The Celestial Diplomat
He arrived three quarters past midnight, on foot. His car lay in a ravine a mile down the road, and his jeans and feet were muddied. The only belongings he carried were the ones in his knapsack, which hung on his back. Despite sensing a pair of eyes studying him and the lingering smell of tobacco, it appeared nobody was in the desolate town square.
As he faded into the darkness, the moonlight revealed an accessory dangling from a strap on his knapsack: a sparkling rectangular keychain, with blue, black, and white horizontal stripes.
◊ ◊ ◊
It was still dark when Selene stepped out into the street. It had been a week since she last left her duplex, and already walking on the pavement felt as if she were crossing into foreign territory. Although the town was quiet—it was only half past five—there was an energy she could almost detect, and she felt it as she entered her workplace, a modest diner situated at the end of Main Street.
The cook, Marvin, greeted her with his usual nod and grunt. Cheery octogenarians and peckish insomniacs populated the diner at this hour. There was the occasional puffy-eyed medical resident who would come in for a pot of coffee and smoke after a grueling shift or the Professed Immortal who claimed to have witnessed the Lincoln assassination and public executions during the Reign of Terror, but Selene saw no trace of such persons this morning.
As the activity softened to a quiet hum, she seized a box of matches from the cupboard and stepped outside onto the back porch. The darkness stubbornly clung to the landscape despite the sun’s rays peeking out from the mountains, creating a lurid gloam. The cool air was a welcome relief, and aided in steadying her hand as she lit a cigarette. A few steps off the porch would lead her into a meadow, populated with wildflowers and knee-high grasses. A generous rainy season had multiplied the number of blossoms and given the once yellow grasses a kelly green hue. The meadow led into a forest and towering foothills, which climbed high enough for fog to hide the summit.
The sense of calm withered when she noticed the diner’s owner, Corrine, appear from around the corner of the building. “Look who’s decided to show herself again,” she said, her face bearing a malicious grin. Selene took the last drag of her cigarette and waited a couple minutes after Corrine entered the diner before going in.
To her relief, her first day back at the diner had gone smoothly. Ellen, Corrine’s marionette and mole, had called in sick, and Norma, Selene’s closest friend, had come to fill her shift. It was the two of them and Earl, another cook, manning the diner this evening, and since Corrine had left later that morning, it gave them the freedom to work free from her glare.
“We choose to go to the Moon!” President Kennedy cheered from the radio’s speakers.
“Do you think we’ll get there?” Norma reached across the main counter and turned the knob to a different station.
“Not until the Soviets get there first,” Selene answered. In spite of the evening hour, only one patron was in the diner: a man sitting in the corner booth and sipping the last of his coffee.
“He’s been here the last couple of nights,” Norma said, nodding to him as she dried the last few dishes in the sink. Selene recognized him as the man she had seen walking in the empty town square three nights ago. “He hasn’t said much.”
She sauntered over to him, coffeepot in hand. “You’ve been sitting here for quite a while.”
“It’s a nice booth,” he mused. “And the coffee is cheap.” His alabaster skin was almost translucent, and plum-colored circles settled under his eyes. “Could you grab me a menu?”
Selene smiled politely and emptied the last of the pot of coffee into his mug before walking behind the counter.
She next remembered Norma gently slapping her cheeks and dabbing a dishcloth on her forehead.
“You all right?”
When Selene turned to look into the seating area, she noticed the corner booth was no longer occupied.
“Where’d he go?”
“He’s left.” Norma dropped several coins in the cash register and threw the dishcloth into a basket beside the sink. “At least he remembered to pay this time.”
◊ ◊ ◊
From her balcony Selene would look out at Main Street. Sometimes, due to a mix of curiosity and boredom, she’d observe the townspeople and their habits. Often she found herself spying on the postman to see if he’d deliver her good news. She was awaiting word from her childhood friend Fanny, who lived in New York City and worked as an editor at a prestigious literary journal. She had asked if she could submit her short stories and poems given Fanny’s praise for her originality and elegant prose, and Fanny, with her characteristic broad smile and hesitant nod, answered yes.
