I wear a blue plastic retainer at night. It's painful, tight on my teeth, as if my mouth has outgrown it. I don't put it in often enough, so the shape of my jaw twists and changes, until I remember how much I despised braces and consent to slip it in, and I lie awake at night, loathing the imperfection of my teeth and the ache that pulses there as my mouth readjusts to the wires and plastic that force my jaw into the correct position.
I wear glasses too ugly things, dark maroon on top, with a thin, squishy plastic wire on bottom instead of another rim. Not many people know I have them. When I was a kid, I had the rimless kind some part of me believed them to be less noticeable. I'd pop the lenses out and tell my father I slipped on the gravel at recess so I could get away with days without the slippery plastic ridge balanced on my nose, and the glances I got for being the only nine-year-old with glasses. Nowadays, I use contacts, and I slip my glasses case under my pillow when people come calling. It's a shock to everyone when my eyes grow weary of my contact lenses and I'm forced into using my glasses for a day.
Imperfections. Easy to hide, but aggravating that they should exist at all.
When I walk, no one notices the tremor in my legs my knees are bad, worn down from years of biking and running. Nor do they see the mousy brown roots of my hair hair dye is a wonderful invention. Or the way I gnaw on my nails; that's hidden under a thick layer of dark blue nail polish.
We glue ourselves back together at the end of the day.
I was twelve the first time I saw the universe do the same. She's a vain old thing, same as us. When we're not peering at her with our colossal telescopes or probing her very being with our electron microscope, she powders herself, fixes herself up. It's almost like she's on a date with us at a fancy French restaurant, and she's slipping into the bathroom to check her hair.
It's because of my imperfections my teeth, my eyes, my hair, my knees, my nails that I ever saw her at all. Or so I like to think. Birds of a feather and all that. Us imperfects have to stick together.
I climb on my roof in the summer. Dad doesn't approve. He says it loosens the shingles and he doesn't want to pay to have new ones put down. I ignore him I'm pretty good at that. Usually, I only go up in the heat of day, with sunlight beating down on me, so I can see where I place my feet and I don't slip over the edge and tumble the twenty-odd feet to the dead brown grass below. But dad was out of town Germany, I think, or maybe Singapore and I was feeling rebellious.
So I climbed up at night.
That might have been stupid. In the summer, in the middle of the night, raccoons scramble around on my roof, snatching the unripe, hard little green peaches off the tree in my wilted backyard. I hate raccoons their golden eyes, their little claws, the way they move almost but not quite like my cat. I was lucky that night there were no raccoons up there to join me.
But there was the universe. She was polishing a star. Now, I'm no astronomer; I have no idea which one she was scrubbing at with her silver rag. She was gazing at this little pale blue ball like it was the most important thing to have ever been created, and maybe it was. Maybe that star's got a planet circling around it with the real chosen ones, or maybe it doesn't. Maybe she just liked the quiet flicker, the subtle strength as it burned.
I said hi to her as I settled against the chimney. She glanced at me, raised an eyebrow.
"It's late, kid," she told me, turning the star this way and that in her long, delicate fingers and examining it for spots and flares.
"My dad's not here," I said in reply, stretching my legs before me. The breeze had died. I couldn't hear the traffic from the main road, half a mile from my house. "And I don't have a babysitter this time. I'm too old for one."
"How old are you?" the universe asked, before gently blowing on the little star and giving it a last little scrub before she hung it up again to dry. She reached out for the moon and began to slowly buff it, polishing it until her reflection shone down on this little world.
"I'm twelve," I replied proudly. "I'm mature for my age, though. Everyone says so, because I can bike to the grocery store and do my laundry and I get up on time for school." She smiled, briefly, attention focused on the moon. "How old are you?"
"Ooo, been a while since someone asked me that," she muttered, scrubbing at a crater. "Thirteen or fourteen billion years old, give or take a few million years." She paused, examined her work, pursed her lips. "I've lost count though," she admitted as her cloth glided over a mountain range.
I remember thinking that that was sad. I told her as much. She just looked amused. "Well, it's just been me for a very long time," she said, "I don't usually do much with my colleagues." Her gaze shifted to me. There was a star being born, in the corner of her eye, and a nebula shifting through the gentle waves of her hair, shimmering like an oil spill. "Tell me, and do be honest - does the sun need polishing?"
I shrugged. "Venus is looking dull lately," I offered. She nodded slowly, contemplating, and reached out a hand, pulling Venus towards her so she could bring it to its former glory.
I had a book and a flashlight in my pocket. I pulled them out and flipped through the pages. There was a quote I wanted to share with her, I remember that much, but when I peeked over the cover of my book, she was already gliding away, Venus glowing like a newborn planet in her wake, reaching for another star far away that needed mending.
