By Nwakego Nwasike
Louise comes to me like an apparition, knees bloody, lipstick a smudgy halo around her lips, the wind whipping strands of her hair into a violent dance around her head, teeth bared in a feral grin.
“Jesus,” I say. “What happened to you?”
Hot stranger. Bathroom. Blow job.
She begins to supply the details but I stop her, uninterested, disgusted. She asks me if I am in the party mood yet.
“I’ve had a shot or two,” I say. “And a beer.”
I’m no fun, apparently. A kill joy. Too interested in the workings of the universe, the stars, the planets, to care about the mere mortals trapped here on earth. When I tell her that I have class tomorrow, that not everyone can afford to drink their lives away, she only sighs, shrugs slightly, too drunk to care, and I am disappointed that she wasn’t offended, didn’t snap back. Didn’t do anything to wake me from the stupor I’ve been lingering in for the past few months.
She asks me about the blood moon again, the reason she has dragged me out onto this rooftop in the middle-of-nowhere Bushwick. Her eyes are shifty and unfocused, body swaying slightly, and I figure that she won’t benefit from any scientific answer I could give her.
“It’s a sign of the apocalypse.”
She rolls her eyes. I’ve lost my ability to tell jokes, it seems.
Then, suddenly, she grabs hold on my arm, and squeals, points — BJ boy is approaching. Looking over, I see him. Tall, dark hair, bushy eyebrows resting lazily atop bloodshot eyes—I know him. I know him, but I can’t think of why or how or where or when. I ask Louise his name.
Greg. Greg. Do I know a Greg? And then, here he is, standing beside me, saying “hey.” He is more attractive up close, I conclude, though there is a smattering of red bumps dotting his hairline at his right temple that seem about ready to blossom into full-blown pimples. He looks at me, ignoring Louise’s tittering, and says my name — Anna.
And then it hits me. Greg. Gregory Cole. Gangly, nerdy Gregory Cole who sat behind me in AP Physics senior year of high school — we never spoke.
I say, “hi,” and “you’ve changed.”
He smiles, a wide, bright, glittering thing, and tells me that I haven’t. That I’m just as pretty as ever, if not prettier. I resist the urge to feel flattered, on the one hand, and embarrassed, on the other. Instead, annoyance begins to prick and pull at me. We exchange pleasantries as much as he, high, and I, disinterested, increasingly impatient, and ready to make the long trip back to East Harlem, can. Blood, meanwhile, continues to drip from Louise’s knees as she silently tries to make flirty eye contact with Greg. He doesn’t seem to notice.
“Louise,” I say, cutting short Greg’s riveting tale about stocks and dividends and other such things I could care less about. “Your knees. What happened?”
She looks down, and her face lights up with surprise and, it would seem, delight. She looks at Greg flirtatiously, placing her fingers on his biceps—he siffens. It is his fault, according to Louise’s drunken mishmash of an explanation. She says she’ll be back, and goes, I imagine, to take care of her knees. Greg turns to me, anxious, running his hands through his hair, and tells me it wasn’t his fault.
Louise, he says. It wasn’t him. She had followed him into the bathroom, apparently. Came onto him. Was refused. Stumbled out, fell, scraped her knees, he guesses.
I tell him about the blowjob.
His face flushes red as he shakes his head vehemently. Not him. Couldn’t be him. Would never be him. His adamant refusal brings a slight, amused smile to my face. It drops when he tries to engage me in conversation again:
What do you do? “Grad school. PhD.”
Oh cool. Where? “Columbia.”
Oh cool. Studying? “Astronomy and astrophysics.”
Oh cool. Like your dad? “Yes.”
Oh cool. Oh cool. Oh cool. I stifle my sigh.
And then he asks me how my dad is doing and my attention sharpens.
“How is he?” he asks. “I haven’t seen him since he handed me my diploma at graduation. I heard he retired from teaching and being the principle?”
My body feels equally on the edge of fleeing and paralysis, stuck in place. “Good,” I say hesitantly, my voice a low murmur. “Fine.” And then I excuse myself, and head for the bathroom inside.
When I was younger, I used to want to kiss the stars. Used to want to swallow those pretty little lights. My dad would pick me up, lift me up towards the expansive night sky, and my chubby little arms would reach up in vain, my fingers curling around but never grasping those stupid, elusive stars. My dad would laugh. Would tell me that they were not only miles, but literal years away. Decades. Centuries. Millennia away. I couldn’t wrap my head around it then, but in time, I learned.
We are all star stuff, my dad would say. All the elements, particles, bits and pieces of primordial goo that made up the stars, the planets, the sun, and so on, made us. When I reached for the stars, I was reaching for myself, for the recycled residue hanging around from the very beginning of the universe.
“They’re already in you,” he would say, wiping away my frustrated, four-year-old tears, bringing me back down to Earth. “The stars are in your hair. In your eyes and your nose and your ears. They’re even already there, in your hands. You just have to know how to look for them.”
