B&W circle

Anything but the Sky

Cathy Ulrich

The astronaut is going back to space soon.
            Outer space, she says. I’m going back to outer space.
            The astronaut hunches, sometimes, from the heaviness of her own body on earth. Her wife sees the curve of her spine, thinks of elephant trunk, giraffe neck, soft hippopotamus ear. She runs her feather-tip fingers over the astronaut’s staircase spine, says: Have you gotten shorter? Or have I grown taller?

When they dressed that morning for the day out (the astronaut called it a day out, said to her wife I am taking you out), the astronaut couldn’t remember if the blue sneakers in the bottom of the closet were hers or her wife’s.
            It doesn’t matter, said her wife, if you want to wear them.
            The astronaut slid her feet into the shoes, left them unlaced, thought they felt unfamiliar, thought but doesn’t everything?

The astronaut and her wife went to the beach, left the blue sneakers in the car, left the astronaut’s wife’s sandals too, went barefoot into the sand like children. The astronaut was singing about werewolves and London; the astronaut was thinking of the roll of the waves, the closeness of the moon.
            Her wife’s hands were closer.
            She took hold of one and pulled her wife into the cold water, ankle-deep, looked back, sang awoooh, waited for the smile.
            The astronaut’s wife was talking about hippopotamuses, carpentry, the sound of toadsong at night. She said The ocean is beautiful today.

There is a lady figure in a hula skirt on the dashboard of the astronaut’s car. When they drive, she bobbles, bobbles.
            The astronaut’s wife keeps her fingers trailing out the window, says I like the wind.
            The astronaut says I know, and the radio croons something about beasts of burden, and they look at the road ahead, the passing cars, the signs, the trees, and anything, anything but the sky.

Next door to the astronaut’s favorite kitsch store is a new pizza place. It has an organ under tarp in the corner that the owner promises will be ready soon, ready to go, big smile, like the old pizza places with the pipe organs.
            He says: You remember those places?
            He says: You remember?
            The astronaut and her wife order a cheese pizza, share it at a corner table, lean in toward each other the way they sometimes do, foreheads nearly touching. The astronaut is wearing her wife’s sandals.
            The astronaut’s wife burns her mouth on some melting cheese, places the lip of her cola glass to her face to soothe it.
            The astronaut takes her wife’s free hand, says I hate when you are hurt.

The kitsch store is very quiet and empty. The kitsch store is always very quiet and empty. The astronaut loves the sound of the chime at the door when she opens it.
            The astronaut finds a phone that looks like the rotary phone at their home, except it is red instead of black. She twists the dial, twists the dial, twists the dial.
            When the astronaut and her wife were girls together, the astronaut’s parents had a rotary phone. Boys would call her on that phone; boys would pick her up in their cars, take her on dates, take her out.
            Oh, says the astronaut’s wife. Right, Johnny from math class.
            I don’t think any of them were named Johnny.
            The astronaut’s wife shrugs. They all seemed like Johnnies to me.

When the astronaut and her wife were girls, they met through window screen at night, fingertip-pressing, leaning toward each other, foreheads nearly touching.

Look, says the astronaut’s wife. Look what I found.
            She has a children’s bent-spine book in her hands, Touch and Say book.
            Look, she says, opens to page with hippopotamus, says: I had this, I think. I had this when I was young.
            The astronaut runs her fingers over the page, pianist-delicate, says: Oh, it’s not what I expected.
            She says It’s not what I expected at all.

            space break

To Float and not Fall

The astronaut’s wife lies on the floor like a deflated balloon. She is looking up at the ceiling, imagining the stars above the sky above that. She is listening to the sound of the house creaking, to the buzz of the rotary phone taken off its hook, to the clatter of vases as they settle on their shelves.
            Her cell phone is on the floor beside her, battery drained. She touches the flat of its screen with her fingertips. She thinks of the sky above and above and above.

The astronaut is sending a message home from space. It is the same message she always sends.
            She smiles for the video, chin quavering. Reaches for the screen as if there is something there she could really touch, stops herself short.
            Says: I wish you were here.

While the astronaut is gone, her wife is invited to a quinceañera for one of her nieces. The astronaut’s wife can never remember any of her niece’s names. She calls them all mija.
            The astronaut’s wife has two older brothers who live in white-painted houses with green-grass yards. She grew up in a house like that; the astronaut too. Their house now is bigger, emptier, louder at night. The astronaut’s wife sleeps on the floor while the astronaut is in space, wakes aching-backed and cold. She dips herself in cold-water clawed bathtub, lavender nightgown-clad.
            You look like a ghost, her mother says when she comes to pick her up.
            Her mother touches the top of her daughter’s head.
            She says: I’m glad your hair is growing back, and the astronaut’s wife thinks of the soft sound of her hair dropping to the ground as she sheared it off, how she had halfway expected it to float and not fall.

There are balloons at the quinceañera, and a local band with a flugelhorn, and craft beer in bottles for the adults. The astronaut’s wife carries one of the bottles around with her, puts it up to her mouth from time to time. Her little nieces hug her around the legs, Tia, Tia, except the oldest in her pretty quinceañera dress, who gives her a small gesture between a nod and a bow.
            When people talk to the astronaut’s wife, they ask her about the astronaut.
            Where is she now? they say.
            There, she says, and points at the sky, changes her mind, points farther to the right. Or there.
            The astronaut’s wife is well versed in facts about hippopotamuses. She shares some popular ones, she smiles, she puts the craft beer bottle to her mouth.
            Her mother says What a lovely party.

When the astronaut was a girl, her parents took her to the ocean. She remembers how the waves roiled, how she tried to float but was pushed down and down again. She sent a postcard home to the girl in her neighborhood who she would later marry, had been thinking of the girl’s checkered skirts, her small hands, thin fingers. The postcard had a picture of the ocean at sunset on it, orange and orange and orange.
            She wrote on the back: Wish you were here.

One of the little nieces gives the astronaut’s wife a yellow balloon to hold.
            Thank you, mija, says the astronaut’s wife.
            She thinks of tying the balloon string around the craft beer bottle neck to make it stay, she thinks of heaviness, she thinks of weight.
            Her oldest brother comes up beside her, says You haven’t been answering your phone.
            It needs to charge, she says, pulls it out of her skirt pocket, shows him the night-black screen.
            She’ll be home soon, you know, her brother says.
            The astronaut’s wife nods. I know, she says.

In space, the astronaut closes her eyes, floats the way she wishes she could have done when her parents took her to the ocean, runs her thumb over her bottom lip, thinks: Wish you were here.

The astronaut’s wife is telling her oldest brother about the difference between weight and mass. He shifts from foot to foot, says, They’re growing up, aren’t they, and he means all the little nieces.
            They are, says the astronaut’s wife, Oh, they are, and she lets go of the yellow balloon and lets go of the beer bottle, and waits to see which will fall and which will float.

Cathy Ulrich remembers there used to be a pizza place in her town with an organ and sometimes there were bubbles. She might have imagined the part about the bubbles. Her work has been published in various journals, including Bull, Cream City Review, and Craft Literary.