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Saturn 9 photo

Pale death—or the specter of it, a whispered tease—haunts the haggard shadows of her face. Her withered body is like a wilted carnation within the confines of the narrow hospital bed. The bandages on her forearms are a white so pure it’s easy to forget what they conceal.

There’s an expectant pleading in her eyes when she looks at me, like she wants me to say something. I don’t know what to say. All I can do is ask her why she did it.

“I wasn’t in the mood for coffee,” she says.

I stare at her bandages. Watch the thin white sheets rise and fall against the meager frailness of her body. “There’s more to that quote,” I tell her. “That’s only half of it.”

“I was never all that courageous. You’re the Leo. The lion.”

“I thought the lion was the cowardly one. Or was that the Tin Man.”

“No, it was the lion. But he was brave all along. He just doubted himself.”

“Right,” I say. My fingers crave the distracted solace of a cigarette. They pluck the Zippo from my jacket pocket and start fiddling with it. “I guess it’s been a long time since I’ve seen it.”

“Did you read the book?”


“Me neither.”

The oppressive dejection of her stare is too much. When I look away, she says, “I haven’t seen you in so long.”

“You know how it is in this town. Time gets away from you.” And then, because those two sentences sound so cheap by themselves, I add, “I’m sorry.”

“I keep meaning to tell you that I read your newest story. The one with the broken bobby pin.”

A silence passes between us that stretches too long. I finger my sunglasses and ask her if she liked it because I don’t know what else she wants from me.

“Why do you keep writing about her? The singer. Calliope Laing.” She puts an ironic emphasis on the name. “Aren’t you just picking a scab? Isn’t it like cutting yourself open over and over again?”

“I guess I’m trying to figure something out.”

“About her, or about yourself?”

“I don’t know.” I force myself to look at her even though it hurts. It’s a different kind of pain than what I’m used to. It’s like opening a bill you’ve been ignoring because you know you can’t pay it, or taking an unnecessary detour down Skid Row just to remind yourself how bad things can get for people.

I don’t have any bills I can’t afford.

I don’t go to Skid Row.

Her gaze falls lazily upon the lighter in my hand. “Do the trick,” she says.

“Which one.”

“The one where you spin the fire between your fingers.”

I snap the Zippo open and strike the flint, and then I begin passing it over and under each knuckle. The quivering flame becomes a yellow blur.

“You’re so cool. It must be exhausting.”

I close the lighter and put it back in my pocket.

“Why did you come here?” she asks. “To the hospital. Did you think you’d find something?”

“You’re my friend. I care about you.” The words are true enough to one degree or another, but I can’t imbue them with the appropriate amount of sincerity. They come out with a tinny, mechanical timbre. Robotic. Text-to-speech. “I was worried,” I add, but it doesn’t sound any better.

“I wouldn’t expect you to understand. You made it. I don’t think I’m going to make it.”

“No one is going to make it.”

“Well, you sure seem to be doing a lot better than I am.” She holds up her bandaged wrists and flashes a brief, mirthless smile. And though I know it isn’t right, I’m affronted by her comparison. I want to tell her about the nights I lie curled up on my couch, wanting so badly to cry it brings me to the brink of screaming. I want to tell her about the nameless emptiness that lives in the eyes that stare out at me from the mirror. I want to tell her about the cold panic that rises up from nowhere, and the desperate yearning to return to something I can’t remember and which I’m not certain ever existed.

But none of that has anything to do with what she’s talking about, so instead I tell her, “It’s a different industry. A different medium. It’s not as competitive as yours. It’s not so cutthroat. You can’t really compare them.”

“Have you read what the critics have been saying? About the movie?”

I shut my eyes. My teeth move against each other. For a moment, I think about lying but decide it doesn’t matter because she’s probably read all of it. “Yeah,” I say. I open my eyes again. “I mean, some of it.”

“They’re ecstatic. They love it. They especially love her. Skye Tracy. They can’t stop talking about her and how great she is in it.” The gathering tears cast her eyes in a silver sheen beneath the harsh fluorescents. They cut gleaming tracks down the washed-out skin shrink-wrapped around her skull.

