Man in the Moon

Melissa Wiley

I cannot look at his arms, his face. Because I want to lick the hair inside his stomach, because I can never come close enough to see then straighten it with ribbons of saliva. Because the man in the moon isn’t a man at all. He is only illusion known as pareidolia. The reason I cannot see his arms, his face, his knees is simple. He does not have them.

His nose, his jaw, his eyelashes are only patterns in stimuli science says are random. Astronomers affirm his facial features are only basaltic formations born of volcanic eruptions. Their iron concentrations render them less reflective than the highlands. The man’s eyes and mouth are no more than depressions compared with the higher plains surrounding them.

Yet you cannot confront a face, even one known as an illusion, without also seeing its expression. You cannot see the man in the moon without also perceiving a sadness embedded deep within his basaltic depressions. Still he never cries, because his world is waterless. Still early astronomers mistook the iron concentrations for oceans. Within his nostrils’ nave, they saw dolphins.

Their term “lunar seas” persists as jargon among those who insist the moon is faceless, those who press telescopes to eyelids searching craters’ depressions until they’ve gone blind to the man in the moon’s emotions. Likely the only advantage of loneliness is that other worlds hold more promise. Anything shaped remotely like an almond becomes an eye to be seen with. Earlier astronomers and I have at least that much in common. We have seen life on the moon that never existed.

They have all died, though, too early to know this. They have died and left me alone to see a face in the moon’s oceans, a face become transparent, because water makes up most of any body looking solid. In what were bodies of water to earlier astronomers, I see lips whose peaks crest the same as tidal waters pulled by yet another moon’s greater gravitation. Lips too cannot be random, and the man in the moon knows this. He knows his lips are no accident, if only because so long has passed with no one to touch them. Even a dentist brushing them in the course of an operation would now be welcome. A dentist extracting a tooth gone rotten.

Decades have elapsed since any astronauts have grazed his surface. His lips’ dryness, the fact none of the astronauts who have visited him have been women, alone should render me a good companion. He looks on always at our planet, his looking endless, at the same tilt of his neck, a result of the moon and earth’s synchronous orbit. The fact that I’m the only one who sees him still I doubt he takes time to notice.

Other women, though, may have caught his interest. Other women may give him an erection as they undress by the light of his sun’s reflection, while to astronomers seeing only basaltic formations he vanishes. Perhaps to me alone he’s indifferent. Perhaps the only reason he denies me his attention is because I’ve denied someone else before him. His amygdala alone eclipses constellations. His memory hovers colossal in the heavens.

I have more memories too than I know what to do with. When I was six or seven, I was swinging on the set my dad had built from two fallen telephone poles he shortened. I was swinging and singing with the sun setting, a song that was less a song than my thoughts put to music. I was singing “I need a man, I need a man,” over and over again to no real melody. I described this man I only imagined as smelling of soap, of having no hair in his armpits. But “I need a man, I need a man,” I half sang, half spoke when my dad surprised me. He was walking to our house from our garden and asked, “How about your Daddy?”

He was only joking, was only being friendly. Still he had intruded, had done something invasive. I had gotten lost on purpose and he had found me. I thought I had a private life then suddenly knew I didn’t. Years later, I never understood how other girls had boyfriends, how they sat at dinner with their fathers withstanding the knowledge they had been kissed or sexually excited. I had revealed the deepest part of me, the yearning that is there from almost the beginning, too early. Ever afterward, I felt a little restricted in his company.

For me to be free, I would have to reveal less of my longings. Because desire occupies vast spaces, I knew even then I would need a certain distance from my parents. I would need it then resent when they both grew sick just as I’d become a woman not long out of college. Reluctantly, I moved back to where I again could be seen too clearly.

Meanwhile hunters walking through a black forest think a white fawn signals their death. They think she is an omen rather than something living, because she roams without any pigment. She roams deeper into the trees’ darkness, imagining the moon alone as her natural companion. She imagines this because of his same whiteness. The imagining, though, does not bridge the distance, does not make her any less anomalous in a world more verdant.

