I was having coffee with a new colleague in Cleveland who’d recently reviewed my C.V. He told me he’d once lived in Maryland, where I’d gone to college. “So I know what the Sophie Kerr Prize is,” he said, “which means I also know what a big deal it is that you won it.” He sat back and raised his eyebrows at me, like we now shared a secret.
I was so surprised to hear him mention the Sophie Kerr Prize that I didn’t know how to respond. What ancient history it seems, sometimes, that I won what is considered the nation’s largest undergraduate literary award. That during my commencement ceremony, I waited in surreal, slow-motion anticipation for the surprise announcement of the winner, and then I nearly blacked out when my name was called. That I stumbled onstage so the college president could hand me a check for more than $61,000, a reward for the first novel I’d written that year on the third floor of a sprawling Victorian known as the Rose O’Neill Literary House. It was fourteen years ago, but it already feels like a past life.
If we go back farther, we can consider the strange wonder of the prize itself and how it came to be attached to Washington College, a liberal arts college located on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. Sophie Kerr, an Eastern Shore native and prolific writer of short stories, novels, and magazine articles, left more than $510,000 to Washington College upon her death in 1965. Her will instructed the college to use half of the gift’s annual earnings for books, scholarships, and author visits while awarding the other half as a literary prize to the graduating senior deemed to have the most “ability and promise for future fulfillment in the field of literary endeavor.” The first Sophie Kerr Prize was awarded in 1968 and valued at about $9,000. This year, which marked the 50th anniversary of the prize, the award totaled $65,768.
A Spectacular Gift
Back when I was wrapping up my undergraduate degree at Washington College, the Sophie Kerr Prize loomed large. But after I won it and entered the greater literary world, I came back to reality. The prize is a spectacular gift for one Washington College graduate, but it doesn’t equate to long-term literary success. Eventually, the fact that I’d won the Sophie Kerr Prize came to feel like an unusual bit of trivia in my life—which was why I was so surprised to hear my colleague mention it in Cleveland. His words brought the prize alive again, reminding me just how much the prize meant to me as a young writer.
The Sophie Kerr Prize is gifted to one graduate based on his or her perceived literary “ability and promise,” which means it is subjective and imperfect, like all awards. But I have always been serious about making good on the potential the prize committee saw in me. On the day of the 2017 Sophie Kerr Prize announcement, for example, I was busy with a range of literary matters. I worked on a new short story. I read a client’s novel in preparation for our manuscript consultation meeting. I perused a few chapters of Peter Turchi’s Maps of the Imagination: The Writer as Cartographer, which I was reading for both research and pleasure. (Turchi, by the way, is also a past winner of the Sophie Kerr Prize.) I wrote a congratulatory email to a friend whose agent is preparing to send her book out on submission, and then I reviewed an email from my own agent and pondered her revision suggestions for my novel. I’d like to think that my former self would be pleased to know how my writing life has shaped up in the years since graduating from Washington College.
A lot has changed since I won the Sophie Kerr Prize in 2003, including how the prize is awarded. Back then, the winner was announced on the spot during commencement, which created an intensely dramatic—and possibly crushing—moment for the writers who hoped to win. Now, a special ceremony held prior to graduation relieves some of that pressure while allowing everyone to more fully appreciate Sophie Kerr’s legacy and the talented students in Washington College’s writing program. And the fact that multiple deserving finalists are now recognized seems to me the best change of all.
I watched the 2017 announcement at home as I cooked dinner. (Having access to a live streaming video of the ceremony is another benefit that wasn’t around in 2003.) With my laptop propped open on the kitchen counter, I watched the five finalists file onto the stage and take their seats. I listened as the keynote speaker, poet Elizabeth Spires, offered thoughtful advice about the writing life. (“Your writing will always be yours alone,” she said, “and that is a precious thing.”) Next, the finalists read excerpts from their portfolios. That was my favorite part—hearing snippets of talented students’ work and seeing firsthand why they were selected as finalists. It was a chance to appreciate their writing before the winner was revealed.
Catalina Righter: Winner of the 2017 Sophie Kerr Prize
In the end, only one writer could take home the $65,768 prize—and that person was Catalina Righter, an English major and creative writing minor from Manchester, Maryland who served as the editor-in-chief of the student paper and submitted a portfolio of poetry and journalism. She reacted as I think is only natural—by looking utterly shocked and happy, and by crying a little.
A few days after the announcement, I spoke with Righter to ask how she was handling her windfall. I wanted to hear how she was processing this experience that is filled not only with joy and gratitude, but also, as she herself pointed out, “guilt and uncertainty.” Excerpts from our phone conversation follow.
You and the other finalists handled yourselves wonderfully during what must have been a tension-filled evening as you waited to hear who would be named the winner. How did you handle the nerves?
CR: Before the ceremony, we waited in a holding area backstage. Everyone seemed to be vibrating with energy. I was nervous, but I tried to convince myself to be excited for the reading. I’d decided I was going to have fun and enjoy reading my poems to an audience.
How did you feel when your name was called as the winner?
CR: I think my auditory sensory input went out. I was in utter shock—I wasn’t sure what to do. I cried for a few seconds. It was very, very surreal. Afterward, when I went backstage, I was still overwhelmed. I sat down and cried.
How do you feel now that the news has sunk in a little?
CR: I haven’t fully processed it yet. One part [of the experience] is extreme happiness, but another is guilt and uncertainty. There’s a huge gap between $65,000 and $0, and I don’t think there’s that much of a gap between my work and [that written by the other finalists].
How did your writing grow and change during your time at Washington College?
CR: I came in writing poetry, and I joined the staff of The Elm [the student newspaper] to give myself a weekly writing obligation. I found a passion in journalism, and one of the benefits of attending a small school like Washington College is that I could move up the ranks on the editorial staff quickly. So between The Elm and creative writing, I had two writing paths: one I pursued academically, and one that was more extracurricular.
How did you view the possibility of being a contender for the Sophie Kerr Prize during your time at Washington College?
CR: It was present in my mind, for better or worse. I always had a goal to be a finalist, but not specifically to win it. I didn’t expect that—it’s so subjective.
Here’s the $65,000 question: How might you spend that money? Your finalist bio noted that you planned to temporarily move home following graduation. Is that still the case?
CR: Until two days ago, I was definitely planning on moving home because I had $40 in my bank account. But I haven’t had time to think about [the money] yet. I’ll probably put most of it in the bank and try to live the first couple of years post-graduation with a safety net. If I have an opportunity to take a big risk, I’ll have it. Oh—and I’ll be able to buy books by people I’d like to read.
Did you receive the check that night at the Sophie Kerr Prize ceremony, or at commencement?
CR: Sophie Kerr’s will requires that the actual prize must be given at graduation. It’s funny—at graduation, I was handed the check in a manila envelope that was simply labeled “Sophie.”
I hear you’re on the job market. What kind of work do you hope to pursue?
CR: Definitely something writing-related. I spent four years developing my writing as a skill, and I’d like a job that involves writing and working with people. I’ve also considered getting an MFA someday.
What advice would you offer other Washington College seniors who are considering submitting a portfolio for the Sophie Kerr Prize?
CR: Submit! Putting together the portfolio is a really rewarding experience. Submit even if you can’t confidently say, “This is worth $60K.” You may not be the best judge of your work.
