Dark Sky City
Later, you will find out that the man who presented your face to the pavement is a six-foot-two, two-hundred-plus-pound former enlisted U.S. Marine. By then you’ll also know he is a police officer. But that night, with fear and adrenaline pumping hot blood through the fresh gash in the back of your head, with your heart kicking fast into the middle of the street, all you know is there is new weight on your back, new ill-meaning hands around you. And you fight back.
This is Flagstaff, Arizona, home to the largest ponderosa pine forest in the world. A liberal mountain town of students, hippies, and outdoors enthusiasts, surrounded by desert, snowbirds, and ranchers with rifles. This is a training place, both for athletes who come in the summer to fortify their lungs in the high-altitude air and for students at Northern Arizona University. It’s also the stomping grounds for a stern-sounding scramble of acronymic law enforcement agencies like the ATF, USFS, USMS, FPD, FBI, ICE, and AZDPS, flexing their muscles outside of border towns and the greater Phoenix sprawl.
This is Flagstaff, Arizona. As someone who grew up in twenty-plus countries, it’s as close to home as you’ve ever known. A soft walk behind you is NAU, where you received your BA in journalism. Those two points in the distance are the Sacred Peaks, soon to be covered in snow. A hop over to the right and you’ll be back in your old hood, where all it takes is a dash of lighter fluid to set off a chain of grills from house to house. Where people gather around the smell of barbecuing chicken, garden vegetables, or whatever’s on hand. Any day of the week, you’ll find neighbors, homeless folks, new friends singing together and passing stories and bottles across low picket fences.
You and your boyfriend met at the tail end of one of those impromptu block parties. You were twenty-five and high up on a makeshift swing, watching the whole of a friend’s front lawn swoop beneath you in big, sweeping arcs. From across the street, a neighbor stuck his head out of his bedroom window and asked you to start reining it in because it was four in the morning. But the next day, when you and your friends went to your regular swimming hole among the red rocks of Sedona, he tagged along. You all took turns jumping off the high rock into glacier-cool water, and then he gave you a wildflower and a line involving the word “beautiful,” and somehow, in that setting, it was not at all cheesy.
Your backgrounds couldn’t have been more different. You spent your childhood putting on puppet shows and choreographed dance acts for people in refugee camps, never went to formal high school or prom, knew how to say goodbye in a slew of tongues. He’s a midwestern boy who grew up singing “America the Beautiful” at Fourth of July parades, who didn’t have to be nudged to put his hand over his heart for the Pledge of Allegiance, who stops to pet every dog he meets.
When he put his arm around you that night, he craned his head to the crystal moon, and the singing voice that came straight from his chest was that of an oldtime bluesman.
You found your common ground in the sky.
That summer, the two of you spent many nights on his lawn couch pointing up into the Milky Way, whisper-reciting the names of the countries you wanted to visit together like prayers to the constellations.
This is Flagstaff, Arizona: the world’s first International Dark Sky City, where electric lights are capped at night to preserve your view of the stars.
Once a clump has broken free from the other parts of the cloud core, it has its own unique gravity and identity and we call it a Protostar.
Earlier tonight, the two of you went out for a drink after getting off the late shift at the restaurant where you both wait tables. You clinked glasses with friends and told them about your upcoming trip, first backpacking for a few months in Peru, then off to Southeastern Europe where you have yearlong contracts to teach English in Georgia. You sat jacket-free on the patio at Flag Brew, made some noise for the bluegrass band that was playing their last set by the time you arrived, signed on to their email list when they brought it around. You bought a six-pack of craft beer and were headed home when the ground fell through.
Later, the pieces will start to fit into a quasi-narrative frame, but that night it’s a collection of sensory details coming at you so fast you don’t have time to register one before something worse is going down. You and your boyfriend are crossing the street kitty-corner, holding hands. He lets go. Crash of glass. Car doors slam. He is taking punches to the face. A rapid series of full-force blows. One impossibly tall man is holding your boyfriend’s arms behind his back while two more take turns smashing their fists into him. This image will stay with you. Your beloved, eyes already swollen shut, unresponsive as the fists hail into his face. You have to stop it before it’s too late. You charge into the vicious cluster, straight for the guy who’s holding your boyfriend in place. He’s so tall, you can’t even reach his nose, so you kick him in the knees. The contact of your meager leg does little, but for a moment, the sickening knuckles-to-flesh sound abates, and you are overwhelmed with relief.
