Steven wasn’t a bad person. Not really. It’s just that the whole world revolved around him. Seriously, it actually did. Steven lived in a ranch-style house next door to me, and there were always people walking in circles around the place. Some pedaling bikes, some looking winded as they two stepped it across the lawn, through the gate, around the back of Steven’s yard, often trampling right over the bushes below my solarium.
“What are you doing?” I called out to them, but they just shrugged and kept on moving, trying to steer themselves as best they could, as though they were just an avatar in a video game with no real control over themselves.
After a few weeks of having my yard trampled, I tried to have a neighborly talk with Steven about it. I rang the bell and waited on his porch. In time with the sound of footfalls behind the door, with the chunk of his deadbolt sliding open, some unseen force began to tug at my midsection. By the time Steven stepped out onto the porch with me I was circling him like a shark, only unlike a shark, I wasn’t driven by hunger or instinct. It was something else, something entirely outside of myself.
“Hi Dave,” Steven said, moving to the center of his lawn to allow me space to orbit him without obstruction or obstacles. It was a good thing, too, because until he’d moved I had to keep hopping the porch railing to travel in my elliptical orbit of him. I had a distinct sense that I wouldn’t be able to do that forever.
“Steven. Hi,” I stated, huffing slightly. “Listen, I was just wondering about all these people trampling my bushes.”
Steven peered at his shoes.
“Yeah, sorry about that,” he mumbled. “There’s not much I can do.” He shrugged, turned towards his front door. I was going to say something else, but part of me wanted him to go back inside so I could be released from orbiting him, which mercifully, he did. As the front door slammed home, the mysterious gravitational pull evaporated. I was left feeling strangely foolish, sort of like when someone you don’t know waves at you and you smile and wave back, only to realize they were signaling someone behind you.
Even though I’ve largely steered clear of Steven since that encounter, I’ve come to understand his situation a little bit better. Those in regular orbit of Steven are people who know him well. I’ve talked to a few of them personally as they stomped my flower bed and wore a deep groove into the section of my lawn closest to Steven’s house. There were about ten hardcore orbiters at the time, both male and female, although they came and went as their relationship with Steven changed over time. Some were in a fairly tight orbit, others farther out.
I spoke mostly with the farthest satellites.
I thought that that these were the people closest to being released from orbit, but it turns out that those who knew Steven best were orbiting him from afar. His gravitational pull on them was strong enough to be both a repellent and attractive force.
“It wasn’t always like this,” stated a fairly attractive blonde in her mid-thirties with thick eyelashes and large, rounded calves. “When you first get to know Steven he seems quiet and thoughtful, perhaps a bit guarded.” She paused in her remarks, and I immediately felt horrible about the birdbath I’d installed a few weeks back, which was now directly in her orbit. She leaned forward in an attempt to vault the cement corner of the thing, but instead scraped her hip on it and fell on her side. She was dragged a few feet by the gravitational force of Steven, then pulled herself back to her feet and continued in a brisk walk. Her perfectly elliptical path disturbed me. It was just too mathematically precise. “You could sense a lot going on in his mind,” she continued, “but there was also this sort of energy there, this effort he was applying to listen to you.” She paused again, this time in order to time a single hop over a tree stump, which she managed without incident.
“Nicely done,” I commented.
She wiped some sweat from her forehead with the back of her hand, visibly relaxing as the expanse of front lawn, well mowed and thick bloomed out in front of her.
“I’m Marlene.” She held out her hand and I took it in mine. We shook briskly as the pace of her walking made subtleties near impossible. I found myself trying very hard to meet her eyes, which I guess I always do when I shake hands with a woman, but in this case I couldn’t. I was not yet skilled enough to know what side of an orbiting person to walk on so that the gravitational forces of Steven would not work against the kind of head and body movements commonly used in conversation.
“I have to go,” Marlene called to me, her arm straightening as she was pulled towards the eaves of Steven’s house and then between the dangling seats of a child’s swing set. My arm remained outstretched as she disappeared behind Steven’s shed. At the time, I thought of waiting for Marlene on the far side of her orbit to continue our conversation. Instead, I went in to the garage and returned with a small step ladder that should make negotiating the bird bath easier for Marlene. She seemed like a nice lady.
