Joy Baglio

I met Ron Myers at an amateur astronomers’ club, our identical Celestron SkyMaster binoculars slung around our necks—an unusual omen from the start. We clustered around the telescopes, listening to the lecture about Vega, faint and barely visible against the backdrop of light pollution. Ron was watching me, I could tell. Later, after most of the group members had left, we bonded over the moons of Jupiter. His favorite: Ganymede. Mine: Io. His name, Ron, was hardly of any interest, at first.

After that night, I waited two weeks. When Ron finally called, it was to suggest a free physics lecture at a science museum. We were both math nerds, although not by profession. When the lecture was over, we wandered into the main hall, through a narwhal exhibit where life-sized replicas lunged out of molded waves. We trekked up four flights of stairs to the space room, on the fifth and highest floor. The space room was outdated, stuffy, empty except for us. Ron gently backed me into a corner near a small model of Neptune and leaned his head in toward mine. The first time we kissed—the tiny orb of Neptune to my right, the dim lights of the space room flickering, the astronaut sounds playing mechanically in the background—it felt perfect.

We left the museum after dark, enveloped in a kind of wonder that happens rarely: last-day-of-school, first-kiss, foreign-city kind of wonder. The kind you wish you could stretch out like cellophane, over time and space, so it reaches all the far corners of your life. We talked endlessly about the universe, all the tidbits of science and astronomy gleaned from our day. The four-hundred-year-old raging storm of Jupiter’s red spot. The scores of earthlike planets popping up through the newest search technology. The black hole in the center of our galaxy. He took my hand, nimbly danced his fingers over mine. The sidewalks were slick with September leaves, and everything was shadowed in a rain-drenched softness.

Ron’s apartment was unlit, almost empty, as if he’d just moved in. He was a composer for a TV show, he said. He wrote the kind of scores that swelled when couples met, eye-rolling love scenes where the music was the only thing that made you feel anything. He laughed dryly.

“Here,” he said. “This is what I really do.” On a computer screen, tiny dots flashed and blinked, a sort of grid. It was a graph of orbital intersections in the Milky Way, and he had turned it into music. He pressed a button, and a syncopated orchestral hum began. “This is the sound of planets singing for you,” he said.

“Explain,” I said, fascinated.

“Planetary orbits, put into music. Based on their speed, when they cross. It’s a lot of math, but, hey, music and math go together.”

We sat in the dark, listening. I imagined the planets whizzing by and around us, blurred with speed, missing each other by a paper width, humming at their own frequencies. In the dark, our fingers found each other: our hands moved over the folds of clothing, shedding it like old skin.

If I could have choreographed my own life—designed each scene, staged each encounter with a director’s omniscience—I’d have seen Ron Myers the next day, then the day after; I’d have seen him several times a week; we’d have fallen in love, learned everything about each other, met parents and families, moved in together, cooked pasta at midnight, and sat up late laughing at our favorite shows. There would have been no one else, and there wouldn’t have needed to be. But Ron was distant, busy, and in the long stretches between our dates, I met someone else. He was an artisan whose storefront I browsed one night after work. His business was a small, self-made venture, something he started reluctantly after failing to make great art. I walked around his display tables, tracing my fingers over the sanded smoothness of his walnut chairs and cutting boards, aware of him watching me from the back of the store. He had ideas about blue-collar work and the artist’s life, about craft and concept, about our fragmented societal lives. We talked long into the night, and when he told me his name, Ron, I let out a shocked laugh, then covered my mouth, giddy at the coincidence.

“What’s funny?” he asked, not knowing whether to smile or frown.

“Your name,” I said. “It’s one of my favorites.”

I work at the Orion Theater in Midtown, and that weekend I slipped my craftsman Ron a free ticket to our hot new comedy musical, The BOOtiful Lives of Ghosts. He had a penchant for campy horror, and he’d never been to Broadway, or off-off-Broadway for that matter. Later, he took me back to his studio behind his shop, where he showed me the power tools, how wood was hewn and cut and sanded. Together we ran our hands over the rough edges of raw oak planks. His last name, Wessell, was a musical cocktail of sounds and in the following days, I said it over and over in my head, envisioning his eyes, which creased at the corners when he smiled. I thought about him all week after that—imagined lying with him in an oak bed that he’d crafted, under the roof of our small cabin—and when Ron Myers called a week later, Ron Wessell’s hands were still hot in my mind, moving over wood, over machinery, over my shoulders, hips, body.

