he was a movie extra or an angel I wanted to talk to him. Even in the warm light he was pale. The weak blue-tinged white of skim milk. Up close I could tell he was no movie extra. He glowed with a light of his own. I leaned against the hood of my car and watched him silently.
“Hi”, I said.
“Hello”, he said, in a voice like memory.
“What are you doing here?”
“I was waiting for a bus, but I think I missed it”, he said.
“Where are you going?” I asked. “I have a car.”
He looked at my car for a long solemn moment. “No, I don’t think that will work”, he said finally. “Thank you, but I don’t think you can take me there.” I saw then that his wings were misshapen and mangled. Cars whizzed past on the highway, seemingly oblivious to the angel in the parking lot.
“Where did you come from?” I asked.
“The universe”, he answered.
“Shit, me too”, I said.
He nodded. He didn’t seem to understand sarcasm. “Yes”, he said thoughtfully.
“Do you want to go to church?” I asked. Of all the places on earth, church seemed most likely to be helpful, and after all there was one right there. He nodded, and I led him towards the theatre.
His wings almost didn’t fit in the revolving doors. He had to fold them up very precisely and sort of shimmy through and it looked like that took a lot of concentration. I could’ve sworn I saw his tongue sticking out, just the tiniest bit, from the corner of his mouth. I found that very endearing. The way he moved in general was so careful, so deliberate. He seemed like an extremely polite guest visiting the house of a woman who kept all her furniture in plastic wrap. Each footstep was calculated.
The interior both did and didn’t look like a movie theatre. The concession stand was gone, as was the ticket booth, but the carpet was still there—that tacky patterned stuff you only ever see in movie theaters and bowling alleys and upholstering the seats in coach buses. It usually reminds me of mid-nineties educational videos, but somehow with all the other trappings of a movie theatre removed it seemed strange and delightful. All the posters had been removed, too. They were replaced by blank white sheets printed only with phrases like GOD IS LOVE and GOD IS THE UNIVERSE and even GOD IS OTHER PEOPLE, which seemed entirely incompatible with all my lived experiences of other people. As we walked down the hallway they became stranger and more abstract. SUN AND LIFE, one said. THE STARS LIVE AND DIE AND THEY ARE SATISFIED. WE DO NOT UNDERSTAND BLACK HOLES YET LOVE THEM ANYWAY.
“Do you have a name?” I asked.
“No”, the angel said, and I couldn’t argue with that.
We wandered through the theatre, I guess looking for something to be happening. Very little was. No one was around and the lights were all off.
“You’re not afraid”, the angel said to me as we turned yet another corner towards the last hallway of theaters. His intonation was flat, like a statement, but it seemed like a question anyway.
“Should I be?” I asked.
“I don’t suppose so”, he said, “but I don’t know very much about humans.”
“That bus you were waiting for”, I said finally. “Where was it going?”
“Back”, he said.
“Back… to heaven?”
“Back”, he answered.
“Why are you here?” I asked. But he didn’t answer, just stared straight ahead. I tried again. “Did someone send you?” Nothing. “Are you here for me?” He shook his head. “Are you…” and the words died on my tongue. There was nobody I’d lost who I wanted to speak to. Nobody who would send me an angel. We walked in silence for a moment.
“I wanted to see the ground”, he said finally. “I wanted to know how it felt to look up.”
Then he squeezed my arm because we had come to the last theatre, and the last theatre said NOW PLAYING: EVERYTHING. Even though intellectually I knew this shit was wild and not sufficiently un-cultlike for me to be cool with it, I felt calm. I felt curious. I felt something I’d never felt before, which was that I was exactly where I should be. And besides, I had an angel with me. “Come on, let’s go in”, I said.
