I didn’t believe that stars were real when I was a little girl growing up in New York. My parents told me they were drowned out by the city lights, but that didn’t seem possible. It just didn’t make sense how something that big could be completely invisible. What was the big deal anyway, if they were duller than ordinary light-bulbs?
I was seven years old before I took a trip to the country and saw the endless heavens for the first time. One by one, little beads of light began sneaking through the dusk.
“Those are planes,” I declared righteously. My parents only smiled. The stars kept coming – hundreds, thousands, webs and clusters, miraculously bursting out of nowhere as though they were being created just for me. I remember laughing out loud and flinging myself into the air, rushing to climb the tallest tree just to stretch a little bit closer.
It didn’t matter if I couldn’t reach them – it didn’t even matter if I never saw them again. I knew they existed, now and forever, hiding there watching over me. And I swore with all the ferocity of a seven year-old’s swelling heart that I’d never love anything less than this feeling for the rest of my life.
That’s what first love is like. Feeling the world change overnight. Nothing into something, leaving you a helpless bystander while it rewrites everything about who you are and the reality you live in.
I was in sixth grade when I looked at a boy like that for the first time. We were hugging out of excitement for the last day before summer break when he snuck in a kiss, smiling sheepishly at me while the whole class cheered and laughed at the scandal.
I thought I suddenly understood what love meant. That was it for me, I decided. I knew how to love now, and I’d never need to learn again. How could I have known that “love” meant something new with every passing year? I didn’t understand the anxiety, the jealousy, the doubt, or the soul-crushing rejection that would prove to be inseparable from such wonder.
After all the stars have gone, smothered beneath the fury of the inevitable sun, it’s impossible to believe what fool could dream such a thing to be.
Highschool, college, twenties, and thirties. Excitement before disappointment. Hope before regret. They come and go, tugging and pulling at the heart, but not like they used to. They weren’t the first, and they won’t be the last. My forties passed, then my fifties, the frenzied march of years convincing me that I was too busy to waste time looking at an empty sky.
Then I met Jason and I knew what I had been missing all this time. I’d been wanted before, but I’d never been needed. Jason was already dying from cancer when we met. He’d given up, just like me. He thought he was going to die alone, just like me. I could feel the urgency of his hands like electricity on my skin. The desperation in his eyes when he confessed his feelings for me. It was intoxicating.
I cared for him through every laborious step of his treatment. I’d lay blankets down on the hard bathroom floor and setup his laptop on the toilet tank. We’d sit together watching his favorite musicals for hours until he’d vomited himself dry. Even when his face was plastered with sweat, his bloody gums would still flash a smile when I sang along.
Some days Jason would be strong enough to walk outside or play his guitar. He was a fantastic musician, and when he got going his husky dog would start wagging and howling along to the tune. I laughed so hard and loved so deep in those moments that they became frozen in time. Even his death couldn’t steal this from me.
We cried together as he called his family and told them his time was running out. His pain was my pain, his love my love, and despite the ordeal, I can never remember being so happy. Then came the news: the chemo was successful. The cancer went into remission. We’d won.
Love means fighting for someone. I understand that now. Not letting go, not giving up, holding on like you’ll drown without them. It wasn’t easy, but what worth having is?
We didn’t see each other as often now that he was able to return to work. We fought more, but we always made-up. He cheated, but I forgave him. Love survives, love endures. And the more I struggled to be happy with that man, the more I refused to accept how much of myself I’d have wasted if he were to leave.
Jason knew that his remission wouldn’t last forever though. When he started getting sick again, he remembered how much he needed me. He was too tired to go back for another round of treatment and keep fighting, but it wouldn’t have helped even if he had.
The arsenic in his food isn’t going to kill him. Not at the levels I use. It’s just enough to remind him that he needs me, and that I need him. That’s what it means to love.
These were the blackest days of his despair, but at least he didn’t have to suffer alone. Jason was shaking terribly all the time now, except when he lay so pale and still that I had to keep checking for breath. He was too weak to leave the house on his own, but he didn’t put up much resistance when I decided to take him for a drive.
