FICTION | The Moon is Gone and Will Never Return
The moon disappeared on October 7, 2008, about a week from being full, though more of Nathan's friends discovered its disappearance from Twitter than by looking at the sky. Nathan found out about it from his wife, who persisted in attempting to communicate with him normally despite his request for space and insistence on sleeping on the couch. Nathan ignored the vibration of his cell phone when he saw the text was from her, and might not have opened it until he got home if the bartender hadn't turned off the baseball game he was ignoring and raised the volume on the news.
Conversation in the bar went silent, then exploded. The table next to his emptied as everyone got up and went to the front door to stare up at the cloudy sky. It struck Nathan that this news story was absurd, and he wanted to laugh and express his disbelief, and to his irritation his wife was the first person who came to mind. He opened her message.
Holy shit! The moon is gone! Also, are you coming home tonight?
All desire to talk to her evaporated. Instead he called Erin.
"Oh my God," she said, instead of hello. "Have you seen the news? This is like a fairy tale. Something magic finally happened."
"I'm sure there's a reason for it," he said.
Erin laughed. "Have you seen Fox? They've got anchors positing that the Chinese did this with nuclear weapons."
Nathan laughed, too. "I'm sure there's an actual reason for it. But it is pretty amazing." He swallowed. "So what did you do all day?"
"Oh, you know." Erin sighed with too much force. "I spent all day on the same two goddamn poems, and there's nothing for them. But I guess this is good—there are probably a million poems I could write about the disappearance of the moon. But maybe it's too good. That's probably all anybody is going to be writing poetry about until it comes back. What about you?"
"Graded papers. Stayed out of the house."
"Is it that bad?"
"I feel like it's pretty bad. But also like all that bad is my fault."
Erin sighed again, a quieter, gentler sound. "Well, do you want to come over?"
Nathan got up out of his chair and wandered toward the door to look up at the sky like everyone else. "Yeah," he said. "That might be nice."
Erin lived in a cheap apartment complex that was unfortunately located quite close to an elementary school. The parking lot was always crawling with children, but that night it was crawling with adults, too. All eyes were on the sky. Nathan navigated through the crowd by tapping his horn just loudly enough to tell people to get out of the way.
Erin was sitting at her computer, still wearing her name tag and her red Target polo. She got up when he entered the door and went up on tiptoes to gather him into a hug. Nathan closed his eyes and felt for just a moment like he could breathe. Erin smelled like ylang ylang and herself and just a hint of the ammonia-based cleaner she used at work. They pulled apart.
"I thought you said you spent all day writing poetry," he said, flicking her name tag. Erin pulled it off and tossed it onto her desk.
"Well I spent all the day that mattered working on poetry. And sometimes I can do it at work, too. I just have to clear out everything that actually exists and replace it with the world I want to be in. But, you know." She sighed. "Then my productivity suffers and Mike jumps all over my ass about it."
She flopped down on the couch and Nathan followed her.
"I am just so ready," she murmured, "to be out of here."
Nathan laughed. "You and me both." He put his hands under the belt of her khakis and pressed his palms against the jutting bones of her hips. "You and me the fuck both." Erin tossed her head back and looked up at the ceiling for a long moment before she shrugged out of her polo. Her bra was a leftover from her heavier days; it swallowed the shrunken buds of her breasts.
"Are you okay?" she asked.
"I'm the same." Nathan pushed down the cups of her bra to run a few fingers along the tops of her breasts, then took off his own shirt while she unsnapped the bra and tossed it on the floor. They spent a long few moments staring at each other with the hunger and effervescence of teenagers.
"I love you," he said, voice tinged with irritation and awe.
"Well, shit," said Erin. "I love you, too. You know that."
But love didn't change anything. She pressed her hand against his sternum and moved her fingers down until she found his xiphoid process. "The thing is," she murmured, "do you love your wife more?"
Nathan swallowed. "Of course I do."
