Jerry Floats On
It was Wednesday evening and Jerry was floating around the universe again. I say again, not because he had floated around the universe before, but more as a remark on the duration of his floating. As far as I could figure, this was his fifth week adrift in space, and I was starting to think of his behavior as being rather silly and irresponsible. And so I asked him (Jerry was carrying his cell phone with him, and it had great reception due to his proximity to a rather magnetic solar storm) when he was planning on coming back down to earth.
“I don’t think any time soon,” he replied. All too casually. He had been drifting around Mars all day Tuesday and said that the water was fine up there. “A soft sort of water. It plays on your tongue like a nine piece orchestra,” He reported with delight.
“Really?” I asked, “There’s water on Mars?” I was distracted momentarily by the profoundness of this discovery. “Do you know that scientists have been looking for signs of life on Mars for years — and this — water; do you know what this could mean?”
“Ho-hum” said Jerry in an old-southern drawl (he had an annoying habit of being uninterested in things of great importance). “I don’t see any big deal in it, other than that it tastes like Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. It’s so lovely; you really ought to come up here sometime.”
“Jerry, you know that’s impossible, as I’m not sure how you’ve made it up there yourself. As far as I know, you’re the only human ever to have free-floated around the universe, which seems to me altogether imprudent, if not, quite frankly, a dangerous and foolhardy thing to do. And danger aside, Jerry, I imagine it’s terribly boring. Whatever are you doing up there anyways?” I had asked him that same question when he first called me three weeks back and told me of his situation, but this time he paused before answering, as if he were choosing his words carefully.
“Mostly I look at the colors. They’re so lovely,” he sighed. “I can see dawn creeping around the corners of the planets, lighting up their belts like sapphires and rubies in the morning sun. Some days I sit on asteroids and watch the stars play out across the space. I think they’re dancing, so I stand up on the asteroids and dance too. And as the planets spin and the sun disappears and reappears, sometimes I think I can see time weaving in and out and around everything like a thin green chord. And I think that it glows a bit. Time that is. But I’m not quite sure about this yet, so I need to watch for a bit longer until I know for sure.”
There was nothing I could say to this, so I didn’t. Instead I asked, “What about food? Aren’t you hungry at all?”
Jerry said that he had food, but didn’t tell me what or where he was eating, and later I wish he had because I’m still very curious about that. I also wonder about oxygen, but when I asked him, it seemed his mind was far away. He wondered briefly if the stars would burn you if you touched them and if there would be roaming charges for his cell phone calls. Then he asked if I had been remembering to water his plants and feed his cat, Thomas, while he was away. I told him I had.
Then I asked him about Claire.
“What?” Jerry said.
“What about Claire?” I asked again.
“Oh.” Jerry paused, thinking. “I’m not sure.”
“What do you mean you’re not sure?”
“I’m not sure about Claire.” Jerry was being vague, which I always find irritating. I was about to tell him this, but he continued, “I’ve been thinking about it. And I’m not sure it has anything to do with Claire. Maybe it’s a bit Claire, but it’s a bit everything really.” He sighed a deep, sad sigh.
I waited for him to continue.
“Everything used to be about greatness, do you remember?” His voice sounded tired and far away, “I remember being a kid and everyone telling me how great I was, and how great I was going to be, and all the great things I was going to do. I don’t remember ever having an exact idea of what that would be; I just assumed that it would show up one day. Maybe I would write a book, or maybe I would rescue children from malnutrition, and lecture on the state of poetry and politics, and the multiple cures for cancer. And everyone would smile and shake their heads and say, ‘he was even greater than we imagined he would be.’ And it was a bit like Christmas — you know how Christmas always comes? And so I went to school and got a job and got a house and a cat and a Claire, and I kept waiting for it, but it didn’t come.”
“What didn’t come?” I was having a hard time following, though I was concentrating really hard.
“Greatness.” He said simply, “And one day I opened the front door on my way to work, and the wind blew against my face and I felt for the first time a void of space — where it should have been, but it wasn’t. And for a second I missed it. I really did miss it. But the feeling passed and when I looked down I saw that my feet had lifted off the ground, clean off the earth. And, well, I just sort of floated up here after that. I know it isn’t a good answer, but I guess I just need some time to sort it all out.”
I paused and thought about what Jerry had said. “Is it really beautiful up there?” I asked.
“It’s so very beautiful,” Jerry said. Which kind of made me sad for myself, though I’m not sure why.
And then I told him that I had to go to work, which was true. And Jerry asked me if I would call Claire and tell her that he was o.k., and I didn’t ask why he didn’t call himself, but just told him I would. And he asked me to feed Thomas and water the plants and he would try to call next week if he could, but first he had to see about some things; mostly whether time did or did not, in fact, glow.
“Goodbye, Jerry,” I said.
“Like a symphony. It really does taste like a symphony…” He responded, his voice trailing off.
I hung up the phone and called Claire. I was going to be late for work, but I called anyways.
“Hello?” Her voice was strained and anxious.
“Hello, Claire? It’s me. I just talked to Jerry and he wanted me to call you again to let you know he’s o.k.”
There was a long pause, muffled. Maybe the reception wasn’t very good, and anyways I think she was crying, “Where is he? Did he say where he was?”
“He’s mostly been on Mars today, I think. You wouldn’t believe it, Claire; he said there’s water up there!”
Claire wasn’t very interested in the discovery, “Did he say when he’s coming back?”