I brought him out to the country where my parents took me all those years ago and we lay side-by-side under the brilliance of an eternal sky. It’s the same sky my seven year old heart went wild for, and after all this time, I finally realize that it’s the same love I felt too. Love stayed the same while I changed around it, but I was finished now. Jason had made me into who I was meant to be.
I hadn’t counted on that little expedition giving him so much hope. He started making a fuss about going back to the hospital to start his treatments again, but I knew that would only end in unhappiness for us both.
I kept making excuses why I couldn’t take him. I thought he’d be too tired to keep pushing and give up sooner or later, but then I caught him trying to make an appointment behind my back. I had to increase the dose of his arsenic up to 75 mg a day, still half the lethal dose for someone his size. It was enough to make him too blind to drive, which at least bought me some more time to explain how he wasn’t thinking straight.
I didn’t expect Jason to take a taxi to his appointment. I thought he trusted me to know what was best for him. When I got home to the empty house I knew things were going to get rough from here.
As soon as the tests came back, a few days at the longest, they were going to tell him that his cancer was still in remission. He might even find out what I was doing. He wouldn’t understand why I did it. He’d hate me forever.
I had no choice but to lock him in his room as soon as he got home. I took away all his phones and devices so he couldn’t find out the truth. I’d sit with him and we’d watch his shows and I’d sing to him like we used to, but it wasn’t the same anymore. He couldn’t overpower me physically, but like the manipulative man he can be sometimes, Jason resorted to begging and pleading. I had to increase his dose again, just to get him to shut up.
Too much arsenic and I might as well be having a date with a body pillow. Too little and he’d start asking questions that I couldn’t answer. I found the right dose eventually though, and it would have been almost perfect except that the dog was howling all the time now though.
We were so happy until Jason caught me. It was that stupid dog’s fault, barking and carrying on, making me chase it all over the house before I could get it to shut up. Jason wasn’t in the room when I got back. He’d made it all the way to the kitchen, almost to the back door before –
“What’s this?” he asked. The bottle that made our love possible in his trembling hands.
“Medicine. Go back to bed, you’re not well enough to -”
But he wouldn’t listen. I don’t know if he could even read the label, but I think somewhere deep inside he already knew what was going on. Even if it was just unconsciously – he wanted to stay sick. He wanted to be taken care of. But he had a temper, and now that he knew for sure he was too stubborn to ever let it go.
“You’re insane. You’re absolutely insane,” Jason shouted. He was running through the kitchen blind, smashing into cabinets and flailing through the hanging pots. He was acting so crazy that I think some of the arsenic must have gotten into his brain.
It was just too stressful. He was screaming. I was screaming. The dog was going wild again, barking and snarling and bristling up. Somehow Jason managed to get a knife into his hand, but he wasn’t strong enough to hold onto it.
I was sobbing when I pinned him to the floor. I didn’t know what to do. There aren’t instructions to love. There isn’t right or wrong. There’s just happiness and unhappiness, and it broke my heart that he didn’t want to be happy with me anymore. At this point it would be easier if he were dead and couldn’t disturb the frozen memories where everything was still perfect. I didn’t want to, but love sometimes means doing what is hard. I could feel that desperate energy radiating from his hands locked around my wrists again. Almost like when we first met…
But I was stronger. I forced the knife lower, inch by excruciating inch, until the blade was right up against his throat. I still don’t know if I could have done it, but at least my intentions were good. The dog got me by the back of my neck first. I’d never seen him bite anyone before, but he had me good and dragged me all the way across the tile floor. I think I grazed it with the knife a few times, but the beast just clamped down harder and pinned me down until I heard the kitchen door slam.
The sky has never felt so empty. I let the dog follow its master without taking my revenge, and I’m completely alone now. I haven’t seen either of them for over week and I don’t expect I will again. I’m not going to pretend that I didn’t make mistakes. A lifetime of learning about love, but somehow I still know less than when I saw the stars for the first time all those years ago. That’s what life is though. Making mistakes. Getting hurt. Learning and trying again. For me, that meant buying rope for next time.