A Planet Much Like Earth

Your friend Mitchell is coming over, you say, one hand cupping your cell phone to your ear. You smile the way you do whenever you think you’re irradiating your brain.

I recognize the smile from when we made microwave popcorn this morning. We ate it in bed, bits of popcorn sheaves trickling down our faces. It’s the same smile you give when we sit across from each other at the coffee table, snorting drugs off a record sleeve I keep on hand for exactly that purpose. You say, Don’t have any CD cases around here? Of course not, I say. Haven’t you heard? CDs are out of style.

You sit back on the sofa, rims of white powder on the soft pads of your fingers, and I wish you would tell me what you are thinking when you smile. They cut this shit with baby laxatives, you say, they puff it up with talcum powder. Mutually Assured Destruction, I think—that’s what we’d said during the Cold War. Then we were children and we didn’t know the difference between the truths and the fictions. Who’d started what and how it went—there was no way we could know.

Mitchell arrives late. It is almost evening when he comes in and there’s a mist in the air that I feel on my face when I stand behind the open door and wave him over the threshold. Mitchell says the moisture in the air is saltwater, it’s the breath of the ocean, the Tongue of the Pacific, the exhalations of the sea.

My building is the very edge of Westwood. There used to be movie premieres near her in the 1980s. Now, the place swarms with undergraduates and Mitchell leaves his car right out front. Other streets near here are crowded, but in front of my building, there is nothing but cracked sidewalk and empty spots. It’s because of the building. Twenty years ago, you might have wanted to live here maybe, but now it’s the kind of place no student would ever live.

Inside, Mitchell sits on one beige sofa and looks at the blank walls and says, What the fuck? Everything in this place is white. Did you just move in or something?

I want to tell him I’ve lived here for a thousand years. I want to tell him that today is my move-in anniversary. I want to tell him that if I could arrange it, I would never leave. I want to tell him that these walls are my insides, blank and still and empty, that I was born inside the white walls of this apartment and that this is where I plan to die. I’m going to be an old woman hugging my one dirty record sleeve to my chest, staring up at the beige walls with the cracks in the corners.

Before I get to this part though, about the paint and my death and the drywall and that whole business, you say, I like this place alright. It’s beige and beige and beige, which to me feels very modern. Mitchell laughs. We are all old enough to think that “modern” is an old fashioned idea, and then you guys lock eyes and I can feel your history flood into the room.

You tell me that you met Mitchell when you were both students—Catholic high school, years and years, can you believe it? You’d played lacrosse. Lacrosse, you say again and Mitchell laughs like it's a joke.

We sit there for a minute before Mitchell reaches into his pocket and pulls out the Stuff. There is the slim rift of the glass utensil and the slow burn that smells like metal, and you look over at him with that same crazy smile and I know you’re going to have a turn.

You first, Mitchell says as though he’s asked me to dance, as though we’re all guests at some fancy party. Sure, I say. Alright and thanks a lot. For a moment, I lean over the table and smell the Stuff, just lean my face in to it. And in that moment, I love Mitchell the same way you do, and I don’t care what has come before or what will come after right now or what he said about my walls. All I care about is this clean, beige moment, the soft glare of white and our mutually assured destruction. Well, go on go on, you say, and all I can do is clasp my hands and nod.

The cop car shows up in the rearview just after we turn onto Wilshire. We are headed for the ocean, for the Santa Monica Pier, for the Ferris wheel and the white sand beach and the tourists who’ve come to breathe inside the postcard, and all I can think when I see the car behind us is how I want to walk out into the Pacific’s dirty deep. I want the sting of salt on my fresh-shaved legs and the smell of rotting seaweed. I want to hold my breath and go under and be anywhere but here.

You slow down and adjust the mirror, look up again.

Don’t be obvious, I tell you.

Do you think he’s going to pull us over? You say.

Mitchell, is in the back, sprawled out.

Mitchell, I say, put on your seatbelt. Come on. Sit up.

Do I have to? he says. This was not The Plan.