I had the universe in me, he said.
Nowadays, I want to cut open veins — let the universe bleed out of me. Bleed, until I have nothing of it, and anything else, left.
When stars die, they have two options: become a dwarf, or become black hole. They know what awaits them in the afterlife. What they’ll be. Where they’ll be. Humans aren’t as lucky. Many ways to die, but no inkling as to what comes after. Our bodies will be in the ground somewhere, I suppose. Or it’ll become the ashes that runs through the cracks of some grieving family member’s fingers as she tosses it up towards the sky, only to have gravity pull it back down to earth, to her. To have the universe fall upon her. The universe she used to want so badly, but now cannot stand. Cannot handle the way it consumes us all, spits us back out into the ether, with no regard for the people who are left behind on earth, with nothing but ash, but dust.
The line for the bathroom is long, and I am feeling jittery and tight in my skin and I can barely breath, but Greg just keeps on talking, having followed me.
“What,” I say, after he pauses, and regards me expectantly.
“Coffee,” he says. “We should get some soon.” I make no verbal reply, but nod slightly, uncommitted. He knows a place here in Bushwick we can go to, if I want. But maybe it’s too far for me?
I am far, he says, from him.
“Where do you live?”
He lives here, apparently. This is his apartment, his party.
“Oh,” I say.
He smiles, and the sight of it makes me want to cringe or perhaps punch him in the face. When my turn is up, I go into the bathroom. He asks me if I want him to bring me anything—a drink, a cigarette, some weed, in the meantime.
“No,” I huff. “Just find Louise and tell her I’m ready to leave.” His mouth opens to say something, but I shut the door before he has time to speak. Inside, the music deadens to a steady, reverberating bass. The sink is littered with cigarette butts and sketchy droplets of water. There is no toilet paper. I look at the mirror and am surprised to see my eyes wet, red, and swollen, my nose dripping, my upper lip quivering.
After a few moments, the tears subside with the calming flow of blood springing from my left forearm. My shaky fingers clasp the slick, reddened razor in my palm before tossing it in the trash. Stop, I tell myself, angry, crying again. What will this solve?
A knock sounds at the door — the living world coming to claim me as one of their own, not ready to give me back to the universe just yet. My sleeves come down past my wrist, and I splash some water on my face. Louise is outside the door, knees no longer bleeding and bandaged up, a frown on her face.
“Yes,” I say, after she asks if it’s true that I’m ready to go. “Come or don’t come, but it’s late and I’m going. I have a long subway ride ahead of me.” I sidestep her to leave the bathroom doorway.
Greg, like magic, materializes beside Louise. He tells me that I can crash. At the sight of my face, he quickly adds that we’ll just sleep, obviously.
Louise cries out after me once I’ve turned to leave. She says I’ll regret missing the eclipse.
“I don’t give a fuck about the fucking moon, Louise,” I say, near hysterical. I don’t wait to see or hear Louise’s reaction—I just go. Go, as fast as my shaking legs will take me. Past the drunken people, past the door, down the stairs, outside. Outside, where the cold air is a slap and freezes the tears on my face.
I groan, I sigh, I do everything to show my annoyance. “Look, Greg—I’m not interested, so please, just stop. Just — leave me alone.”
My words stops him in his tracks. He throws his head back to let out a heavy sigh. “You know,” he says, “I used to wish on those stars every night before I went to bed.”
Now it’s my turn to sigh. But, for once, I’m listening.
“I used to wish that, just once, you’d turn around in physics and look at me. Really see me, you know? And not even talk to me. Just see me. And smile, maybe.”
I’m incredibly aware of both my blush and the wet, trickling feeling of blood at my wrists. “Did your wish come true?”
He smiles sheepishly. “No. Not that I can remember.”
“Sorry,” I say, insides feeling a little loose, a little shifty. “I wasn’t much into boys back then since my dad worked at school. Too awkward.”
“You mean you weren’t into awkward, super-skinny, pizza-faced boys like me.”
The blood drips slowly down to my hand. I don’t respond.
“I’m sure your dad is pretty stoked for the moon tonight.”
I shrug emphatically, exasperated. Greg gives me a funny look in return, takes a few steps closer. I’ve started crying again. I want to tell him that I’m fine, that everything is fine, but the words are trapped in my throat and choking, and garbled noises are all that come out. He closes the distance between us to wrap me in an awkward, hesitant hug in which our middles barely meet. I try to be good — try to let someone comfort me, as my therapist tells me I should. So I don’t move. Am as still as the dead. As still as the stars in the night sky appear to be.
I feel the blood dripping, probably staining his shirt. I feel bad—he’s so nice—but I can’t move. Am too numb to move. To let go. Too afraid of what’ll happen if I step back and let the universe wedge its way between us.
So I don’t move. And stay there, hugging Gregory Cole from AP Physics, and wonder if my dad is out there in the night sky somewhere, recycled into the stars.
Originally published 12/09/15