Dawn of the New Age
Three hours after learning the museum has secured a major grant, based largely—the Director assured her—on Luisa’s late night, visionary sketches of a wing for the new space age exhibits, this phone call, or something like it, was due. Bringing the world back in balance: a reporter, asking questions about her husband, about his participation in a reality show called Astronaut Academy. Luisa asks the woman to explain the show to her, though she read an article on it just that morning. It is being produced in partnership with the Space Force, the reporter says. A dozen competitors from around the country, going through the challenges any astronaut would encounter on their training: stints in the Buoyancy Lab, in zero gravity, in Earth-bound models of the shuttle they will ride if victorious. The winner will receive a seat on the Mars shuttle, and the same pay and benefits and stature as the traditionally trained astronauts. “How do you feel,” the reporter asks, “about your husband pursuing what would likely be a one-way mission?”
“Proud,” Luisa says. “How else should I feel?”
“But you weren’t familiar with the show?”
Luisa is silent until the reporter weakens and explains that this is all for a human-interest story. She wants Luisa to share more insight into her mental state, which is a thing Luisa privately feels incapable of sharing even with herself. “Maybe it’s better if we speak in person,” Luisa says, not wanting to volunteer for this additional torment but not knowing how else to extricate herself. “I’ve never been very comfortable speaking across distance.”
“That will make things difficult, won’t—”
“I’ll talk to Jon,” Luisa says. “We can find a good time for it.”
Against her wishes, he is on the sofa when she arrives home. “Go celebrate!” Robert, the Director, told her when she asked to leave before lunch—to which she could only offer a faint, gummy smile, allowing him to think the grant was the cause of her distraction. Sitting on the ottoman, bag between her feet, she waits for Jon to explain the show. Instead he describes meeting the neighbor’s dog that morning; the persistent slow drain of the bathroom sink.
“Is there anything else?” she asks. A part of her wants him to say there isn’t, so she can catch him in the lie.
“I do have news,” Jon says. He seems to believe that more detail will absolve him of any wrongs, and so he talks her through the joke of his application. The physical trial and mental assessment, a process that lasted months and which he performed without her notice, taking advantage of her lengthening workdays. “I thought I would flunk out sooner or later.”
“A reporter wants to interview us,” Luisa says. “She’s writing a human- interest piece.” She doesn’t want to touch Jon or even look at him. It is tempting to label her feelings the inevitable result of his subterfuge, though in truth she cannot recall the last time she wanted to let her body be near his. For the last few years of their marriage she has had the vague sense of them being broken in some elemental way, the thread of attraction that existed between them having snapped while she was looking in a different direction.
“You spoke with someone? You knew?” He reaches for her, then shakes his head. “Never mind. Okay.”
“When does filming start?”
“Two weeks. But we’re due out sooner, for publicity.” He picks at a zit that has scabbed to the surface near his Adam’s apple.
“Why didn’t you ever tell me you wanted to do something like this?” Luisa asks, but then she remembers: he has. On one of their first dates, crowded into a two-seater in a taqueria, a lime-green margarita sweating between her hands, licking salt from her lips. She laughed when he began talking about the prospect of a one-way journey into space, how he would happily volunteer himself for such a mission. He was a biologist, the most earthbound profession she could imagine, but he spoke of “the greater good” like a man with conviction. “Anyone can see we’ve taken things too far on this planet,” he said, and maybe that much was true: the western half of the country had already been abandoned to forest fires, and the southeastern states to the hurricanes and rising tides. Life was pressing in closer and closer every day, it needed an outlet.
Anyone would have laughed, she tells herself now as she leaves her bag slumped on the floor, walks to the bedroom and shuts the door. He was twenty-five, a boy in a world that seemed unlikely to ever offer the opportunities he imagined for himself. So she laughed, and was endeared, and slept with him even though it would be months before she felt really compelled in his direction. By the time they married she had forgotten that conversation. She had no concept that he might one day reform himself into this person he had imagined, this person she is now unable to follow.
