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Richard Risemberg

Talking to the Moon

    Today is Thursday, and the moon is a couple of days past full. In fact, it has taken on the shape of a tire that is losing air. Folks of the sort that like to look at the moon generally prefer to view it when it is full and round, a perfect clean white circle, albeit with its complexion marred by the seas and canyons we pretend occupy its dryness. However, I like it as much when its pretensions have been deflated by the burgeoning shadow that obscures its shape. Of course its pretensions are really our own; it's just a cold dusty rock that blunders around our Earth, dragging the tides behind it like so many cosmic cobwebs. 
    I like being on the water too, and having to know the state of the tide and where I can or can't go with a boat of a certain draft. I am bound to the moon then, in a simple physical way, an unromantic way: the water is two fathoms or one; will I eventually jam the keel into the mud? The water flaps and trembles in the winds that push my boat, but that's a surface effect; underneath it all is the pull of the moon, the high tide that lets me sail into Carlton Cove, the low tide that keeps me confined to certain deeper waters there for a few hours, near the tidepools that depend on the sway of tides to nourish them, with their odd lives that need to be both wet and dry in alternation to survive. The pull of the moon on the sea is equally strong day or night and does not care whether we can see our planet's satellite or whether, in fact, it is on the other side of our globe. But let me confess that, despite my technical cynicism, I find the full moon to be beautiful at night, in a clear sky, over a low wash of city lights. I have taken the boat out on the last of the seabreeze to watch the moon rise over my town, while I drifted in the lull between seabreeze and shorebreeze, the boat ghosting slowly in remnants of the wind, and the proud lamps of shore diminished by the brilliance of that rock in the sky.
    But this morning I stood at my bedroom window to watch the dented orb fall into the west, settling behind the silhouette of the building across the street half an hour before dawn. Of course, that too was a verbal illusion: the moon does not "fall"; the world turns under it, a motion we can't feel and so in general leave out of our romantic metaphors. The moon's own motion through the sky is slower than we can perceive, and is lost in the apparent motion imparted to it by the swing of its Earth beneath. We are captives of great and invisible forces that only specialists can measure and that no one truly understands, and out of our desperate misunderstandings we have made a poetry that is truly beautiful and that often justifies this disturbing condition of vitality that we also can measure in so many ways but never understand. I have reconciled myself to this, to loving the view of the moon from my western window, to loving the slow intricacies of the tide when I sail my boat. I do not need a boat in any practical sense; I suppose it could be argued that I do not need a window, when a mere air vent would suffice for survival of the body. But to be deprived of a window is punishment, as in a jail cell where the window is often placed too high to see much through, besides the stereotypical patch of sky in prison literature. Enclosure breeds madness; I am free because I can stand at my window and talk to the moon as it sets, knowing that I am absurd in addressing a ball of dust. I move within the constraints of gravity in a dance of attractions among the ménage à trois that is, for us, the inertial whirling of the sun, the moon, and the Earth.
    In the midst of all this silent tumult, I hear footsteps coming from the north. It is the right time of day for them, the time when the early-rising denizens of our block step out into the last of the moonlight to head to work or to begin their rounds of exercise. From the pace of the heeltaps I surmise that this is no jogger, but a neighbor leaving for an early job, headed to the bus stop on the corner or to the subway station not much farther off. It could be a dog walker too; nearly every morning when I gaze out I see Allen from the building across the street walking his tiny pug Matilda, who is nearly blind but still sprightly for a dog of her great age. But the dog walkers interrupt their steps periodically; these footsteps move with purpose, steady, yet not hurried; they belong to someone who does not linger in bed until the last possible second, but who gives themselves time to face the day. Their clock-like taps are soothing, I do not like to rush, and like many people I mimic the hurries and worries of those around me, without meaning or wanting to, but also without fail. So when Sophia from up the block sails into view, I am calmed by the sight of her elegant coat and boots, her thick hair gathered in a chignon beneath a thoroughly unnecessary hat. The heeltaps grow louder as she passes underneath my window and then diminish as she strides on southward. I do not know what she does for work nor where she does it; I know little more about her than her name and shape and a few typical details of her life, but she is one of the satellites of my soul as the moon is the Earth's; we orbit without touching and affect each other's tides in some small way.
