A Short Story
“You always knew I wanted to be an astronaut.”
“Of course, you mentioned it, but I didn’t think it would ever actually happen.”
Across the dinner table from each other, Celia and Neil were discussing the possibility of a long distance relationship. The situation posed by Neil was not landing satisfactorily.
“How will we ever know what’s out there if you we don’t go ourselves?” Neil cajoled, while slicing his hamburger in half. He was still considerate enough to share it with Celia, even while she squashed his dreams.
“Oh, that’s ridiculous. I’ll tell you what’s out there. Stars. Stars that don’t exist anymore because they burned out long before any of us actually existed.” Celia frantically shoved fries into her mouth. She didn’t understand how Neil had missed all the obvious evidence that his idea was beyond absurd. Light years beyond absurd.
“Now, you know there is more than just stars out there.” Neil looked up as if he could see the pale blue sky outside. Out there was his next adventure.
That is what this was all about, anyway. Adventure to an unknown somewhere. Neil wanted to chase the mystery of deep space. He knew that the complications of earth would fade away behind him, and maybe he could find the answers out there. Somewhere.
He was gazing off yet again. She glared at him. “What makes you think that you’re qualified to explore space? You can’t just go because you feel like it.”
“Well, I’ve been watching a ton of documentaries.” Neil placated, filled with hope and good intentions.
Celia coughed through her surprise. She leaned forward into Neil’s imaginative space. “You really can’t be serious, Neil.”
As usual, she was creating a wall to stand against him and his ideas. Neil firmly believed that he could do anything he set his mind to, in fact it was such a precise philosophy, that he wrote it across his bathroom mirror. He rewrote it every morning, or had for the last week. It would be his mind that got him past Earth’s atmosphere, as it was a feat that could not be achieved by his legs. Neil’s mind was firmly set on being an astronaut. He made a note to himself that he would write this statement on the mirror, as well.
Celia had been scrubbing the mirror every morning after Neil left the bathroom.
When they met, Neil’s naïveté was endearing. Celia thought that maybe he could teach her a thing or two about hope and motivation. Now, she felt as if she was just constantly wiping away his aspirations. She had dreams too for sure, but they were more in the terrestrial frame of mind and therefore easier to reach.
“Carl says he’ll help me build a spacecraft.” Neil said, revealing his final piece of resistance. Surely, if Celia knew that Carl was also involved, then she wouldn’t feel as concerned for Neil’s safety. Two heads together and they would surely do great things.
“Carl?!” Celia asked.
“Yes, Carl.” said Neil with confidence.
“Our neighbor, Carl?”
“We only know one Carl.”
“The Carl that leashed his dog and cat together?” Celia roared, forgetting the fries all together. Forgetting any of the meal, in lieu of the fruitless conversation she couldn’t seem to escape.
“That was an important research project.” Replied Neil, with a voice layered with respect for Carl’s work.
Celia was at a loss for words. To be true, she began thinking of many words, but refrained. Other diners in the restaurant were beginning to look over at their table.
“I suppose I should tell you that Carl and I have been watching these documentaries together.” Neil said, looking down at his untouched burger, wondering what freeze dried beef replacement would taste like after 6 months in a weightless environment.
Celia rested her palms into her eye sockets and sucked in a deep breath.
Neil continued, “I’ve learned some fascinating things about myself. And about space, of course. I feel very strongly about this, Celia. If you truly love me, like I assume you have for all these years, then you’ll support my need to do a greater good. I’m trying to help humanity.”
Celia looked up again at the face of her brave, fearless husband. “Ok, Neil.” She sighed, deciding to switch to negotiation.” How exactly are you and Carl going to get to space?”
Celia momentarily let herself settle on the notion that Carl and Neil would somehow have the materials to build their elusive spacecraft, along with the capacity to launch it into the air, and then to leave earth.
Why did Neil want to leave earth anyway? Was he really trying to explore space or was he running away from her? As far as away as one could possibly get.
