Nonfiction from Melissa Wiley

Playing Astronaut


Earth Soft by melschmitz via morgueFile

The largest space in the universe is the space inside your head. And inside an astronaut’s helmet the space is quieter, which is more of a reason to wear one than even the fact your head would explode in outer orbits if you didn’t. Only my Barbie astronaut never wore a helmet over hair the color of bread, and I never invited her into the Barbie house to make any friends. So she never lounged on the sofa wedged between the stove and pieless pie cabinet. She didn’t prop her feet on a cold burner, displaying a sealed rubber vagina to the tinfoil mouse who lived inside the broiler. She didn’t sit topless beneath the hair dryer waiting for Ken, still marooned on an iceberg, as I told the others each day he failed to show again.

She never traveled to the moon either. She sat on a gable swinging her feet over a polyurethane dormer, wearing her magenta space suit while straining her ears to listen to the gramophone that sat silent upon another Barbie’s dresser.

If any Barbie is in danger of committing suicide, it is the one who breathes the least oxygen, the one who feels she must venture to the moon alone, however unlikely that is to happen. Then space travel when you stand eleven inches tall and always on tiptoe is tantamount to suicide as it is. You’re dying either way, only so slowly you have plenty of time to think. And all that space to do it in, between one ear and the other.

My mom had no way of knowing it, but she didn’t birth a daughter with eyes and hair so muddy looking no soap could ever clean them. She hatched an astronaut instead, one with her helmet stowed deep inside her closet, one who could hold her breath just long enough to escape to the moon underwater if there was no alternative.

The Barbie, she might have seen but didn’t, was only a toy for me to play with before I became a spacewoman, a toy I taught to hold her breath under the bathwater for as long as my mom took to wash my hair clean of what had dirtied it. I taught her to play dead beneath soapsuds collapsing onto my stomach while others clung to the tub’s skeleton.

Life was too short to bother with living in the Barbie house, I decided. Yet it was still long enough to sit and swing my feet over its rooftop a moment, to dream of a life misspent sleeping in our freezer shaped like a coffin. Only this was not how the end would come, I knew without knowing it for certain, because the end is hotter than life’s inception. And I wiped perspiration from my face with my shirt’s frayed bottom as my mom shouted to come and help her in the garden.

Too much vegetation and a person can almost forget the moon’s barrenness. So many plants spilled pink fruit into my lap’s sulcus, shooting seeds into my mouth when I held it open, I nearly lost awareness. Still, the moon hovered with its same gray blankness as my mom and I stooped in each other’s shadows, filling our buckets with peas and cabbage.

Sometimes I’d look up from peas grown round as green ovaries and watch the pale flaps of my mom’s inner thighs secrete a stale jelly. I saw that the freckles on her arms were growing darker as the sun leered lower later in the morning. I saw that both she and the sun were well on their way to dying just as I reached the end of the row and needed to start another. Just keep working, she told me. I picked all the pods looking swollen to bursting, oblong cysts so pregnant with disease I hardly needed to pull them, only wait for them to rain on top of me.

And sliding my fingernail down a moist pod spine, letting each pea plop into a bowl on our back porch swing, I dreamt of coolness while looking toward the freezer sitting a few feet from where we were shelling peas. I let my dog lick salt pooling between my toes like silt along a shoal tapering into nothing. The rabbits, my mom lamented, ate more from our garden each evening.

There was less for picking today than yesterday, and this world, I thought, is not for us, Mommy. The rabbits are chewing all the peas, so best we make our exit now before they chew us all into middens. And sweating on this porch swing, we’re as wet as fish already flying into a whale’s rictus. Let me take us to the cooling place before this life turns hot as a furnace.

Only the cooler’s not big enough for both of us, so we’ll have to drown ourselves inside a lake cool to freezing. You’ll have to take both your hands from the steering wheel while unfastening one or two stray rollers you leave in your hair each morning. You’ll have to unpin one as we approach a lake large enough to hold both our bodies. You’ll have to do this while driving me to kindergarten as I sit in the backseat loosening my shoelaces.

