“Distance becomes a mere intellectual concept. I consider the possibility and I am there. I can be everywhere or nowhere… The very heavens will rearrange themselves.”
—Thanos on the Space Gem, Thanos Quest, 1990
Thanos sits alone on the train. He takes up both seats in the row, so no one could sit next to him even if they wanted. Pop music trickles from his phone through his earbuds like sap from a tapped tree. He scrawls on a postcard in his lap. He used to buy the postcards from the places they depicted—in an instant he could visit anywhere, just by rolling the glittery gem between his fingertips. But he’s already been everywhere now. Now he makes the postcards come to him. He touches the gem, and a stack appears. The pyramids, the Great Wall, the Sydney Opera House. It doesn’t matter if the postcards are really from those places. They could all be from a single antique shop in the Midwest.
He writes When you read this, our weekend will be over and I’ll be back on the train. I hope we had a good time together. He grins at his cleverness, at this analog bit of time travel. He’ll drop it in the mailbox when he arrives in the city. She’ll come home to her apartment Monday after work, sad from his departure, and find this waiting for her. He could teleport it to her mailbox whenever he wants, obviously, but the postage marked still means something, he thinks. The time it takes to be moved. He looks up and watches cornfields go by out the window, though of course the cornfields are standing still. It is really him going by.
Thanos is in a long-distance relationship. Five hours of roads or rails between them now, but it’s been longer, and also shorter. He travels from campus to campus, taking new fellowships or guest lecturer positions. She’s stationary, living in the big city, a coroner. There is always work for her to do.
Wouldn’t you rather live somewhere fewer people died? he says to her on the phone, walking around campus after teaching his night class. And why would I want that? she says, her voice chafed with static. A constellation of astronomy professors goes wild on the college lawn, checking and rechecking their telescopes, pointing at the sky. Thanos has been moving a few stars every night, just waiting for the astronomers to notice, to spiral and collapse into fervor.
The gem, the one that moves him from place to place, the one that lets him move anything he wants, how did he get it. People always want to know. He makes something up every time like, There was a runner at one of the colleges where he spent a semester. There are always students running around the quad, but this runner was different. He was very fast. A blur. Walking from the humanities building toward his sublet, Thanos watched him run around the polymeric practice track. When the runner took a break, Thanos saw a mole glistening on his forehead. In some light, the mole looked purple. In others, blue.
On the train, Thanos hurtles toward their every-other-weekend together. He dreads it. Not the seeing her part, which he very much looks forward to, anticipates, waits for in that way you wait for the sequel to a favorite movie, checking online for new information, speculating about what will happen. No, he dreads the city itself, its packed-inness. He is a large person, and there is never much space for him. People resent the space he takes up on the sidewalk and the subway. The closeness of the crowds stresses him out, how the commuters and tourists orbit him like malfunctioning satellites or drunken gnats. The way they’re in the way.
The university where he teaches, for this semester anyway, is nestled in a small blue-collar town. His colleagues all have families, and the only people closer to his age are his students, so he doesn’t go out much. There’s not much to do. But there is space for him. The neighborhoods are vast and empty. Deer ripple on the periphery of every property. Thanos rents a small room built onto the side of a kindly old Italian couple’s house. They don’t bother him, except to invite him over for dinner and wine. At the university, the student body is small. He can roam campus unencumbered. It might be nice to be in a place with room for both of us, Thanos says into the receiver of his phone. She laughs on the other end. There’s always room for you here, she says. The universe is changing, the astronomers whisper, their voices like geese wings rubbing together. Thanos knows she’ll never leave the city. On the drive home from campus, a trio of deer leap in front of his truck, wild silhouettes in the moonlight, and Thanos clutches the gem to move them gently out of the way.
A song comes on shuffle, one he loves, has once listened to on repeat for a whole day—he has to wear songs out like that, dull the sharp edges that stick in his head—but today the singer croons Space was just a word made up by someone who’s afraid to get too close and it feels like an attack, an accusation. I need some space, Thanos hears in his head, a line he’d used in high school when he didn’t know how else to break up with someone, a line that had been used on him. He preferred it to I need some time, which implied a future moment when time wouldn’t be necessary anymore. I need some space felt like a kinder way to say I want you far away from me, probably forever. Now the coroner’s fixed location feels like karmic distance for all the times he pushed others away. There are old sayings about absence, about fonder hearts, but do we say them because they’re true or because we need them to be.
She tells him about a story she’s reading, about a time where the whole universe existed on a single point. The entire concept of space is nonexistent because everyone’s just there, she says. I’m trying to picture it, Thanos says, but wouldn’t it be crowded? He can’t picture how everything would fit. Well, yes, but no, she says. I’m probably not explaining it well. Thanos tries to picture it. Them never being apart, because apart doesn’t exist. He never likes short stories. They end right when he thinks they’re really getting started. He always wants to know what happens next.
