June 4, 2009
The young woman – not a nurse but some kind of aide, judging by her pale blue uniform – tucked blankets around my lap, humming softy under her breath as she lifted and shoved and yanked in the most businesslike way possible. I held an afghan around my shoulders like a shawl – we weren't near the door yet, but already my craggy old hands trembled. "Are you ready to go, Mr. Okamura?" she asked at last.
I nodded. She wheeled me down the neon-lit corridor and through a glass vestibule to the deck outside. It was cool for July and I shivered as we passed into the night air. Already the terrace was littered with old folks, almost all of them peering upward at the star-studded night sky. I did the same, my tired eyes searching even before my caretaker had come to a stop at the far end of the terrace. She set a pair of binoculars in my lap – heavy, awkward things – and turned her own eyes heavenward.
After carefully removing my glasses and stowing them safely in one shirt pocket, I lifted the binoculars to my eyes. They weren't quite the same as the kind I'd used in my youth; they focused automatically with a slight whirr. Stars that had been fuzzy specks became sharp pinpricks and I scanned the sky for the comet.
"This must be the second time you've seen Halley's comet," the aide commented. They were all so keen on chitchat here. "That's got to be pretty exciting."
Her idle observation took me away – years away to a night that had been lingering in my mind more often lately. It seemed that the older I got, the more I seemed to live in those decades-old memories of my youth, and the return of the comet naturally would remind me of that night. Of Ash.
"I didn't see it last time," I told her. Her surprised expression coaxed an explanation. "We lived in New York in 1986; even the darkest parts of that city were too bright to see comets."
It was February – not a biting, frigid February, but winter just the same – so I was surprised when Ash suggested the outing. "The Park?" I looked at him incredulously. "Tonight?"
He smiled, and I knew I'd follow him anywhere. "Pack some blankets and a Thermos of coffee," he instructed. "I'll be home close to nine, so be ready to go, okay?" He pulled on his coat and opened the door, tossing me another smile. Insurance, I guessed, that I'd do as he asked.
As if there were any doubt.
We were going to see the comet, of course. Everyone in America seemed to have Halley's comet fever – it was all over magazine covers and mentioned every night in the evening news – but I was a little surprised that Ash was interested in that kind of thing. Sure, he liked science and astronomy, but with everything that had been going on the past year, it amazed me that he had time to think about anything other than staying alive. He was crazy to want to have a stargazing picnic in the middle of winter, but I wasn't going to look this gift horse in the mouth. An evening spent with Ash was a treat I couldn't afford to refuse.
Everything was ready by the time he came home. I'd found three warm blankets in the linen closet and slid them into a duffel bag along with the coffee and a bundle of piping hot vegetable buns, in case Ash had skipped dinner again. Hat and scarf were forced upon him – though he refused to wear gloves – and in all the fuss he almost forgot the binoculars that I hadn't thought to pack. Finally we were out the door, trudging across the Park in the half-dark of a New York night.
The Great Lawn was empty. "Perfect." Ash looked eager like a little kid as he spread one blanket across the grass. The ground was frozen hard, but he hardly seemed to notice. With a delighted sigh he threw himself onto his back and stared at the sky. "This is it, Eiji," he told me. "This is a historical moment."
I glanced up, where only a handful of stars twinkled. It didn't feel so historical to me – just cold. I tossed a blanket over Ash and wrapped the other around my shoulders. Sitting gingerly next to him, I looked more carefully at the sky. "Which one is the comet?" I asked.
"None that you can see," Ash told me promptly. He slid the binoculars over his eyes and scanned the southern sky. "It might be too bright out, but on the news they said that a couple of people have been able to see it from the city."
I was skeptical. I'd never seen a comet before, but I'd seen only a few dozen stars since coming back from California. Certainly a comet would be harder to see than ordinary stars. New York was a terrible place for astronomers; that was clear. "They may have pictures at the planetarium," I suggested. They certainly had heat at the planetarium.
"Not the same thing at all."
His hands were steady around the binoculars as if the chilled air didn't affect him. His blond hair looked white against the dark flannel blanket, and I was struck with the sudden urge to comb through it with my fingers. Instead, I busied myself with the coffee, filling two Styrofoam cups. Hopefully, he would not complain about how much sugar I put in it.
Ash barely seemed to notice. He lay on his back for a long time, searching the sky with his binoculars. Every once in a while he maneuvered onto his elbows to take a sip of coffee, but mostly he lay there, keeping up an astronomical monologue that I barely followed. He explained about the comet's orbit and it's probable creation in the Ort cloud; when it was obvious that I was doing more nodding and smiling than comprehending, he changed tack.
