Does it ever make you feel alone?
She was lying on damp grass while looking up. Clouds were covering most of it, but in between the trees you could notice a patch of cloudless, starry sky. Wet ground never bothered her. She enjoyed it, actually. The peace of it, the interconnectedness of it, the fresh air and moist grass smell.
Once, when she was 11, she came down with the flu for spending the whole night out on the yard. It wasn’t a form of punishment or anything, her parents were wonderful folks and wouldn’t ever do anything remotely similar. She spent the night outside because she wanted to see stars for real. Of course, those plastic and fluorescent shooting stars and planets covered her room, and they looked wonderful and all, but… staring at plastic stars from a warm bed just didn’t quite cut it. They weren’t real. Real was outside. She went outside. She felt real, through the whole night. One soul with the universe and whatnot. It was majestic, as was her absolutely authentic near 40°C fever for the next few days.
Since then she’d learned only one lesson: keep spending nights outside, except, maybe, take a nice coat with you. Or a friend. Both at the same time would be fantastic.
Although she hadn’t planned to, she’d taken both tonight. Hans was a quiet guy to say the least, but it was only because he thought too much. It would take a supercomputer with high-frequency sampling to keep up with his brain. The dumb fucks at school would never understand this, of course. They would just annoy the hell out of the weird kid and keep on with their meaningless lives.
“Does it ever make you feel alone?”, asked Marla.
“Well,” replied Hans, “it used to. I used to feel extremely alone when my parents fought. Skies were particularly starless, or at least that’s how I perceived them to be, and the screaming voices from inside my house didn’t help brush away the loneliness.”
“One day,” he added after a moment’s pause, “I came to realize just how unimportant my parents’ troubles were. To me, at least. I was part of this huge thing, I would live some 70 years and for this short period of time would have the opportunity to observe this… creature, the Universe, that has been here for over 13 billion years. It’s like, you know, when you see a thick tree and know it has seen most of human history and then some? Except, of course, on a much, much larger scale we can’t even begin to fathom. My parents’ fights stopped affecting me as much. Starry nights were something I could look forward and up to. It was a peaceful feeling, you know? Stretching my arms and feeling powerlessness mixed with gratitude streak from head to toes. Have you felt that? Kinda like goose bumps, except of the kind you actually like to feel because, just for an instant, you feel connected through space and time with everything else?”
“Starry nights know they’re gorgeous and they don’t even try to hide it.” She turned to look at Hans and then lied down. “I’ve also felt it with books, you know? Or just short stories. They connect with me in a way that makes me feel less lonely. That, somehow, somewhere, there’s someone that’s experienced similar things to me, and that I’m not remotely alone because of that. I know that sometimes you end up liking a story just because of confirmation bias, or because you interpret mere probability as an act of destiny, like you were meant to read that book or whatever. But as much as I detest cliches, they come up so often in my reading or in these nights that I’ve come to think that… I don’t know. Maybe cliches aren’t meant to be hated. That if so many people experience the same thing when looking at a full moon or at Sirius in full bright, that maybe there’s something to that. Something we could appreciate. Maybe we all feel that because our tiny atoms resonate with the universe when they see it from afar, because they remember where they’ve come from. Maybe even Einstein’s spooky action at a distance has a touch of romanticism in it, you know? A pair of electrons that have been separated by probability, for millennia, can still influence one another from opposite corners of the universe.”
Hans agreed silently and moved closer to Marla. The night went on without another word except maybe the sky telling the clouds to get the hell out of its way. They did. Hans and Marla kept looking up.
They’d met that night. It was sort of a chance encounter, and you could blame Marla for being so damned odd and Hans for being so bloody damaged.
Hans was walking down the street, purposeless. It was late, his parents had been fighting because… well, the reasons were usually diffuse, but they enjoyed fighting and were getting quite good at it.
“Richard, can you take the garbage out?”, asked Mom.
Richard snarled and got up from the table. He took the garbage bag from the garbage can and started to walk to the door. “It’s your goddamn fault this family’s going to the dump”, accused Richard while opening the front door.
“What did you say?”, said Mom. She furrowed. Her lips were getting narrower.
“I said, THIS FAMILY’S GARBAGE BECAUSE OF YOU. This fake house that only goes with all your other shitty and expensive pleasures. Your goddamn kid who can’t even hold a screwdriver and spends his nights scared like a little girl in his room, looking at his goddamn stars.”
“Well, excuse me if you decided to spend his childhood with your ‘friends’. Drinking and gambling our money away. At least I spent it in things we can still appreciate, not drunken nights out while Hans asked for his father.”
“Things we can still appreciate? Are you FUCKING SERIOUS? You mean the hundreds of pairs of shoes you’ve thrown away to be replaced with new ones? Your filthy trips with your girlfriends while Hans was left alone with a nanny?”