The week before, when she remained home recovering from distress, she would watch the goings-on of the diner, which sat a couple hundred feet away. Early one morning, hours before sunrise, she noticed the Professed Immortal appear to drink an entire bottle of bourbon in one gulp before cavorting his way to the diner. Later in the week, she witnessed Milton, Corrine’s husband and business partner, visit—a rare sight given he was usually rubbing elbows with other businessmen at the chamber of commerce or bribing the local politicians at city hall.
As she searched for the postman, she spotted the man with alabaster skin walking along Main Street towards the duplex. His gait was similar to what she had seen the other night, with a slight limp and long strides. She rose and was about to grab her purse to follow him when she heard a knock on her door.
“Miss Selene, I have your laundry!”
It was Maude, the grandmother of her landlord, Mrs. Weaver. Mrs. Weaver lived with her two sons and Maude in the downstairs unit of the duplex. Nothing was ever said about Mr. Weaver’s whereabouts, although Maude had hinted he had disappeared while fighting in the Korean War.
“Hello,” Selene greeted as she opened the door.
“Oh, you look lovely today,” Maude gushed, a childlike grin forming at her lips. She handed Selene the basket of laundry and stood idly in the doorway. For reasons Selene never quite understood, Maude insisted on doing her laundry, to the extent she believed denying the old woman the chore would be an unkindness. “Have you heard Jimmy has started playing the cello?”
Selene returned a humorless smile. “I thought I had heard someone playing music downstairs the other night.”
“It’s just an absolute joy to see him have such talent,” she continued. Selene could feel her arm growing numb from holding the basket. Despite her diminutive stature and mousy appearance, Maude spoke with an aggressive cheeriness, prattling about her great-grandsons in one breath to the socialists in Saskatchewan in another. Once she rushed to shut the door, Selene spread her bedsheets on her mattress, prepared to see a large stain she had left a week ago.
It was gone.
◊ ◊ ◊
The man visited the diner every day for the next week, and the two of them did not speak until one evening when her shift ended well into the night. Selene noticed him leave and, instead of turning the corner in the direction where he usually came from, he stood outside the door smoking a cigarette. He held the door open for her as she walked out of the diner and down the sidewalk.
“I’ve found North Americans the most charming during my travels,” he called. She turned and gave him a quizzical look. “It’s just an observation.”
“How flattering.” She walked towards him and studied him from under the lamppost where he stood. His skin had developed a warm glow and the circles under his eyes had softened. “I don’t believe I’ve gotten your name.”
“I’m Adam.” She saw his eyes dart to her name pin on her left lapel. “You’re Selene, I presume?” Selene nodded. He shrugged and pulled out a pack of Marlboros. “We don’t have these where I’m from,” he said as he flicked away his cigarette and lit another one.
“How long are you staying here?”
“I have yet to decide.”
She followed him as he began walking toward the meadow behind the diner. He sat down amongst the flowers and gestured for her to sit beside him. “The thing I like most here is you can see the Milky Way. The last city I was in, you couldn’t see anything because of the lights.”
“Where were you before you came here?”
“You made it sound as if you’re not from around here.”
“I’m from a bit further away.” He struck a furtive glance to the moon. It hung suspended in the air like a cheap theatre prop, with the light from the sun reflecting an eerie halo.
Selene raised an eyebrow and smiled.
“You believe I’m lying?”
“It’s a bit outrageous. Did you come here in a flying saucer?”
“You’d think I’d disclose such sensitive information?”
She gazed at the brightly lit sky, which revealed how abundant space truly was. She remembered when she was younger, when she believed the déjà vu meant she had peculiar abilities, or the blackouts made her a time traveler, and she dreamt of a lifetime of exploration and independence. She had never ventured more than fifty miles outside of this town, but here she could witness stars and other celestial bodies millions of miles and light years away.
“Is there a god up there?”
“No,” Adam answered.
Selene rose. “As an Earthling, I need sleep.” She waited to see if he would follow her lead, but he did not stir. “Good night.” As the moonlight guided her to the street, she thought she heard someone calling her name.
