The way my wife rearranged the chairs, and how the kitchen table moved a few feet to the left in the living room. How, at my favorite diner in town, they raised the price of two eggs and toast with bacon. The songs I don’t recognize on the radio. The carpet looks dirtier in some spots and cleaner in others. A vase that I liked was missing, I assumed shattered in some quiet accident. The way my wife rearranged the chairs. How many movies I missed and will now have to rent. The way my wife rearranged the chairs.
They had to carry me off, like I was a screaming child, like I was throwing a tantrum. When you are in Outer Space, when there is no gravity, your muscles start to atrophy, the intricate processes of scar tissue re-growth, the sad ways that the body fine-tunes itself (the little things that the brain has nothing to do with), they start to break down when you are weightless; most things do.
So when we landed on earth again, I couldn’t stand, I couldn’t move. I watched my legs and imagined myself gloriously exiting to fireworks and American flags, and to the screaming crowds that had watched my ascension and prayed away the technical failures, the faulty machinations of engines and shields, all the possible explosions like little Big Bangs in our own sky. Instead I was hauled off, covering my face like a criminal on TV, by men in suits who looked strangely younger than they had two and a half years ago. Astronauts don’t dream while they are in space.
I entered the house in a wheel chair, exploring this foreign territory in the same way I had explored the moon. Everything was oddly terrifying: the crevices between wood panels on the floor, the edges of carpet against the wall, the dust on the molding, so many doors and so many keyholes. These things became my private space-age anxieties.
The first hour or so I didn’t even notice, I didn’t even notice. I was too busy noticing other things. Our cable package no longer included channel 53.
“Sammy is dead?” Sammy was the dog. He was a mutt. “Why didn’t you tell me?”
“I just didn’t have the heart.” Her mouth was the moon.
I had said goodbye, I wasn’t stupid. He was old, he had broken his jaw a few months before, he had fallen down the stairs. They had to put a cast around his mouth, he looked so goofy, and a little sad. We fed him through a big water dropper. By the time I was gone, he could chew again. He had trouble going up and down stairs, but he could still manage. He got tired on walks, he would take breaks by the fire hydrants, and he would pull on his leash to go home. I wasn’t stupid.
My house and the moon slowly became the same thing. Every trip from kitchen to bedroom became some massive exploration, every step carefully orchestrated to minimize damages. And there I was, in the tranquil expanses of carpet and craters, returning with a cargo of disappointment.
Because the moon itself is disappointing. When a man landed on the moon for the first time, the mystery of it was somehow diminished by knowing what it really was: just a lump of rock stuck spinning around the earth, like a child trying to follow its mother. When that first man landed, he was not met by a big bearded man named God, congratulating him, you’re here, you’ve finally made it, great job. That was a fantasy of mine when I was little. It was not made of blue cheese and I am tired of people asking if it was. I never want to talk about the moon. It reminded me of teeth. This is all I know about the moon: despite the absence of air, there is wind on the moon. I couldn’t tell you why.
When I was little, I dreamed in Technicolor, sometimes in cartoon. I dreamed of ray-guns and robots, of clean-shaven heroes and pleather space-suits. Of Alien vixens with blonde hair. My dreams were narrated by Vincent Price. Sometimes, I dreamed of horses.
I remember Star Trek and the lonely faces the crew made in the vitriolic lights of their command posts, the neon nostalgia of this impossible retro-future. I laughed when I first saw the cockpit – it looked like a prop on a movie set. All the lights and switches, like constellations of their own, I didn’t need space at all; I could’ve drowned in all that light. I remember Forbidden Planet: the vicious pastels of foreign territory, the astrolabes in their rockets like crystal balls. I remember The Day the Earth Stood Still and the shaky motions of the flying saucer, chrome like car commercials, landing on Earth and seeking succor.
I had to relearn how to walk. The neighbors took the plastic deer off of their lawn. As soon as I could take a few steps, the physical therapist told me to go for brief walks, once around the block.
“To where?” I asked. I hate things without destinations. I hate orbits and the inconclusive equations of projectiles.
“Just around. Take breaks every few steps, pretend you’re walking a dog. Do you have a dog?”
Sirius is the brightest star in the night sky of the Earth. It’s what Sammy’s name probably should have been. Sirius is the “dog star.” More specifically, Sirius is a star in the dog constellation, his head to be precise. Everyone joked that I was his Orion, he was my Canis Majoris. I named him Sammy because that is the most common dog name.
What is the appropriate level of sadness for when a dog dies? Do you miss him? Of course you miss him. Do you cry? Maybe, but only when you first find out, never just because. Funeral? Too much. Ashes? Probably. She must have thrown out his food bowl.