Then: “Bitch!” A female voice from somewhere behind you, and, before you can turn to place it, a dull thud.
The stars are in the ground.
Later, the report by the private detective you hire will confirm two things you already suspected: (1) The thud that hit you in the back of the head was a beer bottle. (2) The carload that originally attacked you and your boyfriend have a hefty bunch of criminal records.
So why, when the police arrive, do they take the criminals’ side? While you and your boyfriend lie knocked out on the ground, with the red and blue lights of Dark Sky City closing in, the four people who assaulted you for a six-pack of beer they are not yet old enough to buy themselves corroborate a story. In that story, the roles are reversed: You were the attackers.
Outbursts from a young star change the chemistry of the star’s disk, from which planets may eventually form.
Maybe if you had been calmer when you came to, the police would have assessed the scene and reasonably deduced that the story from inside the car was off. Maybe if you hadn’t woken up with the new weight of a malicious stranger straddling your back, you wouldn’t have stirred up round two.
Eventually you’ll read about it in the police report: “The suspect repeatedly managed to slip out of the handcuffs, she was agitated and energetically resisted arrest.”
Later you will replay the scenario in your head and understand that when you struggled, you were acting out a scientifically recognized physiological response to danger. Even though you spent your teenage years bringing relief supplies to countries freshly ravaged by war, you will suddenly gain an intimate, personal understanding of textbook concepts like fight-or-flight.
Well, you can call yourself Houdini. Between the sweat on your wrists and enough adrenaline in your bloodstream to power an elephant stampede, you manage to slide your small hands through the tight metal latch again and again.
And as you lie prone on your stomach, flailing for your life, the officer, sitting astride your back, struggling to get your hands back inside the handcuffs, must feel like a blundering hippo. It must be very frustrating for him, there in the middle of the intersection, struggling to lock down this girl who weighs the equivalent of one of his legs.
Maybe the officer is only responding to his own biological cues, or maybe he’s reverting to his military training when he picks your head up by the root of its scalp, hits you in the face, and then smashes it back into the city street, where any passerby can see everything he’s doing.
Later, the private detective’s report (not the police report) will quote a witness who said that on August 22, 2010, “the officer grabbed the girl, getting on top of her, then ‘threw a full-on lunging punch,’ striking her in the face.” The witness will also be quoted as saying that “the girl had bad scratches all along her back and she was a small girl compared to the officer” and that “when the officer hit the girl, he felt the officer was trying to ‘take her out.’”
Months from now, when you are surprised again by a summons to appear in court, you will be dumbfounded by the charge against you: aggravated assault on a police officer.
All those liberal arts course studies about law enforcement cover-ups and manipulated evidence—you’ll understand them now on a cellular level. You’ll hear it in the white-noise static where your boyfriend’s official recorded statement somehow got erased. You’ll read it in the police report, in the blank spaces where the testimony of six witnesses should be. When the police are concerned with covering their own behinds, your story is not the one that will matter.
Later, inside the official evidence packet, you’ll see a Polaroid of the ex-Marine/officer, taken at the scene. If you weren’t still having trouble sleeping at night, you might laugh at the way he uses his fingers to hold out his lower lip, like even his pout is contrived.
“Injury sustained by punch to the face,” the handwritten caption says. If it weren’t for the explanation, you might not know what you’re supposed to be looking at. If you focus hard, you might just see a hint of red where he’s pointing, but it’s so faint, there’s an equally good chance you might not, or might assume you’re just imagining it.
The officials will not have taken pictures of you. Three days later, after you’ve bailed yourself out of high-security jail, you and your boyfriend will take some of each other with the same Nikon D60 you bought for your trip to Peru. Even after seventy-two hours of healing, the wounds are gruesome, the bruises varying shades of fiery-fall-foliage hues. You and your boyfriend take turns with the camera, getting evidence from all the hard-to-reach places: Blistering wounds across your back. A blood-clotted gash in the back of the head. Swollen eye. Face like a puffer fish.
