“The Moon Room” by Maria Romasco Moore
Film isn’t cheap, so Sasha only brings one roll with her to the Moon Room each night, even when there’s a show. She crouches on the pool table, on a barstool, at the edge of the stage.
The shutter snaps shut and for an instant—Bambi Deerest, belligerent, having lost her best hat earlier that evening, standing at the edge of the stage, waving an arm half-encased in silver bangles, purple bangs catching on her eyelashes, beads of sweat dotting her forehead like gems—time stops.
Sometimes Sasha gets mistaken for one of the queens. She is thin and angular, tall for a girl. She puts her makeup on thick, wears her skin like a costume. In school she would study the other girls, trying to learn how to look like them, act like them. How to seem real.
At the Moon Room, everyone is pretending and at the same time, no one is. It’s one of the only places Sasha has ever felt at home.
At twenty after midnight, Moonmama is onstage, lip-syncing to a mashup of Miley Cyrus and a recording of “Howl.” She’s wearing a gown made of magazine pages—some anonymous oiled pecs grace her midriff, flexed biceps ring the hem of her skirt, and an artfully lit ass cups the empty space where her left breast might have been, had she chosen on this night to have one, which she has not.
Sasha is ordering three shots of vodka—one for Moonmama, two for her—when a man walks into the Moon Room. Sasha has seen him around, though she’s never spoken to him. He’s a regular, tall and thin as she is.
The man stops just inside the door. He stares, not at the stage, but at her. Sasha thinks she is the only one who has noticed him.
There is dark blood running from under his Briggs Body Shop ballcap, down into the hollow of his right eye. Sasha lifts her camera, thumbs the focus wheel, stops. She has been careless tonight. She’s only got two shots left.
The man reaches his hand towards Sasha. He opens his mouth but his words are lost beneath the beat of the song.
And then he changes shape.
Just for a moment. Like a scream without sound. An explosion. Not a thin man but a mass of shadows and tendrils, colors shifting and swirling like oil in a puddle.
Sasha blinks and the man is back, the outline of the thing he had become persisting only as a faint afterimage. Some of the other drinkers have noticed the man now, are shouting at him or pointing.
She takes his picture a split second before he turns and runs out of the bar.
Later, when the police come, she takes a picture of them, too, but then that’s it. She’s out of shots and she wishes just this once she’d tucked an extra roll into her jacket pocket because the siren lights are sparking off Bambi’s sequined dress in a way the chintzy lasers in the bar could only dream of and everyone’s standing on the sidewalk out front, still holding their drinks even though it’s raining slightly, and the red blue red blue red makes it so everyone is drinking blood and then the summer sky and then blood.
Sasha wakes to darkness. She is floating and she doesn’t want to get up, doesn’t want to have legs and arms. She waits until her phone alarm goes off and then she pulls herself together, condensing into the shape she is supposed to be. It hurts. Her skin doesn’t fit. It never has. Her head throbs from the pressure of her skull, squeezing her tight.
She shuffles into the bathroom to check her face. The colors are off, shifting like oil in water. She slathers on some foundation and a flash of memory hits her.
In the kitchen, Moonmama is sitting at the little round table drinking black coffee, except he is Bradley now, not Moonmama, his hair held back by an elastic band, his eyes red around the rims from rubbing his makeup off too roughly.
“Hey,” he says.
“What happened?” Sasha asks. “Last night?”
“Shit, how drunk were you?”
She sticks out her tongue. “I remember. A man came in with blood on his face.”
“Yeah, in the middle of my damn song.”
“What happened to him?”
Bradley shrugs. “People were saying somebody threw a rock at him or something. They said he was acting all crazy. I don’t know, really. I was going to ask you.”
Sasha remembers the man’s face, the blood, the way he stared straight at her. The way he changed. She doesn’t remember what happened after that. Doesn’t remember leaving the bar or coming home.
There is that funny thing that happens, when you are in the kitchen thinking that you need to buy more milk, but then you walk into the dining room and you instantly forget all about it.
It’s like that. The nights are doorways and Sasha walks through them one after another, as she has been doing her whole life, all the way back to Russia, which she cannot remember, either. She was five when they moved here, which ought to be old enough. But although she remembers the plane, remembers stubbing her finger against the thick-paned window, trying to touch the stars, she can’t remember a single thing that came before it. The sky is just another doorway.