She had to admit to herself that she wasn’t as carefree as she had been when she first met Neil. They had grown apart, as most couples do, finding time to do things other than dote on one another. However, she still loved him the same. She loved him enough to comprehend that maybe he was having some kind of growing relationship with Carl. That maybe she could deal with that. As long as he didn’t catapult himself into space.
Sure, Carl wore the same baseball hat everyday. Carl liked to mow his lawn. Everyday. Carl loved to joke about women’s thighs rubbing together, a little too much for Celia’s taste. But if she really dug down deep, she could think of maybe one reason that Carl might be appealing. Perhaps thigh friction was apart of their plans for intergalactic travel.
“Carl isn’t coming with me. He’s afraid of heights.” Neil cast off Celia’s question while grabbing the ketchup.
“Fine.” She sighed again, rubbing circles into her temples. “How are you going to get to space, with the help of Carl?” Celia tried to ask patiently.
“The obvious way, honey.” Neil said, with part of a bun hanging from his mouth.
“Obvious? What’s the obvious way? A trampoline? Fireworks? Thigh friction?” Celia’s last guess came out at a high pitch.
“Of course, not. None of those would work. Thigh friction? That could never sufficiently yield enough energy. You really haven’t been paying attention to anything I’ve been saying about exit velocity.”
“What?!” Celia had reached an even higher note.
“Exit Velocity. To propel an object at an intense speeds, in order to combat gravity and break earth’s orbit,” said Neil. He took a moment to put aside mental credit to Celia for guessing about fireworks. That was his first assumption as well, but he was now much too aware that this was ineffective.
“I know what exit velocity is, Neil.” She countered.
“Celia, don’t you understand how important this is? Not just to me, but to humanity?” Neil was waving his butter knife with passion.
Celia ripped into her own plate of limp eggplant and yelled, “Traveling into space isn’t important for anyone! Going to space is just another way to run away from the problems here, instead of dealing with them! If we run out of food or the environment goes wrong, then it’s our fault and we should deal with the consequences. Not run away to some fantasy planet. Our problems will just chase us there.”
“But what about our grandchildren?” Neil asked, reaching across the table to hold Celia’s hand.
“We don’t even have children, Neil!” She pulled her hand away, distraught.
“But we may in the future.” Neil smiled, picturing of himself gray and wise, leaning over to his grandson into a tiny space suit.
“We definitely won’t be having any if you shoot yourself into space.” Celia snapped back at him.
“Rocket into space, Celia.” Neil corrected her.
Celia let out a frustrated grunt, that startled the couple sitting next to them. Besides, she was beyond the point of caring. Her husband was saying goodbye to her. Sure, he was trying to support some noble cause, but he was still abandoning her. Their marriage was going to evaporate before they could even afford a vacation home. Unless, Neil was able to erect a small villa on Mars, but she wasn’t even sure she would be willing to visit. It seemed like a sandy planet.
After dinner, Neil drove home, with Celia remaining recalcitrant in the seat beside him. They had flushed out all the finer points of the argument over dessert.
She glanced over at Neil, who kept a half smile and both hands on the wheel. Was he going to use their car to build this rocket? She grimaced at even bringing up the question and looked away.
How was she going to explain this to her mother? Celia thought. She ran through each step that might be that painful phone conversation. She knew that her mother would somehow fixate on Carl.
Neil is such a sweet boy. He would never abandon you like that. It’s that Carl character! He’s brainwashing him!
How would they ever have kids? Would he send down his sperm in some kind of supply shuttle? Had he already frozen it to leave behind? Would she need to use the same turkey baster that they used for Thanksgiving that year?
Celia couldn’t understand what was so great about space anyway. It was just nothing. Cold, empty nothing. A void. Everything she had ever known was condensed neatly on their little earth planet. There was basically enough room for everyone. Maybe not enough food or water, but they probably didn’t have to worry about that, being that they lived in America. She felt a little guilty for thinking this, but didn’t have any idea of what to do about it anyway.
On top of it all, Celia loved Neil. She didn’t want him to disappear into space. He probably wouldn’t even make it to the upper atmosphere. He would just disintegrate into the air, still inside the blue precious dome of earth. Then Celia would be alone. She would have to adopt cats and learn to make scrapbooks. There would be one big scrapbook on her dusty dining room table, always unfinished and filled with newspaper clippings of Neil’s tragic death.