    I did take her out on my boat one time, in a sort of date, or at least I had hoped it was. It was not. We talked of external matters on the drive to the marina: the political irritations of the day, books and movies, the city's intractable traffic. Small talk verging on the small revelations of character that we use when judging each other as potential mates, or even just friends. I learned very little about her except that her views of life were not repellent, but that's not much. Once at the boat the talk shifted to the sea and the crafts associated with it, and she showed practical sense in enquiring about life vests and the presence of an engine in case the wind failed, and noted verbally that the dinghy appeared to be in good shape. Though it was a warm summer evening when we went out to sea, she brought a sweater; her father was a lake fisher, and she had been out on his bass boat many times. The wind stayed steady as the sun pretended to fall out of the sky, and I could take us out without relying on the clatter of an engine. Of course the purpose of the trip was to watch the full moon rise. That too was a Thursday, not a usual night for a first date, but the moon rises according to its own schedule, ignorant of ours, and I had promised we'd be back on shore by ten. She helped raise the sails and cast off the mooring lines with a casual attentiveness that I found appealing, and as the boat leaned in the breeze and began to move without a sound, I saw her smiling to herself, when, I believe, she didn't know I was watching. Though of course she must have assumed I would be watching and evaluating, so who knows? The water glittered with broken images of the sun, other boats crisscrossed the channel to the gap in the breakwater, the wind held steady, and soon we were out on the open sea, rolling gently with the swells. I'd promised an immediate return should seasickness afflict her, but she remained content, huddled into her sweater on the cockpit bench. 
    I had checked in charts and almanacs to find the best coordinates for moon-viewing in that season, as far as I could; poetic contemplations are not a priority of the Coast Survey. I had to seek further information online at a local amateur astronomy site, but I had penciled in some lines with compass headings on my chart, and as luck and the balance of cosmic forces would have it, the wind let me sail to my chosen location without having to tack. It was about an hour out of the breakwater at my boat's usual pace, and I kept a hand on the tiller and an eye on the compass, when I wasn't eyeing Sophia, as we rocked gently through the low swell towards the ever-receding horizon. Sophia had settled herself against the mast, leaning back on it and gazing into the empty distances ahead of us—empty except for another sailboat and two cabin cruisers festooned with fishing poles along the stern; we would not pass within hailing distance of them anyway. Far to the south was a freighter, low and gray in the surface haze, heading into the harbor with a load of what was no doubt largely plastic junk to fill the shelves of malls all over the west; on the open sea it looked small though I knew from encounters with such craft that close up they loomed over you like shadows of doom. We would keep well out of the shipping lanes, where I once narrowly escaped a wet death when crewing for a fool. The place we were going to was specifically nowhere: just a set of numbers assigned to that particular patch of salt water, but it would be perfect for moon-viewing. I felt very clever as I sailed to this featureless location, while the sun touched its lower rim to the sea and the west turned slowly red. It was, in fact, a beautiful sunset, something I hadn't counted on in my lunar obsession, but I did not discount the effect it might have on Sophia.
    Sophia, however, did not express anything profounder than a sort of animal satisfaction in the proceedings: she still leaned against the mast, perched comfortably on the low cabin roof, safely beyond the range of romantic commentary on my part, giving the impression that if she were a cat, she would purr. It was a small boat, but sound dissipates well at sea, and there is the wind and the sound of the boat's own motion, and one simply doesn't shout romantic commentary, after all. I would occasionally let the boat sail itself, but that was so I could take compass readings of the prominent landmarks back on shore, and double-check myself with the GPS. Just as the red sun fell behind the curve of the Earth, we reached the coordinates, and I set the boat to hold itself roughly in place, while we waited for the moon. A vast transparent wash of scarlet filled the west and slowly dissolved; Sophia noticed that the boat was no longer striding along in the wind, and gestured me to join her by the mast. "A truly beautiful sunset," she murmured. "Thank you."
    I pointed at the towers of the downtown business district, disturbing the horizon far inland; they reflected the dying glare of day under a darkening sky. "The moon should rise right there, if I've figured right. The wind will fall for an hour or so, then start up again in the other direction. But by then the show should be over." The air began rapidly to cool, and I went back to the cockpit and rummaged in both our bags for jackets. She took the one I handed her with a nod of thanks and shuffled herself into it. "I brought some bread, cheese, and wine," I said. "Would you be interested?"
