That Burns Like a Star

It was only the second month of the new year but already, even with all the windows to her small, second-story apartment left open, it was too hot. It was only eight o’clock on a Tuesday night but already she was a bottle of wine deep and had finished watching a movie that was supposed to make her Feel Something but just left her feeling like she’d like to have some more wine. Her fingers, which she kept absentmindedly twisting into her hair, smelled like cigarettes and were sticky in that mid-summer way — she thought about sweaty bed sheets in the afternoon and the droning of background television but stopped short of assigning an identity to the man who kept her company in this memory.

When she was a kid, she was a selectively precocious child. She was interested in reading fiction and ancient history. She liked it when her teachers would explain art to her and got a real kick out of “God Is Dead” in the tenth grade, which was the first grade that introduced Dada-ism to her education. She was not, however, good at the sciences or at math. And while she realized this, she was too proud to admit that she was only sometimes-smart rather than always-smart, so she took classes that were too hard for her in high school and failed them all, leading to a shitty downward spiral of self-doubt even while she excelled at other things.

When she was fifteen, she was enrolled in an honors-level physics class. It was the first class of the day (6 am), everyday, and while she sat on the high stools that belonged to the science building and leaned across the severe, black tables, she always felt a certain remove. It was the first time she experienced an inability to be present. In hindsight, she would attribute it to her just not being gifted enough to grasp the concepts of relativity and motion but perhaps there was more to it than that, she still doesn’t know.

Her teacher was a brilliant, grey-haired man who spoke in mumbles and grunts. She liked to imagine that he loved his variables and constants and systematic understanding of the universe more than he loved his role in that same universe. And she loved him so very dearly in that specific way that a student can love a teacher — adoring and awestruck and absolutely enamored by his intellect. He had two sons, the older was older than she was and a successful scientist in his own right. The younger was handicapped and suffered tremendously and obviously. Cruel as high school kids can be, the other students teased him and shunned him but she was kind to him. Her kindness did not stem from warmth or goodness but, rather, a terrible respect she had for this boy whose own body waged war against him but whose mind could understand what she didn’t about force and gravity and movement.

Seven years later, she would be long out-of-touch with this boy and receive news of his death on social media. It was an administrator of her old high school that would post the announcement — respectful but terse. The post would not receive a lot of likes and even less comments. She would sit before her computer in an unfurnished apartment she was renting only for the month, in a small European city she would never see again after she left, and play “When You’re Smilin’” by The Dixiedelics in a useless memoriam. She would remember both him and, selfishly, herself when she knew him. She would miss him and, again selfishly, she would miss the unpolished but more honest and more hopeful self she once was.

Later, when she relocated for the umpteenth time, this time to Northern California, she would spot a man with a long ponytail and a ragged beard on the opposite side of the street. Without waiting for the light to turn, she would rush across the crosswalk between honking traffic and tap him on the elbow. He would look down at her, surprised, and she would stumble through a clumsy introduction of herself to her high school physics teacher’s eldest (and only surviving) son. He would remember, faintly, sitting at a small jazz café in their hometown on Sunday mornings with her, watching his father play the piano. He’d smile and they would exchange brief pleasantries before their paths would diverge. That night, he would send her a message on Facebook –

Hey. Nice running into you today.

Thought since you are new to Berkeley I might recommend something. I play music and do ceili dancing at the Starry Plough Pub. Monday Evenings.

Figured if you were part of the Steamers crowd you might be interested in/open to different music things.

She took a man she had met two nights earlier at a hotel bar — the Doubletree that jutted out into the Berkeley marina. It was a good bar, especially on warm, dry nights when the patio was open and two generous fireplaces boasted healthy flames. She liked that she would be left alone there, the sparse crowd assuming her to be just a guest-in-passing. She liked to sit and watch the light play across the dark waters, between the silhouettes of what were sailboats in the morning and ominous guardians in the nighttime. Something about water suspended in blackness felt familiar to her, perhaps reminiscent of something she recognized inside of herself.

