Deep in darkness, there was a tiny light. Inside the light, he floated in a spaceship. It felt cold to him, floating there. Inside his body, he felt the cold of space. He could still look out the round windows of the rocket and see the Earth. He could also see the moon sometimes, coming closer. The Earth rotated slowly and the spaceship moved slowly, relative to the things that were around it. There was nothing he could do now, one way or the other. He was part of a spaceship going to the moon. He wore white paper booties instead of shoes. He wore a jumpsuit instead of underwear. He was only a human, of scant flesh and long bone, eyes clouded, and body breakable. He was off, launched from the Earth, and floating in space. He had been pushed, with force, away.
But in his mind, Maxon found himself thinking of home. With his long feet drifting out behind him, he put his hands on each side of the round window, and held on to it. He looked out and down at the Earth. Far away, across the cold miles, the Earth lay boiling in clouds. All the countries of the Earth lay smudged together under that lace of white. Beneath this stormy layer, the cities of this world chugged and burned, connected by roads, connected by wires. Down in Virginia, his wife, Sunny, was walking around, living and breathing. Beside her was his small son. Inside her was his small daughter. He couldn’t see them, but he knew they were there.
This is the story of an astronaut who was lost in space, and the wife he left behind. Or this is the story of a brave man who survived the wreck of the first rocket sent into space with the intent to colonize the moon. This is the story of the human race, who pushed one crazy little splinter of metal and a few pulsing cells up into the vast dark reaches of the universe, in the hope that the splinter would hit something and stick, and that the little pulsing cells could somehow survive. This is the story of a bulge, a bud, the way the human race tried to subdivide, the bud it formed out into the universe, and what happened to that bud, and what happened to the Earth, too, the mother Earth, after the bud was burst.
* * *
IN A HISTORIC DISTRICT of Norfolk, on the coast of Virginia, in the sumptuous kitchen of a restored Georgian palace, three blond heads bent over a granite island. One of them was Sunny’s head. Hers was the blondest. The modest light shone down on them from above, where copper pots hung in dull and perfect rows. Polished cabinetry lined the walls; and a farmhouse sink dipped into the counter, reproduced in stainless steel. A garden window above it housed living herbs. The sun shone. The granite was warm. The ice maker could produce round or square crystals. Each of the women perched on stools at the kitchen island had long straight hair, meticulously flattened or gently curled. They clustered around the smallest one, who was crying. She clutched her mug of tea with both hands where it sat on the countertop, and her shoulders shook while she boo-hooed into it. Her friends smoothed her hair, wiped her eyes. Sunny smoothed her own hair and wiped her eyes.
“I just don’t understand it,” said the small one, sniffing. “He said he was going to take me to Norway this summer. To Norway!”
“Norway,” echoed the one in the lime green cardigan. She rolled her eyes. “What a joke.” She had a hooked nose and small eyes, but from her blowout and makeup, her trim figure and expensive shoes, people still knew that she was attractive. Her name was Rachel, but the girls called her Rache. She was the first one on the block to have a really decent home gym.
“No, I want to go to Norway!” the little one corrected her. “My people are from there! It’s beautiful! There are fjords.”
“Jenny, it’s not about Norway, honey,” said Rache, the smooth loops and fronds of her golden hair cascading down her front and onto her tanned and curvy chest as she leaned over. “You’re getting distracted.”
“No,” said Jenny, sobbing anew. “It’s about that bitch he’s fooling around with. Who is she? He won’t tell me!”
Sunny pulled back from them. She wore a chenille wrap around her shoulders and operated the machines of her kitchen with one hand while the other rested on her pregnant belly. She went for the teakettle, freshened Jenny’s tea, and handed her a tissue. These were Sunny’s best friends, Jenny and Rache. She knew that they were having a normal conversation, this conversation about Jenny’s husband and his infidelity. It was a normal thing to talk about. But as she stood there in her usual spot, one hand on the teakettle, one hand on her belly, she noticed an alarming thing: a crack in the wall right next to the pantry. A crack in this old Georgian wall.
