Between Stars

Benjamin Kolp

My boyfriend and his ex-wife were a one-hit wonder. They are a one-hit wonder. That’s something you are forever.

Theirs is a song I know by heart. So do you. They still play it on the radio, and not just here in the north woods. They play it in cities. They play it from satellites. Ryan and his ex-wife, singing together in space.

But geosynchronous orbit is not forever, I tell my students. Consider the tug of the sun, the nag of the moon. Consider the imperfections of our own planet: our flattened poles and equatorial bulge, our fickle attractions. Given time, all orbits precess and decay. Ryan and his ex-wife will lose altitude. Their satellite will dip into the mesosphere, its solar panels dragging through a thickening sodium wind. It will pitch into a fatal spin, tumble through stratosphere and troposphere, crash terribly to earth. Three-to-one it’ll be ocean, fifty-fifty night versus day, but I envision sunlit land, a ranch on the plains of this continent, or one much like it. A flame high in the east, a trail of churning cloud, and just before the burst of aluminum and loam, beneath the scream of burning sky, a song. Ryan and his ex-wife sing each other a eulogy, an apology, a promise, all the way to the ground.

 

We call you Voyager 2, although you launched first, on a Titan rocket in ’77, sixteen days before Voyager 1, your twin. First in flight but second in everything else, you were four months later to Jupiter, nine months behind by Saturn, and then your paths diverged. 1, impatient, barreled past Saturn, skimmed the dense atmosphere of Titan, and excused itself from the solar system. But you, 2, plugged dutifully on to Uranus and Neptune, a fortuitous alignment of the planets tugging you in a tight spiral before slinging you out to more distant stars.

 

When the school year starts, Ryan and I will drive separately. Not to keep anything secret; it’s just that our schedules are offset. He’s up before dawn, and by the time I roll over, his truck is gone and I can smell the coffee thickening in the pot, the smoke from his cigarette—the one cigarette he smokes a day, on the back deck, looking out at the woods—hanging over the bed.

His past life was one of cigarettes. In alleys behind clubs, diners after shows, house parties I imagine packed with artists and laughter, poets in vintage blouses, ruffles puffed high on their pale arms. It was a life of liquor, too, which he didn’t quit until it had cost him everything else. He could quit the morning cigarette if he wanted. But whatever he remembers, or regrets, as he leans on the railing in good weather, hunches under the eaves in bad, is something he’s not ready to forget.

 

Tell us what wind is where you are. A swirl of ions? A magnetic shudder? A burst of UV or IR? So far and yet so close, forty years of flight and still just fourteen light-hours from the sun. There are faster things than light, of course. We conjure you back in an instant, pull you from the heliopause to spin in our minds: your sensor-laden booms, your gold medallion, the broad cone of your antenna. To it, we scream zeroes and ones. From it, you whisper back bits of your own, slowly, slowly: “I am here. Let me tell you. There is wind.”

 

Each year I have my students track the sun. They draw a panorama of their yard and every morning mark where the sun rises. They see it drift south until December 21, then turn around. This should show them the planet is tilted, make them sense the dynamics of Earth and Sun, maybe feel for a moment their place in the sky. That’s what it does for me.

Ryan’s bedroom has a window in the eastern wall. Since I moved in, the sun has been rising in it. That first morning, before I smelled the cigarette or the coffee, before I remembered whose bed I was in or realized I was alone in it, there was only sun. I squinted and stretched. That night, Ryan played his guitar and sang on the deck. We drank apple juice from mugs. It’s been a sweet and brilliant summer.

Soon the school year will begin, new testing standards and curricula, new herds of Earth Science students who don’t know where they are in relation to the stars, who can’t tell geographic north from magnetic, who have no idea where they’re headed.

