by JP Kemmick
He's holding up a pad and pen on which he's written, “I miss you.” He's flying alongside the space shuttle, matching its seventeen thousand miles per hour as it orbits Earth like a singular, misplaced electron, his cape motionless in the void of space, a little adorable half-smile on his face. He shouldn't even be here, she has experiments to be preparing and her fellow astronauts will be awake at any moment. But of course he has come, as he said he would, to check in, to make sure her trip amongst the stars was going according to plan, reminding her how sweet he was so she wouldn't fall too in love with the stars and decide to stay. Behind him the sun rises over Earth, a little sliver of unbelievable light creeping over its curve.
She writes on a whiteboard, “I miss you too.” Then she erases it and writes, “But I've got to say, this whole space thing is pretty damn cool.”
He writes, “Isn't it though?”
She writes, “You should go though.”
He nods and then mouths, “Be safe. I love you.”
She mouths, “I love you,” back and then he flashes her one more toothy smile and leaves the window, swimming through space back to Earth, his cape stretched out behind him, the planet lighting up in front of him, her super heroic love.
In the early evening he touches back down on the balcony of their apartment next to their potted tomato plants. He promised her he would water them while she was gone, but he keeps forgetting and now they look a little sickly. He opens the sliding glass door to the apartment and then turns to crane his neck skyward one more time, toward the now invisible stars and the half-disappeared moon. He imagines her up there, swinging around the Earth like some fancy yo-yo trick, floating around the different compartments of the shuttle. He pictures the way her curly hair floats up like a crazy lady. His wife the astronaut. He used to introduce her at parties like that, This is my wife, the astronaut, and she would just roll her eyes. She told him in bed that one day she would introduce him as, My husband, the superhero, blowing his cover.
He steps into the apartment and heads toward the kitchen with the aim of filling a jar full of water for the tomatoes. Halfway there he notices the pale blue cape slung over the back of a chair in the living room. Farther down the hall he sees a pair of gloves the same color lying on the floor. He stands still a moment, studying the pieces of discarded costume and then he plucks the cape off the couch and, moving down the hall, the gloves off the floor. He turns the corner and there are her dark blue tights, the colors of her costume like the different shades of the sky. He walks down the hall and opens the bedroom door and there she is in his bed, the covers pulled up tight, her top on the floor like a discarded piece of the summer sky. She turns to look at him, one cheek balling up with a sly smile.
“Oh, good,” he says. “Here I was afraid the sky was falling.”
She's running across the Indian ocean, clipped into the treadmill, keeping her muscles working in the zero gravity so she can still walk around when she gets back to the maddening pull of Earth's surface. She's thinking back to how he tried to tell her what it was like up here, the peace of the infinite, that feeling you get watching the sun rise and set, rise and set; how you worry that the Earth is aging incredibly fast without you and the ridiculous sci-fi fear that you might return to a different era, that everyone will have aged innumerable years without you.
But still she can't imagine what it must be like for him, free of the shuttle, free to float all alone in that black vastness. She can sometimes feel overwhelmed standing in a mountain meadow at night and that's with the calming company of the crickets, the burble of the streams like little fingers through the grass. She can't shake the dread that accompanies the thought of him out here alone though, the scientific certainty that if she were to float out into space she wouldn't last more than a moment before all that black wrapped around her, enveloped her for good.
Sometimes they would look through the telescope at night, picking out planets and stars, and he would say, “I've been there, been there, there, there,” swinging the telescope randomly as he did so until she would tell him to shut up, to quit gloating.
She unclips from the treadmill and pushes her way toward breakfast. One of her colleagues is eating out of a little pouch, the food sticking to his spoon long enough to get it to his mouth. He releases the spoon and it floats toward the ceiling before he intercepts it with his mouth. She's pretty sure little things like this trick are the real reason anyone wants to be an astronaut.
She looks out the window and she can see all of California and Oregon, Washington still hidden behind the Earth's curve. In some way it is reassuring that she cannot see all of the planet at once, that it is too big and we are too small, that it was designed that way, to hold its mystery, to be unknowable despite our best efforts, our most distant viewing.