The man in the moon sees the lost fawn and the whole world with it. He sees but does nothing, because he knows lostness resides within the lost object on such a small planet. He knows this and more from his higher vantage, from which he has also seen me packing more than a decade before this. From the skies, he has seen me leaving while remaining bound by gravity to the same surface. My mom had died already while my dad was scheduled for another round of chemotherapy. The man in the moon and I both watched, both of us healthy.

He must have watched me fold my bedding inside a suitcase through the cloud fallen over half his face. Once I decided I was going, was abandoning the only person left to whom I remained necessary, I told myself my dad didn’t need me until I became convincing. I told myself this because I was living for the man in the moon already, for all the men who might be illusions — there are so many — you see walking through a city. With my dad still breathing, I began living for someone who exists only in theory.

I still live where there are more eyes to see and soon forget me, where I am lost amid so many faces wearing the same expression expressing nothing. This morning, I woke with my nose bruised and swollen, with no one noticing the difference the day’s remainder except for my husband, with whom sex is often better when I think of other men and he of other women. The bruise appeared after I walked into a glass wall last evening. Someone had washed the wall transparent. I walked into what looked to be an open door to the restaurant where we were eating but whose food I didn’t finish.

A friend has just reminded me we are meeting for drinks this evening. I cannot go, I’ve decided, because I look too ugly. Yet the man in the moon may care less about appearances if no more astronauts visit him within another decade. Eventually, he might look past me leaving my dad too early, the loss of whom has since carved hollow spaces within me, arid depressions earlier astronomers might have mistaken for seas. The absence has eroded mountains into valleys where my nose and eyes should be. The craters, I mean.

This is the third time I’ve walked into a wall of glass, allowing light through but not me. The problem isn’t my prescription, because I have new glasses. An optometrist can correct your vision but not decide where you fix your attention. And I am always looking into the distance. Your eyes forget to focus, insists my husband. Watch where you’re walking, he cautions. Look at the glass rather than through it, because next time you may do real damage. This notch on your nose as it is may be permanent.

What are you seeing instead of the glass? he doesn’t, though, bother asking. The question does not occur to him because in the man in the moon he has no interest. Because he thinks his love for me sufficient. Because of leaving my dad stranded he has almost forgotten but I haven’t. Because his absence hasn’t carved hollow, unreflective places within him some might perceive as faces. Because he is so much more solid a person while I feel half a ghost as it is, someone who should walk through glass without pain, without bruising, but cannot manage.

Before his hospice started, a nurse visited him once a week in the home where he had begun living alone. She cleaned the port on his arm he never had removed for chemo’s poison. She checked his blood pressure and felt his head for its temperature, as if nothing more were wrong with him than a fever. She asked about his bowel movements once when I walked into the kitchen and they were one room over. My dad joked she needed to know everything.

When she left, my dad said she was attractive. In truth, she was fat and her hair dyed too dark for her complexion. But my dad had needed to find her pleasing, and I saw this. With my mom two months buried, he was lonely and looking. He was unembarrassed by his desire even as he himself was dying. Empty as the house was without my mom’s presence, it began filling with his need. It made the room the nurse had left crowded in her absence.

In what looks each night the same to me when the moon makes an appearance, different cultures see different images. The only consensus about the man most agree to be human is that he is being punished for some transgression. Medieval Christian tradition claims he is Cain barred from heaven. Old Germanic cultures imagined he’d stolen a hedge from his neighbor’s garden.

Roman lore says he stole a sheep, a larger crime in ancient civilization. Yet Chinese mythology maintains the man is a goddess, banished from earth after consuming a potion meant to ensure her life was endless. The Chinese have also spotted moon rabbits while many London taverns during the Middle Ages named themselves the Man in the Moone as a way of boosting business. Bartenders claimed he spent his days drinking claret as evidence. Sober or drunken, the fact remains he lives in permanent isolation.

It’s all over now, still I want to tell him. No one now drinks claret. No one believes there ever was a Cain much less a heaven from which he was denied entrance. I am the only person left who thinks you exist to begin with. I have nearly broken my nose in search of someone who may be either an illusion or a rabbit, someone whose theft or murder or alcoholism is never forgiven. A woman who made herself fatherless a few months before she needed.

