Crown of the Valley (FICTION CONTEST 2016 HONORABLE MENTION)
Every time I close my eyes, we’re back in Haruto’s living room with the other JPL scientists smelling like maple bacon and scrambled eggs, Kennedy Space Center spelled in white block lettering across the bottom of the television screen, a cartoonish yellow CNN Live logo in the upper left corner. Reporter Tad Bradshaw leans in toward the camera, beige suit jacket and a bad comb-over: “The Challenger is finally getting ready to leave KSC, its launch delayed several times due to weather and mechanical problems.” A space shuttle balances upright against a sky flickering between pale gray and a midnight blue, Haruto’s TV an old model, the sound not great. The cameras pan between the wings, the fuselage, the orbiter. The voice of the launch controller finishes the countdown and the rocket blasts up into the air, a wide, skewering curve into the clouds, a blinding orange horsetail of heat spewing from the engines. The shuttle goes into a planned roll, spiraling away into an increasingly dark purple as the sun’s light fades in the upper atmosphere, a skirt of condensation forming as the shuttle breaks the sound barrier. Tad Bradshaw comments on the weather in Cape Canaveral, the icicles that formed on the launch pad before takeoff.
A faint final transmission from Commander Scobee as ashy plumes obscure the body of the shuttle: “Roger, go at throttle up—”
And in that moment, all of human life is compressed into a breath, any nascent whiff of hope quashed by erupting flames, the shuttle incinerated, diaphanous trails of smoke branching out from the bulkhead like the horns of a devil, shooting stars of titanium hurtling toward the earth.
“Oh God…this is not standard, this is not something that is planned, of course.” Tad’s voice shakes against his attempted neutrality. Smoldering white vapors slash across the horizon as one of the rocket boosters careens into the ocean. Haruto turns off the television. Silence. There is no question. There is no way the crew could have survived the explosion.
Every time I close my eyes, and sometimes when I’m not closing my eyes at all, I can’t help thinking that could have been you. That could have been you up there.
* * *
Growing up in Rankin, a small town in West Texas with a population just under one thousand, the only time of day I liked was the night, because then I could imagine there was something more beautiful, more interesting, more exotic in the distance than the parched dirt and the jagged rocks and the scruff of the desert underbrush. It was the sort of place where there was a town dance on the Fourth of July, everybody dressed in their cowboy best as they swayed and swooned to the bluegrass plucking. It was the sort of place where Creationism was taught in school and nobody ever questioned it, where God Almighty reigned supreme and we were all born sinful, haunted by dreams of fire and brimstone. It was the sort of place where the only vegetables you ate during winter were canned, the sort of place where girls wore dresses and boys wore pants, where women became housewives and men went off to work in the nearby oil fields.
I’d never seen another woman like you before I came to Los Angeles, course and lanky, dark brown hair in a crew cut, small tawny eyes with a microscopic focus, chunky black-framed glasses. I’d seen other women who were masculine, sure, but in a salt-of-the-earth kind of way, not, well, sexy, boyish, this smirk on your face every time we bumped into each other in the lab.
Later you’d tell me you’d been out since you were fourteen. Your parents didn’t mind. You’d grown up next to the Black Cat Tavern in Silver Lake. Your parents’ best friends were Uncle Thomas and Uncle Peter and Uncle Leonard and Uncle Frederick, all, of course, uncles in the loosest sense, beautiful men in immaculate suits who spoke of fashion design and erotic literature over the Thanksgiving dinner table. Your stepmother was known to have long conversations on the phone with a woman named Lucy, conversations during which she would lock the door and her breathing grew heavy. We didn’t have such things in Rankin. I was my father’s daughter. I was some man’s future wife. Before I met you, I’d imagined I would be alone forever. I didn’t think that something like us could exist.
* * *
Shooting stars of titanium hurtling toward the earth.
Droplets of your blood a waxy bruised color in the furthest reaches of the upper
* * *
Before I arrived at CalTech’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, all I knew about Los Angeles was from the movies. My favorite was Gidget, the 1959 surfer film starring Sandra Dee. I watched Gidget over and over again, initially when it played at the local theatre in Rankin, then on tape when I bought my very first VCR. I dreamed I was Gidget, the spunky tomboyish surfer girl who joins the Kahuna’s all-male surfer gang. I even liked the bronzed, broad-chested Moondoggie, almost enough to actually want to kiss him, and I wished I would someday receive a class ring as a demonstration of someone’s unwavering affection. I wanted to imagine a world where all that mattered was the sun and the waves and the surf, where everyone was attractive and happy and everything worked out in the end.
CalTech, though, was nothing like that. The labs seemed like something out of a futuristic science fiction film, and pale, ghostly nerds roamed about campus, conversing about civil engineering and organic chemistry. The surrounding area of Pasadena was not the Los Angeles I’d imagined, either, the neoclassical Renaissance spires spinning above City Hall, the looming craftsman mansions like something out of Poe, the immigrant communities from Guatemala, El Salvador, and Armenia, the Bloods and Crips alongside the Doo Dah Parade and football tournaments at the Rose Bowl. There was nothing wrong with this Los Angeles, not really, but I wasn’t sure it was enough. I wasn’t sure that it could save me.
* * *
Gasping for breath,
blood and mucus filling your lungs,
a piece of aluminum shrapnel severing your space suit,
slashing across your jugular vein.