She turned to see Adam standing in the meadow, blanketed in the glow of the moon. “It’s nice to finally see you smile.”
As she walked up to the duplex, she could hear Mrs. Weaver’s sons fighting over a telescope in the treehouse in the backyard. She crept up the stairs to her unit and once she collapsed in her bed, she entered a deep sleep for the first time in ages.
◊ ◊ ◊
It had started with a sense of foreboding.
It had happened during the transition between spring and summer, on a day when Henry, the son of the town’s mayor and a medical resident at the local hospital, visited the diner one early afternoon. Selene, who had found herself in an unusually upbeat mood that day, greeted him and started scribbling his order on her notepad. In spite of being a close friend of Milton and Corrine’s and a regular at the diner, she had yet to formally meet him.
Selene had stood frozen. She had experienced this uncomfortable and often indescribable sensation before, but it had been at least a decade.
“Are you okay, miss?” Henry had asked.
“Excuse me.” She had grabbed Norma, who was standing behind the counter, waiting on an order for a large group, and Selene had told her she needed to leave.
Henry had offered to walk her home. On the way to the duplex they had passed the postman, who knew of Selene’s impatience in receiving word from Fanny, and had frowned and told her he had no letters postmarked from New York City. She had apologized for her apartment being in disarray, and it was then Henry had asked if her panic was due to her husband leaving her months earlier. Before she could explain what she had experienced was not an anxiety attack, he had kissed her, and she had told him to leave because the sense of foreboding meant she may lose consciousness.
Henry had stopped by the diner the following day. He had handed her a tiny box, and inside was a spliff. He had told her it helped with neuroticism and some patients at the hospital swore it aided in controlling their fits, and invited her to smoke it with him once her shift ended.
They had begun meeting in the evenings, normally in odd places. Sometimes it would be at the local theatre, which had a habit of playing older films and usually remained vacant, or other times it was in a nearby area with natural hot springs. She had known he was newly married—it was impossible not to notice the gold band on his left ring finger or hear his occasional kvetch concerning his wife’s overspending—but she viewed this fact as an inconvenience to her newfound excitement.
This febrile high had distracted her from noticing a steady weight gain and growing nausea. The thought of being knocked up never occurred to her; she rarely entertained the idea due to an irregular cycle. It was only one morning when changing into her work uniform and noticing her bra no longer fit had such thought entered her mind.
She had waited a few weeks before seeing a doctor. The nurse had come into the room, telling her in a hushed tone the rabbit had died, and discreetly handed her a slip of paper containing a phone number of a doctor.
“He’ll take care of the problem,” she had told her. “He’s helped plenty of our patients.”
◊ ◊ ◊
It only took a little less than forty-eight hours for her and Adam to reunite. As he walked past the duplex toward downtown, he had noticed her relaxing on her balcony and had called up to her asking if she wanted a drink.
His apartment was minimalist: on his coffee table was a page from the town’s classifieds, with an ad for a car circled. A pink chaise longue with a patterned afghan draped over the side sat in front of the table, and a bookshelf stood at the opposite wall. On an adjacent wall hung a novelty clock of a grinning cat, its large swiveling eyes leering at her from across the room, and under it lay a bed, piled high with colorful blankets. The landlord’s pet, a calico tomcat named Mister Palmer, sat in the corner, studying a tiny hole in the floorboard.
“Do you like red wine?” he called from the kitchen.
On his bookshelf sat a record player and a year-old newspaper, declaring on the front page Yuri Gagarin’s venture into space. A small stack of photographs lay on the bottom shelf.
“Yes,” Selene answered. She picked up and looked at the first photo. A younger version of him—he appeared to be only eighteen or nineteen years old—stood on the top floor of a dilapidated building; the city below him lay decimated. The next photo was of him standing outside a city, with a vast sea in the background, and the remaining photos were of him in front of various famous buildings in Western Europe and the Middle East.
“You’re a bit like Mister Palmer, eh?” Adam appeared in the entrance of the kitchen, with a glass of wine in each hand. “Always curious about something.”
