My wife and I were sipping summer drinks on our back porch the other night—whiskey sours, or pink lemonade and gin. I was watching the stars fight with the streetlight at the corner. I moved to a spot where a hemlock near our porch eclipses the light. The stars won. A golden dot swam steadily and silently across the sky, southeast to northwest. It was gone in a minute. A satellite.
“We used to sleep out and watch the stars,” I told Sherry. “Just unroll our sleeping bags on the ground and go to sleep.” These details signaled to Sherry that one, the word “we” didn’t include her, because camping out to her means staying in a hotel, and two, I was telling a story from many years ago. The summer after eighth grade, it was.
Back then, a loose group of us would sleep under the stars on any given clear night. Usually we’d scrape up enough money to buy cans of Coca-Cola. We drank Coca-Cola from cans because we once saw a photograph of Graham Hill, the very picture of a dashing British racecar driver, sipping a can of Coke.
We were camping in this impromptu way because none of us was—I don’t know, hip enough, cool enough—no, let’s be truthful—gutsy enough to ask a girl out on a date. Instead, we slept on the lumpy ground with mosquitoes whining in our ears until the fog lulled us to sleep. Instead, we talked about the girls we would like to date, if only we had the nerve to ask them or the money to afford to take them out. One night, three or four of us were sleeping in my backyard, talking about all the pretty girls in our class. It was a perfectly G-rated conversation, but despite that, my father, who was sleeping in a bedroom with the window open at the front of the house, called out, “Patrick, I can hear every word you guys are saying.” It didn’t matter. We were 14 years old on the calendar, but if we were thinking that way about girls, we weren’t admitting it to each other.
I thought about those days tonight as I watched the satellite track a swift line. The sky is unchanged these many years later. Airplanes still blink and crawl between stars. Vega shines steady white at the zenith. The Big Dipper pours summer over all of us.
Those girls my friends and I talked about all those nights? We never got any closer to them than we did to the moon. Back then, those failures were how we measured ourselves in the social strata of high school. They were how our classmates measured us, too. Tonight, under the unchanging constellations, I remember those nights, when I would watch for a shooting star so I could make a wish.