THE MOON, A LOVERI work the night shift at a gas station.
It’s a strange job, with a lot of strange feelings around it, at least for me. Even though there are other people there with you usually, there’s still this pervasive feeling of loneliness, this haze of boredom and tired that cloaks everything in a slow and dreamlike atmosphere.
In a place like this, in a job like this, one is bound to meet unusual people. Customers, of course, but coworkers as well - it takes certain kinds of people to choose the night shift, to decide you’re fine shunning away the daylight for weeks and weeks in order to make a living, to decide the lonely and the quiet is how you’re willing to live.
There was a woman (one who haunts my thoughts even now, even long after) among my coworkers who, of course, took the same shift as me, lived as a bit of an oddity even among oddities. No one really knew her well, though she was friendly enough.
Her name was Cassandra, but everyone just called her Cass. Her eyes were shadowy black but glittered strangely, like in the night of those eyes she caught a fallen star and it got trapped there shining behind her gaze. There was always something kind of distant about her, and it almost made me wonder if even though she was standing here, right now, her heart was a million miles away and she couldn't quite figure out how to bring it back.
We didn't talk much at first, just did our jobs and silently acknowledged each other in that all-too-tired, jaded coworker sort of way. A mutual respect, but strangers all the same.
But every time she was on break, she'd just go outside and sit on the ground, staring at the night sky. I'd see her from the window, see how peaceful she looked, and part of me wanted to be out there with her, to see what she saw in the sky.
So one night I went out with her.
She was startled when I approached, looked up at me with those starlight eyes and said nothing at first, looking almost guilty like she'd done something wrong.
"Nice night tonight," I'd said to her, and sat down on the concrete nearby. Her eyes softened and she went back to stargazing.
"It really is," she'd answered after a long silence, so quiet her voice'd almost been swallowed up by the sound of crickets. Then she looked over at me with all that serenity gone, harshly and fearfully, and asked "What do you want?" like she was challenging me, daring me to take the moon from her, like it was all she had.
My throat was unusually dry. I took a moment to respond. "I was curious," I'd begun, before pausing, wondering - curious about what? "why you stargaze so much."
She hesitated, looking lost in her thoughts, maybe not sure she wanted to answer. "It's comforting," There was so much more feeling locked behind those words, a whole story I couldn't read. "It makes me feel like home, I guess."
"Really?" I asked without thinking. I felt like maybe I was prying. Maybe. Maybe I just wanted a moment to talk to her, to get to know her, even if I didn't, couldn't know why. (Oh, it was a crush, I know that now. But back then I'd thought perhaps I was probing a mystery, divining the secrets of the heavens.)
She sat there mutely. She stared back up at the sky. "Have you ever felt like you didn't belong anywhere?"
"Yes," I didn't elaborate, but I remembered. Sticking out like a rusty nail among my peers and hammered back into place, ostracized by family for my identity, living in a place where I was too strange and off-putting to be treated like a person- I wondered, then, if she'd experienced the same things, but I didn't ask. It would be rude to just ask these things. "I still don't think I've found somewhere for myself."
"Me neither. I'm still looking." she answered with heartache coloring her voice. "But when I look up at the night sky and see the moon and stars looking over everything in the world, I think 'somewhere, somewhere out there there's some place I can belong.'"
"You'll find it," I'd replied without thinking. I still had trouble believing there was anywhere for me out there, had no idea the extent of Cass's problems, but she sounded so hopeful that I could help but get caught up in her idealism, feel that maybe everyone in the world had a chance (maybe even me.)
She finally tore her eyes away from the sky, looked at me with a gratitude that made something in me flutter. "Thank you. I hope you do, too."
"Would it be okay if I came out to sit with you again soon?" I'd asked before I could stop myself.
"Sure, why not?"
And that was that.
So, it became something of a ritual between us. Our break hour would come, and we would walk out under the moonlight and sit on the pavement and gaze at the night sky and talk. Sometimes I'd bring snacks for us to share, pulled right off the store shelves. Sometimes she would, or maybe even bring a packed lunch she made (always something simple, but the thought made it special.)
Even with the stars above us, I'd always feel more starstruck by her wit and observations, the way she looked at the world through a poet's eyes (I told her she should try getting into writing, and she'd said she'd tried but the thoughts always felt so much duller trapped on paper) - I'd always felt lacking by comparison, but I like to think she'd at least enjoyed the company. Our coworkers wouldn't say anything, but they'd snicker and wink at us cheekily - acted like we were a sure couple that just didn't know it yet, and part of me desperately wanted to believe it. Months passed this way.
(Her heart may have been lost far away, somewhere, but mine was right here, shimmering aflame, telling me I couldn't get any closer or I'd be incinerated, telling me I had to get closer so I could bathe in the warmth of her light.)
But as time went on, Cass became stranger. I don't know what started it, or if it'd already been going on for a long time and I'd only now noticed.
She would spend longer and longer periods of time outside, cutting into her work hours. I didn't want her to get in trouble, so I would pick up her slack. But when break came and I came outside to join her, she was increasingly less responsive, seemingly too absorbed in the ecstacy of midnight to respond to the world around her.
"Did you know that the moon is a lover?" she had said. "The sun gifted her its glow, and she shares its light with all of us."
She'd been talking more and more about the night, less interested in anything else. I think it may have at least been in part a form of escapism - I had asked her how things had been going for her, how her life had been outside of the little gas station that now felt more like home to me than the place I lived, and she'd stared at me somberly, morosely, behind her shooting-star eyes the ghosts of conflict, screaming, a dagger through her heart and mind.
"I don't belong," she'd whispered like a poltergeist.