* * *
It was because of Haruto that we went on our first date. He was the one who had assigned us both to the Galileo orbiter, you as an astrophysics fellow, me as a fluids engineer. We worked late one evening. You suggested we go out for a drink. We snaked through rush hour on the 134, sifting down through the Hollywood Hills in your burnt orange Volvo station wagon. I had never been to West Hollywood before. I didn’t know what it was.
“Let’s go to The Palms,” you said. “I think you’ll like it.”
I stepped inside, underneath a platinum stripe of fluorescence, the shadow of a palm tree stenciled onto the sandy-colored concrete. The bar was dark, long and narrow and hazy with smoke, a string of rope lights hanging behind the bottles, Janis Joplin’s “Trouble in Mind” blaring over the speakers. There were women everywhere, young women and old women, women of all different ethnicities, dancing and caressing and holding hands. A couple waved hello to you. I ordered the most sophisticated drink I could think of—an amaretto sour.
You told me a story about how when you were six years old, your parents had driven you to the beach one day, right out by the Santa Monica Pier. Your older brothers dove into the foamy surf and your father and mother set up long, rickety chaise lounges, reading The Godfather and Peyton Place. And you closed your eyes and navigated the dips and dunes of the sand with your bare feet, pretending that you were traversing the surface of a strange, new planet. Your toes dribbled into the edge of the water and you waded into the ocean, your eyes still closed against the bouncing, floating sensation. If you’d had it your way, you would have never been pulled down by gravity again.
“Look Mom! Look Dad! I’m an astronaut!” you called out, but your voice was swallowed by the vortex of a riptide, sucking you under, a sputtering black hole, stretching you like spaghetti strings as the brackish seawater poured into you and stars splattered across your eyelids. The next thing you remembered, you were on the shore and all the sunlight was blocked out by the crowd pressing in on you, your parents, your brothers, anonymous passersby. A lifeguard had his lips against yours, forcing air into your lungs, the sinuous muscles of his chest expanding and contracting.
“And on that day,” you told me as you finished the story, taking a long swallow of whiskey as you put your hand on mine, grinning that puckered, toothy smile of yours, “I realized two things about myself: first off, that I would always want to be an astronaut. And second? That I never wanted to feel a man’s lips against mine again.”
* * *
A hissing sigh as your lungs compress,
as you fall.
A speck of flaming nothingness,
A single sour flake of ash lands on my tongue.
* * *
For awhile, everything was all right. You gave me books by Michel Foucault and Audre Lorde, Virginia Woolf and Adrienne Rich, crisp, clean copies you’d bought just for me to bend and dog-ear and mark up all over the page. I’d come over to your apartment and you’d sit me down on the couch, a big billowy mass filled up with goose feathers, and you’d play me songs by Patti Smith and the B-52’s, and we’d shake our heads together in time with the music, our arms collapsing all over one another. You told me about the true history of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, about the real father of modern rocket science, Jack Parsons, who’d first managed to wrangle research grants from CalTech to study rocketry even when such things were only considered science fiction, Parsons who had built the first static rocket, who had belonged to the Church of Thelema, had believed that magic and quantum physics were one and the same. They, along with other Thelemites, ended up moving into a large house together in Pasadena, with free drugs, orgies, and Satanist rituals, Scientology, poltergeists, and ghostly apparitions, pagan poems and masturbatory rites. We were part of something, part of something greater than ourselves. I chopped my hair short and pierced my lower lip and bought records by Bad Religion and the Dead Kennedys, yearning to become more real, more authentic, the self that I was always meant to be. But there was still a part of me that felt ill at ease, like I was just replacing one trope with another, that together we were not individuals but some sort of lesbian stereotype.
The Los Angeles I had dreamed of soon transformed into a noir, a Bladerunner-esque dystopia as an epidemic ravaged West Hollywood, men with Kaposi’s sarcoma wrapped under their coats, pneumatic coughs struggling in their lungs. In 1984, Michel Foucault died of AIDS in Paris, and in 1985, under a searing red October sunset, we crouched together in a prayer vigil for Rock Hudson, candles flickering, sobs choking through the air. Death was all around us, and we couldn’t do anything about it.
After the Challenger disaster, I couldn’t sleep for a month. I kept dreaming that you had been one of them, that you were…I couldn’t touch you anymore. I was too afraid. I didn’t want to imagine the future. Everything seemed so grim.
* * *
Every time I close my eyes, we’re back in Haruto’s living room, and in that moment, watching those starbursts of flame sizzling across the screen, I know I have to leave. It is as if Los Angeles is a film that I can no longer stand to watch.
I’m back in Texas now, living in College Station and teaching at Texas A&M. I like being a professor. It’s nice. Predictable. I’ve also met someone. Linda. She’s nice too. I’m happy, I think. Happy enough, at least.
Sometimes, when I’m in bed at night, I turn toward Linda and see your face instead, your toothy smile, wrinkles now tugging at the edges of your cheeks. I look into your eyes, and I see the universe in them. I see the stars and the Earth and in the very far distance, almost invisible, I see myself.
Michelle Meyers is a fiction writer and playwright originally from Los Angeles, CA. Her writing has been published in the Los Angeles Times, DOGZPLOT, jmww, Juked, decomP, and Jersey Devil Press (forthcoming), among others. In addition, she has received awards and honors from Ploughshares, Glimmer Train, and Wigleaf. Meyers was a 2015 PEN Center Emerging Voices Fellow in Fiction and is currently an MFA candidate at the University of Alabama’s Creative Writing program. Her debut novel, Glass Shatters, will be published in April 2016.