Space Is Not Empty
And Space Does Not Have To Be Lonely
Nobody can hear a scream in the vacuum of space, or so they say.
I’m living in space right now, if you can call this living, and what they say is true: no one can hear me scream. And I can’t hear any of the other people around me. I think a few of them are screaming, based on their faces. Others seem happy, or at least content. Many are hiding their emotions.
We don’t all look alike here. I’m just guessing now, but I think everyone chooses what they want to look like. Some look human, but many do not. I see a lot of facial expressions and body language, even though the bodies aren’t completely solid, and I believe the looks and gestures are how we all try to communicate out here. Some choose to look like sticks, or clouds, or blocks, and I think that’s their way of rejecting communication: nothing to see here, nothing to say, leave me the fuck alone. I’ve tried to scream, many times, and their reactions show that they can see me. There are no mirrors in space, so I have no idea what I look like to the beings around me.
Part of me wants to make friends; it will be lonely if I don’t. But another part of me sometimes still wants to scream.
My daughter Julie, back on Earth, was dating an unpleasant man. She knew my opinion; her mother and sister felt the same way. I didn’t speak to her about him because I was raised in an alcoholic family where children were not expected to speak or feel or have opinions, and I didn’t want my daughter to grow up that way. I learned at a very early age not to trust adults. They said things that I knew were not true, or that I disagreed with, but if I spoke up, I might hear, “No one asked for your opinion,” or “You’re too young to understand,” or “My house, my rules”. Inside the home, life was chaotic and often scary, but outside, we were presented as the perfect family. Dad drank and cheated on Mom, she raged and took her helplessness out on us, and the outside world saw only the lie of a happy, successful family. I kept quiet. It could have and perhaps should have driven me insane: how does one respond to parents who say things that aren’t true, but insist that we agree because they’re the adults? I responded by learning to shut down. And swearing I would never do the same to my children.
So when I had two daughters, I tried hard not to correct them, or control them, or insist they behave in any specific way. When my oldest started living with her unemployed video game-addicted druggie boyfriend, I felt a lot of guilt. I couldn’t identify my exact role in her choices but it reminded me of my childhood, so I figured I’d done something to recreate those familiar patterns. I had treated her like an adult from around middle school on, which sometimes meant she made bad choices, but I kept telling myself it was up to her to become whom she wanted to be.
“How can you let this happen?” asked my wife, the second time Julie came home crying. Julie was standing with her hands on the back of our kitchen chair, looking at us, but my wife challenged me rather than Julie.
“It’s her choice, not ours,” I replied. “She’s an adult. She knows how we all feel. She doesn’t belong to us, doesn’t have to do what we want her to do.”
I raised my eyes at Julie, expecting approval, but she looked at me with something closer to disgust. Perhaps it was just hurt. I’m so sensitive to feeling abandoned that I am quick to imagine hurt and abandonment in my daughters’ faces.
So I asked my daughter, “Do you want me to speak to Manny?”
She shook her head.
“It’s not up to her,” said my wife. “It’s your job to protect your daughter.”
I looked at Julie again.
“You don’t understand,” she said. “None of you do. You’re so quick with the judgments.”
“But he’s not good for you,” insisted my wife. “Look at you. Did he hit you? Steal from you? Why are you still supporting him?”
Julie shook her head. “Things are hard for him. He lost his job.”
“He got a new job?” I asked.
She frowned at me. “What new job? No, his last job.”
My wife jumped in. “He lost that job months ago. That doesn’t excuse his current behavior.”
Julie wasn’t crying anymore. She was angry and pushed back from the chair. “If you’re not living his life, then you can’t understand him. Or me. He’s trying.”
My wife shook her head. “You have to stop defending him, Julie. He’s not good for you.”
“He needs me. And I love him.” Julie shook her head and turned around. “I thought I could get some comfort here, a few minutes time off from the constant stress of coping, someone who would listen to me. I need a break, but I sure as shit don’t need this.”