“I don’t usually look like this.”
Your quote in the police report—without context—comes off as vain. One might imagine a dissatisfied prom queen whining into the mirror at a beauty salon. Based on the report, one wouldn’t know that the words came between great gasps of air after the sight of your own readjusted face in the hospital bathroom shocked you into hysteria. You balanced on the edge of the ER bed surrounded by uniformed men asking stern questions and struggled to enumerate the events that led you there. You couldn’t understand why they kept steering your questions away from the attack. And when you said, “I don’t usually look like this,” what you meant was Please, don’t you understand? The truth is right here on my rearranged face. All you have to do is look.
What did you do? That’s the question you will see in others’ eyes when you try to explain all this to them later. You would ask it too if you were the one being told this story. If the Dalai Lama wound up with a felony charge of assault against an officer, you would take his side, of course. But even as you shook your head in solidarity, your eyes might dart to his upper arm, imagining it flexed in rage. You might think there always was something a little off about his smile. Because things like this just don’t happen to people who haven’t done anything.
Years later, you may still want to give police the benefit of the doubt when you read about Jemel Roberson, the Chicago security guard who was killed by law enforcement officers after heroically stopping a shooter while on the job. Reports say police shot Roberson even as witnesses shouted at them that he was a security guard. That slain hero was twenty-six, the same age you were that night in Dark Sky City.
In fact, it is possible all stars go through this dramatic stage of development in their youth, but many of the outbursts are too short in cosmological time for humans to observe.
The true story is out there. But it’s not in the police report. You’ll only need to read the police report once to realize you’ll have to find an unbiased professional to do the things the police should have done themselves: interview eyewitnesses, take photographs, investigate the scene. You and your boyfriend will use a thousand dollars each of your long-saved travel fund to hire a licensed private investigator.
Judging from the gaping holes the police left in their report, it’s not likely
they’ll want to hang it out to air-dry in trial. That’s what a lawyer friend tells you, and you agree, but just in case, you pool the cash for the private eye who will put together a hefty packet filled with the missing parts. You’ll find out that, before police arrived, you appeared to lose consciousness twice, the second time when you were dragged down the street by a moving vehicle. In the private detective’s report, you’ll read a witness account of what your body did when your senses had checked out: “[Witness] said that a girl grabbed onto the driver’s side of the car to prevent it from leaving … it appeared that the suspect driver was holding onto the girl as he accelerated northbound causing the girl to be dragged for a short distance.”
Then you’ll remember in hazy flashes how you got the screaming welts on your back. How you woke up just in time to hear sirens, running, car doors slamming, shouts of “Let’s go!” Your head was throbbing, but you ran after the vehicle to stop your attackers from getting away.
You are lucky. It may not appear that way on the surface, but break it down later and you’ll see there are many places where the story could have forked off in a much darker direction. Think of it like a video game where the magical banana in your arsenal gives you a life. Who would have thought that your hair could be a magical banana?
“The girl with golden hair.” That’s how an eyewitness will describe you in the private report. It’ll take a few reads before you realize they are talking about you. Your hair is long, straight, light brown, with highlights. But golden? It’s a romantic image that reads oddly in the context of the report: “Then the officer tackled the girl with golden hair.”
Later you’ll see the faces of people who have been killed by police after offering much less resistance. Some were children playing, or young adults walking home at night, same as you. They were doctors, thieves, students, women, men, children, old, young. But line up their headshots and you’ll see that not many of them would be described by a witness as having “golden hair.”
In a few years, BBC News will say about a twelve-year-old black boy named
Tamir Rice, “Video footage shows he was shot within one second of the police arriving.”
The final collapse is a messy, chaotic event … This may cause spectacular bursts of gamma rays or supernova explosions. But in some cases at least … the stars would seemingly vanish without trace.
After you’ve spent a night locked up in the holding tank, your golden hair will be matted into stiff, bloody locks.
