He could see her eyeing him as she made her way to his cash register. She was pretending not to stare, but they all stared one way or another. Some flat out gawked, like he was some sort of freak animal at the zoo. They didn’t care if he saw them or not. After all, when you looked like he did, you deserved to be gaped at. What else would you expect? Others, like her, were more polite about it, waiting until he turned away so they could get a good look. What they didn’t know is that he could feel their eyes on him, like a torch moving over his skin.
He turned back around and caught the small flare of disgust in her perfectly formed, turned-up nose.
Today, of all days … why did she have to show up today? He looked down at the huge red blob on his shirt where his sharpie had leaked. Yup, of course it was still there, like a neon sign that said “dork.” Not only that, but there was that mini-crater right smack in the middle of his cheek. He rubbed it, hoping it wasn’t actually bleeding anymore. This is how he knew there was no God. If there were, then he, Zach, would be zitless and wearing a clean shirt today.
His large mass barely fit between the cash register and the counter where she had placed her purchases. He started the belt and the items chugged forward: lipstick; a couple of tank tops, size extra small; a bag of potato chips; tampons—she glanced away when he got to those; dark blue nail polish; and a six pack of Red Bull.
He looked up at her and once again marveled at her size—a whisper of a girl.
“Find everything you needed today?” he asked.
“Yeah, thanks.” She chomped on her gum.
He could smell her lemon shampoo—or maybe it was perfume. Normally, it would have been overly sweet for him, but it suited her. Slowly, so she wouldn’t notice, he drew in a deep whiff, filling his lungs. In some small way, she was now part of him.
He realized he had almost finished ringing her up. If he was going to do it, it had to be now. Who knew how long it would be before she’d be back? And even then, maybe not at his register. He took a deep breath and looked up at her.
“By the way, we’re in the same poetry class at community college. I’m Zach.”
She finally looked straight at his face, but not like she had ever seen it before. “Yeah, I guess—it’s a big class.” She reached for her bag, but he was still holding it.
He could feel the burn in his cheeks and the warmth in his armpits, but he kept going. “That poem you read in class the other night, the one about Jupiter—I really liked it.”
She blinked. For a second her eyes softened and she stopped chewing.
He made sure there was no one else in line and then glanced over to Hailey’s register. Luckily, she was busy ringing up a customer. Hailey wanted him to ask her out; that was obvious. She was about as subtle as a boulder—and about as wide. Yeah, he knew, he should talk. She kept saying they had a lot in common, when what she meant was that they were both big—as if the fact that they were the same size meant they were soul mates and that they’d make a good pair. Fat chance. He grinned to himself.
He turned back to Sierra—he knew that was her name—and finally handed over her bag. Then he went for it.
“I know this is kind of forward of me, but would you want to go out for coffee sometime?” The words had rushed out way too fast; he was sure of it. And now there were visible sweat stains under the arms of his light blue uniform. He was sure of that, too. Thanks, God, he said to whoever wasn’t listening.
She was gawking at him like he had landed from the moon. But she hadn’t said ‘no’ yet.
All on its own, without any prodding, his best smile came out … the one from his eyes. While he waited for her to answer, his thumb twirled the neat stack of copper and silver rings on his index finger. She wasn’t looking at him directly anymore. Instead, she was studying her shoes and chewing her gum at a good clip—trying to come up with an excuse, he was sure.
The universe had granted him this small void—a few more seconds for another chance. He glanced around again to make sure no one was paying attention.
“Look, I know you don’t go out with guys like me.” He gave a little laugh. “I don’t go out with girls like you, either. I’m not asking you for a date or anything. I just want to talk about Jupiter. What you said about living there. Because …” He caught some movement out of the corner of his eye.
A lady with a baby in her cart was aiming for his register. He grabbed the “closed” sign and set it squarely on the checkout belt. “Sorry, Ma’am, going on break.” He smiled apologetically. The lady glanced at Sierra, huffed under her breath, and then steered her cart toward Hailey.
Sierra fidgeted in her purse and pulled out her keys. She was getting away; he had blown his chance. The floor under him seemed to sway and then drop a few feet. He grabbed the counter for support and gave it one last shot.