I confided in my mother and sister over lunch. They’d had their share of fun, of scandal, of playing the game of courtship, the nonserious search for what we all crave.

“But they have the same name,” my mother said, alarmed, as though this was an ominous sign, a dating taboo. To me, it felt exciting and sneaky, as if I were a time traveler, able to hop the light-years-apart distance between worlds. Somehow, the shared name was a kind of wormhole between them that only I could slip through.

My sister put it harshly:

“You’re two-timing and both of them are named Ron?” she sneered.

“I’m nonexclusively dating two men, casually,” I said. “It’s normal.”

“It’s not normal to date two men with the same name,” she said.

“Why not?”

“It’s like some weird fantasy, some name fetish.”

“One of them could have easily been named something else,” I said. “Maybe one of them was almost a Greg. Why does a name matter so much?”

“It does matter,” my sister said. “At the very least, it’s symbolic of something.”

“Of what?” I asked, but my sister shrugged.

“How am I supposed to know?” she said.

It was when I met Ron Bardacci, who taught eighth-grade chemistry, that I felt the first suspicions of a conspiracy of a higher order. Whose conspiracy and how, I hadn’t begun to hypothesize. For the first two weeks we dated, he flirtatiously quizzed me on the periodic table and taught me grams-to-moles conversions. His name was Ax, he told me. It wasn’t until our third date, week number four, his driver’s license forgotten on my kitchen table, that I learned his real name: Ron Axel Bardacci. For a second I thought: Walk away right now. Not another one. I will not be the butt of this cosmic joke, this symbolic charade. But then I stopped myself. A wave of what-the-hell and who-cares passed through me, and I knew what it really was—a highly unlikely act of chance, nothing more.

But it didn’t stop there. Ron Wachowski, whom I met at a free wine tasting around the corner from the Orion, was a sous chef at Lizardo’s: An Adventurous Eatery. That weekend, he brought me camel cricket custard, high in protein, which we sipped with reishi mushroom wine. On our second date, he cooked for me from the wasteland of my fridge and produced, as if by magic, wild-flower risotto, green beans amandine, and a rustic pear tart. A week later, I met Ron Hebert, a guide for Escape to Nature!, an adventure company that led local expeditions into rugged areas. In our tent on the pinnacle of some low-grade mountain, we talked late into the night, listening to the pulsing chorus of tree frogs and whippoorwills. The list went on: Ron Walden, a proctologist  with whom I carried on a whispered conversation in the hallway of the ER when I accompanied Ron Wessell, who was suffering from severe stomach pain, there late one night. Ron Getty, a historian who chatted with me over coffee. Ron Egglestein, a professional bird watcher I bumped into while jogging in the park. Ron Greenwald, a trombonist in a marching band. Ron Svenson, geologist. Ron Cory, jiujitsu instructor. Even my postman was a Ron, who was courting me slowly through conversations linked with package deliveries.

And so it went on, all of my Rons, each delicately and unsuspectingly stepping in and out of the others’ way, unaware of their paralleled existences. Why didn’t I just stop saying yes? Weren’t three or two, or even one, enough for me? How did I find the time? Why didn’t I exempt myself from male attention, seal myself off in the land of “taken” or “exclusive”? The truth was, I couldn’t contain my curiosity. And I was making real connections with each of them; with each, I was secretly hoping for something more. Still, I wondered how long I could sustain it. Each relationship was casual enough that it allowed the others to exist, and yet all of them inched slowly forward in the inevitable way relationships do.

