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Stars

By Sarah Sarai

“O stars swirling swirling...”

“And swirling?” I suggest.

Because she snapped at our last book group Michelle is nervous and trying to divert us with this windmill-arm thing, as if memory worked like that. Let’s see, in June Michelle screamed she was dying of loneliness, but today she’s up here on the roof exhorting the firmament so no one remembers her outburst. Everyone does remember but we just factor it in.

Michelle is a bit stocky with biker calves and thighs and has that kind of short, straight hair that is never anything but straight and never held with a bow or clip. It is also never shimmery, but because it is nothing else—not red, not brown, not black—it’s blond. Her left eye is bigger than her right eye and sometimes looks frozen.

She chose this month’s reading, “The Burrow.” Kafka as a mole. And she’s hostessing, which she does periodically in this apartment with roof access and views. It’s not far from Wall Street. The tenant, her boss’s son, flies to Prague six times a year. We didn’t meet here for that whole awful year after, but we’re back.

“You know, I’m thinking we’ve read this tale of a mole...” Here’s Aaron, black curly hair, medium height, and prematurely stooped; a LAN guy at an advertising agency on 23rd. “Which means, if you will...”

Apparently we will.

“…we went underground with him for thirty or so pages, with his detailed account of false entrances and storerooms and tunnels. This is one paranoid and obsessive—”

“—He’s being a mole, Aaron,” I break in, “he’s not obsessive.” I am tall for a woman, 5’ 11”, and always wear boots with heels as if I didn’t care. You can bet I care in summer when my calves sweat beneath the suede. My hair is black, but with richer hues than Aaron’s; these days it’s short and Marceled. I have a pert face.

“So you’re telling me it’s in the nature of a mole to spend that much time touring Castle Keep as he calls it. Did he have a name anyway?” Aaron gives me a look and mouths a word.

Lester ? The minute Michelle looks his way, he desists.

She plants herself between LAN boy and me. “I don’t believe you completed your thought, Aaron.”

“You’re right...if I may continue.” He looks at me, without acknowledging Michelle’s support.

“Go on.” I glance away.

“Oh do.” Michelle’s voice is resonant, as if bouncing in a hollowed-out container.

I lift my hand; she slaps it. Hi, five.

“So us being on the roof is some kind of redemptive state.”

I nod, but can’t decide if Aaron’s self-important or just not sure of himself.

“We’re out of the muck, out of the subway, off the sidewalk, above the dirt. We see light.”

Being up here is being in a state of ethical suspension. People down below are worker ants, and when we are up here, we’re not down there.

“You two are the only ones who are showing up tonight.” Michelle points to the empty beach chairs she’s arranged in a circle.

“That’s what ‘The Burrow’ was about, being stuck in the mud?” I stare at the red neon Watchtower sign of the Jehovah’s Witnesses across the East River in Brooklyn. I’m pretty sure Jehovah’s Witnesses are end-time serious. Who isn’t if they’re honest, although we three don’t choose the fervor or solace of religion; our fear of the end of the world is mitigated by the necessity of finding black leather coats we can afford.

I mention this because every one I know except Michelle owns such a coat or jacket. For her, this wardrobe omission is a source of pride. Once she and I were in an elevator, on our way to pick up airline tickets for her boss, the very boss who asks her to house-sit this apartment.

“I craved a black leather coat,” she’d confided. “And I saved the money and shopped and found a decent coat on sale.”

I’d tried to avoid the distraction of the Captivate television monitor streaming headlines and celebrity birthdays into the elevator.

“You won’t be insulted?”

I pushed my hands into my fine black leather pockets and made fists. “Course not.”

“It came to me...” Her voice got chirpy and she’d looked towards the ceiling, as if absolution was thereon stenciled. “Do I have to be like every other sorta hipster who proves their sorta hipsterdom by wearing a black leather coat? I’d be faking if I hid my, what...”

“...Body?” We’d reached our floor and elbowed our way out.

“...Individuality.”

A week later she bought a flannel-lined canvas coat, duck-hunter appropriate.

But now we’re on the roof; me, Michelle and Aaron, friends since college.

“Man it’s always so astonishing, looking to Brooklyn and Jersey.”

She’s right.

“Here’s what it’s about.” Aaron also can’t stop gazing west over rooftops and beyond the Hudson. Words fall from his mouth, which is in a separate time zone from his eyes. “This story is clear as a bell.” His summer black leather jacket is folded and he’s wearing his cousin’s Zeppelin T-shirt which he borrowed senior year.

I must look confused because he’s mouthing another incomprehensible word. Lennie?

