“Uh-huh,” Tabitha replies, still staring at the Milky Way. “Whatever you want.”
If only that were true.
After returning to the scope and finding the last few early-setting objects, we take a break before embarking on the next round. I set up Tabitha’s GoTo while she munches on a carrot. I’m holding my red flashlight with my teeth to free up my hands and to give myself an excuse for not talking. I can’t believe I thought she wanted me to kiss her. What was I thinking? I’m not the guy girls want to kiss. I’m the guy they want to copy homework off of. My mother once told me I would “come into my own” in college. I hope she’s right because it’s no fun pining away for someone who would never be interested in you. And right now it would be a whole lot easier if that someone wasn’t right next to me in the dark. I stall a little longer by attaching my camera to my scope. Focusing on the North Star, I set the lens to f/8, the ISO to 100, and open the shutter for a long exposure.
The longer we stay here not talking, the more I just want to crawl into a hole. I need a break. I pick out a set of star charts and hand them to Tabitha. “Here’s the information you’ll need to enter. Just type in the coordinates listed next to each object and your scope will find them.”
She looks down at the pages in her hand. “What are you going to be doing?”
I glance around helplessly. “I’m going to see if anyone needs help. I’m the Youth Advisor, after all.” She can’t argue with that.
She waves the charts in the air. “But then you won’t be able to do the Marathon.”
I shrug. “It’s okay. I’ll do it next year.” I turn away before she makes me change my mind. I feel slightly guilty. It’s not Tabitha’s fault that she doesn’t feel the same way about me as I feel about her.
She calls after me. “I’ll be fine. Don’t worry about me!”
I take a deep breath and keep walking. Of course she’ll be fine. She’s always fine. She knows exactly who she is, what she wants to be, and what she needs to do to get there. I don’t know any of those things. All I know is what I don’t want to be, and that’s not the same thing at all. I see groups of club members huddled behind their scopes, but instead of stopping, I walk right past them. I walk past the break tent, and past the scouts who somehow managed to get pizza delivered in the middle of the desert. I debate going back to get one of my sandwiches, but I don’t want to risk a confrontation. When I get away from most of the crowd, I lie down on the hard ground. It’s been getting progressively colder since the sun set a few hours ago. I wish I had put my warm clothes on. I stare up at the sky, so familiar to me. Turning to the western horizon, I easily find Venus, the evening star, the brightest in the sky. Tabitha is like Venus. She has this presence that’s brighter than everyone else’s. Soon Jupiter will rise, surrounded by its moons of ice that could hold the building blocks of life. If Tabitha is Venus, I’m like Europa, a big ball of ice that might have a few surprises inside me if anyone bothered to look. I close my eyes and try to imagine I can feel the turning of the earth beneath me.
“Hey,” a voice says softly, kicking my toe. I quickly sit up. It’s Tabitha. She’s holding the blanket, my sweatshirt, and her sleeping bag.
When I find my voice, I say, “What are you doing here? You can’t be away from your post for too long, or else?—”
She shrugs. “I thought you might be cold.”
“How did you find me?”
She points to the binoculars around her neck, then tosses me my sweatshirt and spreads open the blanket. “Room for one more down there?” Without waiting for a response, she lies down. I lie next to her, barely breathing. Then she puts the sleeping bag over both of us.
“So,” she begins. “Tell me a story.”
“About what?” I ask, my voice cracking.
“You said you had to learn stories about the stars for your Sky Puppy pin, right?”
For the first time she doesn’t laugh when she says Sky Puppy. I nod in the dark.
“One of those, then.”
I notice she’s using her bunched-up sweatshirt as a pillow, so I do the same. “Well, I only remember one of them. It’s sort of a poem. A Native American poem.” I can’t tell if the heat radiating through my body is from the sleeping bag, or from her nearness.
“That’s cool,” she says. “I like poems.”
I take a deep breath. “It’s called ‘The Song of the Stars.’ It talks about these three hunters, and they’re the three stars in the handle of the Big Dipper. See it up there?” I point, and a few seconds later she nods. “Okay, so the hunters are the handle, and there’s a bear, too. He’s the cup thing at the end of the handle. Then the Milky Way is like a road. That’s what you need to know beforehand.”
