Allison Epstein

The Stargazers

The light is beautiful and muffled, like a sun trapped inside a god’s mouth. It’s not at all how Carmen thought it would look. She tilts her head up and tries not to look at Molly. They sit together on the hood of Molly’s car in the parking lot outside the Sunglass Hut, and Carmen thinks about ancient Titans, swallowing worlds and vomiting them, dripping green, back up.

      Molly shifts on the windshield so that her blouse edges a few inches above her hipbone. Carmen tries not to look, but it’s safe: Molly has her eyes on the comet. This isn’t the closest Carmen’s ever gotten to being invisible, but it’s not the furthest off, either. She thinks about running the pad of her thumb along Molly’s hip and wonders what it will feel like, bony like the back of a wicker chair, or not.

      She blushes and looks back up. Carmen tries to see nothing but sky and the luminous ripple that splits it in half. The comet seems to be moving with impossible slowness, as if it knows it won’t be back while these two girls are still alive and it wants to give them something to look at that isn’t each other.

      The comet will come back, of course, sometime. But by then Carmen will be long gone, nowhere near the register at the Sunglass Hut in the Twelve Oaks Mall where customers waste ten minutes trying to get two bucks off a pair of aviators with years-expired coupons. By then she’ll be forty years old, publishing articles in dusty academic journals (which she assumes come pre-equipped with dust).

      Or maybe it’ll take longer. Maybe by the time the comet comes back Carmen will be an eighty-year-old spinster on the front porch, smoking American Spirits and telling improbable stories to neighborhood kids. Her eightieth birthday is sixty-four years off. She assumes they’ll have invented a harmless cigarette by then.

      Or maybe the comet will come back sooner than they all think. Maybe it’ll glance quickly over its shoulder tonight to see if Carmen will find her nerve after all, will dare to put her arm around Molly’s waist. Molly’s wearing a denim jacket over her white blouse, and Carmen thinks about how the thick seams would leave creases on her cheek if she were to lean over and rest her head on Molly’s shoulder.

      Two of Molly’s stray curls blow in a soft breeze, striking the windshield. Carmen, who’s still trying her best not to look, sees a splotchy bruise on Molly’s hipbone, the yellow-green of nuclear runoff. It could be from anything. Molly has the tendency to throw her body around without regard for how it lands. Yesterday afternoon — a rehearsal day, not a work day — Molly tripped down the free-standing stoop that formed most of the set of the fall musical. Fiddler on the Roof. Chosen, Carmen’s quite sure, because the only set pieces it needs are a bed, a blanket on sticks, and the vaguest outline of a house. The theater department blew its three-year budget on last year’s staging of Sunday in the Park with George, which left Carmen and the rest of the props crew to pull this year’s set together out of cardboard and prayers.

      Carmen heard the thud from backstage — a human thud, not the thud of falling scenery. She ran to the wings, saw Molly lying on her back, and heard Mr. Anderson yell from the pit, “Golde, I’m not stopping rehearsal unless you need an ambulance.” Carmen blushed like she was the one getting yelled at. But Molly stood up, brushed off her butt, and yelled “From the top, Tevye!” to Kevin Tran, who stood upstage wearing a striped beach towel in lieu of a prayer shawl. It was like Molly didn’t understand the concept of getting hurt, or that she’d been hurt so many times that she hardly noticed.

      The bruise on her hip isn’t from that, though. Molly landed on her back.

      Carmen tucks her hands under her thighs, feeling sweat that doesn’t belong there. Her legs feel distinctly not her own. She coughs and looks back at the sky.

      “It’s crazy beautiful, isn’t it?” Molly says.

      Carmen nods. “Yeah.”

      Molly grins and props herself up on her elbows. Carmen winces as Molly’s bones bang against glass. There will be two more bruises there by morning. If elbows can bruise.

      “You know what else is wild?” Molly says.

      Carmen can think of many wild things. Instead, she shrugs as best she can while still lying down on the car.

      “Jake was talking to me the other day,” Molly says. “He wanted to know if you had a date to homecoming.”

      The last glint of the comet’s tail is gone now. Carmen is intensely aware of the other people in the parking lot, employees mostly, heading home after closing time. She thinks of Jake Sears, Molly’s older brother. Jake is off to Trine University next year on a baseball scholarship. He looks so little like Molly that Carmen suspects they’re only half-related. His teeth are brilliantly white, perfectly straight, and absolutely fake. They got knocked out in middle school by a curveball to the face. The fake teeth have nothing to do with why his smile looks so cruel. It’s nothing like the smile Molly gives customers when they ask if the cat-eye glasses flatter their face. Molly’s smile makes you feel like the only person alive. It’s there right now, the beautiful smile of someone who’s delivered good news.

      Carmen bites her lip. “I don’t do dances,” she says. “And I hate your brother.”

      Then she pushes herself off the car and onto the pavement. She turns her back and starts walking because it’s the only way she can think of to keep Molly from noticing how red her face is. She will not cry. Even though she’s taking those stupid dead-fish gasping breaths already, she’s not going to cry. She’s not stupid enough to cry over this.

      “Carmen,” Molly yells after her. “You okay?”

      But Carmen doesn’t turn. She knows this comet only comes once every hundred and fifty years according to the Fox 47 anchor last night. She knows exactly where she’ll be the next time. She walks slowly toward the bus stop, trying to keep her shoulders steady.