Michelle settles into one of the beach chairs. “I got rid of my TV.”

She impassively runs her fingers over my short leather blazer which I’ve slung over my bag.

“‘The Burrow,’ folks, ‘The Burrow.’”

Michelle rips open a bag and shakes chips into a chipped-red-on-the-outside, white-on-in, enamel bowl. “Salsa?”

“We gotta talk about the mole.” Aaron dips a chip. “What’s this?”

She frowns, but only to invert a smile. “Mango salsa. I used the Cuisinart. Every time I take care of the cats here I bring along a recipe employing the Cuisinart.”

I rummage in my purse for an apple which I bite into.

“You don’t know what you’re missing. ” She hunts for the biggest chip and loads it. “The recipe is from the Sunday Magazine.” Those final two words come out funny, as if each one has been ejected from one of her nostrils.

Aaron reaches into his black leather backpack—gray will never be the new black leather—for a pencil but comes up empty. “This little mole guy eats a lot.” He doesn’t seem to mind.

“What else do you do when you live in a burrow. No electricity. No pool table.”

“I think...” Michelle forces us to wait while her suddenly ancient teeth grind corn chips. “I think the mole is a peasant.”

“Say what?” Aaron kicks off a boot. Black jacket, black boots. Confident air to him. Still he’s prematurely stooped.

“Or not.”

“I like that.” I do. “Peasants eat and sleep and worry about outsider encroachments.”

“They worry about Cossacks.” Aaron’s great-grandparents immigrated from a shtetl. My grandparents are from Ireland and France and met at Mass. Michelle’s ancestors were on deck when Winthrop gave a nod to the City on a Hill. She’s a genuine Daughter of the American Revolution. If she ever gets married, the Times, New York, will state in the announcement that Michelle Stoll’s great, great, great, great, great, etc. grandfather invented religion, or at least was an accomplice. My ancestors invented potato casseroles; Aaron’s have the patent on potato pancakes.

“The mole calls his home Castle Keep. He’s pretty literate for a mole.”

“He never mentions books.” Michelle is querulous.

“Vee means the way he writes, or talks. Preliterate society isn’t stupid.” Aaron does tend to believe he is the only one to really understand our insights. And I do tend to be a bit hard on him; I have insights into myself.

“This mole,” I say defensively, although I’m not sure what I’m defending, “can handle a long sentence. His mind is as intricate as his burrow.”

“It’s a-mazing.” Michelle quickly adds, “He didn’t have a wide circle of acquaintances.” She looks at us to make sure we heard her make a point.

Stretching, Aaron knocks over a boot which Michelle reaches to make upright. She’s a Virgo, a good gal and really pretty gracious.

“This isn’t Mole of Toad Hall,” he continues, as if the boot righted itself like a weighted knickknack. “Or a cafe society mole, a high season mole. Kiss this mole and he’s still a mole.”

“He talks about anxiety,” I remember. “What kind of mole talks about anxiety? You’d think moles would talk about rot, mold, dank air and its effect on young moles. Asthma. Mole asthma. Maybe those are the reasons he’s anxious.”

Michelle points out that Kafka’s the one who’s anxious.

“Doesn’t he talk about anxiety and luck? I’m sure of it, let me find it, wait.” I thumb through until I find it, a passage: “I have had a great deal of luck all these years, luck has spoiled me; I have had anxieties, but anxiety leads to nothing when you have luck to back you.”

Michelle shrugs. “We make our own luck and besides, isn’t this whole thing a metaphor?”

Thus irking Aaron who throws his book on rooftop gravel. He hates it when anything is called a metaphor. He’s okay with metaphors being metaphors, however so breathe easy, literature.

“Ah, come on,” she whines, bravely, if you ask me, but then Aaron raps on his other boot, with passion—when he cares he cares—and she sets that one upright; runs a clean napkin on the rim of the salsa bowl. She so wants him to notice.

“So you think the mole’s a mole and nothing more, or you think the mole’s more than a mole, but you don’t want to use the metaphor word?” That, from me.

Michelle lightly slaps her forehead. “Anyone want a soda? I completely forgot to bring up the tray.”

“Sure.” At me, Aaron looks impatient.

“Guys.” Michelle is pointing. “Look there.”

“There” is the moon, spherical and golden, the aged man within loopy and wise.

“Looks like a volleyball with a spotlight.”

Regardless of Aaron’s sentiment, the fact is we are on a rooftop in New York City, the center of a world, and within imagination’s reach is a whole other planet. This is a miracle and, furthermore, quite picturesque.

I say, “You go, Goddess.” Michelle and I high-five—now our thing.

