The passing streetlights orbited Orlando’s wet glinting eye. His eye was watery from motorist fatigue.
Crashing his steel-canned energy drink into the cup holder, fireworking energy drips of preternatural red about its ring, he dipped his head and raised his eyes to the night sky through the BMW’s windshield. It’s really beautiful, you know, here. Didn’t I tell you? I dipped. He had. Back in San Francisco. Eight hours later we were cresting the Grapevine on a drive that should have taken six hours but would take us eleven at Orlando’s plodding rate. The sky had so many stars that had not been there when we began. The same stars over all the mountains and towns and cities of the world, the great cities that mirrored them back with their burning lights. Clearly, if I looked enough, I would find a star in every apparent moment of blackness. The sky more star than space.
Now Orlando was not the kind of dude you would expect to take much stock of the night sky. He lived in LA, with his Colombian girlfriend. Well, in Santa Monica actually, on the beach, he said. But he didn’t like it. The convertible top was up, thank god, but he liked the windows cracked, so the cold freeway wind lacerated my face.
He prepped cars for display at auto shows. The frequent air travel for the auto shows, at least during the auto show season, coupled with whatever absurd appellation that had been appended to his name at the dealership, ‘Manager of Inventory’, or some such thing, and his Panamanian (as it sometimes went) girlfriend and purported beachside home and BMW convertible, made him sound like a guy who pretty much had life by the titties, as a favorite phrase of his went. But the Beemer was fourteen years old, and ran rough, and his girlfriend was unemployed and had just been DUIed, and they shared a cramped one-bedroom – probably the only basement apartment in Santa Monica – and his job was poorly-paid seasonal work. Even the air travel was not a boon to Orlando, a man who dreaded flying. He drove whenever he could, like we were doing from San Francisco to Los Angeles. His next destination, St. Louis, had him brooding about the weather report, which tagged it in the single digits, nearly unfathomable for a California boy.
So when he had said that about the night sky over the Grapevine, in the midst of banter about the Golden State Warriors, it surprised me. I’ll be honest – I wasn’t entirely sure how to read the guy. But his eyes bespoke pure earnestness. He said I had never seen anything like it. Ok, ok, Orlando, I said, but I have seen a country night before, for god’s sake.
His eyes now were satellite dishes searching the sky. His chin nearly rested on his hands, steering twelve o’clock. The elliptical silhouettes of hills undulated against the sky. He had been talking continuously since San Francisco, but for a full minute there was only the engine’s drone. Then Orlando said, I wonder how far those stars are.
Actually, I said, I think most of those stars are dead.
Dead? he responded, nonplussed. He still looked skyward, discoursing with the stars. What do you mean? I mean, they don’t exist. Don’t exist? Bro, what the fuck you talking about? Ok, he was irritated. Generally, I thought of him as an affable guy, but now I decided that I only thought that because I was inclined, by default, to think of people as disagreeable – and he wasn’t disagreeable, so I had assumed he was the opposite. But I also couldn’t recall him ever seeming particularly happy. In any case, it was surprising that he cared this much either way.
I mean they don’t exist – anymore. How! How can they be dead if I’m looking at them right now? They’re shining, aren’t they? That’s their light, bro? He pulled his head back under the top, then turned to look at me briefly, with white-hot intensity, right in the eyes, like they did in films and TV shows when there is little need to actually pilot a vehicle. Like, well, a lot was riding on my answer.
He had a point. I was no scientist, and the rationale that I had once been exposed to in some distant magazine article, some distant day, started to become hazy. Well, you’re seeing light. But the light is there, coming from, like, really far way away. Light years away. My voice cracked a bit emphasizing ‘light’, and I began to feel a kind of intellectual panic – what was a light year again? You know, light years? After the star dies.
He was quiet again. Another endless minute or two of engine drone. He seemed… sad? Like I had taken the blanket of the night sky and undulated the stars off like dust. Like I had just murdered the poor, vulnerable, naked stars one by one with my bare hands.
Eventually, he dipped his head again. He did seem to trust me, even though he was unhappy about this development. Well, where does the light go? What do you mean? I mean— what happens when the light hits the ground? Now I was truly stumped. I had never considered this particular question. It seemed at the same time a perfectly absurd and perfectly reasonable question. Confusion streamed over me. When the light hits the ground? I paused. Uh. Well, what happens to any light when it hits the ground? I now had images of epic waterfalls of light tumbling among the hills.
He didn’t acknowledge my response.
Another moment and I said: firmament. It was something unhelpful that had just flashed across my mind. What? They used to call it the firmament. Huh? Never mind.
He undipped his head and looked at me with that white-hot intense look again. Fear, was it? My hope in these moments was that whatever it was, it would dissipate before we careened off the highway.
What about from an airplane? What do they look like from an airplane? When you’re up there in a plane? Stars? I said. What do stars look like from an airplane? I mean, I knew he didn’t like flying, but he had flown in a plane once or twice.
As we approached LA in the next hour, the hills gradually gave way from hushed rolling shadows to slowly gathering suburban lights, until finally we summited a rise and saw the fierce, brassy lights of the LA night in the valley below. I dipped my head a final time to see a hazy glow that had absorbed all but a few of the brightest stars.