“Somewhere Between Mars and Jupiter” by Vicki Crawford

NASA’s Dawnspacecraft finally reached the orbit of the dwarf planet called Ceres in 2015. I remembered that Ceres was the most important thing in Dom’s universe.

“Lonnie! That robotic spacecraft made it to the orbit of Ceres.” Dom repeated urgently until I looked up from my spreadsheet. “What should we do? Dinner? A celebration of some kind.”

“Dom, we’ve got a deadline. I don’t think we need to go out to dinner to celebrate Ceres.”

“Come on! No. Wait! I’ve got it. A picnic under the stars!”

I gave up looking for flaws in the data on the spreadsheet before drumming a pen on the desk.  “Dom, it’s cold outside. You’ll use any excuse to look at the stars.”

Dom crossed the room and put his hand over my hand, preventing me from drumming my pen. I tried not to pull my hand away but the instinct was there. “Lonnie. Let’s celebrate Ceres!”

I shook my head and smiled. “Okay. We can go on your picnic. You’re planning it all though. The food, the location. The whole thing.”

He grinned and removed his sweater. What a nerd, I thought to myself as he adjusted his checkered shirt. Since the accident, he’d been dressing oddly. Sweaters and checkered shirts, corduroy pants. I wondered what happened to his suits.

I sighed and picked up my briefcase, heading out of our shared office to the elevator. On the way out the door, I heard the phone ring and opened the door to make sure it wasn’t important.  Dom answered. He looked serious but when he saw me he smiled and cupped the receiver in his hand.

Dom whispered, “Janet.” Then he went back to his conversation. Janet was Dom’s ex-fiancée. From time to time she would call to discuss their dog, Bingley. They shared custody. Two weeks at our place, two weeks at her place. I nodded and walked out the door.

The building smelled musty. Someone said it flooded eight years ago and the smell seemed to linger somewhere under the replaced gray carpets and sheen of seven-year-old paint. At the elevators, I saw Vinny Ferguson who worked in the office down the hall. We stood awkwardly waiting for the elevator. “Hey, Lonnie. How’s Dom?”

I sighed.  “Dom seems okay.”

“Does he remember much about what happened?”

The elevator doors opened and we both walked inside. “Vinny. I am not sure what he remembers.” When the doors of the elevator closed I watched a light in the ceiling flash on and off and could smell the bleach from the maintenance crew’s Friday cleaning. I looked at Vinny and watched him text someone on his phone. I remembered the day that Dom backed me against the back wall of the elevator and began kissing me urgently. He was different then. Everything was different. We were different.

Two months ago Dom was in an accident. His car went through a window at the Sierra Space Center. When he awoke he remembered very little. He thought we were still dating. The doctors told everyone it would be best if we tried to keep things as normal as possible until his memory returned.  I had to pretend we were still together.  Just as I was ready to move on with my life.

The scientists at the Space Center visited Dom in the hospital to make sure he was okay. When he got released they took him on a tour. I strolled around the space center staring at star charts while the scientists spoke to Dom. Later, we rested in the dark planetarium as our seats reclined to view the constellations. Once I thought he was going to hold my hand but he just tapped it lightly, pointing out a constellation that appeared on the ceiling.

I shut my eyes when the lights dimmed to think about the galaxy surrounding me in a swirl of colors and the bright lights of stars brushing past. No matter how intense and explosive the stars were up close, I thought space looked cold. Lonely.

The suggestion of a picnic had me both fearful and puzzled. He thought we were still together, yet there was something not quite the same about him. Each week Dom went to the Space Center to learn some interesting facts about the solar system. The scientists seemed to enjoy his visits. I think they felt guilty about what happened. Their outdoor statue of Mars dislodged from its base during a derecho and onto the street, causing Dom’s car to careen through the Space Center windows. There were photos in the newspaper of the accident. Shards of glass mixed with broken chunks of red planet plastics and metals. As if the planets and stars collided then shattered.

Immediately following the accident, the police said Dom kept whispering, “Between Mars and Jupiter.” It was strange. On the day he told me about Ceres, he said it was a Dwarf Planet between Mars and Jupiter. I assumed it had something to do with what he whispered after the crash when he sustained a head injury. 

In the morning Dom stood outside our closet door looking puzzled.

“The blue. The blue.” I studied him as he stared at suits.

“Don’t I have anything other than suits?” Dom seemed to look puzzled at his wardrobe. “I want to go shopping.”