Erin took her fingers off his chest and replaced them with her lips. "Then we're safe," she whispered into his skin. They ran their fingers and mouths over each others' bodies without taking their pants off. It was ridiculous and sublime.
"It's just," said Sanna. "I feel like way more important things are going on in the world right now than my personal bullshit. I mean, I know that's the way it is. But knowing doesn't help me get over it. All I think about all the time is Nathan—either I'm worried about whether he's okay or not, or I'm furious with him, or I'm just fucking sad. And I'm really not in a place where I can deal with that right now."
Erin took a french fry off Sanna's plate and dragged it through the dregs of her ketchup. "I think," she said slowly, "that feeling anything but sad and angry would be what would make you weird here." She looked out the window at the dark night sky. For the last few minutes, they'd had the entire McDonald's to themselves.
"I don't mind feeling things." Sanna swished around the ice in her paper cup. "It's just that now is a particularly inconvenient time."
"I think," said Erin. "That there is never a convenient time for this sort of thing."
"It's not even a thing. I just don't know what's wrong with him. One minute he'll agree to see a counselor with me, then the next minute he can't stand to. I'm not even allowed to call him on the phone—he has to call me, and only if he feels like it. He just keeps saying that he wants space, but what the fuck is space? We live together. We share a car. He won't even leave me a note in the morning saying whether he fed the fucking cats or not. So I always feed them, just in case. And now I think they're getting fat." Sanna teared up.
Before Erin began not-sleeping with Nathan, she would have said that the very idea of Sanna crying was ridiculous. Now it happened all the time.
"I just want him to talk to me," Sanna said, dabbing at her eyes with a paper napkin. "I mean, how am I supposed to help him if I don't know what's wrong?"
"I don't know if you can help him," said Erin. "In some ways it's like he's just...gone, right now. And I don't know how to pull him back." She thought of the texture of him in her arms. He was hairier than most men she'd...dated? Been with? Helped to commit borderline adultery?
"At least he's talking to you," said Sanna, sounding not so much bitter as exhausted. "I'm sorry how much you're in the middle of this."
"It's..." Erin crumbled up her hamburger wrapper and shoved it into the empty french fry box. "I just don't mind, I guess."
"You've been a really good friend." Sanna reached out and put a hand over Erin's. Her skin was soft and her manicure, done in a bluish baby pink, was immaculate. "It means a lot to me, how much you've been here for both of us. It's just been such a long time since I've had a friend who was a girl."
"Yeah." Erin left her hand under Sanna's. "Me, too. It seems like I spend so much time with men that I'm still a little surprised when I find a woman I can relate to."
Sanna started crying in earnest. Erin got up out of her seat to slide into the booth next to her and wrap an arm around Sanna's shoulders. With her free hand, she traced a line up and down Sanna's spine.
"I just wish I knew whether he was going to divorce me or not." Sanna blew her nose with a napkin but stayed wrapped up in Erin's arms. "I mean," she added, "the fucking moon is gone. How can I be more worked up over Nathan than I am over that?"
So far, the consequences of the moon's disappearance seemed less dire than the news had predicted. Living so far inland, Sanna and Erin were unaffected by the dramatic reduction of the tides, and though major coastal cities around the world had been flooded, that too seemed like a far-away disaster. A pod of whales had beached themselves and died off the coast of New Zealand, but scientists were unsure whether this was related to the disappearance of the moon or not, as the same thing had happened the year before.
"This is your life," said Erin. "The moon was just something that hung in the sky."
Outside, above the orange parking lot lights, the sky was dark. They sat together in the McDonald's for a long time.
Erin's nightmares became obvious. She was used to fighting NFL mascots through trenches full of mustard gas, or her father walking in on her as she masturbated in the bathtub. Now they were all about Sanna. She and Nathan might be cuddling chastely on the couch at his place, then there would be the jangle of keys in the lock and Sanna getting home early. Maybe they were out eating lunch somewhere on campus, holding hands, when Sanna walked by with a gaggle of colleagues. All of these nightmares ended before she could offer any explanation; there was just Sanna's expression of horror and then her dissolving face, and Erin bolted awake as if to the sound of intruders in her home.