Inside, the theater was mostly empty but not completely. There were maybe fifteen people there, and they weren’t all old ex-hippies like I expected — there was a young Latino family, and a stately looking black woman in her forties, and a green juice-toting white girl I could’ve sworn I’d seen outside the SoulCycle in Sherman Oaks. A few nodded or waved in my direction. None of them seemed to notice the angel, or if they did he didn’t strike them as unusual. I nodded back and then we took our seats.
Everyone seemed to be waiting for a movie to start. The screen was down and the lights were out, but nothing seemed to be happening. Until, quietly, it was. If I squinted I could make out tiny pricks of white light. Stars. Nothing else. Just stars. Vast, unchecked swaths of them. I glanced around and everyone seemed totally absorbed. Fifteen people were stargazing in a movie theatre in Panorama City at seven a.m. on a Tuesday.
I waited for the church part to happen — for some L. Ron Hubbard-looking motherfucker to dissolve into frame and start telling us about Cthulu — but nothing did. Not obviously, at least. Not for a while. It was just the stars, and then a vision of towering powdery nebulas somewhere in the far-off reaches of the galaxy. And it was beautiful, but it didn’t change me. It was beautiful in a way I had no context for. I was still, at that point, wondering why they didn’t just call themselves a planetarium.
And then church started. Or, what happened was one of the little kids turned to his mother and asked how far away all those pictures were. And she whispered to him that they were so many millions of light years away that they might not even be there anymore, because the light had taken so long to travel to us that we were seeing them as they were in the distant past. He started crying. She held him and shushed him softly.
It was like that one little kid broke a spell and suddenly everyone was talking. Some had tears in their eyes, but some were just chatting excitedly to old friends. I couldn’t quite make out what everyone was saying but it seemed like a lot of talk about love and astronomy, and I distinctly heard someone say, “We are so blessed to belong to the cosmos”. It was weird, but somehow it wasn’t alien. It was like when the tough stringy old ladies back home would greet friends at Mass and their faces, usually craggy as armadillo hide, blossomed into pure unfettered love for one another. I hadn’t been to church since I was a kid, but somehow it reminded me of that, this Church of Astrochristians.
That would’ve been enough for me. The screen, and the people. But then the angel nudged me. “Look up”, he said, and I did, and my god there were stars. There were stars like salt in the sea. And they were moving, all the time, not in the blink-and-you-miss-it frenzy of meteors but kind of slow and gentle and, well, languid. Or, I guess, serene. As if to say, here we are, the universe! And I finally understood, really got, that space isn’t some distant location but something we’re all inside of all the time.
Just then the angel stood up and unfurled his wings. They weren’t misshapen or crumpled anymore. They were glorious. Muscle, sinew, feather. They could’ve blotted out the sky. I waited for him to fly up through the open ceiling, but he didn’t. Instead he looked around, at the popcorn constellations on the floor and the EXIT signs on the walls, and walked out. Wings spread he walked. Under the sign and through the door and back to the lobby, and from there I guess he must have just kept walking. Out into the city. Maybe down onto the highway or all the way west to the sea. Maybe he even caught that bus, although I think it’s more likely he didn’t. I don’t think he wanted to go back, after all.
I looked around at my fellow stargazers. When I looked back up all I saw was ceiling.
After that I quit my job and cancelled my lease and moved back to Arizona, to the
desert, where you can see stars every night. Sometimes I drive around at night looking for angels. I haven’t found any, and I’m not really sure I’d even want to. One is kind of enough, you know? But I do find stars. I always, always find stars.
And then sometimes I just go to the big mall in the nearest city and get a milkshake and sit in the parking lot and watch people go by, the teenagers with their anxious eye makeup and the bloated happy families with screaming kids, the old ladies doing their once-a-decade restock of Chanel No. 5 and the construction workers grabbing their daily burrito. On weekends I might sit there from noon until dusk. I watch the harsh sun change into dark fire and I watch the shadows of all the people I see lengthen, turning them into giants who walk with spindly legs. The stars are drowned out by headlights on the freeway. I drive home under a sky lit red and gray. And that, too, is something.