The day she found out was the day the first star exploded

Christine closed the apartment door behind her, dropped her keys into the nearby bowl, slipped off her shoes and  set down her purse and lunch bag. She hung her coat in the closet and breathed deeply. The silence was a blessing after the hectic commute and stressful day at the office.

She went into the kitchen to pour herself some Diet Coke over ice in a pint glass from where her sister had gone to college. It had been a gift from her mother. However, the glass was in the sink and had dried milk in the bottom. It sat atop a haphazard pile of dishes, unfinished food, and dirty cooking utensils.

Jerry hadn’t cleaned the dishes. Again.

She struggled to suppress her annoyance and began to rinse and wash the dishes which her boyfriend had left behind.

Several minutes later, while Christine was scrubbing the last of the dried oatmeal from one of the large bowls, the door opened and shut and Jerry unceremoniously dropped his things on the floor before silently walking back to the bedroom.

He hadn’t even said hello.

“Welcome home,” Christine called back to him, failing to keep the annoyance from her voice.

No response came for several seconds. She was about to call out again when she heard Jerry’s voice, muffled by the distance between the kitchen and the bedroom.

“You say something, babe?” Christine felt her jaw clench.

“I said,” she called more loudly, “welcome home.”

“Oh,” he responded. And after a moment continued, “Thanks, babe.”

“How was work?” Christine called back while continuing to scrub and rinse the dishes before carefully setting them on the drying rack.

“Uh,” Jerry said distractedly, “it was okay. We had the usual rush around 3 and the new guy messed up a ton of orders which made my life hell.”

Christine finished the dishes and began preparing some food for dinner.

“I’m sorry, hon,” she called back, though she wasn’t really.

Silence once again engulfed the small apartment as Christine cut vegetables, cubed beef, and boiled rice. It was a bit much for two people, but that just made sure there would be enough for lunch the next day. As the meat seared, Jerry, now in a faded T-shirt with the logo of a college he had attended for a year, basketball shorts even though he didn’t play, and a pair of sneakers she had bought him a few months ago just because, emerged from the bedroom and unceremoniously grabbed her butt while nuzzling her neck. His evening stubble grated against her skin.

“Mmmm…” he cooed, “What smells good?”

“Stir fry,” she responded coolly and shrugged him off so she could focus on finishing dinner. Jerry snorted quietly enough that he didn’t think she’d hear and backed off. “Are you hungry?” she continued forcing a cheer she didn’t feel into her voice.

“Nah,” he said as he pulled out his phone. “I had a big lunch with the guys out at Quarter Pounder.”

Christine sighed and set the spoon down harder than she had intended.

“What?” Jerry exclaimed defensively, looking up from checking Facebook.

“Nothing,” she sighed and turned back to her dinner preparations.

“No, tell me,” he pressed forcefully.

“You could have told me,” Christine said in irritation.

“You still would’ve had to make something.”

“Yes, but I was making this for us.”

“Oh, that reminds me,” he said offhandedly, “I have plans tonight.”

“What?”

“I told you I had plans earlier.”

“When?” She crossed her arms and turned to face him, having grown tired of that trick.

“When we were talking… this morning…” he trailed off, looking caught off guard. Christine pursed her lips. “But either way, I’m a grown man,” he recovered. “I don’t need your permission to go out.”

“Warning,” she said exaggeratedly, as though explaining something to a child. “I just need warning so I can plan things. Things like dinner.” She gestured to the half-finished dinner around her.

“Why does there always have to be a plan?” Jerry threw up his arms and stomped away. “You don’t have to plan every. Little. Thing.” His face contorted into a scowl.

“I just like to plan things, Jerry,” she spoke loudly. “I have plans. Do you have plans? Are you gonna stay at the coffee shop forever? Do you have a plan?” She paused for a moment.

Jerry opened his mouth to respond but Christine continued. “No, I didn’t think so.”

“Why do you have to make a big deal out of all this?” Jerry yelled. “I’m just between things right now.” He brooded silently for a heartbeat before adding, “You’re such a drama queen.”

“Excuse me?” Christine’s voice rose with anger.

“There, see?” Jerry turned toward her. “You just get all hysterical over the littlest shit. I’m not the one worried about missing out, am I? You’ve been at your job for, what? Three years now? And what exactly have you accomplished?”

Christine felt a tightening in her chest. Jerry pushed his advantage.

“You’ve never gotten the recognition you think you deserve. You say it’s because other people take the credit,” he stalked closer to her as she turned away from him. “You complain that people play favorites or whine that you’ve just not been recognized yet. But admit it, it’s a dead-end job that you’re shit at. Everyone knows it. Even your mom.”

Christine felt like she had been punched in the stomach. It fact, he was wrong. Christine’s mother thought the world of her, even if she didn’t show it as well as she could, but it was a fear that had always been there. A fear that had lurked in her heart since her sister was accepted to Cal and got a great job right out of undergrad where she made a ludicrous sum of money. Christine knew she was a failure, even though nobody else did. She could have done more. Should have done. But she’d drifted instead. Tried to date, with mixed success, and wound up here. With a guy who worked in a coffee shop for  living telling her that she was a failure in a dead-end job.

But instead of getting angry or indignant, Christine bought it. Because Jerry had just told her exactly what she’d told herself every night when she couldn’t sleep and the light from the clock seemed too bright and her brain just wouldn’t stop dwelling on everything she’d done wrong.

So she shut down and began to cry.

The smug smile faded from Jerry’s face, slowly, while the rice in the pot began to cook itself to the bottom. He stomped off, disgusted with Christine in a way he’d felt with other girls before.

After several minutes, Christine moved to the sliding glass door of her balcony and looked through her tears into the night. She stared out at the world outside her window and into the orange-white haze that passed for darkness in the sky. A hazy void met her gaze.  In that moment, she hated herself.

But her attention was caught by an explosion of vibrant light. She opened the door and walked entranced to the railing, never taking her eyes away from the halo of color that pierced the light-polluted darkness. Christine knew, in that very instant, exactly what the light was. She knew that somewhere out there, in the void of space, a star had just exploded and died. Its death was brilliant and almost burned away the insulating haze of city night and, for an instant, Christine knew — really knew, with more certainty than the fact that she lived and breathed — just how insignificant she was.

She was a single creature on a single planet in a cosmic void of infinite scale whose entire lifetime was not even worth calling insignificant. Her life didn’t matter. Her problems didn’t matter. Her job, her status, her useless boyfriend who she didn’t even really like that much — none of it mattered.

But instead of feeling terrified or nihilistic, Christine smiled. She felt lighter, as though she had never taken off the lead vest the dentist had put on her during her last visit and it had suddenly disappeared. She breathed deeply the autumn air, with all of its car exhaust and cigarette smoke from her neighbors across way, and planted her feet firmly as though bracing for an incoming wave.

When the door slid open behind her, Christine didn’t flinch, but neither did she turn to face it. She heard Jerry shuffle his feet to stand behind her.

“Hey, I’m sorry about what I said,” he managed with some difficulty. “Can we, maybe, forget it happened and just go back inside? I mean, it’s not the end of the universe, right?”

Christine turned to him, smiling with the streaks of foundation still on her cheeks. At the sight, Jerry looked confused but relieved. She felt sorry for him, really, and she let it show.

“You’re right,” she said finally, “it’s not.”

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