John Romaniello
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Aug 22, 2013

…and the stars winked back

It’s been a long time since I’ve written any fiction, and I’m doing my best to get back into it. While it’s certainly a struggle to get my mind to work in these different ways, I’ve always enjoyed making things up and writing them down. 

A practiced hand is a steady hand, however, so I have been creating and performing exercises to train the different attributes of fiction writing. One of those is storytelling. Of all of things, overlap between fiction and non-fiction is probably most obvious in terms of storytelling. You can tell a true story or one that’s made up, but if you tell it well, people will listen. 

Earlier this week, I went through such an exercise: I put down on paper a story from my childhood, things that happened long ago. I was forced to look inward and remember–not just events, but conversations and feeling and motivation–and recount in a way that was interesting. 

Three hours of reminiscing and 83 minutes of stream of consciousness writing later, I’d finished. That story appears below. There are some rough patches, but by and large I am happy with it. It’s an amusing story, breezily told.

I thought I would share with you, should you find it of any interest. I hope you like it.

–JR

++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

And the Stars Winked Back

 

When I was 6 years old, my uncle Richard gave me a book about astronomy. It was a big picture book with descriptions of stars, planets, and super novas. I enjoyed reading all of it, but the part I liked best was the constellations. All of the more prominent constellations were outlined, and there were some stories about how they got their names.

One night, about a week after I got the book, I was flipping through the pages, and suddenly decided that I needed to know where the Big Dipper was. I suppose after days of study, I felt I should bridge the gap between theory and practice. My mom, who was very tolerant of my whims, took me outside to the hill in my front yard, and–sure enough–there it was, bright and shining overhead just as it looked in the book. With Ursa Major as my orienting point, I found the  the North Star. From there, I was able to pick out Ursa Minor, Draco, and Orion.

I was only other there for about 15 minutes, but was one of the best nights of my life.

In that moment, I thought astronomy was just about the coolest thing in the world.

When I was 7 years old, uncle Richard got me a telescope. Nothing fancy, but powerful enough to help you differentiate planets from other stars, or see craters on the moon. We’d set it up on that same hill in the front yard and observe as much as we could. On Christmas Eve, we saw a shooting star. It was the first I had ever seen.

I thought shooting stars were beautiful, and black holes amazing, and space travel fascinating. 

In that moment, I thought astronomy was just about the coolest thing in the world. 

When I was 8 years old, I decided I wanted to be an astronaut. I had read everything I could, and wanted to fly around in space. That was far off, so instead I acquainted myself with the heavens, and spent time learning all constellations in the summer sky. I would go outside to my hill, and lay on my back in the wet grass, staring at the sky, tracing the lines between stars.

It was like connect the dots, but I was linking the same points, forming the same pictures that astronomers as far back as recorded history have done. It made me feel like part of something ancient, something important.

I memorized the constellations and their positions in less than a day. Then I memorized the stories behind each one. My favorite was Cassiopeia; the arrangement of stars and the story were both appealing.

Despite have learned everything the sky had to offer that season, I would still go to the hill, still lay in the yard, and still trace the stars.

In that moment, I thought astronomy was just about the coolest thing in the world. 

Later that year, I wanted to learn the constellations in the winter sky. It was too cold to lay outside, so I turned to written material. After school one day, my mother took me to B. Dalton, a chain of bookstores that has long since shut down. We got a new book, one for “bigger kids”, with more science, and some math. I read the science. Ignored the math.

We also got something truly great: a star map. Just a basic chart of the sky, with everything labeled. I don’t now recall why, but I was more excited about the map than I had been for the Nintendo game I rented from blockbuster.

I loved the map.

In that moment, I thought astronomy was just about the coolest thing in the world.

A few days later, I was at school. For some reason, I had brought the book and map along with me; it would prove to be a costly mistake. During lunch, I was reading the book, with the map neatly folded next to me. Engrossed in learning, I didn’t hear the approaching.

I didn’t become aware of someone standing behind me until the moment a hand reached down and snatched the map. I turned in my chair, craning my neck to see who’d decided my map needed taking. I thought it might be a teacher, that I might be in trouble.

No such luck. Instead there was Joey Sweeney, a towheaded nuisance with a bowl-cut so stupid it almost mirrored his intellect. Joey happened not to like me, nor I him. I don’t recall why. Some benign comment or imagined slight that seemed important at 8 years old.

Typically, our animosity for one another played out in class, where I delighted in pointing out all of the ways he was wrong, about everything, and he delighted in pointing out that my clothes were cheap and my shoes were the wrong brand and full of holes to boot.

That day, however, we were in the cafeteria, eying each other balefully.

