Years ago, we talked about death with the sheets pooled around our ankles. I believed in heaven then, but he’d lost religion before I was born. Some people think we become stars when we die (a romantic notion for a scientist). He thought it was beautiful, almost pillow talk, but it made me cry painful, heaving sobs. They came from that spot I always point to when I’m talking about my soul. Count down three ribs from your sternum and it’s deep behind that flexible, vulnerable overlay of flesh. As much as I wanted him to, he didn’t feel that soul-spot within his own body. Then how will I know where to find you? When you become a star, I mean. I didn’t want to be left behind, face-up and overwhelmed. Scanning the night sky for his newly effulgent remains.
After that I couldn’t listen to David Bowie; Space Oddity wrecked me. I would get to the part where Major Tom has just stepped out of the spaceship (Planet Earth is blue / And there’s nothing I can do) and wanted to scream at the radio, “Get back in the fucking capsule! Think of your wife.”
I thought of Major Tom’s wife. We even had imaginary conversations. I told her that I understood why she helplessly watched the sky from the first streak of purple darkness until dawn. I understood that watching brought on this debilitating, choking feeling that—regardless of what I’d been taught in Sunday School—not even hours of prayer could subdue.
Raised in the conservative Southern Baptist church, I’d always spent more time looking inward than at the world around me, and as a result, nothing seemed stable. My soul was damaged and unreliable (though, according to my pastors, potentially reparable), yet the vastness of the universe struck me as both unwieldy and delicate; capable of breaking or swallowing me at any moment. A private school science curriculum based purely on young earth creationism did nothing to dissuade my fears of space’s metric expansion or gravity’s relentless pull, both far beyond my control. I wanted the answers my pastor couldn't give me. How do I find my star? Then once I do, how long do I have before it goes out?
I used to ask him if he wished he’d waited for me (I came along one wife and about fifteen years too late). He would answer that he would have if he’d known I was coming, but that, in his mind, our meeting was a cosmic accident. That soon became my pet name: his cosmic accident. The fact that our lives became intertwined was some one-off spark.
This explanation suits me now because I doubt that our union was predestined by any heavenly body. We are two sinners: one without a soul, one whose soul has now been tainted by the lures of sex, substance and a growing interest in the scientifically known and unknown. Some things we may never know—that's where my remaining faith comes in. It’s a combination of balancing facts and fears.
For example, the stars. Over the course of our universe, many stars have formed and faded, he explained to me. No one knows what happens to them when they flicker out. I don’t panic anymore though because the biggest stars last millions of years, the medium-sized stars last billions, and the smallest stars can last trillions; all with the possibility of their souls ending in a spectacular supernova explosion. They become something bigger than just themselves; isn’t that what we want out of an afterlife? It’s a different kind of heaven.
He promises to take me out West someday. I want to lie out on my grandmother’s pinwheel-patterned quilt, stretched between arid soil and sunbaked rocks, the desert’s vastness engulfed by the night that’s ombre-dipped from black to blue to gray. I want to point to cosmic coordinates and plan where our souls will live for at least the next few million years. I won’t be afraid.