Once drowned, I’ll unroll my window and slip through its lacuna. An eel raging with tangerine electricity will sift past me, and I’ll grasp its tail while its fins fan themselves like silver-skinned geishas. You’ll clasp my ankle, Mommy, and we’ll become knotted, you, the eel, and I connected. With the contraction of a single muscle, the eel will wrench you through the half-open window then pull us both through a subaqueous tornado, until we fall weightless upon sand pulsing like a heart distended, until the eel attenuates into the tail of a kite against a waterborne firmament. Until the darkness encases us beneath a woolen blanket.

In the meantime, I tried to stop breathing in the bathtub while Barbie astronaut floated up between my knees. I tried but couldn’t, so I knew we’d have to find a lake when we left for town to buy milk and packets of wild flower seeds. I decided on the end as soon as I knew an end was coming so I would not drown along the way without my mom beside me. Because that would always be the danger, drowning while living.

She told me there was no need to escape, honey, that God was infinite, in this life and the one coming after it. She said we could not escape God’s love and we shouldn’t want to flee it. But I wanted the moon, where there was no God and no oxygen. I wanted her and not God, who grew no hair upon his pubis.

My mom, though, hungered for the plenty she thought God had provided, not knowing God preferred rabbits if you examined the evidence. No matter what I said, she believed in God regardless, and she sucked violently at a thinning fistula of air the moment my dad unplugged the ventilator once her body was eaten with cancer grown ravenous. She bit at a pillow instead of grasping my ankle under water. She extended a blue hand to a receding pocket of vapor.

When I was six years old, however, we had nineteen years as yet left together, years when she dressed me in long peach dresses and cloud-covered socks. Years when the moon shone full enough for her to paint her toenails with her chin to her knee outside on summer evenings. Years when there was so much living I kept my astronaut helmet stowed on a shelf too high for me to reach and slept with my bedroom window wide open so I could better hear the sweet strum of cricket legs. Years when I fell asleep chewing grape bubble gum and my mom cut it out in clumps large as small mammals in the morning. Years when the crackle of her knees pulling weeds was so soothing a strain, a percussive melisma as natural as the music of the spheres mistaken for silence, unheard only because we heard it always. Years when I let myself forget about God and the moon both and took baths in a river too shallow to consider drowning an option. Years when I emerged the muddier after walking up the bank naked then dirtied the towel she wrapped me in.

There were years too when I appeared to become a woman rather than a space traveler, as ordinary a vision as any mother could wish of her daughter. Years when I needed instruction how to cross my legs at dinner rather than careen weightlessly across a crater. Years when it was enough that I dry dishes without leaving any spots on them, that I not stain the sheets at night once I began bleeding from the blunt arrow between my legs that time only sharpened.

Yet when the years reached their end, my husband said it was a waste, this constant swallowing of pills to attempt to disappear inside a lake that itself had vanished. I had missed my opportunity to drown and die beside her when she went before me. I would end by losing my hearing or incurring brain damage, to the point I couldn’t read a stop sign but would just keep walking.

My mom had driven into the lake without me, and all I could think was, How long until I follow? I thought this even while knowing there was no new planet for us to meet—there were far too many, in even one small galaxy—once I doffed my helmet and let my body explode then fertilize the pea plants for those still going hungry. Yet there is no life without love, I tried explaining, and all the love had gone with her, as I knew it would from the beginning. I lay in bed saying “love, love, love,” and nothing else for days, because all the words I heard or said ran together, and she couldn’t hear me anyway. I couldn’t hear myself either with the tinnitus the aspirin kept inflicting, but I could say “love” and mean it, to the air at my pillow that grew warmer the harder I exhaled into it.

I could say “love” all I wanted but couldn’t escape the fact I was the eel raging electric.

Because I had been the one to kill her with the contraction of a single muscle, I saw too late. I had coaxed her to an early death all along, away from God and his garden I’d abandoned. I had chosen the moon over her from the time I set my Barbie astronaut’s legs swinging over the dormer. My mom wouldn’t drive into the lake’s center, so I prayed to God that the Barbie house would burn down altogether. I prayed, and my prayer was too soon answered.

