Read more: A brief Q&A with Will Donnelly
On atmospheric re-entry, the shuttle looked more like a fireball than a vehicle, a meteor rather than an aircraft, and the tile that Marcus held in his hands was a part of what protected it from heat. The tile could withstand temperatures of three thousand degrees Fahrenheit. He flicked a lighter beneath it, the flame licking its surface and leaving no mark at all. Its center was foam, and either side was smooth and flat as glass. He hid the tile beneath a pile of socks in his drawer, next to the carbon bolt and Lexan windowpane he had already smuggled out of Canaveral. He was working on a plan to take a helmet home and then to make love to Ellen while she wore it.
“Why do you keep asking about that?” Ellen said to Marcus over dinner. “Sex would be impossible up there, even if we did have time. Zero gravity prevents it.”
“You could brace against the walls,” he said.
“There’s just no time, though. With all the experiments, there’s no way that we could do it. Besides, you know we sleep in one-person sacks. There’s not enough room in the STS.”
Marcus bit a stalk of asparagus and pushed his glasses up his nose. Finally he said, “How’s Raúl?”
Raúl was the problem. The first Uruguayan in space, Marcus had seen him practicing spacewalks in the Neutral Buoyancy Lab in Houston. In the pool, Marcus watched to see if Raúl’s hips moved visibly even beneath the insulated fabric of the EMU, if his massive arms flexed, if his flecked eyes peered seductively from the clear faceplate. In the suit, though, Raúl looked only like a snowman, bulky and weighted. It would be different, however, in microgravity, outside, as the astronauts called it, where only movements of bodies and the sounds of voices on the radio counted. It would be there, Marcus knew, that Ellen would fall in love with him, as they repaired the terminal joint of Hubble’s telescopic arm.
Marcus often dreamed of Raúl and Ellen on their spacewalk, one linked to the arm of the shuttle, the other in the MMU, free-floating. He dreamed of the sounds of space: silence, nothingness, the falling away of ice. He thought of what, in that vacuum, they might say to each other. In his dreams, Raúl whispered into his communicator, “cellar door, cellar door,” in a smooth, clipping voice. Ellen, in return, said only, “yes.”
His dreams made Marcus dread the pre-flight quarantine.
Two days before Ellen had to leave, Marcus drove her to a beach near the Cape. Flocks of egrets disbanded before the car, then regrouped on mud jetties in the salt marshes. Vine-choked forests rose out of some of the jetties, tall with white trunks and giant roots. Mangroves gripped the Earth in places. The sun was high and bright and warm, but to the West, an afternoon storm already billowed. By three or four, drapes of rain would pull across the marsh and the forest and drive all the birds into the trees for cover. Rain would crater the marshes, then wash out to sea.
“What are we drinking?” Ellen asked.
“Tosta Bella,” said Marcus. “The beer of champagnes.”
This trip was part of their process, their tradition, first performed not two weeks after their wedding, the day before Ellen’s first quarantine. That time, Marcus had taken Ellen by surprise when he asked her to come with him to the beach.
“Here’s to safe returns,” he had said, raising a glass.
They stayed on the beach until dusk, when the sun set behind them and turned the sky orange, then pink, then a deep and shadowed blue. That night, they walked along the beach and swam in the dark ocean, waves lapping at their legs.
“I’ve never felt quite like this,” Ellen had said. “I wonder if space will be like this, like in the NBL, floating.”
“Water can’t simulate microgravity. It’ll be different up there, I’m sure,” Marcus said, nodding toward the sky and slipping an arm around her waist. “This won’t even compare.”
“Maybe,” said Ellen, “but you know what? Right now, I just want to be here.”
That had been eight years ago, though, and now they would be back home in time for dinner, well before the onset of summer night.
“What time does the bus pick you up on Tuesday?” asked Marcus as the station wagon rolled down the wooden ramp and into soft sand, then out onto packed coquina. Shells crunched and popped beneath the tires. The tires caught and briefly slipped on a slick of wet beach, then regained their traction.
“Ten-thirty,” she said. “A hundred and sixty-eight hours before liftoff.”
“We should leave at nine, then.”
“How about eight?” asked Ellen. “Just to be safe.”
The previous year, Ellen’s parents had visited at Christmas. Her father, Robert, a retired Navy test pilot, had handed Marcus a beer and walked with him out into the backyard.
“I sure don’t understand a family where the man stays grounded while his wife’s up there,” he said.
Marcus spat a mouthful of Rolling Rock into the grass. “I’d be up there in a heartbeat if I could. You know that.”
“Hey, I didn’t mean anything. That’s just the Navy talking. Your eyes ain’t your fault, anyway.”
“My work isn’t easy either, you know,” Marcus said.
“You’re right, you’re right,” said Robert. “Plenty of good men on the ground.” He raised his bottle to toast, but Marcus turned the other way and walked back inside.
Over Christmas dinner, Ellen’s mother Kate cleared her throat whenever talk of shuttle temperature or trajectory came up, and in her voice Marcus sensed a familiar doubt.
“What information goes into the trajectory calculations, Marcus?” she asked.