They met for breakfast after Nathan's nine am class. "You look cute," said Nathan. "You could be one of my students."
Erin rolled her eyes. "You could be one of your students. You've got that babyface."
Nathan smiled. His babyface was actually beginning to fade. He was sleeping less, and working out more, and though the effort showed in the new lines of muscle in his torso, his eyes were sunk deep into the hollows of his head.
"So have you had any dreams lately?" he asked. As someone who did not remember his own dreams, he took an interest in the elaborate fantasias Erin's mind created while she slept.
"Oh, you know," said Erin. "About turning into a bird. I mean, the practical implications. What happens to your clothes? If somebody finds your pants and your wallet in the street, do you think they'd return them? How hard would it be to navigate home by looking down at the world spread out before you? Things like that."
"You're adorable," said Nathan.
Erin shrugged. "I try pretty hard to be adorable." She drank her coffee with milk, no sugar, and watched his hands as he ate.
"Yeah, but I think you're adorable even when you're not telling me whimsical lies."
She glanced up at his eyes, then looked away again. The longing and affection that he could express with eye contact embarrassed her.
"I think you're beautiful," he said. "And your sincerity means the world to me, even when you are lying."
"I told you I don't like compliments." Erin licked her teeth.
"I never know what to do you." Nathan shook his head. "Sanna loves compliments. She soaks them up like water. I'm out of practice with women who don't, I guess."
"San could probably use a few more compliments from you than she's getting right now. She misses you, Nathan. She loves you."
He looked so put-upon.
"I'm sorry. My fault for bringing her up. I don't really want to talk about Sanna right now." He swallowed. "Unless it's very important to you that we talk about her now. In which case I will try." Nathan looked past her for long enough that she could study him. His nose was too large, his eyebrows were dark and unwieldy.
"No," she said. "It's fine. I'm just worried about her."
"I'm worried about her, too. And you, sometimes. And myself, sometimes."
She reached across the table for his hand and rubbed her thumb along his knuckles. It was almost offensive to realize how deeply she cared about this man.
"So how was class this morning?" she asked.
"Pretty good, actually. It's early enough in the quarter that attendance is still high, and a few of them even believe they're here to learn something."
"Man." She sighed. "I miss school. I think next year I'm going to lower my standards a little bit. At this point I'd be happy to get into pretty much any poetry program, as long as it means going to classes again and being surrounded by people who give a shit. And I mean give a shit about anything. Working retail is like having your soul sucked out by the world's pettiest personality conflicts."
"I'd be happy to look over your statement of purpose, or any other part of your application, if you need the help."
Erin offered him a tight little smile. "I guess I'm scared even if I do get accepted this time around. What if I go all the way, come out with an MFA, and it still doesn't matter? I'll still be an unpublished nobody, and I'll end up right back at Target."
"You'll do better than that. You are better than that. You're intelligent and talented and worthy of any program you want. And eventually they'll see that."
Erin made a farting noise with her mouth. "You only think all that because you're hopelessly in love with me. I don't think anybody in admissions at Amherst will come at my work from the same condition."
He laughed and tugged at her hand until she got up out of her chair and let him pull her onto his lap.
"I don't want any of your students to see us," she said.
"All of my students are headed back to their dorm rooms to go back to sleep."
But he released her. Erin sat back down and took a long pull of coffee.
"Did you hear?" she asked. "They're saying that the moon is buried in the sea."
Nathan rolled his eyes. "Who's saying that? Never mind the tidal disturbances we're already getting—the Maldives would be under water if that were the case." He paused. "Would the moon even fit in the ocean?"
"It was just something going around on 4chan. I liked it."
Erin twisted her napkin around her fingers. "Never mind."
"God," said Sanna. "Remember when we used to get together and have fun?"
