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To Study Ursa Major

by Kristin Kozlowski

Mom tells Dad that if he fits all our camping gear into our slick hatchback she’ll give him head every day for a week. She says it low, where she thinks I can’t hear her, but I do hear and even though I’m ten and I don’t know what it means, I can tell by the way Dad inhales as he laughs that it’s something sexy just between the two of them. My little sister hides a backpack full of Barbie dolls under her seat. Dad manages to fit everything into the car, even the extra flashlights I bring because I’m still afraid of the dark.

When I’m fourteen, I play strip poker with three guys and four girls at my friend Vanessa’s house. For my first hand, I'm dealt two pair and am so, so relieved. I don’t want to lose the hand. Or any hand. Or any of my clothes. I look around the circle and think I’d like Jake to lose. Or Vanessa. They are so similar, the way people gravitate around them, the way they both probably think that losing is winning in this game, the way I wish I were more like them.

It’s spring semester, senior year, and Jake and I are assigned partners in an astronomy elective. We lie on our backs on the hood of his car while I point out Orion, Aries, Ursa Minor; I tell him Ursa Minor and the Little Dipper are the same thing. I think it is the perfect night to be kissed. I point to the North Star at the tail of Ursa Minor. I show him how to find the Big Dipper and expand out from it to see Ursa Major. Jake says he likes this idea, the idea of expansion. He wants to know how far the sky goes, how deep the universe really is. He says he wants to follow the North Star as far as it’ll take him. When he doesn’t kiss me, I think he must feel how the stars feel, burning just out of reach.

Eddie, who used to climb the tree in my front yard and hang upside down with his tank top flopped over his face while he talked about his brother’s video games, sits next to me in chem lab junior year. He puts his hand on my leg under the table we’re assigned to share. How much of my life involves stories about guys I’m assigned to? His palm is sweaty and I think it’ll leave a mark on my jeans and I don’t really know if I want it there but I don’t say or do anything about it and eventually the bell rings. I think about how I’d rather Eddie always be the eight-year-old version of himself, or at least how I’d rather our relationship always be a version of that relationship. I know why a person could become obsessed with the prospect of time travel.

When I’m twelve and riding my bike home from my friend’s house one night, someone I can’t fully see whistles at me from a porch. I peddle so hard my legs ache the next morning.

Nobody's shaved Dad in two weeks. The stubble on his chin glitters like an anime character when a patch of window-sun lands on it. For six months, he's been bed-ridden and too sick to shave himself. Mom brings a bowl of warm water to his bedside and shaves him. He hates stubble. She hums softly. It’s a song whose melody I know, one I’ve heard many times while creeping out of bed and into the hallway so I could see them together, drinking from dark beer bottles and taking turns playing scratchy albums on a dated record player. I think I see Dad smile a small, gentle smile. But mostly I just see what I want.

My girlfriend is drunk on some vodka drink her brother got her into. She’s pacing her apartment and throwing everything of mine into an old grocery bag. She yells things like I hate your face and You think you’re so much better than everyone. I don’t remember how the fight started but I’m crying ugly snot tears. After I leave, she texts me to come back, that she’s sorry, that she wants to talk it out. I don’t respond.  A week later, I find her salt shaker in the paper bag. It’s a light pink flamingo curled in on itself. I place it in my black and white checkered bathroom, right next to my toothbrush. My future wife names it Francine the Flamingo and never asks why it’s in the bathroom.

My ex-boyfriend, Brad, the one who works one cubicle over from me, the one who is almost funny and who asks me to teach him PowerPoint before our first regional meeting, gets the promotion I interviewed for. I’m not really sure how to tell who’s winning or losing anymore.

It’s August and the Perseids rain through the sky. My future wife and I lay on a blanket and drink white wine from red Solo cups and count meteors. I tell her about Ursa Major, how she was a young nymph named Callisto and how Zeus was infatuated with her so his jealous wife, Hera, turned Callisto into a bear. I say that Callisto’s son happened upon her as a bear and, being a hunter, was in danger of killing his own mother. To save her, Zeus turned the son into a bear as well and placed them both in the night sky. Ursa Major and Minor. Mother and son. I don’t know at what point in the story my future wife reached out and clenched my hand in hers but we lay like that until sunrise.

After Dad dies, Mom drives into the forest preserve where we used to camp. She stays for two nights. Packed into the car's trunk is the small, ratty tent my sister and I slept in as kids, not the big one Mom shared with Dad. Pulling away, she looks small behind the wheel. When she returns, there is mud stuck to her shins and her hair has been cut several inches, chopped off by her own hand. It’s rough and jagged and badass. I boil water for tea while she showers and when she returns her hair is wet and dark and flips up in the back. Under the kitchen lights, it gleams like the curve of a bear’s claw. The water steams on the stove. We don't speak.

Author's Note

What I know about camping: even in a nearly vacant campground, even during a pandemic, someone will set up camp right next to you.

What I know about the night sky: sometimes I can see Mars, a dim orange burn, from my front yard and sometimes I can’t.

What I know about dying: not a damn thing.

Kristin Kozlowski lives and works in the U.S. Midwest. Some of her work is available online at Lost Balloon, Longleaf Review, Pidgeonholes, Occulum, and Nightingale and Sparrow, among others. In 2019, she was awarded Editor’s Choice from Arkana for her CNF piece, "A Pocket of Air." She was also named a finalist in Forge Literary Magazine’s Forge Flash Competition 2019 for her CNF piece, "Relationstasis." If you tweet: @kriskozlowski.

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