I saw her again, when I was fifteen. I was in Norway that time, with my dad, visiting some relative of his who pinched my cheeks and fed me too much boiled fish and potatoes. Summer in Norway is exasperating, and very strange. Land of the Midnight Sun is the right title for it. Dad's relatives didn't invest in blackout curtains, only these flimsy lace affairs that let sunlight in constantly so I never knew when it was time to go to bed.
So I usually stayed outside, unaware if it was night or day, until dad called me back to the house so I'd remember to sleep a spell.
The house this traditional little Norwegian house, red and stout with thick windows sat right on the bottom of a fjord, next to the water. It took me an hour or so to reach the summit. There were some wooden planks in my relatives' garage, and at the beginning of our two-month stay, I dragged them up to the top, along with a hammer and some nails, and put together a shoddy bench. I'd creep out with my books and sketchpad and spend hours there while dad and his family laughed and chattered away in that stout red house, drinking coffee and eating pastries.
That's where I saw the universe for the second time two or three days after Midsummer, after we'd set up this huge pile of sticks and logs and poured lighter fluid all over it, which led to an enormous bonfire on the beach in the eerily pure light of a Scandinavian summer and I'd eaten myself sick on strawberries and ice cream.
The universe was sewing clouds together not our clouds, the kind we have down here, but nebulas. I asked her why she was working on them. "Star nurseries," she said. Her stiches were very small and precise, and the fabric flowed like water under her careful hands. "Of course, you won't see these. The light from them will reach the earth
" she paused, lifted her work to examine her sewing critically before she remembered what she had been saying, and finished, "Oh
maybe a thousand and two years after you've died."
Fair enough. "Can you name one after me?" I asked.
She grinned a quick, sudden lift of her lips that shifted the swirl of gas a black hole was slowly slurping down. "Which do you want, a nebula or a star?"
"Either one. I've never had something named after me before."
The universe has an odd laugh. It sounds like a barrage of asteroids striking a planet and wiping out any sign of sentient life. "Sure, kid," she said. She pointed to one that she'd just finished and let fly free. It was drifting away slowly, thoughtlessly, almost like a jellyfish. "There. That one's for you." Her smile was very gentle. "I'll make sure to whisper your name in the ear of the one who discovers it."
"Sweet. Mind if I sketch you?"
She said no. I still have that drawing, buried in the mess under my bed somewhere. She looks serene and contemplative as her needle dives in and out of the fabric of space-time, and the star nurseries slip off her lap to float away through the vacuum. My roommate unearthed it last week and wants me to redo it, paint it, sell it. Earn some cash or something like that.
Last time I saw the universe, I was nineteen and just finishing my first year of college. My dorm building had a roof access, and on the roof, I could see the glittering lights of the city spread below me, and the diamond studded sky up above. When I saw the universe, she was arranging the stars around her neck, adjusting the way they hung here and there.
I said hi. She asked me for my opinion on her current design. I liked it, and told her as much, but it would be much improved if she added a red dwarf there and a yellow giant, with maybe a gas planet twenty times the size of Jupiter just there.
She did so, and smiled. "Much improved," she said, "Thank you, kid."
I asked her if she'd heard about the star the big shot scientists had discovered just the week before the brown dwarf that burned at room temperature. She snorted at that, and dissolved into a fit of chuckles when she saw my bewildered expression. "That one was fun to make," she said happily, toying with the positioning of a constellation on her breast. "Very unique, that one was. I can't quite remember how I came up with her." Her lips twisted. "Maybe I was drunk. I was quite drunk when I came up with quantum mechanics." She looked pleased with herself at that. "It still amuses me, watching scientists try to work that out. The electron changing its behavior based on whether it's being observed or not
now that was brilliant." She sighed. "Maybe I should work drunk more often."
I asked her if the odd little brown dwarf had a name. She nodded, a little distractedly. "I call it Abigail, but I'm sure your people will come up with something else entirely for it."
She twisted the Big Dipper on her wrist. "How do I look?"
"Marvelous," I said. Her smile was very self-conscious.
"Thank you." She combed her curls of galaxies and nebulas nervously with her long fingers.
"There's a universe ball tonight," she told me, adjusting the hem of her vacuum. "Never been to one before. Multiverse and all that; there's a lot of them and I wasn't sure if I was ready. Old enough, you know, with enough advanced civilizations. I mean, what was I going to do three billion years ago? They'd all be talking about intergalactic subways using wormholes and faster than light neutrinos and the ionization of oxygen and what would I say?"
"You'll do wonderfully," I told her.
"I hope," she said. Her smile was a bit shaky, now. "It'd be nice to meet another universe, maybe mix the two of us up, destroy everything within us in a fiery crunch and then have everything be reborn in the next Big Bang. Every universe's dream, you know." Another run through her mane of swirling gas and fire. "Well, wish me luck."
I wished her good luck, and she waved at me as she soared away.
Really, the universe is just as self-conscious and as much a dreamer as we are.