"This is fun," said Erin. She took a long pull of beer.
They were in Sanna's bedroom, their best club clothes spread across the bed and draped over chairs. They hadn't gone out together for a couple of months—not since things got rocky between Sanna and Nathan.
Sanna laughed. "I'm a fucking mess," she said. "All the time. I'm so sick of being a mess, but it's like that doesn't matter at all. I keep fucking crying all the time, and thinking about him, and it's like my whole brain is broken." She paused and looked disgusted with herself. "Like my whole heart is broken."
Erin turned her face away.
"We probably should go out," said Sanna. "It's been forever since we hit a Dark Light Night." Dark Light Night—still held on new moon nights, despite the moon's disappearance—was the only regular goth dance in town.
"I'm sure the guys missed us," said Erin. They were on a first name basis with only a few of the other regulars, but it was a good crowd.
"I just don't know," said Sanna. "I don't wanna start crying on the dance floor."
"Would it make you feel better to dance circles around the usual weirdos? Or worse?"
"We'll never find parking," Sanna decided. "We'd have to walk."
Erin eyed a pair of tights sticking up out of the big plastic bin Sanna stored them in. "Maybe walking wouldn't be so bad."
"I could go downstairs and ask Nathan if he'd give us a ride like he used to."
Erin rolled her beer bottle between her palms. "Are you guys talking right now?"
"Well then, let's just walk."
"Maybe he'd be willing to do it just because you're here." Sanna dumped all the tights and leggings and mismatched thigh highs onto the bed. "He's a lot more...tractable...when you're around." She managed to say this without rancor. There was even a certain lightness to her tone. Erin began to sort through the tights, picking out a sheer pair embroidered with polka dots the size of dimes.
"It's really not that far to walk," she said.
"Wearing these?" Sanna pulled out the platform heels she reserved for nights that would be spent almost exclusively sitting down.
"You could just wear your regular black boots. I mean, you can't really dance in those anyway."
Sanna toyed with the laces. "Why don't you ask Nathan if he'll give us a ride?"
"Is this getting weird?" Erin put down the tights. Her heart was beating rabbit fast. "I feel like this is weird."
"Well, never mind." Sanna clunked the shoes back in the closet. "I guess you're right. We can walk."
They looked at each other for what felt like a long time.
"I thought for sure we wouldn't go out," said Erin. "So I didn't bring any make-up."
"That's fine. We can share mine. That glittery red lipstick looks way better on you than it does on me, anyway."
Erin smiled. "This'll be good for us. Should we take the flask?"
"Of course." Sanna picked up her platform heels and managed to laugh. "We'll need it."
They straggled back home a little before 3 AM. Nathan was half-asleep, wearing only a pair of flannel pajama pants. The couch was covered in blankets, and an out-of-date textbook lay open on his chest.
"Welcome home," he said, looking at Erin. She ignored him and held Sanna's hand, helping Sanna keep balance while she took off her platform heels.
"Did you have a good night?" he asked.
"My feet are killing me," said Sanna.
"But you looked amazing," said Erin. "Dudes danced up, like, deferentially, then pre-rejected themselves because you were so out of their league."
Sanna sat down hard on the floor. "It was nice," she said. "Although if I'd known you were still awake, I'd have called and asked you to come pick us up."
It was the longest sentence Erin had heard either of them use toward the other in months.
"I'm sorry," said Nathan. "I would've gone."
"Psht." Sanna rubbed her feet. "The Vulture was there again," she said. "He has such a crush on Erin."
Erin shrugged. "I'm pretty sure he has a boyfriend."
"Well, that just makes it even more flattering," Sanna cackled to herself. Erin met Nathan's eyes, then looked away again. The tension that lately filled any room Sanna and Nathan shared seemed muted, maybe thanks to the flask that she and Sanna had shared.
"How did you spend your night?" Erin asked.
