Published Essay: The Space Between

krista houstoun

This essay was originally published in fall 2015 issue of The Los Angeles Review.

THE SPACE BETWEEN

 

The last time I saw him he was wearing all black. “Look for me, the man in black. Like that movie,” he chuckled. “All black.” As if I wouldn’t be able to recognize my own dad.

It had been four years since we last saw each another, with only a few phone calls scattered throughout that time. That space. We agreed to meet at a brewery in Flagstaff, Arizona, the college town I lived in. There he was, outer-space black from head to toe as promised, everything noticeably the same about him except his waist was drastically smaller and his nose—my nose—slightly bigger. He was in protest then. Of the government. Specifically, the NSA. The intelligence agency was responsible for the “complete and total demise” of his “multi-million-dollar real estate company” in Puerto Peñasco, Mexico, he claimed. The Sonoran beach town had been his home ever since his second wife left him. The Sonoran beach town, the black hole that finally took him.

***

What we can’t see matters.

In the spacetime region of a black hole, gravity prevents anything from ever escaping, even light. Once you’re in, you’re in. Gravity’s got you. Black holes continue to grow in this way, by absorbing mass in full from their surroundings. A dark parasite feeding itself on light. That’s what we know.

What we don’t know is what goes on inside the darkness. Unable to reflect back the light it consumes, no object outside of a black hole will ever be able to observe the guts of it. The only way to know the dark is to become it.

As the boundary line from which no escape from the engulfing gravitational pull of a black hole is possible, event horizons, you would think, would come with some warning signs. Such a fateful point in spacetime must surely tap you on the shoulder when you’re getting too close. Pssst. Hey, you. You’re about to lose everything. Not the case. For having such massive implications for the objects it consumes, there are no detectable features of event horizons. No “wrong way” sign posts for the point of no return. We say, “be safe out there,” but how does one even do that when red flags are void?

It’s no wonder we’re afraid of the dark.

***

My last image of dad four years before this Flagstaff brewery meeting was him zooming away from my mom’s Phoenician driveway in his blue, drop-top BMW. Now, he was passing through Flagstaff, hitchhiking his way from Mexico to Washington, DC, where he was set to meet with President Obama. He was set to be sent to the moon. To make up for his losses, which seemed fair to him.

“I know it seems crazy as fuck, babe. But,” he points his fork at me, chomping up and down on his last bite of potatoes as he speaks, “when the truth of this all comes out, you and everyone else who thinks I’m crazy is going to shit bricks!” He washes down the potatoes with a sip of beer, smiling the smile of a child who really believes. “A thousand fucking bricks, Krista, I’m telling you!”

I turn the corners of my lips upward and widen my eyes, pitching my eyebrows into a tent, nodding at him but not saying what I don’t believe: in him. I chug the last fourth of my beer.

“Look at my baby girl, drinking a beer. All grown up.”

“I’m 24. Been grown up for a decade.”

He laughs his childish laugh, this man who never grew up, as he rolls down the black sleeves he rolled up only an hour prior when we were seated. He’s uncomfortable; our time is coming to an end. I slide my yellow jacket around my left arm and then my right, zipping up into myself as quick as possible, agreeing with him: a quick goodbye.

In the parking lot he alludes to needing a ride. I have plans, I tell him. The years have made me stronger.

“Alright, babe. Just one thing before I go then.”

“K.”

“You see that star up there, to the right of that small cloud?” His shaky finger points the path to the star.

“Yeah.”

“That’s Alpha Andromedae, the brightest star in the Andromeda galaxy.” This was my real dad talking. An Art Bell fanatic, he had been obsessed with the sky for as long as I’d known him.

“Cool,” I say, genuinely meaning it. I had inherited the interest.

“Keep your eyes on it, okay?”

“K.” I roll my eyes, knowing what’s coming next.

“I’m going to move that star across the sky—with my mother fuckin’ eye balls!” That laugh again.

