The Butterfly Nebula 12 — Homunculus

August 30, 2014

Homunculus

Let’s return to January, not long after the snow storm and my receiving the letter from “Patio Astronomer,” inviting me to the Empyrean Observatory in Arizona during Easter week from April 8 – April 10. I decided to combine the observatory visit with a drive across the United States. I had always wanted to do a cross country trip and the celestial build-up of driving at night with the observatory as destination would be more dramatic than travelling by air. I wanted to escape the light-polluted urban sprawl of the East Coast for the Appalachian Ridge and then on into the fertile night skies of the Midwest and West. I wanted to see the heavens over the Rocky Mountains, and I wanted someone to see it with me along with the spectacular views and studies from the Empyrean once we arrived.

I invited Gladys but she wanted no part of a road trip, stating that spending her nights in an observatory would probably be boring and something obviously more for my benefit than hers. I had to agree. I’d expected as much from Gladys, but I noticed that this time her answer felt honest and lacking in malice toward me. When I’d first told her about the binary discovery back in November, she had greeted the news with a calculated indifference, but I soon realized that if I’d made the discovery two or three months earlier she would have sarcastically shouted, “Good for you! All your obsessive bullshit has finally paid off!” or something similar. Her reaction this time had been unexpected and mildly encouraging given my years of dedication and hard work. In other words I would welcome a lukewarm or disinterested reaction to my success over a hostile one, especially coming from her.

But Gladys had undergone a change that I couldn’t quite fathom as if she no longer inhabited her old body and had molted from an abraded sloughed-off skin. I wondered about her aggressive sexual behavior on New Year’s. At the time it seemed as if closing one decade and starting another had triggered a long-awaited transmigration for us.

“I think you should make this trip even if you wind up doing it on your own,” she said to me in a flat tone of voice.

“You’re right. I’ll make the trip no matter what but I’d really like it if you’d come with me.”

She reached for a banana and peeled it, contemplating the slack curled petals of skin draped across her fingers.

“I might spoil it for you. The timing doesn’t feel right to me. We can take another trip together. Maybe Florida or the Caribbean. I think you need to go out West on your own or take someone from work to help with the driving.”

Someone from work . . . Kyle . . . or perhaps John, who was closer to me in age than Kyle and also a telescope hobbyist.

A few days later I was in the store setting up a new Celestron Tycho-900 reflector when I received a call from Beatrice. She needed to see me as soon as possible. My first impulse had been to hang up on her, but I suggested instead that we meet at the diner after work. If I didn’t count seeing her standing in a lighted window behind a veil of snow, then I had not seen Beatrice since Christmas. Because of the more recent revelation and lack of contact, I knew that what happened between the two of us had been born of impulse in the moment and would likely never occur again. What would I say to her. I was angry and confused, but technically she had not done anything wrong except mislead me a little. Had I been a digression or experiment in a sex life mainly devoted to women? Had our release into the moment been hardly more than a thank you for some solstice star-watching and the lantern shadow play in the Brainchild store?

And when we met at the diner Beatrice had surprisingly little to say about her relationship with Sad Laura or our night of sexual bliss and interstellar transport. She sounded almost dismissive of the relationship and mentioned it in passing as if she and Laura were a part of the conversation that needed to be done with before getting down to more important business. We sat in a booth. Beatrice had gotten up in the same tight jeans, scarf and leather jacket I’d seen her wear previously. She was still erotically gorgeous, though slightly less alluring, refracted through the prism of my new knowledge concerning her. I had coffee and she had tea. I ordered chicken parmesan with linguini and Beatrice asked for a Greek salad. I imagined that to her I probably appeared a bit pathetic and silly meeting her here this way. My expression was likely a cross between sniveling and glowering.

“You should have told me,” I said.

“Why? I didn’t see any reason to tell you.”

“I work with Laura.”

She said nothing. We sipped our coffee and tea, trying to read one another, like amateur poker players.

“So why did you want to see me then?”

“I hear that you’ll be taking a trip to an observatory out West? Arizona maybe?”

Her perfect hair. Her blue and brown eyes. The blue piercingly sharp, an azure glint; the brown warm and coy.

“Who told you that?” I said.

“Laura”

“I never told Laura. I haven’t spoken one word to Laura.”

“She must have heard it from someone else at work. You might have told somebody and then I guess they mentioned it to her.”
I had leaked the news to a couple employees—Kyle, for one. I should have known he couldn’t keep a secret, though I’d never mentioned wanting to keep the news a secret.