Joey was, in addition to being dumb as a sack of hammers, also a dick. At that point in my life, I wasn’t allowed to use that word, and wasn’t entirely sure what it meant, but I was completely positive that he was one.

With my map in hand, Joey began to tease me. Words like “nerd” and “geek” were used. He made fun of my books, and the fact that I read them. He made fun of my clothes. He made fun of whatever seemed like a good thing to make fun of; any thoughts that happened to tumble into his thick head tumbled out of his mouth in the form of insults.

I was standing at this point. Two or three of his friends were standing with him. Mine remained seated at the tame. I felt eyes watching us. His taunts grew more pointed, and he continued to mock the seeking of knowledge. Poor fool. He started waving the map back and forth in front of me, urging me to grab it. I took the bait and snatched at it, becoming more frustrated.

My own insults had started minutes back, and I don’t know what I said. Whatever it was, it must have struck a nerve. In a fit of rage, Joey held the map in front of my face and tore it, then tore the pieces again, throwing them on the floor.

I looked down, mouth gaping open. My map. I loved my map. More than that, my mom bought it for me. It had been expensive. I think. I didn’t know how much it cost, but I knew it had cost money, and I knew we didn’t have a lot of that. Furious, confused, and caught completely by surprise, my emotions got the better of me; tears welled up and I began to cry.

Joey began to laugh, pointing at me and bringing everyone’s attention to my face, red and tear-streaked. He added “crying like a little girl! hey little girl, don’t cry, little girl!” to his litany of jeers.

I lunged at him, bringing him to the ground. Teachers rushed over to separate us, but not before Joey had turned the tables, flipping me over and punching me in the ribs and face. We were pulled apart before I could offer any countering blows.

It was the first fight I was ever in, and the last one I ever lost.

Joey and I were taken by our respective ears and brought to the office of Mr. Goldstein, the principle. On the long walk down, another tear found it’s way down my cheek. Wounded more in pride than body, I felt hatred grow in my gut.

We were given a stern talking to, and asked a lot of very serious questions about fighting and whether we realized we could hurt someone.

After the appropriate amount of finger-wagging, we were dismissed. Despite serious words issued forth from serious grown up faces, I didn’t know what the resolution was. I really didn’t know what the punishment was going to be, or if my mother would be called or if I would have to write “I will not fight” on the blackboard a hundred times.

I left that meeting knowing only two things for certain:

In that moment, I hated Joey Sweeney.

And, in that moment, I HATED astronomy; it was stupid and I never wanted to look at stars again.

I didn’t have to deal too long with my hatred of Joey; my parents split up right around this time, and we moved to a different town and I went to a different school. Joey Sweeney faded from memory.

Astronomy was still on my bad side, however. I did not want to be an astronaut. I decided, not long after, to become a writer instead.

And so began my writing journey, which started off well. I learned that the first rule of writing was write what you know. I knew about stars.

My first piece was published when I was 9 years old. It was a submission to a literary newsletter, a short poem of just 11 words:

The boy.
The hill.
The sky.
and the stars winked back.

To my best recollection, that was that last I have ever written about astronomy, until now.

Many years later, when I was 23, I had occasion to think of astronomy again. I found myself, through a series of strange coincidences, walking arm in arm on a deserted golf course with a girl named Angela, looking up at the stars.

It was nearly 4am on a late spring eve, and nature seemed intent proving it: the grass was wet with dew, the trees swayed in the breeze, and the night was absolutely clear. Startlingly clear. The sky was black; a true black, a black deep and rich like velvet, a black that was inky and bottomless and infinite, as only a pre-dawn sky can be.

And the stars! They were out in all their glory, vibrant pinpricks in the curtain of night, shining fiercely, as though in defiance of the inevitable dawn. The heavenly ceiling above us hid nothing, held absolutely no secrets from my wide-eyed gaze. And I wasn’t the only one who noticed. My companion, whose loveliness rivaled the night sky, slowed her pace as her eyes were drawn inexorably upward.

We stood there, still as statues: legs rooted to the ground, necks craned back, pupils dilated like black holes drawing light into them, and basked in the gentle glow. We were unmoving, but not unmoved. I cannot speak for her, but I was thunderstruck by the beauty of the sky, and all the promise it held.

We couldn’t move. So we stared.

And stared.

We stared in complete, abject silence, until silence itself grew into a physical entity; we stared until the silence had it’s own weight, and then until the weight of that silence between us pulled so heavily I thought it would make of us broken things, forlorn and forgotten bodies on the grass, shattered by their own shyness. It might have been so, but for Angela: she broke the silence with a giggle, and then said, simply and truly, “this is beautiful.”

