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The Apathetic Galaxy This work has been published in the Teen Ink monthly print magazine.

I met him last summer, on the Fourth of July. He was different then. He was happier, and I was too. It was at a neighborhood festival of sorts, the kind where everyone emerges from isolation in their homes and pretends to like each other in the spirit of patriotism. There were burgers and hot dogs and cotton candy and pretty much every cliché you can think of. And it was hot – Christ, it was like the sun decided to supernova a couple billion years ahead of schedule.

Despite all of that, I was enjoying myself. It had been a very lonely summer so far; most of my friends had gone away for camp or work or travel or something, so I hadn't gone out in a while. It was nice to see smiling faces, to smell burgers roasting on the barbecue, to feel the hot sun beating down on my neck. Emphasis on feel – loneliness has a way of making a person numb.

It was getting dark and the fireworks were about to begin. I lay out my towel and stared up into oblivion. I love fireworks. I love how people take something potentially destructive and make it fun and beautiful. Unfortunately, fireworks seem to be the only thing in history for which this has been the case.

It wasn't long before the first rocket was sent shrieking into the night sky. Boom! Whiz! Bang! I watched in awe as the “1812 Overture” played in the background (my neighborhood likes to play it classy). But it wasn't the music I was focused on – it was the tiny sparks falling to the ground like mini meteors. They were gorgeous representatives of every color in the spectrum. Some sparkled, some popped, all only lasted for a few moments before they fizzled and disappeared for good.

When I was younger, I thought the sparks were fairies that would take me far away. Whoosh! Crack! In the latter years of my childhood, I imagined that the sparks were stardust and I was lying beneath a mighty intergalactic battle. Bam! Now, I can't see them as anything but the result of a chemical reaction, and it makes me sad. I miss being able to believe in the extraordinary.

I wish I could say that we met in some grand romantic way, but we didn't. I saw him staggering around, drunk as hell, after the fireworks show, so I offered him a ride. He nodded, slurring out “Yeeaaaah” and fell over. That seemed like consent enough. I didn't see him again for a week when I was going for coffee and passed his house. He was in the yard using a old lawn mower. He lifted his head and shouted, “Hey! Hey, girl! Hey!”

It took me a second before I realized I was the only girl in the vicinity.

“Yeah?” I asked, a bit confused, “Who are you?”

“Funny that I remember you but you don't remember me, seeing as I was the one puking in the back of your car.” He gave an embarrassed little smile. He used to smile all the time, but I remember that first time in his yard the most clearly. The left corner of his mouth went up a little, highlighting the blush that had begun to creep into his cheeks. It wasn't a particularly attractive smile, but it was the most genuine one I'd ever seen.

“Oh yeah,” I said. “You're the drunk. How was the hangover?”

“Awful. I wanted to die. I'm better now though. Thanks for asking.” As he spoke, I looked at him more closely. Dark circles and bags under his eyes. He looked tired. His eyes looked old, standing in stark contrast to his youthful, teenage face. He had on an olive T-shirt, jeans, and beat-up sneakers that looked liked they needed to be replaced, and quickly. No visible piercings or tattoos. He was still smiling that lopsided grin. Overall, he looked pretty ordinary.

“Hey, are you listening?” he asked. I snapped back from my diversion.

“Oh yeah, uh, sorry. I was, I just, uh …” (S**t, come up with something to get out of this!) He was waiting for an answer. “I just was wondering if you'd like to get some coffee with me?” I asked with a few awkward arm gestures. His face brightened and his ancient eyes lost about twenty years.

“Sure!” he said.

And we were on our way. I could describe this coffee date, but there's not much to tell except for a) It wasn't an actual date, b) We didn't learn very much about each other, beyond that his name was Martin and mine was Violet, and c) We agreed to see each other again soon, meaning who-the-hell-knows-when.

Soon actually ended up being a month later, when school began. I walked into Mrs. Diaz's homeroom to see Martin slouching at a desk. He perked up a little when he saw me.

“Violet! Violet!” He was waving frantically to get my attention.

“Are you always going to shout for me?” I joked as I walked over.

“VIOLET! VIOLET!” he shouted louder and close to my face. I started laughing, and soon we were both doubled over in our desks as the rest of the class and Mrs. Diaz stared. We didn't care; we loved that feeling of breathless joy.

We talked a lot from then on. He explained that the night I took him home was the first time he'd ever been drunk. A few of his friends brought beer and everyone got carried away. His friends lived within walking distance, but nobody was sober enough to remember that he didn't. So, they went home, and Martin zombie-walked through the streets until I picked him up.

