Monthly Archives: December 2017

Short Story “Wrong Side of Heaven” from Things Don’t Break

 

If you revisit the scenes of your happiness, your heart must burst of its agony.—Dorothy Parker

Dear Earth,

You’re 384, 403 kilometres away, but it still seems like I could reach out and grab you. Since I’m in rotation around you, you’re always visible up there in the sky. You wobble a little but never actually set, so I can look up and see you whenever I want.

How are you feeling? You’re looking good. You’re looking pretty.

Shine a light out your window at night, and it takes about a second and a half to reach me here. Our exploration vehicle took four days. It will take that same 1.5-ish seconds for this message to reach you when I press send. I don’t know exactly when I’m coming back. I’m not totally sure that I am coming back.

Because our station is atop the rim of this crater at the north pole—since that’s where the water is—it’s permanent daytime here. The sky’s always black because there’s no atmosphere, but the station lives in a peak of eternal light. We have to sleep in rooms without windows. Or at least I do.

Where I’m sitting writing this, I like to call it the garden. That drives the actual astronauts crazy because it’s more like a farm or a greenhouse, and a couple of them just call it by its module number (one zero zero one). But they’re engineers and scientists. Technical types. Even the people who work here in the garden are botanists and entomologists. I’m the only liberal arts grad in the whole place. How about that: December Tenth, MFA—first civilian woman on the moon. Anyway, it reminds me of the garden behind Jamie Oakener’s mum’s house, with the kale and the tomatoes and the turnips and everything . . . and the bees, always with the bees. So I call it the garden, even though really it isn’t.

What Jamie’s mum’s garden didn’t have that this one does is the continual vacuum cleaner sound of the atmosphere generators and the endless grey expanse of completely desolate wasteland just on the other side of the fence.

Just like at Jamie’s mum’s, I like to sit here and drink coffee and write. Not the good coffee that Jamie would make us in the morning. Terrible coffee, thin, instant coffee, but coffee. Here I am, sitting, drinking coffee on the moon. That still gets me. I miss orange juice—the powdered crap that passes for orange juice around here tastes more like coffee than the coffee does—but the orange grove won’t be harvestable for years yet.

An acute, whispery voice comes from behind me saying, “Don’t move. Don’t freak out, but there’s a bee on you.”

Always with the bees.

With a complaisant wave, Dr. Keats shoos away the bee from my shoulder. It alights and lands again on a nearby cucumber vine. Smiling, I turn to Dr. Keats as he stands beside me at the edge of the garden, the transparent barrier that encloses the station just inches in front of us.

I say, “Thanks, Jon.”

The “there’s a bee on you” thing is somewhere between an inside joke and a religious ritual at this point. Since I spend so much time in the garden, and since Dr. Keats is the head apiologist on the station, we see each other fairly often, and there is usually a bee on at least one of us. The fat, fuzzy bumblebees used here for pollination in the garden are really chill and non-aggressive, but you still need to take an allergy test before leaving Earth to make sure you won’t die of anaphylactic shock, just in case you do something stupid and get yourself stung.

“Good morning, December,” Dr. Keats says. “How are you doing?”

“Pretty good,” I say. “Working on my post to send back to Earth.” I gesture toward the blue globe in the black sky, as if I’m concerned he won’t know what planet I mean.

“Cool,” Dr. Keats says.

He’s a small, grey, friendly man from California. Most of the station’s occupants are American. Some are Canadian, like me, and there’s also a handful of Russians. Some people from India, some from England. Ireland, Israel. Everyone gets along except during the World Cup.

He says, “Well, don’t let me disturb you.”

“Please,” I say, grabbing the cuff of his white button-down—some people here wear their filmy aluminum-cotton space suits at practically all times, but Dr. Keats, like me, prefers casual dress even when he’s on duty. I say, “Disturb me.” I pull him down, and he sits beside me on the bench that’s like a metal grate bent into a pair of right angles. Does that image even make sense?

“Having trouble writing?” Dr. Keats asks me.

I nod. “I don’t think it’s going to turn out very well. What am I doing here, Jon? I’m just some girl with a creative writing degree and one shitty novel. What was I thinking?”

Dr. Keats hasn’t shaved for a few days; white coruscations of hair sit in the pores of his cheeks. “You’re thirty years old,” he says, smiling. “You’re hardly a girl. And I’m certain that you wouldn’t have been selected if you weren’t up to the task.”

He’s too kind to me.

“What was I thinking?” I say again.

“I don’t know,” says Dr. Keats. “What were you thinking?”

