when she first tells me what she does for a living, I don’t let on that it makes me feel emasculated. I tell her how remarkable it is, how I used to dream of the same thing, with my glow in the dark stars on the ceiling and my solar system sheets, as if this gives us a unique bond, as if there is anything remotely special about being an American boy who grew up wanting to go to space and went into I.T. instead. She smiles anyway—not a patronizing smile, but a genuine, open smile, because she is that kind of woman. I can’t quite reconcile how I burn with boyish jealousy of her and grown-up desire for her, both at the same time. I try to think of something that would be worse, but only racecar driver comes to mind, and it ranks a distant second.
For three days, I unfold and refold the slip of paper with her phone number written on it. I tell myself how unbearably childish I’m being. Unfold. Think about how I spend my day in a cubicle while she floats in anti-gravity chambers and practices fine motor skills inside a space suit. Refold. On the fourth day, I unfold the paper. I dial too quickly to stop myself. One idiotically small step for man.
On dates, I strive for a careful balance. I try to seem interested in what she does, but not to the point of making her feel like a novelty item. I don’t mention how it took me years to forgive my parents for their inability to afford space camp. I realize this would make me seem resentful and strange, both of which I probably am.
Her body is more athletic and solid than mine is, but she is passive in bed, as if to compensate. I’m ashamed that I feel grateful for her timidity, this sign of weakness and humanity. Sometimes, when we make love, I think of the footage from her last mission on the space program’s website. I’ve never told her that I watch it. I watch it with the volume turned down, because I don’t need to hear her explain life in space. I watch it just to see her body move, unanchored in mid-air.
Eventually, I forget about her job, or think about it less. It becomes incidental. What I think about is her laugh, and the way she still looks at me in a crowded room like I’m the only one there. How she is confident and tough without ever being abrasive, overbearing. I’ve always become overwhelmed by being the object of need, but sometimes I find myself wishing she needed me more. She is so complete on her own, which is what I always thought I wanted, which is what terrifies me now.
Six months in, the launch approaches, and all of my precariously constructed comforts tumble down easily. I remind myself that people go on longer business trips than this, but it’s an empty reassurance. This is not about time, but about distance. She will not be going to the other side of the country or the other side of the world, but someplace else entirely. The last time I see her before takeoff, I can’t imagine what the appropriate words might be. Have a safe trip is inadequate, so I tell her that I love her, and realize after saying it that it’s true.
During the final countdown, I understand for the first time what it means when someone says my heart is in my throat because I can feel mine pulsing there, as if I took it out of my chest and swallowed it. I try not to think of the Challenger, that Y of smoke in the sky, but I think about it anyway. I’ve never had faith in machines; I know very little about shuttles, but I know a great deal about how easily computers fail. And then there is the rumbling and the billowing smoke, so much smoke it seems like it could only follow a disaster. I think of mushroom clouds. The Earth shakes and the noise is a tunnel. And then she is ascending, the column of white smoke reaching higher and higher and the shuttle becoming smaller and smaller until it breaks through the clouds and is gone. My girlfriend has left the atmosphere. Ghosts of the engines’ orange comet-trails stay burned in my retinas for a long time.
Alone, on Earth, it feels inevitable that one day, she will leave me in other ways than this. She is too near perfection, I am too skilled at fucking things up. It will feel a lot like this—the completeness of her absence. Then, like now, she will be gone in ways I cannot comprehend. Missing her, it will feel like she’s left the planet again. For now, I sit outside at night and look up at the stars. What else would I do but look at the stars? I wonder if she is looking down right now, seeing the world from the perspective of gods. I must seem microscopic to her, if she’s even thinking of me at all in the midst of all that splendor, the unfathomable swirl of greens and blues. I imagine her floating, weightless out there without me. I wonder which side of the Earth she’s on. I wonder how many sunrises she’s seen so far while I wait for just one, down here where I’ll always be, on the ground, with the trees and the rocks and the animals and the mere men, all the things that are beneath her.