“At least my trips to Vegas didn’t include whores. Whores which you paid with OUR money. Whores you fucked and thought I’d never know about.”
“Yes, I did! Alright? I fucked them. I was bored of you. I still am. This family’s worth less than the pile of shit you just made me take out to the street.
“Did it ever occur to you that maybe you’re the piece of shit we need to get rid of?”, asked Mom.
Richard left. A few minutes later the moot roar of an engine could be heard, and then the screeching of tires.
Hans thought of consoling Mom, but he knew what it entitled. After the tears would come the rage. “Why can’t you just be a normal kid, Hans? Does it pleasure you to make your father and I fight?” She wouldn’t even appreciate his company, so he left. Packed his portable telescope and nothing else. He’d bought that telescope on the week he escaped from home and worked at a friend’s house for some money. It was the only thing he had but it was enough. And it had a great story behind it, too: one of one-week emancipation and the feeling of utter freedom.
The night was cold out and you could still smell the rage left behind by Dad’s tire screeching. The night was a good one, though. Not too cloudy, and the city was chirping from afar. It was around 8 when he started to walk.
She was sitting outside with a book on her lap. Dad came outside and sat beside her on a garden chair.
“You gonna stay out here tonight, love?” he asked. “It’s getting pretty chilly.”
“I don’t know… Maybe. The night seems promising.”
“So, how’s the whole ‘learning about constellations’ thing going? Anything new come up?”
“Well, it’s kind of a pain in the ass, dad. I think whoever draws up those constellation maps is mental.” She laughed, with her gaze fixed on the book. “Things never look the way they do on my phone’s screen! I might as well start my own constellations and call them whatever I like. There’s one that really looks like a half-eaten cookie.”
“Why not? A bunch of old people that died hundreds of years ago probably named the constellations anyway. A change is due.”
He got up from his chair and walked towards Marla, kissed her on the forehead and smiled back.
“Better get to it, then. You’ve only got all night.”
The adrenaline rush had passed and now the telescope seemed heavy. He’d been walking for the past half hour and had finally began to think what the hell he was going to do at this ungodly hour.
He thought of going up to the hills near town. Many years ago the neighbor committee had invested in the construction of a golf field — most of the residents in the area were retired couples that seemed to all agree on the fact that golf was the most appropriate sport for retirement, even though most of them couldn’t swing a club. Be it as it may, though, the place was now abandoned. The construction probably took so long that by the time it was nearing completion most of the retirees had retired from life. Then the real estate market crashed. By the time it was back up and running, the realtors had decided to spin up the neighborhood, give it a younger twist, and marketed it as a resort for those up and coming young adults that coded and did all those things millennials do for a living. Hans’ parents weren’t any of these things, but they’d moved in because Mom fancied the house and Dad just liked to spend with grandeur.
“To the golf place, then.” whispered Hans to himself. “I’ll probably get mugged for being so stupid.”
Marla had been reading for a while now. She’d keep checking the sky, but the half-eaten cookie wouldn’t come into view. The road was also quiet: during the day you’d usually see kids hiking up with schoolteachers to the golf park uphill, but of course there was nothing of the sort right now.
He was dead tired by now. Stopped to catch some air and put down his telescope for a bit.
“Hey, what are you doing there?”, asked a voice.
“You’re from school, right? Hans, is it?”
“Uh, yeah?” Hans gripped onto his telescope a tad tighter, picked it from the handle and walked a few steps forward. “Where are you?”
A figure stepped out of the darkness and into the shadow cast by a nearby pine tree. It had short, boyish hair, a rectangle hanging from its left hand and a bat shaped object in its right. It walked a few steps forward and Hans backed up. The bat shaped object was most definitely a bat.
“So you just wait for strangers to come around, guess their names, then threaten them with that?” Hans pointed at the bat.
“Nah, I usually don’t even mind thinking about their names. Plus, you don’t seem so innocent yourself. What are you carrying around in that bag? Corpses? Murder weapons?”
“Yeah, I’ve been known to finish off my victims with expensive telescopes.” Hans lifted the bag as if to show it. “They get a thrill out of it, too. I let them see through it first, get all excited, then shove it through their face.”
“See why someone would need a bat, then? With the likes of you lurking around this time of night.”
Odd encounter as it was, Hans was curious. “So, who are you?”
The human shadow stepped out of the tree shadow. The rectangle hanging from its hand seemed to be a book, and it seemed to be a girl.
“I’m Marla. I’ve seen you at school.”
Hans stepped quietly on the footpath leading to Marla’s front porch. His telescope was becoming heavier on his shoulder, as was his discomfort. He’d planned on a night out, but had never thought about finding a stranger along the way. Nor did he think she’d invite him in to chat. Walking with his gaze lowered, Hans noticed the path was rocky and had grass surrounding it. Tree shadows moved and played with the rocks beneath his feet. The night wasn’t particularly windy, but trees were emphasizing the wind’s effects, and shadows were equally noticeable because of the full moon.