The runner, with the colorful mole on his forehead, Thanos watched him in awe. He ran around the track in a blink, from one end to another in no time at all. When Thanos’s appointment was coming to the end, he approached the boy. How do you do that? he asked. What’s your diet like? Thanos had been trying to eat better. The boy shrugged. I eat like shit, he said. I don’t know how it happens. I think of where I want to go and my legs take me. Thanos squinted as the runner ran around the track in demonstration, but he saw hardly any leg motion. Only a glow from his forehead. Thanos reached a large arm toward him. Before the runner could protest, Thanos plucked the mole off the runner’s forehead. Not a mole, but a gem. The boy hunched over, out of breath. A certain kinetic energy seemed to have disappeared from his body. What’d you do to me, mister? What’d you do?
The pedestrians of the city, the ones in the way, Thanos could move them far from him with a touch of the gem and a sweep of his arm. They could be transported to the other side of the street, to another neighborhood entirely. The gem could drain every borough like a colander, empty out the skyline until it was only the coroner and him. But she wouldn’t like that. She likes the white noise of traffic and infrastructure. The comfort of noise. The ease with which she can vanish without truly being alone. And she hates driving anywhere. If you’d seen what cars can do to a person, you’d be scared, too, she says.
On the train, Thanos grips the gem, but doesn’t will it to move. He thinks of all he could do for her. Even though it’s still light out, the moon is visible, hanging there like a thumbprint on the window. With this gem, he could be a regular George Bailey. Just say the word and I’ll throw a lasso around it and pull it down. If he wanted, he could actually do it. He has done it, pulled a moon closer, sent gravity and tides into chaos, but that was somewhere else. The coroner, she likes her work, so she likes when people die. (I don’t mean it that way, she says. I like the natural order of things. I’m a part of that. I cut open mouths they didn’t know they had and they tell me what they need me to know.) But a displaced moon might be too catastrophic, even for her. Thanos pauses his music, pulls his earbuds out. The train is entering the city’s overflow, its steel and pavement slowly spreading outward like a spill on tile floor. The buildings start to rise up, bars of a cage around the sky.
He hasn’t told her about the gem. She doesn’t know that he could snap his fingers and appear in her bedroom. He knows that’s what she’d want. That’s what anyone would want, isn’t it, to reduce the measurement of miles to seconds. Is there something wrong with him, he wonders, that he likes their apartness. The way it makes them ache with desire. The way it makes them grateful for every moment. Once, he surprised her at her work as she was cleaning up for the night and they couldn’t wait. She pushed him up against the wall of drawers filled with cadavers. A silver handle dug into his back. It felt like bad luck, but in the good way, like when getting lost leads you someplace you never would’ve found trying.
The runner, he couldn’t run anymore. His feet were so heavy. He lunged at Thanos to try to get the gem back, but Thanos was already home, in his room, packing up to leave to the next job. Moving would be so easy now. No more lugging heavy furniture. No more Tetrising boxes into the trunk. No more long drives, struggling to stay awake. Does it matter if this was the true story of how he got the gem. If it wasn’t a runner, but a bartender, or a rock climber, or a trucker, does it change anything. If he didn’t take it but it was given to him as a gift, what then.
Him liking their apartness, it’s not only heightened desire. It’s not just the way anticipation tantalizes. It’s also the fear of what every day does to love, like when a song plays on repeat. That night in her apartment, they sit on the couch, watching a show about a PI with psychic powers. They haven’t said much to each other. That’s normal, Thanos tries to reassure himself. They’ve been together a while. They know so much about each other already. Yet she feels so far away, even though she is close enough he could—he does—place a hand on her knee. If he moved here, into the fishtank of the city, would the electricity he feels crackling in his palm fade. If they had no shortage of nearness, would he ruin all they have out of boredom, restlessness, a desire for somewhere else.
There are old sayings about greener grass, other sides. He thinks again of that story she told him about and wishes all the sides were the same. If he wanted, he could put the whole universe on a single point, everyone and everything, safe and doomed in the exact same ways. All his students, begging for extensions on their final papers. The frantic astronomy professors, baffled by their new proximity to the stars. The deer leaping wildly. The runner, again able to move with ease across this lack of breadth. The kindly Italian couple, telling the coroner We’re so excited to meet you, urging her to try the lasagna, try the Bolognese.
He’s staring off into space, thinking of this single-point universe with no such thing as apart. She waves her hand in front of his eyes. Earth to Thanos, she says. Are you there? He smiles. I’m there, he says, thinking of how much closer they could be. They could be anywhere they wanted without needing to use a magical gem. They’d ask each other for the moon and it’d already be theirs.
Sam Martone lives and writes in New York City.