Granted, Neil may not have believed that she would miss him. Celia knew that things weren’t the same as they once were. But that was not a good enough excuse. She knew that people change and that things change. She was certain that she still loved Neil. Loved him so much she wasn’t going to let him build a stupid rocket ship, to fly into the stupid air, so that he might reach stupid space.
She kicked underneath the dashboard in frustration.
Neil looked over at his wife. He knew that she didn’t understand. He couldn’t help that. He could only trudge on with his mission.
Carl always smelled like rolled cigarettes, which was strange, because he didn’t ever smoke. Neil figured it had something to do with Carl’s fully grown garden in his backyard. There were plump tomatoes and root vegetables always sticking out of the earth. That evening they sat on Carl’s deck, or really just a large piece of plywood next to his back door. They had put it down together, and Carl had started calling it his deck from then on out. They spent a lot of their real thinking time there.
Neil had some sad news for Carl. He wanted to get in a few beers before breaking it to him. After two packets of sunflower seeds, he figured it was finally time to say something.
“You know, Carl, I was sure our idea for making our own rocket fuel was going to work.” said Neil confidently.
“Needed whale oil. Lighter fluid is too thin”, grunted Carl.
Neil nodded and took a swig of his beer. The sun was touching the top of the wooden fence surrounding the yard, on its way down. On its way to the other side of the earth. Somewhere Neil had never been, but he was beginning to think he might visit soon. Stay on earth for now, he thought.
“Too bad all the whales are pretty much dead.” Neil added.
“Oh, there’s still some,” said Carl, motioning to the yard as if the ocean was off somewhere in the direction of the sun. An ocean full of whales, who were full of oil.
Neil thought that, really, in any direction there in fact is an ocean. He supposed Carl could be right.
“Carl, you ever had a wife?” Neil asked casually, trying to introduce what he thought might be a sensitive subject.
“Yea. Did once.” Carl grumbled.
Neil made a sound of affirmation, then placed his beer down on the card table between them.
“Well, then I think you understand why I can’t go up into space for you.” Neil explained, leaning into a good friend.
Carl thought for one long moment, rubbing his thumb and finger together. He pulled apart and put back together the months of elbow grease and sweat that they put into their joined dream. He thought of the deck, the long talks, and the hours of documentaries they watched together. He remembered that he had made a embroidered mission patch with colorful planets on it, and that it was waiting in his desk drawer. He intended to give it to Neil to wear on his big trip off the earth. Then again, Neil may have been right about the whales. Carl wasn’t sure what was left of them. He was also tired of lighting his arm hair on fire.
“I guess so.” Carl answered. He picked up a toothpick and started to gnaw at it.
Neil knew Carl was an understanding and deep man. At one point, there was a real energy to their project, and a feeling of excitement that Neil had not felt since he was a kid. He knew Carl shared the same frenzy.
However, not everything works out like you planned. Neil sat back in the sagging lawn chair and reminisced. He could almost imagine the crack of metal on metal, remembering how he and Carl ripped through left-over lawn mowers and washing machines. The sound of thin sheet metal being torn in two was so satisfying. It was so clear to him, even now. In fact, Neil could swear in that moment, that over the growly breath of Carl, he could hear metal being hammered in the distance.
It was coming from his house, from his backyard, caddy corner to Carl’s home.
Both men sat up quickly, reacting to one particularly loud bang, looking across the intertwined fences. Neil stood first, holding a hand back to Carl, motioning that he intended to go alone. It was his house and he knew how best to protect it. Carl leaned back in his chair, resolved.
Neil snuck through a loose fence board, then crept through the untrimmed grass of his own yard. The bangs and claps reverberated from around the corner of his shed wall. The source of it was behind his own shed.
Celia’s elliptical was in pieces.
