The Impossibility of Sharing

David is a 2nd year medical student at Harvard Medical School, aspiring to be a physician-writer. He was awarded the 2019 Lloyd McKim Garrison Prize in Poetry, awarded to a Harvard undergraduate fo ... [+]

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It was cold on the rooftop when the meteor shower began. I had brought a blue fleece blanket, and through the veneer of excessive shivering I draped it over us. Our shoulders touched, and I looked over at you. Your head was craned to the sky, brown eyes darting around.

"Look up," you said impatiently. "You're missing the show."

Laughing, I adopted the same pose, placing my hands down and back onto the shingles. They were sandpaper rough, but oddly soothing. The toughness served as a reminder of presence, a physical anchor grounding me to the scene here.

"There's not much to see yet," I said.

"Just be quiet," you whispered.

We sat there in silence. It was a rather windless night. And it was still—the way a busy subway station presents itself at 7 AM on a Saturday morning. Which meant there was an overwhelming sense of absence, which is different also from the emptiness we know exists but cannot see.

After about ten minutes, I felt her shift around. Her hair brushed my chest, and I inhaled a flower scent I could not name. I dug my hands deeper into the roof, letting the pain keep me steady.

I had given up hope and was about to break into conversation again when you leaned your left shoulder hard into me.

"Look!" She pointed to the right, and I caught the faintest tail of a white streak vanishing in the pitch-black sky.

/Remember, don't focus on any specific section of the sky. Try to take it all in, but keep your gaze slightly unfocused. But not too unfocused—just enough so you can get the widest view possible. Then, when a meteor arrives, you can follow it. And you won't even be surprised, because it will have simply appeared in your field of vision. But make sure to give a short shout or any exclamation so I'll know too. You see, catching a meteor is easy, but sharing it with someone else is almost impossible./

You turned quickly to look at me. "Did you see it?" You exclaimed excitedly. Your face was glowing in awe.

I nodded silently and pointed up. The sky was almost noticeably brighter with afterglow if your imagination was creative enough. And for the next hour, we must have seen over 15 meteors. There was no way to describe it except magical and otherworldly. Streaks of white light dashing in and out, as if transiently folding the sky into random shapes, but with an order you could interpret if given meaning. In the same way you watched her gently smooth the creases of her shirts while packing her belongings.

The whole time, your shoulder was pressed into mine. I could feel your chest rise and fall, your breath take form in nebulous wisps.

When the shower was over, I stood up and dusted off my black sweatpants, even though there was nothing on them. You stayed sitting there, eyes still looking upwards but away from me. Your head was tilted and the black hair you had always wanted to dye a different color sporadically rippled silver thanks to the solitary lamplight flanking the exit sign.

"I wish the meteors would come again." You said in a quiet voice. I had to lean down to catch the end of your sentence.

"They come every year. You'll always be able to see them, as long as the night's clear and whatever city you're in doesn't have too many lights."

"That's not what I mean." She looked over at me. "Can you sit back down and continue watching with me? The stars are pretty enough even without the meteors."

/If by chance you can alert your partner to the position of the meteor, and they respond quickly enough, you can both see the meteor. And to most watchers, this would be deemed a significant accomplishment. You could both revel in the wonder of having seen something so fleeting, the type of beauty that makes it into songs passed down for generations. The type that exists more in memory than reality. Yet at the same time, you'll both feel a tinge of sadness. At knowing that this isn't quite sharing, but the closest attempt to it. For what you and I see are never quite the same. The timing is always slightly off, the distance between never close enough./

I sat back down and dug my hands into the roof again. They hurt less this time—either I had smoothed out the grit with my anxiety or my hands had finally gone numb.

You let out a big sigh and looked at me before craning your head back up. "Do you have a favorite constellation?"

"Me? No, I don't think so. To be honest, I can only spot the Big Dipper and Orion."

You let out a laugh, the cute and brief kind where you cover your mouth and I can see the smile lines next to your eyes. "For someone that asked me to come watch the meteors, I had taken you for a big astronomy guy."

"I wish," I said with a guilty smile. "But all I can do is admire them. I never made the time to learn about their order or names."

"Me too," you said, your voice slightly cracking. "And you know, I think sometimes, that's enough."

"I wonder if there's a metaphor for life in stargazing. Admiring something you can never be close to. Knowing nothing will ever materialize, and that even such behavior is dangerously self-destructive. And still, inevitably drawn to it like a moth to flame."

She nodded, and then slightly pursed her lips, as if getting ready to politely disagree. "I think I agree with you. But people have certainly constructed a sense of closeness. After all, the stars, even groups of stars, all have names."

"The first astronomers must have been lonely. I wonder if the stars they named were for people they loved."

There was a long gap in noise. I found myself holding my breath, in the same way audiences do when the conductor raises his baton before the symphony begins. And I looked over at her. She was crying, silently. Hastily, I turned around and reached for my backpack. It had a large hole at the top, due to years of use and a stubbornness to replace it. I grabbed a couple napkins and handed them to you.

"Are you alright?" I tried to bring my arm over her but stopped at the last minute. She looked at me and gestured with her neck. Slowly, I reached around. I was surprised at her warmth; as someone who had chronically cold hands, it was like nestling next to a space heater.

"I wish I wasn't moving. We had just gotten to know each other."

"Me, too." I said, surprised at the conviction in my voice. "I'll come visit you though, on weekends or whenever we have breaks. It's only a couple hours drive from here."

"Can we write to each other as well?" She asked me. "I know we can text and call whenever, but I'd also like something physical, something permanent."

"Of course! How often do you want to write to each other?"

"It doesn't have to be that often. Maybe once a month or so? Just to update each other on our lives. I'd rather hear about the meaningless small stuff than where you're going for vacation or what classes you're taking. Like funny squirrels you see, any new flowers your dad tries to plant."

"Sounds good to me. I can write more often than that too if you'd like."

She pointed towards the left just as I pointed. We turned to each other in shock. "Did you see it?" I said, just as you repeated the same thing. Smiling, you leaned your head onto my shoulder, and we spent the rest of the night up there on that rooftop.

/And soon this feeling becomes addictive. You'll be left always yearning for more. To live forever in the possibility that at the next one, or the next one, or the next, will be the one where you perfectly capture and share another moment together. And that then, you'll both hold it forever and be at peace./