Sasha works a double shift at Crazy Mocha. She drinks a quad-shot Americano with whiskey snuck into it. She scowls at the customers, although she needs the tips.
Afterwards, she goes to the university and lets herself into the darkroom. In her final semester, one of the professors let her borrow the key. She gave it back when she graduated, but she made a copy first.
She pulls three exposed rolls from her purse—Thursday, Friday, Saturday—and shuts herself into one of the lightless cubicles along the left wall. It is perfectly dark in here, perfectly safe. She lets go of her shape, swells to fill the small cubicle. She develops the film by feel. It is easier without hands.
There are no pictures of Sasha when she was a baby. No evidence that she existed. Her mother has told her the name of their home, a small town in northern Russia, but according to the internet that town doesn’t exist. Sasha has tried many different spellings. Her mother has a thick accent, certainly, but it doesn’t sound like any of the dialects Sasha has heard in videos online.
Sometimes Sasha thinks she can remember the time before the plane. She’ll get a brief flash of something—a red rubber boot, a blue tiled floor. She will call her mother and ask whether she has remembered correctly. But always her mother says no, Sasha, no one had such boots, no one had such floors, why do you want so badly to remember, with you only a little child. And besides it is much better here, now.
Which Sasha finds hard to believe. When she was growing up, each place they lived in was worse than the one before. Sasha remembers the rats, the drafts, the steady plinking of drippy pipes. And of course, in every apartment, thick cardboard nailed over the windows, heavy trash bags taped over the windows, so that no one outside could see in.
When the film is developed, Sasha regretfully pulls herself back into the shape she is supposed to be. She hangs the film strips in the drying closet, turns on the fan. Customers at the coffeeshop often ask about her camera, an old single lens reflex she picked up at a yard sale. Why use film? they ask. Is that some kind of hipster thing? She usually just shrugs, because she doesn’t know how to explain the power she feels, like magic, like sorcery, taking something intangible—time, reality—and pinning it down, turning it into something you can touch, something you can hold in your hands.
While she waits, she sips from her homemade flask—an iced tea bottle full of whiskey. Alcohol dulls the ache of holding herself in the right shape. After fifteen minutes or so, Sasha pulls down the film from Thursday, flips the switch on the light table, hunches over the backlit strip of negatives with a magnifying glass.
And there is Moonmama, tiny, skin blackish-blue, eyes glowing white, pouring a PBR onto the upturned face of some young man. Sasha remembers this, remembers the sticky laughing. But about halfway down the row, the pictures become unfamiliar. This is what she lost when she blacked out—a broken beer bottle, pale as milk, lolling on the painted concrete of the back patio—Bebe Gunn, wig in one hand, face a blur, doing a split on the bar, the neon signs behind her radiating darkness—some grinning girl, a stranger, teeth pure black, holding up her top to show blue nipples.
Sasha doesn’t remember any of these things, but here they are, like magic: little windows, looking back through time.
She looks through the Friday pictures, and then the ones from last night. She pauses on the second-to-last image, squinting through the magnifying glass.
The colors in the background of this image are reversed, as they should be—the black walls of the bar show up white in the negative, the laser lights from the drag show are rays of shadow.
The man in the Briggs Body Shop ballcap is staring straight into the camera, his pupils wide and black, irises brown. His skin is a washed-out pink. The blood running down the side of his face is red.
Sasha makes a print of the image. Then another. And another. Until she is sure.
Sasha stands on the sidewalk in front of the bar. She shoots the door, the arch of blue neon above it, the silver letters spelling out the name: MOON ROOM. She shoots the big front windows, painted black to keep the sunlight out for the day drunks.
Someone has placed an empty beer bottle with a dirty-petalled daisy in it against the wall. Sasha’s not sure if it is meant as a tribute to the man from last night or not. She shoots it anyway and goes inside.
In her jacket pocket is a print of the image from last night. In the print, the walls are the color they ought to be. The faces of the drinkers are shades of beige and brown. The man, now, is the only one reversed, standing there blue-skinned, white-irised, indigo-blooded, all his highlights dark and his shadows bright.