The only time my dad ever hit me was after I’d gone missing, in SeaWorld of all places. Hours had passed with my parents looking for me. I imagine we all were hungry. When they came to the information booth where a man had brought me once he found me crying, my mom was relieved and hugged me. My dad had guessed correctly I’d gotten lost on purpose. He said I’d done it for attention. In front of the information booth’s attendant, he bent me over and spanked me.

It happened only once but was still a violation, less of my body than of my thinking. He had seen through me as if my head were made of glass while my mom saw nothing. He had known I’d grown sick of my parents paying more attention to my younger sibling than to both myself and the dolphins. The show itself they hardly noticed in their love of someone so small as to hardly make much difference, and I didn’t follow them when the show was finished. Had they only turned around to look for me, they would never have lost me. I had not gone missing but stood there stationary.

And this lost fawn in the forest. I sometimes suspect she has no one except a pareidolic illusion as a companion because this is how she likes it. Because there are other fawns in the forest, and she could find them if she wanted. None may have her same whiteness. None may reflect the moon with her precision, but still they speak the same language. Still they might discuss matters affecting the larger deer population.

Yet in their concerns regarding the state of the forest, in their dialectical considerations, she takes no interest. She prefers the man in the moon’s lips, which are gray and chipped, which are large enough to swallow her whole. She could find herself, she thinks, in his digestive system. Falling down his esophagus, she could make sense of all this lostness once she is chewed to pieces. Her blankness then would serve a purpose other than hastening hunters to an early death because of their own superstitions. She would become food to keep the man alive.

The man in the moon, however, is only a fragment. Even if his mouth exists, he likely has no intestines. He almost certainly has no penis. He suffers from severe limitations, if only because another planet once collided with our own according to geologists, creating the moon amid solar torrents. The moon consists of the earth’s own crust and mantle as evidence. Still the man in the moon must have teeth to chew his food with. The white fawn thinks this with such seriousness she thinks she knows this, though in truth she only guesses. Given enough time, the man in the moon might visit the dentist.

As a person with only a head, he also has his opinions. He must have after witnessing so much of our destruction, more than he likely wishes. He may suppose we too are only phantoms, nothing more than his brain’s hallucinations. And he may be correct, though no one asks him. He may be a god or godless. He may be speaking as we gaze through our windows up toward his depressions. He may, though we cannot hear him.

The bruises on my nose have darkened to the color of lunar seas. They have blackened into what may become iron concentrations, providing me with some small consolation. With his eyes focused on my lowlands, the man in the moon can perhaps now see me better from a distance. I leave him to his own conclusion about what data are random.

Will I ever even meet him? No, the answer is obvious. I know nothing more of him than astronomers for certain. But love fills in spaces. Love heightens your attention. Love of a man not on the moon but in it, a man so deeply embedded within its rock he can never flee its surface. A man lighter than I am owing to the moon’s lower gravitation. A man not emitting light but lightness.

Before unpacking all my boxes in my new apartment, I came home again at the doctor’s insistence. My dad needed someone to care for him, to keep him from getting cuts or bruises, because the chemo made him highly susceptible to infection. The doctor called me and said two weeks at minimum. My dad and I agreed a week was sufficient.

A day in with me home to watch him and he already wanted to install our windows’ screens, to save money on air conditioning. I told him I would do it, but he said that if this was his life now, it wasn’t worth it. This new life of constant exhaustion. This being bed ridden with the windows closed to the birds that flew into them. A nick from the window I knew could kill him, but I didn’t try to stop him. I agreed the house needed better air circulation.

He would also save some birds in the process, one human life on its tail end for that of a few feathered friends. Because this always happened. All throughout the summer, birds flew into our living room windows and died from internal bleeding, from hemorrhages to the brain and hidden bruises. Afterward, we swept them from the porch into a wheelbarrow we emptied in our garden. They flew too quickly against what looked transparent but was as close as something can come to solid. Sometimes we laughed at their carcasses, at their thinking we lived in a house with no windows for protection, but where they were flying we could never ask them.

To the moon, though, to me it’s now apparent. Anyone who has seen a bird’s silhouette thrown against the moon’s stark brightness knows this. Anyone who has ever tried to follow flying birds past one cloud to another hanging yet higher in the firmament realizes how hopeless they must find reaching their destination. Still they flap and fly to exhaustion as the moon’s attraction weakens their resistance. Then if you have wings and the moon looks within reach, the man’s hollow spaces a viable place to rest in, you use them.