After work, a day of spinal manipulations, of grabbing muscle and stretching it to release cramping, of explaining the same things over and over to interchangeable people who nod and shift their feet and struggle to find the patience to listen, I drove home and watched Marlene orbit my neighbor’s house from my solarium. She was quite the trooper, stomping up the stepladder I provided to clear the birdbath and seeming to take the whole “orbiting” thing in good spirits. I don’t know why I enjoyed watching her navigate the same path over and over again, but there was something, dare I say it, beautiful in her reliability.
I made a couple of Daiquiris and went out on the lawn with a chair and a tray for the drinks. The air was cool, but the early evening sunshine made it quite tolerable. It felt a little strange to be waiting for Marlene this way. But I kept telling myself that this was my yard and there was nothing stalker-ish about relaxing on my own lawn.
My fears evaporated the minute I saw Marlene emerge from the side gate of Steven’s back yard, bleeding from a jagged cut on her forearm as her elliptical trek pulled her through my trampled flower bed and bushes. She was either concentrating intensely or else had zoned out entirely. I couldn’t tell which. Her face broke into a smile when she noticed me seated near the bird bath.
“Daiquiri?” I offered.
“I really shouldn’t,” she smiled, then pounded up the step ladder and timed a perfect leap over the bird bath and onto Steven’s driveway. I leapt up from my seat and carried the drink to her, waiting for her to clear the stump before handing her the glass. Again, there was a temporary feeling of relief as Steven’s well-manicured lawn offered up the possibility of a pleasant walk, if only for a few seconds. She slowed down a bit to sip the drink, wincing ever so slightly, either due to her exertions or some kind of pain brought on by fighting the gravitational pull of Steven.
“How’s your day going?” I asked.
“Pretty similar to most days, I guess,” she responded, flipping her hair back. Although Marlene’s hair was oddly course and split at the ends, I was surprised how attractive I found it.
“Are you out here all night?” I asked.
“Sometimes,” she replied.
We only had a few more seconds until the side gate required negotiation. I wished I had better planned what to say. Marlene handed me her half-finished drink, her face girding for the obstacles ahead, the uneven stones of the pathway along the side of Steven’s house, some muddy patches and the chain link fence which I assumed must be hopped over somehow.
“Nice talking to you,” Marlene threw over her shoulder.
“Likewise,” I replied.
I had wanted to continue our conversation, to invite her in or even to wait for her again by the birdbath, but somehow that felt like taking advantage. So I went back into my house and fell asleep watching TV.
Mother’s day came, which required a trip to Elgin, some limp looking flowers and breakfast with my mom, who much like Marlene, only sometimes breaks free — in Mom’s case, from rotating about her apartment. My mother hovered as I ate lunch, then swooped in, snatching and shuttling away dishes and silverware as I used them. As I finished my coffee, she rotated by and snapped up the cup.
“More coffee?” she called from the kitchen. She was always doing that, leaving the room and then asking you a question.
“No thanks, Mom.”
It was hard to find things to discuss with her. Like the moon and the earth, we were related, but it was difficult to understand the forces at work. Luckily, she brought out the dessert.
I drove home in silence, wondering if Marlene was orbiting Steven’s house tonight. Sometimes she was, sometimes not. I wanted to see her again, talk to her, maybe find a way to prop open the side gate to make her life easier. I idled the car at the curb for several minutes, but Marlene wasn’t orbiting, just some guy in a hoodie and basketball shorts looping around the house over and over.
“Help! Help! Help!” he screamed.
I walked up to him and fell into orbit with him. The guy seemed baffled that I would do such a thing, but an odd sense of relaxation accompanied it. I could picture myself going round and round with Marlene like this. It made me happy to think of it.
“It’s okay,” I shouted back at him, even though we were side by side. “You’re just orbiting Steven. The world revolves around him.” The man grew puzzled, walked in silence for a few seconds, then tried to bolt, straining against the gravitational forces of Steven. He was pulled backwards, against his will, rolled his ankle, tumbled to the grass and bounced up with a slight limp.
“It won’t work,” I stated simply.
“But I was just playing in a pickup basketball league with him,” he replied confused and a little scared. I sprinted ahead and unlocked the gate, holding it open as the guy was dragged through it, heels skidding on the dirt, hands clawing for some purchase on the fence post. I looked up and saw Steven fixing something on the stove, moving his head slightly to music. He was wearing headphones and seemed completely oblivious to the imprisonment he’d sentenced his teammate to. “Most of the time we just show up and play ball,” the man continued. “But last night Steven was rebounding my shots and passing the ball back out so I could get a nice rhythm going and he asked me what I did for a living. Normally, I just give a quick answer, but I’d been thinking about it a lot lately, about getting into a new line of work. So I told him all about it as I launched the ball towards the basket and got a nice rhythm going for the game.”
