For Ellen with gratitude for our wacky texts about parenthood and the Anthropocene.
For Kate V. (September 23,1960-April 4th, 2020) with gratitude for our profound conversations—especially our last—about love and mortality and death. I miss you.
It was Carol who set up my blind date with the Man in the Moon.
I’m going to hook you up with someone if it kills me, Carol texted. And it really might kill me, you know, given how sick I am.
Ug, I wrote back. Life is going to super suck without you.
I was doing this more for Carol than I was for me. I’d already dated a couple of her other friends by this point, and I was getting a bit jaded. There was the narcoleptic if gentle Little Boy Blue, who kept leaving his horn behind wherever we went, always quadrupling our cab fare with all of the backtracking we had to do, and how boring those many cab-rides were, his head lolling from side to side, his mouth slightly ajar, snoring through some of my most important soliloquys about mortality and the Anthropocene. It was not the first time I’d put a man to sleep, but it was certainly the most frequent. Little Boy Blue was, despite his name, a full–grown male, and handsome, with a remarkably unlined face, as though he’d encountered very little stress in life, but he dressed like a rabbit in a Beatrix Potter book, blue seersucker rompers and a messily affixed matching cap. When he listened to me he did so with his thumb hanging crookedly from his mouth, and this became my cue to speak louder and to crack open a window in the cab; he was heading straight to Nappy Town. Maybe certain individuals enjoy pampering a partner through that midlife crisis sort–of–thing but I found his immaturity a complete turn off, and after a few sad outings I stopped texting him back and texted Carol instead, LBB is a dud.
I thought he’d be so sweet for you! She wrote back. He reminds me of a cat, and I know how much you love cats.
It’s true, now that I think about it, how cat-like he was, always warm, always napping, always forgetting that goddamn horn everywhere, a horn he carried around with him for some unknown reason because I never heard him play it, not once, not that I wanted to hear it, but hey it’s his thing not mine, it was probably a lovey for him, brought him comfort when he was falling asleep or whatever, the poor guy.
Cat or not, I texted Carol, he’s not for me.
So she set me up with Peter, Peter Pumpkin Eater, but he kept trying to take me home and force me into his pumpkin, and I got a very Jane Eyre vibe from all of it, that once I was in that pumpkin I would never again see the light of day, and I’d be the mad pumpkin wife trapped in those orange stinking wet pumpkin walls with a husband whose moniker sounded like a dirty sex act.
No dice, I texted Carol.
So she set me up with the cat and the fiddle, which was great at first because I do really love cats, and I loved petting her behind her ears and listening to her purr, but this particular cat was, unlike Little Boy Blue, very devoted to her instrument, and I got really sick of listening to her fiddle day in and day out, however skilled she was.
Too talented, I texted Carol.
How about Simple Simon? she wrote.
You’ve got to be kidding me.
The butcher? The baker? The candlestick maker?
Too many knives, I wrote back. Too many sweets. Too many first–degree burns.
She suggested Georgie Porgie.
I dated him back in the nineties, I wrote. I was in love with him, but all of those tears! I’m no longer such a masochist.
By then we’d all heard about the dish and spoon running off maniacally together, happy as can be, and none of us were surprised, really, because they were very well suited and of course very passionate after all of those years waiting around in dark kitchen cabinets for some action, but I had to admit the whole affair made me feel very lonely, even if I wanted to be bigger than all of that somehow, a woman of my own making, an artist in my own right and a loving if inconsistent friend.
Don’t worry, Carol texted. We’ll keep looking.
Carol was always the best sort of friend, even when I was an asshat. By this point I knew I might lose her soon, and I was feeling so low about this prospect I wasn’t quite sure if I should be around her. Maybe my being so pissed and sad would only hurt her further. And if I’m being honest I was even insulted by her ministrations, that no matter my intellectualization and self-deprecation and misanthropy, she saw how desperately I longed for companionship. It was irritating that she put more care and affection into my love life than I did.