And this same lost fawn in the forest. She has lost herself for only one reason, to claim all the moon’s attention. She has gotten lost solely to seek what he still refuses. He comes no closer when she begs him, so all she can do is wait for her first menstruation, when all the world’s female mammals shed their uterine lining in league with the moon’s wholeness. She can wait to see if this brings her any closer to him. She can wait and then be disappointed. She can live all her life devising yet another stratagem, having visions of strange men while having sex with her husband.

I took advantage of being home again to having my wisdom teeth removed by my childhood dentist. While my dad’s white blood cell shortage kept him weak and struggling for oxygen, I underwent sedation. The dentist brushed my lips with tissue every few minutes. He wiped away blood leaching from my gums in what seemed a soothing rhythm. After he had numbed their pinkness, the feeling in my lips intensified as if to strike a balance. Their nerves began tingling, and each gentle wipe of tissue felt a small gift. Almost too soon, the operation ended.

For the pain to come once the anesthetic receded, he prescribed me Vicodin. Yet instead of the euphoria promised, I grew nauseated. The whole night I vomited. I read my dad’s concern in his expression when I padded to the bathroom between our rooms in the morning again. He had no energy, though, to speak as he lay on his deathbed, as I read and nursed my mouth with aspirin. What was meant to be a brief convalescence became the beginning of his hospice. After another hospital visit, the doctor confirmed he was too weak to withstand the bone marrow transplant that had been promised. The chemotherapy that had previously proved effective his body now rejected.

And in this a lightness. A weightlessness I have not felt since. Inside me air briefly replaced something solid. The end was almost completed; something fragrant exchanged itself for something rotted. Because when everything collapses, something else arises. An emptiness that is also freedom, the mouth released from its hard, yellow teeth of wisdom. Because every life is in some sense a prison. This world is only so large a one to get lost in.

Hearing the final diagnosis, something in me lifted the same as a flying fish breaching the waves of the ocean, one whose pelvic fins have evolved solely for beating the air above water’s surface for hundreds of feet in the distance. Like moths, flying fish are attracted by luminescence. Nights when the moon is clouded, night fishermen await them with electric light filling their canoes, exploiting this instinct. And this love of a man perhaps not even a person may also have his henchmen. They may be the ones making glass walls look like doors just opened.

I still cannot fully explain this sense of liberation, this looking toward the moon as I knew my dad was dying then for certain, as if all I had ever wanted was his absence. Because of all people living, my dad was the only one to know me wholly, to read every thought clearly. Without him, I have lost the world’s recognition. Without him, my world is too private. Without him, I am a lost white fawn in the forest. No one now sees my same features reflected in his own. Even were he beside me at this moment, my nose is no longer a replica of his, small and bulbous. Instead, it has grown wide and blue and swollen. Its new notch may be permanent.

After the coroner came to dress my dad, after he’d lain for eight or more hours dead in his pajamas, his body stiffened as expected. Yet his same lips whose shape I have inherited fell slack, his face revealing no new expression.

My sister was the first to notice. Once the gurney was unloaded from the van, his lips turned up slightly at the edges. Minutes later, we both saw the smile widen. His teeth began showing through lips that parted then stretched themselves into something radiant. Together we stood and watched it happen. By the time the coroner wheeled him past the window the birds flew to their death against, the coroner too was laughing at the transformation. At this small, soft planet careened out of orbit. At the gap between his two front teeth that is mine as well. These series of spaces visible only when we feel a sense of freedom.

And this white fawn, this white fawn again. She chews only low, jaundiced grasses, because winter has come around again. No acorns, no apples and persimmons, because this world is now colorless. She should feel at home here now as a consequence, but she doesn’t. A person running through the snow-covered forest could run into her and hurt himself if he ran fast enough. Fortunately everyone keeps their distance.

There is no reason to have your wisdom teeth removed if chewing causes no pain or discomfort. Still my dentist recommended it once I left my dad at home to ask him, because these teeth are more susceptible to cavities, to gaping holes within, because their position makes them harder to access for cleaning. Since my parents received their separate cancer diagnoses, I’d had eight cavities filled over two appointments. I asked and paid for gas at each because of the extent of the damage, because of all the hard matter inside me gone missing.