She stormed to the front door, her head shaking, my wife’s plaintive calls of “Talk to us” and “Please come back” following her out. When the door slammed, the cries stopped following her and echoed back to us.
The next day, my wife and I went to their apartment. I didn’t want to go, but I couldn’t fight with my wife anymore.
Standing outside their apartment door, I heard Manny yelling. I thought I heard my daughter crying, but I wasn’t sure. I knocked, and kept knocking until Manny opened the door.
“What do you want?”
“We want to come inside and talk to you.”
“Nope.” He tried to close the door, but I put my foot in the way.
“We’re coming in, Manny. Let us in.”
“No way, old man. It’s my place and you’re not welcome here.”
“It’s our daughter’s apartment, Manny, and we need to see her.”
“Ha. That’s funny. Where were you when she needed you?”
“What are you talking about, Manny? We were always there for Julie.”
“That’s not how she tells it. Did you protect her when her mom was hitting her?” He glared at Julie’s mother as he said that. His eyes were red. He turned back to me. “And you? Did you show up for her field hockey games? Did you let her go to California for college, like she wanted? You were never around. You were never there for her.”
I was stunned, and at first speechless. I’d done everything I could to give my daughter freedom. It had been her mother’s decision to keep her in New Jersey for college, not mine. My career supported the family, and therefore I missed a lot of high school sporting events. I didn’t control and demean and shame her the way my parents did me. How did that translate to not being there for her?
My wife pushed past me and tried to slam the door into Manny. When that didn’t work, she turned sideways and slid into the room. He turned to follow her and let go of the door. I followed them in.
“Julie, where are you?” called my wife.
Julie was standing in the next room, at the kitchen table. Her cheeks looked wet, but she glared at us with hostility.
“No one asked you here,” she said.
“So back the fuck off, old man,” said Manny. “Get out of our place. And you too, Mrs. Marron.”
My wife ignored Manny and walked towards Julia.
I replied to Manny. “We can’t do that. We need to speak with Julie.”
“No you don’t,” said Julie. “I’m fine.”
I looked at my daughter, and then back at Manny. He smirked. My wife grabbed Julie’s arm.
“Has he been hitting you again?”
I turned to face her boyfriend.
“You need to stop hitting her.”
“Or what, old man? Are you going to hit me? Am I supposed to be afraid of an old white collar worker like you?” He laughed.
I stepped forward and put my hands on his chest. He looked surprised and took a step back.
“Hey, don’t do that.”
I stepped forward again, with my arms still out. He grabbed me, raised my hands up high, and then rushed into me, grinning as he bumped me with his chest. I fell back, hit my head on the corner of their coffee table, felt something gash deeply into my neck, and then landed hard. Their voices grew distant. I heard Julie gasp and my wife yell something as Manny said “Oh man. Shit.”
And then I woke up here. In space.
I wanted to scream.
We’ve all grown up with satellite images of Earth, ever since the Apollo days, so it was easy to tell that I was looking at my home planet. It didn’t exactly match the images I remembered: land masses seemed to be shaped a bit differently, clouds were so much larger than I expected, the blues and greens really weren’t that blue or green, and there was an awful lot of brown and gray. But it was Earth.
And there were other people, or creatures, or things, out here in space with me.
It struck me that space was not just a vacuum, but also incredibly large. I don’t know the math, but the near space around Earth was clearly many times bigger than the planet itself. The planet, in the center of this space, took up a fraction of what I could see. Inside this giant sphere of space, the earth itself seemed like a baseball in a stadium. No, bigger than that, maybe like a car, or a bus, but still just one thing inside the stadium, and there were many other things around me in the stadium, dozens or so in any direction. Not big, not like the earth, but that was far away. The other things were close.