Time moves between us. Space moves around us. The invisible sun moves through the visible outer-space black at about 30 kilometers per second. Dad moves his eyes back and forth in rapid succession, squinting so hard the lines carve deep on his forehead and I see my future in his face. My face. Alpha Andromedae does not move. A part of me wished it would have. A shrinking part of me. But a part of me still.

“Did you see that?! Swoosh!” He gestures his finger from where Alpha Andromedae is to where only he saw it go. “Damn! How about that? Your daddy can move the stars!”

***

The Andromeda galaxy is the closest spiral galaxy to Earth, named after King Cepheus’ daughter in Greek mythology, who was punished for her mother Cassiopeia’s crimes. Cursed by Poseidon to bondage upon a sea cliff, she waited for her fate: an imminent giant sea monster in route to devour her. Thank the lucky stars for Perseus flying by on his winged horse, spying Andromeda below, falling in love with her in an instant. Did it help that she was naked? There’s rarely a period of discovery in fairytales. Just lightening-quick obsession and over-the-top vows. And we say be safe out there. There may be no warning signs but we can still be smart.

Perseus vowed to save her, on only one condition: After he slayed the beast and unshackled her, would she chain herself to him? Marriage. She accepted. She was saved. The princess from the monster, saved. The damsel from the distress, saved. Andromeda, the original helpless gangster. Saved.

***

Perseus didn’t questioned it but Picasso was so sure: “For me there are only two types of women: goddesses and doormats.” The damsel in distress, which is she?

***

Mom’s whole life she wanted to relocate to the land of the free. She had an uncle who lived in America and ever since he first visited Germany when she was a child, she knew America was the place for her. She didn’t want to be like her small town or its religion that made her feel small. She wanted to be high fashion and cool music and cowboy boots. She wanted to be sex and rock and roll. She wanted to be compassion and passion both. Not this or that, she wanted to be this and that. She wanted to be possibility.

And that, she knew, wasn’t possible in small-town Germany. A Germany that was smoldering ashes and ghosts. A Germany that was shackles and sea monster both.

“When you get older, you will come live with me in America, okay?!” Her uncle told her when she was still young.

“Ja, Onkel! Ich werde!” I will: A dream she held onto with white knuckles until the day her uncle died, when she was eleven. Before she was able to get older. At 16 she became pregnant and realized how easily life stacks up against dreams. But to say she gave up would be a lie; she knew escape was still possible.

Mom was twenty-five when she met dad in Germany. He, twenty. According to her and confirmed by the pictures, he was handsome back then. Back then, untainted by the drugs and the booze. She met him not by chance: she hung around American bars near the base as often as a single mom could. There he was in all green. All green except for the brown cowboy boots. He’d do. Mom and dad moved through spacetime so fast and gravity sucked at their hearts so hard that in no time he asked her to come to America. Under only one condition. Marriage? She accepted.

Saved.

When I was young dad told me when he saw mom walk across the bar that night, that she carried herself like a true goddess. “Her presence, it was huge. Everyone watched her,” he said, “everyone wanted her. I won.” At what point did she shrink to become his doormat? Event horizon: Undetectable, particularly in the throes of tunnel vision.

***

The Andromeda Galaxy is headed for the Milky Way. In four to five billion years Andromeda will collide into the Milky Way by way of gravitational tide. Andromeda, the larger galaxy of the two, will fuse with the Milky Way, resulting in one larger, more irregular galaxy. Galactic cannibalism, where the larger galaxy consumes the smaller. Galactic cannibalism, where two become one.

***

Like mom, my own rescue offer arrived when I was twenty-five. I didn’t see it coming.

A simple life? She proposed. It was February and cold and, from every point in time except the moment, too soon. Lightening quick obsession and over-the-top vows. I said yes before I said no. Everybody wants security.

Her parents disapproved. Said their love and her inheritance had conditions. Gendered ones, specifically. She loved her parents and she loved money; she loved me and she loved love. Two opposing gravities that pulled her apart.