“It’s just a dumb sci-fi movie,” I tell her. “Who cares what the critics say.” There’s no way to tell her it’s on track to gross half of a billion dollars. I suspect she knows this, anyway.

“It was supposed to be me. Not Skye. Me.”

There’s also no way to tell her that it was never supposed to be her; that it would have been if it had. I suspect she knows this, too.

“They didn’t even give me a chance,” she says. “They had no right to replace me.” But her voice is feeble and lacking conviction so there would be no point contradicting her even if I thought she could handle it.

A nurse peeks her head through the doorway. Her eyes become cruelly small when they alight upon me. The corners of her mouth pull toward her chin. “You can’t be here,” she says. There’s a stiff hostility to her tone. “Visiting hours are over.”

Relieved, I stand. I look once more at the tragic figure in the bed. When she looks back at me, there’s a saturnine hopelessness in her eyes I understand too well. “I’ll come back soon,” I tell her.

“No,” she says. “You won’t.”

As I’m leaving, she says my name. I stop in the doorway but don’t look back at her.

“What’s it like? Being known by so many but understood by so few?”

When I don’t give her an answer, it isn’t because I don’t have one.

Night clamps down on the city with an abruptness that always leaves me reeling. Breathless. The sudden cold, the dark—it reminds you of your proximity to the desert. I can sometimes feel things watching from the black hills, looming like silent hyenas. The Hollywood sign is an abject god. You look at it and you know you’re alone, so far from home.

Outside the Chinese Theatre, the poster for Saturn 9 is an assault of kaleidoscopic color saturation. The bleeding neon hues stab through the dark lenses of my sunglasses and arouse the swirling nausea of an impending migraine. Skye Tracy’s name in bold, futuristic lettering. The image of her clad in some kind of space bikini, chromium-blonde hair rippling. An airbrushed deity, holy and profane.

What would my mother think? she’d asked me the day after her first wardrobe fitting. The feigned modesty had clashed badly with her makeup.

Your mother is dead, I’d told her. I had said it like it mattered. Like we both didn’t know otherwise.

Calliope went with me. She said I looked trashy.

I’d told her not to worry about what Calliope thinks, and she’d given me a wry look that made me feel something close to shame.

I’d rather not talk about Calliope, I’d said.

The shrill pictures flashing across the screen in the darkened auditorium are linked in a way which demands deeper attention than I can or will assemble. Something about dwindling resources on Earth; a miraculous haven in the form of a cluster of newly discovered moons orbiting Saturn; a peaceful civilization of genderless, humanoid plant people oppressed by an all-male species of intergalactic colonizers with scaly, alabaster skin. A war, a love triangle. Lots of CGI. Product placement for Apple, Microsoft, Amazon, Google, Raytheon. Everything wrapped up with pleasant vagueness suggesting the inevitable sequel.

People clap when the lights go up. I join them because I want to feel like I’m a part of something.

In my car, I turn the volume up on the stereo so I don’t have to listen to the braying screams of the vagrants lurching along Hollywood Boulevard.

I tell myself I’ll go straight home. I tell myself this even as I’m pulling off the road into an open parking space alongside the curb. Even as I’m sliding my credit card into the meter, shivering in the dry wind sweeping over the sidewalk, I am telling myself I will go straight home.

The atmosphere inside the bar has a toxic lover’s poisonous familiarity. I suppose that’s why I keep coming back. The darkness is the same shade as her hair. The music’s pulsing bass is her heartbeat against my chest. The murmur of indistinguishable voices is the rustling whisper of her legs beneath cool sheets.

A palpable tension roots itself in the bartender’s shadowy features when she spots me. When I take a seat upon one of the stools, there’s already a perspiring glass of grapefruit juice and tonic water waiting. I stare for a long time into its murky pink depths before lifting it to my lips. The astringent tang bites like the cold teeth of nostalgia.

