Wednesday, August 12, 2009

The Weight of Stars

Tonight was supposed to be one of the best nights for seeing the Perseid meteor shower, so about 2:10 I took off on a walk with my standard poodle Pippi, hoping to glimpse a few falling stars as we walked in the dark quiet. OK, I’ll admit, walking along staring up at the sky in the middle of the night isn’t the smartest thing to do. I could have fallen flat on my face (again), but I was lucky--all I got was a crick in my neck. Oh, and I saw one meteor. One bright tantalizing miracle in the sky. Even though I was looking right at it, it flashed by like childhood and then it was an invisible particle of dust. I might have inhaled it for all I know. So I came home and lay on a damp cushion on the deck, hoping to see more. But I didn’t. The sky didn’t even look like a night sky. A waning half-moon shone too bright. Everybody in my neighborhood (and yours) has at least three bright yard lights. And then there are all those Walmarts and Speedways and streetlights….it never gets dark here.

I miss black skies sprinkled with a number of stars impossible to imagine. My best friend Sherry Roberts and I used prop an old metal bed spring across two spools we got from the phone company and sleep out in her yard. I could never actually sleep because of the weight of those stars. I’d lie awake all night watching them move across the sky, swallowed in that unlimited mysterious vastness. Sometimes I’d try to count them or I’d make up stories about the shapes I picked out, creating my very own constellations. I knew nothing of giant clouds of gas or black holes, red dwarfs or nebulae. I could no more imagine light years then than I can now. I didn’t know many of those stars had died millions of years before their light reached my retinas. I could pick out the big and small dippers, and sometimes the Milky Way was spread out like a smear of glitter, but I didn’t know the rings of Saturn were made of dirty chunks of chemical ice the size of my van. And Pluto was still a planet then. There was as much I didn’t know then as there is now.

As I walked into my yard tonight, I felt a certain disgust for my trusty van, parked there in the driveway. I remembered watching other night skies from the hoods of various cars, propped against a windshield smoking, drinking a beer, probably making out with some boy. Every once in a while a shooting star would whip across the sky and blink out in an instant. That was when you could still sit on the hood of a car without it caving in. The last time I sat on the hood of a car was right after we bought a brand-new Maxima station wagon. I was pregnant with Brandon, and I hopped up there like I always had on our other cars. Only this time the metal made a sickening crunching sound, and when I slowly slid off, there was a permanent dent where my butt had been. I don’t think Dan ever forgave me. It’s probably why we’re divorced now.

Tonight I would have liked to have lain back against a windshield and watched a truly black sky, made bright by stars instead of ambient human light. Given the number I could see from my deck, I could believe they had died before their light reached me. It didn’t look like there were that many left. Yet I lay there and stared into the sky I was given, willing chunks of comet to hit the atmosphere and flame out before my eyes. I’ve seen the Perseids from my deck before. One night several years ago we lay out there on the deck rails for hours as icicles dripped off the trees, and watched hundreds of them streak across the sky. They’re like Las Vegas slot machines—you don’t want to go in until you’ve seen just one more….and then another...and maybe just one more.

I wanted to see more than one tonight. But eventually I started psyching myself out, imagining wisps of light in my peripheral vision, but not really seeing a single meteor. Finally the cold dampness on the cushion seeped through my clothes and I decided to come inside.

It’s 3:30 now though, and I wonder if maybe I’d see some if I went back out. Maybe I watched too early. You never know when you’ll see your last meteor streak across the sky, when you’ll get your last chance to wish on a falling star…..I think I’ll check just one more time.

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