Bitter sweat grazed my lips as I nuzzled my nose into the crevice where his left shoulder met his neck. The frigid night air didn’t stop our sole tradition of stargazing together; I doubted in that moment that even snow could prevent nights like these. Our affinity with stars, which began on our third date in the heat of the Southern summer, had now made its way into January, when all things in East Tennessee begin to frost over. The rush of the water beyond the bank below collided with the croaking frogs for a melody Will and I claimed as our own. From the corner of my eye, I saw a twinkle of the brightest star suspended overhead.
Prickly brown grass that autumn had left behind crumpled below our flannel picnic blanket as I twisted my face to look at the sky. The surrounding landscape was etched into my skin like a recurring childhood dream; my father and I spent countless late nights at this very spot with our aging telescope, finding constellations and spotting shooting stars. Each night gave a new discovery. My dad, calloused fingers sifting through his bright red hair, would search the sky and then guide my eyes to the right position in front of the scope, pointing out a new spot in the dark. Even years later, it was still easy to lose myself in the familiarity of it all, especially on the clearest nights when the galaxy opens up, dividing the sky in half with a trail of meteor dust.
“Cielo,” I hushed underneath my breath.
“What was that?” Will asked.
“Cielo. It’s a Spanish term of endearment. It’s kind of like saying ‘sky’ or ‘heavens.’ We don’t really say anything similar in English.”
A deafening but comfortable silence followed. I knew he was much too prudish to respond without time to think.
“You know, sometimes I think I used to be a star,” he finally replied.
The words reached for the sky it seemed, rather than my own ears. Continuing on, his thoughts rambled into a collage of his desire to shine brightly in the night sky, sparkling for everyone to see. Collecting the images flickering around my brain of his smoky eyes and curly hair shining above me at that very moment, I knew he was right. It made sense for him to have been a star. He was a star to me. I had reveled in those twinkling eyes the day we first met in that dusty office. My own eyes were red and sore that day, heavy from the weight of my past and the smoke of the room, but somehow he didn’t notice.
“Do you think you could’ve been a star too?” He persisted, gazing my direction.
The words slapped the wind out of my lungs and my throat grew thin. My previously fluttering heart sunk against my spine. I became profoundly aware of the weight of the question as his eyes met my own. Of course it made sense for him to be a star, but me? There was so much Will still didn’t know, so much he couldn’t know. I shifted my gaze back to the brightest star, flickering confidently above our collapsed bodies.
“Yes, I think so,” I lied and pointed at the brightest star in the sky, hovering above us dauntingly, twinkling more than any of the others. “There you are,” my voice trailed. “And I’m over there shining near you,” I continued, pointing again, this time at a nearby star, flickering even more than his, though not near as bright. My voice, shattering, gripped to the idea of it all. For a while, we sat underneath our own imagined star bodies, floating near each other in the clear night sky. The smile he showed and the way he pulled me closer told me not to retract my words. It wasn’t long before I felt the rhythmic steadiness of his chest begin to settle; sleep always caught him smiling.
Flickering above, the pinpoint in the sky I named as Will stared back at me accusingly. The stars screamed the fact I barely let myself acknowledge—I was far too scarred to shine that brightly. Drawing deep-seated fears from my chest, the stars spelled out my secrets across the freckled horizon. I glanced over at his face, fearing the discovery of what I tried to keep most hidden, all the secrets that haunted me, but he was still transfixed in a glowing sleep. No, I couldn’t be the star he wanted me to be. We wouldn’t sit at arm’s length beside each other in the cosmos for the rest of eternity. Searching the sky franticly for familiar smiling stars, tears began to well in my tired eyes. I found Jupiter, shining orange near the half moon.
Sleep called me, but closing my eyes, I knew I couldn’t stay. It was time to leave. Sliding my shoes on my cold feet, I grabbed the nerve to walk away. If not tomorrow, one day Will would understand. Careful not to disturb the crunching grass, I eased down the side of the dirt path. Far enough away to know I wouldn’t change my mind, I turned to say goodbye. Barely able to make out his silhouette on the red flannel, I knew he was still asleep. I looked up and found our stars, suspended twinkling deep in space, and smiled a final farewell. The hanging trees and dark night enveloped my silent departure, while the rushing water and croaking frogs quieted a little more with each faint step.
Years later, in a time and place so far removed from that riverbank spot that the two barely seemed connected, I dared to look at the stars again. Unafraid of the past that once haunted me, I leaned against the truck next to another. I had long since lost track of the stars I claimed on that January night. Standing side by side, I watched the stars dance in the night air, while he watched me.
“You want to know a secret?” I asked.
“Of course,” he smirked in reply.
“Do you see that star?” I brushed my arm against his as I pointed above.
“That really bright one?”
“That’s just it. It’s not one really bright star. That’s two stars shining together. You can’t tell without a telescope, but one is actually behind the other. Without both of them shining together, we’d barely be able to see either at all.”
“Wow.” A smiling pause followed. “I like that,” he beamed down at me.
Casually, he asked, “Do you know why some stars are twinkling brighter than others?” I shook my head with laughter. For once, I hadn’t a clue. He continued, eyes looking down at me, “It’s because they’re dying. They start to flash like that in the final stages of death.” Understanding suddenly flushed my body as I remembered Will, the crinkly grass, and the two most twinkling stars in the sky. They had been dying all along.