I’m an astronaut without a mission.
I type these words on the only working console in the dim-lit, womb-like control room of the space station Minor Chord, circling an unnamed moon of an unnamed planet in an uncharted galaxy.
I await my orders.
I was never like other boys. I never wanted to be an astronaut. I was always too afraid of this world, let alone any others. I was trained and selected for this mission without my knowledge. I went to sleep in my own bed, beside my husband. I woke up here, out here, alone, save for the chihuahua that we’d rescued from the streets of central California. My husband brought her home and we named her Agnes of Bakersfield. Apparently she was selected for the mission too. Or she selected herself.
She took to me immediately, followed me around our house back in San Francisco. (When I type the words “San Francisco” I have to close my eyes and steel myself against the longing.)
Agnes now follows me as I pace the long empty corridors. The lights flick on and off automatically, marking our progress. She’s my sole companion. Agnes curls up at my chest at night, a small, soft source of warmth. When she curls up she makes a noise that kills me. It’s the noise of surrender, the noise of a creature who feels safe.
I want to cry when I hear that noise. I do not feel worthy of such trust. But I’m unable to cry. This is an issue that I would like to rectify.
Before bed each night I talk to my husband through the video screen in the control room. His image flickers and his voice comes to me across a hundred trillion miles, full of space dust and distortion. I’m an astronaut who nearly failed high school physics, and every night I smack the side of the monitor. My husband continues to flicker. I’ve put in a work request through the proper channels but my anonymous employer has yet to reply.
“When are you coming home?” my husband used to ask. A year later he no longer asks. Still he remains optimistic. He tells me that all of this is a temporary setback. He tells me to be patient.
Every three weeks I’m allowed a twenty-minute video conference with my appointed psychiatrist. She has dyed hair and tattoos and a statue of Buddha on the shelf behind her. I’d like to think that in real life we’d be friends. I’ve asked her where she lives, where she speaks to me from, but she always deflects my attempts. “Why don’t you tell me about yourself instead,” she says. A stopwatch on the margin of the screen counts down our remaining time. Seventeen minutes. Twelve minutes. Three.
“I feel like a ghost,” I tell her. “I feel like I’m already dead.” She makes a note on her pad.
Drones deliver my new medications, along with boxes of Triscuits, Life cereal, and countless packets of Crystal Light.
I would like to be a Buddhist. I’ve read about and thoroughly understand the physical, mental, and emotional benefits of meditation but can’t stand being alone with my thoughts – I’ll do anything to distract myself from my own head.
Sometimes after my psych appointments I scroll through the medical records to which my anonymous employer has given me access:
- ASYMPTOMATIC HIV INFECTION
- HYPERTENSION (HIGH BLOOD PRESSURE)
- GERD (GASTRO-ESOPHAGEAL REFLUX DISEASE) (HEARTBURN)
- MAJOR DEPRESSION, RECURRENT
One day I log on to find that MAJOR DEPRESSION, RECURRENT has disappeared from my record. In its place is a new entry: CHRONIC POSTTRAUMATIC STRESS DISORDER.
I scroll back and forth to be sure. It’s gone. Maybe you are only allowed one of the two.
For a few days my record is clear of MAJOR DEPRESSION, RECURRENT. I resolve to ask my psychiatrist about this, but keep forgetting. My short-term memory has been severely compromised. Another temporary setback, I hope.
A few days later the MAJOR DEPRESSION, RECURRENT appears again, above the CHRONIC POSTTRAUMATIC STRESS DISORDER. I keep forgetting to ask what happened to it.
At night I climb into my bunk and roll onto my side. Agnes jumps in and curls up next to my chest. She makes that noise I told you about. I used to lay awake for hours, tossing and turning, always picking up the chihuahua with calm hands and placing her again at my chest. But a new medication arrived, and I fall asleep quickly now.