The arraignment room is packed worse than a DMV, but with more sweat and higher stakes. You catch a glimpse of your boyfriend on the other side of the room, his eyes swollen down to two slits, his hands cuffed. You try to use impromptu signals to communicate with him, but the guards catch on quickly, bark you down. When your turn comes to face the judge in the telemonitor, drops of blood dribble down from the ends of your hair onto your arm. Drip. The old judge’s face is blown up 20x on the flatscreen. Drip. The look he gives you, with your crimson-splattered shirt and swollen face, is the look of a man who’s found a dead fly in his champagne.
In college, you’d learned from sources like Psychology Today that “the clothing defendants wear, the jewelry they display, the way they style their hair, can sometimes mean the difference between doing time and dodging jail.”
The blue lace top you’re wearing has been refashioned into a single-strap
with crimson-brown tie-dye, and the last time you saw your platform shoe, it was lying on its side across thew street, but still! Up until that moment, as you sat in that overpacked room, you were thinking—you were assuming—that once your turn came, the whole mess would be sorted out. All you had to do was explain. Drip.
You’ve landed in prison. “Jail!” your uncle Frank will later correct. Your uncle is an old dog, a former cop himself, who in the eighties, while you were being pottytrained, ran for sheriff of Maricopa County against the now infamous Joe Arpaio. “Prison is where you go after you’ve been convicted. You went to jail, honey.”
OK, so jail. But this is no drunk tank, cooler castle, jive joint, country club. We’re talking high-security long-term holding jail, where they keep people like the bigboned Native American woman one cell over. She’s been held there for five months while in New Mexico prosecutors prepare their case against her. Murder. On the third day, she’ll warm up enough to give you too many details. On the first day, after you’ve worked through most of the contents of the compartmentalized meal tray, all she does is jut her chin at your peas and say, in a voice/stare combination that would make the earth quake, “You gonna eat those?”
Let’s talk about jail. Jail is the place where you get marched over to the clinic where someone with a face guard conducts a thorough search through your hair because the last occupant of your bunk was afflicted with head lice. Jail is where your gaping head gash remains unbandaged, so they prod around in there, never mind the blood-crusted clusters of hair, looking for lice or lice eggs. Jail is where there are no partitions around the showerheads, and the water is cold. Jail is where the drains are level with the floor so that when the blood washes down from your head, it makes a swirling, red pool over the entire surface. Jail is where there is no light switch. Where the fluorescent bulb eats through your eyelids, hums into your mind. And when the light goes out at nine o’clock, the darkness is sharp, total. If your cellmate is not a sociopath, you may work out a system for using the shitter in quasi-privacy. It’s the focal point in your otherwise hollow room. Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to poo. The time between minutes is long, flickering corridors that taper closer and tighter but never end.
Sometimes you’re glad for the tears. You are legally blind without contact
lenses, and now yours have shriveled up in your eyes, for want of solution. In the real world, your purse exists for the sole purpose of carrying contact lens solution. But this is your real world now, and there is little that is more real than having to choose between sharp bits of dried-up plastic in your eye or taking your contacts out and relying solely on your sense of smell for survival. I smell bleach, body odor, piss, shit. Or, worse, your hearing. I hear my cellmate rambling on conversationally again about her child abuse charge, I hear the insect hum of the fluorescent bulb, I hear grunting. I hear a tinkle of water hitting water. I hear keys jangle-jangling down a hollow hall. No, you need your eyesight. But they don’t let you pack for jail. And they don’t rush to provide you with the essentials, either. You try to preserve your sanity by writing imaginary Yelp reviews. “The cell service in this place is terrible.” “I’m giving it one star because there is no zero-star option.” “Between the poor cuisine and the open-floor bathroom layout, I’ve discovered how a person can experience diarrhea and constipation at the
same damn time. Two thumbs down.” You make up music videos featuring a hefty turd singing, “I’m locked up, won’t let me out.”
Truth is, that’s not what’s going through your head in that jail cell in 2010. You are thinking of your boyfriend as you last saw him, with his eyes bruised and swollen shut. You are seeing him lying wounded in body and spirit in another bunk in another part of the jail. All the plans you had lined up, they’ll torture your mind—the flight to South America set two weeks from now, your teaching job in the Republic of Georgia, contracted to begin a month after that. You’ll think about just the other night, when your boyfriend kissed you under a vast sky. How you saw yourselves in a pair of shooting stars. You’ll think about it and it will hurt more than the open wound on the back of your head, more than the road rash that burns against the hard top bunk. The Yelp reviews, the joking around. That’s all you later as you try to tell this story. Because the act of telling means revisiting, and your mind does not want to go back to jail.
