By Hilary Leichter
In our cafeteria, the inflatable planetarium emerged. It was not there during homeroom, and then it was, a sudden gentle spaceship landing between the lunch tables. We walked single file from third period toward the polyester dome. Bouncy castles we had seen, and once, a fire drill tent, but nothing like this. We had to crawl through a long tube on our hands and knees, and then we would be inside the dome with Ms. Adrianna, and she would take us where we needed to go. She was already waiting on the other side with a small, purple boom box that played “The Age of Aquarius.” The planetarium made a whirring noise; that’s the air keeping us afloat above the atmosphere, Ms. Adrianna said, even though we could still feel the linoleum floor under our feet.
She showed us constellations, the belt, the bear, the spoon, and then we had to invent our own. We found dogs and cats and exclamation points. We were on our backs looking up at the projected sky. Some of us were thinking about what it would be like to hold hands in this new fourth period, in the dark under some of the stars. Some of us did hold hands.
“Do you want to hear about my constellation?” Ms. Adrianna said. “It’s that cluster of stars over toward the baseball field.”
This was an unfair description. She broke the magic of the dome, and now we were all imagining left field behind the jungle gym.
“So close your eyes then,” Ms. Adrianna said, and we did. Left field disappeared and we were back in the atmosphere.
“The stars are shaped like a tractor wheel, and their official name is Harvest. All of the stars have to work together to make this one shape. The story of Harvest is about death and rebirth, about nourishment and forgiveness, about lattes and friends forgetting plans. It’s the story of every single thing that will happen in your lives, and then happen again, and again, no matter how you try and change the direction of the tractor ploughing the field, no matter how hard you try and pick a different field. It is always the same field, the same wheel.”
The whirring was the noise of Ms. Adrianna’s tractor out in the field, doing its work.
“There is nothing new under the sun or the moon,” she said. We could not imagine what she meant by this. We were experiencing something new that very minute. For a long time, no one could hear anything except the whirring of the tractor, the sound of breathing, and the sound that Ashley’s new sneakers made on the floor of the planetarium.
“I need to tell you something important,” Ms. Adrianna said. She had never looked so serious. Ms. Adrianna wore wedges with butterflies stitched on the sides, earrings that dangled like broken flower heads, cork necklaces from friends who studied art. She laughed when you said the right thing. “We have been traveling around the earth for some time now,” she said. “What I am telling you is that many years have passed since you crawled through the tube. It is harvest time again, but we have already lived through many harvests, sitting up here with the stars. Your pets have gotten older and wiser, and the school year has ended, and then ended again, and you did not show up for your final exams. So many years have passed since we went to outer space. Who have you missed, and who has missed you?”
My mom, my dad, someone said. My sister, my neighbors with the trampoline. Principal Charles, Ashley said, and everyone looked at her. It was such an Ashley thing to say. Cartwheels, lanyard, the holidays, fishing with grandpa, the moon, the sun, some of the stars.
So many minutes went by, but we didn’t know how to count them anymore. What did we know about time, anyway? We had thought we were still in fourth period. Did we have our periods? We wanted to know the ways we had grown up, or if we had missed that, too. Ms. Adrianna said we would just have to find out, pay attention, study the world very carefully, every day for the rest of our lives.
“When you’re ready, you can crawl back through the tube and join fifth period. Just remember, it’s not the same fifth period. Things are not the same as when you left them.”
One by one we exited the planetarium. We looked for signs that the universe had changed, even after we had cars, after graduation. In college, one of us convinced his roommate that he was actually thirty-three in space years. We were a constellation of people, making decisions, disappointing our parents, trying to account for those lost harvests—even when two of us
married, when one of us died, when Ms. Adrianna retired. We were afraid to miss even the falling of a leaf. The bouncy castles of our children sent chills down our spines. And when Ashley travelled to Mars, she considered her surroundings with an alert wonder and named the journey a homecoming. We were so much older than we ever expected to be.