The Butterfly Nebula 5 – The Genie of Stars and Longing

August 31, 2013

The Genie of Stars and Longing

A few more weeks passed before I saw Beatrice again, on a clear autumn afternoon in mid-October around four o’ clock. Three of Brainchild’s walls are made of cinder block, but the store front is a large glass window and on this day it was filled with blue sky and honey colored sunlight and indigo shade. The leaves were turning red and orange, and shadows cast an asymmetrical quilt pattern across the neighbors’ silent yards beyond the parking lot. In a small nearby school yard a group of kids were playing football. One always wanted days like this to last forever.

Funny, but the first words out of her mouth had been about the insect. In hindsight I was astonished that she approached me with her question after having first asked Sad Laura who knew we didn’t stock live scorpions, only dead ones in formaldehyde. But I soon realized Beatrice had been referred to me because I might be able to order a live scorpion for her, or for her class.

Let me describe Beatrice on that sunny fall day. She must have come directly from school. She wore a tan skirt hemmed a few inches above her knees, and it was pleasant studying the contour of her legs as flesh climbed into fabric, aspired to a cloak that concealed little because the skirt wrapped snug around her thighs and hips, and her stature in heels, skirt and white blouse was erotically precise, emerging as she did from the half-shell adorned in contemporary middle-school science teacher dress. Unlike the time I’d previously seen her, she now stood only inches apart from me, her face assuming many faces: seductive without trying, mercurial and vivid, elusive and somehow incandescent the way early Renaissance painters had limned young ladies of the court or pagan goddesses. Her hair was golden in keeping with the light that day and her mouth had a wry turn with something of the eager tomboy in the force of her lips when she spoke. This changeable mingling of sex and the platonic, of sensuality and girlish innocence, of ethereal beauty and playful intelligence was indistinguishable in her every word and expression. And the entire feeling of not having any fixed position regarding Beatrice was underpinned by her perfect (or imperfect) eyes. Seeing her blue and brown eyes close up was like talking to two separate people, one person at a time, and depending on which eye you happened to be staring at, you were left with a totally different impression of that person.

“Soren . . . What a lovely name,” she said, trying its sibilance against her palate.

“So is yours.”

“Like the philosopher Kierkegaard. Either-Or.”

“He was a Dane. I’m half Swedish, on my mother’s side.”

“What a coincidence! I’m half Swede too!”

“I wish I could help you,” I said, “but you’ll probably have to get a live scorpion from an exotic pet store. It would be a problem for us. We don’t carry anything live, even smaller harmless insects. There are laws and regulations about those things.”

“That’s fine, no harm in asking.” There was a trace of apology in her voice. “I didn’t mean to bother you. I know you’re busy.”

“You’re not bothering me,” I said. “I’m here to help you.”

“Then would you mind showing me the telescopes?”

“Not at all.”

“I was told you’re an expert,” she added with a pert grin.

I escorted Beatrice to the telescope aisle and answered all her questions regarding the design of refractor and reflector models, of magnification and focal length, of Barlow lenses and the difference between diverging and converging lenses, of atmospheric distortion, of the pros and cons of alt-azimuth versus equatorial mounts and motorized tracking of celestial objects and events. I explained camera attachments and open exposures to capture star and planet trajectories, meteor showers and lunar eclipses. I told Beatrice there were more scopes in the warehouse which we’d built ourselves and that someday I would take her on a tour. I then showed her a telescope for sale that I had built myself, and she became intrigued by the idea of being able to actually make a telescope.

“Do you think,” she said, “that you could show my class this great telescope you’ve built, and other ones, and maybe give a short 20-30 minute talk about Galileo and astronomy in general? They would love it.”

I agreed and also agreed to leave one of the telescopes in her classroom for follow up discussion. How could I deny her?

“Here’s what I’m planning to do, Soren . . . if you visit my class next week and bring in your telescope and we get students interested . . . I’m starting an astronomy club . . . and if enough students join, then we will have a star watch night—with you, of course—and I’d like to set it up for some time in early November.”

“Early November’s an ideal time,” I agreed. “We can see the Leonids Meteor Shower. Saturn, Jupiter and Mars will all be visible before midnight.”

“Great! I really want this to be a success. If the first star watch goes well, then we can plan another one—either before Christmas break or sometime in early spring.”


Beatrice reached out and touched my arm. I was speechless. She smiled.

“Thank you so much!”

That evening I had a huge fight with Gladys. We were standing in the kitchen. We often fought in the kitchen, and because the kitchen was falling apart and needed remodeling I wondered if the dreary space was a mood catalyst for our battles. Gladys and I had not been this verbal and physical in a few years, as if we’d traveled from frigid arctic wastes to the scorching Sahara or Mojave sands in the course of a day. I wasn’t even sure what we were fighting about other than I’d wanted to enter the glass room, thinking of the subject of my talk for Beatrice’s 8th grade students, and Gladys was confronting me in a deliberate attempt to derail and ruin my evening. Frustrated, I rushed at her, backing her towards the sink with the intention of holding her arms and shaking some sense into that hapless head. But Gladys grabbed a long knife from the dish rack and aimed its clean sharp point at my heart.

