Astronaut: Someone who peers hopefully into the great dark. Some work in space stations, some go on missions. And then there’s me, the hostess of the moon (at your service).
Bedtime: During our last tuck-in before I left for launch, you asked me again about my moon powers. I chanted, “I am Queen of the Moon! Ruler of the Tides! And if you give Grandma a hard time when I’m gone, I’ll make sure that the moon and I make the ocean creep all the way up to your bedroom and get your little feet in your little socks all wet!”
I pinched your toes and you giggled and kicked under the sheets.
Crater: A hole, a pit, a hollow thing. When I leave, I hope not to leave one.
Disney: This was the best way I could explain my job to you. Think of the moon as Disney. A Disney just for billionaires. They pay to travel in special craft so they can go to the moon and bounce around for kicks. Remember when we went to the parks and there were people who operated the rides? When they arrive, they’ll check in with me. I will be up there, the only one running the most expensive attraction in our solar system.
Eclipse: When everything was switched off and the room was dark, you clicked the flashlight on—its glow splayed on the far wall where I stood next to the mounted clock and calendar. “The moon reflects the sun’s light,” I said, enveloped in the yellow beam you held. “Now, when the Earth travels around the sun, it sometimes blocks the light to the moon. Put the flashlight down on the table. Good! You are the earth (how true). Walk in front—slowly!” You crept in front of the bright stream. You saw my face half covered in your shadow, and then you stepped directly in front of the flashlight. I saw your small brilliant figure framed in the sun—I became part of the dark night sky. “Any questions?”
“I think it would be easier to draw an egg. Or an elf.”
“But no one else in the whole class will have this.”
“Can you help me draw it?”
Of course I can.
February: It was cold the night I left to make the plane to Florida. I had tucked you in. Read all of your favorites. Pinched your toes and made you giggle. But when I walked out of the house, you appeared anyway. Grandma stood behind the screen door, where the porch light next to her shone strong in the night. You ran out to me, in that illuminant tunnel, and hugged me at the dark edge of the rock driveway.
“Two years, baby. Two years will be a flash. I promise.” (But already, time taunted me: it hung heavy in the air—moths waltzed past our faces, the creaking of the trees dragged slowly now.) “And when I come back we are going to celebrate those birthdays I missed, and those Christmases, and we’ll have two Halloweens right in February. We’ll have a whole month where every day is a holiday.” You clung tight to my leg. “When I come back I won’t have to work another day in my life. I’ll be right here with you, always.” And time, like syrup, stretched between us. It took a millennium to walk backwards to the car, eons to arrive at the departure gate. Already I was doomed.
Grandma: Please be good to grandma while I’m on the moon. Your father will pick you up for his weekends.
Here: Shortly, here was a celestial sanctuary, my moon church, my space temple. I rediscovered the wonder of weightlessness and holy silence I once felt in my journeys from a decade ago. But now I stare down and imagine you in that giant floating pool of milky blue. The moon station, on the other hand, is small, sanitary, and angular. I taped pictures of you above my bunk.
Isaiah Webb: You saw him on the news right? Officially the first man in history to pay for a personal shuttle to the moon. 62 years old, gray, flabby. He was exactly as he looked—an old money man from the northeast who found it necessary to dress extravagantly for the occasion under the bulk of his space suit. When the shuttle touched down in my lunar front lawn, I walked out to greet him.
I tethered myself to his suit, lead him like a dog on a leash and he followed with awkward, misplaced bounces into the station. We took off our helmets in the air lock.
“How was the ride?” I asked.
“No in-flight snacks, a bit disappointed in that,” he grinned.
I brought him to the biggest room in the station, the observatory. You should see it; it’s a real joke of a place. While the ceiling and far walls are all windowed, there’s this whole kitschy display like a theme park attraction. Framed photographs of the Apollo 11 crew, an extensive timeline of moon missions, authentic arrays of past shuttle parts lit up like a movie set. (Remember, I told you: civilizations ago, the Greeks stared at the moon and saw their goddess Selene dazzle across the night sky in her orbed chariot. The moon had power. The moon belonged to enchanted women. Whenever you find yourself looking up at the mural of night, always regard the moon as such; never as a museum, never as a gift shop).
