I’m dreaming about the Eagle Nebula. Everyone recognizes a part of it even if they don’t know what it’s called—those three columns of glowing gas clouds and baby stars. I won’t remember anything about the dream once it ends but the shape of the pillars of creation remains stamped on the inside of my eyelids. My left eye opens before my right, which is glued shut by melted mascara. I blink stickily up at his glow–in–the–dark star–speckled ceiling—a poor substitute for what I’ve just woken up from. I try to reassess.
He’s asleep next to me, wearing nothing but a pair of red boxers. I’ve woken up because his phone is shrilly ringing with the same default alarm that never seems to wake up my roommates. It doesn’t wake him up, either. He doesn’t snore. His breathing is heavy and regular, through lips that burst oddly from his face beneath a nose that could have been nice if not for the bump halfway down. Eyebrows too arched to be masculine furrow slightly. Eyelashes flutter quickly for a second, then eyelids slide apart and he is awake.
“Shit,” he manages. He ignores me. He sits up. Stands. The lines of muscle in his back move as he adjusts his boxers and walks over to his desk to turn off the alarm. “Ugh,” he breathes, because either a) he has realized that he has to be at class in Williams in twenty–eight minutes, or b) I am still here, and my eyes are open and glassy, and I’m breathing shallow breaths, dress bunched around my upper thighs. I don’t turn my head. I stare up at the plastic stars. Proxima Centauri, I think. Polaris. Betelgeuse.
“It’s 8:32,” he says, authoritatively, as if this mattered.
“You’re awake.” He says this in the same tone. Then he says my name. That used to work.
I don’t move. I read somewhere that (was it a certain species of rabbit, maybe?) some small animal freezes when a predator appears, in an attempt to be inconspicuous. I pretend that I am invisible and even hold my breath. I can feel my heartbeat quicken and the timed shake of my chest cavity with the regular pumps gives me away as alive.
Now he’s standing somewhat insistently by the dirty mirror that hangs on the back of his door. And suddenly, unasked for, a memory—my own voice, slurred: “Is the door locked?” “Yeah.” “Are you sure?” “Yes.”
The “yes” he spits in the vague recollection is hard. I can almost hear the slick clack of the lock, and the push of a hand against the small of my back.
Since I’m melodramatic, my own tininess in relation to the movements of the cosmos sometimes makes me feel better. The solar system careens along a spiral arm of one of at least a million million galaxies. The chemical reaction that produces an emotion for him I wish I didn’t feel is nothing compared to those that power stars, start life on other planets, or form a brilliant, tragic supernova.
“Get up,” he says, in a way that I want to say is not unkind but is unkind. He says this in the same way his eyes are unkind even when he intends to kiss me, or when he’s searching for me across a strobe–lit room, or when I turn my body towards him, a foot away on the bed, to see that he’s awake and has been watching me.
It is 8:43 a.m. and we walk to the Wawa in silence.
After he buys his 12–ounce coffee (Cuban roast, black) and I present my hangover–cure items to the cashier, he tucks a few strands of hair behind my right ear and kisses my mouth chastely. I stick my debit card into the chip slot. He’s gone before I can enter my PIN.
I’m halfway back from the Wawa with a plastic bag containing hot Cheetos, two energy drinks, and a pack of gum when the sky darkens almost imperceptibly behind Harnwell’s ugly silhouette. Lightening rips the morning in half. The air is heavy. I try to take a deep breath but collapse into hacking sobs that sound like coughs, that sound like I’d never learned how to breathe.
Water hurls itself from the sky and lands on my back as I hunch over and clutch my knees for balance. I think about how it’s entirely temporary, that all the raindrops will slip upwards again to fall and float. They’ll forever cycle, without cause, through the same phases as the water that first slammed billions of years ago into the volatile surface of a young Earth.
I think about all of this. I stand upright. I make it all the way home, undress, and take a shower. The water isn’t hot enough though it’s turning my bare torso red, and I scrub my inner thighs with a loofa that I should probably replace until they begin to burn. When I look at myself in the mirror above the sink, I’m as pink as a sunset. I stare at my reflection until I can’t anymore, and then, still dripping, leave the bathroom.