Miranda, as I called her, and as I imagined her to be a chunk of some alien moon–old beyond estimation–weighed in at six and a half kilograms. A pint-sized alien, then, but impressive for the darkened scars along her side, suggesting she’d been a naughty child, given to fights. I was told she’d weighed more, much more, but that she’d decided on a crash diet as she entered the atmosphere at better than a mile a second. Impact in soft earth had prevented total vaporization, creating the four foot crater I’d discovered perilously near a tall saguaro cactus.
An afterimage of the flash remained virtually embossed on my retina long after her quaking light no longer stretched shadows over my body, and I imagined her years earlier passing Jupiter–that improbable swirl of methane storms across millions of miles of cold–deciding on the very trajectory which placed the meteor in my hands. When the paper took my picture holding it, they called her my pet rock. Nickel and iron, they said, that was not of this world. And somehow I understood from this that I could be happy. I felt, after Miranda, that it was possible. If only I could get my wish.
I’d been lying atop my sleeping bag in the desert sand when that elongated exclamation point–like the finger of God–drew across the heavens. Moments before the distant and resounding thud I’d been contemplating a past which had brought me from the East, emptied of all those signposts which might stabilize a young carpenter’s life, and prevent him from seeing the truth of his aloneness. I said many things to the reporters, but not these. I didn’t tell them much about myself at all. Because they didn’t ask about my thoughts in the desert on that night and the secret wish I had made, I stuck to those tangible facts which made nice human interest copy. As they took their photos I smiled like I’d seen men smile in magazines, and I knew already how the image of my face on newsprint would seem: as alien and masklike as a mannequin’s. I was, simply, a rock. Take away the rock and I was a loner, on my own, looking up at nothing–a stone for a pillow. Take away the microphone and my silence would be as the stars.
When I excused myself during the meeting in the lobby of the Arizona Daily Star there was a man who sang to me in the restroom. “When you wish upon a star,” the man confided, “your wishes travel much too far.”
I turned to ask the man what he meant, but he was gone.
They would all be gone, of course, in much the same way. Slipping out slightly embarrassed at my indecent lack of credentials, and for this being my one tenuous claim to fame. . . even the ones who wanted Miranda for their schools or their planetarium displays. Before that inevitable thinning, however, a miracle. A discovery more amazing than that the heavens had opened and Miranda streaked into my grasp, an angelic gift. A person whose presence I felt. Curious, shy: a girl who wanted to hold Miranda in her hands, to turn her round and round and feel her texture, her weight. And with a voice so amazed.
“Just imagine,” the girl exclaimed in the lobby, “how far it’s come.”
“It’s a she,” I replied at her puzzlement. “Miranda. That’s her name. That is. . . there’s a moon of Uranus with that name. I thought it fit.”
Her mouth formed an oh.
“I don’t know why,” I went on, “I just thought. . .”
I paused then, not remembering what I’d thought.
“Funny,” said the girl, “but my name is Miranda too.”
“No, it’s not.”
“I’ve only come as far as Vermont, though.”
I studied her, and felt no deception. I doubted as one always doubts a miracle, but seeing was believing.
“That’s a long way too,” I said, finally. “Relatively speaking.”
She smiled. It was a filling smile, like a door opening on a closed room.
Then there was one more door.
“Have you come here often, Mark?”
But no smile. We were sitting on a blanket, out beyond the park’s boundaries, surrounded by saguaro cactus, the only light that of stars. Almost an hour after she’d followed me over that winding road past the city lights, and now no meteors to break the desert silence.
“I’m sorry,” I told her.
“Because you wanted to see one. A shooting star.”
“No, it’s not.” I opened my duffel bag and withdrew my battered pair of 20-power binoculars.
“Really,” she said. “I’ve seen them before! In fact, I was outside the same night you were, and I might have seen the same one as you. It was very bright.” She looked down at her hands.
“I was going to show you,” I said, then. “Look. Look over there. West, at two o’clock. That cross. See the star at the top? It’s Deneb, in the constellation Cygnus the Swan.”
“What about it?”
“It’s a thousand times brighter than our Sun.”
“No, it’s not.”
“But it’s over nine hundred light years away.”
Miranda thought about it, then she smiled.
“I’ll bet it’s bigger TOO,” she said.
I nodded. “But so far away.”
Now I could tell her about the Crab Nebula, that gaseous remnant of an exploding star in 1054. Maybe even discuss the origins of comets. Describe to her black holes and pulsars. I could mention what books I’d read on the subject. . . and then. . . and then how even as a child I’d go outside while my mother and father argued over money and bills inside. How I’d lay in the grass and look up at the stars and wonder if there were anyone up there looking back. Or if maybe it was all only emptiness, a mere chaos of unimaginable heat and cold, size and distance.
But I couldn’t tell her why I was here, now, thirty years old but feeling much older. I couldn’t tell her that, even if she wanted me to.
“I’m sorry,” I said.
“You really are, aren’t you?”
“But I’ve brought something else, just in case.”
I reopened my duffel bag again and took out the bottle rocket. I’d purchased it the same afternoon we’d met, when it occurred to me that miracles couldn’t be expected more than once in a lifetime. The fat lady in the red scarf in the shack with the painted black cat told him to light the thing and step back. It was that simple. When I did it Miranda stood up and clapped her hands.
