The next day the news headlines were all about the moon, theories about its disappearance, scientific fumbling and weird conspiracies and wild speculation. Some people said the moon was tired of looking at us for so many millennia, unable to turn away, tidally locked in a stare to the death, and finally freed itself. Some said the U.S. and North Korea had accidentally disintegrated it in competing nuclear explosions. Others said aliens.
There was live coverage, breaking news headlines, constant updates for a week and a half, until it became clear that the moon was indeed gone, not merely hidden by some illusive celestial mechanism, and that it wasn’t likely to come back anytime soon or by any human means. Then came the longform essays and thought pieces, hot takes and even eulogies, with titles like, What Does the Moon Mean to Us Now That It’s Gone? and In Memoriam: The Illustrated Life of the Moon.
Then the news cycle moved on, and nobody talked about the moon anymore, seemed to forget it had ever hung pearly in our sky, a shiny earring, blank and bright.
Long before the moon’s disappearance, M and I started a Sailor Moon club. At first it was just the two of us, and we aggressively protected our monogamy, communing only through ear-whispers and denying membership to dozens of tearful classmates. They didn’t even know what Sailor Moon was, just resented, with the transparency of toddlerhood, the phonic finality of the word No. But our homeroom teacher told us we were Leaving People Out and sent us to peer mediation, which meant that we spent an entire recess and math period seated across from two fifth-graders and the guidance counselor at a circular table, mushing our elbows into the cool white laminate and attempting to chew our soggy peanut butter and jelly sandwiches somewhat attentively. Finally we agreed to open our club to the public, and the next week we were back in peer mediation; I’d been watching some WWE with my brother, and we’d turned the club into an Ultimate Sailor Fight to the Death, making all the white girls fight each other for the titles of Sailor Mercury, Venus, Mars, and Jupiter.
M and I became friends because we were the only two Asians in our grade. I was a kindergarten transfer, having come from a different preschool. I don’t remember much of my playground life before our convergence, just that I spent every recess circling a sliding pole alone, tethering myself to it with one hand and letting the rest of my body fall away, on the cusp of collapse. One coldly sunny day a beautiful black-haired girl joined my solitary orbit in silence, which she finally broke to compliment my Mulan Velcro sneakers. This, of course, was M.
The next Saturday my mom and I stood outside her front door, and a woman with short blonde hair and a raised mole near her bottom lip let us in. I thought we had the wrong house, but M came running down the stairs, and we went down to the basement while our moms sat chatting at the kitchen counter in those plasticky voices. After we made brownies in her Easy Bake Oven, she told me her Korean name meant precious pearl. I was so envious that when I asked my grandmother what my name meant, I pressed her until she said beautiful, pure, perfect.
With the moon’s absence, the nights became deeper and the stars multiplied like shining maggots, shivering and wet, a whole net of them strung across the sky. They looked so near, almost ready to drizzle down, wobbling like droplets barely clinging to the rim of an umbrella. Then safe night driving won out over stargazing as a public concern, and the government passed new laws mandating streetlights at intervals commensurate with population density. After that, the night skies were lighter and emptier than ever.
My grandmother joked that she wouldn’t have to give us money anymore on the Lunar New Year. At nearly adult height, none of the children’s hanboks she’d brought years ago from Korea fit us anymore anyway, and it felt weird to do the formal bow in regular clothes, as if we were performing out of costume. She said Koreans used to believe there were fire dogs that chased the sun and moon, and maybe one finally got the moon, which didn’t seem less reasonable than any of the other hypotheses.
In the end the festivities proceeded essentially as usual, the Lunar part in name only, eventually an empty signifier. The moon so easily became a thing of myth I couldn’t help wondering if that was all it had ever been.
Teachers would always mix up our names, even some classmates did, and at first M and I would smile proudly, considering sameness and interchangeability evidence of our deep intimacy, a private conspiracy. We used to look into each other like mirrors, matching ourselves to our reflections. But by fourth grade, we had caught Individualism. We both wanted to be Original, and constantly accused each other of Copying. I was furious when her mom bought her the same skirts as me, and she said I only auditioned for the school play because she had. I started ballet in secret, because I didn’t want her to know I was Copying, and took art lessons in secret, because I didn’t want her to Copy.
And so our lives became more and more hidden from each other, until she transferred schools in seventh grade, and I realized we were no longer friends.