He shuts the door and pulls all the blinds down because in the darkness she actually glows a little, like the sun behind a cloud, such is the nature of her power. He watches the bed covers pulse with her, the light emanating from her core, waiting to be released, unleashed. He has seen her do some amazing things with that strength, has seen her do a lot of good for people in need. He unclips his cape, peels off his costume and joins her, slipping under the covers. Her skin against his reminds him of flying through storm clouds alive with the buzz of potential lightning. The hair all over his body rises and with it so does he, taking the sheets with him until they drape down over her, until she floats up to meet him, to wrap her legs and arms around his body, to pull him back toward Earth, toward the bed.
“Where you going?” she says. Her eyes are vibrant, radiating, and when she closes them she seems to disappear for a moment before his eyes adjust to the dark. He reaches with his tongue toward her earlobe.
“I missed this,” he says
She opens her eyes again and says, “Ditto.”
She's watching out the window as the satellite flies next to the shuttle, piled high with all its little packets, like some lost palette of mail floating out in space. It's part of an experiment they're sharing with the Germans. She looks back down at the controls for the robotic arm she's helping to direct, to catch and release the satellite. It's in her care, up to her to bring it back home. That was what her mother had always reminded her father when he brought her, his only daughter, up into the sky to fly with him. Nothing crazy, Jim, she'd say. She's your daughter, not one of your Air Force buddies.
He would take her up and over the neighboring counties full of farmland, all those fields stretching out forever, some of which he had crop dusted as a much younger man, swooping in low to spray herbicides across acres of corn, the farmers' kids watching him from a distance, the highlight of the season. Flight had humbled her father; his ability to waltz through the sky had made him all the more appreciative of the small, delicate wonder back on the ground. She's fairly certain that without him ingraining in her an awe of the little things, she could never have thought of the possibility of the big things, of space or the always expanding universe.
And now, even after these months in space, hurtling around the Earth, the thing she's most looking forward to is hugging her husband's neck and letting him take her out flying, nothing between her and the air, none of this metal, no suits, just them. Sometimes she feels like her marriage to a superhero was preordained; what other options did she have when her passion was split between flight and the stars? When she gets home, she'll wrap her arms around his neck, twist her legs around his, lie down on his back and they'll go carving through the night sky, ignoring gravity's plaintive calls to come back down, the lights of industrial Houston like the stars reflected ten fold, the opaque water of the Gulf spotted with the miniature cities of oil rigs.
They'd passed a V of geese once, the birds silent in their migration, pointing ahead with certainty, taking no notice of the humans loosed from the ground, like they had accepted that if humans could send up planes full of people it was only a matter of time before they sent up the individual passengers.
He sits on a lip of a crater on the moon, chalky dust covering the soles of his feet and the fringe of his cape. He has been coming to the moon for years, since the first time he dared to break throughthe atmosphere into the darkness of space. It is quiet, peaceful, a place where he can keep an eye on the Earth, monitoring every rotation, looking for any signs of trouble like a new father over his infant child, as if the Earth might alert him to trouble with a racking cough, a strange wheeze, space its never ending crib. He had paid the moon a visit when he was trying to summon the courage to propose to his wife, to make her a part of his extraordinary life, to usher her into his unstable and dangerous existence, full of a power he still doesn't fully understand. He had held the ring out in front of him, the Earth visible through the gold band, to try and bring some perspective to the decision.
He had thought that marrying an astronaut would fulfill the craving he felt, the desire to love someone who could relate to his world, who knew what it felt like to be free of gravity's pull, to see the planet from beyond itself. But for all her love, he still went searching for something more, for the kind of passion only found in sky blue tights.
He looks across the grey curve of the moon toward the Earth to see if he can maybe pick outher shuttle hurtling around the planet, but he can't remember where in its trajectory it would be. He wishes she were home already. He wishes she could leave the confines of the shuttle and fly with him, to join him on the moon in a fuller understanding of his world.
The frustration wells up in him, at himself, at his wife, at the alien powers that gave him his, that set him apart without his asking. He punches the moon and when the dust settles he is standing in the lifeless rock's newest crater.
She checks on her radishes and sunflowers, makes notes on how best to get roots to dig into the soil when there is no gravity to direct them, the kind of knowledge future space colonies will be glad to have. Then she works her way back toward the front cabin for a teleconference with Mission Control.
As she looks out the window at yet another sunset, at the Earth always spinning, she thinks she is beginning to more fully understand what he must have always known, that Earth is fragile, lonely, that it is in constant need of reassurance, of saving.