Your torch goes out. So much happens in the coat check. A woman enjoys a drugstore serenade. Month-old clues appear on a dying screen. A denim jacket survives a year of personal upheaval. Your therapist wants to talk about grief. There are no animals left in the city.
keywords: middle age, dead dreams, musical theater
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A makeshift torch lights the empty women’s room. For the past several minutes, you’ve been glued to the mirror, enthralled by a reflection of a woman you don’t recognize. You look into her deep, brown eyes and wait for a memory to surface. You wait a long time before giving up.
Smoke drifts from the crackling flame toward an open window. Outside, the city is silent. No trolley cars or firecrackers or high heels clicking on the sidewalk. All you hear is a swift, cold breeze. Goosebumps cover your arms. You wrap your cardigan tight around your chest.
Your mind fills the quiet with existential questions about why you’re here with someone else’s memories. But there are no answers in this bathroom, only a row of toilet stalls to the east, and the exit to the southwest. By the door is a roll of paper towels perched on top of a locked, empty dispenser.
You take the paper towels on your way out of the restroom.
Back in the lobby, you face north toward the planetarium entrance. Stanchioned velvet ropes form a snaking path to an anteroom.
You jump the queue and stop at a vintage ticket taker stand. Behind it, directly ahead of you, are two sets of doors that lead inside the theater. Between them is a large, dead screen.
To the east is a coat check station.
You walk behind the counter and see fourteen light jackets on numbered hangers. Cubbies for bags and purses fill the southern wall. Tucked away in one of them is a stack of flyers for a film series titled Terrestrial Constellations: The Future at our Feet. On the back of each flyer is a nighttime satellite photo of North America, the whole continent dotted and webbed with electric lights.
You prop your torch on the counter and try on each coat. Only one really fits: a dark wash denim jacket that hugs your arms but leaves ample room in the chest when buttoned up. Your cardigan, now cinched at the waist, looks more like a skirt than a long sweater. It makes you feel pretty.
You check the pockets and find four one-dollar bills and a new pair of earrings shaped like Christmas wreaths. They’re still wrapped in cellophane and mounted to a square of red cardboard. A clearance sticker covers the brand name. Not that it matters with $1.99 drugstore jewelry. Long ago, the internet murdered both irony and brand loyalty. It’s okay to like cheap things.
I mean, look at how those plastic gems sparkle in the fluorescent light.
You’re totally going to buy these.
You toss the earrings in your basket, along with a bag of Holiday Mint M&M’s and a Hershey’s Kiss as big as your fist. You like running errands after midnight—if you can call a three AM candy run to the CVS an errand.But you’re forty-one years old. Words mean what you want them to.
While you scan your items at the self-checkout, two white college boys dance into the store, arm in arm, singing “Tango: Maureen” from Rent. The performance comes to an abrupt end when one boy dips the other, and together they crumple into a laughing heap by the battery display.
You walk over and help them up.
“How’s your Guys and Dolls?” you ask them.
“I hate that show,” the shorter boy says.
“I’ll give you this huge Hershey’s Kiss if you sing ‘My Time of Day.’”
Without hesitation, the taller boy launches into Sky Masterson’s Act I closer. He offers you his hand, and you take it. He serenades you like you’re Sarah Brown, the Bible-thumping ingenue grappling with suppressed desire. It’s a bold choice, casting a middle-aged Latina woman in an especially white musical. But you roll with it. You like Sarah Brown. You like to see people loosen up.
The tall boy weaves you through the aisles while the security guard and two staff members pretend not to see. The boy finishes the song by the beverage cases. You clap and offer him the Hershey’s Kiss.
“Oh, I’m vegan,” he says, waving it away.
“Jesus Christ,” you say. “Take the damn chocolate and give it to your friends or something.”
He laughs and accepts the candy. The shorter boy appears with two bottles of blue Gatorade. He sways without his dance partner to prop him up.
“Someone explain electrolytes to me,” he says.
You roll your eyes, and your vision fades. The boys blink out of existence, and the CVS melts into the ether. You’re standing behind the coat check counter. Ill-fitting jackets lie strewn on the floor.
That wasn’t Candace. That was someone new.
It’s happening again.
Your head throbs.
You soldier on, warmer now, but your torch is dying down. The metal detailing on the ticket taker stand barely gleams, and the carpet’s tight weave lacks detail.
You move with purpose through the double doors and into the theater.
The room is massive. To the northeast is a raised platform, a miniature stage big enough for four people. Behind that is the movie screen, which fans out to cover the entire domed ceiling. Rows of reclining chairs with generous headrests fill the southwest corner. The setup feels church-like, the way it guides the eye heavenward.