"Oh, you know." Nathan tapped the textbook. "Graded papers. Changed around tomorrow's lecture. I think one of these days I'm going to have to write a textbook myself. It's hard to synthesize what I want with what's available."
"Yeah." Sanna kept cackling. "Isn't it?"
Erin was writing poetry at the same rate as ever, but none of the poems were any good. She finished each one with a sigh and moved it to a folder titled "Dead Work" on her desktop. Technically there was nothing wrong with any of them, and the emotion was always raw and genuine. It was just that she didn't have a single one that wasn't about Nathan or Sanna or both of them. With each finished piece she thought about Plath and Millay and Woolf, and was paralyzed by the realization that everything about love and pain had already been said by people wiser and more eloquent and more sardonic than herself. Her sincerity alone would never be enough to carry her poetry through.
Nothing about her affair—her not-affair—was significant enough to justify the agony and anxiety and wonder that it caused her, except that, however small, it was wholly hers.
She would have stopped writing poetry entirely, except that then she would be nothing but a girl who worked at Target and failed at getting into graduate school and continued to—just barely—refuse to sleep with her best friend's husband, and she wanted so desperately to be more than all that.
She met Nathan at his house for lunch, but also to give him her statement of purpose. They said "meet for lunch," but they rarely got around to eating. Instead they cuddled relentlessly on the couch and talked about the lives they'd planned out for themselves that were better than the lives they had.
Nathan surprised her with chicken salad sandwiches waiting on the kitchen counter, and bottles of sugar-free Jones Soda.
"Look at you," said Erin, amused and impressed despite herself.
"Yeah. I mean, I like being with you, but also the rest of the afternoon is kind of hard if I haven't had anything to eat."
Erin laughed. They sat down too close together on the couch and ate.
"I brought my statement of purpose," said Erin. There were bread crumbs in the corner of her mouth. "Is it weird that that's the part I'm most nervous about? My GREs are passable, my poems are solid, the application's no problem...but the statement of purpose scares the crap out of me."
"I have confidence in both your passion and your ability to articulate that passion." There were no crumbs anywhere on Nathan's face. "Do you mind if I keep it overnight to look it over? I'll e-mail you my thoughts tomorrow."
"That would be nice."
"Did you decide to use any of your poems about the disappearance of the moon?"
She shook her head. "I figure everyone will have poems about that. Mine are smaller. I think I'm just the kind of person who writes small poems. And I don't think that's a bad thing."
Nathan pressed his knee against her knee. "You don't have to be the kind of person who writes small poems."
"You're not listening. I want to write small poems. I want to write about people, not the state of the world. It doesn't matter that the moon is gone if people are still as hungry and lonely as they've ever been, if we're all still dying at the same rate we always die. Who gives a shit about the moon?"
"I do," said Nathan. "You do. You're dying to know if it's under the ocean or still in the sky, or if it took off to orbit some better place."
"You don't believe any of those things you just said."
"I don't. I don't even have the vaguest threads of a rational explanation for the moon being gone. But I'm sure there is one. I'm sure we'll find out what happened sooner or later. Maybe not in our lifetimes."
Erin closed her eyes. "I want to know what happened to it now. I want to find the moon myself."
"See?" Nathan kissed her cheek. "That's not a small poem kind-of-story."
"I didn't say I wanted to write a poem about finding the moon. I said I wanted to do it."
"So do it," said Nathan. "I believe in you. If it's graduate school, if it's poetry, if it's the moon. I want you to want the whole world, and to get it."
"Yeah? Well I want you and Sanna to be happy together again."
Nathan pulled his knee away. "I don't want to talk about that right now," he said.
"Do you still love her more than me?"
"I said I don't want to talk about this."
Erin put her plate down on the coffee table and pressed herself against his side. Nathan looked down at his sandwich.
"You said you'd be honest with me," she said. "I promised I'd be honest with you."
"I love you more than her." Nathan closed his eyes. "I love you more."