This man spoke with a faint accent that he couldn’t hear in himself. She liked this about him. She also liked the way he assigned words to ideas, liked the way his vocabulary matched up with what he was trying to communicate. He had good hands and good eyes, he smelled like his truck, he had a quick mind and a gentle patience.

She, in contrast, talked too much and spoke without tact. His anonymity in relation to the rest of her reality, combined with his temporary immediacy, made her ruthless. After leaving the bar, she invited him to her apartment for a beer and he agreed. They sat and he listened to her assume her position on her sanctimonious soap box, announcing the ideas that she has picked and chosen through the years and now clings to as anchors for her person. She knows she is being ridiculous but needs to be ridiculous so badly that she cannot stop herself.

When he leaves, he does not try to kiss her and she understands. Two days later, she asks him to go with her to this Irish-themed bar and watch her high school physics teacher’s eldest (and only surviving) son play the flute. He agrees because he is kind and because he is from a far away place and wants to Experience Things while he is here. She is happy to be a decorative blemish on his vacation.

They order drinks upon walking into the bar — he a beer and she a glass of red wine. She makes eye contact with her high school physics teacher’s eldest (and only surviving) son and grins. He grins back with enthusiasm before she turns away to take a seat on the edge of the dance floor. The chairs and tables that usually occupy the main space of the bar had been pushed aside, against the walls, to make room for the dancers. Childhood misfits crowd together, wearing special sneakers made for ceili dancing, and sweat and smile while they pony in alternating directions. A pretty girl with long blonde hair that she had plaited into a single braid which fell dramatically down the center-line of her back danced by her and glared at her. She couldn’t understand how this girl knew to glare at her — was she being that obvious? Were her dark waters that obvious?

It only takes them fifteen minutes to finish their drinks and she is ready to leave, beckoning for the stranger whom she had met at a hotel bar (the Doubletree on the Berkeley marina) to leave with her. Returning to her apartment — him not realizing that this was her in rapid retreat. She felt like a predatory animal, luring him back to her twinkle-lit cave of violin music and whiskey. They shared ginger snap cookies she had purchased earlier that day at Trader Joe’s, where it had taken her three hours to pick out the correct vegetables for the next two weeks.

And as he sits there with her, endlessly patient, she feels again that inability to be present that she had first discovered in physics class when she was fifteen years old. This time, though, it is not so much a history. Against her will, without her willing, she does not will it — the sticky sheets and drone of background television floods the forefront of her mind. The image comes rushing in through her ears, in with her next inhale to drown her vision and numb the space between her eyes. And she remembers the place where she has left the hottest part of her, the part that burns like a star. She remembers the person who keeps her heart in his shoe, thinking that it is a quarter. She goes to the bathroom and digs the heels of her hands into the depressions of her eyes. Her palms are cold, her eyelids are cold, and all the while her cheeks are warm with wine. She is faraway from that part of her that is bright and aflame. The rest of her has departed from the heart of her spirit. But she does not call for its return. She does not try to draw it back, to restore her present to her Presence.

In the morning, she will awake alone, sunken into her too-soft mattress with the early sunshine pouring into her bedroom from between the blinds. She will dress and drink a cup of coffee that burns her throat, standing barefoot on the linoleum floor of her kitchen and looking down from the window onto the street below where the world will yawn and stretch before her — she, the quiet queen, in her lonely lofty solitude. She will embark upon her day and Engage and Produce and Satisfy the world. But all the while there will be a remove, a tiny delay. For the hottest part of her, the part that burns like a star, will be alive with trembling trepidation. A quarter in a shoe on the foot of a person in a different city, miles and miles away, mountains and rivers and deserts away. He will not know it as he hurries down the stairs to the subway, late for work. He will not know that she is his. She doesn’t need him to understand, or to realize, or to even want her. That brilliant part of her, her core, the source of all her pride and ravishing joy and hungry desire and all-consuming love — it is safer as a quarter in his shoe than kept caged in her ribs. As long as she is lost, she is safe.

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