Black holes are the dark remnants of collapsed stars, regions of space cut off from the rest of the universe. If something falls into a black hole, it can never come back out Not even light can escape.
By day two you’ve already started to acclimate. When the droning first stretch of the second day verges into the outrageous clamor of lunchtime (“It’s chicken nugget day!” your cellmate says brightly), you fall in line, take the tray from the receiving portal, eat the compartmentalized portions of frozen carrots and gristly cold chicken and chase them with a mini-box of milk. Your peas you offer to the big-boned murder suspect. (You do not, as you did on day one, save the crackers for later, which you have since found out is against the rules.) Then you stack the tray against the wall beside the bars, not on the sliding side, the way you did on the first day, inadvertently causing a monumental jam and bringing a severe glare from the meal distribution staff.
Now, as they collect the trays with austere precision, you step back and bow
There’s a pay phone on the wall of the common area. It’s a big, boxy, ancient-looking thing. When, on your first day, you tried to conjure a phone number from memory, the other accused cons gaped. They leaned in while you dialed what you hoped was your aunt’s number. But there was no ringtone, so you hung up and they all laughed.
On the third day, you approach the magic box again, ignoring the stares. Now you see that there is a list of phone numbers stickered to the side: bail bondsmen.
You dial the first number and are surprised when a voice answers. You’ll be rendered momentarily speechless by the professional human greeting—“Bustout Bail Bonds”—and you’ll find out that, yes, you can bail yourself out of jail, it’ll just take $3,000, with $1,000 of it put down now. And here’s where your second magical banana comes in: You happen to have $1,000 ready to go. Sure, you’d saved it to pay for your trip abroad; sure, you’ll need it soon on legal fees; but fuck if you aren’t glad to have it now. The man on the other end is happy to take it off your hands. Only, since it’s not in your hands, but in the bank, he will have to escort you to the bank in
handcuffs so that you can get it. You don’t hesitate to agree.
Maybe because, at 110 pounds, you are an unlikely overpower-and-escape risk, or maybe because of your golden hair, the bondsman does not end up following through with the handcuffs bit. Although the bank tellers do give one another some nervous back-and-forth looks, what with your face notably bruised, withdrawing $1,000 in cash while a hefty, unsmiling man watches nearby, arms crossed.
Your boyfriend did not have the same success that you did with the pay phone. Instead, he’s had his bail posted by your mutual boss. He arrives back at your shared apartment looking like a pole that the tent has collapsed around. You go in for a hug, but it’s not the reunion you’d anticipated those nights on the top cot, since he winces under the pressure of your embrace.
In the movies, incarcerated folks have dreamy conversations in which they talk about the first thing they’ll do when they get out. In your case, it’s not a shower or a hot, well-seasoned meal that you want. Instead, after hugging your boyfriend, you go straight for the Nikon D60. Even after three days, the wounds make for dramatic visuals. On advice from your lawyer friend, you hire the PI to gather evidence on your behalf, then take your trip abroad as planned, feeling your hearts lift along with the plane.
In Peru, you seek healing deep inside Amazonian jungle. You drink ayahuasca, the ancient, bitter brew, and feel your spirit pulled into shamanic song. With your eyelids closed, you feel the shadowy presence of uniformed men. You recognize the fear. You see the waves of energy that connect everything on earth and understand suddenly that these uniformed men exist on a lower plane than the one on which you are floating, far above the laser lines on ground level.
But when you are summoned back after a few months to face criminal charges— cutting off both the remainder of your trip and your teaching jobs in Georgia—it’s as if you’ve been sucked into a black hole.
If there was nothing to stop it, the star would just continue collapsing for millions of years until it became its smallest possible size … But there is a pressure pushing back against the gravitational collapse of the star: light.