She had ordered it online in the middle of winter, explaining to Neil that it was the only way they were going to get proper exercise. She used it infrequently, but still treasured it’s presence. Now, the once swinging legs of it were hacked in half, with cables wrapped up in neat little piles next to the machine’s corpse. The plastic curved body was removed forcibly, releasing the calorie burning secret mechanisms inside to spill out over the gravel. Neil stepped next to the buckled and beaten plastic, amazed and speechless.
Celia turned around at the crunch of his feet and stood up from her work.
“What are you doing?” Neil asked, keeping his voice low as he glanced over the sledgehammer Celia let swing at her side.
“I was just-” Celia stopped and looked down at herself. She was wearing knee pads, because the gravel had started digging into her jeans. Her hair was tied back with a bandana, because she couldn’t find an elastic band the 4 or 5 times she returned to the house for supplies. There were a few small scratches up her arm from the sharp edges of the pulled-apart, gray plastic. She was out of breath from swinging the hammer. Neil was watching her carefully, as if she might swing at him too.
“It was your idea in the first place.” She responded, sticking out her chest. He couldn’t come around and judge her own work.
Neil looked her over again and stepped closer. “What idea, honey? Here. Why don’t you pass me the hammer and tell me.” He stuck his hand out slowly.
“Oh Jesus, Neil. I’m not going to attack you.” She dropped the hammer, and said “I was just pulling this apart because I never use it anymore and I thought that I could…”
“Yes, Celia?” Neil asked, comfortingly, feeling much better with the sledge hammer down.
“I thought that you might be building a one man ship because you ran out of materials, and if I could just find some more then you could make it bigger. That is whenever you get it working. I don’t know anything about engineering, but I could learn and then I could help you. I took a few classes in college about design, so maybe there’s something to air flow or energy or whatever that I could figure out. I had a 3 minute conversation with Carl yesterday and you know what, he’s really not that smart. I just thought that if you needed extra help, you should have someone who can punctuate a sentence correctly. Maybe I could even figure out alien languages. I just thought… Well, Neil… I thought that maybe if I started to get enough of this stuff together that you would add me on to your… ship or whatever.”
Neil watched Celia sink down against the shed. She shook her head and pulled in deep breath, then laughed.
“Just don’t go to space without me, Neil.” She looked up at him and stared. She was serious.
Neil walked over to sit beside her, pushing aside the hammer and few wires to make space on the ground. He slid down and rested his dusty hand on her knee pad.
“Well, it looks like I’m not going to make it to space anytime soon, Celia.”
“Why not?” She sounded slightly disappointed.
Neil looked at the tall wooden fence across from them, thinking of the borders and boundaries that were set between him and his dream of traveling into the unknown. They waived between large and small, preventable and unavoidable. It wasn’t impossible, it was just improbable.
“You see, Celia, there was one problem that I didn’t take into account when I did my calculations for surviving a weightless environment.”
“What was that?” Celia asked.
“In space, because there is no gravity-”
“I understand what weightless means, Neil.”
“Yes, well, when everything is weightless it doesn’t fall down. It tends to stay in one general area.” Neil continued patiently.
“Unless it’s propelled forward by another force.” Celia interjected.
“Yes, ideally, but in the case of liquid, this can be difficult.”
“Neil, is this a urine problem? Don’t the astronauts use diapers?”
“They do wear diapers, yes. But no, this is different. This has to do with tears.”
“Tears?” Celia picked her head and looked at Neil with skepticism. He smiled back at her.
“Yes. If you cry in space, then the tears stay in your eyes. You can’t blink them out. Because of the salt contents of tears, this could inevitably make you go blind.” Neil finished.
“So you can’t go to space because you’re afraid of going blind from crying? This is what you’re telling me.” Her tone was challenging, but all the while she reached out for Neil’s hand on her knee.
“Celia, no man with a wife like you could think about leaving earth without a tear or two.” Neil replied.
She thought about his response for moment, then gave him a slap on the shoulder and stood up. “You’re so full of it, Neil! You know that?” She said then, stormed off into the house.
Neil sat in the gravel thinking about Celia wrapped up in a bright white space suit, pushing him across the inside of the ship whenever she got annoyed, sending the both of them flying away in opposite directions.