23 May 2008 | Vol. 8, No. 1
Geography, A Fable
This story takes place years ago when every person was born with geographical destiny printed onto their skin—usually the bottom of the foot, sometimes a thigh or the back of the calf. If the words weren't clear—too faint, improperly formed, or with crucial letters missing—a family waited with great eagerness, checking the bottom of the foot (or the thigh or the back of the calf) every day to see what had emerged, the way one might peer into the murky bloom of a Polaroid. And although some believed a newborn's geographical destiny shouldn't matter, since it might be years before the child went off to meet it, in fact, to many people it did matter; so that parents whose geographical destiny was, for instance, Kansas City found it difficult to love without reproach a child born with the word Albuquerque across its knee.
When you go off to Albuquerque, they'd say, then you can have a skateboard. Or, Your father and I want a house, but we've got to save our money for phone bills and airfares. Oh, what do you care, soon you'll be running off to Albuquerque.
Inevitably the parents of a child whose destiny didn't match theirs felt abandoned. Even as they bathed and dried and dressed their baby in its pretty clothes, they thought, Who is this child who will find it necessary to one day leave the woods of Ashland and start up life far away from us in the urban sprawl of Toronto? They loved the child but looked upon the birthmark as an announcement of a train already leaving. Some even assumed geographical destiny signaled temperament. Even though they had no way of knowing whether a job or love or health would send their child to live somewhere, they looked for signs of "Oklahoma City," or "Portland" in the child's everyday behavior and sometimes helped create the "Parisian" they feared to find. Notorious cases also existed in which destiny was misread: Paris, France, for Paris, Illinois; Toledo, Ohio for Toledo, Italy. Sometimes a place name so vague—Centerville—that parents felt they'd given birth to a child with no destiny at all.
Into this world, to a woman and a man destined to live in Peoria, came a girl whose birthmark, in straight, bold, reddish-colored letters, across the small expanse of her thigh, clearly read: MARS. Mars where, exactly? A great-uncle remembered passing, in his traveling salesman days, a town called Mars, Ohio. A family friend, born out west, recalled a Southern California town called Mars, but thought—she wasn't sure—it was spelled with two Rs. The only Mars the family knew hung above, that red, windy, desert-like planet, the fourth celestial body from the sun.
Well! the father said. Who'd have thought? the mother said. A role in history! One of the first to colonize Mars! and they installed a skylight in the baby's room so if she woke in the middle of the night, she could gaze at the stars. At four in the morning they sometimes woke, not because they'd heard the baby cry but because her silence was so eerie. And when they stumbled into the baby's room to make sure she was all right, there she would be, wide awake, her diaper dry, sucking her toes as she looked at the night sky.
The girl grew up mostly like an ordinary girl, except that she was praised for her curiosity, encouraged to collect rocks, assigned to the advanced science classes without question, and allowed to wander for long hours at a creek several miles from home. (This kid is going to Mars! the father said. Let her explore the goddamn creek. Oh Dick, the mother said, for she had a more supple imagination, and saw how a girl might hurtle herself into outer space to escape the memory of a shadowy stranger at the creek bed. But the mother let her go; she always let her go—this was her Mars baby! she said.)
In school the girl made few friends. In the cafeteria, she sat with a girl who refused to shave her legs, whose hairy calf, everybody knew, said Zaire. She and the Mars girl avoided the big groups of Peoria kids who tried to get into the downtown bars, or hung out in restaurants until closing. Even when the staff put the chairs up on the tables and uncoiled the vacuum cord, the Peoria kids chewed the ice in their cups and ate another cold French fry, their bodies lank and relaxed as though the restaurant were just an extension of their homes, which in a way it was. Once the Mars girl went to a movie with a West Coast boy who made a music tape for the car, a high-strung mix of love songs which bore no relation to the boy's own style of speaking, and whose significance she missed entirely.
At college, the girl studied physics and astronomy and one hot humid night as she set up her telescope in the window, her eye fell downwards into the courtyard. On a bare mattress lay a boy, face to the sky, his arms flung open wide.
Alive or dead?
Too hot to sleep, he said.
Everyone can see you.
Don't really care. It's twenty degrees cooler out here, my roommate snores, and look, there's Cassiopeia.
She lay down beside him to look at the sky. Two sophomores rambled by and hooted, but the girl didn't care. The boy smelled of tobacco and soap, he smiled more than anyone she knew, a gap-toothed smile, and she felt restful as a cat beside him. Every night of the heat wave, she visited him, and the night they saw the Andromeda Galaxy, which is over two million light-years away, they kissed.
His foot, calf, and thigh were bare.
Don't have one.
No destiny? What could that mean? You won't settle anywhere?
The boy laughed. He thought his strange blank skin—which as a child had worried his parents and terrified others—meant he was free to choose his own destiny. Don't be cocky, his parents told him, more likely you're just a late bloomer. Keep an eye on your skin. The word could emerge any day—and his family prayed that the word would be the name of the city where they lived.
After the girl and the boy fell in love, the heat wave ended, and the boy moved his mattress back in the dorm. Sometimes they looked at the night sky together and the girl rubbed a finger softly across her thigh, where the word was, and thought There: I'm going there, and her chest expanded so much she feared something inside her might break (but she was calm, too). But the boy looked into the night sky and got lost in its infinite darkness. He tried to imagine himself traveling, swinging from star to star, but couldn't, so instead he looked out at the sky and thought of nothing at all; he breathed in the black and spat out the stars, breathed in the black, and that was all.
Eventually the Mars girl began to think of her destiny—of NASA, engineering, graduate school, astronautics, all the things she might do to better prepare herself for her life on Mars, and these thoughts made her draw away from the boy, who could watch a star without longing.