And half the time I didn’t know a newcomer was a Ron until we were past the point of turning back—an hour into the most interesting conversation I’d had all day. He’d be telling me about the work he did on the human genome or the strange story he’d heard last night in the ER, his trek through the arctic or down the entire length of the Great Wall, and then he’d let it drop, “By the way, I’m Ron.” He’d slide it in there, nonchalant, and what could I do?

When I was up to twelve Rons, I realized the situation was serious. This was not how coincidence worked. Each wanted to see me on Friday or Saturday night, so I began a complicated system of rotation. I allocated all my after-work hours to Ron dates. The ones who saw me on Tuesday and Wednesday one week got prime weekend time the following week. Sometimes I felt that all the real joy in our outings had been crushed out, replaced by both a terror that they’d discover each other and a giddy performance anxiety, a need to impress them all equally, to win each one more deeply.

I toyed with the idea of cutting some from the continual audition process of our courtship, the not-quite-boyfriend status they each held in my life. But a drive to get to the bottom of this consumed me: I needed to see what part of the puzzle each one played, and my dating life took on the flavor of detective work. I made lists of all their hobbies and highlighted shared interests. I graphed their statistics, things like how much they earned, where they worked, body weight, age, past girlfriends, the sports they’d played in high school, their favorite actors. My kitchen table was cluttered with crudely sketched concept maps: flowcharts of their favorite foods; Sharpied Venn diagrams that aimed to make sense of their literary tastes. Wachowski liked Russian classics. Cory read the latest crime novels. Clarke could order bubble tea in Mandarin. Getty played the bagpipes.

I tried to find clues in the name itself. All of them were named simply Ron, not Ronald or Ronaldo. Numerology assigned Ron the number two, which was the most underestimated and feminine of all numbers. Anagrams and partial anagrams of the name included nor, no, on, and or, which told me nothing. It appeared three times in the first thunderword in James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake, which seemed to portend . . . something.

I asked my friends what the name meant to them, what associations, feelings, thoughts came to mind.

“Sleazy,” said my sister. “In a seventies-porn-star kind of way. Greasy palms, drives a pickup truck.”

“Quiet,” one said. “Someone thoughtful, peaceful. An avid meditator.”

“A serious name,” said another. “Someone serious about life, about you.”

But they were not serious. Not one. I waited and waited, each extravagant, adventurous date after the next. Under the luminescent halo of the moon or the blinking of stars or in summer fields under pyrotechnics of galactic proportions, they remained unflappable, neutral, compartmentalized, happy to laugh and joke, to probe into the depths of the intellect or the mysteries of the universe, yet somehow distant from me.

And the question remained: Why were they all drawn to me?

Gradually, like a badly choreographed dance, close calls began to occur. For my own sanity and under the guise of an old habit, I’d taken to calling each by his last name, a pattern that led to a moment of panic when I misheard Wasserman at the door and shouted my greetings to Wessell. Another time Greenwald was in my bed when Wachowski buzzed to ask if I was free to get dessert. And another time still, Carson was leaving my apartment as Bardacci entered, and they passed each other, gave a long side-glance, exchanging unspoken suspicions. Both seemed shaken in the ensuing days. Then there was the incident of Clarke’s backpack, which he left under my couch just visible enough so that Hebert, who visited two hours later, pulled it out, unsuspectingly, and saw “Ron C.” on the small airline ID tag that Clarke kept on all his possessions. “Oh, my cousin’s a Ron, too,” I lied, hating that I was forced to such baseness. “I told you it was my favorite name,” though later I realized with a twinge of dread that it hadn’t been Hebert with whom I’d discussed my favorite name, but Wessell.

Beyond the danger of my predicament, I started to notice unsettling overlaps: Hebert wanted to live in a tree house, and Egglestein said he had built one last year while Lewis doodled them in the margins of fantasy novels. Fitzgibbons made crème brûlée, which was Aaron’s favorite. They all relished mint garnishes with shocking glee.

