Tuesday, July 01, 2014

The Disappearance of Stars

editors note: Hey! I wrote a short story!

The Disappearance of Stars

    One night last winter, Carla bought an astronomy app. A star chart. She wobbled her face up at the stars and down to her iPhone. She studied the pinpricks of light trembling far apart in a black velvet sky. 
     Carla stared until she could trace The Big Dipper, the most famous serving utensil in the Milky Way. On it, Carla's imagination forged a shiny copper finish. She let her mind hammer decorations along the handle and tint the ladle with a shadow so it felt more comfortable and real. Afterwards, whenever Carla looked up into the night, she saw her Big Dipper. She never saw the stars again. 

     Carla has looked forward to this evening all week. Even more so when she re-reads the text from Joan with the name of the restaurant— Ursa Major. Ursa Major, the star constellation otherwise known as The Big Dipper. The corners of Carla's lips curl into a self-congratulatory smile. The restaurant is a fondue place. Where lots of dipping goes on. Not many would get the joke, but she does.
     Dabbing pressed powder on the lids of her light blue eyes, Carla thinks about her favorite photo, a close-up. Her face squashed cheek-to-cheek between Sandie's and Peta's and Joan's. The fabulous foursome hadn't managed a dinner date since last spring, schedules being what they are. 
     Effervescence ripples through Carla's chest just thinking about how great it will be to reconnect with her old friends. Some say "to think is to exist," but Carla recommends a change: "To be listened to is to exist." And Carla can always count on Sandie and Peta and Joan to listen. She grabs her clutch off the table by the door in her apartment, checks she has her keys, her wallet and her new lipstick. She is the second to arrive at the restaurant. 

     Carla hugs Sandie, perches in the chair beside her and folds her napkin across her lap. The air is not quite humid. Autumn is stronger than the sun this time of year.
     "I've been so busy!" exclaims Sandie. She had gone to DC and stopped at a fruit stand by the highway in Maryland. Sandie says she wanted to squeeze the plumbs, but there was this woman standing with her husband and their dog totally blocking the plumb bin. 
     Sandie said, "excuse me," but the couple didn't move. So Sandie waited. And they still didn't move, not even an inch. So Sandie decided to just lean in and grab plumbs. She almost had to stand on the woman's foot. 
     Then, at the cash register. This woman, she cut in front of Sandie. Marched right up the register. Sandie fumed at the back of the woman's yoga pants. Namaste, my ass. Her ass, whatever.
     The woman took forever to jam her credit cards back into her wallet and clear her bags of fruit from all over the counter. After that, the woman remembered she'd also wanted to get a bottle of water and started yelling at the cashier for Poland Springs.
    Sandie felt the sun shine bright and mean. She strode up to the counter and put her bags of fruit pretty much on top of the woman's bags of fruit. While the woman waited for her water and paid for her water, she didn't realize she'd been boxed in. When she turned to leave, Sandie didn't trouble herself to move, not even an inch and the woman earned herself a hip-check.

     Carla laughs and sputters, "Some people are such fucking narcissists!" Sandie gives her an approving look for correctly identifying the woman's problem. Sandie is always on the lookout for narcissists. They are everywhere, she says. Narcissists are the ones who don't follow the rules of etiquette. The ones who aren't self-aware enough to observe common courtesy. 
     "Reminds me of the tourists who ram right into everybody getting off the subway instead of just waiting five seconds. One time…" begins Carla.

     Sandie stands immediately when Joan arrives and gives her a hug. Carla does too. Peta shows up moments later.

     Carla pecks Peta on the cheek and hopes all is well between them. Truth be told, Carla felt a little rebuffed by Peta earlier that summer. Carla accepted an invitation to Peta's lecture. It was called "Social Attention and the Ventromedial Prefrontal Cortex." Carla had signed up online and then gone the whole way downtown on a sweltering Tuesday evening. She had been right in the middle of a writing a report, but left work anyway so she'd be on time.  
     The audience all around Carla clapped after Peta finished going through her slides. Slides covered by kind of disturbing autopsy photos, by the way. Carla rushed up to the stage to congratulate her friend on a job that appeared well done. At least everyone who knew what was going on seemed to think so.
     Colleagues, undergrads, adjunct professors and even the department head clustered around Peta. It was hard to push through the crush. When Carla finally reached her friend, Peta gave Carla a hug and thanked her for coming, but then let herself get dragged into a conversation about neurons or convolutions or cells or something. 
     Carla had nothing to contribute to the science babble. Peta knew that Carla couldn't follow along but she didn't explain any of the terminology. Carla wanted to complement Peta on how amazing and smart she was up on stage, but she felt weird doing it in front of the others, people she didn't know. So she left. Maybe she had said four words the whole night. It was such a waste of time. Peta clearly didn't appreciate that she had come.
     Later, Carla sat down to write Peta a note. She didn't want to get herself in a situation again where she felt so alone. So invisible and awkward. She'd had high hopes that it would be fun, maybe they'd even share a bonding BFF moment. But Peta couldn't have cared less about that.
     In the end, Carla deleted most of what she'd written. The note simply asked if Carla would be welcome to Peta's talks in the future. Carla felt like crying when she clicked send.
     Peta almost immediately emailed back saying of course Carla was welcome to anything, anytime. 
     Carla replied that she didn't blame Peta, but that she had felt unwelcome at the lecture. She felt like no one had really paid attention to her. 
     Peta answered with a one-line email, "If I get the opportunity to speak at TedMed, you'll be the first one on my guest list!!!" 
     Carla considered the reply a touch cold. If Peta really valued their friendship, she would have put in a little time and written a paragraph, maybe two. She would have apologized for not spending enough time with Carla at the lecture. Then she would have thanked Carla for being her friend for so long, for supporting her. 
     Maybe, Carla thought, Peta should have given her a shout out from the podium. Carla earned that public thank you. She had listened to Peta complain endlessly about her professors and university policies and the shitty lab equipment and that time her briefcase got stolen right out of her cubicle. Nobody else in that room had known Peta as long as Carla had.

