Matter, Mostly Dark Matter, And The Rest Is Energy
By Teo Yi Han
Ninety-four days until we reach earth again, he announces. Almost matter of factly.
She cannot tell.
Until I can see my wife again, he adds.
She nods, doesn’t look up, doesn’t pause in her data entry.
She never sees their fights. He retreats into his pod-space and from there, she imagines. He’s staring at his wife via the communicator screen. They have yelling matches, they have disagreements. He argues her down and wears her down. She nags and doesn’t let up. She imagines. The individual pods are soundproof and she never hears a thing. She doesn’t venture into his pod, nor he hers. She imagines.
She knows they fight because a few hours later, or a few days, it all spills out of him. He is unable to keep it in or doesn’t bother to hold it in: The wife doesn’t like his job. She wants him home. She doesn’t like the way he has done something, even though he isn’t there. A million and one reasons. Mainly arising from the fact he that is not bodily there with her, feet on solid earth, that it is just different, it is simply insufficient no matter the advances in technology, the lack of physiological presence, of skin contact. Whether she acknowledges or even realises the real root of it when she picks a fight with him.
The irony, she muses, is that while his wife fights with him because he is not on earth next to her, the truth is if he were there, right there with her, in all his physicality, she would fight with him as much. Distance causes tension, but as much as proximity and shared duration of time, causing rubbing friction and sparks in the exact same way. If his absence causes her animosity now, when he is back on earth his presence would get on her nerves and cause the same amount of animosity in her.
He doesn’t seem very sad - occasionally weary, or resigned, but mostly he regales with tales of their fights blandly, factually, like he is updating the ground command back on earth on the progress of their journey, or presenting his report on their findings from their mission to his superiors. She wonders if he feel as bland as he appears, or if there is a volcano of emotions inside there somewhere, stored deep, while on the surface there is merely a mild sigh as he recounts the latest fight.
She wonders if it might be better that their technology was not so advanced, that his wife couldn’t have access to him so easily; they might not fight as much, by sheer lack of access. No stopping his wife from having fights with him in her own mind, of course. But if access were limited, it might be treasured more, and their encounters filled with looking-forward-to, with longing sated, and she might be happier for the rare chance to see him, instead of unloading a pile of unhappiness or picking a fight.
At least, Jake wouldn’t be able to break up with her over the screen, so easily, so suddenly, so consequence-free, leaving her unable to react, unable to do anything but be trapped in her own pod, and the own pod of her head.
They each work individually at their own terminals for four hours, have lunch together in the pantry area, before heading back to work for another six hours.
During lunch, he asks her, Are you going to date again when you’re back on earth?
She pulls out some of the funniest dating anecdotes she has, the most hilarious bad first date experiences. They debate and discuss speed-dating do's and don't's, and she dishes on some of the horrendous things guys have said to her face.
Nobody, she laments, can give an original answer to the question “What would you do if you won the lottery”. Everyone just says they want to travel. And? There’s nothing after that. But you can’t possibly just go on endless holidays. Or what do you really want to get out of your holidays – they can’t even answer that.
He shrugs, To be honest, I’ll probably just give a lame answer like, change my name and my phone number.
She jumps on it at once, See, that’s funny! It’s funny and it’s different and it would make me laugh. Anything that makes me laugh, is a huge plus for the guy. It would let me get a glimpse of their personality. I would be excited to get a response like that at any of the events I’ve attended!
He laughs, rests his hand briefly on her shoulder as he walks around her to clear their trash off the table. He takes out her trash as well without asking. The physical contact is so brief that she’s sure he has not noticed. He has a tendency to initiate such unthinking contact.
She thinks about how easy it is to talk to him. The conversations between him and his wife appear much more loaded, weighed down by so much more baggage. Are they able to keep things so light and easy and free, precisely because there is nothing between them? They are but fellow space travellers, on parallel lines. In space there is no sound and nothing sticks.
She wants to tell him to stop bleaching warm from his hand into her skin, but she doesn’t.
Jake wanted kids. Jake wanted her to stop flying and take an earth-bound job. Jake wanted her to stay on earth, at home, and start a family. Jake wanted her to be around to take care of the kids they would have, to take care of his family as well. Jake wanted a virtuous, traditional wife and mother to his kids. A daughter-in-law and caregiver.
It is not that she loves space work, all these tedious, boring, difficult, long space flights into the middle of nowhere and nothing. But they pay well, especially for women, for few women signed on for these things.
She wants to save up, she needs money: she wants to visit the stars, she wants to stay on the moon, she wants to paint the universe.
If she said yes to him, it would be the end of star-visits and moon-painting. It would be a life of care-giving, of mothering.
She doesn’t even want her own kids.
It had been years and years of stressful space-flights, so she could visit the stars one day.
He broke up with her over screen one day, suddenly.
If she could be honest with herself it wasn’t sudden. She noticed his distance, his evasiveness, his remoteness, for months. She ignored it resolutely, digging herself into denial. She briefly wondered about infidelity, but had no reason or evidence to suspect so and had killed it just as rapidly. She hoped it was just a phase he would get over soon. She was pre-occupied with work stuff going on. She didn’t want to think too much about it. After all, there was so much distance between them already.
