Revolving Door: Volume 2
Stars in the Dark
You quickly get used to these starless San Francisco nights.
Between the fire of early evening lights and the fog that tries to suffocate them, the stars are lucky if any of their light reaches the roads. You know there’s no need to search for anything past the smoldering sodium lights, past the pinnacles of those thousand towers. Only the moon glows through, a fragment of a disk.
If you ride to the outer hills and south to the suburbs, you might see their light trickle through. But that’s not how it goes. Most will never leave: queues of tents stand frail under the freeways, and beggars lie in benches by piers of LEDs, waiting for something better than a view of the stars.
From your fledgling days, you’ve learned about the stars from what others say about them. Dozing in a sling on your mother’s hip, you listened to her spin yarns about sailors in space while she cooked. She told you how the stars were brighter in her childhood, how they began to disappear as the city grew taller.
In middle school, you smuggled your tablet into class to watch the launch of the Fortitude 3 under your desk. While Ms. Santos read off her slides about random-access memory, you watched the tiny, historic shuttle draw a path of smoke through the stratosphere.
The year that shuttle passed Jupiter, you began detouring to the corner library after school every week, to borrow the same book again and again. You no longer remember its title, but you remember what lies between its covers: the entire night sky, scattered across a two-page spread, with the ecliptic of the sun marked by a dotted line. The book would never belong to you, but you made it as yours as much as you could, taking photographs of its diagrams and paragraphs.
When you left home for college, you kept those notebooks with you.
Looking up, Lea sees the Milky Way for the first time.
All of Japantown is dark tonight. A third of the city has been snuffed out by the blackout, and now there are only the silhouettes of antennae and jumbles of dark, mismatched roofs, crowding each other out like teeth in a jaw.
Beyond them, this strange vision of stars, crisper than in the two-page spread, unfolds.
There is more depth and distance to the image than Lea could have imagined, a cloud of lights, a pool of glitter. San Francisco has not seen this many stars in a century of flickering neon and sodium incandescence.
As if meeting an old friend for the first time in a century, its many eyes glisten, black windows mirroring the sky.
On the straggly lawn of the Hexagon, a crowd of frazzled tenants mills and mutters around her, a noisy contrast to the silence she’s used to. She herself has only just come down from her window on a blanket rope five stories long. From other windows, similar ropes of knotted cloth flap in the breeze, and flashlight beams swing back and forth.
She whips around. Someone’s running towards her, and she almost doesn't recognise him, but the name finally breaks through: August, the sleepless office worker she sees at the café, only ever in businesswear with bags under his eyes. The eyebags are still there, but the businesswear has been replaced with cargo shorts and a large sweatshirt.
“What the heck?” he exclaims.
“Auggie?” she shouts in unison. “Do you live here?”
“I’ve been in unit 203 since last year! How long have you been here?”
“Three years, dude! I’m in 509.”
“You’ve been here the whole time I’ve been here? And we never saw each other?”
“I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone else who lives here. It’s weird.”
Finding a mound in the corner of the lawn, they sit down in the grass, August complaining about his back. Inevitably, they both look upward.
“I know, it’s unreal.” Dark towers reach up into a fogless sky.
August blows out a breath through puckered lips. “I’ve never seen so many stars.”
“You know much about the constellations?”
“Uh, not really?”
“Cool, I can introduce you! You see the three stars in a line over there? That's the Belt of Orion.” Lea points, though parallax means August sees her pointing at different stars. “And there’s Deneb, Vega and Altair, the Summer Triangle—”
It fills their eyes both, and many other eyes around them. The chatter wafts through the summer night. There is no booming of karaoke speakers tonight, no screeching of tires; their voices are thin and alone.
“I wonder when my landlady will come by,” she says absently. “She protects her units like unhatched eggs. She even has a no-guest rule, though I kinda broke that one last week.” The picture of her two friends flashes through her thoughts, the elevator doors closing between her and them. “Maybe the blackout will drive the rent down.”
“God, I hope.”
A torch flash casts long shadows across the grass before them, outlined in white. “Don’t mind me, you’ve got a good spot,” calls out a newcomer, as they drop onto the grass beside the mulling companions. They sigh. “What a night.”
“Tell me about it,” August replies. “You just watch, we’re gonna be out here on the lawn all night. I refuse to sleep out here.”
Lea has flopped backward onto the grass, staring straight up at Cygnus. “What’s your name?” she asks, turning her head to take the newcomer in. Their short, curly hair is bleached to some pale shade, indiscernible in the moonlight.
“Morri,” they reply, reaching out for a handshake that Lea returns with the wrong hand. “You?”
“Lea. You live here too?” she replies.
“Yeah, first floor, in whiffing distance of the garbage collection point.” Morri grimaces while the other two laugh.
“I wonder what the news has to say about the blackout. You guys didn’t happen to check, did you?” August taps a search query into his phone as he speaks.
Lea pats her pocket for her phone, then slaps her forehead. “I forgot to take my phone down with me.”