“She isn’t here,” the bartender says. She’s young but she has a worldliness about her. Her benignly scornful expression reminds me of teachers whose names and faces I can’t remember.

“You always look so happy to see me.”

“What would you even do if you saw her? What would you say? What do you think would happen?”

“My dad scolded me whenever I entertained hypotheticals as a kid. He trained it out of me.”

“Well, she’s never here. I’ve only seen her once, and that was the night she was with you.”

“Someone told me she doesn’t drink anymore.”

“Look at that, you have something in common.”

“We have a lot of things in common.”

“Seriously, you have to get a grip. It’s become so...sad. I want to say ‘pathetic,’ but...” She trails off. Looks for something in my face and doesn’t find it. “You have to move on.”

“I’m so moved on it’s scary. I’m not where she left me at all.”

“You’re here, aren’t you? You could at least sulk somewhere else.”

“I’ve never known a bartender so eager to get rid of such a loyal customer.”

“You’re not a customer. You come in here and brood over your gross nonalcoholic drink that I don’t even charge you for.”

“I still tip you.”

“Listen, I’m trying to help you. You’re chasing ghosts and I don’t think it’s healthy.”

I glance in the direction of the dance floor. All the girls always look like Calliope within the span of that first glance. Dressed in white, hair like midnight. But then I blink and none of them look anything like her. I blink and she’s gone.

When I turn back toward the bartender, I ask her if she’s seen Saturn 9.

“You don’t really seem like the type who watches those kinds of movies,” she says.

“My friend is in it. My other friend was going to be in it, but it didn’t work out.”

“Things in this town kind of have a way of doing that.”

“Doing what.”

“Not working out.”

“Everyone I know works out.”

“Do you?”


“How do you stay so thin?”

“I chase a lot of ghosts.”

“I guess that’s working out, in a way.”

“I wouldn’t say that it is.”

The twenty I fold under my empty glass when I leave is an apology of sorts. A tax on the space I occupy. Please forgive my reluctant existence, it says. It isn’t enough.

I wander through my apartment in the dark hours adjacent to dawn, half-delirious with the waking dreams of insomniac disquiet. Unshed tears laugh behind my eyes while aborted screams float mangled in my head. The shimmering specter near my front door is made of floral shadows I could banish with the flick of a light switch, or even if I looked directly at her, but that isn’t what I want. Her ivory dress has the same scaly texture as the intergalactic colonizers’ skin in Saturn 9.

“I went to the hospital today,” I tell her.

“You mean you donned your human suit to visit the sad earthling in a vain attempt to taste authenticity.” Her voice, I tell myself, is not the hissing of my furnace or the thrumming of a helicopter or the barking of dogs down the street. It’s the voice that lives in my haunted memories, so lovely and treacherous. Such cruel music.

“She and I know about things the other doesn’t. I’m not made less real by the space between us.”

“You’ve only longed to leave the world for the vast nothing in the night sky. You’ve never made a true attempt to get there.”

I look at the little rectangular blade glinting between my fingertips. I’d cut myself freeing it from the safety razor’s gleaming mount, and a slow trickle of blood plinks rhythmically into a tiny puddle pooling on the hardwood floor. “I was going to write you a note,” I whisper.

“You lord over tides awash with trash. Yours is a kingdom of floating debris.”

I shut my eyes. “Would you visit me in the hospital.”

“You see Apollo in the mirror, even as the bile of your devourer clings to your skin. You’re feeding pomegranates to a mutant dog.”

“Why can’t I escape you.” My voice is constricted by a sob that won’t wrench itself from my throat.

“You’re consigned to a yellow path that leads to the same place. You don’t have the courage to venture off it.”

The front door is ajar when I open my eyes. Moonlight shines through the blank void departed by the fleeing phantom. The bleeding has stopped. My furnace is silent, the helicopter gone, the dogs quiet. The stillness is disturbed only by the dripping faucet down the hall, heavy droplets plunking into virginal, once-steaming bathwater. It had gone cold hours ago. 

Gravity compels me out the door and into the night, giving chase. A lonely moon condemned to its uncaring orbit.