There were things I wanted to say. I wanted to tell her 'I can be where you belong,' but it felt too intimate, a step too far. (I'd almost held hands with her once, but I'd hesitated, changed my mind, was too scared to risk testing the boundaries, too scared to even find them.)
But I didn't say anything.
She continued on her own, lighting up with a smile which didn't feel like it was for me. "But the night doesn't judge me. It doesn't lie to me, or yell at me, or tell me I'm not good enough."
"I don't do any of those things," I said to her, but I don't know if she heard me, if she was even listening. She was somewhere else. The rest of the night was spent in silence. I felt like a stranger.
Another night- "Have you heard of the Man in the Moon?" she'd asked me.
I nodded. The suggestion of a face that many had claimed to see, an illusion of dust and shadows and craters.
"There's more than one,"
I simply stared.
"Hundreds, thousands, all up there together. No one ever feels lonely or out of place, and no one ever has to do anything. They just live in that permanent midnight and watch over the sky and they feel peaceful forever." There was such a wistful look to her that made my gut twist. I had nothing to say, then. How could I have?
I'd started writing poetry. There were several reasons - I'd been inspired by the things Cass said, the melodic flow of her feelings, but I still sought to understand my own, put them into words in a way that made sense. I wrote all sorts of cheesy love poems that now lay rotting in the garbage somewhere. More than anything else, I wanted to write something that would shake her out of it, bring her back to Earth and tell her how I felt about her but didn't know how to speak aloud all in one heartbeat. It was messy and clunky and hideous, but I was writing a masterpiece.
And she was drifting further and further. She no longer actually checked in to work - she would simply drive into the parking lot, sit down in her usual spot, and stare up at the moon, only reacting to the outside world if it was insistent, forcing her attention away from the night. I think my coworkers felt too sorry for me to chase her off.
I would still go out and sit with her when I could, of course. I would scribble ideas for my masterpiece and veto them for being too cheesy, too overwrought, just as fast, and she wouldn't even realize I was there until I said something to her.
"We mirror the stars with the lights of the cities," she'd said to me, unprompted. "We're courting the moon. We're calling to her as she slow dances with us."
I crossed out a hokey and cliche line comparing her beauty to the moon.
"I think the night will answer," she continued, a breathless exhilaration in her voice that made me look up at her with a start. "When she shows her true face tomorrow, I will find home."
Tomorrow, there would be a full moon.
My mouth went dry. "What do you mean?"
She didn't answer.
Desperately, desperately, I wanted to tell her that I could find home for her, that she wasn't as alone as she thought she was, just tell her then and there that I was maddeningly in love with her, had been for months and months, and I missed the person she once was, the person who would talk and laugh and smile about something other than the sky.
Instead I said, without understanding why, "Will I ever see you again?"
She didn't even look at me. "You'll see me every night."
That morning, I stormed into my empty apartment and I crumpled up my poetry and piled it in a corner. I don't know why. I think maybe I knew that it was too late for it, that I'd waited until the last minute and that minute had passed, and so my so-called 'masterpiece' would never be finished, never amount to anything, never bring Cass back to Earth. I resolved to burn all the papers tomorrow night, but not long after I faltered and backed up on my silent promise and instead settled to simply throw them away, taking a guilty comfort in the thought that at least this way they still existed, that there was still proof of my feelings.
As the sun peeked over the horizon, I curled under my blanket, hiding from the daylight.
When I went to clock into work, the next night, no one was there. There'd been some sort of emergency in management and it'd been closed for the night. Somehow, everyone had heard about it but me - and Cass, out in her usual spot, but of course she didn't go to work anymore so nothing changed for her.
I’d known, somehow, then, that something was wrong, though I didn’t know what. I stood in the empty gas station store feeling alone and lost and out of place, and I looked out the window and felt like an intruder, somehow, when I saw Cass sitting there, staring up at the night sky with that serene bliss she always held for the moon.
I walked outside, almost called her name, wanted to try to speak to her, but- I froze, feeling a shiver in my spine as the parking lot seemed to shine brighter, bathed in moonlight like fog, and I looked up to see the moon staring at her like an eye, like a face, like a thousand faces together, seemingly drifting closer to us, pulling itself down from its place in the sky like it was right in front of us instead of thousands of miles away.
And I watched in awestruck silence, motionless, as blue-purple-gray-white-black stone arms aflutter with moon dust reached down to Earth, impossibly larger and longer than anything could be, gently picking Cass up delicately, delicately.
And I watched, frozen, wanting to act but really, truly helpless as the night sky fluttered down in inky reams of silk, settling around her, swaddling her like a newborn, aglitter with starlight.
And I watched, guiltily, as the whole thing began to travel upwards, upwards, lights aglow like fireflies drifting in the night, and I saw the look on her face, that look of safety and contentment and belonging.
And I felt I hadn't done good enough for her, like no matter what I had tried I had never been able to bring her the comfort the midnight brought her now.
And I felt like I should have stopped this, like I could have pulled her away from the night before it pulled her in.
And I watched her disappear into the sky with it, moon and all.
She was reported missing and later assumed dead. No one ever would've believed me if I told them what I saw.
My life hasn't changed much since then. I still work the same job - lonelier now, and not as strange - still wake and sleep the same hours, still drive the same roads and pay the same bills and sleep through the day the same apartment home.
But sometimes I take a moment to stare up into the starlit sky, and I can't help but wonder if Cass is really up there, watching the night she adored through celestial eyes. (And I can't help but wonder how things would have been different if Earth had been enough for her, if I had been enough for her.)
She'd said, back then, that the moon is a lover, bathing its sky in gifted light. But I think she was wrong.
I think the moon is a jealous thief.