Checks are signed, champagne uncorked. The donors to the space age wing, invited to the museum for an exclusive tour-slash-soirée, all want to meet Luisa—not because she imagined so many of the exhibits their money will fund but because they have all seen the interview and know her husband may be one of the men who supplies these artifacts. Suits and goggles, Martian rocks, a replica of a shuttle that will never land on Earthen soil. All of this a departure for a museum that to date is best known for its textile exhibits.
“I couldn’t believe what they made them do on the last episode,” says Muffy Van der Barg, a woman with a rumored inheritance over a quarter- billion dollars. A fist-sized stone, strung on near-invisible links, rests on her creped chest.
Luisa has to apologize. She doesn’t watch the television show—
“My poor dear,” the woman says, “of course you don’t. Who would want to?”
About forty million households thus far, if the ratings are to be believed. Luisa excuses herself before Muffy can launch into a description of this show she has been studiously avoiding. She retreats farther and farther, until she is outside the museum, cigarette trailing from her hand, watching the parking lot that will be one day be her new wing. Sweat gathers in her elbows and the small of her back. Heat waves rise from the pavement, distorting the streetlamps’ glow.
Robert appears at her side, his soft-soled loafers having silenced his walk down the marble steps. “It must be hard,” he says, handing her a fresh glass of champagne.
Luisa sips, the bubbles fizzing unpleasantly at her nose. “We weren’t doing well, before he left. But I can’t say that.”
“No,” he says, “I suppose you couldn’t.”
She twirls the glass, watches sweat bead to its surface.
“You really don’t watch?” he asks.
“I feel like I’m watching a character.” The first episode is the only she’s attempted so far, and she didn’t make it further than the first challenge before shutting it off. The way Jon described himself in his introduction, the way he smiled for the camera, even the way he held his shoulders back as he walked to the suit room, where they competed to select the correctly- sized outfit—none of it felt familiar to her. The man on screen looked like Jon, but at such a remove that she couldn’t connect him to the person she’s known for the last decade.
“For what it’s worth, I think one of the women will win. The crew is only a third female right now.”
“Sure.” She can guess at his reading: an op-ed from just that morning, decrying the sissified nanny state that led the Space Force to refer to “crewed” rather than “manned” space flights.
“Political correctness usually wins. Natasha would be my bet.” Robert offers a hand and Luisa ignores it.
“I was joking. She’s the most capable, clearly—come on.”
And, because Robert signs her paychecks, Luisa lifts a hand to his. “I don’t think I’ll mind if he wins,” she says. “We can call it the Jon Gonders Memorial Hall. We can put a wax figure of him in the entrance.”
“A statue out front. Maybe a fountain, throw in your coins. Subtle fundraising.”
“We can offer a widow-led tour for our major donors.”
“There’s an idea.” Robert’s gaze vanishes into the parking lot for a minute, the streetlights bolting off his glasses, before he leads her back to the party, the donors, all the things he likes to label the “dirty business of philanthropy.” The widow’s tour, Luisa thinks as they step inside. She is almost pleased with her idea, and with the thought that this event is her first opportunity to practice the role.
The week after the fundraiser, Jon begins to call at night. “Is this being recorded?” Luisa asks. “Is this going to end up as footage to make you seem more compelling?”
“No,” says Jon. “I mean, they’re filming on my end. But the call isn’t being recorded.”
Luisa doesn’t believe him. But she can sit on the line, she figures, and wait him out. “How do you feel?”
“Not bad. The rations are getting old, but that’s part of it, I guess. And I’m worried about the isolation challenges.”
“You should be good at that.”
Jon’s exhalation is almost violent against the receiver. “They’re telling me I have to go,” he says. “I love you.”
To Luisa’s surprise his calls continue, every night between seven and eight. To her surprise, she looks forward to them. When they cease after a few weeks, when she realizes he must now be in the isolation phase of the competition, she is adrift and unsure how to move through their apartment. It isn’t the feeling that she’s lost him, because she’s felt apart from him for so long; it’s just that the loss now feels somehow reiterated.