He paused to time his steps so he could step over a pile of dog crap. “We played well together, working the pick and rolls. We shook hands after the game. I was planning on going home, you know, running through a list of errands in my mind, but instead I drove here.”
“So what do you do?” I asked him.
He regarded me warily, darting his eyes around nervously. I didn’t blame him, given his circumstances. “Well, don’t worry about I said as the front of my house came into view. Most people aren’t here all that long. You know some people. They think the world revolves around them.” I broke stride with him, my pace slowing and becoming more erratic than the fixed elliptical he was on. “Take care,” I called over my shoulder as he slammed into the bird bath and yelped like a wounded puppy.
I came up with a sort of plan. We were having an especially nice stretch of weather. Marlene was orbiting about three or four days a week and we’d had some good conversations. Turns out she and Steven had dated for a while when they were in college, Steven studying to be a high school guidance counselor and Marlene a fitness major. It made sense, what with her athletic calves and graceful movements as she tilted this way and that to avoid smashing her hips on the corners of Steven’s gate or the bushes bordering the west end of his property.
We’d become friends, admiring sort of friends.
“Why don’t you come over for dinner later?” I mentioned to her. We were just mounting the step ladder at the birdbath. I took her hand as we got to the top and we leapt off together. It felt reckless and good inside. She squeezed my hand.
“I don’t know if I’ll be free,” she responded.
“Doesn’t matter,” I stated, sprinting ahead to open the gate and to clear away a stack of firewood that had toppled in the breeze. “I’ll just invite Steven.”
It was a risk, really, inviting Steven over to my house. I made up the excuse that I was testing out my new fire pit. I could tell he was both pleased and frazzled by the offer. I had waited until Marlene was in the rear of her orbit so he wouldn’t suspect any ulterior motives. At the time, Steven was washing his car, a sort of nondescript black sedan, an American car. It had few style pushing features, but gave off a general sense of nostalgia, of yearning for a former perceived glory or happiness. Steven passed a rag from hand to hand a few times, waiting for my orbit of him to take me close enough for a reply. I twisted my torso and began walking backwards in order to make conversation easier as I sped away from him.
“What time?” Steven asked.
“Around eight,” I shot back. I kept feeling like I was going to walk backwards right into Marlene, kept wondering what such a collision would do.
“See you then,” Steven replied, going back to shining the tires.
I found myself orbiting him for about five or ten more minutes as he mulled over his thoughts and began vacuuming out the trunk of his car. At some point, his thoughts must’ve turned to something else, as I found the force that pulled and tugged at my torso loosening like the lid of a tight jar whose vacuum pops when you open it.
Steven and Marlene arrived together. Marlene held up a bottle of wine as they entered my house. She wasn’t really orbiting Steven, although it was a little hard to tell. It occurred to me that the orbiting was somewhat situational, that in certain instances it could be broken.
We sat around for a while just chatting, then Steven went into the house to use the bathroom. Marlene and I relaxed on the patio chairs. She seemed tan, well rested, almost like she was on vacation.
“Relaxing night, huh?” I commented. She took a sip of her wine, peered up at the sky, the stars muted from light pollution, then sort of nodded. I wanted desperately to reach out to her, to snatch her into my world. She was here in my house, but I got this strange sense that she was also out there, orbiting Steven for reasons I would never understand.
“As relaxed as a person can be when she’s in orbit,” Marlene eventually answered. She tipped back her head and took in the vast night sky some more, then leaned forward, towards me. “Anything can be explained. Don’t forget that.” Marlene added.
“I don’t care about Steven,” I replied. It was a callous thing to say, but he wasn’t on the porch. Still, I glanced over both shoulders, nervous that he had overheard my comment. The toilet flushed in the distance, a great swallowing sound. I got this odd sense that Steven was now orbiting us, that the universe itself had shifted.
“You don’t have to care about someone to be in orbit of them,” Marlene stated.
The screen door banged behind us and Steven came out, wiping his hands on his jeans.
Marlene and I both rose and began moving as Steven went to the fire and shifted the logs. With more room to breathe, the fire leapt up the wood and the backyard brightened noticeably. I was pulled in every direction at once, unsure as Marlene winked at me, who was orbiting whom and why.