The Astronaut is leaning against the bar. He's got a heavy tumbler in his left hand, containing two oversized cloudy ice cubes and single malt whiskey. He's turning the tumbler in his fingers, slowly, a controlled dextral maneuver. Turn the glass without allowing the ice to slide within and change position. Not easy. Ice/glass interface is nearly frictionless, the scotch lubricous. It requires the glass to be held almost perfectly level, and then turned with almost imperceptible slowness, never exceeding the tenuous coefficient of friction that exists between cube and glass bottom.
The Astronaut has been doing this so long, he forgets when he first came up with it, but now it's something of a trap, he can't drink the scotch without a full rotation of the glass. He can't drink more than a third of the total original drink volume without yet another full rotation. If the ice moves, wait for it to adopt a new state of equilibrium, and then attempt a new rotation. If things become so unstable that a full rotation is impossible, surreptitiously lose the drink and order another one at a different location from within the bar. He is paying attention, because he has a good spot at the bar this time, one that over looks the grid of the city with its palm trees and violent sunsets, and he doesn't want to lose it, so it's careful with the scotch. He knows this behavior probably borders on the pathological, a ritual of the obsessive-compulsive, but then pilots carefully cultivate their compulsions, and almost instinctively conceal them. You never know when the flight surgeon will come skunking about, looking to boot you off the next moonshot. Not that anyone will be going to the Moon again any time soon, because it's pushing thirty years ago for his last trip. But why advertise this little ritual? It has always brought him luck. It is a technique that passes the time.
Sinestrodextral fingers run their tumbler turning subroutine. The Astronaut watches the muscles of his forearm, the contractile action of his flexor profundis digitalis stroking away. This is a good spot. Ice cubes locked into a stable formation. Barstool commands a view of the Earth turning away from the Sun. He can strike the pose that has worked so well for him these past years. Fit in his older age. Silver haired. Solid jawed. Tanned, but in a way that says, "I like to sail and pilot my small plane on the weekends. Maybe fly down to Baja for shrimp. Camarones. Yes, I speak Spanish." The Astronaut takes a look at his heavy wristwatch - 2115 hours. Mean Time Before Success - twenty minutes, at the outside. This is a target-rich environment. Some young thing will notice him, he'll find the window of opportunity, and exploit it. Make his coming in for the board meeting worth his time.
It had required a switch in technique about ten years ago. He had to switch from "Athletic Cocksure Fighter Pilot/Astronaut" to "Impressively Fit Older Man with Lots of Money/Astronaut." "Athletic" downgraded to "Fit" but with the addition of shitloads of well-invested endorsement and speaking money. This visual contact is just the hook. Nobody looks like an Astronaut on the outside. There are cues, to be sure. The ornate functionality of his wristwatch - chronometer, stopwatch, slide rule bezel, the backplate reading "Certified for Manned Spaceflight"; these things all suggest Pilot. The tanned face and arms suggest an active life. The polo shirt and slacks say, "Money." They say, "I've sat as celebrity ballast on so many Boards of Directors that I have more money than I know what to do with. " But none of these things, on the surface, say "I've been to the Fucking Moon. Touch me and touch the infinite." This vital intelligence is reserved for delivery at close quarters, for maximum damage. It is the coup de grace, the killshot.
Here she is. She's been three stools down for the last ten minutes, but now she's coming his way, under the pretense of getting the bartender's attention. She probably thinks he's a movie producer.
She's fantastically beautiful. Pale white skin. Nearly even with his six feet of height. Green eyes and jet black hair, just the slightest crinkling of crow's feet at the corners of her eyes. Make her late 20's, early thirties. That's inside striking distance. There is, at first appraisal, a flatness of aspect to her. Can't really tell what she's thinking, has a good game face. Where do these girls come from these days? Some finishing school in the desert? No rocket to draw them in now. These girls seem less awed than they used to, understanding things as almost contractual. She orders a drink, an apple martini, which is a girl drink if he's ever seen one.
"Stan? Is it Stan? Let me pick that up." He looked down at his tumbler. The ice had moved. "And I'll have another Glenlivet on the rocks."
"Thanks, old timer." She said it with a little flirt. A hint of acid.
"Old Timer? Christ. Do I look that old?"
"You look like you've got a few miles on you. So what are you, a commercial pilot? Ex-military? Maybe an aerospace exec." She's got a kind of high, lilting voice. That California girl uplift at the end of a sentence. But smart-assed.
"What makes you say that?"
She pointed at his wristwatch.
"With that hunk of metal cuffed to your wrist, you're either a pilot or a wannabe. You actually know how to use that thing?"
"As a matter of fact, young lady, I am very familiar with the operation of a circular slide rule. I grew up without the luxury of ubiquitous electronic computing and hold a PhD in physics. So I know my way around a slide rule."