He starts with, I have discussed this with Felicia and a hot flash of anger sizzles through the pit in her stomach.
Felicia, oh Felicia. The facts are these. Jake’s new colleague. Young, younger than her. Pretty, prettier than her. Spends hours every day working closely with Jake. Continues to spend time with Jake after office hours. Whether Felicia was overly coquettish around Jake, whether Felicia was openly flirtatious around Jake, well, it depended on whose opinion was sought. He had waved her discomfort off, telling her Felicia was nothing, brushing her concerns off as paranoia.
Now he had discussed this, their relationship, with Felicia. Not her. Like it was nothing but a television show he discussed with his colleagues and asked their views for. A relationship she was in, but apparently had no say over. He discussed their relationship with Felicia and sought Felicia’s advice and acted on said advice and she was left in the dark, she was left in space and he never once thought to consult her, his actual partner, about their relationship.
(Afternote: She never did find out if there was anything between him and Felicia and she gave up her witchhunt; at the end of everything, Felicia had not been the flapping butterfly wings that caused the tornado, only the butterfly that was caught between her, and him.)
Jake had provided her with his way and a one way ride up the highway. She had chosen the highway, but even then, when Jake uncleaved her from him it still left her spiralling into
black holes - imaginary
dark pits in the universe - actual.
No light in space, only darkness as far as she could see stretched out from every porthole, as she continues entering data without pause, work in space didn’t stop just because her imagined, presumed future had just been deleted, yes click confirm, trash can emptied and hard disk wiped, the space shuttle had to be maintained, all systems had to keep running, everything had to keep flying, regardless. Space did not care how many pieces her heart was in.
He shows her the photo of his infant daughter, another update from earth, faking nonchalance, trying to hide his fondness and pride. At once, she knows he will be the overly-doting, overly-protective father, wrapped around the little finger of his daughter in the years to come, despite his protestations from a long time ago that he would be a stern father, he would rule his kids with discipline and control, he would run a tight ship. She laughs in her head at the thought.
She tries to imagine him carrying his daughter for the first time. His wife had gotten pregnant before he left for their current mission, during his home visit, and he hadn’t seen his daughter since she was born. She thinks about how when they had first started gearing up together for space missions, he was still such a kid; despite being older than her, he was a kid of a man. When had he grown up? Was growing up something that had been foisted upon him whether he wanted it or not? Maybe he was already all grown up, and she had missed it in her inattention. They had started as equal peers and he had been promoted ahead of her and now he is the commander of the ship, and her superior. Sometimes, all she still sees is the goofy guy she first met. Other times, she realises he is a commander with responsibilities and authority, and is, now, responsible for the tiny tuft of black hair in the photo. He doesn’t stop goofing around with her entirely, but the levity is altered.
Maybe he had long since moved on, while she stayed stuck in the same spot, the same status, after these years. Space travel hadn’t advanced her one bit. Maybe she is regressing backwards, after the break-up with Jake. She had been engaged, about to take on the responsibility of a new household, and now she is wildly swinging single again. Free to be fully immature, to be wholly self-centred, to let all her whims and quirks unspool over all the seats. She has not moved one inch.
She looks at him gazing lovingly at the photo of his daughter, longing etched all over his face, no longer a kid, no longer her peer, soon to meet his daughter. She feels flung out into space, suspended in time, while earth time rushes by without regard or mercy.
The truth is that she hadn’t been all that enamoured of what society had dictated for them. Traditional jobs, marriage, buying a house, kids. She wasn’t too crazy for that path. If she had felt any longing for those things, it was pressure rather than her own desire.
Then she met Jake. Being with him propelled her onto that path by default, and she hadn’t minded. Goals were handed to her; objectives to clear like a game she was playing, levelling up just for the sake of levelling. She didn’t have to think, didn’t have to generate her own goals, or come up with meaning for what she was doing. She just had to keep trotting along.
Until that path was ripped from her.
She doesn’t need that path now. She is content for the most part. Occasionally, when her friends seem to make so much 'progress', she wonders if she is wrong not to do the same. Then she catches herself. Recognises that it is not in her to want that way.
What she really wants is to create universes from the universes, not just traverse in dark matter, blindly, factually collecting data. She wants to go where the stars burn and shine. She does not want to see celestial bodies objectively, detachedly, from a distance. She wants to be enmeshed in them, be touched by them, to turn them into multitudes.
What good is my suffering on the planes of earth, and in the folds of space, she thinks, if it doesn't become art?
The dreams come for her one night.
She is back on earth. She is on a train. There is a man sitting next to her. She knows she’s in for a long, long ride, the rumbling and swaying her around and the rush of the carriage through acres and acres of plains. The man is warm. The man is here.
The man tells her affectionately, My shoulder is available, should you need it. She hears what he does not say, she hears everything else. The man is tall, and his shoulders broad.