These connections did not feel meaningless. My thoughts ran wild: Maybe they were different angles of the same person. Slices of the same Ron. Perhaps together they formed the perfect man. Maybe the man I was in love with was somehow diffused throughout all of them, so that with each I was given excruciating joy and also the worst sense of unfulfillment. The thrill of them, the inimitable conversations, their depths of knowledge and experience, was rivaled only by the unchartable void that seemed to separate me from them. And how might I bridge these chasms? I wondered. I poured over my amateur astronomy manuals, over the layman’s explanations of complex, paradigm-shifting hypotheses, things that no one really understood.

Then, one evening while I was cooking dinner and Ron Walden was reading to me from his Collected Works of T. S. Eliot, each line composed and perfectly ordered after the previous, I perked awake. The words of “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” seemed startlingly clear and symbolic.

Yes, I thought. I must disturb the universe! I must dare. I must act. And then the idea entered my mind like a prophecy, and I stood at the stove, wooden spatula in hand suspended over sautéing eggplant, feeling something ineffable.

Ron Myers had told me that when galaxies collide it’s actually elegant, a billions of years’ long cosmic dance, like a drop of paint dissolving over eons into another. They drift, over light-years, closer and closer, until one tendril of stars, like a long and delicate arm, brushes the other, and whoosh, a gentle surge of energy emanates from those worlds colliding, shifting around each other, melding into one another. And you’re left not with chaos, but with one galaxy, spinning and bright and whole.

I hatched a plan.

Yesterday, I had what might be my final date with Ron Myers. The first Ron. I wanted to tell him of the others, let him in on the secret before it came crashing down, but all I did was talk excited astro-babble about parallel universes and identities splayed and spliced. He smiled at me curiously and stared with neutral infatuation. We walked around the block to a gelato food cart and sat on a stone wall overlooking the river, his fingers trailing through mine.

“You know,” he said. “Ever since I played the singing planets for you, I’ve had this crazy idea.”

“Do tell,” I said.

For a moment, I thought he would move beyond our perpetual distance. A flutter of energy zinged through me, and I felt, fleetingly, that he was so close to perfection. I imagined him across centuries: the different ways the times would have chopped and swelled his hair, the way his body would have widened or shrunk according to his means, the shifting blur of fashions and styles and fabrics over his lean shoulders—the loose tunics and tight-ruffed shirts—yet there was something rooted and familiar in his gaze, as if I had lived lifetimes with him. He held my hand, his fingers sweaty and clenched over mine. His eyes bored into me—neutron stars, it seemed—and I stared back, unflinching, my breath bated.

“Do you ever—”  he stopped, laughed. “It’s absolutely crazy.”

“I like crazy,” I said. “Please go on.”

He held his breath, laughed again. “No, it’s not the time for this,” he said. “Let’s get more gelato.”

And he was up, pulling me back into the world.

Tonight, the chosen night of my plan, it’s raining, a slick drizzle that makes me feel as though everything solid is unspooling. It’s November, the tail end of the Leonid meteor shower, dark at 5:00 PM, and I pull the curtains closed and light a candle to create a warming glow. I’ve stuck a bunch of glow-in-the-dark stars to the ceiling—for added mystique—and brewed a pot of mint tea. They are all on their way, thinking it’s a party at my place, and I don’t know what will ensue; if they’ll turn on me, a pack of men named Ron, all embittered and deceived, or if they’ll merge, like galaxies, into a single form, applaud and thank me for resolving their fractured existences. Or maybe they’ll squirm under the scrutiny, answerless just like me. My Celestron SkyMaster binoculars sit on the mantel in the hall, homage to that first meeting. I stand by the door, waiting.

The first to arrive is Svenson. When I see him, carrying a bottle of wine, my stomach flips with guilt. I kiss him hurriedly, and after he’s inside, I hold the door for Wessell, who’s trailing like a shadow. One by one they arrive, each courteous and polite.