Her last years of life, I unplugged my rotary phone in my studio apartment whole weekends when I was sure that she would call me, weekends when my neighbors pounded their partners against their bathroom walls, I was pounded a few minutes later, and we all laughed while we opened our mail downstairs together. I poured chocolate syrup woven tightly as a sleeping boa constrictor over ice cream into Styrofoam bowls there was no need of washing and ate bacon with my fingers without blotting the grease off as she had shown me. I dyed my hair red as menstrual blood when she told me the color was unflattering.

I thought I was flying to the moon when I was only shutting myself inside another room of the Barbie house all along, resting my legs on a cold burner while displaying my vagina to the tinfoil mouse who lived inside the broiler. Then her cancer burnt down the house along with all the rest of her, and I wandered the city in my space suit, an astronaut with no way of floating any higher. Floating is still something I can do only in water.

Friends, co-workers, acquaintances said she looked pretty lying in her casket and I nodded politely. Even I, though, was prettier than my mom’s cadaver, if not enough to count among the living. Not enough to keep breathing just for someone to look at me like a Barbie in a box always smiling and waving.

Instead, though, of dying for not being as pretty as I might like to be or because my mom’s no longer here to see the discrepancy, I’ve kept working, at a pet rescue magazine that rescues nothing. The rescue fund only keeps the magazine from going bankrupt. I’ve known now for months yet keep typing quietly.

Life is barren enough to no longer take much notice of the moon or the stars twitching behind it. So I sit eight hours a day at my desk beside a succulent plant I bought at the florist’s, petting it when my fingers feel stiff from so cold an office. Every day I write in the voice of animals missing eyes or limbs, asking someone to give them a home and overlook their bladders’ weakness. If no one calls the shelter within a month of publication, the animals are put to a sleep from which no one will wake them. They may not be much prettier than corpses, but that they keep living is deemed important.

My lunch, kept in the break room, smells of dog food and hamster dung by noon inevitably. There are dogs and hamsters both in this office, and the shit from the hamsters sits around days before anyone dumps it in the garbage. I never volunteer to take the hamsters home on weekends, as others have noticed, because my apartment is surrounded by rats and I need no more rodents. I am waiting only for an eel to swim through this air and shock me breathless.

This year, I didn’t celebrate or decorate for Christmas. But I bought a string of plastic stars hung on green rubber wire from the White Elephant. The White Elephant sits beside a Persian restaurant whose proprietor, Sahib, recently died of a heart attack, a waitress has told me. Each time I visited, he gave me free baba ghanoush, though I long stopped ordering it because I never liked eggplant to begin with.

I’ve renamed several shelter dogs Sahib since we met, because I like the name as much as the man and his cheek with a mole on it, the same right cheek as mine with a hair growing out of it, a mole I’ll never have removed no matter how large it looks to a dermatologist. It resembles a darkened brain with no skull surrounding it. It has thoughts of its own, and I don’t want to disturb it.

And I can untangle stars instead of going to the moon and back while staying warm inside my pajamas, stained with menstrual blood between the legs’ fabric. I’ve worn them several times in front of company and not been embarrassed, because that I live within this woman’s body is no secret. My eggs are bleeding out my uterus, and I am untangling these stars, which came knotted tightly as the nerves of a fish flashing with electrical currents.

Melissa Wiley is a freelance writer living in Chicago. Her creative nonfiction has appeared or is forthcoming in literary magazines including DIAGRAM, Mud Season Review, PANK, Superstition Review, Prick of the Spindle, Tin House Open Bar, Stirring: A Literary Collection, Poydras Review, Gravel, Pinball, East Bay Review, Eclectica Magazine, Gone Lawn, Split Lip Magazine, Menacing Hedge, Specter, Lowestoft Chronicle, Souvenir Lit Journal, Pithead Chapel, Great Lakes Review, and pioneertown. She also serves as assistant editor for Sundog Lit.

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