So she does not fight resting her head on his shoulder. She is tired, after all, and the ride is long.
The man puts an arm around her shoulder, encompassing all of her.
She takes his other arm and run her fingers up and down his skin slowly. It is smooth and strong, lean muscles under skin. It is warm and he doesn’t mind. She traces her fingers over his skin and it is a drug.
They stay like that for a long time and she is at peace.
Then she wakes up.
It is not Jake next to her on the train. It is her commander.
Her mind implodes, like a dying star.
Only there is no glory of going supernova, only the potential creation of a black hole that sucks all light into it.
The second dream, the contents are inconsequential, only that they are on earth and her commander is there again, and he is hers again.
She awakes in cold sweat, and stares around her pod, trying to return to reality.
Dreams become problems when they feel like memories.
A friend once told her, jokingly, that her life playing out in her dreams were glimpses into alternative universes where other versions of her dwelled.
She hopes alternate her was having fun.
At least one of them should.
She starts avoiding him during the day. It’s hard. It’s also what she absolutely has to do.
He is busy, and she is busy. She takes to eating lunch at her terminal while pretending to work, eschewing the common dining area. If he notices, he doesn’t mention it.
She cannot look at him nor hear his voice without small tendrils of joy unfurling within her, and it is terrible. She tries to cut them off, to burn them, but every one she destroys, nine more sprout in its place. She needs to kill them at their core, destroy all the roots, like the multi-tentacled space monster she’d seen in the museum, gaping open-mouthed, but she cannot find the core yet. Meanwhile, the tendrils wrap themselves around her heart and threaten to suffocate her.
No joy. No joy. They are not supposed to bring her joy. She cannot experience any joy from this. The deep tenors of his voice, steady and measured, his visage, the experience of his height towering over her and his broad shoulders promising security must not bring any joy to her. They have not for years, they never have, why should they start now. Just because it is just him and her in this ship, in this part of space, it does not give her any right to experience any joy at co-existing in this space.
She tries to think of his wife. She had seen photos of her once or twice. Once, she had bumped into them on the streets on Earth. His wife’s face is nothing more than bokeh len flares in her mind’s eye. But his wife exists, and she tries to keep her fore and centre.
She tries to recall Felicia, the whole tangled web of red-hot rage and green-eyed jealousy and black madness directed at Felicia. She draws deeply upon her well of anger for Felicia and tells herself she will not become another Felicia.
She apologises in her mind to his wife over and over and over again. I will do better tomorrow. I will not have impure thoughts of your husband tomorrow.
She thinks maybe he will notice her reticence, her growing absence.
She is wrong.
They are swamped. There have been near-misses, meteoroid showers. He is busy overseeing robotic repairs, making daily reports to ground command, calculating changes to their course, collecting and analysing data.
She watches him work out of the corner of her eye, juggling ten different screens deftly, and is reminded how he was one of the top recruits out of school. He is highly competent; she has no doubt his intelligence could slice through her. As she watches him field a difficult conversation with ground command, which ends with the other side smiling broadly and reassured, she thinks: this is why he was promoted so far ahead of me.
Now, he commands the ship and she follows his orders. The chasm jabs her in her ribs.
He has no time for her childish whims, her self-centred flights of fancy.
Sometimes he is not nice about it. She gets it. He is ensuring their survival. He just wants to make it through this so he can get back to his wife and his daughter. It’s not his job to be considerate of her feelings.
She quietly goes back to her own screen to start pulling the data he wants. Her job here is just to do her job. Nobody needs her emotions, spilling all over the place, getting in the way.
Maybe the stars understand. They, too, know what it is to burn. They would not strip her down to only manual labour, judge her on only her output, and decree her a waste of oxygen if she did not fit into rigid confines, strict criteria.
But for now: She’s just a bot.
His rationality and practicality burns, severs all her desires and yearnings at their roots, and she thinks, it’s all good. It’s fabulous. Even if something burns at the base of her throat, threatening to spill over, it’s all good. She does not covet coveting someone else’s husband.
In X days they will land, and he will be swept away by his family.
And her? What does she have to look forward to, except the absence of work?
They will go on earth-leave. Then they will report for missions again. Maybe she won’t fly with him again. They might assign her to join another crew, another commander. He might command another ship. She might not see him again.
She knows he will land them safely and walk away without a backward glance. She sees with startling clarity now it was not him she wanted. She had wanted to be wanted. She had wanted to want.
She was in love with the idea of wanting and wanted.
For what else was there to ground her?
She could always fly to the stars. They were waiting for her. She could kick off all the space shuttles, and abandon missions and everything earth-bound. When she had nothing left, the stars would be there.
Someday, she would become them.
Teo Yi Han is a policy analyst with a degree in psychology, who struggles with policy writing by day and narrative writing by night. One of her stories won 1st prize in the 2015 Golden Point Award short story category, and others have been published in FLESH: A Southeast Asian Urban Anthology (Fixi Novo, 2016) and This Is How You Walk On The Moon: An Anthology Of Anti-Realist Fiction (Ethos, 2016).