The second night without a call, Luisa doesn’t resist tuning in to the now-constant stream of the competitors’ activities. Each astronaut sits in a dimly-lit capsule so small they could stretch out their arms and press their hands to opposing walls. A chyron at the bottom of the screen encourages viewers to vote for their favorite astronaut, and to text donations to the Space Force. On the righthand side of the screen, a public comment stream flows too quickly for Luisa to make out more than a word here or there: love, WOW, Jon! When the feed shifts to Jon, she moves closer to the screen, trying to sense in his hunched shoulders, the book open on his lap, whether he is struggling, or thinking of her, or thinking of anything at all. She can’t tell, and when the feed moves to the next contestant she turns off the television. She does not cast a vote.
Luisa does not in her heart believe the Space Force will succeed. NASA hasn’t launched a mission in decades, and a rebranding seems insufficient to staunch its woes, however popular Astronaut Academy may be. She suspects Robert doesn’t believe, either, but is pleased that their unspoken doubts don’t stop either of them from pursuing the museum’s new wing. Reality need not place any limits on their ambitions.
The parking lot vanishes, replaced by billowing dust and torn asphalt. One of the junior curators sources a basketball-sized meteorite, which Luisa exhibits alongside a glass case in which patrons can stuff dollar bills. She plots an exhibit around the textiles of space: fireproof astronaut uniforms, and waffle-weaved long johns, and the inflatable living capsules promised to be part of the Martian mission. Trying to form a bridge between the present-day textile museum and Robert’s imagined rival to the National Air & Space.
It is Jon’s tenth day in isolation when Robert asks Luisa to stay late. “We might have a new funder,” he says, “and this man has some ideas.” She thinks, at first, that the funder is only a figment Robert has crafted to distract her—but the man is real, a major yarn manufacturer interested in donating if they can assure him the woolen arts will be properly highlighted in the new wing.
“We can do a case on merino t-shirts,” Luisa says. “Wool air filters. I’ve already been working on long johns.”
Robert writes this: merino, air filters, long johns.
“How much are they donating?” she asks.
“We’re looking at a million.”
“And a gift shop partnership. Stuffed astronaut sheep. Wool keychains that look like comets. That sort of thing.”
Luisa leans her chin into her fist and watches Robert. She has worked for him almost as long as she has known Jon, a fact that has never previously occurred to her—how much of her life tracks alongside these two men. “Do you think people really want to see these things?”
He stops writing. “Maybe they aren’t so interested in seeing it,” he admits. “But make it interactive—let them touch the suits, or wear an astronaut’s t-shirt—that’s different. People want to feel like they’re a part of something.”
Luisa tries to recall what type of shirt Jon was wearing, the last time she watched Astronaut Academy. It’s been over a week, and her memory of him is vague. Just the top of his head, his hand turning a page. The show has slogged into a stretch with no obvious challenges, only the interminable wait for four of eight contestants to declare themselves unfit for the lonely rigors of space. Instead of their usual gossip, Luisa’s colleagues have begun to complain about the unbroken, indistinguishable nature of time on Astronaut Academy. “They could just be showing the same day again and again,” her assistant said that morning.
“Maybe I can get us one of Jon’s shirts,” Luisa says. “From the show.” As soon as the suggestion emerges she regrets it. She is not sure what compelled these words from her. But then Robert smiles. He reaches across the desk and for just a moment rests his hand on top of hers, not in a way that feels romantic—Luisa assures herself of this, when she thinks of it later—but in a way that only feels human, and comforting, and necessary.
Jon is not sent home. For two weeks it seems none of the contestants will fall and then, all of a sudden, they do: the strain of isolation is heightened as their televisions and books are taken away, as lights turn on and off at random hours, as an oppressive and total silence is piped into their private chambers. The producers have broken their own promise to not revise challenges once they’ve begun, but no one seems to mind—there is general agreement that mere isolation cannot break this pandemic-reared generation, and a relief that the show is once again progressing. In an article debating the chances for each remaining candidate, Jon is described as possessing “a quiet, monk-like strength.”
