Aliens aren’t real in the sense that nothing is real. The only thing you can be certain of knowing is your own mind. “I think, therefore I am”, or something like that. I was trying to explain this to Henry when we drove out to the countryside in search of aliens for the fifth week in a row.
“That means you’re not real.” He peered over his telescope.
“You think I’m the figment of imagination here?”
He didn’t respond. If it’s a question of who’s real and who’s part of the mind’s illusion, I’d say Henry was my illusion. Not because of some arrogance that presumes the world revolves around me, but because Henry seemed like a mystic wonder, a hazy dream, like the nostalgia you feel listening to ‘80s songs even if you were born in the ‘90s. He was beautiful smoke that I could feel but couldn’t grasp, and yet kept trying to.
Stepping away from the telescope, Henry asked if I wanted to take a look. I glanced at the piece of sky it was directed at, which held a few glittering stars and a bright dot that may have been a planet. I would have preferred to gaze at Henry for a little longer, but shrugged and walked over to peer through the lens.
“Spotted any UFOs?” I asked. Pretending to admire stars and the awe that accompanies any galactic vision – that deep sense of vastness, of feeling very large and significant and very small and irrelevant at the same time – is difficult to achieve when you are too intently focused on the man standing beside you, closer than any celestial entity will ever be, pressing against your leg so you can feel his warmth even through both of your coats.
He lit a cigarette. “Nah, but it’s still early.”
“You don’t really believe in aliens, do you?” I played with the telescope’s focus, twisting random parts I didn’t know the names of. “You just say that as an excuse to bring me out here.”
He scoffed, and I pulled away from the telescope to look up at him.
“Of course I believe in aliens; how can you not? Billions of galaxies out there and you think we’re special? That’s so narcissistic, Oliver.” By this point he must have realised I was joking, and his scowl faded. “You’re an arse.”
“Narcissistic and an arse? My God, only 11:30 and my tally is reaching a record-breaking high.” I removed a pen from my coat pocket and drew two lines on my arm, next to the others.
Henry frowned and grabbed my arm, pushing the sleeve up to reveal more marks. His thumb pressed lightly on the inside of my wrist and I tensed, wondering if he could feel my pulse.
“Tally for what?”
“Shameless displays of aggressive flirtation.”
He snorted and rolled his eyes, turning back to the telescope. I stayed behind him, checking the candles inside the lanterns we’d bought from Bunnings – I had suggested battery-operated torches, but he preferred the old groundskeeper aesthetic. My eyes trailed from each candle’s flame to Henry’s back, and I wondered what it would be like to remove his coat, his shirt, run my hands up his spine and feel his breath on my neck.
I turned away and gazed at the sky, seeking constellations to distract me.
After a while Henry came over.
“Hey.” He gently touched the back of his hand to mine. “Why’d you bring up that thing about reality anyway? You having some existential crisis I need to know about?”
I laughed and turned to him. “You’re bringing me out here on some crazy alien hunt week after week and I’m having the crisis?”
He shrugged. “If you don’t like it I can invite Pete instead. He’d probably love it, actually.”
“No! God, no, don’t replace me with Pete. You know I love hanging out with you. It’s just…” I shivered. “Fucking freezing.”
Henry bowed his head and laughed inwardly.
“Hang on,” he said, and walked over to his car. I kind of wished I could have spent the night in that car, the heater blasting my face as I sat back with a thermos, listening to a shitty pop CD and staring contently at Henry behind the safety of a foggy windshield. Too bad the car battery wouldn’t sustain such abuse.
He returned, hugging a thick blanket to his chest, and then unfurled it and draped it across our shoulders. I smiled and we walked back to huddle in front of the telescope, studying the universe’s map before us and studying each other’s eyes and lips, trying to figure out which one of us was real.
Danielle Scrimshaw is a writer and editor from Melbourne. When not writing about her feelings, she scans groceries, indulges in obsession, and hopes to one day discover what actually happened at Cheviot Beach on 17 December 1967.