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The Truth About the Moon

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Early August, 1899.  Someone living in the Upper East Side might have called it warm.  Some rich lawyer, or politician, or heiress to a newspaper could be standing on her balcony, watching the stars, high above the clutter and noise of the street.  She would be unbothered by the people walking below her, passing to and fro, struggling to simply exist. She might chance to glance down and perhaps even enjoy their frantic scurrying, viewing them with the same idle interest and curiosity she felt when some sort of animal crossed her path.  She didn’t have to worry about mice and rats in her pantry, birds that flew through her open windows and doors and refused to leave, or squirrels moving up and down in her walls. No, animals would be a welcome sight to her on a warm, summer night in the Upper East Side.

If someone strolling beneath her balcony decided to walk south of the mansions of 91st Street until the numbers dwindled to the single digits, past Houston and Stanton until they reached the tenements of Rivington Street and then happened to glance up at the fire escapes, they would have seen Sarah Jacobs.  They would have seen her, but it was highly unlikely they would look at her, and they would have simply made note of the woman high above them before continuing through the slums.

She was no heiress, and her brown hair, brown eyes, and brown dress were far from unique.  Even her long curls and high-bridged nose - which would have stood out among the women of New York’s high society - were so common where she lived that those not familiar with the people of the ghetto could have mistaken her for any other woman there.  Sarah was, in fact, far from ungrateful for her appearance. A beautiful child was bad luck - maybe they were beautiful but had no more brains than a golem, or threw what little money they had away, or became lazy and negligent. Worse than that was the thought of someone else - some goy with money and power and influence - finding a beautiful girl, and taking her away from her friends and family, from her people.  No, Sarah Jacobs was glad to not stand out.

While someone in the Upper East Side might have called the night warm, Sarah found it hot and muggy.  She was on the fire escape to escape the heat packed into their small home. Of course, she was glad to be in the awful heat of New York City rather than the snow and slush of the Old Country, where heat was associated with the fires of the pogroms.  David was too young to remember them properly, and Les had never had to experience one - her precious, all-American baby brother. They were so eager to better their lives in America, not realizing that for Sarah and their parents, life in America was already infinitely better than it had been before.

Of course, she was glad neither of her brothers had the lasting trauma of fleeing their home as everything they knew was burned to the ground, but it meant David was currently experiencing the worst pain he had felt in his seventeen years of life.  Someone had betrayed them all, and the boy he loved had decided to run away from his problems, and by extension, away from David.  Jack Kelly had broken her brother's heart, but Sarah was too emotionally exhausted herself to comfort him. Les simply didn’t understand the issue, and Sarah couldn’t handle his questions of, “What happened to Jack and Katherine?”  It was too much to see David tear up at the sound of Jack’s name, and it was too much to hear her name.  So as she avoided the heat inside the tenement, she also avoided her family.

An heiress in the Upper East Side might have been able to see the individual stars from her balcony.  Sarah Jacobs looked up through the haze and could make out the bright, luminous, full moon. Somehow, the moon was more comforting to her than any amount of stars could have been.  

Luna.  Empty and cold.  There was nothing up there - no trees, no cities, no people.  It danced with the Earth, it reflected the Sun, but from where Sarah was sitting, it was solitary.  It was a shining sphere in a dark sky.

Sarah hadn’t been given the amount schooling David had been blessed with, but she had been given some, and she was happy with some.  Not satisfied, but happy nonetheless. If she was unhappy about everything that left her unsatisfied, she would ruin her own life.

Katherine had said that was a cynical philosophy to have.  Maybe it was for someone who grew up like a Carnegie.

Sarah scowled.  David was prone to tears, but her own heartbreak had simply hardened her as a person once more.  The entire ordeal had been a reminder to never trust too easily. People took that trust, twisted it until they had trapped their prey, then squeezed until they had sucked out every trace of life and love that had once existed.  Sarah knew that, and yet she had still let her and David be taken in by pretty lies and false stoicism.

They had survived Cossacks.  Jack Kelly and Katherine Pulitzer were nothing in comparison.  They would hurt, they would heal, and by the time the full moon returned next month they would be happy again.

Unsatisfied, but happy.

Sarah let her eyes drift down from the moon.  The moon couldn’t help her. It was a celestial object.  It was just a thing, hundreds of thousands of miles away.  It was the people on the street, mere feet below her, that were real.  The craftsman was real, wheeling his wares home after a long day of trying to turn a profit.  The beggars were real, unable to even find work in a factory. The woman standing in front of her tenement, almost directly below her, with the magenta skirt and pinned-up red hair that stood out among the dust and grime of the ghetto was –

“Kat?”

The woman looked up toward Sarah’s voice, and yes, the heiress herself was right below her.  “Sarah?”

“What the hell are you doing here?” Sarah called down, but she found her anger from before had dissipated, replaced with shock and worry.

“I was looking for you,” Katherine called back up, earnest and honest.  “I wanted to - I needed to apologize.”

Sarah ran down the rickety fire escape until she was at the lowest level, still a good ten feet above Katherine, and leaned over the edge.  “Are you nuts? This ain’t uptown, people’ll shank you to get your purse and won’t think twice!”

