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  • As I stepped out of the used record store, a few key gifts tucked under my arm, I noticed that the parking lot seemed brighter than I expected. More blue.

    It wasn't the lighting...it was the sky. The horizon was illuminated with a sublime glow. The moon was a stunning crescent. A brilliant star beamed beside it. A planet, no doubt. Picture perfect.

    I gazed, wishing my wife had been there to see it with me. I pulled out my cell phone to take a picture. I'd show her later. Maybe we'd go outside together, to see if we could catch a glimpse. It was the day after Christmas, but it wasn't cold out. And since we were celebrating an anniversary of sorts (we started dating the day after Xmas many years ago), perhaps the sky would provide a perfectly romantic view. If the clouds obscured it, then a photo would have to do.

    So I held up my camera, standing in the middle of this parking lot, trying to push the universe into the rectangular border of my stupid technology. The image looked fuzzy on my digital screen. I wanted my own personal Hubble telescope with immaculate lens. A cell phone camera couldn't possibly capture the infinitude. But at least I could see it from this hilltop location.

    I snapped a few shots and then walked toward my car, eager to get home.

    I heard a masculine voice a few car lengths behind me: "What planet is that?"

    It was dark. The question sounded far away. Like maybe I was just thinking the question. I pretended not to hear him as I unlocked my door, but it nagged at me a little bit.

    My car was facing the record store in the lot, so climbing inside gave me an opportunity to turn back and see who had called. As I slid into the driver's seat, I saw his form in the darkness, getting closer, moving toward me, clutching his lapels together as if to stave off a chill. "What planet is that?" he asked again from still too far away -- and it seemed odd that he was coming up to me, insisting that I acknowledge his question and give him a response. As I moved to shut the door, I stopped. I left it ajar. I was being silly and rude. We were the only two people in this parking lot; why was I shunning him?

    He got closer and made eye contact. He scrutinized me a little. His face reminded me of some television actor I couldn't quite place; a guy who always played someone with a mental disability.

    "I heard about it in the news," he continued, apparently relieved that I'd paid attention. "Supposed to be a perfect night to see that planet. But what planet is it? I can't remember."

    I held my door, ready to shut him out. I sized him up as he turned from me and blinked at the satellites up there in the sky, glimmering beside the moon.

    From where I sat, dealing with this guy, the moon was now located behind me. This bothered me a little bit. I wasn't about to get out of my car, turn around and begin stargazing with him.

    I hadn't heard anything on the news. I wondered if he was lying. If he was casing me out with nefarious intentions. I was ready to kick him in the head.

    "I dunno." I shrugged and jingled my keys menacingly. "Jupiter, maybe?"

    I laughed at my own idiocy. Jupiter was impossible, and I knew that. But what did he expect? If a person takes a photograph that does not imply he is an expert on the subject. A kid at the zoo with a cellphone pushed between the cage bars is not a biologist. Likewise, I was not an astronaut for shooting the moon.

    The man beside me could have kicked sand for all I knew. He was standing awkwardly beside me, making expressions of uncertainty, looking at me and then back up at the sky. Sizing up whether the planet was Jupiter. Which it couldn't be. Which meant he knew nothing about this stuff and was really just trying to talk about something he happened to read in the paper with a perfect stranger. Making small talk -- like we were sitting together at a barbershop instead of isolated in the middle of a virtually deserted parking lot.

    I made every non-verbal signal I could that suggested "I'm in a rush and I don't know you. I really don't care to arbitrarily strike up a conversation about the names of planets with you. You are quite weird for even having the audacity to pursue as discussion with me all the way across the lot and over to my car under the auspices of astronomy. Please just leave me alone..."

    "What planet IS that?" he insisted, turning to face me again.

    "It's Jupiter," I said, expressionless, using a voice that has my signature "and what does it really matter, anyway?" undertone to it. And then I pulled the door shut and drove off.

    I felt bad about being so terse to him. I think I actually blushed with anger at myself for just cutting him short and abandoning him like that. Rarely do I act so rude, or even so paranoid about strangers in public places, particularly if they're only trying to strike up an intelligent, adult conversation.

    And he may have been invading my personal space in a way that justified the closing of a door, but I know he just wanted to share the stargazing moment with me -- to share our human frailty and awe together for only a moment. Because the moment was striking enough that it didn't matter that we were strangers; we were human astronauts, alone together in that moment on the expansive parking lot vista of planet earth like we were on some alien airport, making small talk while waiting for the next traveler to arrive.

    I could see the bond there. It was a reflection of our situation, too. We were like moon and planet, brought into orbit together by chance.

    But he wasn't my wife.

    It was selfish of me to snub this lonely stranger. But somehow, on this particular date, beneath the illumination of this particular sky, his awkward approach and uncomfortable presence made me feel even lonelier than the vast vacuum of the entire black universe. It reminded more of time's passing. I simply had to abandon him on planet earth and take off from this celestial runway. I flew home. But I kept wondering: "What planet is that?"

    I was certain my wife would know.

    ***
    The celestial event did appear in the news, after all:

    "The impressive pairing of the thin crescent moon and dazzling bright Venus tonight and Tuesday evening may be enhanced if clear and cloudless sky conditions permit you to see the dark disc of the moon faintly illuminated by the reflection of sunlight off Earth. This phenomenon is known as earthshine." -- "Stargazing Crescent Moon Passes Venus." Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (26 Dec 11). Online. post-gazette.com
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