“It’s not really about her either, Jenny, whoever she is,” said Rache. Sunny gave Rache a stern glance behind the other woman’s head. Rache returned it with eyebrows raised in innocence.
“He’s a jerk,” Jenny said. “That’s what it’s about.” And she blew her nose.
Sunny wondered if her friends had noticed the crack. It raged up the wall, crossing the smooth expanse of buttercream-colored plaster, ripping it asunder. The crack had not been there yesterday, and it already looked wide. It looked deep. She thought about the house, split down a terrible zigzag, one half of the pantry split from the other. Bags of organic lentils. Mason jars of beets. Root vegetables. What would she do?
But Jenny wasn’t done crying. “I just don’t know what I’m going to do!” she burbled for the third time. “I have the children to think of ! How could he let me find this out? How could he not be more careful?”
Sunny imagined the house falling apart, with her as the fault line. Maybe with Maxon in space, the house had given up on maintaining appearances. Maybe it would crumble into the earth without him, without the person standing in the husband spot. Everything changes, everything falls: Jenny’s husband, rockets to the moon, the wall containing the pantry.
“Shh,” said Rache. She reached for the remote, turned up the volume on the kitchen TV. Sunny saw that the microwave read 12:00. She pulled the wrap tightly around her and two fingers fluffed up the bangs on her forehead. On the screen, the news was starting up.
“Oh,” said Jenny. “Time for Les Weathers.”
“Now there’s a man who would never do you wrong,” said Rache, cocking her head and winking at the set. The women watched wordlessly for a few minutes while a tall blond man with a squared-off face and twinkling blue eyes reported on a local fire. He leaned just so, into his desk, and he used his broad hands to gesticulate. His concern over the fire appeared real, his admiration for the firemen tangible. He had a bulky torso, heavy on top like a trapezoid, with big arms. He was more than just a suit on the television, though; he was relevant and immediate to them, because he lived three doors down, in an immaculate gray townhouse, behind a thick red door.
“He’s like Hercules,” said Jenny through her tears. “That’s what he reminds me of. Les Weathers is Hercules.”
“In makeup,” said Sunny dryly.
“You love him!” Rache accused.
“Shut up. I’m not one of his worshippers,” Sunny said. “The only time I’ve ever really talked to him at all was when I asked him to take that wreath down in January.”
“Not true! He was at the Halloween party at Jessica’s!” Jenny said, momentarily forgetting her troubles. “Plus he interviewed you on TV, when Maxon was doing PR for the mission!”
“I meant talked to him alone,” Sunny said. She stood with her legs wide. She could feel, or could she not feel, a tremor in the house. In the crawl space, something was reverberating. Something was coming undone. A train passed too close, and the crack widened. It reached the crown molding. Is this what labor would feel like? Last time, she had an epidural, and gave birth with her lipstick perfectly applied. This time she planned to have an even bigger epidural, and give birth in pearls.
“I’ve never talked to him alone,” said Rache, still coy, imitating Sunny. “You must be his girlfriend.”
“Can we not talk about girlfriends?” Sunny said, nodding pointedly at Jenny.
“I should give Les Weathers a call,” Jenny murmured, her eyes glued to the set. “All alone in that nice house nursing a broken heart.”
On the TV set, Les Weathers smiled with two rows of glittering white teeth, and tossed to his coanchor with a line of jockish banter.
“Don’t call him,” said Rache. “Don’t give your husband any more excuses.”
“He has excuses?” said Jenny.
A commercial for diapers began.
“Anyway,” said Sunny, clearing away the teacups, “I need to pick up Bubber from school, and get to the hospital to see Mom.”
“How is your mom?” Rache asked. The ladies rose from their stools, pulled themselves together. Cuffs were straightened, and cotton cardigans buttoned.
“She’s fine,” said Sunny. “Totally fine. You can almost see her getting better, every single day.”