“I just want to talk about your poem, about Jupiter—because …” Okay, this was it, he was taking a huge chance here, “ … because I live there, too. I understood every word you wrote.” He knew he sounded desperate, but so what? How often do you meet someone from the same planet? “Just coffee. I promise. I get off in an hour … maybe it’s too short notice, though … ”
She pulled her bag away from him. “No, sorry. I’ve got to go,” she mumbled.
He watched her evaporate into the crowd, her waterfall of hair—the exact same blonde as his—was the last thing he saw. The ground under him rolled again, like a small earthquake. He rode the wave, still holding the counter to keep his balance. What was he thinking? There was no way someone like her was going to have coffee with him. The sight of him probably repulsed her.
“Want some?” It was Hailey, standing behind him, holding a bag of salt-water taffy.
Shit … of all times for her to bug him. “Thanks. I’m good.”
“It’s the best thing for a broken heart. Trust me.” She gave him a shy grin.
“Huh?” he said, pretending not to understand. For God’s sake, leave me alone.
“Break’s over, gotta go. Here, keep the bag. Looks like you need it.”
He was about to protest, but his voice had sunk way down to where he couldn’t find it. There was nothing left inside him now; he was just a huge shell—completely hollow inside. All it would take is one slight insult—or a kind word, for that matter—and he would shatter. Somehow, he made it through the next hour to the end of his shift, though he didn’t remember a minute of it. He walked outside with his half-full bag of taffy. The air seemed thicker than usual, like it, too, was jammed with more than it could handle. There were no signs of stars. Maybe they were waiting for a better time.
Sierra was sitting on the bench near the store exit, her legs swinging under her. Pure joy was something he had almost never felt, but he recognized it instantly. Blood flooded back into his veins. He legs moved fast, like they didn’t weigh a thing … like they belonged to someone else.
“Do you still want to talk about Jupiter?” she said.
“Do I?” He smiled and eased himself down on the bench slowly, praying to God that it wouldn’t creak. But God was otherwise engaged.
Sierra didn’t seem to notice, or was polite enough to ignore it. “So, what did you like about my poem?”
He opened up the taffy bag and offered it to her. There were so many things about it that he loved, he told her. All the references to water—how she compared her existence to living on the edge of the ocean, like she might fall in at any moment … the constant rain and thunder, like the restlessness she felt inside … her sense that there was no real surface under her feet—only air. And the wild birds that sang songs from another world in a language no one could understand. He quoted a couple of his favorite lines that he had written down during her reading and then memorized.
“Cool. Glad you liked it.” She pulled the end of a piece of pale pink taffy from her mouth and pulled it out in front of her like a ribbon, then slowly started chewing it back in. Strawberry. He imagined how her lips must taste.
“So where in Jupiter do you live?” she asked.
He laughed. “Uh, on the northeast corner of the big red spot.”
“Huh?” The ribbon had all but disappeared now.
“You know, the Great Red Spot—the gigantic storm—I’m a bit to the left of it,” he said.
“What are you talking about?” She looked straight into his face for the second time that day.
“You asked me where on Jupiter I lived … I was just …”
“Where on Jupiter? Are you a whack job or something?” She stared at him like he had three heads.
“Well, you’re the one who wrote about it. Where on Jupiter do you live?” he countered good-naturedly. He was starting to feel off balance again, like there was no ground under him, like he was floating
“I live in Jupiter—a couple of blocks from the beach—off of Ocean Boulevard. I thought you said you lived there, too.”
Now any solid surface beneath him had vaporized entirely. “I-I-meant the other J-Jupiter,” he stammered—now certain that he was about to fall into the ocean opening up beside him.
She gave a snort of a laugh and grabbed her purse. “You know what? You’re crazy. I felt sorry for you. But now I know you’re just weird.” She left the warmth of the store lights and took off into the dark parking lot. He didn’t even see her hair this time.
He wasn’t sure how long he sat there. Eventually, a couple of stars peeped shyly above him. Don’t bother, he told them.
“You haven’t finished the taffy yet, that’s why you still feel so bad.” Hailey was standing next to him. How long she had been there?
“Mind if I sit down for a second?” she said.
Goddammit, couldn’t she leave him alone? “Sorry, I’ve got to be going … homework,” he said.
“Haven’t you figured it out yet? They’re way different from us,” she said.
“You know, normal people.”
“Yeah, maybe you’re right.”