They sit shyly around my living room, smiling and greeting each other. They haven’t figured it out yet, although Bardacci and Carson, who first glimpsed each other in my hallway, exchange knowing glances. Some of them graciously take a mug of tea, others pick a grape with careful fingers. They smile and wait. I stand in the center of the room, clink my water glass as if I’m making a toast at a wedding, but of course I’m not. I’m aware of the familiar look in their eyes, the wondering, the straining to figure it out, just as I am. I pause before I can say it: “I am dating all of you, that’s why you’re here.” It’s what I’d planned to say, nothing more. I want to see their responses to that one simple fact. They don’t react like you’d think.  Hebert chews thoughtfully, nodding as though I’m revealing some logical truth. Wachowski listens patiently, eyes on me. They wait for me to go on, to elaborate, as though there must be some explanation, some reason why, or as if they’ve known all along.

“All of you are my boyfriends,” I say, then sit, watching, waiting for them to react, to turn angry, jealous. Or maybe I’m waiting for some spell to break, for some magical snap of the universe to whisk them all together into one body.

They stare at me. Then one laughs. Then another.

“Well, you’ve got good taste,” Campo de Leon says, gesturing to the men in the room. They laugh, until I am the only one staring mutely, angrily, at all of them. They seem even more like strangers to me at that moment—foreign, mysterious. These were the men to whom I had hoped to bare my soul, dreamed of families and futures. I flit my eyes around, watching for signs, hints of a conspiracy, foreknowledge of this strange happening. But they shake hands with each other as if it is the first time, and I’m left baffled, furious. I pace indignantly to the cupboard and lay out more teacups, then begin a passive-aggressive tea-pouring trance. They introduce themselves and the name ricochets around the room, until the peculiarity is undeniable.

Finally, my voice shaking, I ask them: “What is it with that name? Why are you all Ron?”

“No idea,” Carson says. “You must have a thing for it.”

“Name fetish?” Wachowski says, and several grin.

“My grandfather had the name,” Lewis says. “It’s been in my family for years.”

Others share their stories, and I wait—somewhere between despair and hopefulness—for some kind of revelation.

“How could this happen?” Greenwald asks.

Fitzgibbons, a Dante scholar, jokingly proposes he figure out in which ring of The Inferno we’d each find ourselves, to see if there is some karmic, literary overlap, and several get excited and begin confessing cardinal sins. Wasserman, a yoga instructor, suggests that maybe there is some energetic reason, a higher connection, and Bardacci, whose mother is a Reiki master, offers to tune in to everyone’s energy.

The Rons who believe in God attest to some higher truth.

The science-oriented ones talk of parallax.

Several want to know why I didn’t tell them sooner.

“I’m sorry,” I say. “I’m not sure why.” And my voice becomes very weak, and I stop talking, because if I keep going, I might cry.

Only Egglestein comes over, takes my hand, and whispers that he hopes, very much, we still have a future together in some way, how much he enjoys our time. “Though, I understand that your life is complicated now,” he says.

I can barely hear him through my own flurry of thoughts, through the dozen chattering voices, but I smile absently, half numb to his tenderness.

Around 9:30 PM my sister calls. She knows of the plan, of the gathering. She disapproves in theory, but supports me with a kind of begrudging zeal. I move into the hallway, where the Rons’ coats are piled high on a chair.

“Are they still there?” she asks in a fierce whisper.

I peek around the corner: Some have removed pillows from the couch and are sitting cross-legged on the floor, end tables crowded with mugs of mint tea. They are loud, vigorous in their discussion, some standing and gesticulating, others nestled into the maternal softness of the couch.

“Yes,” I say, unable to tell her more. From the background, I hear the gurgles of her toddler, the soft cooing voice of her husband when he speaks to the baby.

“So you can’t talk?”

“Right,” I say.

“Well then.” I can tell she’s disappointed. “Maybe you can hang on to at least one of them at the end of the night? One is better than none, right? The one who wants to build a tree house. I like him.”

The Rons have fragmented into small groups. Some are still discussing The Inferno, while Bardacci, who lived abroad in Italy in college, is slapping Fitzgibbons on the back as though congratulating him.

Then, one by one, as the night draws on, they leave, kissing me on the cheek, smiling, pressing my hand, telling me that they’ve truly enjoyed knowing me. Getty winks at me across the room before collecting his coat. Lewis takes me aside, holds me a moment, then kisses my forehead. With each composed farewell my questions multiply exponentially. My frustration mounts as I smile and thank each for coming.