“Oh, huh, it says here,” August turns his phone around to show them a post that neither can read from where they are, “there was a power surge thousands of times bigger than any we’ve had before. They’ve shut off the power across a third of the city, it’ll come back once they’ve figured out what caused it.”
“Who knows how long that’ll take,” Lea sighs, then immerses herself in the view again. “You know what, let’s play a game. I made this one up myself, it’s actually so good for getting to know people you just met, i.e. like the three of us right now. Basically, you interview each other and try to find as many people you both know as possible.”
“I know one—Morri,” August says at once. “The president. Tim Lee.”
“Not like that, they have to be new connections. Also, no famous people. That’s no fun.”
“Then what if we don’t find anyone?”
“Between two people living in this city? No way. I’ve never seen it fail before, and you know what they say, the universe isn’t getting any bigger.” She pauses. “You guys get it?”
Sometimes, you roam the library shelves together with the daughter of your mom’s best friend. She gravitates towards a different end of the hall, towards biology and history. You watch her disappear behind the shelves while you get to yours, and discover her two hours later, nestled in a beanbag chair, reading about castles and jousting tournaments.
You convince your mom to take you both stargazing, when you are seven and still don't know that the Coit Tower overlooks the glowing piers. Halfway to the tower, it becomes clear that the view is no better than below. Then your companion’s ankle is bitten by ants in the grass, and tears gather in her eyes, sparkling in the lights below Telegraph Hill. The tears are still there when you snap a selfie of the both of you, for a keepsake.
You support her down the slopes back to the car beneath the cloudy orange sky, her arm around your shoulders, heads heavy with disappointment. She falls asleep in the back seat of your mom’s car in the night traffic. You wait for her to stir so you can talk to her, but she doesn't wake till you pull up at her front gate in Daly City.
Morri chuckles. “Okay, Lea, show us how to play it.”
“I always start by asking about work. Do you have a job?”
“Mhm, I have two,” they say smartly.
“Two timer, huh?” August pipes.
They shrug. “I do what I have to. I’m a teller at the Transamerica Pyramid branch, that’s my job job, but I’m also a live sound mixer. I’ve done some big gigs, Overripe this May was actually a dream come true.”
Lea looks them in the eye. “Overripe? For real?”
“It sure was a thing that happened. I didn’t realise how much their performances are EQed. Had to turn the lows on Felipe’s mic way down.” Morri mimes pulling a slider down. “There’s enough bass in that man’s voice to rattle the gates of Hell.”
“That is hella cool,” Lea says under her breath, tapping her chin. “Oh, I know a dude who’s really into Overripe—Zainul Rahim? He drops by Kiana’s Place on Saturday evenings and blasts their music from his tablet while he’s studying. We’ve chatted a couple of times. He tells me his boyfriend Josiah is a big fan too, they met at their job—”
”Wait. Josiah?” Silent for a while till now, August perks up. “Does Zainul have like, big glasses?”
“Yeah, purple ones.”
August is clutching at his head. “No way, I think I know the Josiah you’re talking about. I mean, how many people named 'Josiah' are there, even? He lives in the area but I don’t know where. I bump into him on the trolley sometimes, sometimes he’s with his hipster BF Zainul. Band tees? Huge headphones?”
“Oh! Yes!” Lea raises her voice to a shout, slapping the ground. “That’s Zainul, one hundred percent. Alternative band nerd! There we go, that’s one guy!” She turns to the other two. “You get how it goes?”
August is grinning. “I get it, let’s keep going.” He turns to Morri. “Um, you work at the Transamerica Pyramid? My stockbroker’s office is there too, Leona Mills—seen her around?”
When you close your eyes at night in Japantown, San Francisco, you hear the bassy boom of a karaoke bar one street down, filtered through the rev of outlawed motorcycles and the screech of wheels. The noise seeps through the walls, and you can’t help but to wonder if you might someday discover who that is you hear, wailing into the microphone. The thud of a trance kick conjures images of neon logo signage, noisy red and orange, the weed smoke and frying oil swirling rose and gold in the night.
You’ve walked there in the dark, looking up past the apartment roofs and their tiny glowing windows, thinking it’s the wrong time to be looking for stars. Stars would fit the scene, you think, the temporary against the permanent. But they’re nowhere to be found, sheltered from view by the glowing veil of fog above, the same fog that keeps everything in this city right where it should be.
Sometimes, you like to stand alone on the corner of a street and listen to the telltale traces of other lives around you. The amateur singer straining their voice in a room two blocks away. The veteran motorcyclist veering down a shortcut around the hill. The disgruntled worker banging a fist on their hydrogen car’s horn.
Lea lies back as August and Morri uncover the epic tales of each other’s lives. She offers a helpful word or two every now and then, but they hardly need prompting. From the moment they discover that they have both had company brochures printed by one Veranda Chase at Delphi Solutions (the print store on the third floor of the Marah Tower), the game takes off.
Both Lea and August have been served by the same braces-wearing waiter at Sushi One up at the head of their street. Morri’s aunt and August’s mother were enrolled at the same high school twenty-two years ago; both told tales of the gargoylesque Mister Hornsby, the discipline master with the ancient glasses.