With the windows open in the science wing, I’ll hear the band practices, the music theory classes, the individual lessons. There’s always a waiting list for guitar class with Ryan, the rock star back teaching in his hometown. The students squeak across the frets, fumble the chords. Sometimes, Ryan can’t hold it in. He shatters their stumbling twelve-bar blues with a blistering solo, a release like a wolf-howl or a solar flare, a lick of moaning vibrato that rings into my classroom where we study the Earth’s core: a ball of iron as big as the moon and hot as the edge of the sun, the churning source of our magnetic field, the seat of our fluid attractions.

 

How fast you are moving is a matter of relativity. Thirty-five thousand miles an hour, if you ask us. But what about your other half, the one to your two? To it, you are closer, moving slower, getting farther away, yes, but not fast enough to be forgotten.

 

By a bonfire on a summer night, Ryan will say he’s not lonely, that he doesn’t miss touring with the band. It was lonelier, he’ll claim, on stage. The lights in his face, the monitors blasting his own guitar, his own voice back at him. The crowd was out there, somewhere, but trying to see them from the spotlight was like trying to look past the sun.

It wasn’t a solo show, but it was still a show, an act. When they made fun of Emerson’s shirt? When he and Eric leaned their heads together during the solos? Every night, the same shirt, the same joke, the same solo.

In the fire pit, a log collapses. A spray of sparks rises into the trees. It’s always burning around us, the duet with Marie.

I’ve seen cell phone video on the Internet. Marie, back by the drum stand, lets the fiddle slip from her shoulder, holds it by the neck against her side. She walks slowly to join him at the mic. Petite and glowing, she seems to float to him, the hem of her white dress brushing the stage, her tiny feet taking tiny steps to join her husband in song. He reaches for her, pulls her to him. They share a smile. He turns to introduce her to the crowd, but it’s not necessary. They’re already on their feet, screaming for the hit. More screens pop into the air. This is what they came to hear.

Just a duet, he says. Same song every night. Nothing special.

He lies. Even shot on a first-gen smartphone from behind the soundboard, even with arms in the way, fans rushing down to press against the stage, the gravity of the moment is clear. The crowd crushes in, the spotlights converge on a single mic, and Ryan and Marie, a perfect solution to an unstable equation, lean together and sing.

 

Soon, your batteries will die, the last ion shaking free from your plutonium fuel, the last cough of warmth drifting through your thermocouples. We will stop speaking to you. You will stop whispering back. But you will be remembered by the pictures you sent, by the way you and your twin put us into context: Here is Earth, photographed with its moon for the first time, both in half-shadow. And we are not the only ones orbited. Here, the swirl of Jupiter, dotted by Io and Europa. Here, Triton mimes the slim crescent of Neptune. But it’s a single photo—1’s, of course—that will outlast the others.

A few blurry rays of light—red, green, tan—draped across the background of space. In one of the bands, a faint speck. A “pale blue dot,” Carl Sagan called it. This single work, a lo-fi backward glance across four billion miles, is your legacy. It’s a picture taken into the sun, a song through a dying amp, a grainy speck in a blurry sky which says all that has ever been said.

 

My students don’t sense they’re on a rock in a dance with a star. They don’t sense much. Maybe the motion of their lives smears it all into a blur. From class to class all day, awkward flirting in the hallway in between, sports and band and homework after the final bell, texting and tweeting—will they remember any of this?

But stand in the same spot long enough and it’s hard to mistake your place in the universe. When days are short, the trunks of the bare trees across the soccer field glow pink well into first period. Midday, the sun creeps in and moves across flaking teenage arms as I teach. I can tell the time by the rows of desks that are lit, the month by the slant of the late-day sun. From year to year, though, the students are unchanged. Aeropostale succumbs to Abercrombie which yields to Hollister, but it’s the same acne, the same ache. The same boys sneaking glances at the same girls sitting up straight as pageant queens, as if a talent scout might pluck them out of Earth Science and deliver them to a planet of wealth and fame, far from the Minnesota woods.

Every now and then a student gets it. They walk up, bright-eyed, before class. They’ve plotted the shadow of the courtyard obelisk over the course of the year—an oblate eight twisting back on itself—or tracked the sunrise from their kitchen window, and finally it makes sense to them. Fifteen years on the planet, ten months of star charts and plate tectonics, a few seasons observing the sun and they realize what Galileo did: here’s our rock, and there’s our star.