“I love it, I love it!” she said, almost breathless, in the smoking dimness. I glimpsed her eyes, reflecting a sliver of low moon which itself reflected the hidden sun. After a long silence she wanted to know more about me–”who I was”–and I wanted to say, but couldn’t. The closest I could get was the distant memory of one morning, the first day of college.
Shadows, then, I told her: That first morning, when the world seemed heavy with expectation, the sky achingly blue, the future so promising for one whose mind danced with the rhythm of youth. Some days were meant to be remembered, I told her, and that had been a day of days.
Halfway through the telling she took my hand and squeezed it. For as much as I tried to keep it in check, she must have seen a telltale tear come in straining to remember that day in the way I really wanted, past all the pain of my parent’s accidental death, and even my dropping out to wander the world with only my hands to sustain me. As my father had taught repeatedly, if I was willing to work with my hands I’d always have food for my mouth.
My callused hands, strangely frozen in hers. Time alone had held such hands. And now?
“I’m sorry,” I said.
“Stop saying that.”
“But I am.”
“Because you came out here for nothing. Not even a flash in the sky. Only a substitute. Like a memory.”
Into my embarrassment her face loomed closer, an oval resolved finally into identity. Her voice was consoling now, her words chosen carefully: “We think we’ll never forget, but we do,” she said. “How do you remember a feeling, exactly as it happened? You can’t. All you have are facts–bits of what you did, what happened. The reality no one understands is buried. Don’t you see?”
I nodded. “I made a wish, when I saw my shooting star,” I confessed. “I wished. . .you. . .into existence.”
I described the rooms to her, then. The studio apartments in Buffalo, in Jersey City, in Newport News. The tiny kitchenettes where over the past year I’d cooked tasteless frozen dinners, the droning rattle of the air conditioners as I tried to sleep over the laughter and television sounds next door. I told her about reading dog-earred novels late into the night until I was too tired to keep my eyes open. About dreams of falling, and waking up just before I hit bottom. I detailed the brief relationships formed out of fear or desperation. But I couldn’t tell her about downtown streets at night, and the bus stations, and the way the streetlights became an eerie green that made everything feel totally alien, lost. I couldn’t describe how the real world had vanished all together for me then, leaving only this substitute for people alone–always, even in the daylight then, alone.
I could only close my eyes and turn away. And when I opened my eyes again I was alone.
Three days later I was reading a discarded edition of the Star in a donut shop at the corner of a long block of restaurants. It was 10 AM and above me the shop’s circulating fan beat down, flapping the paper in my hands. My eyes tracked in the slanted morning light. But I didn’t see the ad.
A week later found me at the bus stop, sitting next to another discarded paper left in the blue cubicle which protected riders from the intense heat. This time the ad was in bold type, a giant arrow pointing at it from above. But just as I was about to read it, the bus came.
Finally, on a Thursday afternoon, I was scanning the classifieds for an apartment, and there it was. Not merely a print ad this time, but a photo. In the wide-angle image a girl held a roman candle at arm’s length, a bright blue ball of flame arching skyward over the parking lot in which she stood. To her left, out on the street, drivers either stared blankly or pretended not to see. And below the photo: MARK–WHERE ARE YOU? PLEASE CALL ME AT THE PAPER. I’M SORRY. –MIRANDA.
As I ran toward the phone booth, a strange sense of exhilaration seized me. The Star’s switchboard operator transferred my call to the Classified department.
“Star Classifieds, may I help you?”
“. . .Mark??”
That night I drove her to the planetarium and on the way told her that I’d left my other apartment and was staying at a motel for a while. I was trying to tell her all those things which “had no words for them so they never get said” when she touched my arm. I looked over to see that she was crying. Silently.
“It’s okay,” I said.
“Not it’s not,” she replied.
“What do you mean?”
She told me about the men, then. The ones who had used her. She told me about grocery stores too, and libraries, and even singles bars–all of which had bred loneliness for one who disliked being left by men who fled back to their vampire’s caskets at dawn.
Then she told me why she’d left me that night:
“Your remember your wish?” she said. “The wish you made when you saw your shooting star?”
“What about it?”
“It’s the same wish I made when I saw it.”
We arrived at the planetarium, a massive dome looming up into the night sky. Wordlessly, I led her inside and we settled into the deeply cushioned interior seats, tilted back to afford a view of an arched ceiling on which were projected the images of stars, galaxies, and nebula. The program of the evening was a clinical study of the relative sizes of stellar objects. There was the sun, a yellow circle on the ceiling. The earth, a tiny blue dot beside it. Then a huge red circle projected over both, enough to cover a hundred suns. The red supergiant, Antares.
I took her hand on the way out.
“I want to show you something else,” I said.
“No more,” she whispered in reply. “I feel so small. So small I’m almost. . . dizzy.”
“It’s okay,” I said. “It’s okay, now.”
I squeezed her hand, and then I pointed.
In the lobby was a new display, amid several others. On a freshly painted pedestal in the center was a meteorite, six and a half kilograms in weight, dark scars along one side.
“Now that,” I told her, with conviction, “is just a rock.”