“I’m trying to discover where you’re actually from.” She held up the photo of him standing in the dilapidated building. “Where was this taken?”
Adam walked over to her and studied the photo. “Dresden.”
“And this one?” She showed him the second photo.
“It’s a city a few hours from Leningrad.”
Selene narrowed her eyes.
Adam grinned. “You’re gonna go snitch to Richard Nixon?”
“Prove to me you’re from the moon.”
“And how would I go about doing so?”
She noted the fine lines on his forehead and the few grey hairs peeking from the edge of his hairline; he had to be at least a decade older than her. “How old are you?”
“Older than you are.”
“What do you do?”
“I meant, what is your profession?” She seized a glass of wine from his hand and sat down on the chaise longue.
He took a long sip of his wine and paused. “I was sent by my people to travel around the globe.”
“So you’re a diplomat.” She wrapped the afghan around her body and invited Mister Palmer to curl up beside her feet.
“It’s only natural to want to visit your people after you’ve declared a desire to visit us.” She watched his eyes scan her left hand. “You don’t appear to be wearing a wedding ring.”
The corners of her mouth twisted into a grimace. “I was married once,” she said. “It was more of an arrangement.” Two months before graduating high school, she had caught her ex-husband in bed with Mr. Nilsson, their civics teacher, and in a bid to hide his secret, their marriage maintained the façade of romantic love for eight years. “I left him less than a year ago.” She wished to tell Adam her ex-husband had begged her to come with him on his move to San Francisco, but she remained mum on the subject. “What is the most interesting thing you’ve seen on Earth?”
“Not very interesting, but it’s curious how wherever you go, tribalism exists,” Adam said. “The scenery is different, but the people remain dedicated to their own.”
“What was your life like before you arrived?”
“I was born to parents of different nations and languages.” He drank the remaining wine in his glass and walked back into the kitchen to pour himself more. “It was a life of solitude.”
“Sometimes you need to explore to find your niche.”
He walked over to the record player and Billie Holiday’s croon filled the room. “Would you like to dance?” He held out his hand in anticipation.
Selene rose. Her limbs felt loose and she could feel an arousal stir within her. “Yes,” she answered, taking his hand.
◊ ◊ ◊
A few days after the nurse had told her the news, she had taken Henry to the back porch of the diner and whispered to him the rabbit had died. He had demanded proof, and when she replied she didn’t have any other than what the nurse had told her, he then said she was a malingerer—faking her fits and insomnia as a means to feed her addiction—and he could not trust what she revealed to him. He had grabbed her apron and dug his hands in the front pocket, revealing a bottle of barbiturates.
“Huh, what’s this?” he had asked, shaking the bottle in her face. As she turned to open the porch door, she had noticed Ellen’s face behind the screen and heard her hurry around the corner into the kitchen. “How can I even be sure it’s mine?”
Before she could answer, footsteps had sounded from inside and a hand yanked open the porch door. Corrine had appeared, her mouth contorted in a grotesque frown. “There are four tables waiting for their lunch.”
Selene had turned to Henry, but he had since vanished.
“What are you waiting for?” She had dug her nails into Selene’s arm and dragged her inside and down the hallway into the kitchen. “It seems each day you need more supervision.”
Selene had stared at the dishes resting under the heat lamps. A blend of sour odors had filled her nostrils and her stomach began to spasm. “I’m sorry,” she had said, turning out of the kitchen and into the bathroom.
As she wiped her mouth and stood up from the toilet, she had looked in the mirror. In spite of her blanched hue, it did not appear as if she had been upset. She had reached into her apron for the barbiturate bottle, but remembered Henry had seized it.
The next morning she had opened her mailbox and found an envelope containing a wad of cash. It was the exact amount to pay the doctor.