"You can't see most of Orion, but his belt is right there – see that second star? It's actually a double star." He handed me the binoculars and pointed me in the right direction. I saw more through the lenses than without, but I didn't know which star he wanted me to look at. "See?" he asked eagerly. "With those you can tell that there are two, just too close together to make out with the naked eye."
I nodded and was rewarded with a rare grin.
As the hour wore on, however, his enthusiasm waned. He checked his watch in the weak glow of a nearby street lamp. "The moon will be up soon," he said.
"That will be nice." I was bundled in my blanket, weighing the need for warm coffee with the eventual need for a bathroom.
He made a face. "Once the moon is up, there won't be any chance for us to see the comet," he explained. "Too much light."
"Oh." I didn't know what to say in the face of his disappointment.
He flopped onto the blanket and fumbled in his coat for a pack of cigarettes. He lit one, inhaling deeply as the tip sparked bright orange and hot. "It's kind of a big deal," he said softly. "I mean, not really, but it's a once-in-a-lifetime thing, seeing Halley's comet. It won't come back for seventy-five years."
"Remember the prairie? Out there it would be easy to see, I bet." The sky was amazing over the middle of America – huge and dark and filled with more stars than I could imagine anyone taking the time to map.
Ash smiled, taking another long drag from his cigarette. "Kansas and Oklahoma were kind of amazing," he agreed. "I wish I'd been born a farm boy in corn country."
But then I would have never met him. I didn't voice the selfish thought. He would've been happy in that other life with only the simple problems of farm work and boredom to trouble him. "But then you would be tired of the stars and the comet by now. You would wish you were in New York, where life is exciting."
He laughed. "Too exciting, really." He put out his cigarette and lifted the binoculars back onto his face. "Now let's give this one last go. I'll show you that dirty little iceball yet."
Neither of us spoke again for a long stretch, and the moon slowly peeked its pearly face over the eastern horizon. Ash sighed deeply when he saw it. He put down his binoculars and lit another cigarette. I was disappointed too, I realized.
We were sitting very close together, Ash wrapped in his blanket and me in mine. I couldn't see his face, but I felt the heat of him, breathed the acrid scent of his tobacco smoke. "Maybe you can show me in 2061," I suggested, doing the math in my head. "We will be very old by then, of course, but I will still come out with you all night to sit in the cold and search."
I expected him to laugh a little, but he didn't. Instead he turned toward me, his eyes sad. "Don't make me live that long," he asked. "I can't. Not even for you." His voice trembled and something deep inside of me quaked.
We'd never talked like that before, never let any mention of the future be more than a joke. "It is not so long," I protested lightly. "Just one day and then one more and then suddenly we are ninety."
The word seemed to stretch between us. "Ninety," Ash repeated softly. "I'm already so tired, Eiji. Ninety might as well be a million."
And I knew then that someday I was going to have to let him go. I had no idea if it would be by days or decades, but I was going to outlive him. I was going to have to make myself strong enough to handle that. The realization chilled me to my bones; I started to shiver.
"Then I'll see it for you," I promised, keeping the tremors from my voice. "I'll make sure to stay alive until Halley's comet comes back, so that I can see it for both of us."
Ash didn't say anything. Instead he reached out, his hand sliding from beneath his own blanket to the warm pocket under mine. He covered my hand with his own, twining our fingers and squeezing gently. My breath caught in my chest. He'd never done that before.
I darted a look at his profile. His eyes were already fixed once more on the sky, but his mouth pulled up into a tiny smile. With his free hand, he lifted his cigarette to his lips, and inhaled deeply, the orange glow brightening the night. He glanced down at me from the corner of his eye and our gazes met. "Thanks," he mouthed, his fingers tightening around my own.
And now, years later, I was keeping that promise. The aide left me alone for a bit, tending to some of the more needy of my peers. I gazed upward in the direction she'd pointed before leaving. Even without the binoculars, I could see it.
"There it is, Ash. Your comet came back to me."
It wasn't like any comet I'd ever imagined in the vast years of my life. There was no head, no tail. Just a soft ball of light, all effervescence and fuzzy edges. I lifted the binoculars and they hummed into focus.
And there it was. The glow was fiercer through the lenses. The tail more defined. Seventy-five years had passed for both of us, though I guessed it was only one year by comet reckoning. I was old and tired – finally understanding what Ash meant that night about being too tired to see life stretching on indefinitely. Comet Halley looked vibrant and young, like he had another ten thousand years left in him. I'd never forget that feeling.
It was the feeling of warm hands clasped under a cold sky.