When my son was first born, I feared he might be possessed. It seemed he roared his entire first year of life, even though no doctor could find anything wrong. Hugs enraged him. This was the first way my mind had to be rewired to be a mother. True love was not eloping on horseback as we’d been taught in childhood; it was caring for my child the way he wanted, not the way I wanted. So I named a teddy bear after my son, and held it every time I wanted to hold him.
What he did, in fact, want me to do was vigorously shake him in a manner I couldn’t do in public for fear of being apprehended by the authorities. So I spent a year hugging a teddy bear and shaking my son like a martini while agreeing dutifully that motherhood was, indeed, “amazing.”
Six months in, my husband and I made the mistake of taking him on a plane. By the end of the flight, he was howling like a coyote as we jostled him up and down the aisles. At one point, a man I’d seen down many lilliputian bottles of liquor screamed, “Do something about your baby.” I’m pretty sure he meant it in The Sopranos’s sense—like, in his whiskey stupor, he half expected me to bash my son’s head against a tray table until he positively stopped ticking. I searched for a snappy comeback, but just ended up sobbing with my son for the rest of the flight. It was one of those moments I wished I could edit out. I couldn’t see it was a crucial part of my process of mutating into a mother.
Although I have yet to arrive at the perfect words about parenthood, in that time I just sat there filling the computer page with thoughts, hoping they could build me a bridge out of that strange mental space. And they did.
The funny thing is that now all my son wants to do is cuddle, converse, connect. What sort of portal did he have to travel through to transform? And what portal did I travel through to let him? Nobody tells you that becoming a parent (and a person, probably) and getting to know your child is a long, slow process. While you love your kids when they’re born in a sort of instinctual, abstract way, there’s a deeper alliance that takes time, and many such plane rides, to form. Then, right when you feel like you’re getting a grasp on them, they transform again, and the process begins all over.
The concept that these people come out of you and you love them as much as you ever will is part of the maternal mythos that leads to airplane breakdowns. Being a mother is not something that just happens in perfect beauty at birth like a lever being switched on. It’s more like one of those water-blooming sponge animals, but the blooming takes about a hundred years and sometimes feels like you’re being electrocuted, by love or lightning, depending on the day and how much sleep you’ve had the night before.
As I gestated my daughter, my son became still more wonderful and still more spunky. When I didn’t know what to do, I just kept on writing. It helped me find my way. Plus it was fun to record the little blundering thrills of mothering a boy, like the mechanics of teaching my small son to pee. It’s like a handless person teaching you the importance of a firm handshake, which might not be the worst idea actually if your goal is innovation.
Now that my son’s three and my daughter lives outside of me, I have recently noticed a certain equation: the more he becomes Dennis the Menace, the more I become Mr. Wilson. In addition to his tornado of activity, like most toddlers, he likes to demand a series of things in a row that he may or may not want in order to test the limits of my affection and his power. In return, I figure out what I can give him to show my affection, but what I should not give him to show there are some limits in life. But I still don’t enjoy the dogma that if we don’t nip all our kid’s imperfect behavior in the bud right away, we’ll end up with a fire-starter, crime lord, dictator, or tax evader on our hands. Yes, I take action when he bats me in the face with a toy, but I adore this little fire-starter fiercely. He’s my little fire-starter.
But, in truth, the cure is worse than the disease. Parents’ corrections of their whiny kids are always whinier, and I can’t help but side with my son a lot of the time—as I often feel with my college writing students. I side with the rebels and not the yuppie with the mommy blogs and pedagogy training. What a hoax. I hope they all vanquish me in the end. What a grammar-touting, “use your words” sap I’ve become. Run for the hills. Don’t let me stifle you. What does it mean when you simultaneously want to build and sabotage the system you’ve learned and are consequently passing on? Being a woman?
Perhaps Maurice Sendak summarized the intricacies of loving a toddler named Max best: “But the wild things cried, ‘Oh please don’t go—we’ll eat you up—we love you so!’ And Max said, ‘No!'”At the same time Max and I are both having to run towards our fears rather than away from them in order to survive. At the peak of his sudden connection and anxiety at being separated from me, he needs to learn to run away, just as I have to, at the peak of my connection and anxiety about his getting hurt, let him run away. Together we form a tragicomic loop of embracing and letting go. This is a small-scale look at the nature of everything we’ve gone through in the process of growing up together so far.
I have never comfortably accepted “the way things are,” and now, in a disciplinary sense, it’s my job to teach these ways to my son. So where does that leave us? Mommy handing Maxie the keys to a kingdom in which she doesn’t fully believe? Why should being an adult mean giving up on everything that makes the world truly shimmer? So forget that. Fortunately, my son doesn’t yet believe all the breathtaking stuff we call life is just whatever yet, and neither do I; so we have that in common: being wonder-filled children, that is. Aside from teaching him the things he absolutely needs to know to navigate this life, I see that my job is to teach him that magic isn’t just the province of childhood, but very much for adults. In fact, his belief in it might mean his survival. It has certainly meant mine.
And so this all brings me to where I sit now. I’m supposed to be doing various writing jobs at the moment, but instead I’m sitting here wanting to write a history of my motherhood, and really wanting to write a history of everything. I know this to be my unfortunate tendency towards intellectual promiscuity, a kind of openness to being entered by all matter of idea that will not land me with another kid, thank goodness. I’ve already had two bellyfuls of existence, which means I’ve been creative in a different way than usual, but which also means I’m not in the market for another child at the moment.
Accustomed to summing things up at the end of class, I decide these are some takeaways of motherhood: my body has doors that open and close, but there seems to be something that stayed open after birth. There’s a whole labyrinth in me that wasn’t there before, something that keeps receiving signals long after my old body would have shut down, that keeps loving and cleaning up poop even after I’m too tired to see straight, some part of me that thinks and feels differently about absolutely everything and always will.
Most of all it seems that my body likes to bleed and make eggs. Not like the ones I fry in the morning for my family, but the ones that make it so now I wake up as a mother of two, whoever that is, and try to feed a baby while begging a toddler not to destroy the whole house, maybe just parts of the house, okay? okay?
What strikes me most, though, is my daughter Layla’s cartoonish smile when my son dotes on her. He hears her when we don’t, jogs into her room with a burp cloth, bottle, and toy for “his baby.” I come in to find him stroking her hair or singing his rendition of Eric Clapton’s Layla, complete with flashy outfit and Backstreet Boys dance moves, and I can’t help it, I sob, because I finally see it: this is what all the growing was for.
To name a thing gives breath as smacking
a newborn’s bottom precedes that big inhale
and a lifetime’s crying over spilt milk,
as I’ve craved my great-grandfather’s name,
enthralled by the manly innuendo
of Everhard Stein.
Words to the unwise: Don’t christen
your daughter Kirsten unless you also like
Kristen, Kristie, and Katie mumbled by
the consonantally confused. Unless you’ll favor
her fervid late-night lectures how Madison,
Bailey, Alexandra, Belle, or for chrissake Jennifer
is infinitely preferable in the lunchline.
Everhard’s obit all-caps declaimed
CHRYSANTHEMUM GROWER DIES,
touting the mum he’d named Hope’s Pink Blanket.
To name a thing is oddly Adamic—
all the hairy, feathered, scaly beasts
tagged by one of us, Adam’s exploits
trending on Twitter’s audience of two.
