At summer camp for nerds and scientists and future world leaders, I took Astronomy with a German university professor whose favorite command was “Eyes to the skies!” He’d call it and point to the sky all the time as he walked us back to our dorms at night, to identify constellations and far-off planets.
More than once I tripped and fell on those walks. Scraped my knee, my elbow. The professor never seemed to notice and it wasn’t until I got back to my counselor that I was instructed to wash out the cuts and given a bandage.
The camp was perfect for me. I think my parents signed me up to get me to stop thinking about aliens and drawing UFOs and channel my interest in the night sky into something more practical. And it was more practical to learn about near-infinite distances and the speed of light. But I learned, too, about the secret lives of kids cooler than myself. For while I hung on the professor’s every word, my roommate made out with his girl friend—not girlfriend, he clarified for me back in the dorm, because he had one of those at home. One boy shot a video of him getting to second base there in the dewy grass. I hadn’t noticed in the moment but recall studying the video with the other boys back in the dorm—not least of all my roommate—all imagining or remembering, some speculating out loud as to the texture, weight, solidity, or any other number of dimensions of a sixteen-year-old’s breast.
I was in that minority who followed the professor’s laser pointer as it extended out into the sky, tracing the outline of Scorpius, drawing the lines between Altair, Deneb, and Vega, the three stars of the Summer Triangle. IDing Jupiter. Circling Saturn. Racing to the telescope to see it, white and stationary, more like a chalk drawing of a sphere and its rings than a planet.
“Satellite!” The TA called out. A college physics major who talked too fast for us to understand him half the time. He seemed genuinely excited about everything he talked about, and genuinely excited when he spotted a satellite in the sky, which he described as any moving object that didn’t blink (for those were planes). We all looked, the professor included, and it was only because I stood behind him that I saw another boy, another over-eager student—there were so few of us!—take hold of the telescope and haphazardly swing it toward the moving light. I thought he’d be in trouble. The first rule of our observations was not to touch the telescopes, only to look.
But the TA did not scold him as he guided the telescope back to its proper alignment, one eye shut tight, the other navigating space. “Satellites are for the naked eye only. They move too fast for us to see them on the telescope.”
The kid mumbled an apology.
“Don’t feel bad,” the TA said. “You just learned something, right?”
The kid nodded.
Though I’m sure the TA could barely see the kid, he reached out and clumsily slugged his shoulder. “That’s what we’re here for. We’re learning.”
The professor explained that night that the full moon was too bright for us to see the stars around it—that it washed them all out. I stared up at the moon, then scrolled the sky, in search of other satellites, stopping on stars, lingering on what I thought to be Mars. Learning. Eyes to the skies.
Michael Chin was born and raised in Utica, New York and his hybrid chapbook, The Leo Burke Finish, is available now from Gimmick Press. He won Bayou Magazine’s Jim Knudsen Editor’s Prize for fiction and has work published or forthcoming in journals including The Normal School, Passages North, and Hobart. He works as a contributing editor for Moss. Find him online at miketchin.com or follow him on Twitter @miketchin.