I told him about my job at the discount beauty supply store, and how funny it was when twelve-year-olds tried on cheap perfume and pretended to be grown up. I mimicked them, and we laughed. Both of us laughed a lot back then.

We shared our book collections. You can learn a lot about a person from the books he reads. Martin liked speculative fiction, and I could only really bear American Modernists. However, our book swaps made me reevaluate my stubborn old positions. I liked Vonnegut's dry, witty tone and Bradbury's commentaries. Likewise, Martin came to me a few days after I loaned him The Beautiful and The Damned, and said he had a new appreciation for the lyrical prose of F. Scott Fitzgerald.

We had a “book appreciation” picnic one Saturday. It was cooler than that Fourth of July, and the breeze was full of the scent of sage and dust. It was well into autumn by this point, and our location was a park set ablaze by the changing of the seasons. The leaves ranged from a brilliant scarlet to blinding yellow to deep orange. The trees above us were clutching their last rouge leaves like the parents of teenagers about to move out of their childhood homes.

“Okay, so The Sirens of Titan … what did you think?” he asked, his tired blue eyes locked on my hazel ones.

“It was really good. I liked how the purpose of humanity was to deliver a simple message. It's nice to be a part of something, I guess, even if it is a kind of dumb thing. What did you think of A Moveable Feast?”

“I liked the memoir part, but I think Hemingway was kind of an ass.”

“He was.”

“But it would have been pretty cool to be a starving artist in Paris.”

“Hemingway wasn't nearly as impoverished as he claimed to be.”

“Damn. He really was an ass.”

“He survived World War I though. There's something to be said for that. It was brutal in those trenches.”

Later that day, a freshman boy from school named Tom Clairmont was shot to death. He didn't do anything beyond being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Some gang leader was searching for somebody, and Tom happened to look like that guy from a distance. The shooter didn't stop to check before he opened fire. Unfortunately, he had impeccable aim.

Tom's body was mutilated by the gunfire. While performing an autopsy, coroners found just one thing he had been carrying that hadn't been destroyed by bullets or soaked in blood: a copy of A Farewell to Arms, which he had been studying in English class.

I didn't know Tom, and neither did Martin. But we went to the funeral to show solidarity. I learned Tom had been a great football player and was hoping to be the school's first sophomore quarterback next year. He was smart – a complete genius in chemistry. His family was poor, and he was relying on a full-ride scholarship for college. He had a lot of friends, all of whom showed up and sat in the front pews, sobbing their eyes out for a promising young life that had ended so suddenly. Nobody deserves to die, but if there's anybody who especially didn't, it was Tom Clairmont.

After the service, Martin and I went to get lunch at this hole-in-the-wall sandwich place. I got a beef pastrami, and he got a BLT. We shared a large Coke. Both of us were silent for a few moments, like our voices would poison the sacred air.

“Good service,” I finally managed.

“Yeah,” said Martin. He took a bite. Some lettuce and a few chunks of bacon fell out. The atmosphere was thick and awkward. “I kinda wish I had known him. He seemed like a nice kid.”

“He did. But if you'd known him, you'd be inconsolable right now. You'd be in mourning,” I said.

“That's a bit selfish, don't you think? Not wanting to know somebody so you wouldn't feel bad when they're gone? Everybody dies. You might as well enjoy their company until then, whether they're fourteen or seventy-five,” he said.

“Guess you're right.” More silence. Still awkward. I bit into my pastrami. I'd let it sit so long that it was cold and stiff. Suddenly, Martin put down his sandwich and looked me straight in the eye.

“Violet?” he said in a serious tone.

“Yeah?” I was a bit flustered.

“I really like hanging out with you. I hope you stay alive for a while.”

“Thanks. I hope you do too.” Martin smiled.






School resumed. People mourned for a long time (and I'm certain some never stopped), but life continued for the living. Winter came. The auburn leaves disintegrated into frosty dirt. The trees were covered with a thick coat of snow and ice. The landscape changed to a papery white, occasionally interrupted by the gray structures of civilization. The air smelled sharp. I lost my job and replaced it with a hostess position at a cheap chain restaurant. Martin tried to teach himself to paint but decided that he wasn't good. He continued to paint anyway because he liked it.

In January, I got my first semester report card: B in English, C in history, B in math, A in physics, A in chorus, A in home economics, B in art, and an A in gym. Could be better, but not awful. Now, Martin's report card, that was awful. D in everything. Even art, the subject that he'd been so in love with all season.