Amid the hormonal Eden of college Fridays,
I’d go by Dr. Strangelove, plotting conquest,
though by dawn I was Slim Pickens
riding the bomb solo through irony’s clouds.
Everhard, call me Hope’s Pinkest Blanket.
To name a thing is the province of mothers
and discoverers, serendipitous rhyme,
whose breast gives life Latinate and lactate.
It’s early for autumn mums, Everhard’s or otherwise,
but these nursery flowers stacked on concrete blocks
stock a welter I wish my eyes were as blue as,
my breath as floral, my best parts as risen crimson.
Master gardeners laud Gnat’s Hairy Armpit
and the benighted but oft-blooming
Reeks of Rotten Meat and Russian Imperialism,
its titular honesty a model for my colleagues
I’ll Damn Well Steal Your Swingline Stapler,
You Bet My Porn Downloads Crash the Server,
Who named God? And pre-Big Bang,
who named Naming, god above all gods?
Beneath the nursery’s flat-screen TV
and black plastic racks of pachysandra sprouts,
workers sidle idly to catch what havoc befalls
sled dogs chained to ice as a polar bear swims up
for a look-see on the National Geographic Special.
To name a thing can earn one’s living, branding
LG the sweat of one’s well-paid brow.
Turns out, the bear Norse poets dubbed Seals’ Dread,
Whale’s Bane, and Lonely Sailor of Icy Floes
renamed herself Chained-to-Melting-Ice-by-Climate-Change.
So canines and urus maritimus compatriot-cuddle,
nibbling each other’s furry ears. Let’s baptize them
Sweet Sisterhood of the Soon Gone, disciples
of the dyslexic d-o-g/g-o-d anagram origin myth
whose piety blushes us choke-collaring petunias
and verdant cash, leashed in line to pay the cost
of what we love to call beauty though likely
not enough to save it. Hope’s Pink Blanket?
Our strange love pins the Monarch butterfly
under glass and renames it Extinct.
The day my mother hired a new housekeeper to replace the last one caught stealing was the same day Yaiza arrived on the tennis courts. It was almost summer. Our first official tournament was coming up, one hosted at the same tennis academy where we took lessons. From all over the neighborhood, we congregated at those courts after school. Our parents didn’t let us walk there, across a busy highway, but we all came from less than a mile away. It was a mostly Hispanic neighborhood—all different classes, some big houses, some small, except everyone who could afford the tennis lessons and the gear came from the big houses. Not Yaiza. She had only one racquet shoved in a ratty backpack, instead of the racquet bags with backup racquets, keychains, and USTA zipper pulls that we had. She looked eleven like the rest of us, but she was darker. She had a Miami accent when she said hello, those Spanish l’s that flicked from the back of the mouth instead of the front. No mother dropped her off; she had walked.
My friends and I were rewrapping our racquet handles with matching purple cushioned grips, the boys tossing tennis balls back and forth. When Yaiza arrived, throwing open the clubhouse door so hard that she nearly took it off its hinges, we flinched, took her in, and turned away.
I was used to being the favorite, and one of the women who coached us called me over to drive the golf cart before lessons. I was the hustler of the group. My form was less than beautiful, and I didn’t hit winners left and right, but I was the fastest. I could run down every shot and keep a rally going until the other person tired out. I had a strange grip too, a one-handed backhand with my left, which meant I had greater berth and could reach shots that with anyone else should have been winners. In school I behaved the same as on the tennis court. I did all my homework, chugged through the books at the library steadily. This doggedness was why the coaches always called me over to drive the golf cart, dragging the wide brush behind it that erased from the green clay the footprints and ball marks of the previous age-group’s lessons, and to brush clean the white tape of the lines—more hard work I was glad for. The thuds of the tennis balls, the soft, dusty smell, the way we were powdered green after hours of sliding and kicking up clay—I wanted to earn it all, to feel like those moments were my own, the dust mine.
I watched Yaiza out of the corner of my eye while I whipped the cart around. She was jumping rope by the entrance of the clubhouse, her dark braid flicking back and forth. The coach’s whistle blew. We lined up, keeping the new girl at the back. But from the first thwack of her racket, Yaiza’s shots flew farther than ours, faster than ours. Her volleys were examples of perfect form: no windup, just short, deft caresses that made the balls drop dead at your feet. It was the kind of thing we’d only seen older kids do, the ones who were state-ranked. When we touched the net and ran back for our overheads, most of us would throw our weight forward, spinning with our weak arms. Yaiza’s overheads were effortless, her arms crossing her body with grace instead of desperation. She grunted with each shot, and when she missed one she yelled. Clearly she had already been taking lessons, but so had we.
A girl that lived three streets down from me, a mean girl that didn’t like to lose, pegged Yaiza in the back of the head with an overhead while Yaiza was returning to the back of the line after one of her gorgeous shots. Yaiza turned, not knowing who had done it, her eyes wide and enraged. “What, so you want to play me?” she yelled.
But none of us said yes, and like that we had a respect for her. I did, anyway. She didn’t work hard, but she worked hard, if you know what I mean. I did things over and over, for longer than anyone else. I made people weary. Even my mother tired of me. But Yaiza didn’t do something twice at fifty percent if she could do it a hundred percent the first time. She didn’t waste her energy outlasting anyone. She didn’t need to. I could already see that a match between us, the natural against the hustler, was inevitable.
When the sun got low and our mothers came to pick us up, we heard them, leaning on their cars parked next to each other, whispering scholarship girl, along with Yaiza’s name. My mother said she’d just hired Yaiza’s grandmother as her new housekeeper. When we pulled away, I saw Yaiza running to cross that busy intersection, eight lanes of traffic whooshing by, her backpack lopsided and sagging across her strong back.
When I got home, my bed was made. I never saw our housekeepers; they were always gone by the time I returned from school. My laundry was folded in a basket at the foot of my bed by unknown hands. I was perpetually embarrassed, my underwear folded into little squares, strange hands passing over my most precious things. I imagined a grandmother who looked just like Yaiza, old and hunched, scrubbing our toilets and mopping our floors. I felt ashamed, like they could see some dark part of me even I couldn’t by the trash I left scattered on the floor, the books I left discarded under the covers, the drawings I penciled at night, and having to move them.
When I got to the courts the next day, it was Yaiza who was already riding the golf cart, swinging those brushes around, breathing the clay as it powdered up behind her. Yaiza, who called something out to the coach’s sun-ruined face with its million brown, benevolent wrinkles. Yaiza, who turned the cart away as we pulled up, who flicked her sweat in our direction.
“That scholarship girl is certainly earning her lessons,” my mother said.
The coaches were tightening nets and pulling out the shopping carts full of yellow balls. When Yaiza jumped down from the golf cart and pulled out the wheel that would excavate the white taped lines from under the smooth clay she had just brushed over them, I walked beside her. My plan was the same as all my plans; I would wear that girl down.
“So, where’d you play tennis before this?” I said, the first words I had spoken to her.
Yaiza shrugged. “I was in Miami.”
“That’s great,” I said. “I’m sure if I’d had lessons in Miami, I’d be hitting like you.”
“Never took no lessons,” she said. “I found a racquet in a park, and I played against the wall.”
“Oh,” I said. “No net?”