It’s so hard to get the colors right.
Sasha knows this from experience. Makeup makes it easier for her, but still people comment that she is too pale. Or that she looks sick. Or they ask if she’s been on vacation recently. Has she gotten a tan since yesterday?
Or they just blink at her, as if they are having trouble focusing on her face.
At the Moon Room, she asks the bartender about the man. What was his name? The bartender doesn’t know. What about credit card records? The must be records of him settling his tab. No, says the bartender, he usually pays in cash. But even if we had records I couldn’t show you. That’s against the rules.
So she asks the drinkers. Half of them haven’t even heard about the incident. They end up interviewing her instead. Here? Last night? What happened?
Darla, a regular, who lives a block away and has a gap between her front teeth big enough to fit a straw through, who Sasha kissed once when she was drunk, says “Girl, you already asked me that.”
“Last night. You went around asking everyone what they saw, if they knew his name, anything about him, collecting statements like you was a cop. Remember?”
Sasha does not.
Darla blinks at her. “You feeling okay? You look kind of strange.”
Sasha shakes her head, shakes herself back into shape. She buys a shot for Darla and three for herself.
Briggs Body Shop.
Darla knew where it was. Not far from here, she said, half a mile maybe. Sasha is standing in front of it now, though she can’t quite remember how she got here. She sways a little on the sidewalk.
The shop is closed. It must be almost midnight.
But there’s a light on, way at the back. Sasha presses her nose to the front window. The light is coming through a half-open door. She knocks on the window.
“Most Fortunate,” Darla told her back at the bar.
“That’s what he goes by. The man from last night.”
Sasha knocks again and the door at the back of the shop swings slowly open. A man comes out, walks towards her. He is in shadow, underexposed. She thinks she has found him, but the man walks around a Chevy Impala sitting on cinderblocks and the streetlights reach him.
“Can I help you?” this other man shouts through the glass.
“I’m looking for Most Fortunate,” Sasha shouts back.
The man squints at her for a moment, then goes to the door and comes out, closing it carefully behind him.
“You a friend of his?” he asks.
“Yeah,” she says. “I heard he got hurt. I wanted to bring him some flowers.” Sasha digs in her pocket, pulls out the dirty-petalled daisy she just now remembered was in there. She picked it from its bottle on her way out of the bar. It is slightly crushed now and missing several petals.
The man laughs, a short sharp burst. Sasha, startled, takes a step backward, stumbles on a crack in the sidewalk. She tries to catch herself but the world tilts, or seems to, and she loses track of her limbs and falls backward with a thump she can feel all the way up to her skull.
“Hey,” says the man, frowning, his face pale as a moon in the darkness above her, “you okay?”
When Sasha wakes up she is not in her room. There is light screaming through the windows. She can feel it all through herself. She can feel the edges of the room. Can feel a doorway, open. Gripped by panic, she collapses into herself, falls into the right shape, banging her elbow on a coffee table, her hip on the floor. An empty beer can scuttles away like a frightened rat.
She realizes that she is in Darla’s living room. Did anyone see her in the wrong shape? She spots her phone sitting on the edge of the coffee table. There’s a missed call from her mother, about an hour ago, and a voicemail.
“White curtains with blue flowers?” her mother asks in the message. “This is what you remember? Sasha, no one had such curtains. Did you receive the coupons I sent you? You must take care of yourself, Sasha. You must keep your shape.”
The log says she called her mother at three forty two a.m. She doesn’t remember.
She searches for her camera, finds it beneath her coat on the floor, is relieved to see that the back hatch is safely shut. She once lost a whole roll that way, erased by the morning light.
Darla’s gone to work already, so Sasha lets herself out. She gets the spins on the bus ride home, presses her forehead against the seat in front of her, lets the rumble of the bus shake her back into her skin.
When she reaches her apartment, she goes right to the bathroom. She shoves a towel under the door, pull three sharpie-labelled bottles from the cabinet, and switches off the light.
It is riskier this way, but sometimes she can’t wait. The three bottles are different shapes—one former soda, one former soap, one former mayonnaise—so she can tell them apart by touch alone. Her stop bath is just rubbing alcohol, but it works. The motions are the same. She agitates the developer in the sink, hums the ABCs to keep time.