“How do you think they’d feel about a sex change?” I joked and we laughed for a while. But like all jokes, all of it came to an end.

Not joking: “Will you actually marry me? Set the date and tell your parents. Secure me.” Which gravity had the stronger pull? She, with her heart-red hair and freckles like constellations, couldn’t decide. Wouldn’t. So I did it for her. “Walk away, Krista,” my mom said to me, more than a decade after her and dad divorced, “before it’s too late. Love doesn’t dim, it enlightens. You aren’t stuck. I’m begging you. Walk away.” I didn’t walk away, I ran. Unshackled myself from the cliff and launched myself in my own un-fused galaxy while escape was still possible. We cannot see black holes but we can guess the presence of one by measuring its effect on objects around it. I measured myself. There are no warning signs but we can still be smart.

***

“As Noah was spoken to in the desert one crazy day, to do the insane, so was your father. In fact, what I’m typing now is dictated to me by none other than Mr. Jesus Christ Almighty himself. There will be a classic interception between myself and some extra terrestrials. (Okay, hold your pants on, babe.) They were described to me by Mr. Jesus six years ago as being the ones that have been administering, after the installation—           

“—The installation, by which he means the planting of visual projection equipment into his brain by ‘Mister Jesu—”

“You can’t get it, you know,” my therapist says, cutting off my diatribe.

“…Get what?”

“Schizophrenia. You don’t have to worry about ever getting it.”

“Oh. Yeah?” I say as calm as possible, posing as less excited than I am. Everybody needs security and it’s my greatest fear. “Why can’t I?”

“You don’t have the goods.” She smiles.

“No?”

She shakes her knowing head from side to side. “Nope. Impossible.”

“You’re sure?”

“Krista, I’m the fucking President of the Arizona Psychoanalytic Association. Do you not trust that I know a little bit about what I’m doing by now?” I laugh; trust’s not my thing. “So you can let go of that fear now, got it?”

“Got it… But. It is hereditary though. Right?”

“It certainly can be. His, though, is drug-induced. The bipolar, however, that’s where you’re lucky. A one in four chance of that not being passed down.”

“Damn.”

“Yeah. Damn is right. You can thank your lucky stars.”

***

Outer space isn’t always so scary.

Alpha Andromedae is a binary star system—two stars orbiting a common center of mass, with an orbit so tight that to the naked eye it appears to be a single point of light. Some binary stars are so close in their gravitational connection that they can exchange mass, evolving in ways that single stars cannot. Becoming something greater than what would be possible alone. They’re in it together, secure but not consumed. Lucky stars.

Gravitational connection is not gravitational cannibalism.

A goddess is not a doormat.

Love is not obsession.

I am not my dad.

***

It’s been six years since I saw him in that brewery parking lot high as the stars. Sometimes he calls from jail or Mexico or Florida or any other place he might be on the planet just to remind me he’s still on it. Last time it was from the Sonoran beach town I’ll never know the insides of, to tell me he’s been working hard on his new book and would I edit it one day? The Life of Jesus Jr.: The Sacrifice of a Daughter. Physically on the planet. On the moon in his mind. Says he loves me and will return, once the “mission adventure” is accomplished. I know his outer-space black moon-mind really believes that. The damsel in me believes it, too.

The goddess, though. That growing part of me moves forward toward the light, every day saving myself from any variety of undetectable destructions. I measure the effects of people around me. Who’s trying to absorb me into a caustic orbit? Who’s consuming, not exchanging, mass? I protect my gravities. The last time I saw dad will be the last time and, though the boundary lines are often unclear, I know now that that is not cruel, but brave. It’s walking away from a small, oppressive town alone. It’s freeing my own self from the cliff. It’s having no warning signs but being smart still. And what other job but that is there for the heroine? Stay in the light. That is all. Wear all black in protest. In mourning. In some strange, sad solidarity. But stay right there, in the light.

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