***

Dear Earth,

What I was thinking was this: I was about to finish school with the most nugatory degree I could conceive of. I had a not-as-good-as-I’d-hoped short novel coming out with an indie press that was one step up from the Xerox machine at the 7-11 down the street. I was unemployed and probably unemployable. I was single and probably un-de-singleable, and going to the moon was the one thing I’d wanted most since looking up at the sky at night as a child and seeing it there, resting matte gold on the horizon or suspended burnished silver at its zenith

So what do you do when the big news is that they’re looking for professional writers to live on the new lunar station and file regular reports, to chronicle the majestic adventure of humanity’s first permanent space colony, to write a record to live for the ages? You polish your CV, one-inch your margins, and you apply for that motherfucker.

You don’t actually expect to be chosen. You don’t expect to . . . to have to leave everything behind.

Jamie Oakener was the only person to show up at my first reading, and even that was just a coincidence.

The two-by-five foot foamcore reproduction of my book’s cover—its title, The Thermodynamics of Love (holy Lord, what was I thinking?), in round, red sans serifs over a picture of some girl much prettier than me looking all heartbroken—is 100 percent of the publisher’s marketing budget for the season, and it leans against the front of the little table where I sit, hiding my Levi’s legs and the fifty copies of my book that I brought with me from home, and it’s the first time in my life that I feel like I might have been too optimistic.

Around two dozen chairs stare me down in the bookstore with a collective ass population of precisely zero. It’s twenty minutes past when I’m supposed to start reading, but I’ll be damned if I read to no one. Instead I brandish my best passive-aggressive smile at the customers who walk past while avoiding my eyes, a better advertisement for my dentist than for my publisher or myself probably.

this girl—all skinny arms and legs, hair a cascade of dark coffee curls, in a blue dress with white polka dots, a string of imitation pearls around her neck—appears, comes straight toward me, and sits down in the front row. Looking just like she walked out of a speakeasy circa 1922. Looking just like she’s there on purpose.

And Dear Earth, is she ever pretty.

And I say hi and she says hi. And I say, “Do you want to get a cup of coffee?” And she says, “Aren’t you going to read?” And I give the empty-but-for-her chairs a declarative look and I say, “It doesn’t seem like it.”

“Did you actually come here to hear me read?”

And she says, all bashful, “No. You just looked so sad and cute.”

So my sad, cute heart does a flip in her direction, and I say again, “Let’s get some coffee.”

We have the first conversation I have with everybody, which is about my name: how my parents’ surname was Tenth, so when I was born on the tenth of December, they thought they’d be all clever and call me December Tenth. I tell this story a lot.

But she does something unexpected. She says, “I have a weird name too!”

“Jamie Oakener?” She’s already told me. “What’s so weird about that?”

She smiles like a conspiracy.

“Jamie comes from Jameson’s, which is what my parents were drinking when I was conceived.”

I laugh. “Gross!”

“It gets better. I have middle names. My mum’s maiden name was Parker, right, and my dad’s grandmother’s name was Dorothy. Making me—”

“Jamie Dorothy Parker Oakener!” I shout, delighted, informing the whole café, but I don’t even care.

“December Tenth,” she giggles. “Use your indoor voice!”

            The first time I come over it’s raining, and in the morning we sit in the garden drinking coffee and reading the brand new IKEA catalogue to each other and gently waving away the bees that try to land on us because we’re so bright and sweet together they mistake us for flowers.

***

Dear Earth,

            The station’s electricity is generated in two ways. The first is solar. Because there’s no atmosphere beyond our metal-and-plexiglass enclosure, there’s nothing to dilute the sun’s energy as it reaches the craggy grey surface, so the solar collectors work at almost 100 percent efficiency.

The other way is hydrogen fuel, which we get from mining the ice. Every day a dozen robots roll down into the polar crater below us and come back a few hours later hauling big pyramids of dirty ice. From the area above the vehicle storage unit—the garage, where I am now—you can see them. Robots like a baby elephant crawled inside R2-D2 and had a baby with a Zamboni. Robots crawling up the side of the crater like Sisyphus.

This is how we get our oxygen, too. By a process of electrolysis, the water-ice is split into hydrogen and oxygen: the hydrogen goes into the fuel cells, and the oxygen goes to the generators to produce breathable air. The sighs of the station’s 108 personnel make their way to the garden for the plants. The rest of the water is treated and mineralized and fluorinated and made potable for us and for the plants, and our waste water is recycled.

The gravity . . . I haven’t got even the fuzziest idea about how the gravity works.