“No, he didn’t. He said there were some things he needed to figure out first.”
We talked for a while, mostly about practical things, and only a little about impractical things. I could tell his floating around the universe was hurting her, and I wondered if he knew that, and I wondered how long she’d wait for him to return. It seemed like a lot to ask of a person you weren’t even calling. Anyways, I felt for Claire, but I felt for Jerry too.
“If he calls you again, will you ask him what he’s eating, and tell him not to worry, I’ll pick up his mail for him. And please, will you tell him that he missed his sister’s recital, and his work is calling and they don’t believe he’s in the hospital like I told them. Actually don’t tell him that. Just tell him I love him. Will you tell him I love him?” Claire asked, right after I told her that I really did have to go to work.
“Sure,” I said, “Don’t worry, Claire. He’ll be home soon.” Though I really had no idea.
“And he said it’s beautiful up there?” Her voice trailed off.
“Yes,” I answered, “like a symphony.”
Where People Sleep When They’re Alone
It always starts out this way. It starts out that I’m looking at you, watching your eyes watching the room. And they’re clear and alert and soft and I love you. I love you, but I don’t trust you. And someday I’ll leave you, but always, always it starts out that I love you. Do you know? Do you know that I love you? I think you know that. Maybe the problem is that you know that. And then drunk and stumbling through the parking lot wanting to look at trees, barely able to walk and hold yourself up and this is not unusual. And I take you inside and put you to bed and you resent me for it and I remind you, “You asked me to put you to bed” and you say, “Oh yeah. Yeah. That’s true. It’s just that I wanted to look at the trees,” because you’re such a goddamn artist. And I’m not sure you will wake up tomorrow morning and I’m not sure that you want to wake up. It seems more certain that you want to sleep deeper and deeper curling up inside yourself until you aren’t anything except the remainder of the heat. The heat left over when everything is gone. And the comparison hurts; the before and after.
And last night he said, our friend, he called me as I was about to go out, he called and he said, “You know I love both of you. You’re both my friends but why do you do this?”
“Do you think he loves me?” I asked our friend.
“Of course he loves you. He isn’t the kind to say so, but yes he loves you more than anyone else, he loves you. But you know that, so why do you ask?”
I push the conversation back, way back, and watch as you return from the bar, drinks in hand to say, saying loudly, “I don’t believe in jealousy. It’s stupid. It just means that the relationship is insecure. Besides, people aren’t possessions. It’s almost an abusive idea, really. I’ve broken up with people before because they would get upset when I wouldn’t get jealous.” And then you went back to the bar and ordered more drinks. You stumbled to the bar and ordered more drinks; one for everyone else but two for yourself.
And I leaned over to another friend at the table and said, “When he says he doesn’t believe in jealousy, all I hear is that he doesn’t really love me. That I could go home with any guy here in the bar, and he wouldn’t really care, he’d just wish me well and feel good about himself for being such a free person.” Unattached person. Unchained, unbound, unfettered friend. friend. friend. Eight more times I say friend. Making it sound bitter, gross. I’m drunk too. I think. I can leave with anyone, and he will be happy for me, I think to myself, whether or not it’s true. Most likely it’s not true, but I think about it anyways. He’d toast, a smile, a good-for-you smile, and raise the glass high to toast to the ceiling. Or whatever else is above. And then we’d break up and be over. But the point is he wouldn’t be jealous. He’d just be done. That simply. And I forget about all the times he’s held my hair. And all the notes he’s left on my doorstep. The walks and his hand on the small of my back. Looking at me from across the room, always checking, “Is she o.k? Does she need me?” I don’t think about any of that.
My friend arrives, and leans over to finish the phone conversation, “Of course he loves you, more than anything else he loves you.” But that doesn’t stop me from feeling secondary. And I get up and go to the bathroom to splash water on my face.
And now he’s returned from the bar and he’s brought me a drink, and he knows just how I like it, just exactly what I like. The exact drink that I want with extra olives on a stick. And he puts his hand on my back, just where I like hands to be put, and he knows that exactly, because he knows me exactly. Each look, each cringe, each wince, each sigh, each crease around my mouth, each breath in or out, he knows and sees and knows exactly what they mean. And I’m warm and happy with him so near. So I go home with him to be near to him. And he wanders around the parking lot looking at the trees, barely walking, slurring, curling up on the ground. “I think I’ll sleep right here tonight, outside” and the snow is falling all around us and I say, “No, let’s get you to bed.” And he leaves me for the trees. Still, I put him to bed. “Do you want to stay?” he asks. Drunk eyes are lust eyes. Of course I want to stay, I always want to stay. “No,” I say, because: not like this. But he’s already asleep, snoring, shoes on. So I take them off. And move his legs so they don’t hang off the bed. Right to the middle of the bed. Where people sleep when they’re alone. And pull the blankets in close and tight and hope that maybe he will want to wake up tomorrow. Maybe he’ll want to wake up and think of me and call me and take deep breaths of air, satisfied air, surveying the land and all that is his, like a king, and he’ll say, “Yes, it is good to be alive. Yes. This pleases me,” and he’ll like the sun on his face and the wind on his face and the snow and the rain and the sleet on his face.
But I need to go home now. He is asleep. I’ll walk very softly. So he won’t miss me when I go. And I’ll wonder if I’ll ever go. And never return again. Until, tomorrow. When I come back and love him again.
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Portland Fiction Project
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