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January 2, 2017 | Fiction

The Heart as a Protostar

Ferris Wayne McDaniel

The Heart as a Protostar photo

When I am not exercising or performing space walks or cleaning or developing vehicle software, I watch the sun rise 16 times a day. Sometimes I read. My wife gifted me The Martian Chronicles to bring up here on the International Space Station, even though our missions are not science fiction and nowhere close to Mars.

One of the other scientists on board is from Russia. There are five of us here in total. Things are different now, in the new millennium. You can fall in love with a Russian cosmonaut. 

Which I have done.

The whole reason this all started is because she saw me reading The Martian Chronicles. It was one of her favorite books as a child.

She is returning to Earth in 17 days. I will have to stay on for 63 more days. That is 46 days without her. 

Chances are I will never see her again. She will be busy, told me our lovemaking could have only happened up here because down there, she is too married to the job. 

Besides, I will have to return to my wife and young daughter.

My wife, whom I never would’ve dreamt of betraying on Earth. And my daughter, my sweet child. How could I ever face her if she knew what I’ve done to her mother? Or rather, done without her mother. How would she trust a man to go down to the corner store and not end up going up into Earth’s orbit to screw around with some astonishingly brilliant Russian scientist?

Every time the sun rises, I ask myself, “What on Earth are you going to do?” and never has this question been so appropriate.

Sometimes it rises, and I think of The Sun Also Rises, and rises, and rises, and rises, and rises, and rises, and rises, and rises, and rises, and rises, and rises, and rises, and rises, and rises, and rises, and rises.

The word rises begins to take on an odd shape.

Maybe if my wife would have gifted me this novel instead, none of us would be in this situation right now.

There is a small room that acts as an antechamber to transition from inside and outside the space station.

Sometimes, I read The Martian Chronicles in there and pause to stare at the control panel and imagine myself tossing the book at the button to open the exterior door and suffocate immediately. 

The thing about the psychological tests they run before you’re allowed to come up here is the assessments are done on Earth, not on the International Space Station, and they don’t take into account brilliant Russian female scientists, who will be leaving in nine days, bringing excitement into an only-slightly-above-average American male scientist’s life. 

I only have myself to blame, really.

Or actually, I could blame my wife, since she’s the one who gave me that book. I’ve never even shown interest in science fiction, or fiction, for that matter, especially short stories.  

When I was a boy, I never imagined I would live in outer space for any amount of time.

When I married my wife, I meant every last word of my vows. Of course, nobody would believe that now, but I’m willing to accept that. 

When my daughter was born, I promised myself I would be the right example of what a man’s love for a woman looks like.

When I first kissed the Russian scientist’s thighs, as she was strapped into the wall of her cabin as to not float around, I forgot everything.

How are humans so flawed as that?

After a while, you stop counting how many times the sun rises a day because there’s really no daytime. The term sun rise is just science at this point, a crossing of horizon. 

Who am I kidding? My days here are measured by the intervals between sun rises. 

I guess everyone’s days are measured in such a way.

I’ve wondered if the life-cycle of love occurs faster in space. 

Self-pity is an awful thing.

My mother used to tell me as a boy when I was upset, “It’s okay, honey. Tomorrow is a new day. The sun will rise again.”

My mother died of cardiac arrest in her sleep.

My father was already dead. 

My mother never remarried. She loved him so much. 

I’m glad he died first.

The worst part of this is the anxiety when I’m not with the Russian and the guilt when I am with her, except guilt does not equate to missing my wife, like I already feel I will miss the Russian, and she still has seven days left here.

I know I am a terrible man for not missing my wife.

I didn’t even see any of this coming. It was gradual, like how the sun travels across the sky on Earth, and you don’t even think of it.

I know, I know. I keep bringing the sun up.

And even the phrasing bringing the sun up is an act of the sun rising. I cannot escape it.

I’m glad I had a daughter and not a son to grow into some resemblance of his father, me. Men are terrible beings, even the ones with good intentions. We all turn sour, even for moments. Especially for moments. 

Maybe we should all be sent to space. Maybe a woman should discover a way to create sperm in a laboratory. Self-impregnate. 

Send all the boys to space with their fathers.

Once after making love to the Russian, she said, about the sun from up here that, “It is much like a heart. It can only rise, or beat, so many times before it dies. It’s easier to see up here how that is the only real threat.”

It sure doesn’t seem like the only real threat, though. 

The sun seems alive and well.

But the dreaded heart. Mine feels riddled with small, jagged stones.

Making love in space is unlike anything else.

What an obvious statement. 

You can do positions up here that you would never dream of on Earth or in middle age, for that matter.

I plan to throw this field notebook out into the cosmos once I’m done with it.

The Russian only has four days remaining. She’s busy making earthly plans. 

Here comes the sun (doo doo doo doo)

Most people might not know George Harrison wrote that one. A wife-beating, child-berating man like John Lennon could not have felt such a way about the sun, surely.

Not to say John Lennon wasn’t a great musician. I’m sure he was conflicted. With Yoko. 

In my weakest moments up here, I’ve thought: marriage is like if this space station was knocked out of orbit and propelled into space and the Russian and I were then forced to live out the rest of our days here, until some meteor or something struck us at random, totally innocuous in meaning, and we died in this metal vessel.

That is not something I would have thought back on Earth.

I loved the boredom of marriage, of grocery shopping and repainting the house and balancing the checkbook.  

I did not mean to say boredom.

What’s the word I’m looking for?

I’ll tell you where my head is at: Part of me is nervous this notebook would make it back to Earth, even though I know it would catch fire upon entering the atmosphere. But I picture it making its way, to say, the moon and then for some reason, circling back. The truth begging to be made real. 

Maybe part of me wishes my wife would find it. It would fall out the sky and into her lap. 

This would never happen.

But then, she could be mad at me, could hate me.

I’m so grateful she can only communicate with me sparsely via video chat. The connection isn’t clear enough to show my anxiety.

The sun has just risen for the 736th time. My wife and daughter have only seen 46 sun rises in the same amount of time. 

How can anything in life be simple, ever?

The Russian is gone. I asked if I could keep a pair of her underwear for posterity.

She declined.

She said, “You’ve made the time here less lonely.”

Notice, she did not say, “You made me feel un-alone.”

Only less lonely.

Security. That’s the word I meant to use.

I still have forty days to spend up here. I told my wife I could not speak on video chat for a while because we are doing maintenance.

You can’t be caught in a lie this far away.

Nobody should have that sort of leeway, probably.

We should not be out here, in outer space. There is a reason it’s defined as a void between celestial bodies.

I will see the sun rise 608 more times before I am home. That’s once every 90 minutes. That’s once every 5,400 seconds. 

The Martian Chronicles is floating around my cabin. The pages peel away from each other slowly and are taking the appearance of a mushroom’s gills.  

I’ve given up reading it.

Right now I am remembering walking barefoot in the grass and the smell of my daughter when I wake her up for kindergarten and the sound of my wife’s car pulling into the driveway and grilling on the patio and the heaviness of gravity and afternoon showers and waking up slowly each morning, amazed to still be alive, with light coming in through the curtains, from the sun, just once a day.

image: Ian Amberson


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