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  • Writer's pictureLara Smith

Beginner Astronomy

By Lara Smith

The first time I see a sky full of stars (and I mean real stars) I am around eight years old and visiting my grandparents in southern Germany. I say real stars because the light pollution in New York City, where I grew up, leaves the entire night sky a grayish yellow, no shining specks in sight. Before I see stars in Germany, they are a novelty that featured only in big, glossy printed pictures my father keeps on the glass dining room table. The pictures are taken from his telescope, the Calypso, the product of a doctorate in astrophysics he completed the year I was born. His relationship with stars proves to be confusing for me. In preschool, when I am questioned about my father’s profession, I respond: “He’s an astronaut.” When other preschool kids eagerly ask follow-up questions, I insist: “Yes, yes. He has been to the moon.”

Throughout kindergarten, on evenings where I am lucky enough to be allowed TV, I watch animations of orbits on educational DVDs. I sink into a big brown leather armchair in front of my father’s television, folded up so that my knees touch my chin. Mesmerized, I watch the digitized planets slowly spin around the sun while the tiring drone of the narrator fades in and out of my awareness. Sometimes I watch the same episode three or four times in a row, staring at my dusty reflection in the black screen before the automatic replay begins. The visuals stick: long after these astronomy programs have ended planets continue to orbit around my mind.

I have my first existential crisis at the age of seven while washing my face in a marble bathroom. I am blowing bubbles in the water that I cup to my face, absorbing the slight echo, the darkness of my cupped palms, when, suddenly, the remarks of a DVD narrator speed through my brain. The disembodied voice reminds me how space expands in infinite directions, endlessly. For the first time, I am aware of my ability to think. I understand myself as a mind, contained in a body, contained on an earth, contained in a universe, contained in … something unknown? My legs start to shake. I think I feel the forward motion of the planet barreling through the universe. We stand on a tiny dot covered by layers and layers of the unfamiliar, like a Russian doll. In my mind, tremendously large and colorful planets spin together, shrinking smaller and smaller until only a starless night remains.

I pass out on the floor.

The summer night I first see stars in person, I am lying on an old orange and green checkered blanket with corners so tattered that the threads dissolve into the grass beneath it. Beside me are my younger cousin, Hanni, and a neighboring farmer’s daughter. Both are fast asleep. Distant wisps of adult conversation blow towards us with the wind from the patio. The barbeque has been abandoned, it seems, after the group opened yet another bottle of wine. The musky and familiar scent of cigarettes overwhelms my senses as I lie there, trying to capture the enormity of the universe in a single image.

After the guests leave, I pull the soft quilt over me. The shutters of my grandparents’ windows close. I listen for the start of my mother’s car in front of the garage and imagine her driving back to her apartment in the dark, headlights illuminating the road ahead of her. Everyone is drunk and happy and asleep. Crickets converse in the neighboring wheat field as I lie on the dewy grass letting the wetness soak through my clothes. I feel exposed under the stars which shine over the entire world and, like billions of glimmering eyes, see everything we do. I lie with my arms outstretched, offering them all there is to see of my soul.

Years pass and, under the dull yellow night skies of New York, less and less light infiltrates my life. At sixteen, I end two difficult years of substance abuse by overdosing on my bed. In the throes of a drug-induced psychosis, I am floating in a universe similar to the animated replicas I saw as a child. Here, millions of light-years away from earth, I do not hear the 911 call or the ambulance’s arrival. Instead, everything is eerily quiet and I can reach out and touch the darkness with my warm, shaky fingers.

Months later, I am kayaking and whitewater rafting down the Colorado River with a rehabilitation program. During the day, I find myself caught atop the slimy river rocks, feeling my blood course through me like the murky water between my fingers and the current underneath my kayak, pulsing go, go, go. I fall in love, badly, with one of the instructors. At night, I lie next to a new friend, Emma, squeezing her soft, fleshy palm. One night I wake up early and see the entire Milky Way like a belt around us. Under the Colorado night sky, I think of the blind hands searching in the dark on my bathroom floor, on my bedside table, for the little round tablets of ecstasy that made my life worth living. And, suddenly, I am a child again at my grandparents’, and, suddenly, I am blowing bubbles in my palm. This is all me, I realize. In the early morning hours, for the first time, I reconcile my adult weight against the early abandonment of my mother.

That September, when I return to New York, I face a haunted city. Afforded the opportunity to move, I take it. I apply to an international school in Germany. There, I find a room with a long, cement balcony, and big, glass windows. During frequent rainy days, I hear nine different languages spoken in my dorm. When the weather is warm, my friends and I go out on my balcony after class to read or tan. Once it gets too dark, we sneak bottles of wine in the sleeves of our jackets and return to sit on the concrete, still warm from the day’s sun.

During a quiet weekend of my second semester at school, I decide to spend a night with my grandparents, who live less than an hour away. The house remains unchanged—like a tomb, dark, cold, and damp. Their voices take on an underwater quality, a fogginess that comes with the territory. My senses abduct me back into childhood. I stare warily at each object my grandmother sets before me. “Eat,” she says, pushing my plate closer. Hours after they have gone to bed, I remain sitting at the poorly lit kitchen table, brushing crumbs off the floral oilcloth and taking sips of my grandfather’s stale liquor. I drive back to school that night in the dark. I am tipsy and drive over the speed limit. Once I hit the halfway mark, I pull over on the empty autobahn and find myself splayed over the concrete, suffocating. I throw up onto the black tar road and stare at my spoiled shoes. I focus on breathing in and out. Ein und aus.

Half an hour later, when I am in sight of the campus lights, I park the car and walk across the cracked street flanked on either side by fields of growing wheat. The wheat swishes in the wind. I let my tipsy body sway with it. Once I arrive, the dorm is empty. Everyone else has signed out for the weekend. They are backpacking through the rainy German countryside, completing a wilderness certification. As I walk past the dark and vacant rooms, I discover that one light is still on: Andi’s. I jog back to my room and then return to her door, swinging a crate of dark beer by my side. Nights in March are still cold in Germany, so I lie across her narrow bed while she ransacks her closet for warmth. We pull layers of sweatshirts over our black clothes and don her duvet like a joint cape, the final insulatory measure. Andi fishes a weathered plastic bag from under her bed, filled with sample-sized bottles of tequila. “Mother’s milk,” Andi toasts. Mother’s milk, I reply.

Out on the balcony with Andi, I use an app like a telescope against the night sky. While talking in soft voices about the things in our lives we cannot understand Andi and I are at first unable to follow each other's fingers and line of sight. Hesitantly, I try to name the figures in the constellations. Eventually, the basic planets elude me. I feel like a child once more as I reach out to touch Andi’s hair, sleek and black and impossibly straight. It threads between my fingers as I touch the back of her neck. Silence falls between us. Supported by a red beanbag, withered from snow, wind, and sun, Andi and I sip our foamy beers with numb hands. My red knuckles sting as I bring them closer to the heat of my body. Around us, the night stretches endlessly. I feel myself drop.

This is me, I want to tell her. This is my life, I want to show. This is what I’ve gone through. These are the things that I cannot forgive. But I am too deeply cradled. To break the silence now would be irrevocable.


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