    She nodded, and I went back for the repast, such as it was. She joined me in the cockpit, stepping gracefully down and huddling herself into a corner as I set up a tray table for the comestibles; the wine was a decent red but nothing extravagant, and naturally the glasses were plastic, but the bread and cheese were from a clever little deli I knew of in another part of town and were very good indeed. I had also brought grapes for dessert. We toasted the sea and the sky, and nibbled away at the bread and cheese while listening to the gentle patting of water against the fiberglass hull. The motion of the waiting boat was mild, the water dark around us, the grapes sweet enough to cleanse our mouths of the pastiness of the cheese. A gull flew over, circled the boat once, decided we weren't fishing, and flew on. The lights of the shore world became brighter and more widespread as the sky turned nearly black, and the towers of downtown, now shining from their own lamps, rather than the reflected sun, did not seem so prominent. But just as the night reached its fullest darkness, the sky behind the towers began to soften and turn gray, then yellow; we both noticed and put down our wineglasses and bread. Without a word, Sophia stood and climbed back onto the cabin roof, and I joined her there. Neither of us sat down. The moon was imminent.
    The sky achieved a glowing transparency behind the ranked towers, silhouetting them now despite their feebly-glowing windows. This glow swelled higher into the sky and became brighter on the horizon, until finally a hard brilliance edged the towers so that every miniature detail was visible, though we were so far away. Then the moon itself showed its first curve over the roofs, looming in a frightening silence over the city. I was myself so enthralled that for a moment I forgot that Sophia was standing near me, on the other side of the mast, and I watched until the moon had risen enough to stand vast and yellow over the city, which seemed to cower below it. The city's lamps dimmed under the wash of light, which for a few moments illuminated trees and rooftops in a brief reprise of dawn. Then the moon rose higher, seemed to shrink and become ordinary in its way, no longer painted the rooftops with intensity, though it still dominated the sky. I heard Sophia take a deep breath and let it out, murmuring, "Ah, that was lovely. Thank you. What a fine memory it will make. I'll need it, where I'm going."
    I emitted an interrogative grunt, and she went on: "I'm moving back to Denver in a couple of months. My parents are not well, and they need me. Far, far from the sea." She turned to look at me, her eyes reflected the moonlight: "You know, I've never been on the ocean before, not even on a cruise ship. Only lakes. This was a wonderful evening. Thank you, again."
    The boat leaned as the breeze picked up, now blowing in the opposite direction. I muttered something like "You're welcome," and I hope I hid my disappointment. With Sophia's help—she followed instructions with a competent grace that unfortunately made her more appealing—we put the boat back into sailing trim and headed towards the shore. I made sure to pass by the navigation buoy with its deep-toned bell and the coterie of sea lions lounging on it; the beasts were clearly visible in the moonlight. I would not cheat her of the promised wonders of the sea to soothe my disappointment.  The city lights grew brighter as we neared the shore, and once we entered the breakwater the massed lamps made the poor moon seem paltry by comparison. It did not take long to tidy the boat once we had moored at my assigned slip, and we drove home in silence—a comfortable silence.
    She left for Denver not long afterwards and stayed there two years; we emailed each other now and then, chatty notes that offered no revelations. Her parents had been far more than "not well," and were dead within a year, something she must have anticipated, as she had sublet, not surrendered, her apartment. It had taken her another year to dispose of their "effects," as she called them, and to settle herself in her new status as "the next in line for oblivion." But she said that she missed the sea, and that Denver was not her city any more, though she had grown up there. Some money had come to her too, and she returned to her old apartment, on her old block, and began lazily, as she said, looking for work. She found something, "just to have a place in the world, you know," but said that it wasn't interesting enough to talk about, only useful enough to satisfy her needs. This much we exchanged one day when we met on the sidewalk, just by chance, early in the morning as she walked to the subway station. I knew she was back, from an email, but I felt that it was up to her to suggest a meeting. Maybe I was wrong in that, maybe it made me seem uninterested. Maybe I was. Two years is a long time between dates, if what we had on the boat back then was a date.
    She didn't ask after the boat, as I had told her in an email that I had sold it. She had asked me why, and I told her truthfully that I did not know, but that maybe I had tired of the maintenance about a year after our excursion. It was too bad, she said; the moon had never looked better than on that night.
    I agreed, and then she smiled and said she had to get to work, and I smiled and said that I had to get ready to work, and she turned and walked off into the rising day, and all that is left of our possibilities, whatever they might have been, is the nod and wave in the morning now and then.
    I asked the moon about it, but never it never answered.

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