Juries are moved by dramatic visuals. If you stood next to the officer you are accused of assaulting, your cheek would brush his holster. While no advantage on the street, this size difference is potentially a magical banana in the courtroom, where a judicious observer may be moved to question the real threat posed by a five-foot-two girl to a towering, thick-necked former Marine. Juries are moved by dramatic visuals. Still, you’ve seen enough news stories to know the dramatic visuals aren’t always enough. So you pool your remaining savings and hire an attorney.
Your public defender is court-appointed. She looks at your folio and then into your eyes, and, by God, you believe her when she says this is absurd and she’s going to fight for you.
Your boyfriend is not so lucky. His court-appointed representative has straight-up told him that she doesn’t “have a dog in this fight,” and pushed him so hard to plead guilty in exchange for a plea bargain that he has no other option but to hire a pro. Now he’s being defended by the best criminal attorney in town, and his going rate proves it. The two of you pooled your remaining travel funds to pay the retainer; you borrowed more money from family and hoped like hell the case could be resolved without going to trial. A person could spend the rest of their life working off the cost of a single day in trial. Trial or not, the two of you are firm: you will not—even to reduced charges—plead guilty. Your boyfriend’s charges are technically less severe, but the irony will boil your blood. They’re trying to nail him with “Assault and Resisting Arrest,” the former for the assault that he himself sustained, the latter for when he shouted and tried to shake off two restraining officers to help his girlfriend while another cop smashed her face.
Your lawyers have a few tricks up their sleeves, and they bust them all out for a nearly empty courtroom at the pre-hearing, the purpose of which is to decide whether the state has reasonable evidence to proceed. Your public defender explains this point carefully to make sure you don’t get your hopes up: In 99.999 percent of cases, even if it’s the weather that stands accused, the court always rules reasonable cause.
At the pre-hearing, they don’t make you stand next to the officer you are accused of assaulting. You’re OK with that. Psychoactive-plant-induced epiphanies aside, in that courtroom you feel very much reachable.
Between bail, the cost of the private detective, the flight back from Peru, and hiring the defense attorney, this whole affair has already gobbled up every crumb of your savings and then some. You can’t afford a new court-appropriate outfit, so you spend the “getting ready” hour trying on and taking off every old shirt you own before settling on an old button-up work blouse with a collar and a bit of a puff around the sleeves. Under the unforgiving fluorescent lights of the courtroom, you can see that the blouse is more yellow now than white, and your attempt at ironing the thing only served to awaken semi-dormant fryer smells from the Italian restaurant where you waitress evenings.
More important, you’re relieved to be sitting, because just the sight of Officer Hard-Fist, “the victim” over in the elevated witness stand, gives you a fever chill. You stare at your hands, at the varnished walnut grain of the courtroom bench, at the garish light flickering on the floor.
Beforehand, your lawyer advised you not to look at the officer who punched you in the face. With his pressed, starched uniform, the officer looks very official in the witness stand. Composed, sitting straight upright, he answers in short, no-frills sentences that bounce over the hard edges of the courtroom, filling the empty space between the curved benches and the judge’s podium. It takes all your willpower to control your eyes as this trained fighting machine sits calmly in the witness stand and tells the courtroom in fabricated detail how you, the accused, beat him up. You feel righteous indignation rise inside you. It wants to beam forth from your eyes and cast him naked under the all-knowing light of Truth. But you heed your defender’s advice. She is the professional, and later you’ll realize that she was right, of course. What you thought was the searing light of Truth would have been interpreted as a thuggish glare, the kind that is followed in gangster movies by a threatening swipe across the throat.
For a person facing their attacker, the officer/victim is amazingly calm. His composure falters only for a suppressed half breath when, in a dramatic turn, your lawyer produces the self-portraits you took. Upon the appearance of evidence on your behalf, both the prosecutor and the officer look surprised. Now, with the two sets of headshots lying side by side, the contrast is even more dramatic than the size difference between you and the cop. Your lawyer’s voice rises like Tom Cruise’s in A Few Good Men:
“And were you aware, when you arrived at the scene on August 22nd, that Ms. G. had sustained multiple injuries?”
“No, I …”
Splat! Another print hits the table. It’s your face this time, glossy and enlarged, but far from glamourous. Your skin is swollen and inflamed and dramatically bruised. Splat! Another print, this one of the back of your head, where the hair is bloody and matted around a gaping gash. It’s still gooey and red in the self-portrait.
