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art by Eleanor Bennett

Persephone at Arm's Length

Bridget A. Natale is a playwright and novelist. Originally from Pittsburgh, she moved to Seattle in late 2010 and began working in fringe theater as a freelance set designer. Her most recent play, Bread of an Everyday Life, was featured in Freehold Theater's New Play Lab Showcase and her stories have appeared in publications such as the Foliate Oak Literary Magazine and Devilfish Review. She also likes to keep busy by working on various video game projects. In her free time she enjoys dabbling in political activism and teasing her cats.

***Editorial Advisory: Yes, there's adult language in the story that follows***
"I can't go to Bellingham with you. Not right now."
"Why not?" Sondra's jaw is set. But her eyes betray her, like always. The look of aching need that I know I will never be able to satisfy. That nobody will. She knows it, too.
That doesn't stop her from trying.
She closes her eyes briefly, and I have a reprieve. "Have you been paying attention to the news at all?"
Of course I have. I can't get away from it. I got Angela to turn it off during dinner, but now that she's doing the dishes the dreary broadcast is droning again. "Yeah."
"Come on," she says, pressing her keys into my hand. "I'm a wreck, I can't drive myself."
I think about telling Angela that I'm going out but decide it can wait. She's used to Sondra's meltdowns by now.
It's the middle of the night so 1-5 is almost empty. Sondra has sunk into a place I couldn't reach even if I tried. She wraps herself in a drab goose down blanket and stares at the road ahead. I turn on the radio. She immediately turns it off.
"You're really quiet." My fingers itch to turn the radio back on.
"It seems disrespectful," she says matter-of-factly, and shrugs.
I grimace at her tone. But I can't help myself. "It's hardly the most disrespect--"
"Fuck you," she spits.
So we drive in silence.
Sondra was a blues singer and the most beautiful woman I had ever seen, let alone fucked. We met at a music festival and were sleeping together before the end of the weekend. I didn't realize she lived in Seattle. I had never seen her around Capitol Hill before. But there she was, crash-landed into the middle of my life like a comet.
I had tried to set boundaries. "I don't see myself ever being committed to you," I told her over coffee. We huddled together in the back of the coffee shop as the rain pounded against the window.
"I don't need your pissant 'commitment,'" she said with a wicked grin and a short, hard laugh. I was so distracted by the lushness of her lips that I didn't notice the lie.
I made conversation. We were always making conversation. She never really cared about what I had to say and I was too distracted by her beauty to listen to what she was saying. "So what does your husband do, anyway?"
"He's an astronaut."
I always wanted to be a hero. To go on adventures and inspire people. To have portraits taken with the president as she shook my hand and told me that I honored my country. But it turns out that there is a lot of hard work leading up to those images. And heroes leave the impossibly gorgeous women who married them to go do heroic things and those women get bored and start fucking losers like me.
Sondra worked as hard as Kurt. Which is how she always looked so effortless. The audience didn't see the hours of rehearsal, her painstaking perfectionism that went out the window as soon as the emotional high hit her and she was transported into another being, pain and loneliness and fear transmuted into glorious, glorious music. Her fragile body shimmering in the light, sequins twinkling like stars.
"Don't say that," she said when I told her that's what she looked like. "It's disrespectful."
Kurt was a knight to her. A god gracing the earth with his presence, on occasion. The lesser-known brother of Rama.
A hero.
"Pull over," she says.
I pull over and she gets out of the car, still wrapped in her drab blanket. I wonder if its from their life in Texas, when Kurt was still with NASA. Before the corporations got involved. Back when the length of time he spent in orbit was measured in months instead of years.
She climbs onto the hood of the car, leans back against the windshield, and stares up at the sky. Her eyes are bottomless pools in the starlight. I climb up next to her and put my arm around her shoulders and wonder what, exactly, she expects me to do.
"Sondra, I--"
"Shut up."
Neither of them were natives, which was never more clear than the first time Kurt returned to earth and Sondra turned into a different person. Gone was the wicked, bitter woman whose laugh sounded like shattering glass. In her place was an incandescent creature who glided through social appearances like a swan, whose laughter tinkled like bells, whose delicate hands rested on the well-muscled arm of the hero, whose attention never wavered from him.
It was absurd to feel jealous. So I spent more time with Angela, who ended up pregnant again.
The lights start with a sudden, intense beauty that is too much to watch, so I look at her. Sondra stares at the lights, her cheeks wet with tears.
"He's there," she whispers, more to herself than to me.
"What do you mean?" SkyGates has been slow to offer any real details of what Kurt and his crew were doing and what went wrong.
"In the lights. He said..." her voice trails off.
"The lights are caused by charged particles interacting with the atmosphere," I tell her. As if explaining some sort of solar-inspired phenomena puts me in the pantheon with Kurt.
Her jaw clenches and the tears stop for a moment. "He was testing a new propulsion system. The idea was that they would slingshot around the sun and use the electromagnetic impulse to travel through the heliopause and into Alpha Centauri. But it didn't work. The solar flares were supposed to help but they didn't. Now he's stranded out there, in the dark. And there's no way to get him back."
She is shaking against me, and I hold her tighter. It doesn't really make a difference.
"I never told him about you. He never knew about any of this."
The lights shimmer green and I'm angry. After all of this, after all the shit that I put Angela through on Sondra's account. After the late nights and the long weekends and holding her hand through yet another crisis and fucking her until she couldn't breathe and she never even told him.
"Wait, you lied to me?" I let go of her, fold my arms over my chest, then get up and start pacing. "What the fuck do you want from me?"
"Just be quiet," she says, still staring at the sky. "Just... he's up there."
I stand vigil over her until the lights finally fade. And then drive her home in silence, her inky eyes staring into the dark.
The End
This story was first published on Wednesday, May 1st, 2013

Author Comments

This story was born of a walk on a cold, damp winter night in Seattle while listening to “Yulia” by Wolf Parade. And the idea that sometimes a person comes into contact with something beautiful, but doesn’t recognize it. Because it is too big, and their heart is too small to understand what they’re seeing.

- Bridget A. Natale
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