She laughed. “Drew a line on the wall. Nets just give you an excuse to stop when you miss.”
I hated her. I’d told myself people earn what they get, and I wanted to believe that if I just kept running down the world, I’d emerge on top. “Well, why doesn’t your mom drop you off?”
“It’s my grandma,” she said. “Why, you afraid of crossing the street?”
“Not afraid,” I said, “I just don’t need to.” By then the other kids were arriving, and I left her to her tape lines.
After that, I watched her closely. I copied her form. I even started putting two hands on my backhand like the other kids and felt how hard you could hit that way. The tournament was coming up in a few weeks, the last weekend before summer. We were all hitting our hardest and ignoring Yaiza, because we were still naïve enough to think we might still win, and even if we didn’t, there was always second place. We ran suicides, sprinting from doubles line to doubles line, a competition I shone at, sliding into each tape-touch like my feet were skates in the clay. After lessons, I saw Yaiza crossing the street, her form bisected by the court fences as she dodged cars, her backpack threatening to jump over her head with every running bounce.
A week before the tournament, while we were racking up balls between drills, one of the boys said, “You’re bleeding.” I looked down at my knees and my shins, which often got scuffed without my realizing, but another of the boys said, “Gross!” and pointed my white tennis skirt, where bright red had sprouted.
I ran into the clubhouse with my racquet behind me, even though the strings would cover nothing. I slammed into the bathroom stall and pulled down my bloomers and my underwear, which were soaked with blood. I knew what a period was; my mother had told me about it, but she hadn’t told me to prepare for it so soon. I had nothing with me, and the clubhouse bathroom was not the kind of place with pad dispensers. I locked the door and tried scrubbing the cotton in the sink, but that made it worse, and instead I had only wet red bloomers and a stained skirt. I texted my mother, but she must not have been looking at her phone.
On the next break between drills, the boys pounded on the door, calling me bloody vag, but none of my friends came to rescue me. I knew none of them had gotten their period yet. Then a softer knock on the door, and my name in that Miami accent.
“Go away,” I said.
“I have some pads at my house across the street and some shorts if you want to come with me,” she said. “Everyone else is drilling.”
“I’m not walking out in front of everyone,” I said.
“I’m not your maid,” she said. “If I’m going, you’re going.”
I took a deep breath and weighed my options. I had never crossed the highway on foot, but I wasn’t going to give her the satisfaction of seeing me afraid. I stuffed a wad of toilet paper in my underwear and unlocked the door.
So I found myself walking behind Yaiza, my drenched bloomers seeping into my skirt, hoping everyone was too busy hitting to watch me down in the parking lot. I tried walking with my legs slightly crossed, but then I couldn’t keep up with her. The soft thuds of balls, the noises that seemed to me clean and pure, receded, and the ruckus of the highway loomed in front of us.
At the curb, cars rushing by, she crouched a little, like a runner at a starting block. “Go,” she said when she saw an opening. But I hesitated, and then my window was gone, cars like spaceships zooming across. Yaiza was at the median, waiting for her next break, balancing her sneakers on the log of concrete. “Come on,” she yelled.
A wall of cars barreled down. There seemed no way I could make it, but I tensed my body, leaned into the pavement. She said, Now, run! and this time I didn’t hesitate, feet pounding across the blacktop, the air that smacked me in the back as I reached the median, and the cars whooshed past. The next half of the street we ran together, me outdistancing her as we ran into the ditch and used it to slow ourselves down.
When I looked, she was laughing. She said, “Yeah, yeah,” like she was answering a question I had already asked.
We walked past the wall that separated our subdivision from the highway, past the small houses and the big houses, past the trees I had climbed all my life, until I’d reached the top. A few cars passed down that green road and I kept my head down, embarrassed in case they noticed the stain on my skirt and recognized me.
Yaiza’s house was the smallest on the block, a prefab flimsy square, no bushes or palm trees, only a brown, dried-out lawn that crunched under our feet. We were ten streets away from my own, but I had never felt farther. The people who lived on this street, had they not climbed high enough, had they not run fast enough?
Inside, Telemundo yelled from the TV in the kitchen, and a gnarled woman I assumed was Yaiza’s grandmother sat at the table, a fist under her chin. This woman had folded my underwear, had seen the porcelain figurines of children I still kept on my dresser, had probably even sat on my bed and passed her hands over my pillow. She possibly knew me better than my mother did, who seemed not even to see me for who I was and kept wanting me to quit tennis for dance. Yaiza’s grandmother didn’t turn around. I stood there, not wanting to interrupt Telemundo, not wanting to be caught trying to disappear before announcing myself. I wanted her to see me, not the random leavings of my life, but me, and I wanted her to tell me I could do anything. I clasped my hands in front of my ruined skirt.
“What are you doing?” Yaiza said. She pulled me into her room, where two sets of bunk beds were pushed up against opposite walls. A soccer ball and dirty clothes littered the floor, and the room smelled like onions and metal, like unshowered boys. She pulled a box of pads from a black trash bag deep in the closet.
“Got to hide it from my brothers,” she said. She pulled out a pair of jean shorts and handed me both. I didn’t have extra underwear and mine were soaked, so I pasted the sticker of the pad to the crotch fold of the jean shorts.
“Yeah, you’re fine,” she said, when I walked out.
We didn’t say good-bye, and I never saw her grandmother’s face, that invisible woman who would always be gone although her presence was everywhere in my room, her sweat on my sheets.
On the walk back I still kept my head down and clutched my bloomers and skirt rolled up in a trash bag. We crossed the highway again, cars honking, and my feet leaving her behind when we lunged toward the other side. I looked back at this girl, her dark braid bouncing, her biceps and shoulders lean and sinewed. The sun blazed, pinpricks of sweat on our skin glimmering, like the sun washing us in gold could make us the same— two girls made from hot metal.
Her kindness would be my consolation prize, and my gratitude burned. I would never thank her. Who can explain why we feel it necessary to be cruel when we do? I felt a hot fire in me to win, to beat her for her kindness.
A car honking broke the moment. My mother’s car, and her pounding the horn in the fury that rolled over whenever her rules were broken. She had gotten my text and come to rescue me, too late but not late enough to miss me and Yaiza running across the street. My mother slammed on her brakes before U-turning at the median so that she wouldn’t hit Yaiza.
Of course my mother started with the Spanish What were you doing what were you thinking? She rolled down her window and told me to get in. Yaiza had crossed and kept her head down as she walked past.
“No,” I said. I kept pace with Yaiza, and we walked down the driveway to the clubhouse like that, my mother doubling down on her authority, yelling out the window, rolling slowly to keep pace with us, Yaiza saying nothing, even when my mother turned her famous rage on her.
That night, my mother informed me she would start me in dance classes next year instead. I raged, yelling, inconsolable, and I knew I would win if I just kept at it. “Why?” I yelled, and my mother exploded back, “That girl is trouble.” Finally my father came into the living room to mediate. Tennis camp somewhere far for the summer was the negotiation settlement, which seemed to me more like a reward than a punishment, but I made sure to still look angry and slammed the door to my room.
My mother began staying in the lot until the lesson was done: car turned on, air conditioner blowing, a magazine flipped on the steering wheel, or talking on the phone, her mouth flapping open with gossip. I didn’t dare talk to Yaiza with my mother watching, and she didn’t talk to me. She shrugged when we caught each other’s eye. But when a boy mentioned blood to me, she pegged him in the foot with an overhead he could never return. I still had her shorts, which I’d hidden in the corner of my closet, too embarrassed to give them back or have her grandmother find them.