Aaron offers to help with the ice, but holds me back when I start down the stairs behind him. “I gotta give you that thing.” He pushes me back on the roof and whispers, “Wanna come over later?”

Ah. So he was saying later, not Lester or Lennie. I don’t commit myself, knowing Michelle will feel left out; it doesn’t occur to me to ask myself if I want to be with him. We descend to the apartment, big, but with disappointing furnishings, sloppy and, I don’t know, Illinois-like or something. The most comfortable-appearing chair punches me with a spring when I try it. We are back in ten minutes; the moon has moseyed out of sight.

Michelle pours Aaron’s cola, and hands me a can of diet ginger ale. I thank her and catch something in her glance. She’s hurt. She probably knows what Aaron asked me. I hear myself shout "It’s not about being with Aaron, lady, you’re just fine as is.” But my hearing is off; I’ve said nothing.

“You okay?” I ask.

Aaron slurps. He hasn’t noticed mood shifts.

Michelle dabs at her damp eyes.

“Well, I’ve been worried you’ve all been pitying me since last month. And then Hal is on vacation, and Sue and Norton didn’t show.”

“They had tickets, last minute.”

Michelle is blubbering now.

I pat her back. Aaron’s face is full of concern, most of it directed towards his watch.

“I don’t want to be the mole.” She grabs a paper towel and wipes her nose.

Aaron picks at his T-shirt. “You’re not being logical.”

Bad move. Michelle’s thwunks on that line of argumentation like it was a pop up gopher in an arcade game. “The mole wasn’t working out syllogisms. The mole was describing his life.”

“What’s to describe?” Aaron shrugs. “Some friends, family, a grimy city with rivers east and west, a blue ocean, stars in the sky.”

Michelle’s eyes narrow at Aaron’s poetic jag, and I think of Bela Lugosi shifting his eyes left and right.

“The mole likes alone.” He is unrepentant.

“How human is that, Aaron?” she demands and I’m shaking my head in agreement. “That’s the Unabomber in Montana.” Her words scatter like pigeons.

A plane flies overhead. I can’t figure out if it’s going to Prague or Vegas.

“What’s next?” Aaron arches an eyebrow, conveying only his eyebrow arching abilities.

Michelle reminds us it’s Sue’s turn to pick. “It’s between Cloister Walk and that book about Mormons. She’ll call us.”

“There’s a couple of books about Mormons out right now,” Aaron snaps.

Michelle the gracious hostess smiles wide. “This was a great discussion.”

Aaron pulls on his boots, stands, folds his chair. “Which way you going, Vee?”

I wonder if Michelle will walk us to the subway to make sure we go our separate ways, me to W. 92nd and Aaron to Brooklyn. I suggest he help Michelle clean up. It’s just another night and I can face my burrow. I make my way to the subway, down those gum-blotched stairs, one hand on the railing. A street guy loiters by the turnstile, not threatening but alert. I have almost slid my card into the widget.

“Take me home, baby.” The man exudes confidence and anger. His face looks like it was used by someone else and then passed on to him. I want to give his arm an encouraging squeeze.

Instead I turn away, go back, thinking I’ll wait a few buildings down. I can’t see the roof, I don’t know if Aaron’s left, I stand by the building entrance, there’s no doorman. I feel silly, turn back to get the Six Train, but then Aaron is near and waving his arms. His face is only partially used, and I suspect mine doesn’t look lived in.

In another five minutes, we are on the train heading to Brooklyn and in an hour asleep in Aaron’s burrow, with the beast at the door barely a threat to our slumber. Still I am wide awake at 4 a.m., listening to Aaron, indifferent to his own snoring, to his angry mumbles, probably directed at his parents, but maybe at me or Kafka or maybe the president. I get a vision of Michelle on the roof, fully occupying her face. I believe she is safe and secure under the stars, looking east and west, in directions worthy of a physicist.

Aaron pops awake. “Michelle told me I’m not the one for her.” He snorts and turns over, pulling the blankets to his side. I toss his and my jacket, both leather, over me and say good-night to cloth-coated Michelle creating her future on the roof.

Sarah Sarai's stories have been published in journals including South Dakota Review, Tampa Review, foot foot, Webster Review, Antigonish Review, and Raven Chronicles. She’s taught at Borough of Manhattan Community College, Fordham, Pace, Antioch University’s Seattle campus, and St. Mathias High School in L.A. She lives in NYC.


Top photo courtesy of Freeimages.co.uk.
Bottom photo "Little Red Riding Hood 2" courtesy of Mar Bg.



 


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