Autumn Phillips: Astronomical aspirations
As soon as he opened his mouth, I knew our relationship was not going to last.
Call him Disappointment
It was the night of some predicted meteor shower, and we were sitting on the hood of a borrowed car looking up at the sky. The Aegean Sea was a thick black and gently lapping against the beach.
The night sky was clear and cloudless, and each star was a perfect shining pinprick.
If you are like me, you could sit on the beach in the Mediterranean on a warm summer night and watch the stars forever, waiting for a few of them to fall out of the sky. My back was against the windshield, and I was staring straight up, waiting for the show to begin.
When I saw the first shooting stream of light, I looked over at my friend, excited.
“What are we doing here?” he said.
“Watching a meteor shower,” I replied.
“We should have brought some sunflower seeds to chew on,” he said.
“Just relax and enjoy the beautiful night,” I suggested.
Picture us. I was trying to enjoy a meteor shower, but all I could see were the eyes of this handsome (less so by the second) Kurd sitting next to me. His stare was tunneling into my skull.
“How long are we going to stay out here?” he asked.
Within the 2 inches of car hood between us, there were miles of mindset. Part of it, I’m sure, was cultural. All I saw, as I jumped off the hood and started the car, was a saboteur. We drove home in silence, and I can’t remember if I even slowed down to push him out when we reached his apartment.
This is about disappointment. It is about me living the life of a child’s punching toy — weighted with sand at the bottom and filled with air at the top, my smiling clown face stands up again and again for another fist in the face.
This is about my many failed attempts to experience astronomical events.
Yes, I have seen a thousand meteors fall into the ocean and onto dunes in the desert. I have looked at nebulas through the lenses of powerful telescopes. But this is not about those times.
Disappointment No. 2.
It was August 1999, the year Romania made a special bank note out of plastic with a little colored window you could look through and watch the solar eclipse. I was one of thousands making my way toward Eastern Europe to watch the moon obstruct our view of the sun.
Curiosity and poverty are constantly at odds and so it was for me. I had enough money to fly to Paris and $300 to make a three-week journey, by thumb, from France to Dubrovnik, Croatia, and back again. Alas, I loitered in France for 10 days. Even with a panicked, waving thumb and the kindness of an Irish truck driver, I only made it halfway across Italy when the time came.
I jumped out of the cab of the truck and wandered into a field — eclipse glasses in one hand and an 8 mm camera in the other.
It felt like an eclipse. The birds went quiet, and I saw the shadow pass across the sun, but I was too far west to experience total darkness. All the way to Europe, and I still failed.
Disappointment No. 3.
Flash to last week. It was a week of waking myself up in the early hours, of checking spaceweather.com and trying to catch a glimpse of the predicted aurora borealis: 11 p.m., 12:15 a.m., 1:30 a.m., nothing. Not the first night or the second night or any night since. Giant Sunspot 486 has been hurling solar flares at Earth for more than a week now, and I have seen none of it. I still have the faith of a punching toy, but the friend I dragged through this night won’t even utter the words “Jimmy Westlake” (our local astronomer) and covers her ears when I say “sunspot.”
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