In January, Melissa’s mother became interested in astrology after meeting a psychic who told her she was close to finding her place in the world. This after twelve cities in twelve years. This at age thirty, with a preteen daughter, her mother told her sister over the phone.
Melissa heard her mom talking to Aunt Millicent in the pantry. The door was closed and the lights were off, the phone cord stretched taut from the living room. It’s about time, Mills, her mother said. About goddamn time. Melissa’s mother always called her sister Mills instead of Millicent and Melissa Mels instead of Melissa, and she was constantly mixing them up despite their age difference and relation.
Melissa stood in front of the fridge with the door open and feigned interest in its contents. I’m meeting with him again, she heard her mother say. I’ll let you know what he says. She opened the pantry door, and Melissa grabbed the peanut butter, held it out to her as if it were dinner she had caught in the woods. Great, Mels, her mother said, peanut butter. How ’bout Denny’s instead?
When they arrived at Denny’s, the psychic was already there, saving a booth.
Scoot in and do your math homework, Mels, her mother said. Sweetie.
The waitress came over and her mother ordered a coffee, plenty of cream and sugar, and Melissa ordered a pop with everything—Coke, Sprite, and Dr. Pepper but no root beer. The psychic ordered a side of bacon and an iced tea with three slices of lemon. He touched her mother gently on the hand and said, Shelley, you are a Gemini. Pollux, one of Gemini’s stars, is the nearest giant star to Earth. Her mother ooohed and went glass-eyed, and Melissa wished she could take her mother home, where the two of them could wait on the porch for dark, and when it came, Melissa would point and say, There, Mother. There’s Gemini. Right there. But Melissa didn’t know where Gemini was.
She faked problem solving while her mother talked to the psychic about all the cities they’d lived in, the jobs Melissa’s father had taken on a whim—assembly line operator, fishing hand, a position with a highway-maintenance consulting firm—and then, when she excused herself to use the “little girl’s room,” the psychic leaned over the table and told Melissa she was a Sagittarius. Then he said, You know how your parents met, don’t you?
Ketchikan, Alaska: 1974
It was March, 1974, the psychic said. Your mother was a senior in high school, the new girl in Ketchikan, Alaska. I haven’t yet determined where she came from, or why, but give me time. He winked at Melissa from beneath a grubby wool hat with ear flaps and picked up a slice of bacon. His fingers were stubby. Farmhand fingers, Melissa thought. She sucked her soda through the straw and rolled her eyes so he would think she was bored.
On the first night of the Aurora Borealis, the psychic continued, people all over town gathered in parks and front yards. Your mother walked down to the boardwalk and lay herself down on a bench. She’d never seen anything so beautiful in her life. In fact, she wrote in her diary later that what happened next happened because of the exhilaration she felt. The energy. It was erotic, she said. You know what erotic means, don’t you, Melissa? Melissa stared at him with her brows raised, and the psychic said, I thought so. I certainly thought so. He ripped the end off a piece of bacon and swallowed it whole.
Your father, Melissa, was walking along with his friends when they came upon your mother lying on the bench, her knees bent at just the right angle. I’d sure like a piece of that ass, he told his friends. He came and stood directly over your mother and said, I want to bend you over this bench. Hey, baby, how about it? Your mother looked at your father. Then she stood and whispered in his ear, I want to see it first. Then I’ll decide. That is also the story of how you were conceived, the psychic said. He slurped his tea, clanked the ice cubes against his yellowed teeth. Melissa sucked her soda through the straw, stared at him like he was the biggest moron on earth, like anything he said couldn’t affect her, but later, locked in the bathroom of their apartment in Providence, Rhode Island, Melissa did the math and knew the story was true.
Providence, Rhode Island: 1988
Melissa stood in line in the school’s gym, waiting to get into Star Lab, the giant silver bubble that projected constellations onto a domed ceiling. She couldn’t believe this school took twelve- and thirteen-year-olds through this ritual, but she wasn’t going to complain. Last spring, she’d checked out a stack of library books—star charts and constellation guides and astrological sign guidebooks—and rode them home on the handlebars of her bicycle, home to her family’s half of the duplex in Ketchum, Idaho.
There, she ditched her bike in the driveway, ran up the front steps and through the already opened door. Before she could escape to her room, however, her parents called her into the living room, where empty liquor store boxes were piled floor to ceiling. Her father kicked a stack in Melissa’s direction. They toppled over onto her head and ankles. A corner of a box hit her in the eye. Pack your junk, he said.
The next day, on their way out of town, Melissa dropped the books in the library’s drop box without having opened one of them.
Star Lab was her chance to finally determine where Gemini lay in the night sky, but Melissa needed someone to show her its position. She slipped off her dusty Keds and dropped to the end of the line in order to assure herself a spot next to the science teacher.
When it was her turn, she crawled through the door, pressed herself in close, her arms and knees squished against the arms and knees of someone else. She sat in strained anticipation, waiting for her eyes to adjust. At last, the science teacher entered and sealed the door shut behind him.
Melissa leaned toward him. I want you to show me Gemini, she said.
You got it, he whispered back.
The projector started, and a mess of stars erupted across the dome’s lid. Melissa craned her neck back and tried to make sense of it all, tried to pick out bears and belts and twins, but there was only dots, dots and more dots, like holes in a colander, tiny spaces where the undesired drained through.
Do you see it? Melissa asked.
Not yet, the science teacher said. This is the summer sky. Gemini is best seen in winter.
Melissa waited through Ursa Major, Hercules, Aquarius, Pisces, Pegasus, even Sagittarius, until finally, the skies changed.
There, the science teacher said. See that cluster of stars in the center? Gemini is to the southwest. It looks like an upside down U. Here, follow me, he said.
