She has stars in her eyes, and I don’t mean a figurative glimmer, I mean when I looked into her eyes I saw tiny pricks of light shining forth from her dark irises and pupils. The same sweeping pattern from both eyes as if she were on the highest of mountains on the darkest of nights, her face pointed up to the Milky Way and the light somehow getting trapped in there.
“Thank you for coming in, Miss Nicole, we see you next week?” Hoshi asked, a smile on her round, wrinkled face. She had been doing my nails for years, but I had never seen stars in her eyes before. She was handing me back my credit card, but I just stood there, wanting to soak the feeling of those stars in, the feeling of peace and expansiveness, and the vast depth of time.
And today of all days I needed it. My parents, in their 80s now, were struggling to do everyday things, like taking care of bills, cooking food, keeping the house clean. I was struggling to help them as they struggled to let me help them.
I nodded dumbly. She asked me every time if I would be in next week, she had for the last six years. I didn’t come in every week, I couldn’t afford it. Every four weeks for me, three if I was treating myself. I stood there blinking, not believing it, staring at her. No one had eyes like that. This wasn’t just flecks of gold in brown eyes, this wasn’t something that was starlike, this was stars, this was the Milky Way.
After she left to deal with her next customer, I wandered out and stood in the hot Phoenix sun, still dazed. You don’t see many stars in the Valley of the Sun; the light pollution and the air pollution make it so you only see a few of the bright ones, except after a big storm if the clouds had cleared. Then you can see the stars, but not like they were in Hoshi’s eyes. Maybe up in Flagstaff in the cold of the winter, but never in Phoenix.
When the spring heat became too much and it felt like the sun was burning my skin, I roused myself and stumbled down the strip mall to the grocery store. Saturdays were busy, I had so much to do, I didn’t have time to think about an old Korean woman and the stars in her eyes.
My eyes don’t have stars in them. I checked in the grocery store bathroom before I started loading my cart. No stars, just brown, blood-shot eyes in a too-round face framed by chestnut hair — which looks nice, but it’s dyed to hide the grey. I don’t like my face. I don’t like how I look.
My eyes are nice enough, walnut brown and dark, although not as dark as Hoshi’s eyes. My ex-husband used to like them, told me that my “gorgeous almond eyes” are what trapped him. But that only lasted a year, and since … well, I got married late and I’m over 40 now and not many men come calling.
I sighed and I would have stayed longer, but a woman came in with a crying baby and that meant it was time to stop staring at myself in the mirror. Time to get back to the endurance act that my life had become.
I get up early every day and go to the gym, trying vainly to lose a few pounds, then go to work as an office manager for a small dental practice. Then home to Rocket, my little Pomeranian, drink some wine, watch some Netflix, and go to bed. Saturday afternoons I go see Mom and Dad and help them sort through their mail and their bills. My big brother died a few years ago — a traffic accident — and I am all they have left. On Sundays, I shop for them and am over there all day cooking their meals for the week. They are getting old and need more and more help. A few months ago, I brought by some pamphlets for senior communities, but that just ended in a terrible argument.
Saturday mornings before going over to see the folks are for me. Nails, if I can afford it, and shopping, maybe a trip to the mall.
That Saturday, I found myself looking people in the eye as I went about my day, wondering if there were more that have stars in there. Wondering what it meant. Wanting the peace I had felt looking in Hoshi’s starry eyes. I looked everyone in the eye, the checkout girl at the grocery store, the people pushing their carts down the aisle with me, the bald-headed man at the liquor store who stocked my favorite brand of cheap chardonnay.
They looked at me strangely as if deep eye contact were violation of the social contract. And I guess it was. You don’t go up to strangers looking into their eyes like you would a good friend or a lover. Not that I have enough time for my friends and haven’t been on a date in far too long.
All week, I looked into everyone’s eyes and no one has stars in them like Hoshi does.
“Miss Nicole, one week, you here!” Hoshi said, a smile on her wrinkled face. “Come, come, I have time for you now.” She had her usual Korean music playing, two drums, a flute, and some kind of stringed instrument. Relaxing and haunting, it made me feel like I was far away from my daily life.
I hadn’t come in to get my nails done, just to get a glimpse at those eyes. All week I had been searching for that feeling, that broad expansive feeling of looking at the stars in Hoshi’s eyes. When I saw them, it felt as if the universe just let out a big sigh and everything was going to be okay. She took my hand and I let her take me to her station. I had a credit card — this is what they’re for, right?
She began stripping off the lavender polish from last week, the strong scent of the nail polish remover filling my nose. She was chattering on, as she does, about her grandkids and her husband, but I wasn’t really listening. Her head was down and I couldn’t see those eyes and I wanted to.
“You, o-kay?” she asked, noticing my silence, those dark eyes looking right into mine. And there they were, two identical Milky Ways, one in each eye. I felt lighter knowing that the universe was so large and I was so small and my problems were nothing on the scale of a galaxy, much less a universe.
I wanted to tell her that I was fine, that seeing the stars in her eyes was enough, but today it wasn’t. It had been a bad week. My mother had slipped getting out of the shower and fallen, her head slamming into the sink, the left side of her face an ugly, purple bruise. I had rushed from work and met them at the ER and we had “the talk” while we waited endlessly for the doctors to release her. The talk where I tell them they need a different living circumstance for their own good and they tell me that I’m not the daughter they raised and if I don’t want to help anymore I should just say it and that they don’t need my help and that I shouldn’t come around this weekend.