He’d been like this since the accident. Wearing only his casual Saturday clothes. I was up for a shopping excursion. We had Bingley until the weekend so we decided to take him for a walk in the morning before going shopping downtown for clothes. On the way to the dog park, Dom turned to smile at me. He could be charming. Our breakup had been difficult but necessary. He became moody and distant. Finally, I confronted him, but he had no excuse for me other than to shake his head and say he couldn’t explain what was wrong. I wouldn’t understand.

Bingley began chewing on a branch and I bent down to throw a ball across the grass at the park. He ran quickly and returned with a slobbery crushed tennis ball. He was a keeshond. He shed so much our apartment had to be cleaned each week by a cleaning service. Bingley was a sweet dog, and after the accident, Dom seemed even more attached to him than before.

Later in the day Dom found new clothes at the mall and modeled them for me. There he was, hands in pockets of tight-fitting dress corduroy pants and a tight button-down shirt. He looked like an urban nerd wearing horn-rimmed glasses. The glasses wouldn’t hide the fact that Dom was model handsome. I wanted to walk up behind him and wrap my hands around his waist and slowly move my hands up to his chest and see our reflection in the mirrors of the small runway outside the dressing rooms. There was still an attraction. I had to shake it off as I watched him answer his phone while standing at the checkout. I hurried out of the store to find a pretzel. As I dipped the pretzel in icing I sat down on a bench and watched Dom pace back and forth before placing his phone back inside his jacket pocket. He rushed out of the store and sat down quickly on the bench beside me. He tried to take my hand in both of his but I pulled back as it was covered in sticky icing.

“Lonnie? How long have we been together?”

I looked up from my pretzel at him. “About four months. Why?” I neglected to mention we had been broken up after that, hoping that knowledge would return to Dom one day soon.

“Do you know how long I was with Janet?”

I sighed and got up to throw away my pretzel wrapping, removing a hand wipe from my purse to clean my icing-covered hands. I walked back to Dom and stood in front of him. “Dom. You were with Janet for six years. You loved each other and you were engaged to be married. You adopted Bingley together one Saturday afternoon at the Farmer’s Market when he came waddling around the side of a vegetable stand. You both broke up because you couldn’t spend enough time together due to work schedules.” I said it in a rehearsed tone because we’d been over it several times before.

I sat down next to him. “Dom, I know this is tough. It is tough for everyone.” I hoped in a strange way this would be the moment he realized we were no longer together before I started to fall for him again. Dom ran a hand through his thick hair and adjusted his collar. His new slick urban nerd style was intoxicating.

“I’m sorry, Lonnie. This weekend we’ll see Ceres.”

After several uneventful days of work, more spreadsheets, and stats, I became restless. I decided to go out on Friday evening with friends and leave Dom at home.   The Sand Handlebar Restaurant and Lounge played a song by Stevie Ray Vaughan, and I began to dance with a man on the slippery-grained wooden floor. He was tall with a scar on his left cheek and had a gruff voice. We danced close, and I enjoyed his smell. Cigar smoke and Fireball Whisky mixed with an earthy cologne.  He wrapped his arms around me from behind and we continued to dance, moving together in rhythm to the music. As the music played I looked into the crowd and thought I saw Dom. I knew it wasn’t him. He didn’t like the blues. I, however, was addicted.

As I danced close to the man in the bar for a few more minutes I felt happy. Dom and I broke up and pretending to be with him was getting to be a hassle. Working in the same office was about all I could handle after the breakup. I cared about him, but how long would I have to pretend!There was just something about us that didn’t work. The man turned me around to face him. He took my hands in his and moved me even closer to his chest. I wouldn’t be home until late. Dom wouldn’t wait up.

I woke up with a hangover on Saturday morning as I heard Dom whistling. He was packing a picnic basket with plates and silverware. He seemed excited. “Lonnie! I hope you are looking forward to seeing Ceres tonight.”

“Dom, I don’t believe we can see Ceres.”

Crossing the room, he removed a pair of binoculars from the hall closet and took them to the kitchen to place inside the picnic basket. “Maybe not, Lon, but we can pretend one of the stars we see is Ceres.”

I walked to the bathroom to locate some aspirins and heard Dom leave the apartment. I felt relieved. I jumped into the shower and by the time I got dressed Bingley needed to go for a walk. I rushed a quick cup of coffee and as I was rinsing a mug in the sink I thought about the night before in the bar and smiled. I didn’t know how much longer I could keep pretending with Dom.

