Georgie in the Sky

1.

Between looking at Texas from outer space and looking at outer space from Texas, I would take the latter, and not out of any great love for Texas. Anyplace you look, I figure, half of what you see is in your head, what you want to see. So, up there, pressed against the glass from my father’s Ford, all I could see were Darla’s cheekbones, the night glow of the gas station, and the cat. Darla’s sister, Morgan, had come in the middle of the afternoon, her white Chrysler extra-bleached as it rounded the corner in slow motion, like the Kennedy motorcade turning onto Dealey Plaza. And so it was afternoon when I took off, no other choice, and it rushed beside me for a minute, a faithful dog, before the blue deepened.

2.

Back then, everybody tinkered. It is not as if it was a lifelong ambition to build a spaceship, or even be an astronaut. Believe me, that’s not my personality. Installing a new car radio, putting together a kitchen table, those are closer to my areas of expertise. Sure, I watched the moon landing. I didn’t give much thought to it, though. Not like that, anyway. The decision was gradual, something to do during the cool evenings when Darla worked late. I thought of this as I grasped the oxygen tube between my lips, my hands desperately clenched in the side straps. As I rose, a half-dozen balls of sweat emerged from my cheeks, fell, and froze instantly into silver airborne droplets.

3.

Darla and Morgan, brown-haired and blue-eyed both, were variations on the same family code, though Darla came out prettier. Where Darla’s lips were slim, Morgan’s were puffy. Darla’s clear eyes were perpetually wide with awe, Morgan’s were dopey. And Darla’s voice was bell-like when she yawped in ecstasy, Morgan’s flat and nasal and tired. I saw her, Morgan, a flash of her freckled shoulder, as I pulled the hatch shut and hurriedly fit the sealings in place. I was aware of the Chrysler door slamming, but didn’t look up. It was like jumping a car, really, to get it hot enough to launch. She had found Darla’s note with an awful quickness, perhaps with not even enough time for Darla herself to gain any distance.

4.

So long as I fixed the occasional toaster, nobody much bothered me in the shed. Still, I could not figure out how to test the launchpad without arousing questions from Darla. There was no shame: I knew how to build a spaceship. But it was also an uncomfortable knowledge to possess, like I’d broken something but couldn’t tell Mother. When Morgan came over that first afternoon, to see if I couldn’t unjam E.T. from the VCR, her eyes paused on the exposed circuitry on the workbench. Her husband, Jakob, a doctor, had been working late, so she was alone most evenings, too. “Like a menagerie in here,” she smiled, looking at the shelf of bulbs and plugs, and from then on co-existed with it. I looked past her, next to the Astros calendar, at the first sketch of the booster. Even then, my fear was that the capsule would hit the apex too soon.

5.

We honeymooned in the Caribbean, Darla and I, at a pink, three-story hotel by the ocean. All night, we listened to the murmur of the tide: softer as it went out, harsher as it came in, spitting up over the curve of the sand, long and low. The blinds were open, the stars visible. In our half-sleep after sex, she told me about the colors. A light outside shined on the pool patio, muted by palm trees, and occasionally illuminated the room when the wind blew the fronds aside. Her face, when she said this in the dark, looked like Karen, my high school girlfriend and Seiko, a girl I slept with once in college: all cheekbones. She also looked like herself. “It’s blue and gold,” she said. “That’s what I feel, when I come. Blue and gold.” Which is what I saw when I touched her cheeks the next time we had sex, and what I saw when the capsule peaked and tipped towards the Gulf.

6.

The colors were always there for her. At first, when she was a girl, they were just spots. “Almost like pets,” she said. “Like, milk was neon green. A cartoon frog that followed me around until the taste was gone.” As she got older, it was whole rooms. When we lived together, I would sometimes discover her standing in some corner, as if in rapture. “Hey,” she would say if I took her hand, breathy and sexy. It is funny now, almost, that I cannot recall when I found out Jakob -- Dr. Strommler -- Morgan’s husband, was studying Darla, whether it was before or after Morgan and I first kissed. Which is to say it is unrelated to why we did it. From every other girl I’d been with—Karen and Seiko and Darla, all—I wanted everything, lives together, love in constant renewal. From Morgan, I only wanted a small, specific something.

7.

Our routine: she comes into the shed, sits on the beach chair, and reads a spy novel. I work on the spaceship. It runs in a loop, over and over, even as I am in space itself, watching the stars manifest from pure daylight. The plans are leftover from the space race, a design unpicked, rescued from an attic. Morgan sips her beer. Eventually, she stands, meets me by the workbench. We kiss, hands as neutral as possible on each other’s hips. We say nothing of consequence, and return to our respective stations. Later, Darla slips into bed beside me, and we have sex, passionately, tenderly, the missing colors slipped to me earlier from her sister’s lips. This happened, more or less, for five months.

8.

Morgan called it a “condition” and, when she did, her voice took on a sharp quality, like food left too long in the refrigerator. It made me not want to kiss her. I thought of it simply as the state of being Darla. It was some years into our relationship when I saw that particular look. She was standing by the garden then, though I am certain that I noticed its residue the first time we met, at a garage sale. When she smiled, she looked as though she not only meant it, but earned it. “You don’t see it,” Morgan said, “because you are at work all day, but she is not happy.” Darla’s smile had escaped, flown dissolving into the gaseous atmosphere, where I’d gone in search of it. It was all too fast for me to be queasy. I don’t remember holding the straps, but I know my hands never left them as I plunged towards the planet below me.

9.