We bounced on the moon. Isaiah ate space food. We walked about the station. In one room there is a monitor onto which he could record a video to send to someone on Earth. He paused, fixed his eyes on the screen. “No thanks,” he muttered after a searching pause. Then with a smile: “Those bastards didn’t pay a cent, they’re not getting a peek into this place!” We sat again in the observatory when his three hours were up.
“Did you enjoy your time on the moon, sir?”
He looked out the windows to the wide pale plains and frowned. “It’s really just like the pictures.”
“Yes. Beautiful, isn’t it?”
“No, I mean, I’ve seen pictures from the moon. You know, pictures of Earth and of space. And this is just like that. It’s like…two years ago I went to the Grand Canyon for the first time in my life. And I stood at the top and it was so damn hot. And I looked out and thought, I’ve seen this before. In pictures, brochures. The internet. Except now I got pit stains down to my belly button and have to worry about damn heat stroke. This is like that.”
I didn’t say anything.
He leaned back in his chair. “I’ve been searching for a long time for something that would make me feel…awe. I used to feel it all the time when I was young. I thought this would be it, but. It’s just like the pictures.
I looked down. Perhaps ashamed for him.
“Do you feel it still? When you wake up here everyday?” he asked, waiting.
I was going to defend the moon, going to defend all of space from his indifference. Going to poke the stars into his stubborn heart, explain what an honor it was to have my job and how amazing it was to live on this silent satellite. Or maybe tell him about my first mission a decade ago.
Instead I remembered a gas station we stopped at off 89 in New Hampshire coming home from your uncle’s cookout. Your father parked the car and went in to buy wiper fluid and sodas. You were just a lump, this soft fat beautiful thing asleep in the backseat, and I remember the buzzing electric blue of the lit up gas prices. The window was down and the heat of summer seeped into my pores and some awful but lovely rock ballad I had never heard before echoed from the busted speakers of the Corolla. It was only a moment but everything was art and untouchable. That parking lot, that living lullaby, with you there, was more than a moon and a Grand Canyon. (Should I tell this man that maybe he is looking in the wrong place?)
Again, lost in my own thoughts I said nothing, letting the silence of space build upon him. Then I said, “For two thousand dollars you can plant a flag on the moon with your name on it.”
June: Officially half a year into the gig. I met dozens—a young man who owned a start-up and grieved the lack of social media in space, a woman with an ambitious bucket list and limited time, an older husband who left a poem for his wife on the moon.
Just last week: a grandmother with fierce red hair who spoke limited English. In the observatory, she pointed at our cerulean planet, then lifted her arms, raising them up and up in slow triumph. Like a conductor to a giant orchestra, cueing her members to lift and ready their bows right before a song.
I thought that maybe she was trying to capture the vastness of space in this gesture. So I relied on that grand true cliché and said to her, “It’s all so big, and we are so small.”
She turned, quizzical, and shook her head no. That’s not what she meant at all.
I didn’t press further, but that gesture of hers—that great lifting of her palms like she was casting her nets to the cosmos—I find myself doing it from time to time.
Kid: “What letter are you working on today?” I asked. You and your backpack and your crayons were sprawled all over the living room rug.
“Lemme see.” I took your packet, already opened to an orange blob with cat ears and a circle on its stomach. Beneath, you wrote, kangru.
“I need two more things that start with the letter K for it. I’m going to do a kite and a cup.” You were proud. It made me smile and it made me sad when I told you cup started with a C. You considered your options.
“What about coral, like where the fish are?” Also C.
“Or like ice cream, cream? What if I draw cream?” Pretty tough thing to draw, and also a C.
You scrunched your face and thought hard. “Well, I don’t get it.”
I tried to help you, but to be honest, I didn’t get it either. I searched my brain for any word that started with a K. All I could think about was that C. Crater. Corolla. Cosmos. You looked at me with ridicule. I tipped over on the rug and laughed and laughed. My brain felt stuck, and I couldn’t think of a single word that started with a K.
Finally, regained, I told you to draw yourself. “You’re a kid. Draw that.” And so you drew another blob, but this one had a penciled ponytail and a big U on the face where the smile reached from chin to forehead. It was the most special thing you ever drew. Even up here I can’t forget that. I like to think of you with a smile too big for your own head.
Life: We have spent so much time looking for life on other planets. A trace of a clue of some simple-celled organism, anywhere. But there is no greater discovery than finding life inside you growing—this alien, heartbeating thing. And soon you are a planet of your own, full of discovery and creation. You asked me if you were the reason I “quit space” so long ago—you were the reason I stopped looking for life elsewhere.