I looked past the farthest creature I could see clearly, a human shape that was much larger than the others, and realized I could move there just by thinking about it. I did, and saw new shapes there. More sticks, blocks, people, animals, strange shapes that looked like aliens. Were they actually aliens, or just people trying to look like imagined aliens? I kept moving. Some directions had a few more creatures. Some had mostly people shapes. Some directions had no beings at all, but if I kept moving, new shapes showed up. Some showed expressions on their faces and some did not. It took no time to move. I quickly realized there was not much point to moving. It was all the same everywhere.
Most of the earth is deserted, not just the oceans but most of the land outside the cities, and yet there are billions of people on the surface of the planet. You’d expect space to be deserted, too. But if I could see dozens around me, and there were like a zillion similar groups surrounding the earth, that added up to a whole lot. Probably more than the number of people on the whole planet.
And I had gotten here by dying. At least, I presumed I was dead. I thought briefly that I could have been imagining this, or dreaming; maybe I was in a hospital, or unconscious on the floor in Julie’s apartment. I felt so happy when I had that thought. It didn’t last. The whole thing seemed to be going on for too long to be imagined.
I wondered if all the things around me were dead people. And the animal shapes, were they animals who had died, or dead people who chose to project themselves as animals? Was this everyone who had ever died, or just some of them? A lot of people have died in the planet’s history. How many were actually out in space with me? There was no way to know. I’d have to map all the space around Earth, and hope the people stayed in one place as I counted. But space has three dimensions, so I’d have to go east and west, north and south, up and down, all around a space that was many times larger than the earth itself. It didn’t seem possible.
I finally decided to look at Earth more closely, and moved down nearer to it. The lower I got, the fewer shapes I saw. I thought that meant fewer people were down there, but I realized as I got closer to the atmosphere that it was harder to make out details of the things around me. Soon I couldn’t see more than a blur, and then nothing at all. Things could be all around me, just invisible. You can’t scream in the vacuum of space but you can see clearly for many, many miles. On Earth, there’s a lot of stuff filling the air.
Navigating was hard at first. Does anyone really know where they live, as seen from space? I made out the eastern seaboard of the United States, and moved towards what I thought was New Jersey. It wasn’t obvious at first what part was Long Island or Cape Cod or the Outer Banks or New Jersey. I thought identifying islands would help, like Block Island, but there were a lot more islands off the coast than I realized. I knew what the Garden State looked like on a map, and Pennsylvania, and Massachusetts, but no state lines were visible from space.
I finally got to where I could clearly identify the Jersey shore, but then I realized I didn’t remember exactly which towns were where. Avalon, Sea Isle, Atlantic City, Ocean City, Beach Haven, they’re all down there somewhere, but in what order? It was funny how many times I’d driven that shore without realizing that the highway signs were what actually directed me. Not that funny, after all, since I was in a hurry to find Julie.
I was wrong in picking out our town several times, but eventually found what looked like the right confluence of highways, and then our town park and the mall and what used to be the town movie theater, and from there I finally found Julie’s apartment building. An ambulance was parked outside. Two police cars were next to it.
Without any conscious choice, my perspective shifted to ground level and I went inside, moving through walls and floors as if they weren’t real. I could see people arguing and I could also hear them. Apparently whatever I was, whatever had happened to me, I could still hear when I wasn’t in space.
“You need to calm down, Mrs. Marron. You can’t stay here if—”
“YOU need to arrest that man right now, Officer.”
The cop looked behind my wife and nodded. Three other cops were in the room and one of them, a woman, stepped forward and took my wife’s arm. My wife tried to pull free and the woman cop said, “I will arrest you if you resist,” grabbing my wife’s other arm as she said it.
“You will what?” yelled my wife, leaning forward with her arms held behind her, twisting her head to look back.
“You’re interfering with our investigation. Not to mention, the EMTs who need to get your husband’s body out of here. You can sit down and be quiet or I will physically remove you from this apartment.”
“You have no right,” snarled my wife. “I didn’t do anything wrong. It’s all him.” She pointed her chin at Manny.
“It was not him, Mom,” said Julie. “Dad pushed him first. It was an accident.”