Meanwhile, Yaiza kept trouncing us, graceful topspin arching the balls over the net, the balls lunging away from us before we had even taken a backswing. I was the only one who could run them down, by staying near the back fence and sprinting for my life when she delivered a drop shot by the net. Those last two weeks were scored by the grace of her swing and the sliding and thudding of my feet. I went home powdered green and smelling of must. A few nights I refused to shower because I wanted that dust to be mine, to color me permanently, to claim me back. Years later, I would ask myself what it was all for, and my eleven-year-old dirty self would point at her own skin and say, “This.”
The day of the tournament came. I was convinced I would finish second to Yaiza’s first, not that I had seen anyone from outside our academy play. None of us had played in a tournament before, which meant none of us was seeded. We’d be paired with opponents at random. I envisioned myself outlasting several players and even some seeds before facing Yaiza in a final match. The bracket sheet was taped to the clubhouse windows.
When I saw my bracket, my stomach dropped. I’d been paired with Yaiza in the first round. I could see her in the parking lot with her scuffed racket, the grip rubbed raw, jumping from foot to foot to warm up. I splashed water on my face, pulled down my new tennis dress my mother had bought me as an apology, and walked out to our court. I shook her hand like I’d never met her before. No one came to watch her. My mother parked right behind the court fence and pantomimed clapping.
The match went almost like I dreamed. She slammed killer shots with perfect form and force, a terrifying angel, and I ran them down. Every once in a while she’d miss when I wore her down in a rally. I got some points like that, and I wasn’t that far behind, though she was winning. Tongue coated with dust, I felt like I had almost ground her down.
Then we were almost even in the second set, 4-3 Yaiza, and she threw the ball up to serve. Arm cocked, racquet behind her head, hand pointing up to the ball, body leaning into the court and coiled. The beginning of the swing, her explosion, it was like I could see it in slow motion, the ratty grip slipping out of her hand, the racquet slamming down with all the force of the ball on the ground, a sound like a stick breaking.
She picked it up, examined a seam through the fiberglass frame. I knew she didn’t have another. I waited for her to approach the net. Instead, she shrugged it off and got ready to serve again. I walked back to receive. Same swing, same explosion, but this time the racquet made such a dull thwack when it made contact, I knew the ball wouldn’t make it over the net.
For a moment I felt relief, a wash of happiness. She would have to forfeit; she couldn’t keep playing. But then I remembered going to her house, her toughness in the face of our mocking, that racquet the only thing she seemed to have. I looked back at my mother, who was midway through a phone conversation and not paying attention. I had three racquets, and I pulled one of my backups from my bag and held it over the net to her. I wanted to say I had beaten her fair. She didn’t thank me. She didn’t even hesitate. She took the racquet like it was her due and walked back to serve, calling out the score like nothing had happened and I better get ready.
Maybe my quickness finally left me. But more probably, my racquet just suited her better than her old one did. Suddenly my feet weren’t enough. She was hitting winners past me, drop shots so delicate and close to the net it was like she was placing an egg without breaking it, like she was a witch enchanting the ball in the cradle of her strings. All she had to do was stare a ball down and it would go where she wanted it and bounce away from me. I had to play the whole match trudging from lost point to lost point. I had to shake her hand at the end, tell her, Good match, and know she deserved it. She didn’t pump her fist or yell out Yes! like some of the other kids did. She shook my hand in seriousness, like it held no joy for her that she’d trounced me.
I told her to keep the racquet, out of spite for my mother. She shrugged and twirled it in her hand.
“You know your problem?” she said. “You don’t keep your eye on the ball. You look away at the last second. You flinch.”
I made my mother take me home instead of staying to watch anyone else. Yaiza did win, a neighbor boy told me, out-smacked a girl who was state-ranked, first seed. A golden trophy the size of her arm.
That week, my mother packed me off to a tennis summer camp in Sarasota, where I had my first kiss. The instructors made me watch the ball until it hit my strings, until I hit it harder than I remembered Yaiza having hit. By the end of the summer, I was ready to go back and beg for a rematch, show Yaiza the new person I’d become, flaunt my new boobs which had come in just in time for the boys to notice, boys I kissed, sweaty in the darkness of the tennis courts, perfumed with that same clay, musty smell of home I was convinced would always be mine.
But at the end of the summer when I returned, I rollerbladed past a For Rent sign in front of her house. When I mentioned Yaiza, my mother said, “Just goes to show what you get instead of gratitude. I caught her grandmother stealing.”
Dread filled me. “What did she steal?”
My mother could hear the tremor in my voice, my temper coming on. “Your things. I saw Yaiza with one of your racquets, with that ugly purple grip you always use. And I was willing to admit I could be wrong, maybe it just looked like yours and she had gotten the same grip. But then I caught her leaving the house with your clothes. And you know, I would have given her all of your discards for her granddaughter, but since she stole it . . . no. They all went back to Hialeah.”
I tried to explain about the shorts and the racquet. If I just tried hard enough, I could bring them all back.
“What’s done is done,” my mother said. “She didn’t even leave a number.”
I raged, but for the first time in my life, there was no way out, and I was trapped by my guilt. When I walked back onto the courts, it was clear I could outplay the rest of the kids my age, and they moved me up to the older group, but this just left a bitterness in my mouth. I would never know if I could have beaten Yaiza, or why I needed to. I should have forgotten her. Instead, I kept looking for her name in the rankings, but I never saw it.
My senior year of high school, I went to a football game against a rival school. I was number two in the state and getting a scholarship to UF. The nighttime haze of fall and the stadium lights seemed to hide all of us in plain sight, those of us who were here holding hands and trying to make out, those of us who were coming into our own and didn’t want to look at what we were becoming. We seniors had our sights set on the future, and we had already been sorted.
My friends chatted around me. In the opposite bleachers, I saw Yaiza, or a girl that looked like her, dressed chola, with her lips outlined dark in pencil and giant gold hoops. A boy from the rival school had his arm around her. I ran up to her, calling her name.
“Yeah?” she said.
“Tennis,” I said, “remember? How’s your tennis going?”
Her shoulders tensed, like she was curling up to swing, but then her lips stiffened into a straight line.
“Naw,” she said. “I don’t play no tennis. It’s a rich-people sport.”
Her legs were as strong and thick as ever, her shoulders wide through her jacket. I never got the chance to ask if she was playing something else, soccer maybe, before the boy put his arm around her and led her away. She laughed at something he said and then punched him in the arm.
I wanted to lob a ball at her back, a taunt. I wanted her to turn around and face me. But what was it I wanted her to see? What could I beg her to see?
She walked toward the opposing bleachers, holding her head high, projecting that nothing could wear her down, not me, not life. Just like when she used to carve her way to the net among the soft thuds and pats of sneakers, a sun forging the myth that we were equals and our joy was our own, a rain that cratered grains of clay and made us close our eyes when it came.
This is how I find out Jenny is pregnant on Mars.