The tides shrunk, flattened themselves back against the ocean bed, no longer impelled by that other lunar gravity to resist the pull of the Earth’s core. Sometimes the ocean looked almost as flat and smooth as a cut of jade, seemingly solid until something dropped into it and sunk stone-like.
The stock market went haywire; tourism to popular surfing destinations plummeted. Billabong and Quiksilver almost went out of business, then decided to partner with inland surf parks and became more lucrative than ever. They said these artificial pools had better, more consistent waves than the ocean ever had, and it wasn’t false. Soon these pools proliferated and became as familiar as ice skating rinks. Landlocked states like Texas and Arizona boasted the biggest parks and became the new surfing hubs, but Hawaii and California clung feebly to the aesthetic.
I went to college in a state named after the ocean, but I never saw it when I was there. I started with a major in environmental science with a concentration in post-lunar studies, riding a surge of speculative interest in the natural world. Everyone was talking about a total reorganization of nature, mass extinctions and a new order of animals, a shift in the Earth’s axis and accelerated climate change, spiritual and astrological implications. When it became evident none of these changes would occur for many human lifetimes, the intellectual frenzy dwindled, and then astronomy and environmental science were about as popular as they’d been before. Astrology, however, continued to gain devotees.
I saw her one last time at the state fair, where I’d gone that high-school summer with the latest of a rotating cast of friends. We were waiting in line for the Wave Swinger, that aerial carousel-sibling that flung its suspended seats in a circuit around itself.
We were watching these people in controlled flight, and then I picked out a face among the others. A pale yellow face, cradled by the blackest hair I’d never seen again after elementary school. Small doll-like features frozen in an open-mouthed smile, the expression somehow empty, an empty house with all the windows open, the air rushing through. Slowly she descended, spiraling slower and lower, until she slid out of the seat and alighted on the ground, and gravity returned to her—her ruffled white dress spilling out of the chair, the mass of her hair settling like a large bird folding its wings.
She started briskly walking to the exit, and I rushed through the entrance gate, shouted her name—it was such a common name, but she was the first person I knew with it, and it had sounded so graceful, exalted. I never knew anyone with her name intimately after that; they all seemed so unrelentingly ordinary, and perhaps I’d wanted to preserve a kind of sanctity. She turned, scanned past me, then came back to my face, and for a moment we were alone, looking at each other looking at each other.
But then over the speakers the ride operator said Everyone please be seated, and I saw that I was one of the last unseated stragglers. She shrugged, smiled, and waved. I moved to settle into my precarious chair of choice, and she turned away.
In mid-air I thought about that painted smile, looked for a flash of white among the dotted crowds. While my friends and I waited in line for funnel cake and deep-fried Oreos, my eyes kept searching, straying like a recalibrating compass needle. By nighttime, I had walked through the entire fair looking for her, but she was gone.
And then the moon disappeared.
In my History of Lunar Studies core lecture, which was more humanities than science, the professor projected a huge, high-definition photograph of the moon, its parts labeled like an anatomical diagram, each dark crater and mare named—they were called maria, Latin for seas, because astronomers once thought they were lunar lakes, promising of life. They turned out to be basaltic scars from eons-old volcanic eruptions, but the misnomers remained: Mare Nubium, sea of clouds; Mare Serenitatis, sea of serenity; Mare Cognitum, sea that has become known. And so on.
The professor began, They say the moon and the earth were once one body, until a collision with another planet punched a hole in the earth. What we lost accreted in the form of the moon, faithful satellite, phantom limb.
The students mmmmmm-ed deeply. I decided to transfer to the English department.
The full moon was doubled in the ocean, we were kids again in the sand and M was counting seashells, and then we were at her house, but it didn’t look anything like the one I’d been to as a child. Everything was ancient and wooded and dark, and the moonlight spilled through the open windows, draping us in a silvery gauze.
I turned to her again and she was an adult, and I was, too. She said she wanted to cut her hair, which I saw was so long it touched the floor. I picked up a pair of scissors and began to cut it, shorter and shorter, sheets of black falling to the floor, and then when she spun around I saw my own face.
Maybe the moon didn’t really disappear, and maybe M didn’t either. Maybe she’s in San Diego with a husband and kids, honeyed from the sun, selling handmade jewelry and teaching at a yoga studio. Maybe I accepted her Facebook friend request, but neither of us sent the first message. But would any of that change anything? This isn’t about anyone except her, the version of her that lived between my brain and my skull, grew into my mind.
The face in the mirror smiles when I smile. Does it matter whose face it is?
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