“So, isn’t it way past your bedtime?”, asked Marla as she smirked. She sat down on her garden chair and signaled Hans to do as she had.
“Isn’t it way past yours?”, replied Hans noncommittally. He was still standing and his posture didn’t seem to indicate he would sit down any time soon.
“I mean, what are you doing out this late?”
You don’t usually tell strangers your parents are a dysfunctional couple that blame their failing relationship on your birth. You don’t usually tell them you are so burdened by their fights that all that’s left and seems reasonable is leaving and managing on your own. You also don’t tell them you have no idea why you’re out this late and have nothing but a speck of notion of how you’ll spend the night in this freezing weather.
Out of the three, the latter seemed the most appropriate and inoffensive to reply with.
“I really have no idea what I’m doing and have nothing but a speck of notion of how I’ll spend the night this far out from home.”, Hans finally answered.
“Right… I imagine that’s not aided one bit by the fact that you’re carrying a telescope around with you.”
No, of course it didn’t help. It was a dumb move after all. Had he been mugged on his way up to Marla’s house, he would’ve lost everything he’s ever thought to be truly his own. But it was his, he had to take it.
“Will you show me how it works?”, asked Marla softly.
As it has been stated by Hans before, telescopes are fascinating little objects. Within their guts lie a series of concave and convex apparatuses made from heated silicon dioxide that manipulate light waves in such a way that objects can be brought down from space, into the backyard of your choice. In other words, a bunch of neatly organized pieces of glass that trick your eye into thinking it’s just a few hundred miles from the moon, with the added benefit of being able to breath and not wear an astronaut suit while you’re at it.
They moved into Marla’s backyard, which was way more spacious than Hans had presumed. The house’s front was brimming with trees, but the back seemed to have been cleared years ago. Small, ornamental trees were all that was left, as was a small and rusted swing. Hans wondered whether Marla had any siblings. If she did, they must be similarly aged or older than her, because it seemed like the poor swing had seen days of more usefulness.
Hans set down the telescope and started fiddling with its knobs. He’d finally begun to get comfortable in Marla’s presence. Her soft voice helped, and it made his heart jump when she became interested in the telescope. His parents, for obvious reasons, thought it a waste of money. But, of course, they were as square minded as anyone can be and wouldn’t, even in the brightest nights, ever see beyond their problems and into the rippling sky.
The first thing Hans ever looked at through his telescope was Betelgeuse. It’s quite a bright star, but he was rather hoping to see Ford Prefect’s home. He failed, of course. After this mild disappointment, his favorite object to look at became the moon. Sometimes he’d close his room’s curtains, so as to block the moon’s light, then he’d stick the telescope through the curtains’ flaps and focus it on the moon. With his room’s lights off, the telescope’s eyepiece would shoot a beam of light onto the floor with such strength that the eyepiece seemed to be another light bulb. Fainter in comparison, but the white light made it look like a high intensity LED was stuck onto the telescope’s rear. In this scenario, the bright dot on the floor seemed like just another star. Beautiful, but lonely, and twinkling. Just like Giordano Bruno felt when he exit the cloth dome that surrounded Earth and floated into space, Hans would open the curtains and let his room be immediately flooded with the light of a thousand stars. All beautiful, all twinkling.
“Looking through a telescope gives you such a different perspective in comparison to stargazing with just your eyes. It gets you closer in, lets you see space from a wildly different angle. It gets you right into the action, in a way. Using a telescope is well worth the pain in the ass setting it up represents.”, said Hans. Finally having finished moving knobs and adjusting heights, he smiled and signaled Marla to look into the eyepiece.
You sometimes see pictures of the moon on the internet and, like most space lovers, leave a like or share them with your friends. No picture, however well shot it may be, will ever prepare you to seeing our only natural satellite face on through a telescope.
Light flooded her retina. A couple of seconds later: the monstrosity of it, the brilliance, the contrast of blinding light with shallow craters… just the unbelievable brightness. Our natural satellite is one of magnificent blends. Centuries old craters show its age, while tiny spots of erupting light make it shine like a young girl dancing. These tiny spots of light grow radially outwards, like roots from a tree, and seem to threaten the geography by colliding with one another and bringing light into the darkest corners. For Marla, the craters at the very edge of the moon were the most beautiful. Being nearly upside down, in the lower part of the circumference, the craters that were near the terminator softly disappeared from view. While they did, though, a gradient of dim light revealed their real size and gave the Moon a ripply, wave-like perimeter.
Marla backed up from the telescope and shut her eyes. Some moonlight filtered through her eyelids and surrounded the dark, purplish and circular spot that had been imprinted in her eyes. She felt little and she was trembling. With a quivering voice, Marla asked: “Does it ever make you feel alone?”
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