The million-dollar check from the yarn manufacturer is signed. A banner unfurls on the chain-link fence surrounding the former parking lot, with doctored photographs of children wearing merino “space t-shirts,” asteroids flashing across their chests. Jon calls the night after the fourth contestant has left, surprising Luisa at her desk.
“It isn’t that hard to be alone with your thoughts,” he says. “Which I was worried about.”
Luisa toggles between a few uncharitable responses, settling at last on, “No, I guess it isn’t.” Thinking of a conversation she once tried to have with him, her fear that her body had toggled off a switch without permission, leaving her with the barest memory of how desire had once unspooled through her, touching him. The loss a thing she had never known to anticipate. “Is that so different, really, from before?” he’d said, before claiming it was a joke—as if that was somehow better, to make a joke of her.
The office is empty and feels private, with the motion-sensing hall lights switched off. She sets the phone to speaker and rests it on her desk, staring at her second monitor and deleting emails as Jon talks. He describes his tongue’s adjustment to the bland food, how over two weeks in solitary the minutes and hours and days turned into an amorphous span of time that he was unable to separate out into its component pieces. He talks for so long that Luisa believes him on this point, that he has lost the ability to measure time or his place in it. “It sounds like you’re ready to go to Mars,” she says. “There isn’t anything holding you back now.”
“I still have to do the zero-gravity test. That’s tomorrow—where we go up in the plane.”
“Right,” Luisa says.
“They call it the ‘vomit comet.’”
“Right.” She deletes three more emails. When she looks up, the hall lights have clicked on and Robert is in the door. “I have to go,” she tells Jon. “Good luck with tomorrow.” She feels a need to cover herself, despite her sweater and suit jacket.
“Do you have someone to talk to?” Robert asks. He is still in the doorway. “About all of that?”
Luisa is tempted to tell the truth, which is that she talks to him; but to say that feels like opening herself a degree too far. “I don’t know what I’d say.”
He pulls a chair to her desk. Her phone screen fades to gray, and then black. “He’s got a one-in-four chance now. You should have someone to support you. A therapist. Family.”
But what would Luisa say to them? That the thought of her husband leaving in this way is almost a relief, because it frees her from the slower work of understanding and then extricating herself from the husk of their relationship? That she has felt closer to him in the month of his absence than in the three preceding years? That a part of her wants him to succeed? “I’ve been thinking,” she says, and tells Robert how they might build on the textile exhibit to focus more broadly on materials in space. “I have so many ideas,” she tells him, hoping that he will listen—to her ideas, and nothing else.
Two contestants are so violently ill, vomit unspooling through the air before it slicks, in the increasing gravity, down the front of their suits, that they are both eliminated from Astronaut Academy. One contestant, a man the rough size and shape of a professional linebacker, is not ill at all. Jon vomits in a restrained fashion following the final flight, and is allowed to continue to the final challenges.
There isn’t any doubt now, not for Luisa. “It’s going to be him,” she tells Robert, after watching the clip at his desk. “The other one, he’s just too big.” She has a vague idea that astronauts are a compact class of humans, not on the same scale as jockeys but certainly not so far away, either. Jon, who has always exaggerated his height to 5’10”, is the correct size for interplanetary travel. His competitor is not, and she wonders that he was even allowed to join the show in the first place.
In that case, Robert says, they should begin planning in earnest for Jon’s departure. “I don’t mean to be insensitive,” he says, before describing Jon’s mission as a coup. “It’s only that no other museum can promise such a close view of the rigors and costs of space travel.”
When Jon calls that night, Luisa doesn’t mention his increasing role in the museum’s new wing. Robert is envisioning a rocket suspended from the ceiling in direct imitation of the Kennedy Space Center’s Atlantis shuttle, a video of Jon—“our own civilian astronaut”—on loop. She doesn’t want to expose Jon to any of these ideas, to the suspicion that she might use their relationship for her own gain. She thinks the imagined exhibits are too expensive to ever produce, and in any case Jon will be well-flung toward Mars before they come to fruition. Instead, for the first time, she tells him a different truth: “It’s going to be you.”
