Sitting in my dark apartment, I watched the clock eagerly, biting my lip as I waited for 9:30. Because of my feeding and medication schedule, I rarely go out at night, but I was about to make an exception. Three more ticks from my kitchen clock, and I put my wheelchair on high speed, zooming down to the corner cafe to meet my friend Natalie.
“You’re here,” she stated as I approached. We both know me actually showing up when I promise is a rare occurrence. Natalie doesn’t hold it against me, though. No matter how often I cancel plans or forget to text back, Natalie remains unruffled, and I don’t even think it’s because I have ALS. I get the feeling she is just so complete that I don’t have the power to ruin anything. I’m not sure, though. I have never had a friendship quite like ours before.
We looked up at the sky, and my heart dropped to see a full blanket of lavender clouds. “Not a single star?” I asked.
That night, my city was attempting to bring attention to light pollution by encouraging citizens to use minimum lighting. The goal was to get us out into the streets looking up at the stars and marveling over what we are missing. My neighbors and I followed the rules. Even the cafe closed early, the only light inside the soft blue glow of the beverage cooler. Still, the stars remained hidden.
“Apparently, it takes months for the rays we send into the atmosphere to dissipate,” Natalie shrugged. She settled onto the top chair on the stack of outdoor cafe seating.
Another great thing about Natalie is that she handles disappointment with utter calm, whether she accepts it and lets it go or speaks up to rectify the situation. There was no one to complain to tonight, though. This show had no director to adjust the scene. However, good company can salvage even the darkest day or, in this case, the brightest night.
I settled into my wheelchair, reclining so my feet wouldn’t swell. I imagined that if I had my old strength, I would hop up to sit on the low cement wall of a nearby planter and swing my legs.
After a moment of quiet, she said, “I might move. I hope not, though. I like knowing you’re around.”
Although Natalie and I have only met in person about four times over the past year, there is a certain comfort knowing she lives a block away. I’d hate to lose that.
“We might move, too. Rent is high,” I replied. “Maybe we’ll move in the same direction.”
We looked back at the sky to see if anything had changed. Natalie pointed to a light in the distance. “Airplane.”
“Are you writing?” I asked, giving the clouds a break from my scrutiny.
“Short stories,” she answered. “One about a guy I met who studies UFOs.”
We were silent for a while I rolled ideas for stories around in my head and thought about how my words are too slurred and strained to read aloud in my writing group.
Suddenly self-conscious, I said, “I know it’s harder to understand me now, but I’m working on using my speech computer. That should help.”
“I understand enough,” Natalie assured me.
Plenty of people were out in the streets as promised, but we were the only ones still holding out for stars, still gazing up. In the quiet, my mind wandered. It landed in the section of my brain that catalogues books (as usual), and I remembered a quote from the novel The Probable Future by Alice Hoffman. It goes something like: “People think they have to look up to see the sky, not realizing we are standing in it. They don’t know that the sky begins where ground meets air.” I wanted to share this with Natalie, but my voice was fading.
We stayed staring at the clouds for a while longer before Evan showed up to take me home. He kissed me on the head, then hung back so I could have another moment with Natalie.
“It was good to see you,” Natalie said by way of goodbye. Another thing I like about her: our time together can be valuable even if we only exchange a few words. It’s a liberating dynamic.
“You, too,” I said, my voice muted and rough.
I took a last look at the sky before going into my building, wondering over how, beyond the clouds, there are millions of stars and galaxies that I will never see. Nevertheless, I still have absolute faith that they are there, perhaps closer than I think if I’m already in the atmosphere.
Maybe my cure is like that, I thought as Evan helped me out of my wheelchair and into bed. Tucked in beside my husband, it was easy to imagine the cure is merely just out of sight, waiting an inch beyond my fingertips. Evan makes even the grandest hope possible; his heart is that pure. I gave his hand a love squeeze and silently promised that until the cure comes, I’ll keep looking up.