Authors: Christian Kiefer
The airlock opened. He knew there would be no perceptible change in pressure but now that the moment had arrived he somehow expected the transition of atmosphere to be audible, for the brief symphony of thumps and clicks between the shuttle and the docking node to include the hiss or shush or sigh of oxygen exchange and yet, despite the absence of such a marker, the swing of the hatch felt to Keith like a sudden outrushing of the tide, a sensation that remained with him as he floated through the opening and entered the Harmony Module where the crew they had come to relieve all smiled expectantly back at him. It was a moment as glorious and transcendent as any he could have imagined and he would realize only later that it represented the single coordinate point in which he understood that he had done it, that at last he had entered the long incredible upward-turning arc that had been the trajectory of his life, and that he was, finally and undeniably, an astronaut.
In the days to follow he would try to describe the experience but
what words were there for such a moment? He thought first of numbers, not of words, but then he always had. The seemingly infinite parallels that extended off the edges of the grid forever in their ongoing
coordinates had finally intersected on some
plane that he had thought about since his earliest days and yet had never been able to truly understand or plot or calculate. He had stared at it through the window of the shuttle on their approach: the interconnected tubes and the fanning wings of the solar arrays stretching out like some magnificent metal flower above the blue swirl of Earth. And even then he was thinking of the numbers: the average speed of 17,239 miles per hour in an orbit very nearly that of a perfect circle, the apogee and perigee perhaps ten kilometers in difference and inclining to 51.6459 degrees, the angle of its motion, the angle of its helixed continuance. The feeling of weightlessness itself so familiar and comfortable it was as if he had lived within that condition for the entirety of his life. And in many ways he had.
He would ask himself if this had been his destiny and each time he would answer yes. He would answer yes yes yes as if the weightlessness of his body was itself the vindication and proof that a life spent huddled over papers scratched through with the symbology of mathematics had indeed been the true vector, the numbers themselves extant in a universe that was this universe and no other: days and nights spinning past in forty-five-minute increments, continents and oceans and weather patterns unscrolling under the round porthole windows, the lit webwork of cities and roads on the black sphere of the planet below. And the flow of the numbers, his numbers, in everything, always.
In his memory, that moment of passing through the hatch would resolve itself into an unambiguous image of triumph. But there had been something else as well, a sensation so fast and intense and so quickly gone again that it had been easy to forget. There had been that feeling of pride, the rush of his success, of all the years of his labor coalescing into this finally solved equation, but for one instant
there had also been the clutch of an impossible helplessness so complete and staggering that it seemed to seize at his heart. A flicker and then gone. In its wake only the after-echo of a distant high-pitched ringing that vibrated through him even as it returned to silence once again, as he stared into the smiling faces of the crew and told himself that yes he was meant to be here, that it had been his destiny to succeed and so he had succeeded, the sense of panic already replaced by the pride of his accomplishment, replaced so completely that he would not remember that flicker, would not allow himself to remember, even after everything else had happened. In his memory of that moment, he was an astronaut and they were welcoming him aboard the space station. And in his memory he was smiling.
Is this not what he was meant to do? Is the answer not as fixed and indisputable as any equation he might have been tasked to solve?
Watch them now: the numbers as if stretched upon a wire. The sixes stacked astride the decimal. The seven and three and zeroes behind them. Study them all your days and then ask yourself how any such equation could describe anything at all: the water rushing across the sand, the tiny stars, the way her hand curled into his. They could not even describe the way he felt about the numbers themselves, what they had meant to him, what they would continue to mean.
Such equations to imagine. Now watch them vanish into the spiraled lemniscate of what is to come. This the black firmament. This the dark matter flowing into and out of your heart.
There was no sound at all and what sense of movement he generated upon entering returned to him from every surface as if the house had become some kind of empty museum, his footfalls echoing off the tiles and the clunk of the closing door behind him so abrupt and alien that he actually shivered as he moved forward into the entryway, setting the two black suitcases by the door and flipping the light switch, the tiles and the carpeted room before him illuminating all at once: dull, white, empty. He stood there as if his delay might somehow undo what he had already seen but his hesitation only confirmed the silence and vacancy. She had left the coat hooks hanging by the door but the coats themselves were gone. Through the squared archway leading into the living room he could see the enormous sofa but there was no other furniture visible whatsoever. He had known this would be the case, that the house would be empty, and yet he had not expected the totality of it, the sofa’s singular presence there a grim and ironic goodbye in the guise of overstuffed gray leather.
Empty. Absolutely empty.