“No,” Jon says. “Rick is at just another level of fitness. He’s clearly better.” But even as he speaks, Luisa can locate the lie threading his words. Knows that he feels it as clearly as she does.
“Do you remember when we met?” she asks.
“Tell me,” he says.
“I was at the coffee shop. I went there every Saturday to apply for jobs. And this one day, you sat at the table next to me. You asked if I would drink a coffee with you, and I said I already had one. So you asked if I would get a drink with you instead.” It is hard for her to recall Jon’s face from this day, back when it was only a face with no real significance. A collection of ears, eyes, nose. Mouth. She can more clearly remember the burnt cardboard taste of the coffee.
“You left some things out.”
“I know,” Luisa says.
“I couldn’t think of a way to talk to you. And then this Saturday, I’d finally decided, but every seat was taken. I just sat at the bar, watching in the mirror the whole time for when I could sit with you. And I still didn’t know what to say.”
“Do you ever wonder,” she asks, “what if that man hadn’t left his table?”
Luisa has. They met a month before she accepted the job at the museum, a time when she felt faced only with possibility, when it felt like a comfort to close off some of her paths. She wonders at this now, why she felt so sure in dismissing her body’s cues, at how easy it is to accede to a person, a job, a life, knowing they aren’t right. “I’m going to miss you,” she says.
He is silent.
“Tell me about your next challenge.”
He tells her how in the morning they will be repeating mental challenges to exhaustion. They’ll be suited in the pool to simulate zero- gravity, and beneath the water they’ll manipulate torso-sized Rubik’s Cubes, they’ll draw foam puzzle pieces into position on the tiled floor. Challenges with enough of a visual element that viewers won’t complain again of boredom.
“Do you feel prepared?”
“Sure,” Jon says.
She doesn’t think he is being honest. She doesn’t think he really feels prepared. How could anyone? When they hang up she sees they have talked for twenty minutes, their longest conversation since he left for the show and possibly their longest conversation in years. He is leaving, Luisa reminds herself. He is leaving for a year’s flight, he is leaving for a planet so cold that she is only able to comprehend it as a kind of heat—as a cold that burns. He is leaving for a planet where he will, suddenly, weigh seventy pounds instead of nearly two hundred. But these are only facts, and though she cannot stop herself accounting for them, she is no longer sure whether they mean anything at all.
The wool manufacturer sends a box of micro-fiber merino shirts. The enclosed letter details their resistance to odor, allowing them to be worn for weeks on end. “There’s no laundry in space” is underlined twice, a fact which Luisa stores for use in a future exhibit. She tucks one of the shirts into her purse and later, in the bathroom, slips it on beneath her sweater. The fabric is silken and cool. “What about selling these in the gift shop?” she asks Robert when she brings the remaining garments for his inspection. Each one costs hundreds of dollars, money woven into the moisture-resistant wool and stitched into doubled seams. He likes the idea enough that Luisa’s assistant spends the afternoon on the phone with the manufacturer.
When Jon calls that night, Luisa doesn’t want to hear about the challenges. He describes them anyway. She is at their apartment, holding the hem of her shirt between thumb and forefinger as Jon talks about trying to slot puzzle pieces into place with the weight of all that water pressing down on him. “It won’t feel like that in space,” he says. “None of this is anything like what it’ll be in space.”
What he is saying, but isn’t saying: that he made it through. That it’s going to be him. “You’ll figure it out,” Luisa says. “They’ll put you through the normal training program, with everyone else.”
“But they won’t.” He explains one of the puzzles, how he couldn’t figure it out. Which way to turn the pieces, the water’s weight, how he could hear his own breath percolating through the suit. He will be home tomorrow.
Luisa smooths the shirt’s fabric. For so many days she has told herself the story of his going, and now she is unsure how to compose herself to this new reality. Perhaps it is not so different from the old reality, how things were before he left. “I’m sorry,” she says, first because she thinks she should and then because it is true. “I’m so sorry. You must feel—”
“They’ll still want to do some interviews,” he says, “since I was a finalist.” He tells her to expect a call from one of the producers, they’ll want to interview her solo, and then together. A special episode rounding out the contestants’ lives.