In the station, Captain Wallace is in charge. Captain Wallace looks just like an astronaut from a 1950s science-fiction movie: a crew-cut black like oil, eyes blue as Earth and always looking into the distance at something you can’t see, like cats do. He’s thirty centimetres bigger than me in every direction, and he wears his US Air Force uniform every day, with the silver double-bars of his rank pinned to his lapel. Anytime he’s not talking to you, he absently worries the wide gold band around the hairy knuckle of his left ring finger. I’m pretty sure he doesn’t realize that he does this. But it makes him seem human to the rest of the crew, rather than like the intimidating, unrelatable archetype he’d otherwise be.

Okay, he is still kind of intimidating.

I say, “Good afternoon, Captain.” You have to call him Captain. You do not call him Dave. You especially don’t do your best HAL 9000 impression when he’s around.

“Good afternoon, Ms. Tenth,” he says, and even though I’ve just walked up out of nowhere, he does not startle, and he doesn’t turn to look at me, just continues watching, through the window of the garage, the barren crater as the robots return with our water and power and air for the next week. He says, “I read your last transmission to Earth.”

Of course he did. Part of his job is reading everything I write and approving or rejecting each post before dispatching it. This is still a military mission, technically, and we can’t have me giving away any secrets. Captain Wallace knows all about embedded journalists and their loose lips; he was in the war.

“Did you like it?” I ask.

“It was very . . . ” His Bruce Campbell chin rises up almost imperceptibly. “Personal.”

“Is that bad?”

“No,” he says. “No.” Out there, the little robots drag their frozen cargo back home, dutiful as ants. Out there, the robots don’t remember. Out there, the robots don’t dream.

For most of my life on Earth, I felt safe. Safe like a prison is safe. Earth has everything you need to be alive: air, water, food. It’s all just there. But the same gravity that keeps the atmosphere from floating away also keeps you rooted to the spot. You look up at the sky at night and what you see is possibility. What you see is freedom. What you see is everything else. I always thought that if I went to the moon, I would feel what I never felt down on the planet where I was born. And wouldn’t you know it, Earth—I was right.

Here I do feel free. Free, and constantly afraid. This place is hostile. If you want to eat, if you want to breathe, you have to come prepared with the products of thousands of years of human civilization strapped to your back. The moon is a blank white page on which we’re still scrawling the very first sentences, and we can write anything we can imagine On Earth you could always get hit by a bus or eaten by a crocodile—there’s never any guarantees, but on the moon you might wake up with a chest full of emptiness and die of suffocation one morning because some asteroid looked at your bedroom the wrong way.

Point being, you think you have to choose. You think it’s either safety and confinement, or freedom and fear. You think it can only ever be one way or the other.

Dear Earth, let me count the ways.

The way we have the same arms. The way her socks never match. The way she calls people by their full name. The way the sound of hers, her name, liquefies my heart still. The way she shakes her hair. The way she draws dinosaurs. The way her red nail polish is always perfectly chipped. The way that she’s better than me at everything, and the way that makes me feel not envious but proud. The way she’ll smile kindly and call you a doofus only when she’s really, really mad at you.

Captain Wallace’s arms fall back down to his sides, then his hands join behind his back. He looks like he’s seen things you people wouldn’t believe, like he’s thinking deep thoughts, like he’s about to say something profound. He kind of always looks like that.

What he says is “Ms. Tenth.” What he says is “Being apart from someone, even being half a million miles away, shouldn’t make you feel so all alone. It should make you feel blessed to live in a universe so kind that it contains a person so special, a person worth missing like that.”

Out there, the north stretches across empty space. Out there, the Earth hangs suspended on nothing. Out there in the sky, looking so small and so close that I could reach out and grab it, is everywhere I have ever been.

Standing just behind him, I look at Captain Wallace’s hands, holding each other behind his back. He never looks at me, but he unclasps his hands, takes the gold ring on his left hand between two fingers on his right, and turns it round and round like the orbit of the moon.

***

Dear Earth,

Jamie Oakener came with me to Florida, where the space ships depart, to see me off. It was hot in Orlando. Or it might have been the coldest day in a century, I don’t really remember. I think it was raining, though, or snowing maybe, because I do recall that our faces were wet.

We stood close, and she said, “Don’t go.”

And I said, “Come with me.”

Don’t go.

Come with me.”

I looked into her eyes, but I couldn’t see a fucking thing.

And she looked into my eyes, and she smiled so kindly, and she said, “You doofus.”

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