I’m fine, I texted her. I’m perfectly fine with dying alone. I’ve been reading a lot about human composting and I think I’d like that done to my body when I’m gone, if you want to look into that for me, instead.
Carol texted back, cheerfully, Oh, honey, I’m the only one who gets to make death plans right now. I’m very territorial about this. The hunt, she wrote, continues.
Sometimes the thing with friends is: They don’t know when to leave well enough alone. Although the truth was that I loved Carol for this very reason.
Only a few days passed before she wrote me, in all caps: I’VE FOUND HIM.
And then she set up my first date with the Man in the Moon.
My first impression of the Man in the Moon was that he was full of himself, looming down on me from his great height with an aloofness that signals either robust confidence or crippling insecurity. We met at a steak and potatoes restaurant called Meat Killers, where his first words to me were, poignantly, “I’m a vegan.”
“Try the potatoes,” I suggested.
I ordered the filet mignon, extra rare.
I took his quietness at first as some sort of ploy to get me to open up, and I was pissed at myself that it worked. I overshared that I was newly diagnosed with IBS, that I was a washed-up writer, that I’d been sober for eight years, that I hated eggs, even hated the word “egg” with its weird double g, that I’d made the front page of the paper as a teenager for driving drunk through a cowfield and man-slaughtering a newborn calf. I could tell he thought it was strange how voraciously I ate my steak through this last story.
“It’s a coping mechanism,” I said.
He gave a gentle nod of his big round ivory head. It annoyed me, how subtly his head glowed. He poked at his potato sadly. He’d forgotten to order it without the butter.
I washed the steak down with a lukewarm glass of water, horrified at myself for divulging so much so quickly.
“So, what’s your story?” I asked.
“Oh,” he said slowly. “You know. I work nights. I have what you might consider a primo view, but I see some ugly stuff. People,” he said. “People can be terrible.”
He pushed away from his plate just slightly, hanging his big head so that he stared glassily into the tablecloth, and the craggy gray features of his face settled into a look of such forlornness that I reached my hand across the table and touched him, gently, on the wrist. The Man in the Moon gave a little jump and then relaxed. He smiled sadly at me.
“Thank you,” he said, nodding at my hand. “Sometimes I think people just want to stomp across me and stab flag poles into me, like that’s all I’m good for.”
I was a bit shocked, since I’d spent many years feeling the same way. “I don’t want to stab you,” I said. “And I hate walking. Sometimes I just roll around everywhere. Like I roll out of bed and roll over to the bathroom and roll into the shower and turn the shower spigot on with my toes and just let the spray hit me right in the face.”
He laughed. “Same here. And usually I’m sobbing.”
“It’s fun to cry in the shower,” he said.
We beamed out at one another, the Man in the Moon and I, and a few minutes later I excused myself and went to the restroom and texted Carol, You’re the best friend ever, you bonkers bitch. He’s a misanthrope, he’s miserable, he’s kind, he’s perfect.
She wrote back, Like you!
He’s nicer than me, I typed.
Naw, you’re pretty great for how miserable you are. Maybe one day you’ll see it.
I refuse, I wrote. I prefer to wallow in the horrors of self-reflection. Anyway, thank you, C. Text you later.
But when I went back to the table, the man in the moon had already left. There was a handwritten note, however, Had to jet to work, but I’ll be on the lookout for you. I wandered out to the parking lot, feeling really smooth and hydrated after all of that lukewarm water, and there he was, scooting across the sky overhead, witness to the multifold ways we humans were busy destroying the world, and all of the ways in which we weren’t. I waved and he shone.
I drove to Carol’s house. She answered the door, arms thrown open to me, her wife and children already in their beds. We hugged, laughing, and then went to sit on her back deck, where we gossiped about my first good date in years as if he wasn’t up there staring down at us.
