Charles gazed at the night sky and smiled. It appeared filmy, as if a giant sheet of wax paper hovered between him and the heavens. The hotel balcony, where he stood, gave him a sweeping view of the Gran Vía, the large boulevard that ran through the center of Madrid. Pulsing red, twinkling blue and violet, blinking yellow, speeding white high beams—the street swam with electric intensity below while above all was murky. Nothing shone or twinkled up there. Even the moon was less visible, something he noticed back in New York over a year ago. He didn’t make much of it, not at first, assuming that the moon’s disappearance was an effect of light pollution. Astronomers had long issued warnings: too much artificial outdoor lighting was responsible for transforming pristine darkness into an unsightly wash of cloudy denim. Charles experienced a sense of loss but in an abstract way. No one born after the Edisonian Revolution felt starved for more stars. So what if a few stars were no longer visible to the human eye? More like eight million but really who was counting? And then, one evening, standing on the roof of his Upper West Side apartment building, Charles realized that the moon was also disappearing from view. He couldn’t have been more pleased.
He glanced once more at the sky before going inside, where Belinda was rummaging though her suitcase. She pulled out one item, then another, while Charles spoke in a feverish rush about what he had—or, more precisely, hadn’t—seen.
“Very happy for you,” Belinda said. “Now where are my pajamas? I need to get out of these clothes.”
“You can’t imagine how great this makes me feel.”
“Truthfully, I can’t.”
“Why is it so hard for you to be happy for me?”
Belinda looked at him in exasperation. “It’s not easy to live with a man on a mission.”
“All the more reason to get on with it. Get rid of the mess up there and start over.”
“You mean down here.” Belinda said, working her way out of her dress.
The mission Belinda referred to was Charles’ determination to rid the moon of names. As a member of the Historical Society for the Simplification of Lunar Nomenclature, he couldn’t bear the chaos of names that now cluttered the moon. He couldn’t look at the moon without seeing a mishmash of names. It drove him crazy. Names like Babbage, Bouvard, Bowditch (and those were only the Bs) created utter confusion, and the moon was littered with them. Considering that there were thousands of these offenses, Charles felt the solution was to simply start over. A blank slate. No more Babbage! Geologically precise terms only. How difficult could it be? A question he often shouted across a conference table at some Bouvard during meetings where he was invariably met with icy rejection.
“She’s not the only moon out there. What about me? Are you going to have me deleted as well?” Belinda asked. She had finished the unpacking and now sat cross-legged on the bed, her back bolstered by oversized pillows. In her silky cream-colored pajamas, she practically glowed.
“Have I told you lately how beautiful you are?”
“Answer the question.”
“Well, that is the point, isn’t it? Are we talking you, Belinda, looking sexy as usual, or Uranus XIV?”
“You mean to say, Belinda. Her name is Belinda.”
“You mean, it. Uranus XIV is a planet, not a person.” Charles began inspecting the collection of bottled waters displayed on the sideboard. “Do you want something?”
Belinda beckoned for the Perrier. Charles handed her the bottle. “I wish I could make you understand.”
“Oh, I understand.”
“Then you agree that the whole thing is an illusion. One that we’ve collectively created over thousands of years. Wipe the slate clean and we can start over without all these archaic beliefs, superstitions and fanciful names. Misconceptions of all kinds would be wiped away, for the better.”
Belinda frowned. “I hope that you aren’t suggesting that I’m archaic.”
“It never occurred to me.”
“Good,” she said, as she undid her hair, allowing it to cascade over her shoulders, down her back, and swirl past her waist.
Spellbound, Charles stared. Belinda’s hair never ceased to amaze him. He adored her hair–abundant, full of movement; it had a life of its own. Often, when he woke in the mornings, he would find long dark strands circling his fingers and wrists, the way a vine wraps around the branch of a tree.
“How does it do that?” he asked.
“What are you on about now?”
“What! Is it disappearing?” She laughed and then asked, “Are happy now?”
“I was talking about your hair, not the moon.”
“Right,” she said and began taking tiny, delicate sips of Perrier. She stared at him with singular intensity, energy rising within her—annoyance, possibly rage.
She had the grayest eyes. Magnetic.
Charles sighed. “I didn’t mean anything.”
“Of course, not! You never mean anything.”
“Let’s just change the subject.”
“How I wish we could but all you ever talk about is your grand plan.”
Charles responded in a prickly voice that he would happily stop talking about the moon if she found it upsetting. He sat down on the bed beside her. Her hair! It must be a trick of the light that made it seem to vibrate like that. “I really don’t want to upset you.”
“I think you do.”
“My god! What is it going to take?”
“Oh, no, not this.”
“You want to make me the problem. As if I’m responsible for the fact that you can’t get your way.”
“I don’t mean to,” Charles said. “I am frustrated. Angry. Half the time I can’t get anyone to talk to me about the moon. It’s all about Mars now.”
“You do sound sad.”
“Defeated is probably a better word.” Belinda was finished with the Perrier. She set the empty bottle on the night table. “At least you’re being honest.”
“I love my work, Bel. I need my work.”
“Where does that leave me?”
A feeling of weariness came over Charles. He wanted to lie down next to her on the bed, but Belinda’s hair was in his way. Maybe she should cut it. Bel’s hair! That abundance he had always found remarkable suddenly struck him as encroaching mass of knots and tangles.