Erin nestled her head against his neck. For a few precious seconds, they maintained that tableau. Then she stood up.
"Okay, then. Well, I said I'd be out of here if that happened."
Nathan didn't say anything.
"I mean, I don't want to be out of here. But that's what I said I'd do if things got out of hand. And I think you loving me more probably means that they're out of hand."
Nathan put his plate on the table next to hers.
"You know what the fucked up thing is?" he asked. "There's no gold star for this. Nobody rewards you for the affairs you don't have. They just punish you for the ones you do."
"Well this isn't one of them. We're honorable people. I love you. I love your wife. I'm sure we'll still be seeing quite a bit of each other, since I'll still be supporting San through... all of this."
"I'm divorcing her," said Nathan.
"I was afraid of that."
"I love you," said Nathan.
"I love you, too," said Erin. She walked out the door.
Sanna brought a week's worth of clothes in her duffel bag. Erin helped her hang up her nice work shirts in the closet.
"Thanks for letting me stay over," said Sanna.
"No problem. I'm surprised you're letting him keep your place."
"Just for now," said Sanna. "He needs a place that he can take the bus to campus. I've got the car, so..." She shrugged. "At least the good thing is I can't cry anymore. I think my eyes have literally dried up. I didn't know that could happen."
She was still puffy-faced, but her eyes weren't red.
"And anyway, I've got a friend I can stay with, and he doesn't really have anybody. You know?"
"Yeah." Erin smoothed the sleeve of a suit jacket.
"I don't know what we're gonna do about money. I guess we'll both just end up in cheaper apartments in worse parts of town." Sanna sighed. "Hopefully not the same worse part of town."
"You seem so...sang-froid about this whole thing."
"Just numb, I guess. I'm sure tomorrow or the day after I'll start crying again. And I'm pretty pissed off, too, but anger I know how to deal with. I guess when we got married, I really meant 'til death do us part, and he meant 'until I get bored.' Or have a psychological breakdown. Or whatever."
Despite herself, Erin thought of him alone in that house with their three cats. "Is he that bad off?"
"I don't know. We're not really talking right now. Obviously."
Erin rubbed Sanna's back gently. Sanna leaned into her touch until she was leaning against her in a full boyfriend caress.
"I'm sorry you're hurt," said Erin.
"I'm sorry, too. I'm sorry I'm not over it already." There was already so much bitterness and frustration in her voice. Erin kissed her on the cheek.
Sanna shot out of her arms. "What was that for?" she snapped.
"Nothing," said Erin. "You were sad. I thought..."
"Jesus, Erin. I mean, I'm sure I'm going to rebound, but not that hard."
They stared at each other. In the parking lot they heard a car door slam, and footsteps heading further away.
"I'm sorry," said Erin.
"Never mind," said Sanna. "It doesn't matter." She leaned against the bed, carefully aligning her body so that they did not touch.
"I miss the moon," Sanna announced. "I didn't really think I would. And I hate that single on the radio about it being gone. It's so fucking maudlin. But I think I really miss it."
"I do, too," said Erin. "I heard it disappeared into the ocean."
"Yeah?" Sanna cracked a smile. "That sounds nice. That sounds like we could go on a quest and get it back."
"Maybe we should. I mean, I don't think we really have the money for an ocean expedition, but I bet we could spot it from the surface. The moon is pretty big, right? Part of it has to be sticking out of the water to make an island."
"There we go," said Sanna. "The two of us could live together on the moon."
And for a long few minutes Erin sat there with her, and she thought that if she never saw Nathan again, and if she could just keep this one secret from Sanna forever, then everything would be all right.
David Heronry's fiction has previously appeared in Witness and twice in New England Review, the former of which was listed by Jennifer Egan as a distinguished story of 2013 in The Best American Short Stories. They are a transmasculine car salesman who has previously worked as a funeral director’s apprentice, a pet nutritionist, an English teacher in Japan, a Japanese teacher in America, and a crystal healing "expert" in a head shop.