CATHY ULRICH – “The Sky Is Nothing at All”

planetes

When the astronaut comes home from space, her wife is sitting on the couch with the television playing. The astronaut got a ride home from one of the technicians, snapping gum, tapping his fingers on the steering wheel. The astronaut sat stiffly beside him, nodded from time to time.
They’re only just showing the landing now, says the astronaut’s wife. How long have you been back?
Days, the astronaut thinks. Weeks maybe.
Time goes so much quicker here, she says.
Her wife stands, leaves the television playing.
I like to watch you come down, she says, loops her arms over the astronaut’s shoulders.
You’re home, she says. Did you miss me?
I miss you, the astronaut says.

The astronaut and her wife were girls together, grew up on opposite ends of the same street. The astronaut remembers a checkered skirt her wife used to wear. The astronaut remembers neighborhood barbecues, parents holding cans of beer, Dixie cups of box wine. And the children going off together, poking sticks into the fire pit, kicking up the embers. The astronaut remembers lying on her back in the grass after everyone had gone, looking up at the stars.
She remembers climbing out her window at night, padding barefoot down the street, throwing pebbles at her wife’s window. Not her wife then, the girl in the checkered skirt. The window sliding open, the girl putting her fingertips up to the screen, the astronaut too, finger to finger.

The astronaut remembers wanting the sky.

The television is playing. The astronaut’s wife is wearing a lavender nightgown. Her wife hasn’t brushed her hair. Her wife has worn a path in the carpet with her pacing back and forth.
Her wife hums an old love song, dances round the room. The astronaut is in her arms.
The astronaut feels, still, weightless.

I saw you, says the astronaut’s wife. While you were in space, I saw you. They showed you on television.
I know, says the astronaut. She made peace signs for the camera. She sent messages home. Wish you were here. Wish you were here. Wish you were here. The shuttle hung in the spaces between the stars. It felt like nothing was moving, like everything was. The astronaut looked down at the earth, thought of it as down, tugged the elbow of her fellow astronaut’s suit.
Do you believe that? she said. That little planet. That’s our home.
 
The astronaut dances with her wife. Her wife’s humming blends with the mumble of the television. The astronaut sees herself on the screen, forgets for a moment whether she is there, whether she is here. She puts her face against her wife’s neck.
The astronaut kisses her wife. The astronaut’s mouth is cold, like distant stars.
I miss you, she says. I miss you. I miss you.
 
The astronaut and her wife were girls together, pressed the screens out of their bedroom windows, ran quietly down the street in the dark, holding hands, bare knees trembling in the chill summer air. The astronaut pointed at the sky.
There, she said. I’m going to go there.
 
The astronaut remembers this: Her wife as a girl, her wife in a long tee-shirt in the middle of the street, clutching her hand so tight there were marks the next day. Her wife whispering.
The astronaut remembers leaning in close, ear to her wife’s mouth.
What, she said. What.
And her wife untucking her hand, and smiling and whispering again.
It’s nothing, isn’t it, she said, looked up at the sky. It’s nothing at all.

 

Cathy Ulrich has always thought the best thing about space travel was the rocket launch. Her fiction has been published in various journals, including Gone Lawn, Cleaver and Third Point Press.

 

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