“You shut up, you little bitch,” said my wife.
I felt as if I gasped, but there was no sound. Presumably I was not able to make sounds.
“This is one time you will not take his side,” continued my wife. “That man will pay for what he just did.”
“None of this would have happened if you and Dad had not barged in here uninvited,” said Julie. I found myself agreeing with her. Had Manny pushed me? Yes. Had we been welcome? No.
“This is what I warned you would happen,” said my wife. “And now here we are. You’ll have to come home with me; you can’t stay here after this, and I won’t be alone with my grief. It’s Manny’s fault, and you will help me make it right.”
I looked at my wife with distaste. She was once again making this about her—not about Julie, or about my death. Assuming I was dead, which now seemed pretty certain.
“Get out, Mom,” said my daughter, starting to cry. Manny took her in his arms, and I realized that he was not handcuffed.
“Take your hands off her, you bastard.” My wife shrugged free from the cop and lunged at Manny.
“And that is enough from you,” said the female cop, motioning to the policeman beside her. He pulled out handcuffs. The female cop pulled my wife’s hands together behind her back and suddenly she was in handcuffs.
“Are you fucking crazy? I will have your badge for this. I’m the victim here, and you’re arresting me instead of this murderer?”
The two cops with my wife pulled her outside the apartment. I wondered if they were actually arresting her or just getting her out of the room. I could have followed them out and checked, but I didn’t.
“We’re going to have to ask you each questions,” said the first officer. “Separately. You in the bedroom”—he nodded at Julie—“and him in here.”
Julie and Manny looked at each other. He looked a question at her. She nodded, bravely trying to regain her composure. He stepped back. She leaned forward to give him a quick peck on the lips, then walked into the bedroom.
I wondered what role I had to play here, if any. I tried yelling, and then waving my arms. I realized I couldn’t see my arms. Could I see them when I was in space? I hadn’t thought to look. Were my arms invisible because of the earth’s atmosphere? The other creatures in space, those who chose to look human, had been able to wave their arms. I would have to remember to look at my own arms next time I was in space. I couldn’t talk, but could I communicate with gestures?
I moved to the hallway mirror. Nope, no part of me was visible. I tried to breathe on the mirror, to create fog on it. I tapped it. I turned around and tried to push the pen on the counter, then the piece of notepaper next to it. Nothing. It was like I wasn’t there, except I could hear.
And then I realized I didn’t want to hear anymore. I couldn’t help Julie or Manny or my wife; I was helpless, and it hurt, and I wanted to scream again, maybe forever.
I went back to space. Straight up, this time, and I got there almost instantly. I couldn’t see anyone I recognized. I had no idea where the people I’d originally seen were now. I moved around a lot, quickly zooming to where I sort of remembered the view of earth matching what I’d seen before, but no one was familiar. Did we move with the earth or did we stay in one place while the planet rotated away from us? It didn’t seem to be moving, but I figured it would take a while to notice any change.
I wanted to know what happened to Julie, but I cared more about the final resolution than the moment-by-moment details. I didn’t want to spy on her life, or her sister’s. I realized that I didn’t care what happened to my wife, or to Manny; my only investment on earth was my daughters. Even more than before, they were free, and what they did was not up to me.
I thought about exploring space. I couldn’t see the moon, which I supposed meant the moon was on the other side of the planet. Knowing how fast I could move in space, I could probably reach the moon with barely a thought. I could check out other planets. Maybe even other stars. That seemed possible, in a way I’d never imagined before. But space is big. If I got too far from Earth, it would be easy to lose my bearings. Would I be able to find my way back to Earth, to my daughters, to any of the creatures around me? Shoot, even finding my home town had been hard. If I decided to travel far, I’d need to create a mental map along the way. A really big map.
I shook my head. I remembered about my arms and waved them in front of my face. I could see them. I smiled. There was one human-looking being near me. She looked surprised, then smiled and waved back.
I didn’t want to scream.
It was time to start thinking about life in space.