“Do you want to go outside?” Jenny says. It’s just after lunch, which was freeze-dried Reubens. She doesn’t say anything more specific than “outside,” even though now we have names for this red ridge and that red valley and red-orange Mount Nearby over there and the various piles of red rocks and even the various scattered dead landers and rovers from old missions—landmarks which we call by the names of the missions, even though some of them had silly names like Undertaking and Beagle and Optimism. But Jenny just says “outside.” In some sense, even after more than two years, we still think of it that way: there’s inside, which is where everybody is, and there’s outside, which is where nobody is.
“Sure,” I eventually say.
Jenny nods. It doesn’t bother her that it has taken me a while to answer. We have two speeds here: Slow and Slooooooooooow. Well, three speeds if you count Something is on Fire, but that’s rare.
We put on the suits—one leg, two legs, etc. Roger and Nicole look up from their tablets and watch us get suited up, because our putting on the suits is the big game in town at the moment. Trixie is sleeping. I think Stefan is on the toilet. Anyway, we put the suits on, including Jenny tucking her brown curls into her helmet, then the audience goes back to its tablets, and we go to the airlocks and out.
You know how they call Mars the red planet? Well, that’s because it’s red there. Like, you go outside and you see red. Red to the east, red to the west. Red north, red south. In fact, the dust gets everywhere, so inside is red, too. Though actually, we have a sort of simmering debate among us about just how red versus just how orange the planet is, but we try to keep it simmering rather than boiling over. You wouldn’t believe how likely it is that someone gets his ass kicked for arguing one side or the other. And then there was the night that Roger made mild fun of the orange crowd by saying, “You can’t even rhyme anything with orange,” and Stefan squeezed and twisted two of his fingers until they broke—one and then the other. They weren’t his most important fingers—but still. So we just keep our opinions to ourselves, even though it’s obviously red out here. Aside from the mountain, which is more complicated.
Anyway, I say to Jenny, through our radio system, “So.”
We start walking, which is a bouncier thing than it was on Earth because of the lower gravity, and it makes it a little hard to have a serious conversation while walking. It makes you feel like everyone is partly balloon animal. You wouldn’t want to tell people they had cancer, for example, while walking on Mars. But there aren’t that many places to have conversations—inside and outside are the two main ones—so we do have some important conversations out here, and also some boring ones, and also there’s a lot of not-talking, too.
Mars is a planet where the question “What’s new?” doesn’t come in very handy. It’s great.
So we start bounce-walking under the old, basically familiar sun. Jenny is taking us in the general direction of the Prakt, a big piece of not-working space equipment sent here by a consortium of Scandinavian corporations. It’s about one o’clock, in Mars hours, which are technically only a little longer than Earth hours.
About halfway between Home Sweet and the Prakt, Jenny says, “Let’s go to our channel.” I hear the click that says that she’s changed to channel 947, which is where we go when we don’t want to be overheard. I change my own radio to channel 947. It’s romantic.
After a few moments, she says, “Hey, Josh.”
I think about the fact that we all call each other by our first names. I guess I expected that we’d wind up with cool nicknames, like Ace and Ratchet and Doc, or at least that we’d do last names, like baseball players. But no.
“Hey, Jenny,” I say.
I can hear through the radio, a long, long sigh. There’s something about what we breathe here, maybe, and so sighs are longer on Mars. Then Jenny says, “And hey, plus-one.”
I take two more bounce-steps and then bounce-stop. “Wait,” I say. I can’t see her face and she can’t see mine, because the suits have these gold, mirrory, sunglass-fronts on them where our faces are. “What?”
She sighs again, like the sound of the tide going all the way out, if there were an ocean. “I’m pregnant,” she says.
I’m not sure how long we stand there thinking about that. I know I should be saying something, but mostly my mind is suddenly kind of shorting out, and the things I can think of are not worth putting into words. I don’t ask her if the baby’s mine, for example, because the baby is mine. I don’t express disbelief in the fundamental premise of pregnancy based on the fact that she had an operation before coming here, because I’m realizing right now that those operations sometimes don’t work, which is something I should have considered before this. Because, statistically, Jenny and I have had a large amount of sex by now. I don’t even ask what we’re going to do, because I’m sure that we have no idea what we’re going to do. The whole point was that pregnancy on Mars is supposed to be a bad idea a hundred different ways. That’s why the people in charge told all of us not to have sex here, even with the operations.
I say, “Wow.” I’m feeling a lot of things, but “Wow” is all I manage.
“Yeah.” I can’t tell what Jenny is feeling.
“I guess this is why they told us not to have sex here,” I add.
“Yes,” she says. “It is.”
“I guess they’re going to be mad at us.” There’s supposed to be a call home tonight. “They’re going to say that we promised not to.”
“Yup,” she says.
A few minutes go by. We stare at each other’s sunglass-faces. I feel like my blood is buzzing, like it has a small electrical current in it.
She adds, “And yet there’s a whole drawer in the med closet that’s full of pregnancy tests.”
“Huh,” I say.
The Prakt glints off in the distance from under its coating of red dust.
When we get back to Home Sweet, there’s a party, because there’s no such thing as a private radio channel on a planet this boring. You can just scan all the channels until you find the conversation. So there’s a party. We don’t have any disco ball on Mars, or streamers, but everybody has written CONGRATULATIONS or MAZEL TOV on their tablets—the mazel tovs are for me—and they’re holding their tablets up to show us. Someone has broken out the freeze-dried cake.
“You guys,” Jenny says.
That night we get the communication request that we’ve been expecting. Earth wants to talk to us. We all hate talking to Earth, because it takes a radio signal about eleven minutes to travel from one planet to the other and then eleven more for a response to get back, which means that a call is like,
[eleven minutes plus eleven minutes]
Us: “Hello! How are you?”
[eleven minutes plus eleven minutes]
Even for us that’s too slow.
Plus, we don’t even really get to talk to Earth. We get to talk to some communications person at the Destination Mars! corporation. A couple of times we’ve gotten a hearty virtual handshake from one world leader or another, and there was the one time that they put us on with the Cincinnati Bengals cheerleaders for some reason, but mostly it’s corporate. We’re not talking to a representative sample of the Earth population is what I’m saying.
Still, it’s necessary. We have to arrange for supplies to get sent, and we have to tell them about our discoveries, even though we haven’t had any discoveries for a long time. Most of us haven’t even been trying. We were sent here for science, one-way tickets to Mars for a lifetime of Mars research, but it turns out that after a while even scientists can get bored of science. Especially here. Mars, I can tell you, is pretty much rocks, rocks, rocks.
“Do you think we should tell them?” I say. In the old days, when we first got here, the Destination Mars! people would already know, because they were filming everything for reality TV back then, but that show got canceled a while ago. Now we’d have to actually tell them.
Jenny considers the question. We’re sitting in the common room, because that’s where we sit. On low, reddish vinyl-ish couches and chaise lounges next to basically IKEA coffee tables. Orange tables. And here I can see her face now, of course. It’s a round face on the sides, and a little pointy in the chin area. It’s a nice face. “Well, they’ll be mad,” she says after a while.
I nod. “But they can’t actually do anything about it,” I say. “Can they?”
Long exhalation. “I guess not.” Then, after a minute, “Well, they could leave something out of the next supply rocket. The freeze-dried, cookie-dough ice cream or something.” Outside the common-room window I can see the sun going down. Sunsets are the one not-red thing about Mars. They’re more in the gray family.