He moved through the downstairs with military precision, flicking on each light as he passed. The refrigerator continued to hum in the kitchen but he did not open its door. Instead, he went to the cabinets and inventoried each one in turn. A few boxes of cereal, undoubtedly stale, and various cans of odds and ends. Peaches and fruit cocktail. String beans. Canned yams. He did not even know who ate these things. Himself? His wife? His daughter? Items not worth moving or at least not worth moving for her. An extra key to the house on the countertop and a smaller gold key for what purpose he did not know. No note left behind; instead, canned yams.
How much of her had he simply and completely misread? The insistence and expression of her care for him, her interest in his career, and, later, her various moments of weeping and the desperation with which she had told him, finally, that she had moved out of the house and would not return: all of these now trembled upon the threshold of each empty room. She really had taken it all, and when he found that his bed—their bed—remained in the upstairs bedroom, although without sheets, blankets, or pillows, the sight struck him as such a feeble presentation of his former life that he actually laughed aloud. His dresser, and, in the corner, the small television in its wooden armoire. There were holes in the walls where pictures had hung but he could not recall what those pictures had been. Family photos or framed art or something else, and in the closet a single overhead bulb lighting a bleak arrangement of slacks, jeans, collared polos, and a handful of dress shirts, most light blue, all of which huddled against the left wall of the closet as if to underscore the emptiness of the opposite wall or the obvious fact that this was what remained.
“Fantastic,” he said, his voice ricocheting off blank walls and square angles.
Down the hall, Quinn’s bedroom door yawed open revealing a bare gray space: dirty carpet, a few tacks remaining in the walls, empty electrical sockets, phone cord dangling limply. A room he might have
entered but which he did not, instead lingering in the doorway. There would be time to enter that room later. This was what he told himself. Maybe tomorrow. Maybe later in the week. For the moment it would remain a room defined only by the fact that whoever had once lived in it no longer did and he was a man standing before a vacancy, holding only the dull colorless waste of his fatigue, an equation the sum total of which was zero.
He returned downstairs to the doorway, hefting the suitcases and mounting the stairs again and then setting the suitcases at the foot of the bed and opening his dresser drawers to extract clean socks and boxer shorts. Then he returned to the closet and pulled a pair of pants and a polo shirt from their hangers. There was a set of yellow towels under the sink in the master bath—at least a towel then—and he undressed and folded his shirt and slacks on the bed and coiled his belt and then turned the shower on. A half-used bar of soap remained and a bottle of nearly-empty shampoo and he waited for the water to move from frigid to warm and stood cold and shivering. For a moment he had thought she actually had had the foresight to turn off the water heater but the shower temperature began to turn and he entered it and stood for a long moment as the water scalded him. His mind felt soft. A dull ache behind his eyes.
When he returned downstairs he was wearing the tattered bathrobe he had found hanging on its hook in the closet and had retrieved the amber bottles of Vicodin and Imitrex from the smaller of the two suitcases. He swallowed each tablet with a handful of water from the kitchen sink. Then he removed a box of cereal from the pantry and opened the cabinet but like everything else the plates and bowls had been removed and when he reached into the box his motion was met with a flurry of tiny brown moths that fluttered up out of the dark and circled his head in a chaos of arcs and lines. No cereal, then. And upon opening another cabinet: no pots or pans either. A few chipped glasses and coffee mugs left behind. Had the walls been pale yellow when they had first purchased the house or had she painted
them while he was away? There was an eye-level hole in the wall large enough to fit a finger and he wondered what had hung there, what they had owned that was large enough to require such a bolt-hole.
The sliding glass door: a black wall reflecting his ghost. An exhausted rag of a man in a sagging purple robe, clutching a coffee mug that he did not even remember removing from the cabinet. No astronaut but a patient escaped from some hospital. He straightened his back and faced the glass and stood at a kind of attention for a moment, shoulders square and legs tight together as if he might be preparing to salute, but the posture did nothing to make him look more like himself, the flat white glow of the kitchen rendering him a ruined silhouette.
Around him the walls blank and empty. A huge space where the dining room table once stood. The kitchen island in the middle of the room like a geologic formation.
Sleep like a promise. This the only clear thought he had.
He did not even remember lying down, instead opening his eyes to a bewilderingly bare room and remaining there, unmoving, prostrate on the mattress for a long silent moment. He had been dreaming of the ISS but had awakened into a sense of gravity so thick and heavy that he briefly wondered if it would be possible to move at all. Sunlight slanted through the windows, but whether it was early morning or early evening he could not tell. And there was a sound: the buzzing of his phone somewhere in the room, which paused just as he identified it and then started up again.