“But I thought she was on life support,” said Jenny.
“Yes, and it’s working,” Sunny told them.
She rushed them out the door, and returning to the kitchen she inspected the crack with her fingers. It was not bad. It was not growing. Maybe it had been there all along. Maybe she just hadn’t seen it climbing up, up, stretching right across her house and her life, threatening it with an impassable fissure. Sunny sat down in the seat where Rachel had been, pulled her hair down around her shoulders the way her friend wore it. She stretched out one manicured hand toward the space Jenny had occupied, as if to put her arm around a phantom shoulder. She nodded, furrowed her eyebrows, just like Rache. Glancing up, she saw that the crack was still there. She sat up straighter. She put her knees together. She fluffed up her bangs. On the television, Les Weathers was signing off. Neighborhood gossip said his pregnant wife had left him to shack up with a man in California. Never even let him meet the kid. Tough life, except now every female for six blocks wanted to darn his socks. Sunny wondered how socks were darned. She thought if it came up, she would just buy new ones. She would bury the undarned socks at the bottom of the garbage, and no one would ever know.
Finally giving a long last look to the pantry and flicking off the light, Sunny gathered her bag, her keys, and Bubber’s books, and got into her minivan, sliding her big belly behind the wheel. She fixed her hair again in the rearview mirror, started the car, and began the drive to the preschool.
All through the neighborhood, the broad Southern trees stretched across the street, tracing shadows over the faces of stately brick manors. Bumblebees buzzed in the tumbling azaleas, white and every shade of pink. Clean sidewalks warmed in the spring sunshine. At every intersection in her neighborhood, Sunny put her foot down on the brake, and then the gas. The minivan went forward through space like a mobile living room, a trapezoid of air levitating across the Earth. She sat in it, pushing it along. She forgot about the crack. She forgot about Les Weathers’s wife. Every house was a perfect rectangle. It was an exercise in mathematics.
The world outside was bright and full of moving parts. On each side of the street ahead, and on each side of the street behind, historic houses rose in majestic angles. Oaks soared overhead, and along the sidewalks myrtle trees stretched their peeling branches. Parallel lines joined by perpendicular lines formed a grid you could navigate by numbers. Even numbers on the right, odd numbers on the left. Maxon had once said, “The number of lots on a city block, multiplied by the square root of the sidewalk squares in front of each lot, must equal the width of a single-car driveway in decimeters, plus Francis Bacon.” He had no real respect for the grandeur of the urban neighborhood. Lots of people, living in rows. Eating, sleeping, and baking in rows. Driving in rows and parking in rows. He said he wanted a hunting lodge in the Touraine, with a tiger moat and a portcullis made of fire. But he accepted it. How could he not? The city was a love letter to planar geometry.
Very few of the neighbors had ever actually spoken to Maxon. Yet all the people up and down this street took Sunny’s opinions very seriously. She was a natural, living here. She was a pro. When she moved to this town, said the neighbors, things fell into place. Barbecues were organized. Tupperware was bought. Women drove Asian minivans and men drove German sedans. Indian restaurants, gelato stands, and pet boutiques gathered around the one independent movie theater. No one went without a meal on the day they had a sick child or a root canal. No one went without a babysitter on the day they had a doctor’s appointment, or a flat tire, or a visitor from out of town. All of the houses moved sedately through space at a steady pace as the Earth rotated and the Commonwealth of Virginia rotated right along with it. In Virginia, people said, you can eat on the patio all year round.
There were babysitters for Sunny, when bad things happened. There were casseroles that arrived with a quiet knock. When her mother had to go to the hospital, there was help. When Maxon was being launched to the moon in a rocket, there was aid. There was a system in place, it was all working properly, beautifully, and everyone was doing their part.