“So you did not see the bleeding wound to her head when you found her in the street and attempted to arrest her?”
The dramatic peak. This should be the part where Jack Nicholson’s character turns into a lizard and sneers, “Truth? You can’t handle the truth!” But in this courtroom, even though it is pretrial and the whole theatrical display has been wasted on a few teams of lawyers and a judge who would sleep through the second coming of Christ—and who knew before this dress rehearsal started that the case had reasonable cause (99.999 percent of cases do)—you feel a wash of relief, a moment of vindication, of the possibility of fairness and that, maybe, justice does
sometimes triumph. All the fine hairs on your body do a standing ovation. There is something powerful and cathartic about hearing this articulation of the obvious truth—no jargon or conditions in that ritual altar room. The words wash through you, and all the frustration, hurt, fear, and relief comes out in a salty brine through your eyes. You cry through the rest of the hearing, and that, along with the blouse, does little for your image.
This is the only time throughout the year-plus legal process that it will ever get close to resembling a Hollywood movie.
Once you’re past the heart-jolt moment of falling through the ground, it’s a slow, suffocating death by desiccation. Your life falls into an anxious pattern of court dates and deferred hearings. Deferred hearings. Deferred hearings. Run home from work. Change. Show up at the courthouse. Feel your pulse quicken. Wait most of the afternoon. Not today. Court date reset. Come back in a month. Fill the space between with shadowy scenarios. Repeat, repeat, repeat.
The process of collapse destroys every characteristic of the original star except its mass, spin and electric charge: everything else is radiated away as gravitational waves.
When the lights go dark, you can see the stars, or maybe you’ll just see shadows. You may find that you are not, as you once believed, composed purely of love and light. You may lash out against yourself, play the role of victim. You may weep, feel your heart curdle over the injustice of it all, cry out, “Why me?”
You may ride your bike to the bar in the night after drinking a bottle of vodka on your own. You may flip over on the railway tracks and wind up in
screaming at nurses in uniform. You may find yourself facing new charges after an officer in the hospital recognizes your name and encourages the staff to take legal action against you when you resist a forcible injection of sedative. Maybe it’s the sedative, or your own numb spirit, but you won’t even care when they send you back to jail and the intake warden tells you to bend over, spread your ass cheeks, and cough. You may find that you begin to assume the role the legal system has cast you in.
Your attorneys are invested, though. They find a legal loophole to keep the hospital incident out of your case record. Later, when you scroll through the ACLU case profiles of some of the 3,278 people—an estimated 65 percent of them black—who are serving life without parole for nonviolent, circumstance-driven offenses, you will begin to realize just how lucky you were, even then.
After sixteen months of deferred court dates and unwavering prosecution, the official conclusion is anti-climactic, as if the whole case had just bored itself to sleep. By the time the prosecuting team has used up the maximum limit of deferred hearings—you still refuse to accept any plea agreement that would label you guilty—once it comes down to a matter of trial, the prosecution folds faster than a poker player with a bad hand. They drop your felony charges and give you another deferred: “Deferred Prosecution.” Stay out of trouble for a year, go to anger management class, write a letter of apology to the offending officer, and all charges will be wiped from your record. It will be as if this never happened.
But your spirit will have imploded.
For a case that never made it to trial, you’ll get your share of judgment.
“I would have taken it all the way,” your friend’s friend will say. Your friend’s friend may not understand that the cost of trial translates into a lifetime of indentured servitude. Your friend’s friend may not know the uncomfortable experience of gambling with your life in a legal poker game where the odds are stacked in favor of the house.
You’ll tell yourself to be happy, that what you got was the best possible outcome. Remind yourself that you’re a poor public speaker, picture all the ways they could have found weak spots in your character, reiterate that you might have lost. Or how, even if you had taken it through and won, you would have lost your financial credit, your emotional health, and years of your life.
You got the best possible outcome. You can move on, you tell yourself, and continue to remind yourself every time you sign in to the anger management class, or fill out an alcohol consumption questionnaire, or opt out of a job or lease application that requires a background check because your arrest record might show up. You’re lucky. You can move on.