Norma had driven her to the doctor’s office a day later. During the hour-long drive, Norma had recounted her abortion a few years ago, shortly after she had left her husband. When she had pulled into the gravel driveway, Selene was surprised to see it was not an actual doctor’s office but someone’s home. Norma had squeezed her hand and promised her she would sit beside her during the surgery. Selene’s heart had quickened and despite being told she was only twelve weeks along, she could’ve sworn she had felt a light kick in her lower abdomen. She had pictured running away to New York pregnant and being able to raise her baby with the anonymity she craved in a dingy apartment in Brooklyn or Queens. She had originally planned spending the week with Fanny and her family in their Manhattan brownstone, but Fanny had cancelled the day before she was to leave for New York, telling her she had been invited to a late vacation in the Hamptons.
Two days later she had woken up to a dull pain radiating across her lower back, and when she sat up and tossed back the covers, she had discovered bloody sheets.
◊ ◊ ◊
The days transitioned into weeks, and she found herself spending every hour outside of work with Adam. She had ceased asking questions about his origin and abilities. In any ordinary circumstance she would have run away, but here she became completely transfixed. In spite of his laconic nature, there was a sense of liberation when spending time with him; he, too, was an anomaly, albeit he occupied a societal role less mundane than her own. On a few occasions, logic attempted to interfere: his English, while containing a subtle lilt, was too polished and colloquial—there were no malapropisms or mispronunciations she could detect; his mannerisms and etiquette seemed to match with anyone raised in North America. No one would have mistaken him for an alien, and this aspect piqued her curiosity more than anything else. She wondered if she were to study his cells under a microscope, if they would contain the same organelles as the cells inhabiting her body, or if doctors were to place electrodes on his scalp, if his readings would also come back abnormal.
During one particular morning in late October, she awoke to hear a scratching coming from the cabinet underneath Adam’s kitchen sink. When she crawled out of bed and opened the cabinet door, Mister Palmer sprinted out, scurrying into the living room and under the bed. As she shut the door, a glint caught her eye. In the far corner of the cabinet sat a drooping knapsack, with a worn copy of Stranger in a Strange Land poking outside of it and a striped keychain hanging from the strings. She grabbed the book, and a tiny photograph fell out from its pages. It was of Adam in a uniform standing next to an older couple, presumably his parents; he couldn’t have been much older than he was in the Dresden photo. In spite of the photo’s poor quality, she recognized the emblem on his hat: a hammer and sickle within a star. She reached into the knapsack, and her fingers touched a booklet—a red passport.
She thought she heard a stirring from the other room. Cautiously, she peeked behind the wall, only to notice Adam snoring quietly as he lay buried beneath the half dozen blankets. She placed the photo back in the book and shoved both the book and passport in the knapsack before hurrying into the bathroom.
She tried to ignore what she had just come across as she changed into her wrinkled work uniform. She had oft wondered if he were Khrushchev’s kin; in the depths of her rumination, she had convinced herself he most certainly was a fraud—a cheat, an imposter, a mime—and, if he did not conform to those roles, he was suffering from a masterful delusion.
Before exiting the bathroom, she saw her reflection in the cloudy mirror, and realized she had forgotten her hairbrush and cosmetics. As she crept into the living room, she took one last look at him—so unassuming yet so aberrant—before tiptoeing out of his apartment and out onto the street. Her skin ruptured in goose pimples given the unseasonably cold air. When she passed the duplex, she thought she saw Mrs. Weaver standing out on her front lawn. She appeared frail and sunken, and Selene remembered Maude mentioning during one of her monologues that her granddaughter was in the beginning stages of consumption. The postman’s excited calls steered her attention as she crossed the street, and for the few moments he dug through his messenger bag and spoke of a postmarked envelope from New York with her name written on it, she believed her life had transformed for the better.
She tore open the envelope with such speed that she almost tore the letter itself.
After talking with my colleagues, we have decided your stories do not merit publication.
Please do not submit any more of your work to our journal; it will be tossed.
She recalled her ex-husband’s wariness towards Fanny and felt a stab of foolishness. The postman stretched an arm to comfort her, but Selene continued along Main Street, ignoring his fumbling commiserations. She spotted Norma standing outside the diner, fiddling with her pen and notepad, and attempting to appear calm as she stole glances down the street.
