We met on a long bus ride. I sat next to him, and his feet turned toward me. His whole body was on a diagonal in my direction, and I thought who does that? Who rearranges themselves to pay so much attention to a stranger? I had books and binders on my lap. An hour into our conversation, he put one wrist on top of the pile. It was still early morning, blue night light filling the bus, blurring shapes and faces into silhouettes, an occasional street lamp or the moon highlighting one feature when its glow entered through the window, like a spotlight casting emphasis on a hand or a smile, whatever was most important in the moment.
I put my wrist on top of his. He didn’t flinch. He didn’t react at all. It was the right thing, the obvious thing, totally expected. I hadn’t touched anyone like that for a long, long time. It made me feel fifteen again, eager and cautious, suddenly realizing that boys are tangible creatures I could make contact with, not just stare at from afar. We all had entered that phase together, all of us curious little animals, all of us thinking the same thoughts. But everyone grew out of it. No one was interested in the slight and gentle probing touches anymore. It was all or nothing now. We were adults, we were businessmen, and everything was a transaction. Everyone understood the terms, the end goal, so why mill about, why take your time? There were other things to attend to.
He was wearing earbuds, and gave me the right one. It was jazz. I never listened to jazz before. It was okay, not something I’d choose myself, but fitting for the night flowing into the bus, swirling around its interior like black oil in a barrel. We went over a bump, and his earbud flew out, landing between my back and the seat. He reached behind me to grab it, and I felt his breath on my neck. It made my skin prickle, my hair stand up. I’d been pinched, bit, slobbered on, fully devoured, grabbed, all in the throws of love, but even the most intense gestures didn’t ignite so much electricity within me as did his nose simply passing by my neck.
He worked for the moon program. He agreed, the way they went about things wasn’t ethical. It should have been a voluntary thing, he said, the people that went up there.
“But if they ever chose me,” he said, “I think I’d be alright, if I could have this jazz with me. It would make it less lonely.” I liked that he was optimistic. It made me feel more optimistic.
My roommate then was one of those crazy people who says crazy things that you never want to admit are right. One of her core beliefs that while we lived so close to the beach, it was stupid to fall in love.
“The beach is beautiful, the sunsets every night, the waves,” she said after I told her about him. “You go out there, and you see all this shit, and it makes you feel big things that you can’t express. You’re just holding all this emotion inside of you all the time. Of course the second you see someone half attractive, you’re gonna project that on to them.”
I knew there was truth to what she said. But I liked to believe her and I were different enough that her maxims didn’t apply to me. She liked to collect seashells when she was out on the beach and sort them into piles by color at home. I never understood the point. Why walk around with your head bent directly down, staring at the sand and your feet, when the entire ocean, the entire sky spread out before you? It was like reading your soda can label when you were at the movies. I, of course, preferred to look at the sunsets and the waves rather than the shells. Every night, the light and the clouds and every star in the sky arranged themselves into some new, ever-more lovely configuration, the sun orchestrating grand and spectacular colors and streaks and formations, the moon a coy spectator winking from the other side. It made me cry nearly every night. And it made me wish someone was by my side, someone to kiss and hug and cry with, someone to pass onto the burning thing from within. And now I had him, after so many years of waiting, of hoping, of wishing on those same stars, the moon, the clouds, whoever would listen.
I’d never experienced it before, not in the material world. But I had lived through it in dreams. It was familiar, the way his hand sat in mine, our fingers interlaced like the teeth of a venus flytrap, how our ankles splashed through the ocean as we waded with our heads to the heavens, our faces reflecting back the sun’s brightness. When the sun began setting, I couldn’t look at it. It was far too glorious. I buried my face in his chest and cried and he understood.
My roommate was crying when I stumbled home that night, sunburned, with sand in my hair and under my nails, a stupid smile stretching my lips in both corners. I figured she was going through some new personal crisis. Then she showed me the letter -- I had been selected.
It wasn’t fair. They chose one person a year, one out of millions, completely at random. The person was placed in a rocket, shot into outer space, up to the moon, where the other chosen ones now lived, along with scientists, military personnel, corporate researchers. It was the best way to get the population stabilized, was the reasoning, prevent bias by choosing people at random. That way, everyone would eventually be represented up there.
I tried to hide, of course. Everyone does. No one wants to forever abandon the only life, the only planet they’d ever known. But they always find you. They’ll restrain you if they must, sedate you. They injected me with something that made me fall asleep. I thought of him before I passed out. I knew he was partly responsible -- he worked for these people after all. But I couldn’t find it in me to blame him.
When I regained consciousness, I was already strapped in. It was really too late then. They were kind enough to give a window seat, real first-class treatment, a little porthole to gaze out of from my mechanical straightjacket. I prayed the rocket wouldn’t blow up. And it didn’t. We were going up and up and up. I watched cities disappear into pinpricks, oceans into puddles. Then clouds concealed everything and suddenly we were above the Earth.
Even on the clearest night back home, I’d never seen so many stars. They peeked through the window, casting teeny spotlights all over the cabin. The lights were turned off, and the everlasting night flowed freely into the rocket. It was breathtaking. Tears bit the corners of my eyes. This beauty would be mine, forever now. It filled the inside of my heart, the way a pastry bag pumps eclairs full of cream. Everything else was squeezed out. I didn’t even think of him, really.