There are doors to the west and northwest.
Like an usher in between screenings, you search the aisles for forgotten items. You grope under seats and jam your fingers between the cushions. You are methodical and thorough, but too slow for the torch. The dwindling flame finally goes out. Then the embers fade and die. You’re left in the dark with hot ash and a scorched chair leg.
You put the chair leg in your bag and continue your search blind. It takes several more minutes, but your perseverance pays off. Under Row 8, Seat 5, you find a cold slab of metal and glass.
Someone lost their phone.
You hold the power button until the screen comes on. The battery is at 19%. There’s no signal. You lack the credentials to get past the lock screen, but it still provides some useful information.
It’s 1:43 AM on November 8th, 46 degrees with a clear sky. You see two text notifications, which display truncated versions of the original messages.
Someone named Andre sent the first one a month ago.
So I know everyone’s making amends now that we’re all on our collective deathbed, but really and truly, thank you for the life we
The second message came one day after Andre’s, from an unnamed sender whose number is just a string of six zeros.
All who are not Forgiven must report to a Departure station immediately. Guides will provide transport, sedatives and
You can’t fathom what word comes next.
You swipe up, turn on the phone’s flashlight, and walk to the northwest door. Inside is a stairwell. At the top, you find an even larger area encompassing the theater’s dome. Your footsteps echo as you circumnavigate the geodesic structure comprising the planetarium’s ceiling. Wooden rods and metal trusses form a network of interlocking triangles. It looks like some bygone vision of the future: quaint, yet beyond your understanding.
It’s colder here than in the theater. Strong gusts of wind whistle through an opening in the ceiling.
A narrow catwalk encircles the dome. You see a ladder to the south.
You climb with the phone nestled in your breast pocket. The ladder rungs are smooth, and you ascend without much effort. But when you reach the platform, your jacket catches on a support beam. You tug gently to free yourself, and a sharp burr slices through the left sleeve, leaving a jagged, three-inch tear.
Your eyes water.
Why is this destroying you?
It’s just a jacket.
A jacket you bought on your fortieth birthday, during your last weekend in New York, when you got rush tickets to four Broadway shows and pretended to be a tourist in a city you lived in for seventeen years.
A jacket you wore the day you moved back to your childhood home in the suburbs, after your dad and his husband bought a rancher in a retirement community out of state.
A jacket you wore every day in the spring to your ASL classes, whose fitted sleeves strained as you practiced signing.
A jacket you narrowly saved from a permanent white sauce stain after slipping on the ice with your chicken combo from the Halal food truck.
A jacket that made you feel like a girl in a 90s teen dramedy, figuring out her perfect style, which, for you, turned out to be 90s retro, all flannel shirts and boot cut jeans.
A jacket you wore on your way to your first sign language interpreter job, a middle school production of Godspell Jr.,which cut “On the Willows,” your favorite from the show, a heartbreaking song about performing under duress and submitting to your captors.
A jacket that took most of the year to break in before the denim felt soft against your skin.
A jacket you were wearing when you realized it’s been three years since you sang onstage.
A jacket you were wearing when your therapist told you for the third week in a row: we grieve for lost opportunities, Yolanda. We grieve for the paths we can’t take anymore. We grieve for them like we grieve for the people we love.
A jacket you put away until your forty-first birthday, when your dad and his husband were in town, and the three of you spent the whole day in a museum, and it was so warm for March, and who could blame you for leaving your jacket behind at the coat check?
It’s just a jacket.
You follow the catwalk and see a path forking off to a platform against the north wall. On the platform are two ladders, one going down twenty feet to the floor, the other extending to a hatch in the ceiling.
You climb up, mindful for burrs. As you get closer to the hatch, the air feels fresher and more bracing.
You know what you’ll see. You saw the city from the conference room, dark and desolate. But it’s different, here on the roof, with a panoramic view stretching out for miles and miles.
Cars still line the streets. Garbage tumbles in the wind: soda cans, pizza boxes, crumpled cigarette packs. Aside from the neglect, there are no signs of a mass exodus, no wreckage to suggest war. There aren’t even animals here. They must have migrated to parks and forests after scavenging what they could from the trash.
This is it. A city turns to ruins before your eyes.
You put on Yolanda’s Christmas earrings and toss the wrapper into the wind.
Thank you for listening to Planet Radiant. Words and music by me, Sasha V., logo by Jess Hamman. Beta tested by Jess Hamman and Christina Larocco.
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