I found him in the park that afternoon. He was on a bench, staring at the sky. His eyes were red and damp, and he was breathing heavily.

“Hey, you all right?” No response, just slightly heavier breathing. I sat there and looked at the clouds too.

Finally he choked out, “Yeah, I'm-I'm okay.” After a moment, he added, “Thanks for coming.”

“No problem.”

“How did you know I was here?”

“I looked in places you go to think.”

“Oh.” We sat a bit longer, with just the sound of the wind filling the void. There were no bird songs, all of them had gone south until the grass was green and wildflowers bloomed again. “Do you know what this means?” he said quietly.

“What?”

“It means I can kiss any chance of getting a scholarship good-bye. Or getting into a good college, for that matter.” He gave me a hurt, broken smile. “My grades used to be good enough. But that was then. This is now.” I didn't know what to say.

“I'm really sorry,” I whispered and gave him a tight hug.

“Christ, I'm freezing. Let's go inside,” he said.

“Coffee?”

“Sure.”

I got a macchiato. He got a cappuccino. We were warm. Winter passed, and the grass turned green and the wildflowers bloomed. The birds returned. The air was warm and fresh and clean. That spring it rained a lot.

I was working late one night feeling bored and wired from all the coffee I'd drunk to stay awake. As I drove home, I noticed a light on in Martin's window, so I jumped the fence and crossed the yard where we had our first sober meeting. I threw a pebble at the glass – plink! Martin opened his window.

“With love's light wings did I o'erperch these walls,” I giggled, pointing toward the short brick wall separating the grass from the sidewalk.

“What's that from?” he inquired.

“Romeo and Juliet, you uncultured imbecile,” I teased.

“Sorry for not getting the reference to a play we studied years ago in a class I failed, Romeo,” he snapped.

“Whatever,” I muttered. “I was wondering if you want to go out.”

“Now?” he exclaimed. “It's 1:30!”

“The day is so young,” I mused. “C'mon, the world is ours.” He thought a moment, broke into one of his signature grins, and was in front of me in minutes.

“Let's go somewhere remote. Out of town,” I said.

“How about The Lookout?” The Lookout is a cliff overlooking a valley. It's on the edge of town but faces away from it so you only see wilderness. It's an ideal spot for couples to make out (among other things). But it was too late for that now. If Martin and I went, we'd be completely alone.

We drove until society was behind us and we could see the sky in all its untainted black glory. Eventually, we got to the end of the road. We lay side by side in the grass. It was very starry that night, so we pointed out some constellations we knew and made up a few of our own – “Angry Kitten,” “Tired Teen,” etc. We talked about school and hobbies and work. After a while, the conversation got deeper.

“The stars are so old,” I remarked. “Ancient. These are the same ones Copernicus saw when he created the theory of a heliocentric universe. The same stars that guided explorers and traders so long ago. They're like these eyes that have been watching humanity since its birth. It's scary to think that every person in history looked at the sky and saw these same stars. They link us or something.”

“Some of them aren't there anymore,” replied Martin. “Some died a long time ago. All we're seeing is the light they left behind. We're so far from where they used to be that the light is still coming. Like the ghosts of stars.”

“That's really depressing.”

“Not really. The light is like the star's legacy – still there even though the star itself is gone.”

“You ought to be a politician. Only you could put a positive spin on that.” He laughed.

“Nah, I could never be in politics. You should be a politician. Only you could convince a person to come out to the fringe of society at one-thirty in the goddamn morning.”

“See, putting a spin on stuff. Politics is your destiny.”

“Politics is full of cheaters and liars,” he said defensively.

“Yeah, you're right,” I said. “They'd eat you alive.”

“I'm going to take that as a compliment.”

“Good, 'cause it was.” We smiled and looked into the heavens in silence. He turned to me.

“Hey, Violet, do you believe in God?” he asked, his blue eyes full of wonder. I looked back at the sky.

“I guess. It's really nice to think that someone is looking out for you and your little life isn't entirely devoid of meaning. Do you?”

“Sort of. It's kind of hard to. The world is pretty messed up. So, I guess I'd say that if God exists, it's more like those stars. Eyes that have been watching us evolve but never interfering.”

“Do you think God is one of those dead stars?”

“Maybe. Sure has one hell of a legacy.” Neither of us said much after that. I watched his eyes flutter in the starlight until we fell asleep, dreaming beneath the inky abyss of an utterly apathetic galaxy.