And it isn’t love I mean. It isn’t that at all. The love has stayed. What has gone is wisdom only. What has gone is knowing anything as definite. What has replaced it may be all illusion. I no longer need a man, only an empty planet. A place of yet greater freedom now that sprung from my dad’s absence itself has vanished.

I’ve recently read about a woman who tried to teach a dolphin English. She painted her lips black, the rest of her face whitened, so the dolphin could better read their movements. The study took place in the Virgin Islands and received funding from NASA. This happened not long after the man in the moon spent time with Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin, because teach dolphins our language and we might teach aliens, or so went 1960s logic. The woman slept suspended in a bed above the dolphin. At night she encircled it with a shower curtain.

The man leading the study injected the dolphin with psychotropics to speed the animal’s development, a fact later making the study infamous. More interesting to me, however, is the fact the dolphin fell in love with the woman. The rubbing he did with his erections left her legs with bruises.

He ran his teeth too up and down her legs in courtship, something that may and may not be particular to love between dolphins and humans. Yet teeth are precious regardless of the fact I kiss only with my lips, keeping my teeth hidden, regardless of the fact I have paid to have a dentist remove those with any wisdom. Then again there is something to eating and being eaten. This the woman, though, avoided. Astronauts traveling to the moon have also escaped the consequences of landing in the man’s largest orifice, of falling prey to hunger without any means of digestion.

When I walked into the glass wall last evening at restaurant’s entrance, my nose absorbed all the damage, protecting my teeth in the process. Perhaps because the man in the moon’s nose sits lower than its surrounding highlands, he is toothless. Perhaps Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin were free to land anywhere they wanted because all his teeth have been hit by flailing comets. His nose that is no nose at all has failed to shield them. The galaxy’s debris have eroded all his wisdom, making a dentist redundant.

My dad paid for me to have braces, to remove the gap between my two front teeth I inherited from him, because he said teeth were what really made a woman attractive, because he said he wished his parents had done the same for him. The gap, though, has partially returned and persisted, a gap that makes me lisp and spit when I speak too quickly. My dad tried to make me pretty, but instead I spray saliva into people’s faces while trying to communicate clearly.

In her diary, the woman who tried to teach the dolphin English but never succeeded recorded her fear of being harmed, of being broken. To allay the dolphin’s affection, she eventually gave him hand jobs on a daily basis. Yet once NASA stopped funding the project, the dolphin stopped breathing. He committed suicide once she left him to go get married. Love, though, does these things. Love frees itself from bodies. Even my dad’s corpse knew this. It said so without saying anything, only smiling.

Last night I lay on our bed looking at all the other apartments separated from ours by a slim strip of cement. Only from this angle can I ever see the man embedded in the moon’s depressions for some past transgression. Last night, though, the sky was clouded. Instead of reading or watching television while my husband worked late, I turned off all our lights and watched a man whose blinds were half open.

I lay down on the bed in the darkness and watched him fold shirts inside a suitcase. I lay on my side without moving, wondering where he was going. I imagined from the suit jackets he took from their hangers after the shirts were folded that he was traveling somewhere on business, to another city likely much like the one he was leaving. For the moment, though, I pretended he was taking an airplane into a forest, that he would find the lost white fawn if the moon wouldn’t.

And he must have seen me looking. He must have felt my eyes more than seen them across the cement, because there was no moon to shed any light into my apartment. He was in any case leaving me stranded. He was leaving and I had nearly fallen asleep when I became aware of his absence. I covered myself with a blanket and left my own blinds open. When my husband came home, he shut them.

Water cannot survive on the moon’s surface owing to low atmospheric pressure. Yet water molecules hover in the atmosphere’s thin layer of gases. Some astronomers still posit lunar seas may have existed for this reason; in time, the seas may have only evaporated. In the moon’s eyes and nose may once have swum dolphins looking down with love on humans. The male dolphins may have gotten erections from those undressing with their blinds open, while the little white fawn is willing herself to stop breathing but has not succeeded.

about the author