“The Way to Manhattan”
I first learned to love on the way to Manhattan. He smelled like my father, and drank like my son. “Where are you going?” he asked me politely. I looked at him warily, and replied with the utmost sincerity that I was going to catch the moon. His eyes widened in surprise, and then he threw his head back and laughed: a great rumbling laugh from the pit of his stomach. “What a coincidence!” he replied. “For I’m a starcatcher. I’ve never been able to rope a moon, but there’s a first for everything I suppose.”
I tried to build a wall between our souls but he didn’t let me go.
“First time going to Manhattan?” he asked. I didn’t respond. “I live there,” he continued. “I have for ten years now.” I wondered if he would reach a point where the nouns and verbs ceased to come to his aid. They didn’t, and I resigned myself to his company.
When we got off the train, he assumed shining chivalry and showed me his apartment. It was warm and bright with dancing light slipping through each smallpaned window and castoff pillows resting in every nook and corner. A counter lay unobtrusively next to a small refrigerator, highlighting prominently the severe lack of an oven. A small, lumpylooking sofa sat in front of a bookcase, cuddled up beside a charming side table. The room smelled like beer, old books, and stale pizza and sounded like a midlife crisis. Paper plates stewed on the counter in a mound, dirty and stale with pizza grease and lonely nights. I caught his eye.
“Pizza,” he commented quite seriously. “Is a staple in the starcatcher diet.” His eyes twinkled in amusement.
“Oh?” I said quietly, fixing my eyes on the painting that filled the wall behind him. “An original?” I asked.
“That?” he said. “Clever reproduction. I paint when I’m not fulfilling my duties to the universe. Catching stars and all that.” He winked, and my heart began to slow to a comfortable rhythm. He sat down on the couch and crossed his legs and folded his hands as if conducting an interview. “Do you have a place to stay?” he asked.
I met his gaze. “Mooncatchers don’t need sleep,” I replied, and sullenly remembered the hopelessly infinite city and my horrendous lack of planning.
“Good,” he said cheerfully. “I’ll take the couch then.”
And he did for the next two years.
Every Friday night he ordered a large pizza: half pepperoni, half cheese. I stopped at the shop down the street and bought a sixpack. “Want one?” he had offered on the first Friday night. I wrinkled my nose, thought of my son, and declined politely. He shrugged and grinned. “More for me.” He put the beer on a ragged copy of Fitzgerald and stared into space. When the pizza had disappeared, we sat, shouldertoshoulder, backs resting gently on the bottom of the couch. The pizza box had found its way next to the mound of plates, and the smell of beer wasn’t leaving any time soon. He laid his head on the couch cushion and sighed. “The woods are lovely dark and deep, but I have promises to keep…” he quoted Frost, each word slurred a little more than the last. He closed his eyes. His head lolled to one side, and his breathing became a slow and steady dirge encumbered by sleep.
“And miles to go before I sleep,” I whispered in return. “And miles to go before I sleep.” I brushed a piece of his dark hair behind his ear, and took off his reading glasses, putting them on the side table. My lips blossomed in a small smile. I lay my head on his shoulder, and cried.
Each day, he came home at 4:30 sharp. The shuffle of shoes and the rattle of a key in the lock proclaimed his arrival. Each day I sat down on the couch at 4:15 to wait for him. He entered, full of exhausted smiles and a practiced jubilance. He set a small briefcase by the door, where his work would stay until the next morning. He looked at me and smiled. “Ibsen again?” he asked, as though he didn’t pose the question every afternoon. “Yes,” I replied curtly. “You should read him sometime.” I swung my legs up onto the couch, filling the small space and denying him room. He frowned at me, forehead crinkled in mockery, and turned to the kitchen.
“I guess I’d better make dinner then,” he said, and walked slowly as if his bones were anchored with lead.
I watched him go, and felt a spark under my ribcage that made me smile and say, “I’ll make dinner tonight.”