The waitress brought two glasses of water with straws. Beatrice deftly slid the wrapper from her straw and began knotting it in her long smooth fingers, working the paper into a homunculus before casually placing it upright on the table.

“Very nice,” I said. “Is that supposed to me?”

She nodded and laughed. “So, when are you going?”

“April 8th through 10th I’ll be a guest at the Empyrean Observatory. I’m taking nine days off to drive.”

“That’s Easter Break!”

She touched my hand, a palpable throb emanating from her fingers.

“Take me with you!”

I had not removed my hand from hers. I stared at Beatrice with a strange commingling of wonder and loathing.

She said, “After we made love you told me I was the inspiration for your discovery of the binary star. And now you deny me this experience of sharing in your award?”

The waitress brought our meals and looked at me warily. I guess my severe demeanor frightened the waitress or made her nervous. I had trouble acting pleasant at times and tended to show my moods.

“Is your wife going with you? What’s her name again?”

“Gladys . . . she declined the offer.”

Beatrice popped a Kalamata olive into her mouth, chewed it and deftly withdrew the moistened pit which she placed in an ashtray.

“I’m not surprised. I am surprised that you even bothered to ask her. I thought you hated her.”

“We’re still married,” I said, sensing some need to explain. “My wife would be the first logical choice to invite. You know, protocol.”

“But if ‘Gladys’ goes with you then possibly the best time of your life would be ruined by her presence. I don’t understand you.”

We picked at our food for another minute.

“I’m a good driver,” she said.
“And your motivation to come along with me to the observatory is because of your class?”

“Mostly, yes. . .”

She took a small bite of sodden, oily lettuce, the oil making a darker splotch in the center of the leaf, fringed with a paler green, its original color.

“Do we have any chance of ever being together?” I asked her.

“I’m not sure I know what that means.”

“I think you do.”

“Look, I live with Laura. We’re together. We’re a couple, if you want to call it that. I’m sorry if you had some other expectation about us.”

“Then why should I bother taking you on this trip?”

Beatrice pushed her plate away.

“I fail to see what the trip has to do with my relationship with Laura!” she nearly growled and started rummaging through her bag. “I’m done here.”

Apparently she was used to getting her way. Beauty and sexual allure played a significant role in her negotiating her wants and needs. It was another insight regarding Beatrice now that the cloying fog of infatuation had lifted.

“I’ll think about it,” I said, picking up the check. Neither of us had eaten much.

“I’ll think about it,” I repeated.

She shrugged her shoulders with mild contempt. The silent treatment. I had plenty of experience with the silent treatment thanks to Gladys, and was amused by Beatrice’s amateur theatrics.

“Is that not good enough for you?”

Clutching her bag and leather jacket, she slid over to the end of the booth, her expression pained, yearning, universal in its pathos, and yet suffused with an all-embracing, beatific calm.

“There’s something else I should tell you. I think I missed my period.”

In the days following the snow storm Sad Laura had become even more withdrawn and isolated, avoiding me at all costs. I wanted to maintain a good manager-employee rapport with Laura, and I worried that I might lose her, that she would leave Brainchild Scientific for another and possibly better job. She was my best employee. Ironically, I felt more apprehensive about losing Laura than about losing Beatrice, hard as that was to imagine. Beatrice had been a disappointment and thwarted promise, but losing Sad Laura would be a legitimate setback. Founder Bob Crane no longer knew his business as well as the two of us did. I blamed myself for agreeing to and initiating sex with Beatrice having known so little about her and in the process hurting my most valuable Brainchild worker. But I admitted I could have never denied my love for Beatrice whether I had known about Laura or not.

And though she’d been avoiding me, I came across Sad Laura one morning as she set up an astrolabe for display, and only half surprised by my sudden approach she still glared at me with unmistakable anger and loathing. Was she jealous of me? She knew something had happened between Beatrice and me as we were sitting in the pickup truck on that evening of the snow storm with the figure of Beatrice a wraith-like illumination in the pane of the window. Neither Laura nor Beatrice had ever mentioned the other to me, so I attributed the contretemps to no fault of my own. And Sad Laura had no reason on Earth to be jealous of me. She and Beatrice were lovers and lived together while I had been a one-night-nativity-stand. As much as I’d hoped for a permanent union with Beatrice, I should have been grateful for that night alone. But we always want more.

A couple days after my receiving the evil eye, Sad Laura walked right up to me in the store with something close to a conciliatory look on her face.

“It’s okay,” she said.