While the film is soaking in the fixer, she lets herself relax. The pain in her body floats away as she allows her edges to blur, her colors to run wild.
When she was younger, her mother made her practice. She would stand in front of a mirror for hours, holding the right shape. Her mother would watch and if she saw even the slightest flicker of change, she would shout.
Next thing Sasha knows Bradley is banging on the bathroom asking is she dead in there or something.
“I’m working!” she yells, when she pulls herself together.
“Well hurry it up, jeez. I need to shower.”
She flips on the light switch, pulls the wet filmstrip from the sink, holds it up to the light. She wasted most of the roll taking stupid pictures of the Moon Room, playing CSI, but at the end of the roll are three pictures she doesn’t remember.
One of a window. In negative, the curtains are black, with orange flowers. So in truth the curtains are white. The flowers, blue.
One of a man’s face. And it’s him. Most Fortunate. He’s got on another ballcap with what looks like a giant band-aid sticking out from underneath it. He’s smiling, looking into the camera again, his face the color of oil on water.
The last one is a picture of her own face. It is blurry, but the colors are bright and clear. She looks real in the negative. She’ll look fake, she knows, if she prints it. Inverted. Out of place.
“Come on,” says Bradley from behind the door, “some of us have lives.”
When the sun goes down, Bradley transforms. Sasha brushes his wig while he paints his face. She tells him about last night.
“Jesus, Sasha,” he says. “You need to be more careful.”
“I’m fine,” she says. “I just drank a little too much.”
“You always drink too much.”
“You drink a lot, too.”
“Maybe, but less than you, and you’re tiny.”
“It isn’t.” He raises his eyebrows. “You’re not really– ” but he doesn’t finish the thought.
“I need to find him again,”
“Why are you so obsessed with him?”
Sasha shrugs. “I don’t know. I feel like we’re the same.”
Bradley snorts. He reaches for the wig and Sasha hands it over and he pulls it on and she is Moonmama now, glowing bright in the dim living room.
“Can I borrow one of your wigs?” Sasha asks.
“You going undercover?”
“I’m just tired of my hair.”
“Knock yourself out, Nancy Drew.”
Bradley has one foam head in his room, but the rest of the wigs are just draped over various objects—the lamp, the bedpost, a bottle of leave-in conditioner. Sasha looks at them one by one, concentrating, changing the shape of her hair to match. Her mother would drop dead if she knew. Sasha settles, eventually, on a long curly brunette style which matches the wig draped on the back of a chair. She looks, she thinks, like a girl from a magazine. Some kind of New England blueblood, who grew up in a house with a long winding driveway. Elizabeth Mayweather, maybe. A girl who knows exactly who she is.
It is open mic night at Moon Room and Moonmama is onstage, introducing an amateur queen with five o’ clock shadow and no hips.
Elizabeth Mayweather orders a dry martini with extra olives. It’s the fanciest drink Sasha’s had in ages. When it’s done, she orders two shots of vodka. Downs them both and heads for the door.
“Where are you going with my wig?” shouts Moonmama.
“I’ll come back.”
“You better not mess it up, that’s a goddamn lace—”
Sasha lets the door swing shut behind her.
She doesn’t know where she’s going. Or rather, she knows exactly where she’s going but she has no idea where it is. When she reaches a corner, she closes her eyes, tries not to think. Maybe her body remembers what her mind cannot.
Twice Sasha thinks she recognizes something about a house and walks up to the door before changing her mind. Her body hurts, but the pain seems far off, like it belongs to someone else.
She turns down a street and there’s a house with Christmas lights up even though it is April. Too early or too late? She is sure she has had this exact thought before, so she walks up to the door. A car goes by behind her and she turns to watch it and that’s when she notices. The house across the street is as dark as this one is bright. It seems hunched, almost, pulling its warped plastic siding tight around itself like a blanket. But through a side window she can see: white curtains, blue flowers.
She runs across the lawn, pounds on the front door before she can think about it too hard.
He opens the door. No hat this time, though the bandage is still there, low over his left eye like a jauntily tilted cap.