Feeling compelled to say something, and not knowing what else to say, I began pointing out constellations. “Here,” I said, draping my arm gently around her waist, “let me show you. There’s Polaris, the North Star. It’s very bright, so you can usually see it, even when it’s fairly cloudy. It lines up with Earth’s axis, so it doesn’t really move…that makes it useful for navigating.”

“Uh huh.” She moved a bit closer.

My hand drifted westward across the sky, finger pointing at a group of three stars arranged in a line. “That one is Orion, the hunter. Those three stars make his belt; over there is his bow.” I shifted and pointed back North. “There’s Draco, the dragon. He’s really shaped more like a snake, but you get the idea.”

We moved from constellation to constellation. “Here’s Leo Minor; there’s Sagittarius. What’s your sign? Scorpio? That one is right here.” My arm moved in slow arcs, gently touching each celestial body in its turn, tracing their lines with my eye and finger, as I had not done since I was 8 years old. I felt completely absorbed by the patterns splayed across the sky, drawn irresistibly back into the heavens. Until I became drawn irresistibly to something else.

It took me a while to realize it, but with each new star form I showed her, Angela’s body would shift slightly. She moved in small degrees, slowly pressing the curve of her body against mine. Her hand found my own; her head found my shoulder. It was only after several minutes and I recounted a few and stories that I became gradually aware of her closeness, aware of the touch of her breath on my neck, aware of her hand, shaking gently as rested on my own. Aware of the opportunity of the moment. She was giving me every possible indication, every opening.

By the time I got to Cassiopeia—still my favorite—the sexual tension was palpable. I indicated the batch of stars in the Northwesterly part of the sky, and began to recount the story behind the constellation: the story of a queen so beautiful, the gods grew jealous and wrathful; outraged by both her beauty and her vanity, they destroyed her country.

I don’t think I got halfway through it. I trailed off as she attacked me, literally jumping on top of me and pulling me into a violent embrace. Her arms wound their way around my neck, her hands tangled in my hair, her legs wrapped around my waist and began to squeeze. I slowed her momentum as I caught her in my arms, but we came together too quickly, and our kiss, made clumsy by it’s urgency, had an unexpected result.

There was a jolt of pain as she bit deeply into my lip, and my mouth began to fill with blood even as she filled it with her tongue. My senses were immediately overwhelmed by a slew of intense contrasts: the sharp sting of her teeth tearing my flesh juxtaposed against the softness of her lips; the coppery taste of my blood undercut by the minty tang of the gum she’d been chewing; the spicy notes of her perfume fighting against the cloying scent of cut grass. To this day, the memory of the amazing dichotomy of sensations as we kissed beneath the flawless night sky is one of the most vivid of my life; I can pinpoint the precise moment when, filled for the very first time with agony and ecstasy in equal measure, I felt the last remnants of my resolve crumble into nothing.

What followed next is easy to guess: my hands flexed without my consent and drove my nails into her flesh; my eyes, first forced wide with the shock of her bite, now closed tightly as I melted into her, and was wholly overcome. Our clothes were peeled off violently, and crashed into one another, merging in a tangle of sweat and flesh and lips and hands and pain and pleasure and savage, ragged breathing. We gave ourselves to the moment, gave into our most wanton, feral selves under the stars. The constellations looked down on us from the heavens, or so I liked to imagine; Orion and Perseus and Andromeda and all the others turning their gazes to marvel at our coupling. With such an august assemblage in audience, I could not help by put on one of the best performances of my life. I’ll spare you the rest of the details, but I assure you, it was glorious.

Some time afterwards, as dawn broke on the horizon, I once again found myself, through a series of strange coincidences, walking arm in arm on a deserted golf course with a girl named Angela, looking up at the stars.

As we approached my car, I was made aware of another coincidence, one of mutual association: her boyfriend. She checked her phone, and saw that’d he’d called three times. At that point, I had been dimly aware that she had a boyfriend, but knew very little about him other than that he seemed to be a dick. She didn’t seem particularly concerned or upset about the potential consequences our tryst, so I resolved not to be, either.

I opened the door for her just as the phone in her hand began to ring again. My gaze was drawn to the screen as it lit up, chasing the way the last vestiges of darkness. I glanced at it…and did a double take when I saw the name on her caller ID: Joey Sweeney. She ignored the call, but I couldn’t ignore what I’d seen. Nor could I stop myself from smirking.

As I closed her door and walked around to the driver’s side, I silently thanked the Universe for balancing the scales in such a satisfying way, cocking my head and grinning up at the night sky. And the stars winked back.

In that moment…I thought astronomy was just about the coolest thing in the world.

 

 

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