The falling was more vivid than the lift-off, a memory turned to stardust by the adrenaline. The speed increased, and my ears popped on and off, like a loose connection. The clouds rushed towards me. I wished I could escape my bonds and grasp at the cumulus topographies with my hands. Outside the portal, the land and the blue mixed. I tried blindly to calculate my trajectory, hoping it would end in the Gulf, Army surplus parachute or no. It was really a pair sewn together. Folded into two olive green duffels, I’d heaved them from the car to the shed. Morgan, that day and the next, helped me affix them to each other. When we finished, we kissed in a way that felt natural, which is not what I wanted or needed. Behind the silver and crimson and impossible white, there was a new taste, which began to corrode the old.

10.

For every test that Dr. Strommler conducted on Darla, I developed another system for the spaceship. He had her imagine shapes, colors, outlines. I devised a series of coils to create power for the launch. He played her a series of drones, had her focus on flickering patterns, and peeled them away from one another. I built an electricity distribution grid. When Darla described the exercises, in bed, it was with difficulty. “I feel so proud,” she said, as we started towards sleep. “No, not proud,” she amended after a moment. “Adjusted,” though she did not sound satisfied with that word either. I could tell she was still thinking, her breath against my shoulder like distant waves. I smelled salt, sand, and suntan lotion. Darla’s face was blank as she slept.

11.

The first alien wildlife I saw was a sunflower. Perhaps five years old, maybe six, at a county fair. The stem was thick as my wrist. There was a small, one-track maze of them. My mother was ahead, with my younger brother, around a turn. Without her in view, I felt transported, someplace far. I grabbed one in front of me and peeled at its skin. When I was finally able to pierce it, I found its Martian insides wet and furry. I recoiled at the coolness. As Morgan increased her affections with me in the days after the parachute sewing, her hands running from my hips and up my chest, it was a severed sunflower she wore behind her ear. And then the spaceship slammed into the water, sunflowers and imagined interplanetary terrains and Morgan’s mouth collapsed by the sudden pressure.

12.

The spaceship neared completion in the golden late summer, its dirty silver podform taking shape in the midst of backyards aglow with barbecues. We had Morgan and Jakob over for one, in fact. He drank a pop and leaned on the oak, the oak I would see incinerated below me as I launched a few weeks later. “Hell’s bells!” he said, describing an approaching ice cream truck and I laughed. He did, too. His hair seemed to grow towards the sun. He wasn’t a bad guy, not at all, though his laugh reminded me of my aunt in Shreveport. We had little to talk about, but got along well, even then, when I knew he was destroying Darla, and I was fooling around with his wife. But by Labor Day, I felt dizzy with grace, because Darla and I had it all worked out, what we were going to do.

13.

There was the morning Darla couldn’t talk, just woke up with a look on her face like she was receding into the distance. She kissed me and got out of bed. We ate cereal across the table like most mornings, and I talked to her, joked about the weather, traffic at the Astrodome. She smiled, unaware anything was amiss. I went back to my corn flakes. When I looked up, there was a look of horror on her face, one I understood entirely when it was time to abandon the pod under the water. That night, after the silent day, by the moonlight, I showed her the ship. She exhaled and cried quietly into me, her body coming against mine as we stood in the shed. For a second, there, every part of her was right again. “I don’t want to go to sleep,” she whispered. “Tomorrow’s going to be like today.”

14.

It was never part of the plan for me to get in the spaceship. It was only to gather a bag and go. Darla didn’t want a postmark that would hint at our destination or direction, so I would mail it before I left. Thinking I had at least a day, the letter made it across town that afternoon. Probably 20 minutes or so ago, I thought, as my ears popped and I sank through the Gulf. The color in the windows turned a peaceful blue. I saw no fish. Darla had hopefully made it to El Paso, listening to her Jerry Lee Lewis tape over and over. The sealing held, thankfully, and I thought of Darla, with her window open, smoking Winstons. I could tell the pod was reaching the nadir of its descent and, if I didn’t disengage the plug, would shoot upwards at any moment, back into the naked daylight, Coast Guard boats circling.

15.

I slipped from the bottom hatch and kicked off as the pod filled with water and sank. Swimming towards the light, I wondered if Darla had heard yet. I rose, as if lifted by color and taste and sound. Were there really boats above me? My wallet was still in my pocket, so I could go to a hotel, if I could get ashore. The surface got closer and closer and I burst through, finally, laughing: probably the first man in the history of the planet to launch himself into outer space for not wanting to have sex. I had phrased our departure as a hypothetical to Morgan. I knew she wouldn’t tell her husband. We were in the corner of the shed then, the warm skin above her breasts pressing into my arm as she kissed my neck. “Then I’d just have to give you a special goodbye,” she said, drawling.

16.

“I don’t know what it is,” Darla told me, after we had sex in the living room during the afternoon. “It’s like he stole my blind spot,” she said. The mauve cross-stitching pressed into my back as I cradled her. “You know how your brain makes up that little bit between your eyes? Just so there can be something there? But I can’t explain it to him, not like that.” I couldn’t explain it to Morgan, either. We’d almost stopped talking ourselves. And when I saw her car come around the corner in slow motion like that, my own blind spot filled with unaccountable rage, the space of not knowing, of the space of knowing something that you have no need to tell anyone else, and ran for the spaceship.



About the Author

Jesse Jarnow is a contributing editor at Paste and Relix. His work has appeared in the London Times, the Village Voice, and elsewhere. He blogs about books, b-sides, and baseball at wunderkammern27.com.