He grinned and laughed genuinely, immersed in his victory. “There’s a reason I keep you around,” he told me seriously. “And it isn’t for your literature selections.” He gave a meaningful glance toward the dogeared Ibsen I had discarded spineup on the side table. I smacked his
arm with a cutting board. “Chop up some carrots,” I told him. “You’re helping.”
He sighed in mock frustration, before dragging himself to the refrigerator for the carrots. I smiled and plucked a wayward napkin off the floor, warding off ill thoughts and inviting in a complacency I had never really known.
One rainy April afternoon he took me to Central Park. “The rain will help your heart,” he said. I looked at him and rolled my eyes. He hopped off the bar stool and pulled out a rose from behind my purse. “We’re leaving a rose on the John Lennon memorial,” he announced. I raised my eyebrows and got the umbrella. We walked in the rain under the single umbrella, my hair sticking together in wet clumps on the side of my head left uncovered. The trees dripped with
rain, each sparkling drop somehow beautiful in its simplicity. Company was scarce, but that was how we liked it. The memorial gleamed in the rain. We stared for a few moments at the “Imagine” tiled into the earth. “Extra points if you hit the ‘g’,” he whispered teasingly, handing me the rose. I missed.
He turned to me and touched my shoulder with his hand. My arm tingled and I sighed. “I’m getting cold,” I told him.
“Marry me?” he replied.
I blinked. The tree to my left dripped little droplets onto my shoe. “Mooncatchers don’t believe in commitment,” I told him.
His eyes closed a little and he ran his fingers through his hair. His lips drew themselves into a straight line, rigid and formal and everything he wasn’t. He took my elbow gently. “Let’s go home,” he said.
“I’m sorry,” I replied.
“If winter comes, can spring be far behind?” he said.
My lips quirked into a small smile. “Shelley,” I told him. “Yes,” he replied.
We walked home in silence.
On my son’s birthday he went to the store and let me stay home. He returned with a six pack and a bottle of Chardonnay. I looked over my book at him, and glanced skeptically at the large bottle, my eyebrows gracing the tip of my forehead. “How much did it cost?” I asked.
He smiled and set the beer on the counter. He pulled a bottle opener out of a drawer, and poured some of the wine into a water glass. “I know you don’t drink,” he said, handing me the glass. “But ‘Men, being reasonable, must get drunk,’ ” he quoted Byron. “ ‘The best of life is but intoxication.’ ”
“I think you’re misinterpreting,” I told him, and got drunk.
He sat with me on the counter and rubbed a calloused thumb against my palm. I could tell it was a special occasion. The plates were gone from the counter and the kitchen smelled like hope. “Do you miss him?” he asked softly.
“Which one?” I slurred.
He scrunched his brow and leaned his head back against a cabinet. “Both,” he decided.
I paused and took another sip of wine. “Only my son,” I told him. “I could care less about the father.”
He looked at me sadly. “He didn’t deserve to die,” he replied.
I thought of the drunken fight, the screaming cars, the phone calls, and the six o’clock news.
“I know,” I said.
I drank the rest of the glass in one gulp and went to bed.
“I’ve decided to retire from the mooncatching business,” I murmured one day. His hand paused on the refrigerator door handle. “Oh?” he said expectantly.
“Oh,” I agreed.
He frowned. “Will your insurance coverage change?” he asked, his back still to me. “I don’t know,” I said. “I suppose it will.”
“Why is that?” he asked, turning to face me.
“Doesn’t it always for married couples?” I asked.
His eyes widened in surprise, and then he threw back his head and laughed: a great rumbling laugh from the pit of his stomach. He crushed me in his arms and swung me around with a whoop. He sat me down gently, placed his hands on my shoulders, and brushed my temple softly with the back of his fingers.
“You never would have made it as a mooncatcher,” he whispered in my ear, his eyelashes kissing my cheek. “Your eyes are too much like the stars.”
About the author
Mariah Bete is a senior at Carroll High School. She competed at the state level in Power of the Pen as a seventh-grader and eighth-grader. When she was 12 she won Honorable Mention in the Dayton Daily News Short Story Contest.