Leslie Van Newkirk
My house is a topographical map, Charlie thought as he awoke on a Saturday morning. The bed is Mt. Fuji, the rug is a lake, my desk a Mies van der Rohe-designed building. The framed picture of Masako, a billboard advertising love, happiness, prosperity. Charlie put two feet on the floor, tested their sturdiness, and padded to the kitchen to make his morning coffee.
Masako came over at noon. They planned to go to the Hayden Planetarium. Not wanting to spend the extra money on lunch, he made them peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. The berry jam was brownish-red, and reminded him of a squashed insect’s blood.
Since it was a summer day, they shopped for bottled water at the Polish deli by his apartment. There, old women jostled them for a good place in line. But when they reached the counter Charlie saw that a young Polish girl—his favorite shop clerk—would ring them up. He saw her often, this girl, who despite her square face and scrunched features, had long legs and nice breasts, and to accentuate them, wore tight shirts. She smiled warmly, unlike the old Polish women. She talked fast and loud with her cute, thick accent, perhaps hoping that some rich Japanese-American man would swoop in and take her away from the Polish deli. Trouble was, Charlie wasn’t rich.
He and Masako walked towards the subway. He looked at her walking, but she was lost in thought and didn’t notice him examining her. He wondered if she would be okay today because the previous night she had said, “I don’t know if I can go through with it.” Meaning the planetarium. For Masako was claustrophobic, along with many other fears. But surprisingly, she had agreed to go to with him after all.
I’m not afraid of anything, he thought. Even death was an anticipated event. Charlie welcomed death, but not in the sense that he wanted to die right away. More that it was a great puzzle that he looked forward to solving. He thought that death was a gateway to something else, not just darkness and finality. He liked to think about it when he was stoned. Masako would not talk about death and said it “freaked her out.” Lots of things “freaked her out.” At movie theaters Masako had to sit in an aisle seat in case she had to go to the bathroom or suddenly leave. At restaurants Masako could not sit at a table that “wasn’t right.” Much to the staff’s annoyance they would sometimes switch around tables trying to find one that “was right.” But often they would just leave their menus untouched on the tablecloth and quietly scoot out their chairs in their embarrassment to slip out unnoticed.
Charlie’s thoughts switched to the planetarium, a white orb in the metal cage that he had seen in a picture in the newspaper. The planetarium made him think of Walt Disney, Battlestar Galactica, and those dog-eared science fiction books he had read as a teenager in suburban Maryland. The stories of robot colonies and half-alien women did for him then what drugs do for him now: took him away to other worlds. He hoped the planetarium would do the same today.
Waiting on the subway platform, he squeezed Masako’s hand. She looked up at him, blinking like an ingratiated child. When the train arrived, they stepped on. The putrid body smell of the subway decimated Charlie’s romanticism of public transportation. Masako’s sweaty hand gripped his tighter, though he could not tell if she was afraid. He looked out the subway window and noticed some graffiti in panels on the tunnel walls, kinetic, springing to life like animation. Masako coughed and stared out of the opposite window, a mirror reflecting a grim and sullen expression on her face. She was difficult to read. Her moods could swing so pendulously that he gave up guessing, for it only got him yelled at.
The subway spat them out at the Seventy-Ninth St. exit and they hurried through the tunnel, their voices reverberating through the vaulted stone hallway. Around them, children buzzed like one gigantic beehive until Charlie and Masako could take no more of the rising crescendo. They found the nearest exit and would have to find a way to enter the planetarium from the outside.
At the orb’s entrance, Masako complained that “her feet hurt already” in her scuffed, white pumps, though he suspected she was too embarrassed to admit once again that she was afraid.
“Why don’t you sit and wait for me out here in this park.”
“Okay,” Masako said. “Can we go to Times Square after this?”
“Sure.” Charlie didn’t know why she liked Times Square so much. Unless it reminded her of her native Tokyo with the neon, lights, and advertisements.
Masako waited outside watching the frolicking squirrels while Charlie followed the crowd into the planetarium. Once seated and locked inside, a deep voice, like the voiceovers of car commercials told of infant planets and black holes. He felt glued to his plush chair, his neck and body completely supported. Yet at the same time, he seemed as if he was floating in the black dome, the lights of stars and comet trails inhabiting his personal space. He savored every exploding star. This was better than a rock concert.
Later in Times Square, Charlie and Masako slowed to a crawl along with the rest of the foot traffic. Heads swiveled around to take in the gaudy sights—T-shirt vendors, religious fanatics, news cameras. People bumped into one another because no one looked where they were walking. Tourists stared blatantly at a paraplegic man as if he were an attraction like the gigantic Cup O’ Noodles sign. Charlie wished he were back in the planetarium with the Polish girl. He would teach her how to say supernova in Japanese.
Leslie Van Newkirk grew up in Southern New Jersey and now lives in Park Slope, Brooklyn. She has been an independent musician and not-so-independent writer/producer for MTV Networks, but her greatest love is fiction. Her short stories have been published online in Word Riot (Dec. 2003) and in Reading Divas. Leslie is currently represented by the Jane Rotrosen Agency who is shopping her second novel to editors. E-mail: leslievannewkirk[at]yahoo.com.