      She keeps expecting Molly to get up and follow her. But when Carmen reaches the stop, Molly is still sitting on the hood, loose curls rippling.

 

Carmen thinks about this moment often, but she’ll tell the story only twice in her life.

      The first time, she’s twenty-four and drunk in the graduate lounge of the Barnard English department. She and her cohort are celebrating having finished grading a stack of midterms in which not one but two undergrads confused Thomas Wyatt and Wyatt Earp. With the usual exuberance of the drunk and underpaid, the twelve of them are sitting on everything in the lounge that isn’t a chair. Carmen drinks from a bottle of Evan Williams on top of the three-drawer filing cabinet. Above, the florescent light is spitting, though the heavy hum is more annoying than the unreliable light.

      Aided by liquor, the conversation turns from Renaissance poetry to slumber party banter. They’ve somehow settled on the topic of most embarrassing moments. Elizaveta is midway through hers, a surprisingly graphic tale involving a bear trap and a meter reader.

      Then it’s Carmen’s turn. She tells the rest about the time she burst into tears in front of the most beautiful girl in Novi High School outside the Sunglass Hut. She knows how to tell a story. It’s embarrassing, the way she tells it, but not exclusively. She’s two people at once: the awkward kid pining after a straight girl, and the cynic who can roll her eyes at everything in retrospect. Leonora almost chokes on her boxed wine trying not to laugh. (This, though Carmen doesn’t know it, is also the moment she comes out to Leonora. She assumed it was a given, but Leonora is a reserved woman from Pennsylvania Dutch country, and not prone to assumptions. They will date for five months, though in the end Carmen will have nothing to show for it other than a new appreciation for Coltrane and brief custody of a hamster named Wentworth.)

      Carmen feels the group liking her more as she tells the story. She likes herself progressively less. It’s as though she’s betrayed something in front of them, turned herself inside-out and shown these budding theorists the messages scratched on her insides.

      It’s a good story, and they laugh, and she finds herself wondering what person they found funny, the story or its teller.

 

The second time, Carmen’s thirty-one and sitting with Greta in a hotel bar near Bergen. They’ve come to Norway for the Ibsen Society International Conference on Nineteenth-Century Drama, held exactly three weeks and four days before they’re going to be married. Carmen does not, in fact, like Ibsen, but Carmen loves Greta, and Greta wrote her doctorate on Ibsen, and Greta showed Carmen pictures of glaciers and lakes named after trolls for months until Carmen agreed to tag along.

      The bar is elegant the way Greta is elegant. The curves of the wood are too pretty to touch, yet beg to be. The lamps behind it are shaded in pale pink glass like the inside of a conch shell, which makes everything look warmer than it is.

      The theater department at Greta’s university is picking up the tab, so she and Carmen have made a solemn pact to expense everything within a nine-mile radius. Carmen lets Greta order the bottle of wine in German, a language she has in common with the bartender. She chooses well: not the most expensive, but certainly not the least.

      As they drink, they tell each other every secret they haven’t yet gotten around to. Everything they can think of. As if there won’t be time, so much time, a beautiful and deeply destructive expanse of time, the power of which neither of them have fully understood.

      It’s sometime past midnight when Carmen tells the story of the first girl she ever loved. She tells it differently now. It’s the real story, the story of a girl with bruised hips and an ill-fitting shirt, a girl who didn’t love her back, but who showed Carmen how and where to see something nearly as good.

      Either because of the wine or something else, Carmen is unable to read Greta’s expression. They’re silent for a moment.

      “Do you want the rest of this?” Greta asks, nodding at the bottle.

      Carmen shrugs. “Split it?”

      There’s only really enough for one, but it’s good enough to be worth another taste. The wine looks like melted butter as it slides from the bottle into their glasses, or maybe that’s only the effect of the lamps. It makes Carmen regret the nights she’s wasted on subpar Riesling.

      When the bottle’s empty, Carmen and Greta leave the bar and walk across the dizzying carpet toward the bank of elevators. It’s late, and they’re headed for their pristine room with its starched white sheets and the safe in which Greta has placed eight thousand kroner and the figurine of Saint Christopher she brings every time she travels. They’ve probably stayed up too late and certainly drank too much. Greta has a panel on Maxim Gorky to moderate in the morning at which Carmen has promised to take pictures and not ask anything confrontational during the Q&A.

      Across from the elevator, a long picture window looks out over a parking lot, and beyond that a shudderingly long expanse of black.

      Carmen has never seen night like this before. Space. And through the nothing, twisting strands of color. Faint here — they’d be brighter farther north, away from the light pollution even the Norwegians can’t quite stamp out — but it’s unmistakable, those strands, like the flame beneath a Bunsen burner, coiling off into the night.

      The aurora looks so terribly near. It shows no interest in what’s happening beneath it. It will last as long as it chooses to last.

      Carmen puts her arm around Greta’s waist between her blazer and the silk of her shirt. They stand there until the elevator comes, watching bands of green and yellow dance like bruises across the sky.

 


 

Allison Epstein is a graduate student pursuing her MFA in fiction at Northwestern University. Her writing has been published in journals including Pantheon, Metaphorosis, and the Rathalla Review, and she is a contributor to the American Book Review. Allison lives in Chicago where she works as a copywriter and nurtures her love for bad puns.

 


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