Marianne sat on the beach with Eric. The air was heavy, her fingers sticky with ice cream and salt. Seagulls hung around looking for scraps, one moving close to them, stopping and staring with red eyes in its small white head.
Eric’s hairy legs looked huge next to her small suntanned ones. The rainbow ice cream was so sweet it made her jaw hurt as she licked around the sides and sucked bits down through the hole at the bottom of the waffle cone. She ate quickly so she could get back into the water where friends waited.
“C’mon Marianne, haven’t you finished yet?” they called, but the ice cream was endless, its viscous richness dripping down her arm.
“That looks good. Can I have a bite?” Eric brushed sand off his hands and reached out. “Please? I’m very hot.”
She pushed the cone towards him, relieved not to have to eat it all herself, but the scoop on top of the cone fell onto his lap, its red, orange, green and blue sticky lump spreading out over his swimming trunks as he jumped up in horror, the ice cream turning to fire. Eric’s scream filled the air, mingling with those of the gulls as they flew off, their white bodies singed black, the air full of smoke as day became night.
Marianne was alone, shivering as the smoke became her mother’s cigarette.
“Shhh. It’s okay honey. Momma’s here.”
She whimpered as Lily held her tightly, rocking back and forth.
“I’m surprised you wanted to see me again.”
The subway was crowded as usual on a Saturday afternoon. Shoppers with large bags advertising the stores they’d been to mingled together, bribing overtired children with candy. Marianne stood next to Miles as they moved uptown on the C train.
“You think you’re the first person to vomit on me?”
“Yes, I did think that.”
“Nah. Vomit is my middle name. Though you do smell a lot better now than you did last week.”
“I’ve had several baths since then.”
“I should hope so. Mind you, I don’t have a bath myself, only a tiny shower, so a bath sounds luxurious.” He leaned over and kissed her head. “Your hair smells terrific.”
“It’s the mango shampoo – EFA. My mother’s particular about what she uses.”
“Right. We’re here.” Miles pulled Marianne off the train, grinning like a little boy as they came out of the subway on 81st Street. She recognized the brown façade with its green dome, although it had been years since she’d been to the Hayden Planetarium. Her visits had always been combined with visits to the Museum of Natural History, Eric holding her hand as he took her past the dinosaur halls, describing the habits of the huge barosaurus. The museum dinosaurs populated her dreams long after she stopped talking to her own personal fairy. They always ended with a visit to the planetarium, where Marianne sat under the dome and watched star shows or three-dimensional films about swimming underwater. As they took their seats, Miles leaned in towards her.
“You’ll like this show. It’s about how the world might end. I’ve seen it like, five times. It’s Sensurround. The seats shake and the room goes hot and cold. Don’t be scared,” he whispered in her ear and licked it gently, while handing her bulky 3D glasses.
“I won’t be scared, Miles,” she whispered back, and held his arm. “But just in case, stay close.”
The stars filled the ceiling, and before the show began, Marianne felt like they were in Tompkins Square Park again, but this time without the vomit and headache.
Then the stars began to circle and Miles kissed her on her ear in the same place he previously licked. She felt the warmth of his breath move through her body, settling somewhere in the vicinity of her hips, and the room began to move, the sun growing as it burned up the entire solar system. As the world ended in a huge fire, Miles’ warmth was protective, a crystal dome around her while everything else disappeared into black. She couldn’t imagine a better way to face annihilation.
“Bruce Juice for breakfast” was written on the desk, right next to a carved heart. “Joey is a hunk by Donna.” Marianne scratched her own pencil on the desk, writing “Miles” with a small heart next to it, and then she stopped herself, blushing, while Mr Nesmith started reading out loud a passage from As I Lay Dying, their assigned book.
Still staring straight ahead, his pale eyes like wood set into his wooden face, he crosses the floor in four strides with the rigid gravity of a cigar store Indian …
“This is a good example of Faulkner’s rich use of metaphor. Is Faulkner controlling your closeness to some characters and not others? How is this done? You have forty minutes.”
Marianne looked up suddenly. She had forgotten about this test and had only read half the book. She would have to fake it. She wrote for ten minutes and even managed to put in a remembered quotation from an early chapter, but without knowing the ending, she couldn’t write coherently on the topic. There was no way around that. She spent the rest of the time tearing her fingernails. One went past the quick, bleeding as she sucked it, teasing the torn edge with her tongue, and then she stood up, bringing the partially written paper to Mr Nesmith’s desk. “I’m sorry. I didn’t finish the book. Can I be excused? I’m not feeling well.”
“Marianne, this is unlike you. But you do look pale. You can take a retest next week if you want.”
“Yes. Thank you. I think I’d better go see the nurse.”
She grabbed the chair as the floor moved beneath her feet and, for a brief moment, she was back in the planetarium. She heard the words as if delivered in a classroom lecture: “Astronomers expect the gaseous knots, each several billion miles across, to eventually dissipate into the cold blackness of interstellar space.” She looked at the billions of galaxies swirling above until she too was floating up to the star-studded dome and beyond into the cold blackness of space, alone, a gaseous knot, doomed to dissipate.
The voice of a lavender-scented angel whispered into her ear: “Open your eyes, Marianne.”
She reached out her hand. “Where am I? Did I faint?”
“Shh, honey, your mother is on her way to pick you up. You did faint. Your blood pressure is low. Drink.”
The woman offered her a cup, but as she threw her legs over the side of the cot, she felt dizzy again and the nurse pushed her back.
“Sit still, dear.”
“Do you have anything hot? I’m freezing. A blanket? Or coffee maybe?”
The nurse, a solid woman in jeans and a T-shirt, not an angel after all, handed her a rough army blanket. “Don’t throw up on it.”
“I won’t.” She leaned back for a moment and then pushed through the dizziness and got off the cot. “I’m okay actually. I’ll be fine.”
As she began to walk around, she felt stronger and quickly walked out of the door while the nurse was writing on a piece of paper.
“Wait! Your mother.”
Marianne could just hear the nurse yelling, but she was already out of the glass door and, as the fresh air hit her, she began to run towards the familiar path from Lagoon Drive East, across Greenway and down the Pacific Boulevard entrance to the beach, her breathing rapid and shallow and her surroundings blurry, until she felt sand under her feet.