“Don’t you touch me!” she screamed. “Don’t come any closer or I swear I’ll cut you!”

“Go ahead,” I dared and took a small sliding step forward—a cheap taunt.

Several years ago, on Bob Crane’s sloop in the Bahamas, I had watched as Bob adroitly disarmed his 19-year-old pole-dancer girlfriend who’d been shooting off one of his guns while smashed on booze and downers. At the moment I was contemplating doing the same to Gladys but instead I turned and entered the glass room, my beloved sanctuary. As I closed the sliding door I heard a muffled metallic clang against the glass sync’d with a final cry of “Fucking Bastard! Coward!” sounding much louder than the thrown knife. I decided to lock the door just in case, but Gladys has never entered the glass room while I am in here and probably never will. I did not take my eyes off the door handle to look up at her, and as the lock firmly clicked into place she had already broken down in tears and was storming off to her own redoubt.

I keep a stereo system in the glass room, and though I may not play music on nights when I’m trying to work through a sighting that requires more concentration (I have the music of the spheres after all), I often will put on a record when I’m in a creative or exploring mood and want to randomly scan a sector of the heavens instead of focusing on a single object. I mostly play classical music: Mozart’s “Jupiter Symphony,” any Debussy (though I’m partial to “Claire de Lune”), Holtz’s “The Planets,” and early Jazz. And because I’m simply gathering notes this evening for Beatrice’s science class, and because I’m dreaming of Beatrice, I put Nat King Cole singing “Stardust” on the turntable, and the glass room becomes a temple of beauty and magic.

Everyone knows something about Galileo. The putative father of astronomy, Galileo built his own telescopes and sold them much like we do at Brainchild Scientific. He modeled his telescopes on the 1608 invention of the first refractor by Hans Lippershey and built his own refractor with one convex and one concave lens (the eyepiece). Galileo’s first telescope had a magnification of 3x and was little more than a spyglass or terrestrial scope, but his subsequent attempts had 8x or 9x magnification and he continued to improve upon magnification. He is credited with first discovering the moons of Jupiter, the phases of Venus, sunspots, the Milky Way, and he observed the double star system (not a true binary) Mizar and Alcor. He wrote about the moon’s effect on tides. His most important work on astronomy, “Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems” supported the Copernican heliocentric view of Earth and the planets’ orbits. The Copernican theory was later expanded and advanced by Kepler to encompass elliptical planetary orbits. Galileo recanted before Pope Urban VIII and The Inquisition and spent the last years of his life under house arrest.

Less than a century later Isaac Newton and Cassegrain made a huge leap forward in telescope design with the introduction of mirror reflector telescopes, a design which retained greater clarity or fidelity of image in focal lengths with higher magnification. Both types of visual telescopes (reflector and refractor) are what we still use today to look at the stars, and each type has its own advantages and disadvantages.

The British astronomer William Hershel took astronomy much further with his building some 400 telescopes and setting out to catalog every star in the sky, as well as discovering the moons of Saturn and the planet Uranus. Hershel’s sister, Caroline Hershel, was also an astronomer of note who’d discovered a number of comets and stellar nebulae. In his quest and his zeal for cataloging all the stars, Hershel discovered over 800 binary and multiple star systems and was really the creator of modern binary astronomy. The biggest telescopes at the beginning of the modern era were the Mount Wilson and Mount Palomar giant reflectors constructed by George Ellery Hale (no relation).

I knew that Gladys had been taking Seconal for several years and had only recently stopped. The barbiturates phase had begun following my yacht trip to the Bahamas with Bob Crane in ’72. But Gladys now mostly relied on alcohol as her medication of choice. She still used a mild tranquilizer and from time to time I warned her about the danger of mixing any sedative with alcohol and invoking the death of Elvis Presley by way of example. She would laugh at me (and not in a kind way) whenever I compared the risk of her potential demise to that of the “King of Rock and Roll.”

Gladys is crazy and jealous—jealous that I have a life and passion apart from her—and though I do become angry with her at times, usually because of her sloth and sullen contempt for me, I mostly end up redirecting my anger in devising ways to taunt her, to make her angrier, which I had done tonight. I like to think of myself as a nice guy and good person toward other people, but these altercations or out-and-out battles with Gladys say that I’m not particularly nice, and I’ll often spend time afterwards examining my bad behavior, agonizing over my capacity to be cruel or mean when all I really want is to love and be loved. I then blame the prison of the marriage for turning me into this Mr. Hyde. In a good marriage or relationship the couple should bring out the best in one another, but I admit that I am half of the bad marriage and not entirely the victim. My evil is partially of my own doing and not all Gladys’s fault (but mostly her fault).

