Death Is Colder Than Space – Cathy Ulrich

While the astronaut’s wife watches the takeoff, her phone vibrates on the end table beside her. The astronaut’s wife is afraid to look away from the television while the rocket is taking off. She reaches for her phone without looking, stares at the screen, the rocket growing small, small, small, until it is gone.

The astronaut’s wife looks at her phone, sees the text from her mother: It’s your Cousin Devyn.

 

The astronaut has been to space before. The astronaut is always going to space. She says it’s cold there, not winter-cold, a swallowing, devouring cold.

You could swim in it, she says.

The astronaut always says, before she leaves for space, to her wife: I have to go. You understand.

She always says you understand.

 

The astronaut’s wife hasn’t seen her cousin Devyn since they were children. She remembers Cousin Devyn always had scraped knees and liked to pinch her behind her elbows when no one was looking. She can’t remember if Cousin Devyn was older or younger, a boy or a girl, or neither, or both. The only thing the astronaut’s wife feels when she thinks of Cousin Devyn is a soreness at the back of both her elbows.

The pain is similar to the sensation she gets when she watches the news play footage of the rocket taking off again, a sort of hollowing out, a sort of catch, in her throat.

The astronaut’s wife watches the rocket launch footage, remembers how to breathe.

 

They let the astronaut send a message home on the third day. The astronaut always sends the same message.

Wish you were here, she says, smiles into the video recorder, swallows down an emptiness in the back of her throat. She puts her left hand to her chest reflexively.

I wish you were here.

 

At the funeral, the astronaut’s wife wears one of the astronaut’s dress suits. The sleeves are too long; she curls her hands into fists, hides them inside. The astronaut’s wife sits beside her mother, who keeps dabbing at her eyes with a tissue.

So young, says her mother.

The astronaut’s wife reads the obituary on the back of the memorial folder. It doesn’t say anything about scraped knees or pinched elbows. The astronaut’s wife tries to remember.

You two, her mother says, used to be so close.

 

When they were girls, the astronaut and her wife would sneak out of their houses at night, run barefoot through the empty street together, hands clasped. The astronaut had such long hair then, wore it in a ponytail, looked up at the stars, went on dates with boys, such nice boys, her mother said.

The astronaut’s wife sat with her knees tucked to her chin at her bedroom window, watched boys’ cars pull out of the astronaut’s driveway. The astronaut, in the passenger seat, always saw her, always waved, goodbye, goodbye, goodbye.

 

After the funeral, the astronaut’s wife rides with her mother to the reception. Her mother baked an apple pie, has the astronaut’s wife carry it inside. The astronaut’s wife stands in the kitchen with the apple pie in her arms as people around her say hola, hola, say it’s been so long.

The astronaut’s wife has been studying hippopotamuses.

She says: Did you know they can outrun a human?

Her mother comes, finally, and takes the pie from her daughter’s hands, sets it on the counter.

It’s apple, she says, and everyone smiles.

 

In space, the astronaut floats. She kicks her legs out behind her like a swimmer, touches the sides of the shuttle to remind herself there really are such things as walls. The other astronauts are playing a word game where you say a word that starts with the last letter of the last word. None of them can remember what it’s called.

Hearse, say the other astronauts, echo, opossum, motorcade.

They look out at the earth, look down at the earth.

Can you believe, they say to each other, that’s our home? That small thing?

They always say this.

The astronaut holds her hand out in front of her face, pinches her fingers together like she is holding the tiny earth between them.

Enormous, she says.

Small, she says.

 

The astronaut’s wife looks out the car window as her mother drives her home, counts the streetlights, says, when I look up at the sky, I feel this emptiness, touches her throat, right here.

She says: What is that?

Loneliness, says her mother without looking.

Oh, says the astronaut’s wife. I thought it might be something else.

Cathy Ulrich

Cathy Ulrich doesn’t grow daisies and she doesn’t look at the stars. She does like CCR, though. Her work has been published in various journals, including Atticus Review, Former Cactus and Black Warrior Review.

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