“I’ve tried calling you. Perhaps you should feign illness,” said Norma.
Two figures exiting the diner caught Selene’s eye: Henry and his bride. Although she was clad in a heavy shawl, a slight albeit noticeable bump protruded from her belly.
Norma reached to comfort her. “Let’s go inside and get you cleaned up.”
“No, I’m fine,” she said, backing away. Tears ringed her eyes, and she could feel the sense of foreboding creep up her body. She walked around the back of the diner and up the porch. As she swung open the screen door and reached to open the main door, she was met with resistance from the opposite side.
“What do you think you’re doing?” The main door creaked ajar and Corrine’s face appeared in the thin crack.
“Let me in,” said Selene, kicking the bottom of the door.
Corrine remained expressionless as she reached for a cigarette in her apron and placed it between her lips. “Your shift began forty minutes ago.” She studied Selene, even as she cocked her head to light the cigarette, revealing a sharp beak for a nose. “Leave.” As she slammed the door, Selene could hear her whisper whore under her breath.
As she stepped off the porch, she looked into the distance, where the field of wildflowers bordered the foothills and noticed a familiar figure entering the forest. An invisible pull tugged her forward. She felt the petals of the blooms grace her arms and legs; the dread had melted away and a warmth blanketed her skin. When she set foot in the forest, her eyes widened in awe: moss covered the trees and pine needles cloaked the floor. Fingers of fog obstructed her view, and a heavy lightheadedness draped over her.
“Selene?” a voice called.
She found herself lying supine on the edge of the path, staring at a canopy of leaves and pine needles. She sat up and turned to see Adam walking towards her, carrying a basketful of dark blue mushrooms.
Confusion erupted, and for several moments she could not remember where she was. “It’s okay,” he said. He crouched down beside her and touched her arm.
“What are you doing here?” asked Selene. She stared at the trees surrounding her; what she had once considered serene now appeared menacing and claustrophobic.
“I was foraging mushrooms,” he said, nodding to the basket. “I was about to ask you the same question.” He offered her his jacket and helped her to her feet. “Shouldn’t you be working?”
“Not anymore.” Selene dusted off the dirt from her skirt and clutched the jacket close to her body, as if to protect herself from the leering trees and shame.
“I’m leaving for home tonight. I don’t know when I’ll be back.” His eyes flickered with surreptitious amusement, as if he were aware the two of them shared a secret. “Would you like to come along with me?”
She followed him down the path and out of the forest and gazed at the meadow and the buildings which made up most of the small town. From her vantage point, she could see Marvin and Norma on the back patio of the diner, having what appeared to be an animated conversation. Further up the road, she could hear the Professed Immortal bleating several expletives. She reached for Adam’s hand, and for the second time that morning felt a warmth come over her—only this time, it occupied a sense of certitude.
◊ ◊ ◊
Mrs. Weaver’s boys were playing in the treehouse as she stumbled onto the sidewalk. From the tiny beam of light emitted from their dying lantern, she could see one of them kneeling next to a radio, intently listening to a broadcast while the other looked out from the roof, his face ringed with a pair of binoculars.
“Witnesses say the unidentified flying object appears to have landed or disappeared in the surrounding foothills…”
She dragged her suitcase down the sidewalk to a more deserted area. In the moments after she had told Adam she would join him, she had nearly missed him telling her to meet him at the corner of the street near the duplex and await his arrival in his new car. It was the perfect moment to start life anew, especially since the newspapers declared an imminent nuclear war against Cuba. She didn’t know where this adventure would lead her—to a nearby town, to Regina or Chicago, or to one of the satellite states, be it within the Eastern Bloc or the craters of the moon.
She searched for his vehicle in the distance, eventually spying an orb which grew in size with each creeping second. The car glided up and down along the hills with such ease that for a moment it appeared to be floating.
At last, she thought to herself as the glow of the lights captured her face, I’m free.
Vivien Schwarz is currently writing her first novel. She has a Masters in political science and is active in community organizing. She lives in Chicago with her cat, Magenta.