I kept my agreement and visited Beatrice’s eighth-grade science class. I talked about Galileo and the history of telescopes and telescope making, and how to build a telescope, and a lot of the kids took turns looking at and through the one I’d brought to class. I then followed with a short slide presentation showing objects you can see at low magnification: The Moons of Jupiter—Io, Calisto, Ganymede, Europa; the Rings of Saturn; The Pleiades; the Craters of the Moon. My slide show engendered some “Wows!” and “Cool!” among the students and maybe my beard and long hair (tastefully tied back in a knot) helped them feel comfortable that I wasn’t just another authority figure. I believe my five-cent lecture, telescope and slide show was a success. Beatrice thanked me, some of her students applauded, and Beatrice ended the class with an announcement that she would be forming an astronomy club which any student could join and she was planning the first star watch night for some time during the second week of November. A few kids asked me if I would also be at the star watch night and I promised them I would.

Talking to Beatrice’s students, I felt a small stab of loss for something I’ve in fact never had. At 38 I was clearly old enough to have a kid in this science class; I might have been giving an astronomy lesson to my own son or daughter . . . sneakers and pants legs splayed out in the aisle, arms folded, a cocky slouch, tufts of pubescent hair, the mouth repressing a yawn or small inflating pouch of gum, like a membrane on some species of frog or warbler . . . I realized that I could have a child old enough to be in college by now, and as an autumn shadow momentarily darkened the classroom, I saw Time fading away from me like a wave endlessly receding from the shore.

The first star watch night was also successful. We had chosen a ridge near Spruce Run that I was familiar with, about 900-foot elevation. A handful of students (four boys and two girls) turned out for an exceptional display of the Leonids and a waxing crescent moon with a beautiful deep penumbra, its sharp curved edge of light a yellow cream all pitted and cragged. The fledgling Wainwright Middle School Astronomy Club also had a chance to observe Saturn and Mars. They were good students, smart and disciplined and more mature than their classmates, who in the raging hormones of adolescence tended to view a scientific and esthetic hobby like astronomy as “lame” or “stupid.”

Beatrice and I maintained a respectful distance—mostly I was engaged with the kids, though at certain points in the evening I would steal a glimpse of Beatrice rapt in watching The Pleiades, explaining some detail of time and space with an exuberance that surpassed the keenness of her students. I had to be reminded that she was young and barely past adolescence herself. Occasionally she would ask me a question about the debris of meteor showers or the Milky Way being the center of our galaxy, and the timbre of her voice in darkness was like a sacred song. We only moved closer at one point when I’d asked her to look at the Orion Nebula. I had just lined up the nebula on my telescope and Beatrice briefly squeezed my hand as she peered and disappeared through the ocular.

We dropped the astronomy club back at Wainwright Middle School, and after making sure every student had gotten a ride home, I offered to take Beatrice for a cup of coffee. It was around ten-o-clock, so the offer seemed innocent enough and reasonable.

“Thanks, but I’ll have to take a rain check,” she said. “I need to get home and grade papers and prepare for a test on Friday. I’ll be up awhile.”

“All the more reason to get some coffee.”

She laughed and said, “I appreciate the gesture, but I have to get started on my work now.”

I may have been staring at Beatrice in a way that made me appear lonely and slightly desperate. I hope not. She was cast in a silver radiance from the mercury vapor lamps of the school parking lot, an angel guide sprung from the ground in a fluorescent mist. A November wind teased the ends of her hair along the nape of her neck and collarbone. The arc gas light made her blue eye more luminous and spectral, and before we parted she said to me:

“What would you say to you and I having a start watch night of our own sometime.”

We often experience longing while gazing at the stars. Sometimes the longing takes on an object. We may long for the stars themselves, billions of light years beyond our reach, and long for what they may be telling us about the universe and about our lives here. But sometimes the longing may be for something more material and selfish. We wish upon a star, perhaps the first star of the evening (“star light, star bright, first star I see tonight…”), the one most rife with portent, or we may wish on any star in the heavens, and this longing for a “thing” or maybe to avoid something unpleasant or to end something unpleasant that has been consuming us is more akin to praying, and it is a more egoistic, perverse-will type of prayer (please God, whatever I’m going through, please make it stop). And then there are times when we’re staring into the void of space and find that we are longing without knowing what we’re longing for, or why we are longing, the longing holds no specific wish or object but instead becomes a state of pure existential longing, an annihilation of commingled spirit-lust and spirit-pain to which we cannot ascribe any single object of desire. You experience a harmony and merging with the universe attended by a tugging sense of being so vastly alone in a timeless mystery. And the stars are the reason and cause for this longing, because once we take our eyes away from the heavens and correct our vision earthward and awaken to the moment, our longing vanishes, like a genie pressed back into its bottle . . . the genie of stars and longing.

And yet tonight my ache and longing for her remain beyond the last blink of stellar
coruscation. . . .


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