She wears the shirt to bed. Before lying down she opens the closet and each dresser drawer, thinks of how they would have looked half-emptied. Not bad.
Jon’s loss is big news. It is the only news. Former astronauts appear on television to discuss the difficulty the winner, such an oddly-sized crew member, will present—how he won’t be able to share in the store of standard-sized suits the astronauts normally use. There’s an exhibit in that, Luisa thinks, and when she shares the thought with Robert he touches the back of her hand in what she now recognizes as his only available gesture of sympathy. It is a move, she suspects, that she will one day find illustrated in the dog-eared managerial handbook wedged amidst the knitting books shelved behind his desk. A page labeled “consensual non-sexual touch,” she thinks, sliding her hand back to her lap.
She leaves work early to be home when Jon arrives with the producers. The cameras appear first, armed with questions: “How did you feel when you imagined your husband was going to be a hero of the space age? Did you always see Jon’s interest in space travel? What do you think he might have contributed, as the first Martian biologist? How do you feel, with him coming home?” There is a role to play here: the woman rescued, at the last moment, from grievous widowhood. Though she has just left the office the producer insists they return so she can be filmed typing at her desk, and standing before the wasteland of the future wing. The makeup woman, who between every shot runs forward to powder Luisa’s forehead, hands her a jacket they say Jon wore through most of his trials. “Hold it to your face,” the woman says. “Smell it.” For minutes Luisa presses her nose to the jacket as the cameraman gathers angles. It is glossy, it smells like detergent. They blot wet Q-tips around her eyes, “for the shot,” and when they drive back to the apartment and Jon is waiting for her Luisa is surprised to find herself crying, really crying. Her face blotching but the producer happy.
“I guess I should apologize,” is the first thing Jon says, brushing her ear so the mics can’t pick it up, and she doesn’t know how to answer—how to explain that even she isn’t sure why the tears.
“I was ready to donate all your things,” she says, but this isn’t right. There is no way to reach the place she wants to go—to imprint her story on him in the way he has her. For the rest of her life, she thinks, she will be only the wife of the man who nearly went to Mars; for the rest of his life he will remain himself, Jon Gonders.
The crew follows them inside, to see them side by side on the sofa, hands clutched. Leaning into each other and sharing a beer, Jon’s first in months. After they leave, Luisa is unsure how to behave or even where to look. To speak to Jon’s face feels unnatural after so many weeks with the phone pressed to her ear. “Are they going to air it?” she asks. “All our conversations?”
“Maybe,” says Jon, and then, “Yes.”
He pats the sofa, as if trying to remember it. The top button of his shirt is still undone from when they unclipped his microphone. Luisa cannot feel her face beneath the layers of powder.
“I can sleep out here tonight,” he says.
“Robert will probably want you to come out for the exhibit. You’ll be such a big draw. It’ll be a real boost for the museum.”
By eight they are both feigning exhaustion. Nothing more to say. Luisa starts to collect the extra blankets and pillows for him, but of course he knows where these are, it’s his home as well, and finally she retreats herself to the bedroom where she can listen, from this safe distance, as he readies himself for sleep.
The launch is confirmed for early June, only six weeks away. The new wing won’t be complete, but Robert decides they can still open the exhibit to coincide with the launch: they will use temporary cases, it will be a final fundraising push. Astronaut Academy airs updates on the winner’s training, and updates on the losers, and because of this—because of all their conversations packaged for public consumption—Luisa feels no guilt at driving boxes of Jon’s clothes and video games and books to the museum. “On temporary loan” is how the pieces will be labeled, but they could stay forever, that is her thinking. She and Jon move around the apartment like wrong-sided magnets, always bumping away from each other, and there must be an action to perform or a decision to make but there is so much work at the museum—and Jon has so much to do as well, figuring out his next step in life, calling his former employer, submitting dozens of job applications, managing interview requests about the show.