When the girl got into astronaut school, the best one in the country, she found the boy under a tree holding a book in his lap, as he dozed and daydreamed. The more she spoke of her plans, the more sullenly the boy regarded her and at last, he picked up his book and peeled off his sock and revealed the letters that had recently begun to form on the bottom of his foot. They were faint but unmistakable: FOREST HILLS, NEW YORK.
So specific! she gasped.
When she went off to astronaut school, the blank boy who was no longer blank fell into a funk; his life no longer his and his girlfriend on her way to Mars, the boy thought it cruel his skin had stayed blank so long, for if he had known he was destined to spend his life in Forest Hills, he would never have let himself fall for a girl whose thigh said Mars, he would never even have kissed her. In this terrible funk, the boy got on a bus and headed straight to Forest Hills, NY, to meet his destiny at once.
Meanwhile the girl missed the boy. She studied hard and became an astronaut, and her work took her to Tulsa, Orlando, Houston, San Antonio, Palo Alto, McClean, East Hartford, and Cambridge. During this time everyone who studied Mars insisted the planet was not fit for habitation. Yes, they'd say, we see you are going to Mars, but surely you're not going soon.
Years passed and occasionally the girl's busy, lonely days were brightened by a letter from the formerly blank boy who had stayed in Forest Hills and now ran a sporting goods store. Look, he said, it may not seem glamorous, but I have a good life here. I make a living, I sponsor teams. I rollerblade on Sundays. Come see. So the Mars girl chose a weekend and went to Forest Hills, and when the boy met her at the airport she knew again her feelings for him, the way she knew where her hands were even when her eyes were closed. They spent the weekend in love, and when Sunday rolled around the boy got twitchy around the mouth and the girl got a pain in her shoulder. I think you should stay, he said. When he moved to hold her, she put her hand on her thigh.
Mars could take years, said the boy. Don't put everything on hold.
Since moving, the boy had become vibrant, focused, accustomed to making plans. Now he grew passionate.
Listen, he said. There's a small town adjacent to Forest Hills with an ailing economy. If we raised enough money, we could rename that town—we could call it anything we wanted. So why not Mars? Mars, New York! This could be it. We could outwit destiny. Be together.
In adjacent towns, she added dryly.
Well, hey, he said, that's better than most people like us manage.
One weekend, she thought. And throw over all the plans?
I love you, he said.
I love you, too, but Mars, New York? I need to think.
Of course! cried the boy, ecstatic.
So the girl went back to her job, a new one in Arlington, and the boy imagined her walking by the Potomac, staring into the night sky, skipping stones, sitting abstracted at her desk for hours, thinking about passionate risk in her lovely meditative way. But he was wrong. The girl loved the boy but it was hard to separate that love from the fear that nobody else would ever love her. She wanted to know: were other men bound for Mars? She began an extensive, world-wide search for Mars men, which meant not only all the male persons registered with the census, but all those who lived in places without the census, and those being born every day. For six months she kept the boy in Forest Hills waiting, then another six months, after which she phoned him and said, Baby, I need more time to be sure. All this time the boy raised money and made contacts with the mayor of Tipperton, and another six months passed, and then the girl got a call from one of her private detectives with the message that a boy had been born, early that morning, in a small country hospital outside of Rome, and on his foot the word MARS. He was healthy, said the detective, ten fingers, ten toes, expected to live. The girl was twenty-nine years old; when the Italian turned twenty she would be forty-nine. Such relationships were not unheard of, and besides, she wanted not this boy so much as the promise, however slight, that others would be going to Mars. She would not be its sole inhabitant. She called the boy in Forest Hills and broke their engagement.
When the boy learned that the girl would not embrace his plan and live near him in Mars, New York, he did not fall into a funk the way he'd done the last time. Friends marveled at how well he took the news and the boy nodded and thanked them for their interest—yes, he had good friends in Forest Hills—and confessed he, too, was surprised. He felt sad, but not hopeless; disappointed in the girl, but not angry. Not angry? some said and raised their eyebrows, which made the boy even more determined to maintain, if only for appearance's sake, an even keel, a compassionate balance, a mildness toward her which could be praised as a peaceful acceptance of other people's choices and his own fate.
After a few months of practicing compassion the boy sickened. The sickness came upon him with terrible speed, and the girl, hearing of it, left her work in Arlington. For ten days and ten nights she nursed him with no change. Another ten days and ten nights she nursed him, after which he raised his head and said he thought he felt better. Yes. The girl wiped his pale brow. You look better. Maybe you're not even sick. Maybe you dreamed all this—and here she gestured to the thermometer and the medicine bottles and the damp towels—just to get my Marsy ass back in town. The boy smiled. I dreamed it, he said. Another ten days and ten nights passed. On the eleventh day the boy died.
At the gravesite the girl got dizzy. Trees pitched, stones spun, pebbled walkways looped around her. All the other mourners were looking down, into the grave, when she vaporized. They heard a whoosh, a soft burst like mist or rain, and when they turned in the girl's direction, there was no body, just a swirling mass of nitrogen and argon and carbon dioxide and oxygen. Some of her rose above the earth to the stars, and some flew as far as Neptune, and the part that had been her heart drifted to Mars and hung above one of the ice craters. Only the girl's shoes remained on the ground, a pair of brown flats she'd meant to polish before the funeral, but hadn't. The shoes' toes pointed towards the boy's headstone, and after the other mourners moved on, grass grew over them.
About the author:
Sara Levine's writing has appeared in Nerve.com, the Iowa Review, Fence, Sonora Review, Alice Blue Review, and other magazines. She lives in Chicago.