Katherine’s face fell, and she said, “I know, I know it was dangerous, I know I lied, I know I should have told you directly, I know all that, just give me one more chance, please.   I care about the strike and I care about the newsies getting fair pay and I care about you –”

As Katherine babbled, Sarah was reminded of another woman in another time, another place, leaning over the edge as her lover braved untold dangers to see her.  Of course, she was no rich and noble Juliet, and the fire escape was a sorry excuse for a balcony, but as she looked down at Katherine she could only think that she was the prettiest Romeo she had ever seen.  There wasn’t a star in the sky, only the moon, in all its impartial glory. Still, she preferred it this way. She much preferred to be moon-fated than star-crossed.

“– and I’ll go if you want me to, but I had to come here and tell you all this myself,” Katherine finished.  She looked up at Sarah, pleading with her eyes.

Maybe if Sarah was a little stronger, a little colder, she could have taken her own advice.  Instead, she released the ladder and pushed it down for Katherine to climb. “Get up here. Can’t let you wander back home alone this time of night.”

Katherine’s face broke into a smile, and it was as radiant as the moon.  She hauled herself up the ladder, and soon she was next to Sarah, above the street.

“Are you mad?” she asked.  “I would have been mad.”

Sarah nodded.  Katherine lost her smile, but didn’t appear sad, simply resigned.

“It’s all my fault,” she said, voice low.  

“A little,” Sarah agreed, leading her up the stairs.  They reached the Jacobs’ window quickly, and sat down together.

“You are sorry?” Sarah asked, taking Katherine’s hand.

“With all my heart,” Katherine promised, seeming to look straight into Sarah’s soul.  “And I’m trying to fix my mistake.”

“Good,” Sarah said, unable to break away from Katherine’s gaze.  “Apologies aren’t about what you say. They’re about what you do.”

That brought Katherine’s smile back.  “I know.”

They sat there for a while, hands touching, knees brushing together, soaked in moonlight.  It was Katherine who broke the silence.

“It’s romantic, isn’t it?” she asked, the rhetoric clear in her voice.  “Us. The moon.”

“Honestly,” Sarah replied, smiling, and looking back up.  “The moon. A natural satellite of the Earth.”

Katherine shifted so they were sitting next to each other instead of across.  “You like the moon?”

“I do,” Sarah said, leaning into her.  “It’s…simple. It’s always there, even when you can’t see it.  The facts about it don’t change. It doesn’t run away. It doesn’t lie.”

Katherine didn’t say anything, and Sarah was glad.  The wound was still too fresh.  She continued, almost to herself, “Two hundred thirty-eight thousand and nine hundred miles away.  It sounds so far away. No atmosphere, no life. There’s nothing up there.” She closed her eyes. “Those are the facts.”

“That’s a very harsh way to look at the moon,” Katherine said, not as a criticism, just as a statement.  “What did you think of it before you came here? What did it look like back…?” She trailed off, but Sarah understood her meaning.

“In the Old Country?” She confirmed, and Katherine nodded.  “I used to think there were two moons - di levone from the shtetl, and the American moon.  I thought di levone was brighter, because the sky was clearer and it would reflect on the snow, and that the hazy American moon would protect us better.”  She shrugged. “But there’s only one, and it looks the same, no matter where you are or how you feel.”

“How cynical.”

“Well,” Sarah sighed.  “It’s the truth. It’s almost comforting, to me.  Maybe if I was someone else it wouldn’t be.”

“I wouldn’t want you to be someone else,” Katherine murmured.  “I like you for who you are. You stick by your ideals and your facts.  You don’t run-” She cut herself off, and Sarah finished her sentiment for her.

“I don’t run away.”

A beat - of time, of two hearts trying to reconcile their problems together.

“I don’t hate him,” Katherine said, biting her lip.  “He’s a dreamer, a dime-novel cowboy who believes in a fantasy called Santa Fe.”  She drew her knees toward her. “I could never hate him for that. But everything comes so easily to him.  He doesn’t try. He hides behind a smile, and if people see beyond that, he just…goes away.”

“Kat -”

“No, it’s true,” she said firmly.  “You have your facts about the moon, and I have mine about Jack.”  She breathed in deeply, then exhaled. “He needs to give up Santa Fe.”

“It’s his dream,” Sarah said gently.

“It is his dream,” Katherine agreed.  “But it’s just a dream.”

“A lovely dream.”

“A dream he’s been holding onto since he was a boy,” Katherine countered.  “He needs to see the truth.”

Sarah squeezed her hand.  “I don’t think the problem is seeing the truth.  I think the problem is facing the truth.”

Katherine didn’t say anything in response.  They looked up at the moon together, and maybe Sarah was wrong about the moon - it seemed a little brighter, a little kinder with Katherine next to her.

“ Di levone ,” she said aloud, recalling the moon of her childhood.

“A natural satellite of the Earth,” Katherine said, repeating her own words back to her.

“The same size, no matter where you are,” Sarah said quietly.

August, 1899.  A hot summer night on the Lower East Side.  If someone had been walking by the tenements of Rivington Street and chanced to look up at the fire escapes, they might have seen two women next to each other.  They would have seen them but not looked at them, and then continued through the slums, relying on the moon to light their way home.