 I was glad that Janet would be arriving to pick up Bingley in another hour. I hadn’t seen her for months before Dom’s accident. Usually, Dom met her at the dog park. This time she insisted on coming over to our apartment. She did visit Dom at the hospital, but I was not in his room at the time. I brought Bingley home from a quick walk around the neighborhood. It began to rain. After getting Bingley’s chew toys ready the doorbell rang. I rushed to the door. Janet stood there in the pouring rain. Soaking wet. About eight months pregnant.

After the shock wore off I waved my hand and invited her inside the apartment. “Janet. Sit. Sit. Get warm. Looks like the rain isn’t going to let up.” I was babbling. Janet lowered herself on the sofa as I fled into the hallway to open the closet door. I stared for what seemed to be minutes at the stack of linens inside. As the shock began to wear off, I brought her a towel. Her long blonde hair was matted to her face, and her eyes looked red. She had been crying.

“Lonnie? Lonnie, I’m so sorry. I am. I didn’t find out until after you started dating.”

Janet looked straight at me and spoke gently but insistently.

“We love each other. Dom and I. Before you met, we’d been together a long time, and things were never really over I guess.”

At first glance in the doorway when she arrived I thought maybe she had a new boyfriend but started doing the math. I shook my head and sat across from her in a chair.

“It isn’t fair, I know.”

I shook my head again in shock and had to admit to myself what I felt for Dom was an attraction—it wasn’t love. It still stung a little. 

“No. Maybe not. But you know, Janet, Dom and I just don’t work. I saw that before we ended things.” I suddenly gasped. “Does he know?”

“He sees I am pregnant but he still has no memory it is our baby.” She grasped a tissue from the coffee table in her hand and began to shred it nervously.

I got up and crossed the room to sit beside Janet. To comfort.

“Lonnie. After you broke up, we planned to marry. On the day of his accident we were going to meet, to pick out names for the baby.” Her voice cracked as she tried to recover. “He told me to meet him at a display between Mars and Jupiter at the Space Center.”

“Between Mars and Jupiter!” I slapped my hands together. “You do know he is obsessed with Ceres, don’t you? The dwarf planet between Mars and Jupiter! He asked me recently how long you were together. Some part of him is trying to find his way. He is so close.”

Janet smiled weakly. “Yes, he speaks of Ceres all the time, but I don’t quite know what he is talking about.”

I jumped up and tried to help her up from the sofa. “Come on, Janet. He is planning a picnic on the Space Center lawn in celebration of Ceres.”

“Lonnie, we can’t tell him. He has to figure things out on his own—the doctors said.”

I looked at Janet and grasped her arms on both sides. “I’m sorry. It must have been tough for you to know he still thought we were together.” I sighed, trying to think of what to do. “Okay. Stay here and we will wait for Dom to return. Maybe seeing us together in the same room will jar his memory.”

Janet and I waited for several hours for Dom to return home. After a while, we each received phone calls from the hospital.

Dom had a brain seizure while driving. Three months later Janet invited me to Dom’s after funeral party. We were both a mess during Dom’s funeral, and Janet couldn’t plan something that late in her pregnancy. Couldn’t face it. And it was her place to plan those things. Dom was never mine, not really. He belonged to Janet.

Party favors in the shape of planets were suspended from the gazebo outside the Space Center. We all waited until night to stare at the stars with binoculars looking for a star Janet bought called Dom. Space ceased to be cold. It was filled with bright shining stars and planets as I held Janet and Dom’s daughter, Ceres, in my arms and pointed towards the sky. Somewhere between Mars and Jupiter.

Vicki Crawford’s writing has appeared in In the Midst: A Covid-19 Anthology, Anthology of Appalachian Writers, Crystal Wilkinson Volume XII, Wiley Cash Volume X, Diner Stories: Off the Menu and Appalachian Heritage. She received a 1st place 2017 Pearl S. Buck award for Social Change from West Virginia Writers, 2013 Patricia Boatner First place award in fiction from Tennessee Mountain Writers, third place in the 2012 Emma Bell Miles Prize for Essay from Mountain Heritage Literary Festival at Lincoln Memorial University, and 2007 Honorable Mention Denny C. Plattner award for Outstanding Fiction of the Year from Appalachian Heritage.