“You won’t be able to keep secrets from this one,” she told me.
“Kind of creepy, huh?”
Carol agreed: Yes, it was creepy.
I asked her, “Are you ready for tomorrow?”
She grimaced. “Oh don’t make me talk about it.”
“You don’t have to talk,” I said, “but it sucks, and sometimes talking about things that suck is really fun.”
“I’m so glad you’re here,” Carol laughed. “It really won’t be so bad. The best part is all of those nice nurses poking and prodding me, all of that excitement and attention, and all of that awesome drugged-up sleep.”
“Wow I’m jealous. I’d love to be poked and prodded and on good drugs.”
Carol smiled. “But I can’t sleep tonight,” she said. “I’ve got all of this energy because I know I’m going to be deadsville the next few weeks. So I cleaned all of the toilets and hung up twelve family portraits in the den.”
I teased her that no one needs twelve family portraits, one is more than enough. “Don’t you just sit around staring at one another all of the time, anyway? Marveling at one another’s beauty and goodness and all of that? Aren’t you already immortalized in one another’s minds?”
“I guess it’s more for bozos like you who come to visit,” she said. “Plus, we all know there’s no such thing as immortality.”
I grunted in agreement.
This, in a way, was why we were so close, Carol and I: We believed humanity was doomed, and that was okay, because even with all of the love and joy and beauty of the world humankind was hellbent on serving poverty and war and pain to it, too. Man’s basic instinct for survival had crossed too many times into militarism and dominance, and so Carol and I believed in mortality over survival, we believed in apologies and insecurities and gray areas, we worshipped at the non-altar of the anti-dominant. We were proud of ourselves for our entropy.
The Man in the Moon had disappeared behind an inky cloud. He wanted to leave us to the privacy of our conversation.
“This moon guy is one passive mofo,” I noted admiringly.
Then I turned to my friend. She sat in the porchlight gazing at the dark gathering clouds, still smiling despite it all, entropy or no. Tomorrow she would come home beginning to glow just like the moon, veins filled with powerful drugs that she was told might help her but probably would not. I will be there for her, I told myself ferociously. I wouldn’t back away from it in fear the way I wanted to, the fight–or–flight response that urged me to duck away lest I unravel alongside her. I will be there. Just like she’d keep texting me about dating to dispel whatever loneliness she imagined for me.
We’d be there until we couldn’t be there.
“You’re a good egg,” I told Carol.
“You hate that word,” she said.
“You’re a good steak,” I told her.
Carol leaned back against the chair and closed her eyes.
“You need to stop eating red meat. Global warming, hon. And when I’m gone you need to explain the Anthropocene to the kids,” she said. “Gabriela will be awful at that, she already thinks I tell them too much dark stuff.”
“Consider the darkness covered, buddy,” I assured her.
We held hands. The Man in the Moon slunk out from behind the clouds, saw we were finished, gleamed cleanly at us. He was perfect for me: omnipresent but distant, too, there and not there at all. Just like it was possible to feel so much sorrow and hope, despair and love all at once. Somewhere beneath the moon’s gaze the dish and the spoon ran swiftly together through the wilderness, somewhere the owl sang to the pussycat, somewhere a woman closed a Mother Goose book and leaned over to kiss her daughter’s sleeping face. Sometimes it feels like the horrors of the world are dark and deep and ever expanding, and what a wonder it is that stories and friendship and love are here, too, those bright lights we keep swimming toward, those kind pendants suspended in the dark, signaling to us from the murk that we can be good, we can be better, we can keep going.
Sharma Shields is the author of a short story collection Favorite Monster and two novels, The Sasquatch Hunter’s Almanac and The Cassandra. Sharma’s short stories and essays have appeared in The New York Times, Electric Lit, Catapult, The Iowa Review, Fugue, and elsewhere, and have garnered such prizes as the 2020 PNBA Award and 2016 Washington State Book Award. She lives in Spokane.