“They would totally kibosh the cookie-dough ice cream,” I say. I wonder if they’d even go further than that. Every once in a while, I get the idea that the head people of the Destination Mars! corporation are getting a little fed up with us in general.
I can hear Roger in the workroom saying hello to someone back on Earth. Hello and then waiting. “Still, though,” I say. “Like, how pregnant are you?”
She raises an eyebrow at me, which makes the gray of her eyes a little steely.
“I mean, how long?” I say.
“Oh,” she says. She picks up her tea from the coffee table. “I think almost two months.”
“Oh,” I say. Jenny is really, truly pregnant. The buzzing in my blood has become an itching.
After quite a few minutes I hear someone on Earth say hello back to Roger. Hello and a question about what’s new.
“Are we really doing this?” she says.
I open my mouth to answer, but Jenny, faster than typical Mars-time, speaks first.
“We’d better tell them what’s going on,” she says.
We get up and go into the work room, where Roger is alone in front of the screen. He’s here by default; nobody else has enough patience to have these drawn-out Earth conversations. Sometimes others among us go pop our heads in or say something off-camera, but we don’t tend to stick around. Roger, though—he’s a botanist and a geologist, so he’s used to waiting for things. Also he has trouble saying no. Either way, the end result is he ends up doing the calls. Right now he’s starting into a longish update on our rock analysis work, saying it all in one stream for convenience, while the Earth person, Barbara—a woman with rectangular glasses—sits passively, having not yet heard any of what he’s saying. In twenty-two minutes her face will show a reaction to the beginning of his update, though by then he’ll already be done. It’s surreal stuff.
“The deeper samples are still under analysis,” Roger is saying. “Though so far they seem pretty similar to the not-as-deep samples. We’re also filling out more of the topographical map at a good pace,” he adds, “and—”
But then we lean in. “Also,” Jenny says, “I’m pregnant.”
At which point Roger lapses into indecision about whether to continue with the map-talk, scratching at his thinning hair with his left hand, which is his hand where the fingers got broken and are still at a slightly uneasy angle from the rest of his hand. I definitely expected an astronaut with the name Roger to be more dashing and confident than our Roger has turned out to be. I guess that’s because of Buck Rogers, which I have never actually seen, but which I have heard about.
“It’s true,” I add into the screen.
Barbara, of course, shows no reaction. She can’t, not for another twenty-two minutes. So, we stand there and we wait. We wait, and I try to not think about anything at all.
Well, after about twenty minutes we see her nodding dutifully—she’s taking note of Roger’s report—and then abruptly her face registers shock. “Wait—what?” she says. And then, not about to wait twenty-two minutes for our confirmation, which I already gave anyway, she sputters on. “This is why we told you not to have sex,” she says.
Jenny rolls her eyes at me, which will probably irritate Barbara in about eleven minutes. In the meantime, we wait for her to continue. But she doesn’t. She waits for us to continue. Oh, boy.
“Um,” I finally say, “but we already did have sex.”
Twenty-two minutes later we get Barbara glaring at the eye roll and then leaning forward toward the camera. “You are not allowed to do this,” she says.
Jenny and I glance at each other. Because what does that even mean?
This time there’s only a brief pause before Barbara keeps going. “You sat through the abstinence films. I know you did because I have your signatures.” She shakes a sheaf of papers that are probably not the specific ones we signed about the abstinence films, but for the sake of drama. “I mean,” she says, slipping into an actual rant, “a baby on Mars? How would that even work? Do people lactate the same in low gravity? Do fetuses in the womb get all their bones in the right places? What about radiation? What if the baby wants to come out feet first or head first or however they’re not supposed to come out? And then when they’re out, do you do sleep training, or co-sleeping, or whatever all that stuff is? Do they sleep on their backs or fronts? I mean, wow. And how the hell do you raise a child on Mars? You don’t even have the right size clothes! I just—I don’t even know what to say to you. You two are idiots. Why do we even bother with these idiots?”
I feel myself sweating a little as Barbara turns off camera to say something to someone nearby. Our communication is probably attracting more than the usual amount of attention.
Barbara turns back and faces us squarely. She says, “You’re going to have to terminate the pregnancy.”
Jenny and I stand up straight and look at each other. Somehow this idea had not even occurred to me, though I’m thinking about it now, and I can see that Jenny has already thought about it. The moment stretches on a little bit. Mars seconds. I still don’t know exactly what Jenny is thinking, but the feeling I’m feeling, considering this idea—you’d have to call it gratitude. You’d have to call it relief. But I look at Jenny’s face and don’t say anything. Neither of us says anything. We just look back at the screen and wait.
“Seriously?” Barbara says, after she’s had enough time to see that we’re not responding. “Nothing?” She leans forward again, almost confidential. “Do you realize who’s in charge here? Do you realize,” she asks, “that you don’t even get to eat unless we send you food?”
Whoa. That’s a whoa comment right there. I look at Jenny again.
“You have to terminate the pregnancy,” Barbara says. “It’s not like we can come get you so that you can get reasonable medical care.”
It’s true. That was part of the deal: one-way. They had the technology to get us here, but they don’t have the technology to bring us back.
“You have to terminate,” Barbara says again.
Jenny searches my eyes for a minute. It might be an actual full minute. I almost say something about how ending the pregnancy does sound like the easier thing, especially with food threats flying around. Even without them, though—what about all the risks? To the baby? To Jenny? The risks in general? But then Jenny says, not to Barbara but to me, “We should decide this ourselves.”
I take that in. I take my time taking that in. There are follow-up questions called for here but not in front of Barbara. I nod. “OK.”
Jenny turns back to Barbara and leans in. “We’re going to decide for ourselves.” And then she takes my hand, and we walk out of there.
Trixie is in the common room, tapping something on her tablet. Very likely Sudoku. Also she is listening to everything. Trixie isn’t even actually looking at her tablet. She’s looking at us.
Trixie and Nicole are the people most likely to get the nickname “Doc,” because everyone else is just PhD doctors, whereas these two are MD doctors in addition to Trixie also being a PhD doctor and Nicole being an Air Force captain. But we call them Trixie and Nicole. And I guess we might be needing them soon, one way or another.
Jenny and I sit together, both chewing on what Barbara said and on the situation overall, listening to Roger for a while as he somehow restarts his cartography monologue, and then he talks about some of the astronomical research we’ve been doing, just for a few minutes. And then we listen as he falls into silence, and as he waits. I notice that my foot is tapping a little frenetically.
“Well, that was some food for thought,” I say.
Jenny doesn’t have anything to say to that. She’s squinting thoughtfully off into the distance. Looking through the window at Mars, such as it is.
“Are we in way over our heads?” I eventually ask.
She stops the thoughtful distance-squinting and says, “Well, however deep in we are, that’s where we are.” She turns in Trixie’s direction. “Right?”
Trixie nods from across the room. “I don’t think I’d be too keen on trying to terminate a pregnancy here.” She gestures around generally at Mars.
Jenny turns back. “So here we are.”
Here we are.
From the next room, Barbara eventually says, twenty-two minutes after we’ve walked off the set, “Are you serious? Unbelievable. Completely unbelievable.” And then, probably to someone else off-camera, “Can they just do that? Can they?” And a brief pause before, “OK. You know what? I’m going to have to check into this,” she says. “I’m going to have to check into it.”