* * *
SUNNY SAT BESIDE THE hospital bed of her own sick mother. She sat in her peach summer cardigan and her khaki capris, her leather braided thong sandals and her tortoiseshell sunglasses. She sat under a smooth waterfall of blond hair, inside the body of a concerned and loving daughter. She sat with her child on her lap and a baby in her belly. Her mother lay on the hospital bed, covered in a sheet. She did not wear sunglasses or a cardigan. She wore only what was tied around her without her knowledge. She had not actually been awake for weeks.
On the inside of her mother, there was something going on that was death. But Sunny didn’t really think about that. On the outside of her mother, where it was obvious, there was still a lot of beauty. Out of the body on the bed, out of the mouth, and out of the torso, Sunny saw flowering vines growing. The vines that kept her mother alive draped down across her body and out into a tree beside her bed. They lay in coils around the floor, tangled gently with each other, draped with dewy flowers and curling tendrils. Against the walls, clusters of trees formed and bent in a gentle wind, and all around, golden leaves dropped from the trees to the ground. A wood thrush sang its chords in the corner of the room, blending with Bubber’s chirps and giggles.
Bubber was her son and Maxon’s son. He was four, with bright orange hair that stood straight up from his head like a broom. He was autistic. That’s what they knew about him. With the medicine, he was pretty quiet about everything. He was able to walk silently through a hospital ward and read to his grandmother while Sunny held him on her lap. He was able to pass for a regular kid, sometimes. There would be medicine in the morning, medicine at lunch, medicine to control psychosis, medicine to promote healthy digestion. Sunny sat up straight, holding Bubber, who was reading out loud in a brisk monotone. The baby inside her stretched and turned, uncertain whether it would be autistic or not. Whether it would be more like Maxon, or more like Sunny. Whether it would fit into the neighborhood. It had not been determined.
The babbling gurgle of the breathing machine soothed Sunny’s mind, and she told herself she smelled evergreens. A breeze ruffled the blond hair that brushed her shoulders. She could put her sunglasses up on top of her head, close her eyes, and believe she was in heaven. She could believe that there would always be a mother here, in this enchanted forest, and that she could come here every day to sit and look on the peaceful face.
* * *
SUNNY LEFT THE HOSPITAL. When the car crash happened, Sunny was driving down the street toward home. Her smooth, white, manicured hands held the wheel. Her left foot pressed flat on the floor. Her head was up, alert, paying attention. The scent of someone’s grill wafted through her open window. And yet there still was a car accident. At the corner of majestic Harrington Street and stately Gates Boulevard, a black SUV smashed into her big silver minivan broadside. It happened on the very street where her house was planted. It happened that afternoon, on that very first day after Maxon went into space. No one died in the car accident, but everyone’s life was changed. There was no going back to a time before it. There was no pretending it didn’t happen. Other people’s cars are like meteors. Sometimes they smash into you and there’s nothing you can do about it.
After the hospital visit, she had buckled the boy into his seat in the minivan, and strapped his helmet on his head. He was a head banger, unfortunately, and it happened a lot in the car. While driving, she was explaining something trivial. She spent a lot of time talking out loud to Bubber, although he didn’t spend much time talking back. It was part of what they did for Bubber to help him with his difficulty, talking to him like this.
“It doesn’t matter which chair you get, right?” she said. “You just say, ‘Oh well!,’ and you sit in whichever chair is open. Because if you pitch a fit about your chair, you’re going to miss your art project, aren’t you? And it’s only a chair, right? It’s nice to have different-colored chairs. It doesn’t matter which one you get. You just say, ‘Oh well! It’s only a chair. I’ll get the blue chair next time!,’ and then you sit in the red chair. Say, ‘Oh well!,’ Bubber.”
Bubber said, “Oh well.”
His voice sounded loud, like a duck’s voice, if a duck talked like a robot. And he had to have a helmet on. Just for riding in the van. Otherwise, he sometimes whacked his head against the car seat, again and again, as the wheels drove over the joints in the road. It was terrible just hearing it happen. It was not something that Sunny ever wanted to hear.