He went home and wrote his poem for class the next day. The words just poured out of him … the ones he didn’t have the nerve to say … the ones he had made sure to stuff way in the back of the closet so no one would see them. It was like they were already on the page, and he was just typing them in. When he was finished he was empty again … and exhausted. He lay down on the bed, with his blotched shirt and matching blotched face, and sank into sleep.
The next evening he got to class early and sat in the back, so he could see everyone coming in. Well, really, so he could see her come in. He kept looking for that long stream of hair, but she didn’t appear. He had written it just for her. If she heard it, she would understand … and give him another chance.
The class began and the teacher started calling on people to read their poems. He slumped down in his seat, twirling the coil of metal rings on his index finger, barely listening.
“Zach!” the teacher was saying. “Are you with us today? If so, would you please read your poem?”
Why should I bother? She’s not here to hear it. But there was no way out of it. He stood up slowly, squeezed through the aisle to the podium at the front of the class and looked around at the strangers who faced him. Hailey had been right; they were different. They were normal. As far as they were concerned, he was another species—a gross malformation that somehow sprouted in their pretty little world. The last thing he wanted to do was read his poem to them. He took the crumpled pages from his back pocket and smoothed them out.
“The Other Jupiter …” he began. He read it as though she were there—as though she were the only one there. After the first few lines, he could see her eyes shift ever so slowly from indifference to understanding—until they looked right into his and he could hear the “click,” like a magnet connecting. Last night, as he was working on the ending, he had to keep blinking to keep the screen from blurring. And now, as he got to the end, he heard his voice wobble.
When he was finished, he folded up the pages and jammed them into his jeans. She wasn’t there, so there was no point in looking up. Plus, they were all smirking at him; he could feel it on his skin. A big ‘ole blob of a guy with a mushy poem. He could just imagine the text messages flying around the room. He made his way back to his seat, moving like he was underwater, fighting a current.
He took his place in the back of the room and tried to breathe normally, but his heart was pounding like he had just run up a flight of stairs. Another student had started reading, so Zach crawled back into his own poem, its soft edges welcoming him, its lines soothing his skin, making him forget where he was.
The scraping of chairs jarred him back to the present. The class was over, he realized. He grabbed his things and was one of the first out the door. He walked as quickly as he could toward the dusky parking lot, moisture forming on his forehead and under his collar. Thank God he had gotten away fast enough so he didn’t have to face any of them. Suddenly, he felt a soft tap-tap on his shoulder. He turned to see a girl with sprinkle of mahogany curls trying to keep up with him.
“I really liked your poem,” she said, a little out of breath.
For a moment he couldn’t believe what he had heard. His mind was playing a trick, like when it pictured Sierra there, listening to his poem in class. But people were passing by, giving them weird glances, like what’s she doing talking to him? So he knew it must be real. What was it exactly that she had said? He tried to remember so he could say the right thing back. Oh, yeah …
“Thanks!” His real smile popped out.
“I know this is kind of forward of me, but would you like to go for coffee?” she said. Her eyes, he noticed, were the exact same shade of blue as his.
He tried to find some words, but they had all run away. He realized he was staring at her with his mouth open. Hopefully it was dark enough that she didn’t notice. He shut it quickly.
She jumped into the silence. “Maybe now’s not a good time. Some other time would be fine. It’s just that what you said about living on Jupiter … it was so real … it’s how I feel sometimes, too.”
She? Feel like him? How could that possibly be? She was normal—gorgeous, even. He realized she was waiting for him to say something. Slowly, from the far corners of his brain, a few words crept out and assembled themselves into a respectable response. “Sure, I’d like to go for coffee!” And then, as though someone had reached down from the sky and poked him, “And now’s good.”
A soft breeze brushed away the heaviness of the day. The parking lot seemed unusually bright for that time of night. He stole a look at the sky and saw that every single star had shown up. He grinned and gave them a wink, then walked with her to her car.
About the author:
Marsha Roberts lives in Mill Valley, California. Her short stories and humorous pieces have appeared in Hospital Drive, “The Marin Independent Journal”, Humor Press’ "America's Funniest Humor Showcase", as well as in some ezines. She has just completed her first novel, “The Agent”, about an elegant con game. Until Paramount buys the film rights to her stories and novels, Marsha is forced to plug away at her day job.