A woman's back covered in freckles

I’m face-down in our bed when Oscar gets home. Steam from my shower, the hottest I could take without blistering, escapes when he opens the bedroom door, dropping the temperature several degrees and making me wish I’d gotten dressed instead of collapsing in just a towel. My reddened skin erupts into goosebumps, and I consider burrowing into the covers, but I can’t summon the energy.

“You’re home early,” he says, sitting down next to me. “I thought you’d be back tomorrow.” The words hang in the air with expectation. I let them hang.

He doesn’t let me get away with the silent treatment, though. He rolls clumsily over my legs, stretching out on his side of the bed in his work clothes. I scoot closer to steal his body heat. His familiar smell of sawdust and metal oil is comforting, and some of the tension drains out of my muscles just having him near.

We lay there for a long time. Then he says, “You’re not going to tell me what happened at the Center, are you?”

I shake my head, both as an answer and to loosen the iron lump in my throat. There’s another long stretch of silence. The wall clock ticks, the bathtub faucet drips, the ceiling fan whirs.

I’m just about to fall asleep, to give up on the day and maybe life while I’m at it, when Oscar squeezes my bare shoulder. I start and lift my head to glare at him.

“Hey,” he says with a grin, “come with me. I want to show you something.”

My glare intensifies, then I pointedly flop back into the pillows.

“Come on, Becca,” he insists.

I make a muffled “go away” noise.

A couple of beats pass, then there’s a very wet sucking sound followed by a very wet finger stuck directly in my ear. I rocket away from him, flipping over onto my feet while simultaneously trying to wipe spit out of my ear with one hand and keep my towel on with the other.

“Ugh! How old are you?!” I yell over his laughter.

He rounds the bed to catch me before I bolt for the bathroom. I reluctantly let him bundle me into his arms. “You knew what you were getting into when you married me,” he says, cradling me against his stained coveralls.

It’s meant to be cute, but suddenly I’m wondering if he knew what he was getting into when he married me. He’s worked so hard. He sacrificed his own dreams, moved across the country, spent all his time and money on me, and encouraged me through two years of training—all to make today possible. And I blew it.

I try to pull away, but his arms don’t budge. I look anywhere except at him. After ten years together, I know there won’t be any condemnation in his face, no casting of guilt or shame. Just love, acceptance, and grace. And that’s so much worse.

Pressing his cheek to mine, he whispers. “Just give me two minutes, okay? Then you can run back up here and hide for as long as you want. I’ll even run into town for a pizza.”

I want to say no. I know I can. It’ll be fine. He’ll kiss me on the forehead, drive an hour round trip to bring me a medium with everything, then go downstairs to watch TV and give me space for as long as it takes for me to recover.

There’s no recovering this time, though. Not after the Center sent me home. The damage is too complete. Oscar may be the best handyman in the tri-county area, but even he can’t repair a dream that’s been crushed into dust. Not with tools, not with kindness.

But I need to let him try.

I wordlessly slip a hand into his. I let him lead me down the stairs and through the patio doors. I’m immediately self-conscious about being outside half naked despite the nearest neighbor being a mile away and the sun having set hours ago. I tighten my grip on the front of the towel. We walk through the dewy grass until the motion sensor light on the back of the house loses us and clicks off, but we keep going until we hit the edge of the property, then Oscar stops alongside my telescope and looks up at the sky.

I don’t look. I can’t.

“Why did you bring me out here?” I say through tight teeth.

“Because you need to see it.”

Even though I close my eyes against fresh tears, I do see it. I can’t not. The panorama over my head paints itself across the black canvas of my mind at light speed. The shaggy, bluish glow of the Orion arm of the Milky Way spreads out in a great streak to join up with the heart of the galaxy thousands of light years away. Summer stars without number beam and dance in their constellations. Andromeda waves from its neighborly position. And my heart breaks again.

Oscar pulls me to him, my back against his chest. “Look up, baby. Look.”

“I can’t,” I whisper. “I didn’t pass. I’ll never get to go.”

In my mind’s eye, the beauty of the galaxy disintegrates into memories. Cold rooms and colder people. Reams of paper filled with questions I’ve devoted years to answering. Sweat and strain and strength on display. All culminating in a permanent stamp on the file marked with my name: red, denied, unfit.

Oscar lets me go suddenly, just as I’m beginning to spiral. I’m torn between offense and relief. I start to turn, to say something about his idea not working but thanks for trying, when I feel the tiniest point of pressure on my back, right above my towel. I inhale sharply and freeze. The pressure moves gently down in a short, diagonal line, then right, then down, then left, then up, almost returning to where it started. The cool night air brushes against the line it creates—ink.

A faint smile touches my lips as I realize what he’s doing. I let the towel fall. Then I open my streaming eyes and lift my face to the stars.

He draws all across my back, over my shoulders, down my thighs, around my waist, and back up again, connecting the myriad freckles on my pale skin into constellations and asterisms—the shapes he’s learned by proxy from hundreds of hours of helping me study—transforming my body into a replica of the heavens above us. Cassiopeia, Ursa Major, Hercules, Lyra, Sagittarius, the Big Dipper, on and on and on.

When there are no more stars to map, he draws me back to him, arms over my arms and chin tucked into my shoulder. We both watch the sky for a while. Then he says, “You and the stars are made of the same stuff, Becca. Dust and light and something sacred. No program or test or board of judges can ever separate you from them. Even if you never get to see them up close, the stars will always be a part of you.”

I lean back against him, silent and tear-stained but smiling. They’re just words, and they can’t unbreak my heart. But they’re the truth.

Tomorrow night, the stars will still be here, calling out to the dust and the light and the sacred in me, waiting for me to rejoin them–if only from my backyard.

Story content © Ellie Di Julio 2017
Art: Unknown by unknown via Tumblr