“Is that how you really feel?”
It is the final earthquake. The cat, watching from Misenum, sees tephra hanging in the air, lapilli of memories. I send a messenger: Pliny, old friend, hurry.
“I guess so.”
The words collapse into the space between our bodies, pyroclastic. The messenger turns back; Pliny’s ships are useless. The door opens on a small tsunami in the Bay of Naples.
I turn my face up to wait for rain. The ashes fall lightly on me.
“What would’a happened, d’you think, if you hadn’t’a gotten out of Todd’s car?” My spoon clinks against the metal bowl when I drop it. I pick up my glass again just to give my fingers something to do.
“I don’t know. I’d be at the party, I guess.” She takes a bite of ice cream, sucking gently on the end of the spoon to get the last little bit clean. “I’d have a red Solo cup full of mystery punch and the music would be too loud – we’re not in college any more, darn it – and Todd would keep trying to pull my skirt up cause it’s funny. Do you think that’s funny?”
She looks like she’s genuinely trying to figure it out. My eyes involuntarily drop to the hem of her skirt, where it’s riding up. I drag them away and look her in the face.
“Funny? No.” Not that I don’t want to do it myself, slide my hand up between the fabric and her skin. But not to be funny, no.
“Because, you know… people laugh,” she goes on, taking tiny sips of sherry like a hummingbird, poised delicately on the edge of her stool, her knee perilously close to mine. “And so I laugh, too. Only sometimes I wonder if it’s the right thing.”
I press my palm against the porthole. It leaves a smudge like my prints on the enlistment paperwork. In the span between my fingers the station diminishes, compares itself to Triton’s bulk and loses. I imagine Ema inside, impossibly small, with her own hand against the isinglass windows mirroring mine.
I came upon a general marshalling her headlines. They stood in neat rows with their boots and buttons polished and their umlauts on straight. When she sent them forth they marched all together and saluted.
My words escaped years ago and fled to the hills crying Revolution!
When the dictionary fell, it was not to those soldiers in their crisply serifed Times New Roman but to the guerilla words, slipping from mouth to mouth in the cover of night, between the bars of cells and the pages of letters. Freedom. Equality. Love.
When I was seven, my mother pried me away from the porthole. They had told me Uncle Ezi was gone among the stars. I did not understand then that they meant he had died. I wanted only to hold the stars.
At twelve I learned the stars’ names, which ones belonged properly to the Alliance and which had gone colonial. Colonial was a dirty word, low-caste and anxious. We walked the line, miners, stealing from planets too small for the name, among stars marked firmly Alliance on the maps.
You can have the stars, now; I’ll take the space between.