"What kind of Physics?"
"I have a PhD in physics. Particle physics." The Astronaut actually did a double take. This wasn't evolving in a predictable arc.
"Where do you work?"
"I work at JPL, in Pasadena."
"On exotic propulsion systems, for deep space probes."
"No. I wish! Solar - a noble gas electromagnetic accelerator."
"You're a rocket scientist? What the hell are you doing here?"
"Getting free drinks out of rich old suckers, don't sound so shocked. Your doctoral dissertation - what was it on?"
"It was on orbital mechanics. Specifically, it was a proof on the physical possibility of docking two orbiting bodies."
"Wow. You are old! You're some old NASA type." She gave him a little laugh.
"Yes. I'm an old NASA type. I'm an astronaut."
"Really? On the Shuttle?"
"God no! The Shuttle is a goddamned milktruck." She laughed at that. Her eyes narrowed a bit.
"Are you actually an Apollo astronaut?"
"Apollo 19. I was the LEM pilot. When the radar altimeter flipped out our 1k of memory flight computer, I had to calculate our landing burn with this baby." He gave his wristwatch a loving tap.
"I almost believe you."
"You better believe me! I'm the real fucking deal, sweetheart." He took a sip off of his drink.
"So, is this what you do now? Hang out in bars and pick up younger women?"
First he felt his neck tense. Then he relaxed. The pressure was off. It just wasn't going to happen for him tonight.
"It's kind of a thing I do, when I have to fly into town for these board meetings. These Fortune 500 companies, they used to like to have an astronaut on their Board of Directors. Meant they were 'Space Age.' A couple of the aerospace groups still keep me on."
"So they fly you in, and you try and get laid?"
"First off, I fly in. In my jet. With me on the stick. Second, I usually do get lucky."
"That was good how you worked in the jet."
"Does that astronaut shtick actually work?"
"Not as well as it used to, apparently." He spun the bezel on his watch.
"Did it used to?"
"God! Did it work? Good enough to get me divorced twice. So tell me. . .?"
"Christ, you're all named Jennifer. I'm Tom." He offered her his hand. She shook it. A frim grip that made the fine muscles of her arm tense for a moment and pop into relief. She was stronger than she looked.
"Pleased to meet you, Astronaut Tom. I'll avoid the obvious joke."
"Jennifer, I appreciate that more than you know. Jennifer, what is a very beautiful, very intelligent physicist such as yourself doing in here talking to me?"
"I wanted to go out. I wanted someone to buy me a drink."
"Nobody's snatched you up yet? They boys over at JPL must be punching each other's lights out over the likes of you."
"Those losers? They're terrified of me."
"I don't know. None of them has the balls to ask me out."
"Well, down at the Cape, we'd have been punching each other out over you!"
"I guess that's a compliment."
"Big time." He looked down at this left hand. The ice had melted. He felt a darkness come over him, and tried to keep it from reaching his face. He carefully deposited the glass on the bar, and leaned closer to the girl. "Listen, Jennifer. Go find yourself some young wonderboy out there, knock his socks off for me. Put him in his place."
The girl reached over and touched his arm.
"Come on, Flyboy. I'll go."
"Are you staying here?" The bar was attached to a hotel. The Astronaut always stayed here when he flew in.
"Yeah. I'm on the top floor."
"Then let's go. You're as close to the Moon as I'll likely get."
She took him by the hand, and lead him away from the bar. He trailed briefly, watching the locomotor rotation of her hips, moving the fabric of her black dress over her buttocks. She looked back over her shoulder, catching him at it, and smiled.
He felt lightheaded. A rush of expectation pulled some of the blood out of his hands as they rode to his floor. She smiled as they moved over the heavily padded carpet of the hall and he fumbled with the plastic key.
When they entered the room, she covered the light switch with her hand.
"No lights. Over here, by the window. Leave your watch on." She made a single easy motion and her dress slid off. She moved to the sliding glass balcony doors, and turned her back to him, placing her palms against the glass.
He was undressed now. Stepping away from the bed and closing with her, he could see the filigree of moisture from her hands condensing against the coldness of the glass. Her body threw off a ferocious heat. He let his hands wrap around her ribs, and then slide down over the milk white skin under moonlight. The great size of the moon above the horizon line, waxing bright. Her eyes were turned upward to that silver face. He knew in an instant what she was doing. The lights of the city were too much here - all sodium orange and mercury white so he looked up as well, a manual optical cropping of his field of vision, nothing but the white curved expanse of her back as she reached between her legs to find him, and with the slightest bending of the knees, their geometry being compatible, there was a blood hot entry of reciprocal motion as she moved back against him. He projected himself forwards, his hands against the cold glass, the only barrier between him and the cold vacuum of space and time, the only membrane between the instance of this time and a thing which would never again be his, in white light, against a silver beach under an airless black.