     Cocktails are served. Joan gets her signature drink, a Bloody Mary, even though it's dinner time. Everyone always teases her when she does this— orders a brunch drink at dinner time. 
     Sandie fake rolls her eyes when the waiter drops off the drink and quips, "Save that celery to cleanse your palette. It'll be a new trend. Goodbye Sorbet!" Joan gives Sandie's hand a little squeeze and they both laugh like this is some kind of Oscar caliber comedy routine.

     In the pause that follows, Carla yanks out her iPhone and opens iPhoto. She went out with her friend Jonathan in Chelsea and snapped selfies of the two of them standing in front of porno shop windows. The pictures are hilarious. And Carla is proud because she knows they showcase her talent. Lately, she's been thinking about getting business cards: "Carla Turner. Freelance Photographer."

     Joan begins a sentence it is clear she isn't sure how to finish, as Carla fully anticipated she would. Of course Joan will try to upstage her. And Joan always jumps into conversations at the exact second she figures out she has a point to make, even if she has no idea how to connect the current conversation to that point.
     Carla knows Joan wants to make sure everyone remembers she is an artist. A good artist and maybe even famous in some circles. Carla cringes when Joan continues to talk. Or speak might be a better word to use. Speak with a capital S. Joan's tone is overloud and strident.
     Joan monologs about the watercolors she's just finished, something about Hurricane Sandy and the important people she contrived to meet at some weekend retreat. She talks about an incident at Dick Blick Art Supplies, downstairs in the discount section. She sure set the clerk straight. He called a sculpture with moving parts a "Connecticut" sculpture. Joan pounced on his blaring stupidity. She told him the correct term is "Kinetic." Connecticut is a fucking state in New England.
     Carla stops paying attention to Joan's words and listens to the cadence. There's no ebb and flow. Or no ebb at least. Joan fills every pause, and mostly fills it by repeating herself. "Connecticut is a fucking state in New England. I mean. CONNECTICUT is a fucking STATE. In NEW ENGLAND!" 
     Joan, thinks Carla, is petrified of dead air. Of the loss that comes when a story ends. So she drowns us inside a fevered whirlpool of words to feel the warmth of our skin and hold onto the volume of our love long after we've stopped listening.
     Carla rolls her eyes and waits for someone to turn Joan off but no one manages to shove into a pause with enough force. It's like defying gravity. Carla orders another drink. Impatience burbles. She checks her watch.

     Finally Peta cuts in. With little finesse, she says, "I broke it off with Marlene."
It's a statement heavy enough to halt even Joan's momentum. Peta starts talking in that clipped voice she always uses to relate her point of view like it's scientific fact. Problems started when Peta bought Marlene tickets to a show for Marlene's 30th birthday. An actor friend of theirs was performing off broadway but the tickets were expensive even with the discount. And non-refundable.
     But Marlene had already made plans to celebrate the big "three oh" at a bar in the East Village. Marlene always celebrated her birthday in the East Village with this group of pals. It was their tradition. Long story short, Marlene went to the show with Peta, but she had been totally unappreciative and cold.  Peta was upset. Marlene ruined her own birthday. She ruined Peta's night, too. They had a big fight about it.
     "Didn't you break up with that last girl, Sheila, for the same reason?" asks Joan.
Peta looks confused. "I broke up with Sheila because she was careless. Like when she loaded her dishwasher, bowls clattered against each other. Every one of her dishes had a chip in it. I pointed out what was happening, but she kept doing it anyway. I knew there was no future for us. I can't be with someone too thoughtless to keep their things from breaking."
     "Maybe she was saving water?" interjects Sandie, her voice flipping up at the end into a question mark.
     Peta scrunches her face into an expression that says exactly what she thinks of Sandie's ridiculous comment. Carla catches Sandie's eye and they share a look. Carla gets what Sandie is thinking. Peta's stories are always the same. Chock full of scabbed over wounds that Peta loves more than anything to catalog and obsess over.
     Everyone pats Peta on the hand, "Poor poor Peta," they all say. "You're better than Marlene and Sheila put together and multiplied by ten. They didn't appreciate you, either one of them. How dare they not recognize you were trying to help them."

     The waiter circles by, Carla hears him rustle behind her. In the space next to Carla's arm, he slides across the tablecloth a black lacquer case embossed with a constellation of metallic stars.  The case lures Carla's focus away from Peta and Peta's new tip calculator iPhone app and Joan's conspiracy theory that such apps do not account for city tax and they should double-check the math to be sure they don't overpay.

     It takes an odd, half centered moment for Carla to realize the silver stars she's seeing are the Big Dipper. She traces the shape with the tips of her white fingernails and sees the stars for what they are— tiny speckles she had connected together to form something she understood. No different than all the fragments of unrealized love, pain and happiness, disquiet and apprehension and joy floating around in the universe. All these twinkling and drifting bits, Carla thinks, waiting to be plucked up and twisted into something we say we believe to be true.
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