Once, when I was twelve, I wanted to be an astronaut. And went to see Apollo 13, that movie where they just miss the moon, as many times as I could fit inside one small summer.
I started seeing constellations in everything. In the mysterious red freckle pattern that appears each June, running over my nose and cheeks. And in my mother’s Sweet ‘n’ Lo, big-banging across the chocolate coffee I’d bought for her birthday, in Cheerios floating, in the specs of light reflected in the glass over my father’s far-sighted eyes.
Whenever I was given a spot of clear sky I looked. I looked and looked. I lay in our backyard, or on the slanted roof outside my bedroom window, above the boys who bullied my brother away from his own basketball hoop, above the double-dutching girls I was afraid of. I imagined myself up there. Beyond the powder blue, past the white puffs. Swimming in blackness, just searching and poking. Solving chalkboard after chalkboard of equations with my eyes closed. Disproving theories left and right. Solving the universe and bringing the evidence back, landing to an explosion of applause. Receiving awards in a shiny dress that would feel so itchy, so much stranger than my space suit. Spending so little time on land that this planet and its creatures and customs would begin to be brand new. I’d see the shape trees make, the cool crispness of an apple, the feeling of carpet, sounds people make at a party, as odd an amazing, like an alien, or a newborn. Exhausted, I would sleep days away down on earth until I’d stored enough energy to go up again. I would suspend my life out there.
My brother told me about the capabilities of light, how it cannot be destroyed. How it travels and travels. I loved living in that knowledge, that all the light we cast out keeps living and going, seen or absorbed by someone someday.
He said sometimes we see a star that’s already blown itself away, but it’s taken so long for its light to reach earth that to us it still looks whole.
He told me all about infinity, how numbers go on forever with no end, which was the most amazing idea I had ever heard.
And I wanted to feel that black infinity around me, to circle the moon like a parking lot, to look back at our world as one tiny white-and-blue lie.
I told my mother my future. That I might even be one of the astronauts on the first mission to Mars. Out there we might find one of those portal thingys –
“Wormholes,” she said.
– that would allow us to visit far away planets pulsating with life.
She told me about Mae Jamison, a black woman astronaut with Asian eyes, and she showed me her picture. She had short hair and was somehow still beautiful, smiling in her orange NASA suit with the round collar, a black helmet tucked under her arm.
I begged to be sent away to space camp. I insisted there was no other way to reach this dream. I could not wait for growing up, by then I would be so far behind.
Of course my parents would send me. They were all about the blind following of dreams.
But there was the price. Five hundred dollars for six days. There was no way to float around that.
“I’m so sorry, but that’s too much, we don’t have it,” my mom sighed. When she saw my face she said, “Hey, you hate math and science anyway!” tried to force me to smile.
“No I DON’T!” I yelled, “I love it!” Although I did not. I decided I could learn to, easily, because everyone and every movie and song always told you that you could do and be anything.
“You love animals,” she told me. “You wanted to zoo keep.”
Those were the plans of ten-year-old me. But now they seemed so tiny after discovering the possibility of living weightless. There really could be no going back. Not after bringing all my saved allowance along on a trip to the local science museum and spending it on a thick book about our solar system and a bag of strawberry astronaut ice cream to get used to the taste. Not after all the nights I’d already spent lying awake, dreaming of walking into other worlds.
I cried, sulked. I went almost mute for a day. When I looked up sometimes space seemed to be pulling away like a warm blanket from on me.
Still, all through August I lay on my back in warm grass, reaching. Shinning my plastic purple flash light up at the stars.
Until my brother came out to lay and look up with me once. He frowned at the small beam I was casting, reminded me that no one would even get my message for like a billion gazillion years.
Bahiyyih El-Shabbaz’s fiction and creative nonfiction has been published in Phoebe, Hypertext, Toska Magazine, and The Bronx Bi-Annual, among others. She was the winner of the 2014 Phoebe Journal Creative Nonfiction Award, judged by Cheryl Strayed. She is currently working on a novel.
Image: flickr / Tom Hall