Leigh Bennett is a recent graduate of the MFA program at Bennington College. She lives in Boston where she teaches words, books, and the Oxford comma to unsuspecting undergrads. Her work can be found in Cutbank, Vestal Review, and with any luck, the future.
I once dated an astronaut who said he needed space.
“You’re breaking up with me?”
“On the contrary,” he said, “I think we should take it to the next level.”
“Move in together?”
He took my hand and we charged through the atmosphere where we could have all the space he needed. We dipped in and out of masses and fronts like vacationers bouncing from pool to hot tub, took one last drink of oxygen, and headed for cocktail hour. Our bodies—now no more than electrical ballasts against the circuit drift—twirled through the troposphere turning over the air. The stratosphere was piano-calm, so we passed the hour streaming upstream: we pulsed, the music crescendoed, and waves of heat overtook us. Above Armstrong’s line, we tossed all caution to the wind: our blood boiled—liquefied by longing—we fucked until our flesh became rapid stellar dust, translucent and tingling.
What can I say? The sex was out of this world.
Layer after layer we levitated through, and it all felt so easy, so light. Not like before: six weeks waiting for a phone call or a second date, two years before any declaration of love. I have a history of following men: my high school sweetheart to Florida State on a football scholarship, my college boyfriend out west to law school, my ex-husband to medical school in Boston. They have all been successful, these men—at first with me, then without; I have seen these states, but I am nowhere in them, and the men, well, they have had lives without me.
But the astronaut, he stayed with me as we crashed through the mesospheric pressure of commitment, cold, dense stars ablaze. There was something between us I’d never experienced before. Something galactic, yet gravitational. Cloistered in galaxies, we blanketed our bodies in stars and night after night, I slipped off his Orion’s belt. But who can tell day from night nine million miles from the sun? We broke the shell of the thermosphere and drifted; our desire ionized, then changed into something deeper and profound: an aurora circled us like a fresh-painted home. And through it all, the astronaut seemed to relish the velocity, even relinquish himself to it.
“I can see a life for us,” he said. “Out here.”
Then the astronaut told me he loved me. I did too. There’s so much privacy in space.
I’d assumed wedding bells would be the final frontier. I envisioned a gown, phosphorescent and white, but he took me places I’d never dreamed. Piercing my defenses with his boundless affections, I let him ply me to Pluto and beyond.
I’ve always been a sucker for a man in a suit.
He never said no to marriage, but our talk always shifted with the compass of his desire: “We will,” he’d say, and I’d believe him. One night, our skin goose-fleshed, and the bright icy waters of Saturn made us long for warmth. We huddled together and talked about children.
“How many moons?” he said.
“Two: a boy and a girl.” But before I could say more, he thrust me through G-Ring and I dissolved in his arms. Bodies against each other in orbit, there was barely time to breathe, never mind talk. It was always like this: my questions and his stellar, disintegrative answers. Soon, I became vagrant and out of the loop. Was I just another prograding satellite chasing the sun? I missed my parents and my work; I missed my friends and my cats. I missed the weight of the world. I began to feel like I did not, that I could, that I was no longer, matter.
“We can’t go on like this,” I said one day or one night.
“Like what?” he said.
“Always drifting, never in one place.”
“Our place is everywhere,” he said. “Everywhere is our place.”
Beyond the Milky Way he grew mercurial, his moods difficult for me to read. I consulted the cosmos, but they gave me no warning, little help: Climb on top of your cutie and take control; make him want you by not wanting him; be the sun around which he revolves. It all seemed pointless drivel. I offered to join him in his space suit, but he declined. I begged him to listen but his suit (the same suit that once pulled me to him) smothered all sound. I wrapped my arms around him, but he pushed away and drifted into a starless dark.
“I need air,” he said, “room to breathe.”
At first, I thought he wanted to descend, to return to our solid life on solid ground. But his coy smile and star-burnt eyes said otherwise, and I knew: a boy can get claustrophobic in so much space. I chased him with my arms like a child hunting a comet with a butterfly net, and when he was mine again, I whispered into his deaf ear: Go ahead, breathe. Slowly, I unscrewed the bolts that clenched his survival inside and, once loosened, lifted the helmet from his head.
There is no air in space.
Sometimes I think of my astronaut and wonder if he would think of me too, had he not collapsed under the pressure of the absence of air. I wonder if the earth misses him, the way I missed her or if, like me, she has moved on. At home, I’ve reclaimed my life. My cats are plump and fed and I’m back at work. I visit friends on weeknights, family on weekends, and tend to the solid walls of my solid apartment. I’ve thought of moving—Detroit, Alaska, Malaysia, Sierra Leone—but everywhere seems so close.
Here’s what I keep reminding myself of: there are rules governing aerodynamics: Newton’s First, Second, and Third Law of Motion. Bernoulli’s Principle. Airfoil Terminology. The harsh grumble of the thrust against the near soundless weight of the drag. The lift, lift, lift. These doctrines do not apply to me in my grounded state. My space is 500 square feet divided into four rooms and these rooms, like the layers of the atmosphere, have names: kitchen, living, bath, bed. Beyond them, my space is one-mile of city-block, each one marked: Delancey, Pitt, Broom, Ridge. Zoom out and you’ll see New York suffocated by: Vermont, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Pennsylvania, the whole wide world. Travel—round round round—this great globe and you end up exactly where you started. Where we are now. There is no forever on earth, only next and next and home. I long for namelessness. I long to breathe.
On the western shore of this state is a lake, to the east, an ocean. Of late, I’ve been carousing the same bar on Ridge in my best red dress waiting for a man to take me away. I want him to take me to the ocean—Ahab with a giant ship, Cousteau with a yearning to descend—and when finally he picks me up, he’ll set me down on the east. Down down down he’ll go and me with him, deeper and deeper still, until our hearts compress under the weight of water and we cannot breathe. Together, we’ll take one last gulp of oxygen in, knowing it will be our last, knowing only that we, me and the man who likes to go down, have found a way out.