Five years ago—when she was fourteen and they were sixteen—Lea and Morri frequented the library at the corner of Geary Boulevard and Scott Street, and had the same favorite librarian.
“There was this book I read once,” says Morri. “And then I could never find it again, for some reason. It was called A Beginner’s Atlas—“
“—of the Night Sky?” Lea completes the title without a thought.
The stars grow bright above them. Another blanket rope shoots out of a window nearby, flopping down with its tip barely falling past a second-floor windowsill. There’s a yell, and a glow stick lands with a thud up by the Hexagon compound’s gate, and somewhere else, a silent car flashes its yellow lights across the street.
“You’ve read it?” asks Morri quietly.
Lea nods. “I borrowed it every week. Week after week. Ran down after school the day after I returned it every time, just so I could borrow it again.”
“Shit, you’re the reason I never could find that book again?”
She chuckles. “Weird as it is…I think so. Sorry buddy.”
“I swear,” Morri gasps, jabbing their index finger into the earth with every word, “we are heading right down to that library tomorrow morning and finding it, and I’m borrowing it on your card.”
Lea slaps their shoulder. “Sure thing, then we can both swing by Kiana’s Place. Maybe we’ll get to hang out with Zainul and Josiah.”
“You really weren’t kidding,” August chimes in. “Everyone's connected in San Francisco.”
She smiles. “Like I said, the universe isn’t getting any bigger.”
“I’m starting to feel it,” Morri sighs with a shake of their head.
Most of the romance of constellations is stolen from you at six years old, when you read that most stars in the Big Dipper are farther from each other than the earth is from them.
All of a sudden, it seems silly to draw imaginary shapes in the sky, when they really only exist from the vantage of earth, in the brief twinkling of time that humans have been around.
“What’s wrong with the Big Dipper?” asks your mother, giving the steering wheel a whirl.
“It doesn’t exist!” you cry, curled up in the back seat. “It’s fake! People made it up! If we were on a planet orbiting a different star, the sky would be different! None of the stars would be in the same place…”
But night falls again and again, and no stars are visible besides the same handful, pricking through the light pollution and fog: Sirius, Procyon, Alnitak, Alnilam, Mintaka. You spend a good year disillusioned with the myths that your parents have told about them.
Then your best friend is taken away, to a place behind locked doors where no one will see her again. That May, a star winks out of visibility, according to the American Astronomy Annals. Two hundred million years ago, it falteringly completed its life cycle and collapsed into a black hole, but only on that day does humanity watch its death.
You never thought you would live to see the night sky change, but it seems it can happen more suddenly than one thinks.
The year you leave home for college, the Fortitude 3's crew completes its first orbit of Saturn on Titan. In the radio interviews, the astronauts talk more about home than space, static punctuating their tearful grieving for the world they haven't seen in a decade.
The year you leave home for college, it begins to dawn on you that it doesn’t matter that the constellations wouldn't exist in another galaxy, in another epoch.
Nothing in life has meaning, by that token. All things are just arrangements of atoms. They will only mean something briefly. They will only mean something while you have stories to tell about them.
What difference is there, between drawing shapes in the stars, and molding clay into the figures of gods? Or framing up a photo where you and your best friend are still together?
August points past the facing row of apartments. “I know that one! It’s the Big Dipper,” he says. Lea follows his finger and sees the ladle-shaped asterism over the roofs.
Morri is staring across the road, past the stalled cars playing temporary bedrooms for their owners. “Hey, Lea,” they murmur. “Did you ever see this girl at the library, back then?”
“I used to go down every Wednesday afternoon, and she was always there in the same beanbag chair, by the science section. It all just, man, it all just came back to me, and I don’t know why, but I associate the library with her. The musty smell, the prickly cushions. And her, always there in green, never saying anything when I passed. Always lost in some book.”
“You don’t mean Adelaide Moore, do you?”
They look up, eyes widening. “The…the girl who got arrested for—for the mutant butterfly? The one who escaped?”
“Yeah, we used to have tea together. Our moms had tea together. We’d visit the library when our parents did.”
“My mind is officially blown,” Morri breathes. “I always thought it sucked, what they did to Adelaide. I'm glad she's escaped, to be honest. Danger to us or not.”
“Was it hard for you, when they arrested her?”
“Well, I was only eight at the time, so I cried for a day, and then I moved on with my life like nothing had happened. But—”
When you blink, you can still see her wide-eyed face on the backs of your eyelids, exactly the same as it was that night on Telegraph Hill. Years of silence, and suddenly, she is here again, slipping away again, behind closing elevator doors.
“If you survive, come back and see me!” you call, before the line between the two of you is severed, and the silence returns.
Sometimes, you feel like a star, alone in the dark, light years away from everyone else. A star among other stars in a galaxy, held in orbit by San Francisco’s gravity.
“—You know, it's weird but this whole time, she was always over in the next district. She’s always been nearby, just in a place where I couldn't see her.”
“I hope she’s okay.”
“She’s okay,” Lea whispers.