Moon: The rock of all rocks where I learned how to leave you.
Noise: There is no noise in space. But sometimes in the void I hear the stretch and creak of the knotted rope in the backyard where you would swing in innocent orbit, giggling like the goon you are. Or hear the squeak of your green rain boots as you ran to every puddle on the street after a storm. You would point to them and name the continents they were shaped like. You are so smart, little girl. Naming all the Africas and Australias on the sides of streets. My little missy, seeing worlds within muddy puddles.
I hear the squeak squeak squeak of your boots now. I know it’s only station alarms beeping and beeping. Lights flash and I’ve tried so many times to contact Earth. It happened so suddenly (I suppose everything in space does).
Oxygen: It is very essential up here. And the beeping keeps beeping and the lights flash still. Three days ago I had contact; yesterday the lights flashed; today nothing works. I hope the billionaires come soon enough. The next scheduled visit is in one week. Already, I feel dizzy with defeat.
Porchlight: It made sense, really. You looked across at the Withrow’s house and saw the porch light glow. Then you looked at the stars. Too young for words, you were of that age where eyes bulge with wonder at anything, everything. I tried to see what you saw—the porchlight like a star, each star like a porchlight. I feel closer to you now. Look across the street, look up at the night sky. I am just a house away. I am just a house away. I am just a house away.
Queen: I am Queen of the Moon! Ruler of the Tides! And if you give Grandma a hard time missy, I’ll make the ocean creep up to your bedroom and soak your little toes in your little socks! I am Queen of the Moon! Ruler of the Tides! And if you give Grandma a hard time…
Red: Is such a strong color. I wished the warning lights flashed pink and blue, pink and blue, which one should I paint the nursery? Pink and blue never hurt anyone. Pink and blue, the cake my sister got me. Pink and blue, because I didn’t care to know what you were, I only cared that you were anything at all.
Seventeen: (Minutes until complete oxygen deprivation.) I couldn’t find the leak, little lady, little puddle jumper, little earth, earth, earth! But since I know you finished your book for school, I will finish mine for you. My head’s a bit goofy now, you won’t mind? I have to write quick now.
Time: Time is syrup. Pancakes on Sunday. Too picky—I learned to leave out the blueberries. Can we have chocolate chips next time? Next time. Einstein said time was relative. Did he cook you pancakes and leave to the moon? No, no. Again, time is syrup.
Universe: Not as big as people think. You, me, the Corolla, the gas station. That very bad beautiful song. Summer. This is a universe, complete in itself. Learn from me, the universe is not out there.
Vacuum: Your favorite lame space joke: Why aren’t there any crumbs floating in the Milky Way? Because space is a vacuum! VROOOOOM…(I’m not even sure if you get the joke but you laugh and laugh every time I make the vacuum noise).
Waning Gibbus: (Tonight when you look up it will look like I’m just a sliver of light in the sky. Don’t you worry, I’m still here.)
X: Your father confessed. “I guess I was wishing for a boy.” I smiled, turned away. I suppose I always wanted a goddess.
You: The launch procedure was familiar. I strapped in, drew a deep breath. Then the roar and shake around me.
Except, there was one uninvited guest: you in my head, giggling like a (ten) goon, kicking under the blankets (nine). I wished then, and now, (eight) that I could reach out (seven) and hold you. Reach my hands out (six) like that woman did.
(Five) I think now that maybe she wasn’t trying to show me (four) the size of space and saying we were small. (Three) When I reach my arms out like that I feel like I (two) can touch everything around me: the moon, the stars, the great black void, the bright blue planet, even you, all at once. I can be with you, if I reach my hands up.
The launch: A final lunge from earth. A birth into the sky.
Zero: “How do I draw zero of something?” you asked a day before I left. Your book for school almost complete—corresponding words and drawings for every letter of the alphabet. You stared at the page.
And now in space I can tell you—draw nothing. Leave the page blank. But know that it can be filled. Do not be an Isaiah. In life if you feel like there is nothing new or nothing next, remember there are worlds within puddles, a cosmos suspended in that Corolla. Reach your hands up and up. Remember the flashlight? The shadow on my face. You are a world, a thing in the light.