And I could tell Hoshi all of that, she was a very good listener, often giving me really good advice, but I didn’t. “What … Why …” I stammered, getting lost in those dark, star-filled eyes. “Why are there stars in your eyes?”
A flash of surprise passed over her face, for only a moment, and she looked back down at my nails and started telling me how her eldest grandson was doing in his PhD program studying computer science.
She wouldn’t talk of it again. After shopping for myself I went home to Rocket and didn’t leave the house for the rest of the weekend. Didn’t call my parents. Didn’t look at my phone. Felt guilty for every single minute of it.
I started getting my nails done every week. I asked Hoshi about the stars in her eyes every time. She shook her head, looked away, changed the subject, but never told me anything.
After a month, I was desperate. I had seen my parents only once, their eyes not meeting mine, their looks distrusting.
Before I had started helping Dad do the bills their electricity had been shut off two times and they had been eating junk for dinner, crap they could get at the dollar store. Even though they had enough money for decent food, they were afraid to spend it. I knew it was only a matter of time until something horrible happened. I had seen a lawyer on my lunch break the day before and it would cost thousands of dollars for me to declare them incompetent, money I didn’t have. A few years ago, I had tried to get them to sign powers of attorney so I could manage things for them, but they had refused and shut me out of their lives for three months.
I told all of this to Hoshi, letting the words pour out while the tears ran down my face. People were looking at me and I hated that, but I was past my limit.
“Hoshi, the only thing that keeps me going right now is seeing those stars in your eyes. Can’t you please, just please tell me how it happened? How I can …” I couldn’t continue, I couldn’t tell her that I wanted to have stars in my eyes so that when I looked in the mirror, my day and my trouble would seem small compared to that vast universe.
She stopped painting the thick red polish on my thumb and looked up, her dark, star-filled eyes sad, her face slack. “No one see them but me, not even my husband. What I want to know is how you see.”
I nodded, sniffing and dabbing my eyes with my sleeve. “How did you get them, Hoshi? How?”
She shrugged her shoulders and tears filled her eyes. She didn’t know.
Hoshi Weon was born with stars in her eyes like some people are born with a birthmark. When she was a little girl of about five, she asked her mother why her eyes were different than everyone else’s. She told her mother of the stars she could see in her eyes, but her mother couldn’t see them or her father. So Hoshi never brought it up again. She saw the stars in the mirror, but never in the eyes of others or even in pictures of herself. It became her secret and her shame. She didn’t tell anyone for fear that they would think her foolish or insane.
She told me this in the back room of the nail salon on that Saturday evening. She had invited me to come back at the end of the day. Served me tea. Talked to me like a friend. She was so happy I could see them and had me explain, in depth, what I saw, that dense sweep of stars across her pupils and irises. She got so excited she wept and took my hand in her shaking hands.
“They real, the stars real,” she said. All these years she hadn’t believed that they actually were.
I nodded and smiled, happy it wasn’t just my imagination.
“You have the universe in your eyes, Hoshi,” I said, and she clapped her hands together and smiled like a little girl.
We talked then, about everything, and I told her more about the troubles with my parents.
“Letting go,” she said, “never easy. But when old we must let go of independence, of who we were. Terrible.” Hoshi seemed so capable, and while her face was wrinkled, her hair was still black, and I wasn’t sure how old she was. In her 60s? 70s? It made me wonder what she had already given up and what she would have to give up soon.
“I just wish they understood how hard this is for me,” I said.
She took my hand, squeezed it, and I got lost in those stars. “You parent now, they the children. Kids never understand the burden of the parent.”
Before I left, she said that I must come every week, that I must be her last client on Saturdays and she would give me a very good price if I helped her clean up. That we could drink tea and talk of stars and families, of life and grief, of happiness and sadness.
I left crying but with a smile on my face knowing I would get to see the stars in Hoshi’s eyes every week now. Maybe it would be enough to get through this.
A few months later during my Saturday evening with Hoshi, I showed her the app my nephew was programing for me. It’s called StarryU, and Hoshi had taken a picture of me on my smartphone with the app and she was staring at the picture, her jaw wide.
“How?” she asked. “Stars. You have stars in your eyes.” She then held the phone up to me and looked from the phone to me and back again. “But only on picture.”
I smiled and nodded my head. “That’s what the app does. It adds stars to your eyes, so we can all feel like you do when you look in the mirror, Hoshi.”
Her eyes widened in wonder. I went and sat next to her and showed her how you could zoom in on the picture, how the stars got clearer, and if you zoomed all the way up to an eye, all you could see were stars. And if you kept zooming in there were more stars, on and on. Forever.
Spending time with Hoshi every week, seeing the universe in her eyes, had given me strength. Not just to try to create something, but to help my parents. I found an angel of a woman who ran a small non-profit that helped with eldercare issues. We got Meals on Wheels set up for my parents, she got me in contact with an eldercare law firm and was helping me talk with my parents about creating the best experience possible for them in this phase of their life.
Hoshi hugged me particularly hard before I left. She told me that she loved my app, that she loved me. I told her I loved her too and walked out into the heavy heat of a Phoenix evening feeling happy.
Maybe my little app was just a novelty, maybe no one would understand. But for me it had helped to see this little old Korean woman as having the universe inside her eyes. Maybe, sometimes, we all could use a little perspective like that.