They come to me proud and excited. But there’s one final inference they haven’t made: that’s all there is. A stone and a star and a cold vacuum. Enough distant twinkles to distract us from how simple and sad this song is. A ball of flaming gas. A rocky spheroid spinning around it. An ovular orbit that seems steady now, but nothing is forever.

 

And still we speak, to anyone who will listen. Etched in copper, plated in gold, a single phonograph record contains our message. Carrying it through deepest space, you are its bottle in a cosmic sea.

It’s the only gold record that no one has heard. The Sounds of Earth, curated by Carl Sagan and sent out as an interstellar hello, or, more likely, a cosmic good-bye. The music of the planet: volcanoes and thunder and bubbling mud pots. The music of the animals: a bullfrog’s grunt, a chimpanzee scream, the howl of a wild dog. The music of the people: rock and blues and classical, a Navajo night chant. A rivet gun, a rocket launch, a kiss.

If anyone ever finds you, play them the songs of our quivering blue dot. Tell them we lived.

 

The fans didn’t always get Ryan at his best. Some nights he was near blind from the whiskey before he stepped on stage. He struggled through his solos like a man pulling himself up a rope. He would look back at Marie, already a ghost behind him, and she’d bring the bottle downstage. He’d swig and smile and choke the frets, try to squeeze another song from the neck of the guitar. The band would get him through, Eric taking over lead, Emerson cranking the organ, Rucynski on the drum stand smashing them all to the curtain, to the encore, to the bus and beyond.

Eric still calls sometimes, infrequent but regular, a warm-hearted comet from Ryan’s volcanic past. I hear Ryan try to sound younger, happier, his phony rock star drawl climbing back into his throat. But Ryan’s not at his best now, either. Less taut, less tan, it’s like he’s moved to a massive planet where gravity is stronger, the sun dimmer. He can breathe the air on this new planet—breathes deeper, in fact, than ever before—but it’s a dead planet in a way, without tectonics, without a molten core. I drill its deserts, mine its rocky hills, and often I feel like a fool.

But at times I’m rewarded. A vent of trapped warmth, a vein of rusty ore. A smile not meant for the crowd, but for the one who shares his stage.

 

You are an exercise in faith. That you will be found, that your music will be heard, that we are not alone. Somewhere on your golden record, a minute of buzzing and popping: the brainwaves of Ann Druyan, Carl Sagan’s collaborator, newly engaged to be his third wife.

In a cold room at Bellevue, they weave electrodes into her hair. Two days ago, on a long-distance phone call, she and Carl first put their love into words. Now she puts the human experience into thought. She tries to think about the history of civilization, the triumphs and tragedies of the species, thoughts worthy of an entire planet. But what she’s really thinking in that silent room, what they’re actually recoding in the static and starbursts of her mind, is how it feels to fall in love.

Suppose you are found. Suppose your record is played. Will they know which sounds are Earth and which are man? Will they be able to tell music from labor? Will they be able to read the mind of a person in love? Or will that one crackling minute be misinterpreted, as just another vibration of the planet, or just another human song?

 

Given time, the sun burns out. The Earth’s orbit widens as the sun loses mass and the rock finds the star less compelling. But the planet doesn’t stray fast enough; the sun grows as it dies. It reddens and swells, grasping at the Earth, charring it in a flaming embrace.

But not yet.

For now, it’s late summer, and we go to bed with the windows open. Here is Ryan, already asleep and rolled to the wall, the covers only up to his waist, his chest and tatted arms bare in the cool night. Here I am beside him, with a book, a mug of tea. A moth taps at the screen in the exact spot where the sun will rise.

Ryan reaches for me, his arm around my hips, strong even in sleep. He hums as he pulls me to him, high-pitched and trailing, almost a wail, or a howl, or a sad song you can’t forget.

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