We wanted to find some place where no one knew us or what embarrassing things we’d done. We drew up maps and legends and devised ridiculous disguises. I took to wearing capes and carrying an intricately carved cane; you gave yourself a mascara moustache and drawn-on sideburns.
But still in Sacramento a man with an eye patch and a palsied hand asked if you weren’t that girl who’d once pronounced archetype “Archie type” and ennui “in you eye” while regaling your beloved professor with an analysis of the symbols and themes in Finnegan’s Wake. You said you most certainly were not and pointed to your moustache. We moved to the other side of the street and sat on either end on an iron bench. You cried a little and asked me not to look.
And then again in Des Moines, a woman wearing a mini dress and six inch heels asked if I wasn’t the man-child whose father had once caught him doubled over and red-faced with the strain of trying to fellate himself. You looked down at your feet and sighed.
In Philadelphia, Ontario, Fairbanks, and Dubai, we were held to account for all of our sexual failures and ineptitude and lies. Our responses were mostly quiet and sort of contrite but sometimes we got sick of the whole thing and lashed out like circus lions. On Pitcairn Island, for instance, the descendants of The Bounty asked if I wasn’t the yahoo who’d once left my diary accidentally-on-purpose on Cheryl T’s chair in the band-room where it was found not by Cheryl T—for whom its various sonnets and sestinas had been sincerely written—but by Mark J, who photocopied its most damning pages and taped them to lockers up and down the sophomore hall, and I smashed their heads with my cane. You howled and tore at your breast and cursed their mutinous blood.
We finally took to Ittoqqortoormiit, where an old man on the shore watched us sidelong while we helped him divide a whale into piles of skin and blubber and rib and fin and giant geometric blocks of meat. We lost ourselves in the viscera of the beast. Our bones ached from the cold. We fed each other when the old man wasn’t looking. Surely he suspected us of some humiliating episode, but he kept his accusations to himself. And nothing of the whale was wasted. Even the giant backbone, cleaved clean of muscle and sinew, was later dragged to the outskirts of the village where dozens of sleek, sad eyed huskies fought for their share.
I made dioramas in college and had tiny exhibitions from time to time. This rumpled guy in loafers asked if I was aware of the symbols that were embodied in and gave meaning to my miniatures, which, it seemed to him, were representative of the way fantasies of selfhood are often enacted through dreamlike scenarios. I told him I was just thrilled by compact renderings of big, complicated things. He was a philosophy guy—objectively the worst kind of guy, but I gave him my number. I was open to all kinds of experiences then.
Philosophy Guy liked going to local wrestling matches to analyze signifiers and ironically cheer. I met The Beast at one of these. The main event was always between The Beast and The Red Devil. Philosophy Guy talked about verisimilitude and classical heroes, morality plays and commedia dell’arte. He quoted Roland Barthes.
The locals went bananas when The Beast came out in his flesh-colored leotard with painted-on muscles and glued-on patches of hair. He was and remains the largest human I’ve ever seen. He beat his chest and grunted. The Red Devil taunted the locals and said he’d drag their souls to hell. The locals spat and shook their fists. In the final, climactic scene, The Beast grabbed The Red Devil in a bear hug, lifted him from the canvas, slammed him down for a count of three, and tossed him nonchalantly over the ropes. The locals went bananas again. It’s part of the whole thing, I guess, the suspension of disbelief. Philosophy Guy said it was called Kayfabe. It’s when everyone pretends everything is real. Even when they go home at night, The Beast is still a beast and the Red Devil is still a devil.
While Philosophy Guy was in the bathroom, I found The Beast in the parking lot and asked him back to my cramped little dorm because, I said, I wanted to show him a diorama I was working on. I was so bold, then.
The Beast had to hunch to fit and when he made it inside he sat cross-legged on the floor. I could see he was trying to make himself as small as possible. I pulled the diorama out from under my bed and he gasped. It was and remains my favorite human sound. The diorama was an exact replica of the auditorium in the community center. There was a miniature ring in the middle. A miniature cloth apron hung over the edges of the ring and three miniature horizontal ropes were suspended with miniature turnbuckles connected to four miniature posts. In the center of the ring, a miniature Beast squared off against a miniature Red Devil with miniature pointed tail dangling and miniature pitchfork in hand. The miniature ring was surrounded by rows of miniature metal chairs full of miniature locals and in the sixth row was a miniature me. The Beast leaned in really close and studied the detail. “Well I’ll be damned,” said he.
Youth in Orbit
We wanted to be the first children in space, but by the time we finished building our rocket we were very old and our hearts weren’t in it anymore. We launched ourselves anyway, and our children’s children’s children were there to see us off.
In the alley between our parents’ houses, you sat with your bare feet on one wall and your back on the other. I contend that your feet were splayed out in a V against the red brick beneath my bedroom window, but you are equally sure that you always sat with your back on my house and your feet on yours so that you could watch for the top of your mother’s head through the kitchen window. We may have met before this, but we can’t remember.
In the space between our houses, we described what was ours. You with your baby dolls and their attendant dresses, porcelain nesting dolls with horrible faces, shiny Skippy books and your Amazing New Bottle-tot that cried and drank and wet when it slept; I with my G-Man gun and shoeboxes full of baseball cards and my Flash Gordon rocket: red and yellow and made of tin with fins and stripes and painted-on fire. We decided we’d make a million mistakes and carefully note the outcomes; amass a lifetime of wisdom and pass it on to children who wouldn’t care. We decided to spend so long building a rocket that we’d forget what we’d wanted it for.
Early models were made of straws and pencils and paper fins; later models of egg cartons and lawn chairs and gasoline siphoned from my father’s mower. We scorched the grass in our parents’ yards and set the field behind our houses on fire. We wore homemade space suits at our wedding and ate a cake in the shape of the moon with a rocket in its eye. We kept the helmets on while we made love for the first time, to feel less nervous, and we lost sight of our bodies for the fog on our solar shields.
Our children had other interests, but what we wanted never waned. We grew older and less precious every day. Our children’s children showed a little more interest, but only when they were young. We provided surreptitious sweets and unconditional love. They said our rocket was neat. Our children’s children’s children wanted to come with us to space, but our children and our children’s children thought it might not be safe and anyway, we thought, why should they get to be the first children in space? Build your own damned rocket.
You sat buckled in with your back to me and asked if I remembered the day we met. We argued for a while about the position and placement of your feet, and then went quiet while our children and our children’s children and our children’s children’s children counted backward in the yard.
Aaron Teel is the author of the novella Shampoo Horns, anthologized in My Very End of the Universe, Five Novellas-in-Flash and A Study of the Form from Rose Metal Press. His short fiction has appeared in Tin House, Brevity, Smokelong Quarterly, and others. He lives in Austin, TX and teaches Language and Literature in an International Baccalaureate Diploma Programme.
Photo by William Hartman