“Do you want to go outside?” I say to Jenny.
Mars at night is also like you’d expect it. Very dark, with lots of stars, of course, and they’re almost the stars that we’re used to. The moons Phobos and Deimos are both up. They’re both pretty small, though, and actually not much to look at. Deimos is practically just like another star. And Earth isn’t up there tonight. You can see it from Mars, just like you can see Mars from Earth, but it’s not in our particular night sky right now. If it were there, it would just be a little point of light, of course.
Our helmet lights pointing the way, we bounce-walk in a different direction this time. We go toward a crater that we call the Soup Hole. It was Roger who decided we should name it that—“I have my reasons,” he said, his reasons being that he’s really into soup—and he used it so consistently that it stuck. I had wanted to call it the Hot Tub. Even though there’s obviously not any water in there, it’s just deep enough that you can sit in it and lean back and put your elbows up on the crater wall like in a hot tub. It would be a good place to have a beer, except that there’s no beer on Mars—the bubbles wouldn’t work right—and you couldn’t drink a bottle of anything while you’re in your space suit anyway. It would have to come through the helmet’s food/beverage tube.
We sit in the crater. Two people relaxing in a night-time soak. Or two lentils in a soup.
I look at Jenny’s face, or at the sunglass visor in front of it. Now I wish I hadn’t asked her to come out here, because I’d like to see her face. I like Jenny’s face. Her eyes are actually more silver than gray, somehow.
“I like your face,” I say.
I can kind of hear her smiling, but I imagine it’s a tense smile. “Do you want to go to our channel?” she says. “Why bother, right?”
“Right,” I say. I mean, I’d actually like a private conversation this time, but that just isn’t a thing. I watch Phobos, which moves faster than Deimos. You can pretty much see it move. Go Phobos, go.
“I like your face, too,” she says.
I take my elbows off the crater wall. “So,” I say, “you’re pregnant. That’s what we’re talking about,” I say. “As in, we made a baby, inside of you—” I point, for reference—“and it’s some kind of mix of genetic material from you and from me, and we’re talking about you growing that baby, and then you would have that baby, and it would come out of you, and, when it came out, it would be on Mars. Our baby. That’s what we’re talking about.” I try to keep my voice even.
There’s only a brief pause before she answers. “Yeah,” she says. “I’ve been developing an awareness of all that.”
“The first Martian baby,” I say. From buzzing to itching to, now, a kind of full-on scouring feeling.
“My first baby anywhere,” she says.
“Mine, too.” I pause. There’s a lump in my throat. There’s no other way to describe it. Then: “I always assumed Mars was going to be a dead-end planet.”
Jenny doesn’t respond to that, exactly. Instead she says, in a wondering voice, “It happened,” and she tilts her sunglass-face up at the stars. She’s an astrophysicist. I know that when she looks up, to some extent, she sees data. But that’s not the only thing she sees.
Then, over the radio, I hear—we hear—Nicole’s voice. She says, “The first baby born in America—they named her Virginia Dare. Well, the first white baby. There were the indigenous babies, of course.”
And then Stefan’s voice, with its half-Danish, half-British accent: “Or you could go with Adam, if you’re thinking about firsts. Adam. There’s a first for you.”
Trixie: “There are older names than that. Gilgamesh, etc.”
“I’m talking about biblical time,” Stefan says, irritably. “You can’t get older than that.”
In nonemergency situations we are able to turn down the volume on people from Home Sweet, so we turn down the volume on people from Home Sweet.
I say, not knowing what to say, “I wonder what the oldest name in the world is.”
“Which world?” Jenny says.
I look up. My PhD is in psychology, strangely enough—the science I’m supposed to be doing here is the science of what people are like when just a few of them are thrown together on Mars—but anyway, one upshot of my particular education is that, when I look up, I don’t see any data, not even constellations, not even after all this time; I see a dark, dark sky but just speckled straight through with wild light.
It would be a good moment for a shooting star or a meteor shower. The sky, though, basically stands still. Well, except for Phobos. And except for the fact that everything out there actually is moving, whether we can see it or not. Moving at inconceivable speeds, in fact.
I’m about to say, “Jenny, I’m freaking out,” when first she says, “Josh, I know you’re freaking out.”
I turn toward Jenny, and it’s almost like I can see her face. She takes my hand. Holding hands in space suits is not very much like holding actual hands, but it’s something.
“I know you’re thinking of Lil,” Jenny says.
It takes me a very long time to respond, even by Mars standards. “I am,” I manage to say. Lil was my fiancée on Earth, before any of this, before I’d ever even thought about Mars at all, really. She was my fiancée. And then one night she was driving home and a very big car in one of the oncoming lanes lost control. It was raining.
We all have our particular reasons why we signed up for a one-way ticket to Mars.
“And I know you thought this would be a dead-end planet,” Jenny says. “That you hoped it.” She squeezes my hand. It’s not like she can see me crying, with my mirror-face, but she knows. “Believe me,” she says. “I hoped that, too.”
“I know,” I say. We all have our reasons.
We sit very quietly for a long time.
“Listen,” she eventually says.
“I never had my tubes tied,” Jenny says.
Everything stops. I look over at her. “What? What do you mean?”
She shakes her head. She never had them tied.
“But that was required, wasn’t it? For all the women?”
“Not for me.” She’s still just looking up. “One of my earlier doctors said that my fallopian tubes were problematic. And then the Mars people checked them, and they told me my fallopian tubes were problematic.”
“What?” I say. “Are you serious?”
“Yes. I’m not supposed to be able to get pregnant at all.”
This is, in fact, staggering. I am staggered by it. Eventually, I say, “And yet, pregnancy. You’re pregnant.”
“Yes,” she says.
I say, “Wow.” I think I am feeling all the things that a person can feel. I say, “That’s pretty astounding.”
There is a moment or two of silence, and then Jenny issues a world-class, a Mars-class sigh. This sigh might last for a Mars minute and a half.
“Yeah,” she says. “Yeah,” she says again. “It really is.”
My voice cracks a little when I speak next. “Sometimes I don’t have any idea what’s going on.” A lot of me cracks a little. “How it all happens.”
“What do you mean?”
“Do you think that,” I say, thinking out loud, “in all the cause-and-effect chains of the universe, there’s maybe some chain, one thing leading to the next, that goes all the way from the big bang to this exact situation? That we must have been heading for everything—” I stop, and then continue—“that we must have been heading for everything that’s happened to us, and heading for this moment, for you and me, for this, exactly this, from the very beginning?”
Jenny thinks for a moment. “A lot of scientists question the theory of any kind of big bang anymore,” she says. “It’s possible that the universe has always been here. And always will be. Different, but here.”
Very abruptly I reach over and hug her, which also is not like regular hugging, and we sort of clonk our sunglass-faces against one another, but still we’re able to hold on, and it’s worth it.
I hold onto Jenny, who I can tell is also crying a little. I think about the fact that what she just said about the universe is obviously true.
On Joyce Carol Oates’ Wild Nights! Stories about the Last Days of Poe, Dickinson, Twain, James, and Hemingway and Christopher Benfey’s A Summer of the Hummingbirds: Love, Art, and Scandal in the Intersecting Worlds of Emily Dickinson, Mark Twain, Harriet Beecher Stowe, & Martin Johnson Heade
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