I woke up first, as the sun was starting to rise. The sky was a beautiful pinkish-purple slowly transitioning to orange. Martin looked blissful, so I let him be as I had my moment with the universe. By the time that fiery orb was set in its place, he was beginning to stir. We talked for a while before driving back. Both of us slipped quietly into our homes before our family was the wiser.

And then something happened. Don't ask me to explain it, because I can't. Something happened in Martin. It happened gradually, so gradually that I didn't realize it until it was over. He started skipping school. He'd miss weeks at a time, and his grades dropped below their already dismal status. He used to put in an effort. Now, on the days he actually showed up, he didn't even try. He slept through classes and never took the homework assignments.

His parents suspected he was doing drugs. They hired an investigator to search his room and had him tested. Everything came up negative, and they were mystified. Why had he just stopped?

Despite his lack of motivation, he still confided in me. He told me that the mounting pressure was killing him and that's why he just quit. He told me that this was better. He told me that when he wasn't at school or home, where he was being constantly told that his value was equal to his success, he was free. He could breathe, he could shout, he could sing. He said he went out at night a lot and danced beneath the unwatchful eyes of God. He started inviting me. Sometimes I would go.

Those nights were magical. We'd go to The Lookout and turn it into our own ballroom. The whoosh of the wind and the chirping of the crickets became our orchestra. The stars were our mood lighting, and the moon, our spotlight. On those nights, I wanted to dance forever or until we both faded into the sky and became constellations for future generations to dance under. I never wanted those nights to end.

Of course, eventually they did. I was still thinking about college. He told me that I should stop focusing on such trivial things, but I couldn't. I wasn't like him. I needed something more long term because as much as I loved it, I knew that I couldn't dance at The Lookout for the rest of my life. I knew that I would never become a constellation. I think he knew that too, but he never wanted to say it, as though he believed if he didn't say it, it wouldn't happen.

Slowly, he stopped talking to me, and this was when I began to realize the gravitas of the situation. He called me less, invited me less, came over less, until eventually “less” turned into “not at all.” I called him, but he didn't pick up. I e-mailed him, but he never replied. I went to his house, but when his parents opened the door, they told me that Martin had packed up and left in the middle of the night. I could see them holding back tears. Halfway back to my car, I stopped trying to hold in mine.

So here we are. It's July again, almost a year since Martin and I met. Nobody's heard from him since he jumped town. It's like he just vanished without a trace. The annual Fourth of July party is tomorrow, but I'm not going. I have another place in mind.






I return to The Lookout around midnight. It's very starry again. I look up and try to talk to an entity that doesn't even acknowledge my existence. It's pathetic and half-hearted, but I'm trying.

“Hey, I knew this guy. Maybe you knew him too. His name's Martin. He came here a lot. Sometimes I was with him. Do you know where he is? Where he went?”

No response. Of course. I keep talking anyway, because it's comforting to think that something might be listening. “I hope you get to see him. He's really nice. A bit confused, but really nice.” I pause.

“And if you see him, tell him that I miss him … a lot. Tell him … tell him that I might have been a little in love with him. And ask if he was a little in love with me too. 'Cause I really wish he'd been.”

That's all I say. I drive home. I'm going to move on; I'm going to keep on living. It hurts to lose Martin, and I don't think I'll ever have him back. But at least we had that year together. And those nights.

And at least, for a little while, I was sort of his and he was sort of mine. His star is gone and the universe doesn't care, but I'll always have the impression he left behind. I wonder if I left an impression on him too.

This work has been published in the Teen Ink monthly print magazine. This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.




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This article has 3 comments. Post your own!

. said...
yesterday at 9:33 pm:
I saw this in the magazine and FELL IN LOVE WITH IT. :) I absolutely love that it's not JUST a love story, that it...let me tell you, it DOES inspire thought. God, I've never thought about stars that way before, that our ancestors looked at the same ones thousands of years ago? This is absolutely one of my favorite peices from the magazines, and you're a truly terrific writer. :)
 
voltairah96 This work has been published in the Teen Ink monthly print magazine. replied...
today at 11:47 am :
Thank you, that means a lot to me! :)
 
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ramfthomas4This teenager is a 'regular' and has contributed a lot of work, comments and/or forum posts, and has received many votes and high ratings over a long period of time. This work has been published in the Teen Ink monthly print magazine. said...
Jun. 4, 2013 at 6:16 pm:
i'm crying.
 
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