“Will I see you again?” I ask Wessell, knowing I have no right to expect I will.

“It will work out, all of this,” he says, then blows me a kiss. There is nothing bad about any of them, I realize, and I wonder if it is the last time we’ll be together, any of us.

Ron Myers is the last to leave. He steps out into the night, smiling, telling me to look up. The clouds have cleared, and the moon is full, glowing.

“How many miles away is it, do you know?” he asks me.

My voice feels like a solid glob in my throat, but I manage the words “Too many.” Then, “Two hundred thousand, I think.”

“You know what a full moon means, right?”

“End of a cycle?” I say. “End of the month? End of something.”

“It means magic,” he says. “Let go, let love, make music.” Then his hand is on my shoulder, gentle, warm. “I’ll see you later. It’s been a long day.”

The formal goodwill is too much to bear. I hate the silence, the serene moon, my own strength or lack of it, the smile on his face. Something in me snaps, and I gust my breath out.

“Why don’t you stay tonight?” I say. “If you’re not offended that I have so many other men in my life, all with your name, why don’t you stay?”

He laughs, tense, noncommittal. “You know I can’t.”

“You never can,” I say. Then I narrow my eyes, holding him with the sheer power of my gaze. “What was the crazy thought?” I say.

“What are you talking about?”

“The crazy thought you wouldn’t tell me yesterday afternoon. At the gelato cart.”

He stares back, the blankness of his eyes disarming and cold, even in their familiarity.

I press on, squeezing my voice into the confines of gentleness. “Please,” I say.  “You can tell me.”

We’re silent, staring in some kind of face-off for what feels like whole minutes; finally he laughs. “I don’t know how to say it,” he says. “Do you ever feel like you’re a planet set loose, spinning through space, orbiting different suns, glimpsing so many different worlds, but always set back at a distance from them, like each on its own is missing something?”

I’m thinking: That sounds about right.

“Before I even knew of your situation,” he continues, “I started feeling this, mostly while composing. It started when I showed you the singing planets—remember that night? It was the closest I ever felt to you, the most—I don’t know—whole.  But after that night, I kept waiting for more. More you, more something. Know what I mean?”

I do know, and it terrifies me, and I don’t want to say, “I showed you my cards, so show me yours,” so instead I say, with all the multifaceted depth I can summon: “What if I choose you. Over the others.”

He looks at me, laughs. “Don’t,” he says. “That would be a wasted choice.”

“Why?” I say and step closer, so close my nose is a hair’s breath from him. He looks at me, beyond me, pulls me near, so that my face is pressed to the absorbent flannel of his shoulder. I smell museum and spices and sage deodorant; I breathe in his infuriating strength, strain to hold on to the solid warmth of him, a solidity that doesn’t need any particle of me.

“Because,” he says, “I’m still waiting.”

Something vibrates in his pocket, and he shifts, uncomfortable. “Sorry,” he says. “I need to get this.” Then he turns away into the darkness of the park, his phone open and glowing.

The moon is behind a lone cloud, and I stare up at the light-polluted sky, scanning the night for the last of the Leonids. I am searching with only half my senses, listening with the other half. I can hear, faintly, the melodic tones of a girl’s voice. Ron Myers laughs. I can tell from his voice that he’s smiling, though I can’t hear what he’s saying, not the sentences. It’s just one word that catches in my ear, like a clue I’ve been waiting for: my name, said sweetly into the phone, whispered almost, as though that is the one word he does not want me to hear.

Joy Baglio is a writer living in Northampton, MA. Her short fiction has appears in the Iowa ReviewTriQuarterlyTin House Online, the New Ohio ReviewPANK, and F(r)iction and her work has been supported by grants from The Elizabeth George Foundation and The Speculative Literature Foundation. She serves as Associate Fiction Editor at West Branch, a Grub Street writing instructor, and Founder & Director of Pioneer Valley Writers’ Workshop, where she frequently teaches. She is at work on her first novel, based on her short story “How to Survive on Land.”