Doing what he could to stay clear of Bel’s hair, Charles stretched out on his back and stared at the ceiling. He stared a lot at the ceiling. He found it comforting. “It’s for the best,” he said, after a long silence.
“Listen to yourself!” Belinda got to her feet. She stalked the room, drawing the heavy damask curtains and shutting the door to the balcony with a sharp bang. She turned to face Charles. “You need to stop this.” She swept past Charles and resumed her place in the center of the bed. “Turn on the television. I want to watch a movie.”
“Go ahead,” he said. “I’m going to take a shower.” What good ever came from trying to explain things to her? When it came to science, he was the expert. It was a lonely way to live, but there it was: no one to talk to about the one thing in life that defined him. His work. The moon.
“Aren’t you going to take your shower?” Belinda asked. She was staring at the television screen. She held the remote out in front of her, as if it were a weapon and aggressively clicked through the channels. The face of a famous American model popped up on the screen, her voice dubbed in Spanish.
Belinda asked Charles tersely if he was going to stand there all night. Clearly, his hovering irritated her. He retreated to the bathroom. Shirt, belt, socks, Italian loafers ended up in a little pyramid on the floor under the sink. When he’d finished soaping and rinsing, he slid open the glass shower door and a burst of hot air escaped, steaming up the room and clouding the mirror. He toweled himself off and slipped into one of the plush hotel bathrobes.
Through the wall, he heard music and assumed Belinda had found some romantic comedy to watch. He wiped the steam off the mirror and inspected his chin. He needed a shave. The music in the next room grew louder, as if a child had gotten hold of the remote and was gleefully blasting the volume as high as possible.
Charles yanked at the door and stepped into the suite. Belinda had fallen asleep, curled up in the center of the bed, her hair spread all around her, as serene and vulnerable as a nesting bird. With an impatient click, he hit the off button on the remote and watched the screen fade to black. The room was unbearably hot. Under the heavy terrycloth, he dripped.
With unsteady steps, Charles went over to the door to the balcony and pulled. It refused to give way.
“Where are you going?” asked Belinda.
Had she been awake all this time? His sweaty hand slid off the doorknob. For a second, he thought he might pass out.
“I need some air.”
“Aren’t you feeling well?”
“I’ll feel better if I can get a little fresh air.”
“If you cared more,” she said in a far-away sounding voice, “you’d listen to me.”
“I suppose,” he muttered. He couldn’t figure out whether it was the strange hotel room or the weeks of travel, but he desperately wanted to get away from her.
“You act as if you care but all you really do is humor me. I am just your poor, confused Bel.”
“I’m not going to argue with you,” he said, his voice brusque. He’d reached his limit.
“And you accuse me of being predictable.”
Charles flinched, injured by her insulting tone and yet unable to respond because he was too ashamed to admit all the ways in which he failed her. She deserved better but, for the life of him, he couldn’t imagine how to please her. What did she want? He had no idea.
“Try to get some sleep, Bel. Things will look brighter in the morning.”
“You know best, dear.”
He wiped sweat from his eyes. “Don’t take it like that.”
“You don’t want me to get too close to you, do you? I think it’s because you’re scared that if I really got inside your head you might begin to see things differently.”
Charles wished she would stop talking. It was so damn hot in that room. He would suffocate if he didn’t get some fresh air.
“I’m going to step outside now. I will feel more like talking after I get some air.”
“Just one more thing.”
“What is it?” He was already making plans to break up with her when they got back to the States. Who could live like this?
“I’ve never once heard you say that you love me.”
“I tell you I love you all the time.” Hopefully, that was enough to appease her.
“You don’t mean it,” she insisted. “You tell me you love me because you think that’s what I want to hear.”
“It’s not true, Bel. I care for you a great deal.” His heart was pounding. “Now try to rest. Sleep will do you good.”
Charles wiped his hands on his bathrobe, pulled open the door, and stepped out onto the balcony. Still burning up, he waited impatiently to feel the wind on his face. He went to take off the cumbersome terrycloth. Who cared if he were to expose himself to all of Madrid? No one was out there to see him. He thought of Bel and her questions as he tried to undress. Whatever had come over her? She seemed determined to push him to the very edge. He tried to undo the belt to the bathrobe, but his fingers were tied in knots—bound by some substance that felt remarkably like Belinda’s hair. And there it was: music of a kind he didn’t immediately recognize. Celestial notes. As if the stars, blind to them though he was, had formed a choir. He remembered that, as a boy, he would carry a pocketknife on him at all times in case of emergencies. But that was a long time ago, and he had nothing to cut through the heavy cilia—no scissors or jackknife. Panicked, he groped about for the door. He tried calling for help, but it was everywhere: in his mouth, falling into his eyes, ringing in his ears. A tremendous gust pushed him against the balcony railing and started to drag him over. A ten-story fall to the ground below. Or was it the sky above? He’d lost all sense of direction. The music grew louder, one crescendo after the other when above him a moonbeam appeared, and through the silken light, he saw Belinda one last time, rapturously combing her hair, like a violinist pulling a bow across the strings of a Stradivarius.
Kathryn A. Kopple works in English and Spanish. Her writing has been published in numerous magazines, including the Bellevue Literary Review, The Threepenny Review, and Easy Street Magazine. “Rubik’s Cube, Six Twisted Paragraphs” appears in the anthology The Shell Game: Writers Play with Borrowed Forms. She is the author of two novels and hosts The Leaving Years literary blog, which publishes original poetry, prose, interviews, marginalia and reprints.