“And then you sit down,” Sunny went on, “and you don’t even think about what color you’re sitting on, you just have fun with your art project. Because which one’s more fun, pitching a fit or doing an art project?”
“Doing an art project,” said Bubber like a duck.
“So you just say, ‘Oh well!’ and you sit down.”
Sunny waved one hand from up to down, to illustrate the point. Bubber hummed in his car seat. Sunny was plenty busy just being the mother of Bubber, but there was something else inside her, this baby making her pregnant. It had a heart and the heart was beating. Most of it could be seen on viewing machines at the doctor’s office. On the outside, a giant pregnant belly sat in her lap like a basket. The seat belt went above and below it. There was no returning from it. It was already here. In spite of what might have been done to prevent it, or any opinions she might have had that another baby was a bad idea, she was now over the line. She would be a mother of two, under the pale blond hair, in the trapezoidal minivan, in her own stately manor. In spite of the fact that Bubber hadn’t come out right, that he’d come out with some brain wires crossed and frayed, some extra here, some missing over there, she was going to be a mother again, because everyone wants to have two children. One just isn’t enough.
When Sunny was a little child, she had never envisioned herself having children. She had never played mother. Often she played sister, but never mother. Maybe that’s why she wanted another baby for Bubber. To save him from being an only child, just like her.
The car accident happened at a four-way stop. Sunny looked left, right, left again. When she looked, everything was clear. But then a black Land Rover shot toward her out of the street she was crossing. It smashed into the van with a crushing force. This is the end, Sunny thought. The end of me, and the end of the baby. The end of Bubber, too. There would be no family. After all this effort, there would be a bad outcome. It seemed monstrous, impossible. It shook her brain, thinking about it. She felt it rattle her bones. Poor Maxon, she thought, as the air bag hit her chest. What have we done to each other? There was a brutal specificity to the car accident at this time, in this place, and under the weight of all that reality, her heart felt like it had really stopped.
In that moment, sunshine still fell down through thousands of space miles to warm up the windshield in front of Sunny’s face, but with her mouth so grimaced, she looked like a monster. The sunglasses on her face pointed forward in the direction the van had been moving. The Earth rotated in the opposite direction. The van moved over the Earth on a crazy slant. After the smash, the cars were still moving a little, but in different directions now. The vectors were all changed. Air bags hissed. A sapling was bent to the ground. And at that tremulous moment, a perfect blond wig flew off Sunny’s head, out the window, and landed in the street in a puddle full of leaves. Underneath the wig, she was all bald.
Her mother was dying, her husband was in space, her son was wearing a helmet because he had to, and she was bald. Could such a woman really exist? Could such a woman ever explain herself? Sunny had time, in that moment, to wonder.
In the sky, in space, Maxon rotated on schedule. He always knew what time it was, although in space he was beyond night and day. At the time of the crash, it was 3:21, Houston time. He remembered how the boy, Bubber, had said good-bye so matter-of-factly. “Guh-bye, Dad.” How he had allowed himself to be kissed, as he had been trained, and Maxon had kissed him, as he had been trained. This is how a father acts, this is how a son acts, and this is what happens when the father leaves for space. How the eyes of the boy had wandered off to some other attraction, counting floor tiles, measuring shadows, while his arms clung around Maxon’s neck, never to let him go.
It was like any other day of work. He could hear her quiet words, “Say good-bye to your father.” So habitual. At age four, the mind could understand, but the boy could not comprehend. Why say good-bye? What does “good-bye” even mean? Why say it? It doesn’t impart any information; no connections are made when you say “hello” or “good-bye.” Of course, of course, a silly convention. Up away from the Earth, Maxon felt physically hungry. Hungry for a sight of his wife and child. Hungry for their outline, the shape they would make in a doorway, coming in. Among the stars, tucked into that tiny shard of metal, he felt their difference from the rest of the planet. It was as if Sunny were a pin on a map, and Bubber the colored outline of the territory she had pointed out. He could not see them, but he knew where they were.
Shine Shine Shine