The Plan, I have learned, works out about never. The Plan involved finishing college, which I’m short by fifteen units and at least ten years. The Plan involved a job and a house, some shitbox in the suburbs. The Plan was babies and a husband, smiling neighbors and homemade pies and suppressing the urge to stick your head into the oven.

Are his lights on? Mitchell asks.

I look back at him, consider The Plan. I’m not sure this is better.

Stop turning around like that, you tell Mitchell. Stop it right now. The guy can tell you’re trying to see him. You’re going to get us caught.

How do you know it’s not a lady cop in there? I say after a while. Why are you so sure it’s a “he” in there anyway?

Mitchell glares at me from between the seats. He has put on his seatbelt and sulking, head pressed into the corner. Who the hell cares, he says. If he/she/it caught us, would it make any difference?

The car follows us for what feels like forever. By the time it peels away, we’re only a mile or so from the beach.

You and Mitchell are both holding your breath and when I turn, you just stare at me, blank eyes in blank faces turned blankly ahead.

On the sand, the water is a miracle, rich and dark and salty. I wade in and feel the weightlessness lift me until I am seaworthy, flamboyantly, joyfully alive. We could have been in handcuffs, we could have been in prison, we could have been in the hard plastic backseat behind the mesh grate. We could have been on the 405, stuck in traffic but actually rushing fast toward trials and commitment. But now we’re here, on the beach, you, me, and Mitchell--and the Stuff, safe, just like before.

Mitchell sits on the shore and fills his pockets with damp fistfuls of sand soaked with ocean. He laughs and jams the sand in there along with the silty white stuff, the secret we all share. I lie back and let the sun linger on my face and it is enough, for the moment, the rush of what’s in our blood and the smooth hands of the ocean. I’m a boat on the sea and for now I am sailing safely toward some foreign shore.

Back at the apartment, we lie across each other on the couch and I point out the cracks in the corner of the ceiling.

It was close, back there, with the cops, you say. Really, really close.

Oh, sure. But nothing happened.

You pull away when I reach out to touch you with my fingers and I sit and ask if everything is okay.

You ever think about a change? You say.

Your tone is thick like spoiled syrup and I don’t like what I think I’m hearing.

I slide down and sprawl out. You do the same and the sofa is so big that our heads are almost touching. Neither one of us looks at the other, but I can smell the rot on your breath and I think I know what you are thinking. We stay like that, both staring up at blank, white, empty space, cracks in one corner and white and white and white—like staring into a void of time and nothing.

I don’t think about change anymore, I say. I’ve tried it, but right now it isn’t what I want.

You say, Today, if we’d been caught . . . I mean . . . maybe it would have been better. I’ve even thought about calling the police to come and get us. Blue uniformed men would storm in here like Martians, coming to take us away to some other planet, to pull us out of this crazy place. It isn’t Earth, you say. The atmosphere is too thin, and we can’t live here forever.

They’d just take us to another white box, I say. One much crazier than this one. At least here I have a bedroom door and old Chinese food in the fridge.

I sit up and look at you, and there is a blue secret, tentacled like a sea monster, twisting behind your iris. It dances in your face and you turn away when you realize I can see it.

You didn’t, I say.

But I know you already have.

You stand and walk to the kitchen and while the tap is running you say in a small voice, I’m sorry.

When? I say.

You are holding you glass of water and you look at me and frown.

Soon, he says. I don’t know. I don’t know how long they’ll take to get here.

I pick up the baggie from the table and open it and lean forward and breathe in its warm, hard metal scent.

Don’t, you say. I want to stop, to be finished.

I know I need to leave, but I can’t keep my hands from moving, from opening and packing and lighting and then—the soft smoke, metallic taste, like sucking on a rusted razor, and then the relief like the truth, unwinds through me.

All right fine, one last time, you say and you come and sit beside me.

And we are there like that when they find us, blue eyed monsters, long arms and brittle faces like tentacles we have imagined, writhing, reaching out to grab us from the deep.  

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