Luisa outsources most of the launch planning to her assistant, billing it as “a great development opportunity.” This a piece of trickery she recalls from her own early days at the museum, when for eight hours a day she sat before the door of Robert’s predecessor and would seize on any non- administrative task offered. The girl reports her progress daily, telling Luisa all about the loaned screens on which they will stream the launch (“life- size,” supposedly) and the plastic champagne flutes with clots of starred black galaxy trailing down their stems. “It sounds amazing,” Luisa says, and “You’re doing great work.” Increasingly she finds that she wants only to rest her face on the desk and remain there, prone, until all these responsibilities have passed her by. She thinks all the things she cannot yet muster the strength to say: I don’t care about wool, and I’m tired of this exhibit, and I want a divorce.
With two weeks to go, in late May, the apartment’s air conditioning breaks. It is already broaching a hundred degrees, and watching Jon prod at the unit like he’s equipped to repair it, Luisa has this moment—just a moment—when she thinks of the alternate version of his life. How close he came to being someone with a bolded name buried in a history book, the first man to raise potatoes and crickets on Martian soil. “I can figure it out,” he insists, and for days Luisa swelters in her space-capable merino shirt before he admits defeat and calls the landlord. How is it possible, she wonders, that this man was nearly declared humanity’s future, and all because he can sit quietly in a room by himself. She can do this as well as him and all their days feel like they are trying to prove this to each other, their ken for silence, the minutes and hours dragging uncomfortably behind them until they arrive at launch day, when they stitch themselves into their black tie wear and make the apposite remarks on how nice they look.
Her recent involvement has been so slight that Luisa is able to feel something like awe, seeing the exhibit. All the construction equipment is gone, and the watered ground has a Martian tendency, dirt tinted red by the temporary lights staked around the site. Blue-lit Lucite boxes hold ribbed gloves and boots and helmets, just one item per box both to stretch the collection and, she thinks, to give more room for reflection. “This is what we’ve made.” One broad rectangular box holds twenty Merino shirts, all facing forward above a drawing of the rocket’s path to Mars. Waiters in white jumpsuits circulate with glasses of wine, and despite the evening swelter and the crowd, all their questions and babble, Luisa admits that her assistant has done a good job. More than a good job, she has done a better job than Luisa would have. She couldn’t picture any of this, and now here it all is, the launch screen positioned so it’s framed by the museum’s white columns just across the street, so that at no point in the evening can their guests forget where they are, who made this night possible. She holds a glass of wine, Jon has vanished into a cluster of potential donors, the wool manufacturer is at her elbow wanting to discuss the gift shop partnership. A collective gasp, hundreds of breaths as one, when the screen flickers on to the launchpad, its trembling rocket.
Robert finds Luisa before she can think herself invisible: already, he has a fifty thousand-dollar check folded in his pocket. “And more where that came from!” he exclaims, toasting her. She recalls her first days at the museum, when Robert was a Special Projects Manager and would walk her through his exhibits, hand brushing her lower back, guiding her.
“That’s amazing,” she says, and reminds him that it was her assistant who did all this work. A glimpse of Jon, encircled and enthralled, it looks, by his own story. Everyone is gathering, as if by instinct, before the screen, and then the audio comes on—there is a moment of silence and then the sound of all that future, thrudding beneath their feet. “Excuse me, excuse me,” Luisa whispers to people who are not listening, overcome by the need to not be in this crowd, to not be among them in the moment.
On the street, the sound falls away. No one is out, everyone is watching the launch; no cars or buses pass. Luisa finds herself on the wrong side of the screen, but gazing at it she can find the outlines of the ship and imagine its trajectory. The faint tap of heels to her left, at the other end of the screen: Jon. For a minute they look at each other, she looks at him and marks all his features she must by now know: ears, nose, mouth. They are beginning the countdown. Ten, nine, eight… She turns away to face the screen. It is beginning, now.
*This story originally appeared in The Florida Review 46.2.