The liftoff is like an elevator.
You know that feeling you get when you’re going up? Like your stomach is getting left behind? It feels like that. Remember when we were kids and we were staying at that hotel in New York because Dad was going to his business conference and we rode the elevator? We rode it up and down hundreds of times, and the lobby man glared at us, and we jumped each time it went up to try and make it fall back down a few feet? And the stairs had golden railings with flowers engraved on the ends. Remember that, Emma? That’s what this feels like right now. Everything is so loud around me that it sounds like silence. I can’t tell which direction the noise is coming from – it’s like I’m engulfed in it, and it’s swallowing me up. Here I go. I can hear Ground Control on the radio – he’s yelling to me.
“Commander Foster,” he’s saying. “Commander Foster, everything is going just as planned. You should be past the ozone layer in approximately nine minutes, Commander Foster.”
I’ll answer him in a minute, but right now I can’t say anything at all. I’ve always wanted this. You know that. You remember the plastic spaceman helmet that Aunt Tabitha got me for my sixth birthday – you remember how I wore it everywhere for a good two years, Emma. The blue sky is melting into a foggy white, and I’m listening to the shrieking of the world outside my shuttle. They told me it would happen – a slipstream, they called it. But I think that it’s actually the air trying to pull me back into reality, away from this crazy dream. There is a bang now, and a soft light fills the angular shadows of my face. Everything is silent as I reach for my radio, and I can hear the subtle click through my helmet as I press the button.
“Commander Foster to Ground Control,” I say.
Remember, Emma, the chandelier made from the antlers of half a dozen deer? Remember how I stood on the balcony and tried to lean over and touch it? You told me not to. You told me that you were going to tell mom on me – but you never did. You hid behind the corner so you wouldn’t see me fall over. But I didn’t fall, Emma. I couldn't touch it, but I didn’t fall.
Now I can feel my heart being ripped from my chest. I know that my shuttle is going to split open, because the pressure inside is pressing my eyes further into my head, even through this helmet. They told me that I would feel this way for a minute, but they said it would pass once I hit free fall. But it’s not passing. And then suddenly it does, and now I’m floating upward against the strap across my shoulder. It doesn’t feel like the vacuum chambers I practiced in. It feels more like falling from all directions at once, the air catching you and holding you upright from every side and angle. Like gravity from all directions.
“Commander Foster,” Ground Control is saying, “you have now reached orbit, Commander Foster.”
I said I was bored. I was always bored, Emma, even with the elevators, even with the antler chandelier, because I was only happy when I was in danger. I was stupid that way, Emma. I still am. I said, “Why don’t we do something fun for a change? Why don’t we swim in the hotel pool or something?”
You told me you couldn't swim, and I said that I’d teach you. I had taken a swimming class the summer before, when I was nine and you were six – you remember that, Emma. And so I said that I’d teach you.
I’m exiting the capsule now – Ground Control’s instructions. I’m pulling down on the door lever, and I can feel how cold it is even through my gloved hand. I wonder if it will hurt, stepping out into nothing. Now I’ve got one foot on the hatch and the other out into the dark. I’m thinking that if I jump, I’ll fall, plummet hundreds of thousands of lightyears into the blackness.
“Whenever you’re ready,” Ground Control says.
I’m not ready. Neither were you. I had jumped in, my shorts clinging to my bare legs, my t-shirt and red jacket crumpled in a puddle of sun-warmed water on the cement.
“Come on,” I had said. “Come on, Emma. You’re scared.”
No, you weren’t, you had said.
“Yes, you are, Emma. Jump, Emma. I’ll teach you. All you have to do is jump.”
I’m taking the step now, but I’m just floating here, clutching onto my safety tether like a tightrope walker who couldn't stay upright. It's eerily silent out here, so silent that I’m saying this out loud to fill in the blanks. I’m at the end of my fifty-five feet now, hanging tightly like a watch at the end of a pendulum, leaning forward into the stars. And it reminds me of swimming. Remember when you jumped, Emma? You jumped to prove me wrong, splattered into the deep end, not even bothering to take off your paisley skirt and tightly buckled black shoes. You splashed into the grey water, your black hair plastered over your features as you burst upward, greedily drinking in air, sinking back down again.
Jonny, you screamed, Jonny, Jonny!
But I didn’t know what to do. I just tread water, thrashing stupidly, the whites of my panicked eyes growing wider and my hands grasping hold of anything that I thought might be you. I forgot how to swim right then, Emma. For someone who’s so good at remembering, you’d think I could have remembered then. But I forgot.
“Commander Foster, trial run is complete,” Ground Control says, his staticky voice echoing through my helmet. “Begin to make your way back to the capsule.”
I’m taking the safety tether in my bulky hands now. They don’t feel like my hands. They feel like someone else’s. I’m running those hands over the carabiner clip attached to my pressurized suit, pressing my finger against the side, sliding it off and dropping it into the nothingness. I’m swimming forward now, Ground Control ringing through my ears.
“Commander Foster,” he says, “something is wrong. We’re not able to track you – are you coming in, Commander Foster? Commander Foster?”
You were sinking, your fingertips breaking surface every few seconds, a struggle with the water that you were losing. I was screaming your name, over and over, choking on the water that was burning through my lungs and out my nose. By the time I had scratched my way up onto the poolside my fingers were raw and bloody from tearing against the cement siding, and I wasn’t sure if I was sobbing or if it was the water running down from the brown mop of hair that was clinging to my forehead. I dove back into the water, searching through bleary eyes for the dark form at the bottom of the pool. I don’t know how long I searched, Emma, but it must have been for a very long time, because by the time I found your wrinkled hand underneath the thick water, all the air had been crushed from your fragile lungs. I dragged you upward, pouring the water from your open mouth, but you were already gone.
I raise my gloved hands to either side of my glass helmet and look out into the dark. It’s like the night before you died, and we were standing on the hotel balcony, and you started to cry because you had never seen the stars before. You remember that, Emma? You remember that. It looks just like that, Emma. I’m shifting the helmet off of my head now, letting it fill with void, a fishbowl full of nothing. The empty space touches my face, fizzes on my tongue, falls over my ruffled brown hair in velvet shadows. It doesn’t hurt, Emma. It feels just like breathing air, except it’s not air.
“Commander Foster,” my helmet screams. “Come in Commander Foster... can you hear me, Foster? Jonathan?”
I push it away with a glove, let it freefall into the vast expanse of burning coal black. And it’s almost like drowning, isn’t it, Emma? It’s like the water is filling my lungs, but it’s not water. It’s space, black and thick and smothering, engulfing me; slowly, gently. Drowning in space. It doesn’t hurt, Emma. Don’t worry.
I wish it did, but it doesn’t hurt.
The liftoff is like an elevator.