Melissa leaned over and stuck her nose under his finger. It smelled like cheap lotion or a mud pit. As she followed his finger from the bottom of the screen, up and over, she felt his hand move onto her knee.
You with me? he asked. I think so, Melissa said. She thought he was probably using her for balance, that old people might need to do that.
Up a bit more, a bit more, he said, and as he did so, his hand moved up as well, from her knee to just above it, from just above it onto her thigh, until finally it was there, at the crook between her upper thigh and her privates.
Do you see? he asked. And Melissa, though she knew he couldn’t see her, nodded, though truly, she didn't see it at all.
That night, at home, Melissa told her mother what happened. Well, she said, did he show it to you?
Aurora, Illinois: 1988
From the way her parents talked about the house they were buying (Buying, Mels, her mother had said. That means permanent roots, you know), Melissa imagined the house to be magic. Her room would be in the converted attic. It would have pink flowered wallpaper and a secret access door that led to places no one had explored. A bay window with a built-in bench seat covered in cream colored pillows would overlook a rose garden in the back yard.
When they arrived at the house after two days of driving, Melissa skipped through the quaint Victorian, took the steep, creaky stairs two at a time. What she found upstairs, however, was far from magic. The wallpaper was a shipman’s blue. A brass radiator stood behind the door. The room was barely big enough for a twin bed and a dresser. The ceiling was covered in cheap glow-in-the-dark stars, and there was no secret access at all. Melissa opened the closet door and searched its inside to be sure. All she found, however, was a homemade Ouija board, drawn with black crayon on a piece of cardboard.
Melissa figured it didn’t matter anyway. They would be gone within the year, home ownership or not. Somewhere between Rhode Island and Illinois, she’d heard the word Colorado, the mention of a job as a hunting guide.
In the past, upon arriving at a new house, Melissa and her mother scrubbed every room from ceiling to floor. They shopped for new accessories that looked unique to the state they now lived in, to replace those left behind. This time, however, Melissa wasn’t going to bother. She wasn’t going to clean the cobwebs in the corners of the ceiling. She wasn’t going to wash the bugs down the drain of the tub. She’d leave it to her mother to hang Cubs baseball pendants, collect magnets of Chicago and the Sears Tower, put miniature glass corncobs in a basket on the kitchen counter. Melissa knew they wouldn't be there long enough for any of that to matter.
There was only one thing Melissa would do, and she hoped it would mean the psychic her mother met in Ketchum last year was right—she was close to finding her way in the world.
Melissa dropped the Ouija board in the center of the room and, standing on her tippy toes on a sturdy-ish box, she stuck her fingernail under the glow-in-the-dark stars and peeled them off one at a time. When she was finished, she stood in the doorway and examined the room. The stars lay in haphazard order across the tarnished hardwood floors. They stuck to the Ouija board like dander.
In the room that would become her parents, Melissa laid the stars out on the floor. She closed her eyes and tried to imagine what Gemini looked like. An upside down U, the science teacher had said. Melissa arranged the stars in a U shape, but she knew they didn't look anything like Gemini. They looked like a rainbow. She pushed them closer together, but they still didn't look right. Too pointy. Too V-like. Melissa scattered the stars and tried again, but it was useless. Without ever having seen the constellation, she couldn't recreate it.
Downstairs, her parents were arguing about where to put the cups. Melissa knew where they would end up—to the right of the sink, not the left. It was the only thing her father cared about. When he got up in the middle of the night to take a piss and get a drink of water, he didn't want to search for something to drink out of. Melissa pushed the stars around as her mother tried to convince him that the cupboard on the right was better for spices because it was closer to the stove. She shaped the stars into a smiley face, a flower, a sun, a moon, a heart. She made a triangle and a box, and when she pushed the two together, she realized they made a house.
That was it—a house! Permanent roots. Wasn't that what her mother was seeking, after all? Not some stupid star shaped like an upside down U. Melissa dragged the box across the hall into her parents' room and carefully made a glow-in-the-dark star house on the ceiling. After her father left for the evening, Melissa led her mom into the bedroom and turned off all the lights. The house let out a faint lime glow that reminded Melissa of bug guts.
Lay on the bed and look up, Melissa said.
Mels, what's going on?
It's a surprise.
Her mom lay down. What's this?
A house, Melissa said.
Did you do this?
Well, yeah. You want a home, don't you? A place in the world?
Her mom laughed quietly, and Melissa asked her what was so funny. Nothing. Nothing, Mels. This is sweet. Thank you.
Melissa lay down next to her, and together, they listened to the night sounds in their new neighborhood. All around them, dogs barked, and if Melissa closed her eyes and lay real still, she swore she could hear the buzz of the power lines running through the back yard.
Hey, Mels, her mom said.
How do you like the house?
Her mom laughed again. It's not very nice, is it?
It's not the greatest.
I don't like it either.
Melissa snuggled against her mom's side. Can I tell you something? she asked.
I hope we move soon.
This time, her mom laughed so hard she cried. After she got her breath back, she put her arm around Melissa and said, Me too, Mels. Me too.
There's a Ouija board in the closest, Melissa said. Maybe it will show us where we're going next.
A Ouija board, huh?
It's homemade. Someone left it here.
I think we can skip that for now. I don't believe in that stuff anymore.
Melissa rolled onto her back and looked at the glow-in-the-dark house on the ceiling. If she squeezed her eyes tight, as tight as she could, then opened them again quickly, the house twinkled like she imagined it would at Christmas. And if she stared hard and blurred her eyes, the house became a home, a home with pink flowered wallpaper, a secret access door, and a rose garden.