She nods again. I take another deep breath and can feel the heat from the side of her body electrifying my own. Staring upward and trying to focus, I recite:
We are the stars which sing.
We sing with our light;
We are the birds of fire,
We fly over the sky.
Our light is a voice;
We make a road for spirits,
For the spirits to pass over.
Among us are three hunters
Who chase a bear;
There never was a time
When they were not hunting.
We look down on the mountains.
This is the Song of the Stars.
She’s so quiet for a minute I’m afraid she fell asleep. When I get up the nerve to turn my head toward hers, I can see tears silently flowing down her face. The poem is pretty good, but I doubt it’s worthy of tears. She hastily wipes them away.
“Tabitha, what’s wrong?”
She doesn’t look at me. Finally she says, “Do you know why I want to be an astronaut?”
Surprised at her question, I reply, “Well, I figured it was something to do with wanting to explore outer space, do experiments, see the Space Station.”
She shakes her head. “When I was eight, and my parents were fighting all the time, and we were moving again, I saw this picture from one of the space shuttles. It was a picture of Earth, seen from space. Just a blue and white marble, surrounded by blackness. It was that blackness that interested me, that endless nothingness. That’s why I was never really interested in learning about the stars. They just interrupted the dark. I thought, if I could get up there, if I could see the Earth like those astronauts did, if I could see it as it really is, then my problems wouldn’t matter. I’d get a true perspective of things. I’d be above everything. But I realized something tonight. If we’re looking at stars whose light is millions of years old, we’re not seeing those stars as they really are. We’re seeing them as they were, millions of years ago.”
I nod and clear my throat. “That’s true. That’s why I love taking pictures of the sky so much. It’s like taking a snapshot of the past, and of a past that only exists from our exact vantage point. At any other position in time or space, it would look different. It’s like taking pictures of ghosts.” I’ve never said anything like that to anyone before.
“Exactly!” she says, leaning up on her elbow to face me. “So my image of Earth isn’t real, either.”
“Well, it’s still real. It’s just not the whole picture. Does that matter so much?”
She sighs. “I’m not sure. It just means I’m going to have to look at things differently. Maybe that’s not such a bad thing. Why do you want to be an astronaut?”
Well, now or never. “I don’t,” I say simply.
Her brow wrinkles adorably. “You don’t what?”
I meet her gaze. “I don’t want to be an astronaut.”
Her eyes almost pop out of her head and she sits bolt upright. “Because of what I just said? I don’t know what I’m talking about, you can’t go by?—”
I smile, sitting up, too. “No, not because of what you said. I’ve actually never wanted to be one. I’d much rather take pictures of outer space with my feet planted firmly on the ground.”
She shakes her head in bewilderment and lies back down. “Then why? Why did you work so hard all these years?”
I glance around us, but no one is close enough to hear. I lie back again, too. The darkness is complete now, and without a moon, it will be this way for many more hours. The sky is so crowded with stars that it’s dizzying. I know they’re not the only thing making me dizzy. Under the sleeping bag Tabitha puts her hand on my arm.
“Peter, tell me why. Why did you say you wanted to be an astronaut?”
She squeezes my arm a little, and I flash back to class the other day when she gripped it so tight. That feels like so long ago now. “I said it because you did.”
I can’t help but smile at her confusion. “If you had said you wanted to be a chimney sweeper that day in fourth grade, we might be in a competition to see who could sweep the most chimneys right now instead of lying here.”
She stares at me like she’s never seen me before.
I continue. “Don’t get me wrong, I’m really glad you said astronaut. Otherwise, I never would have learned about the stars. Plus, I think the ash in chimneys would be bad for my allergies.”
She laughs. “You’re crazy.”
Then she leans over and kisses me square on the mouth and stays there. No build-up, no time to obsess over where my lips should go on hers, what I should do with my tongue, if anything. No time even to close my eyes. All I can see is her face, her beautiful hair, and thousands of stars behind her. I kiss her back, and am surprised at how much this tops anything I could have imagined. My fingers instinctively lace with hers and we hold on tight. We stay like this for an hour, not talking, our bodies pressed together in the deep blackness. Her stomach growls and mine growls in return. We both laugh.