- Looking for Astronauts
I tear into a can of sardines, and I'm reminded of my husband. It's been three months since Liam was shot into space, and they say that after two hours the fluids in your body shift, swelling up your face, your ears, your hands. The swelling goes down, but then a month goes by and your bones begin to deteriorate.
I sit on the back porch and look across at the shadow of pine trees, pulling the sardines apart with my fingers. Their backbones fall out like butter, cream white and delicate in my palms. Liam always missed the tiny wing bones when he grilled chicken out back, and I expect the vertebrae to feel like that, rough and hard. But no, these are soft. I put the bones on my tongue because I want to know what vertebrae taste like, and because I grew up being told to never waste anything. I chew and I feel them break, dissolve against my gums. Effortless.
I think of Liam and his baby-soft bones, and of the pamphlets sitting on my counter for wives who have been left for space. I think about how astronauts return to land and the pressure of being on earth again breaks them.
It's a strange feeling, knowing your husband is no longer on the planet. They tell us it takes eight [End Page 41] minutes for the space shuttle to reach outer space, and I count backwards from the moment the shuttle launches. I count through the stratosphere, the mesosphere, the thermosphere, and suddenly there are no numbers left, and Liam is gone.
I told him last night, killing mosquitoes against our flesh on the hotel balcony, not to leave. Tam and John were bouncing from bed to bed inside the room, beach sand falling from their skin into the sheets like fairy dust. I moved onto Liam's lap, pulling him against me, and his bare scalp felt odd against my cheek. I'd shaved it the night before so that it wouldn't get in his way during his eight months in space, shaved it until it looked as raw and shiny as a peeled onion. Afterward, I ran my hands over it, trying to find something familiar, but it was like when they cleared a patch of the forest to put in phone lines. All the softness was gone. Even now, placing my palm against his crown, there was just a roughness that I didn't recognize.
Please stay with us, I said into his ear. But up into the sky he went.
The launch is so much faster than I expect it to be. It's a flash of orange and a shimmer of exhaust, and then the shuttle is moving upward. The thunder of the engines and the firework-pop of the rockets rolls over our viewing pad twenty seconds late, and even after the shuttle disappears, like a white, burning seagull on the horizon, I can hear it singing in my ears.
Afterward, Tam, John, and I return to our log house in the woods, where it's nothing but indigenous forests and lakes for miles and miles. I take the kids into the forest, where the sky is leafy instead of vast, so we can feel connected to the earth again. Florida was all sand and blue, and I miss the rich colors of upstate New York.
Tam and John find the skeleton almost immediately. It's white and innocent looking, sorrel inching its way around its edges. Tam tells me it's human. She's taking human anatomy this summer, so she should know. She counts the ribs one at a time, numbering them under her breath like they learned during the fetal pig dissection.
"Don't touch," she warns. John tosses the leg bone toward her like a boomerang. It lands in the fern, but she shrieks. She loses count.
The skeleton must have been lying here for months. Or maybe it was only days. The ribs are curved and white, and it's incredible to me how much they resemble the bottom frame of a ship...