WOMEN IN SPACE
Mary was going places before it happened. I knew she didn’t want to get pregnant because she’d been talking about leaving Troy and going back to school in the new year.
“Well, it could always be worse,” I said. We were in line at the deli underneath our temp office. The baby was kicking from the inside and Mary adjusted her pants.
“No, it couldn’t,” she said. But when the little one finally popped out, she was overjoyed and ecstatic.
“My baby looks like Troy!” she cried, tears of happiness glazing her face.
It looked a little like Troy, but I was too sapped out to tell her that. I’d just finished holding Mary’s hand as she huffed and puffed for eight hours. The O.B. nurse jiggled the baby and made cooing sounds at his wrinkled turtle head. Mary gave off halting laughter. Troy Sr. was away in the oilfields.
Troy Jr. was born on September first and a few days later something even bigger happened. 216-Klaus was a relatively small asteroid, shaped like a dog-bone, and trapped in orbit around Venus’s moon. Scientists couldn’t explain why 216-Klaus broke away all of a sudden, shifted its axis, and wandered onto a new path heading straight for the International Space Station.
A week later, Mary’s phone rang. She set down Troy Jr. and picked up the receiver. When the call was done, she instinctively dialed my number.
“Oh my God! This is unbelievable!” I said. It was all very random, like a lottery win or an earthquake. Mary understood this was once-in-a-lifetime. So she called back the Space Agency and said yes, that she’d join Mission Klaus for sure.
Mary knew she couldn’t take the baby into space, so she pumped enough breast milk to last it for 30 days. If the mission lagged, Troy Jr. would need formula, she said, sounding upset but brave. “It’ll be okay,” I comforted her. “You’re helping your baby by doing something bigger for mankind.” But we both knew I was lying. Saving a space station would do nothing for a newborn. Mary started crying again. And even though she had postpartum, she passed the Space Agency’s medical examinations with an A++.
Two weeks into training, Mary was fitted for a silver suit and space boots. She sent me a selfie next to the simulation rocket but other than that the text messages stopped coming. Her phone calls petered out. We made a few dates to meet, but at the last minute Mary always cancelled, saying the baby had caught the flu or had an anxious expression on its face.
Once she said she just couldn’t tear herself away from it—Troy Jr. was that sweet, and the upcoming rocket launch made Mary extra sensitive to partings. This all might sound odd, but go ahead and research the history of space travel. Apollo IV had a high school teacher and junior hairstylist on board. VI had housewives, a racecar driver. The Soviets sent cats to the Moon. Odder things have gone up there than Mary, my old best friend.
Mary said I could come to Cape Canaveral but the space program only paid airfare for family, and in those days I could barely afford my one-bedroom rent. Troy was back from the oilfields and flew to Florida with Mary. Troy Jr. went, too, on a special baby seat wedged between Mary’s parents.
As for me, I sat on my Ikea couch and watched Mary’s take-off on TV. At T-minus 17 seconds and counting the rocket started to hiss and shot gray smoke out its bottom. At 11, a swirl of sparks came out the same holes. Then beams of red fire which eventually turned yellow. And finally, all I saw was a puffy trail, white as whipped cream, lifting Mary into the sky.
Mary had warned me. The Internet onboard is fussy and highly dependent on proper angling vis-à-vis the sun. If she established a connection, she’d need to call the baby and after that, Troy Sr., her parents, who looked after the baby weekdays, and her siblings, who were the baby’s uncle and aunt.
I might not hear from her on my birthday, she went on. She might not wish me merry Christmas or a happy New Year that year. She’d already picked up aeronautical lingo I stood no chance of understanding. “I will be subject to a g-force of 1.7, but it will lessen as we gain ground. Consider calling Brenna if you need someone to talk to about a bad date or your fear of dying.” “Okay, Mary, okay. I get it,” I’d said. It was all astronaut jargon for expect to lose touch and I didn’t need to hear it. For a long time, I’d already known. Other women had told me: Expect to lose your best girlfriend if she’s ever called into space.