“Hey,” says Sasha. “How are you?”
“Not so bad,” says Most Fortunate. “You here to take my picture?”
Most Fortunate invites Sasha in, offers her some water, which she declines. He takes a seat on the couch and she stands by the door. His living room is dim. Cold. There are empty bottles lined up against the walls.
“I’m sorry,” she tells him.
“Last night. Showing up at your door.”
He laughs. “You didn’t show up. Carl from the shop called me to come get you. Said you were so drunk you could barely walk.”
“Oh shit,” says Sasha. “I’m really sorry. You don’t even know me.”
“I know you.”
“I’ve seen you around the bar. With that big-ass camera.”
“Oh.” Her heart had fluttered for an instant, when he said I know you, as if he’d meant I know what’s wrong with you. She pulls the picture from her pocket, the one where he looks like a ghost, and holds it out to him. He doesn’t take it, barely even glances at it.
“You want me to explain,” he says, “but I already did. Last night. You didn’t believe me.”
“Sorry, I—I don’t remember.”
“Maybe you don’t want to.”
“That’s not true.” She feels a flush of anger, now. He doesn’t know her, not really. “What happened to you? The other night, at the bar?”
“I fell,” he says, putting a hand to the bandage on his temple. “Hit my head.”
“I’d been drinking.” He shrugs. “It dulls the pain. But you already know that.”
“I don’t know what you—”
“You do,” he says. “You know. Me and you are the same.”
It’s what she wanted to hear, but still she feels a tug of fear.
“What’s your earliest memory?” Most Fortunate asks.
“I was on a plane,” she says, too startled to protest.
“I was there, too,” he says, “but it wasn’t a plane.”
“There you are,” says Moonmama when Sasha walks back into the bar. “I was worried.”
“Sorry,” says Sasha.
“What did you do with my wig?”
“Oh.” Sasha had forgotten about it, let her hair settle back into the usual shape. “I, uh, stopped home. Put it back.”
She orders shots for the two of them. Moonmama fills her in on the open mic acts she missed, the pictures she wasn’t there to take.
Sasha orders another round, and then another, and another, and then she goes to the bathroom. It’s a single stall. She latches the door and stares at herself in the mirror. The room is swimming and she can feel it, the alcohol in her blood, the tipping point, the blackout. She reaches a hand for the switch to turn the light off, but then stops. Leaves it on.
She lets go, watches herself dissolve in the mirror, turn from a girl to a mass of shadows and tendrils, colors shimmering, iridescent, like ice dissolving in a glass of whiskey.
The wrong shape.
She breathes in and then out, but not through a mouth. Through her whole body. Most Fortunate told her things she already knew. That she was different. That she was only pretending.
He said they came from another world, that many of them died on the way to this one, that she was lucky not to remember it. That it was better to forget. He said he was sorry about the other night, that he had panicked, that they should both go back to their lives. They were lucky.
Sasha gives herself eyes and then opens them and in the mirror is plain old regular Sasha. Pale and thin, with big brown eyes and thick makeup and short hair. The right shape.
But it isn’t, really.
She should go out to the bar and order another drink and then another and another until it’s time to catch the last bus home. She should forget all this, lean her head against the bus window, let the headlights of passing cars erase her, shot by shot.
Instead she allows herself to let go of her skin, her face, her hands and feet. She allows herself to blaze up and out until she fills the room, until she is as bright and large and strange as she is alone in her bedroom, with the curtains closed tight. Her camera sits, abandoned, on the blue tile floor of the bathroom. She draws it into herself, absorbs it, so that her surfaces are the silver of film and every cell of her being, a tiny shutter.
She opens the door to the bathroom, not with a hand, and flows through it into the Moon Room. She sees, but not with eyes. Sees Moonmama turn and take in her true shape and instead of screaming, smile.
|Maria Romasco Moore’s debut novel, Some Kind of Animal, will be out August 4, 2020. She is the author of Ghostographs, an interconnected collection of flash fiction inspired by vintage photographs. Her stories have appeared or are forthcoming in Lightspeed, Fireside, Interfictions, Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet, and the anthology Women Destroy Science Fiction. She teaches writing at Columbus College of Art and Design. mariaromascomoore.com|