They called her the girl with the big ears, though they didn't call her that to her face. That is, not to her ears. Not exactly. Not intentionally. They were sitting in the cafeteria—one line of ... [+]
"Rach," I said.
"Mm," she answered. She was doing a crossword in the dim half-light that pooled from the television. Jen's NASA headshot watched us from the TV screen, eyes frozen on the two of us in Rachel's bed. Our legs were pretzeled together under her comforter. She had the crossword book propped up on my thigh. I could feel her pen baring down on the page. A man on the news said: ...aceship scheduled for splashdown in the Atlantic Ocean, late tonight.
"Come to Florida with me, after the landing."
Rachel yawned expansively, cracking her jaw. "You know I can't, honey. I got work."
"Right," I said. "Right. But. I think you should come to Florida with me. I don't think—I can't go see her alone."
"Why not?" On the crossword, Rachel marked out one of the clues, wrote into the boxes: Venus. "Wouldn't it be easier, not having me there?"
"What if she, I don't know. What if she's changed? She's been to the moon."
Rachel was watching me oddly. I continued.
"The first time she went to space she was so ... distant. When she came back, I mean. Like she hadn't really touched down yet, like she couldn't put her feet on the ground. She would pick things up and drop them into the air, expecting them to hang there. She had gotten so used to zero gravity, she forgot that things could fall when you dropped them."
"She would stare right past me, sometimes. Right over my head, like I was so small in the whole void of space. And I keep thinking about all the distance she's plotted now; I think about her coming back from the moon and just ... not seeing me at all. How can I speak to her like that? How do you leave someone who's so far gone?"
"Ah." Rachel turned back to her crossword. Her voice was turning hard, brittle. "But if you showed up to the space center holding hands with a strange woman, you're thinking that'll ground her. Make her look at you."
I slid my hand into hers. "Just, come to Cape Canaveral. Please. For one day, and then you can fuck off back to Houston."
"I said already, I can't. You'll have to do it without me." A pause. "Anyway, who knows what will happen. Maybe you won't have to, maybe she'll ... I don't know, maybe she won't even make it to Earth."
Something sick and hopeful curdled in me. I squashed it, quickly.
"God, Rachel. What a shitty thing to say. What if she dies? What if she burns up in the atmosphere or the ship explodes or, or a seal breaks during the landing and she drowns in the Atlantic. You would feel terrible, for saying that."
Rachel stayed quiet. I nudged her, hard, on the shoulder. The pen in her hand skidded on the page, crossed out a word she had been writing into the boxes. Mars. She made a frustrated noise, clicking her tongue behind her teeth.
"Jesus, baby, I don't know. Everything's gotta end sometime. Ashes to ashes, I guess." Then, she began to chuckle, amused with herself. "Moondust to moondust."
It wasn't very funny.
Rachel tapped the page with her pen. "Hey, help me out with a clue, I don't know it. Love returns from this heavenly body. Four letters."
She had to be doing this on purpose. To mess with me. To be cruel, as she sometimes was. On the television, they flashed another photo of Jen, not the professional NASA headshot but a candid one. I took it on our first wedding anniversary. She was looking away from the camera, away from me, towards the sky. I reached over and plucked the pen out of Rachel's hands, moved closer to her to write the answer to her goddamn crossword clue. I had to do it upside down. The letters looked strange, that way, spelling out something in an alien code I couldn't begin to decipher.
"The moon," I said. That was the answer, the old saying. She should know the saying, everybody knew the saying, it was a cliché. Something to repeat until the sound of it ran together like ink on wet paper, until you didn't know what it meant anymore. "I love you to the fucking moon and back."