second star to the right

(and straight on till morning)

Ari Koontz, Issue 02
@arioctober


I stole my name from a star the human race will never touch, one hundred and sixty-six light years away. It was not bequeathed to me through heritage or whispered through my umbilical cord, nor did it fall upon me from the velvet night sky; I picked it out myself and tugged it down with impatient hands, pressing it tightly to my chest and then running barefoot to my bedroom before it could slip loose and flutter away. I tucked it carefully underneath my covers and watched its light dance around me, illuminating the folds of my skin and the undersides of my fingernails. When I fell asleep, it burned into my curves and my edges, silent sparks nearly setting me ablaze—and I knew that I had finally found a part of myself to call home.

*

This is something I have noticed: the universe terrifies more often than it inspires. There’s a reason we spent thousands of years believing this planet was flat—the vastness of the alternative is too much to fit within the collective human consciousness, let alone individual comprehension. We have always made space into stories to make it easier to stomach; it’s far easier, far safer to look up and sew the distant pinpricks of light into shapes and figures and guiding ghosts than it is to accept the chaos and heat and impossible distance of a trillion whirling suns. Even those who study these mysteries are driven by the need to categorize, to explain, to define in measurable terms. Admitting how little we know about the stars is dangerous, because it means admitting how lost we really are.

        I am not immune from this fear. For the first several years of my life, I tossed and turned through endless nightmares in which comets and black holes descended upon me, and even after these dreams faded I kept my head down and my windows firmly shuttered at night. I was fine with the glow-in-the-dark stars plastered on my ceiling, but I had no interest in their distant cousins flickering beyond the clouds.

        When I was ten years old, my family took a trip to the shores of Lake Michigan during the Perseid meteor shower; it took an hour of convincing before I agreed to come along and watch, and even then only with the reassurance that I could go back inside after ten minutes. At midnight, I found myself shivering underneath a thin rain jacket on the beach with my toes buried in the sand, looking across the silent water and trying to summon the courage to look up.

        Finally I squeezed my eyes shut and leaned backward, then opened them again slowly to meet the night sky. Almost immediately, I felt like I was suffocating. The darkness was swallowing me; the rock fragments bursting into flame against the invisible atmosphere made my feet unsteady and my knees lock underneath me. It was too close and too far away all at once. It was too much fire and energy to be contained in a singular place and time, and yet there it was above me, ripping seams in the warm darkness.

        I was terrified—and I could not look away. This is the true power of the vastness of space, of the strange shimmering fabric bolted above our heads. We cannot look away.

*

How, then, do we live with these fears? How can we reconcile ourselves with infinity?

        I have been lost inside of my own universe, my body, for almost as long as I can remember. Like the stars, contemplating the shape and size of myself feels almost life-threatening: it is the edge of an unfathomable precipice, a multitude that is better seen from a distance and best not seen at all. To walk past the mirrors with eyes squeezed shut is the only option, because the alternative is to get caught in the reflection and stare in heart-beating terror, paralyzed by my own reality and unreality. I know too well the persistently imperfect lines of myself, and I know that refusing to look does not make them any less real, but what other option did I have? Dysphoria, cannot be made into a story, and it does not come with an instruction manual.

        I suppose this is why I finally turned back to the stars—not because I wasn’t afraid, but because I learned that there were worse things to be afraid of. Because when you cannot trust yourself with your own body, it’s easier to trust anything and everything else. You seek solace in the unknown because it has to be better than the known facts of every inch of you.

        After a childhood of shivering away and averting my gaze, I spent my teenage years looking up in wide-eyed fascination, falling in love with constellations and nebulae and letting them fall in love with me back. When I felt myself threatening to crumble, it was the stars that held me in place, that gave me something to hold onto and vanish in. I stayed up late tracing my fingers along the edges of the night; I doodled galaxies on my shoes and checked my phone’s space app every night to see which bright objects were watching over me as I drifted towards unconsciousness. Under my breath, I fervently whispered the overused yet vastly comforting cliche: we are made of stardust. And somewhere along this hesitant yet earnest trajectory towards that unreachable multitude, something sparked me into slowly beginning to believe that perhaps the dust inside of me meant I, too, could be a strange sort of beautiful. Without realizing it, I began to take the first tentative steps toward finding a way back to myself.

        I understand now—or at least, I hope I do—that these stars mean fear and bravery all at once. They mean loneliness and they mean love. They mean persistence in the face of impossibility, and they mean that we all have a place within the disorder of everything we do not understand. When I look up, I find that I cannot hate the small/large/quiet/loud body I live in, because it is made of the exhalations of comets and it is meant to last forever. I am past, present, and future; I am fallible and infallible; I am made of stories and science, and I can never be fully explained.

*

41 Arietis is the brightest and most powerful object within the Aries constellation, which is the zodiac sign that marks my date of birth. It is also a remnant of multiple now-obsolete constellations, defying the constraints of time and escaping classification, existing in multiple forms at once. Depending on which stories you believe, 41 Arietis is part of a ram, a bee, a lily, or an unending and random tapestry of hectic light. To me, its shape is all of the above.

        I found this star when I was 15-years-old, still searching for something to hold onto. At first I jotted it down in a journal, earmarked as a possible character or vague destination. I still don’t know why it stood out to me, one in thousands, but I felt something tugging me towards the light, the name—a faraway glimpse of an identity I had only just begun to untangle. I put away my pen and fell asleep, but that light stuck with me, and a year later I realized that I had found who I was going to be. A name, after all, is nothing if not a beginning.

        Somewhere coded into the depths of our consciousness, there are a string of chemical instructions that tell us to be afraid of the unknown. And yet, at some point, we decide to chart the stars anyway, to attempt to find answers that we know can never truly be found. This is what I fear: the star hidden in between my sheets. The brilliant blinding sun that will someday implode, shattering its universe into pieces and my body along with it. The traces of dust embedded in my veins, and the body it commands. I am fragile and uncertain, and I am infinitesimal in this interstellar infinity, and there is so much about myself that I am still struggling to understand. But I am beautiful, too, and this is the only universe I have.

        In the words of Walt Whitman: I and this mystery here we stand. This, at last, is where I belong.

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