“All kinds,” he said. “Earth rotation, magnetism, wind speeds, shuttle weight, humidity. What’s really amazing is that they used to calculate trajectories without computers. It’s so much safer these days.”
“And easier,” said Ellen.
“Well,” said Marcus. “Sort of.”
“I just hope you know what you’re doing,” said Ellen’s mother.
“I’m in good hands,” Ellen said. She squeezed Marcus’s fingers beneath the table.
Dawn of pre-flight quarantine and the ocean glittered with sunlight like a sheet of tin. Marcus squinted as they crossed the intra-coastal waterway bridge and descended into the thick verdure of the Cape.
“Did you call your mother this morning?” he asked.
Ellen folded her gum into its wrapper. “Last time she was so worried that I decided it would be best this time just to let it go. I’ll call her when I get home.”
“Should I call them?”
“No, I’ll call from Building 27.”
“Make sure Robert knows I’m First Flight Directions Officer this time.”
“Oh, don’t let Daddy get to you,” Ellen said, laughing. “His generation never went up with a woman on board. Mama always stayed at home and worried.”
Marcus rolled his window up and turned the air conditioner on.
“Good eyesight just doesn’t run in your family, that’s all,” said Ellen.
“It just makes them tough to talk to sometimes.”
“I know, I know.”
A guard with a machine gun saluted Ellen and waved them through the gate. They drove down a white concrete road. The sunlight’s glare off the marsh was blinding, and when they reached the medical station, Marcus sighed.
“So. What do you have planned for the coming week?” Marcus asked.
“Reading, sleeping, going over last-minute flight details and research. Oh, and there’ll be a wicked poker game or two, I’m sure.”
Marcus kissed her cheek.
“This is always hard,” Ellen said.
“I know,” said Marcus. “I know.”
From their car, Marcus saw Raúl, already donning a flight suit, addressing a group of reporters. When Marcus stepped out to help Ellen with her bags, he saw Raúl wave and run toward them. Quickly, he wrapped his arms around his wife.
“I love you,” he said.
“I love you too,” she laughed. “See you in two weeks, right?”
“Don’t worry. I’ll bring you in. Hello Raúl.” Marcus let Ellen go. “I was just saying that I’ll get you all back home safe and sound.”
“Mr. Heller, thank you so much for all the help you gave me in Houston. Thank you, thank you,” said Raúl, shaking Marcus’s hand. Marcus’s jaw tightened at the sound of his accent, at the way that ‘Houston’ came out ‘Oo-ston’.
“It’s nothing, Valderama, nothing,” said Marcus. “Good luck up there, okay? Buena suerte.”
“Sí, sí, muchas gracias,” said Raúl, grinning wide and finally, on letting go, picking up one of Ellen’s bags for her.
“Time to go,” Ellen said, and they turned and left Marcus standing in the sun.
Marcus watched for her moving on the bus, but the windows were tinted. He wondered if they sat together.
That night, alone, Marcus dreamed of tight spaces: white walls, computer consoles, artificial air. He awoke in darkness. Three twenty-nine, and a blade of cool moonlight cutting across his bed; he stared at the ceiling and thought about the air in Building 27, the air in the shuttle, how false and close it would be. He thought about the air that blew in the labs at Canaveral, how, when scrubbed of impurities, it came out smelling like sheets of fresh plastic.
On the shuttle, the astronauts’ breath would be recycled and made breathable again, and in the process, it, too, would become false. They would, in essence, be breathing each other in. If one spat into the air, it would fly forever. Even their waste would have to stay contained until the landing. It was all so close, so packed together, so intimate. Marcus closed his eyes and pretended he was weightless. By the time they arrived home, he thought, they would be disoriented, swaying; they would all be aliens on Earth.
Wednesday, launch day, and Marcus was in Houston. From the front row of Mission Control’s ‘White Room’ he watched the shuttle from four angles, steaming on the launchpad, each angle projected on a separate wall display. The sky over Canaveral was hot and blue, but Marcus knew from the radar that a storm would form there within three hours. If it threw lightning, the shuttle’s vapor trail could act as a conduit and destroy the launch tower.
“How you doing, Ell?” he said into his headpiece.
“Excited,” she said. “Everything’s go up here. Y’all ready in Texas?” Then, as her voice clicked off, she said something into the communicator that sounded to Marcus like Raúl.
“Sixteen seconds,” Ira said, standing behind Marcus. The displays showed three hundred thousand gallons of water gushing into the moat around the launchpad. At the noise, a flock of seabirds burst apart and took wing above the trees.
The display showing the main engines sparked when the hydrogen igniters caught, and Marcus’s stomach shifted at the sight. Just after Ira said “seven,” the fuel lines broke away and sheets of white ice fell slowly to the engines where they blew to pieces. The shuttle shook and Marcus gripped his chair. […]
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Will Donnelly’s work has appeared previously or is forthcoming in Zone 3, Barrelhouse, Silk Road, [PANK], The Potomac Review, and elsewhere. Will is a fiction editor for Juked. He has an MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and a PhD from the University of Houston. He teaches creative writing at Berry College in Rome, Georgia.
F=d(mv)/dt was originally published in Hobart.
Read more: A brief Q&A with Will Donnelly