The average age of a dog is seventeen years. In seventeen years, every cell in the human body gets replaced by another, two and half times over. In seventeen years a war could be declared and concluded, bloody or cold, take your pick. Every seventeen years, the cicada population triples for one summer, then returns to its former quantity the next year. When I was seventeen years old, I learned to drive and crashed my car two times. I am better at space travel than maneuvering the ghastly highways of this particular globe.
The fissions and fusions inside stars, the galaxy making combustions from some more contented Milky Way, they all produce massive amounts of radio waves called quasars that travel, like invisible meteors, to earth. What I am trying to say is that the stars make noises. When I was in space, I thought I could hear those sounds, but now I fear it was just my heartbeat all along. I can still hear it at night, the quasars and the crickets, the quasars and the cicadas. In the morning, the quasars and the lawnmowers, the quasars and the rain.
And home. Home is strange. The sheets on my bed at night looked like the moon, the craters and bumps of the blanket like a frozen ocean covered in mold. I felt like I was trying to bring my legs out of light speed: it wasn’t that they weren’t moving, instead, that they were accelerating so fast they might as well have been staying still. The grass seemed like it was bleached of color, the blades matching the hues and tones of the sidewalk; it looked like the moon.
What you don’t realize in space is how much dust collects on things left alone. I would wake up to the control panel, covered in a layer of soot after just a small nap. When we checked the cooling fans inside the CPU, we would blow into the tower and watch the scattered specks fly, airless, around the terminal. Now I watch the dust collect in the corners of our bathroom, underneath the couch, when I look inside the kitchen cabinets I find the same space-dust I found out there. I blow it away; it looks like steam.
I felt like I had never left the moon. When I was there, I could feel the oblique awkwardness of my leg muscles confused by the changing gravity. And rehabilitation, just the same: I felt like I was under water, or more accurately, like I was sinking in honey.
I was terrified of the automated voices at the end of 1-800 numbers. Their robotic tonalities reminded me of the impersonal instruction videos shown to us in training. I desperately feared adulthood appointments, lunch dates, small talk, and worst of all, catching up.
The whole world seemed to be moving too quickly, picking up a ringing phone would seem like a fast forward movement, I often dropped glasses of water on the ground, seeing the cup shatter and leaving the floor covered in wet jewels; each time gravity took effect I was shocked. I expected everything to float away from me when released from my hand, but instead things just fell. The first few meals I ate were a challenge, the fork and knife had to be maneuvered around the empty moon of the plate on the table, cutting then lifting the fork to my mouth and seeing the chunk of chicken or vegetable fall to the table was odd and disheartening. When I took those intermittent walks around the block I kept wondering what was keeping me anchored, I kept waiting to be lifted away to the heavens, swept up by God’s broom.
I have lost the ability to crack eggs. Somehow my hand can’t make that little calculation of velocity and momentum; I end up shattering the shell against the pan, or else barely making a crack or fracture on the surface. I will, most likely, never be able to make an omelet again.
When I got enough strength back in my legs I tried swimming. I almost drowned trying to breathe like I could in the ship. I filled my lungs with chlorine. It was some bizarre inverse of nostalgia: I wanted to recapture a past that I didn’t particularly enjoy.
When we were in the isolation tanks, before we went into space, I want to say that I thought of Sammy, but I didn’t. I thought about my wife. She looks like Anne Frances. She looks like Doris Day. I thought of the satellites that would send our lonely transmissions back and forth from earth. I thought of her prayers traveling on laser beams and radio waves. I didn’t want to be the smallest asteroid, burning in the sky, failing at a crash landing, like so many rocks attempting to make their lovely collisions with the ground. I didn’t want to dissipate in the atmosphere.
I wanted to be the hero in this melancholy space opera. But here I am, too scared and embarrassed to ask if he was hit by a car or if she put him to sleep, instead of on a rocket to another sun, feeling the sleepy rotations of nebulas and supernovas.
Right now, I am going to the animal shelter. We’re going to get another dog. It’s been too long.
I will pick up the puppies, watch them scurry in my arms, confused by the lack of gravity as I hold them in the air. I will not see the moon in their eyes, I will not see Sammy in their clumsy gaits. This will not be a replacement. My wife will smile excitedly, and I will never go back into space. I’ll stay on earth with them, until this new puppy, not named Sirius, will start having trouble going up stairs, will break his jaw, will have to take rests on the sidewalk. He might live to be seventeen. When this new dog gets home, he will recapitulate my steps, exploring this house, this house, the same way I did when I came home, like it was the moon.
The cracks in the ceiling of our bedroom were spackled and repainted over. Tonight, I will look at them when I try and fall asleep, I will try not to see the cavities and fissures of the moon’s surface. I wake up sometimes, finding my hands clutching to the mattress. Unconscious I hold on to the bed frame, not yet used to the spinning of this planet, like my body is half expecting to wake up in the air, curled in a ball like a child, like a sleeping dog.