Still, sometimes you’ll allow yourself to imagine what it might have felt to stand in that courtroom and hear the words “Not guilty” reverberate from the juror’s bench through the rest of your life.
A constellation family refers to a group of constellations located within the same region of the night sky.
About six months after reading the last word of legal jargon, after the surface wounds have gone internal, you and your boyfriend are invited to participate in another healing ceremony, this time on your home turf. This ceremony is led by teachers, social workers, and artists, modern apprentice practitioners of ancient, indigenous medicine. These local leaders acknowledge the limitations of American institutions, the subjugation of spirit that occurs when human lives are commodified. In search of alternatives, they gather in the arid plains.
And you, who have had all your complexity of emotions filed away in a guidance counselor’s office drawer, who have felt rage expand inside you while sitting on metal chairs in anger management classes—you and your boyfriend will go into the desert.
And there, under an infinite expanse of naked sky, and under the influence of bitter plant medicine, in a circle of relative strangers, your boyfriend will tell the story. Of the night he was attacked without warning and punched within a beat of internal damage, and how you tried to help him and were hit on the back of the head with a bottle, and how when the police came, they listened to the aggressors, who sat in their car and constructed their story even as the two of you lay bleeding in the street. How when the police came, they came not as saviors but as a posse. How after the two of you tried to put the whole hellish business behind you, were blindsided for the second time by a summons to answer felony charges with gravesounding
After the telling, one of the elders seeks your boyfriend out. This elder has heard the resin of pain, the anger, the hard let-down in your boyfriend’s voice. He has noticed how your boyfriend’s aura, even his face, has darkened visibly over the course of the storytelling, how his eyes have gone from sunny-sky blue to flash-flood mud.
“That’s an interesting story,” the elder says, “and brave of you to share. But now, consider this.”
The elder is then silent for a long while, and when he finally speaks, even the wispy clouds lean in to hear.
“That story is yours. You don’t ever have to tell it again.”
Your boyfriend respects these words. He takes the elder’s advice to heart. If he stops feeding the story by retelling it, it will lose its hold. Finally, two years after the first blows, he will begin to heal.
But sometimes, in years to come, you will see the wet-glass look in his eyes, you will see him glring at the sky, you will hear the edge in his voice when he sings to the moon, and you will wonder whether, without the release that comes from telling, a story can corrode into a life force.
You, who have delivered aid inside war-torn countries, who have dodged land mines, who have witnessed the deep imprint left by military-grade boots—you will wonder whether this elder’s advice is right for you. You will see the faces on the news. Sometimes, when the U.S. flag waves, you may squint between the stripes and read a different story in the box with the stars.
Only much later, when your pain is no longer fresh and the scar tissue has grown over your scalp, will you understand that when the elder said, “You never have to tell that story again,” he was speaking to the immense power of story—how a narrative pulled from an open wound can tear it wider still. But a story owned, one that reaches beyond itself, that seeks to connect—that story is the difference between a bunch of floating gas and dust particles and a galaxy.
You will see citizens rally together under the power of storytelling, and understand that it is turbulent atmosphere—winds blowing in many different directions—that causes what we perceive as stellar twinkling. When you read about people like Cyntoia Brown, sentenced to life in prison after shooting her rapist in self-defense when she was sixteen, you pick up your laptop, your credit card, your phone, your picket sign, your microphone, your mixing board, your pen. You find your fire, link arms with others, and form a chain of light across the darkened sky.
In the case of a star, it absorbs all radiation that falls on it, but it also radiates back into space much more than it absorbs.
Fraser Cain, “Interesting Facts About Stars,” Universe Today, February 2009.
Peter Christoforou, “10 Interesting Facts About Star Constellations,” Astronomy Trek, February 2013.
Dan Falk, “What Is a Black Hole?” Mach, NBC News, December 2018.
Michael Marshall, “Introduction: Black Holes,” SPACE, January 2010.
NASA, “Loneliest Young Star Seen by Spitzer and Wise,” July 2016.
Jon Schiller, 21st Century Cosmology (BookSurge Publishing, 2009).
Larry Sessions, “Top 10 Cool Things About Stars,” EarthSky, May 2016.