Constellations of Desire

Stars UnsplashSebastian Script

Hannah plays Iggy Pop through the speakers of her iPhone as we walk down the wooded path, which leads to an overlook by the Golden Gate Bridge. The wheels of traffic buzz like honeybees on the pavement from just out of sight. I glance over at her as we walk, and a gust of wind blows her hair back, revealing the galaxy of freckles there on her cheeks and nose. She mouths the lyrics to “The Passenger,” but I can’t tell if she’s singing quietly to herself or not over the cars and wind.

A woman stands smoking at the overlook, cigarette raised to one side of her head, her elbow resting on the hand she has crossed across her waist which grips her hip. She looks like a movie star from the ‘40s, both curved and linear at the same time, deliberately casual in her pose. Hannah pauses long enough to take a photo with her phone of the woman. The woman never turns to look at us.

“We should walk down to Fort Point,” Hannah says. “I haven’t been there in forever.”

“Okay,” I say. It’s chilly today, and it’s always windy here on the cliff, but the day is clear and there’s time for walking with old friends.

Hannah and I went to high school together, so far in the past that the edges have been worn off our memories. She married almost straight out of school, and divorced before finishing college. We weren’t very close back then, and I’m not sure if we could say that we are close now, but there is a mutual comfort that we have which makes our rare afternoons together easy and unforced. For a time every few months, we can remember the crisp air of our youth, and ignore the heavy and smoky atmosphere of thickening middle age.

“I hear there’s snow in the mountains now,” she says. “You should come skiing with me this weekend.”

“I’m not a skier. I don’t do water, I don’t do snow. Strapping two pieces of wood on my feet and going downhill at forty miles an hour through the trees never seemed particularly safe to me.”

“Nothing is safe,” she says, “if you’re doing it right.”

In high school, I was in love with her freckles. I would sit in our French class and wonder about them, if they were just on her face and neck, or if they fell down across her back, across her chest and belly. My hidden need for her was written in those constellations of desire, a secret map I traced from earlobe to lip, from chin to the hollow of her throat, knowing the pattern of her stars as well as I did the ones in the skies above at night.

Some memories have no edges from the very beginning, only soft curves that turn inward and repeat themselves in patterns over the decades that follow.

“Then you pick a place,” Hannah says. “We can just take a day trip. We’ll be home before it’s dark.”

“I’ve got plans this weekend,” I say. I am supposed to go with Rivi to some art show. I can’t even remember what it is. Some artist she knows, a painter.

“Oh, okay,” Hannah says. She unlocks her iPhone and stops the music, then puts the phone in her back pocket. “Another time then.”

“We should have hung out more in school.” I’m not not sure why I’m saying it. Our circles barely overlapped back then, just enough to maintain a tenuous social contact, but not enough that we would have extended our relationship to include activities off school grounds.

“We should have,” she says, and we both know it wouldn’t have happened. The adults we have become bear so little resemblance to the children that we were. There was no possibility then of our orbits pulling us together, but it’s nice to have our own fictions to fold ourselves inside of from time to time.

“Pick a place,” I say. “Pick somewhere and we’ll go there next Saturday.”

“I can’t,” she says. “I’ll be out of town that weekend.”

“It’s always something, isn’t it?”

She nods. “It always is. We aren’t kids anymore.”

I remember one afternoon in school, a lunch period in the spring. Hannah was in a red striped dress, laying on the low concrete wall which ran around the open area outside the cafeteria. Her legs were curled beneath her and her eyes were closed, the sun caressing her freckled skin, and my feelings were locked in a chest made of adolescent emotions, and kept buried leagues beneath the sea.

“We should have gone out,” I say. “I like to think we would have.”

“I might be sick,” she says quickly, without looking at me. “I’ve got an appointment next week to find out. Some tests.”

I’m not sure how to react, the Technicolor memories of the past suddenly being obscured by the stark blacks and whites of the moment I’m brought back to. “What kind of tests?” I ask.

“The kind that tell you things you probably don’t really want to know,” she says.

Once, during a presentation on college application processes in the dimmed high school auditorium, Hannah, who was sitting next to me, leaned over in her seat and put her head on my shoulder. There was no reason for it that I could think of, and when in a few minutes she lifted it again, we went on as though it had never happened. A memory, moments in a lifetime, pressed like leaves between the pages of a book with yellowed pages.

“Let’s go see the snow,” I say. “I’ll change my plans.”

“That’s silly,” she says. “We can go another time.”

The constellations on her skin are bright in the afternoon sun, a map made of stars, shining paths in both directions: to the truths and falsehoods of the past, fluid and changing in the moment, and to a future whose stones have not yet been marked into a permanence which can only be undone by living through it. She is an infinite collection of longitudes and latitudes, contained both within and beyond her freckled skin.

“The right time already happened,” I say. “Now we just have to make do.”

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