“That’s it? ‘It’s okay?’”

Laura nodded.

“Thank you. You’re really important to me.”

“I know that,” she said.

I was treading on thin ice but decided to broach the subject of Beatrice inviting herself on a cross-country road trip to the Empyrean Observatory. Turned out Beatrice had already told Laura that she’d spoken to me, and Laura’s take on the idea was that she didn’t want to be controlling or possessive in any way, that Beatrice could make this trip if it mattered so much to her.

“And you won’t be worried about the two of us?” I said. “About our maybe sharing a motel room on the highway? Or a tent in the wilderness?”

She looked at me in earnest.

“I’m not threatened if that’s what you mean. I’ve never felt threatened by you, Soren.”

With that comment I succumbed to an odd and unprecedented knowledge of emasculation, but I loved Sad Laura and not in any carnal way. I may have loved her because she loved Beatrice too.

“And you shouldn’t feel threatened,” I said, sounding a bit too magnanimous.

The conversation ended between Laura and me. Our business at Brainchild Scientific resumed as usual, as if we’d hardly missed a beat.

A week passed. I halfheartedly invited several Brainchild employees whom I thought would make good traveling companions on the cross-country drive, but everyone declined. I didn’t understand. Were they simply afraid of becoming too friendly or familiar with the boss? Was the line between worker and manager at Brainchild Scientific so clearly delineated? Were the younger workers brains so addled by punk rock and heavy metal that they could not see the marvelous and unique experience they were passing up? Although a couple evinced some interest I sensed their ultimate refusal to join me had more to do with a generation gap than anything else. I believe they saw me as an aging hippy in a time when hippies were quickly becoming passe’ and out of fashion, elder misfits tolerated with kindly derision and a touch of curiosity. Kyle promised he’d join me but only if he could bring his girlfriend and I was against that arrangement. I asked my neighbor who showed no interest in a long car trip though he sounded intrigued by the thought of hanging out in an observatory. I asked Gladys one more time.

My astronomical observations of late were more chaotic and random because I found it difficult to concentrate on much but the impending journey to the Empyrean Observatory. I tracked the Auriga meteor shower and the M103 star cluster in Cassiopeia and I returned to my logs, photos and diagrams of the lunar maria (the Mare Nubium, Mare Humorum, Mare Frigoris, Mare Imbrium, and many others, the remains of basaltic flows a few billion years old, the most famous being the Mare Tranquilitatis where Apollo 11 had landed). A swarm of iron laden concavities juxtaposed with the brighter “highlands,” the mountains; shadowy amoeba blemishes across the face of the near side of the moon; Rorschach patterns, or a skin disease, or the transfused oil I had seen in a leaf of lettuce in Beatrice’s salad . . . I wrote in my log: Tonight the moon is waxing between new and first quarter, an animal horn, a bone weapon and scepter, but when I train the 1200 on this horn near the Mare Frigoris the mythic moon disappears and I’m left with cold observable detail—the ragged perforations of craters and blooms of iron seas
. . . I willfully neglected observing Scorpius because the Empyrean staff had guaranteed me a viewing of my own discovery through the giant Primum Mobile optical telescope and I awaited the powerful rush and grandeur of viewing my own binary discovery.

I was driving home from work one twilight evening in the beginning of February when a stray cat dashed out in front of the pickup. I heard a single thump. In the rearview mirror the cat painfully limped to the curb and then collapsed. I pulled the pickup over, got out, and headed for the cat, her pelt the color of ash and smoke. She was already dead from internal injuries. Two gouts of blood trickled from her mouth onto the asphalt. She’d leapt out too late—I could have never stopped in time to have avoided hitting her . . . a beautiful cat. A field stood nearby and I had a spade in back of the pickup. The weather felt warm for early February. I saw the flame of Venus on the horizon and felt an unexpected, indifferent malevolence from the goddess of love and planet of healing. I gently folded the body of the cat into my jacket and lifted her. The jacket would become her burial shroud.

I received a second call from Beatrice on Valentine’s Day, and because it was Valentine’s Day I anticipated some amorous overture on her part. Maybe she had changed her mind concerning the two of us and would suggest meeting at a hotel after work (a bottle of good champagne, she in white or red lingerie on the king-size bed). Despite the blunt disappointment of our earlier rendezvous, I was glad to hear her voice.

“I’m pregnant,” she said, and in the ensuing silence in which I felt the ground give way beneath my feet, she casually added, “So, can I come with you to the observatory or not?”

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