Death Of An Astronaut
A novel excerpt by Blake Marie Bullock
JP pulled into his driveway at 9:00 PM. The weary engine clicked and he watched the kicked-up dust rain back down in the car’s headlights. The house had two front windows flanked with black shutters on either side of the door. The glow in the kitchen told him that Jeanne was there, waiting.
Standing face to face with the front door, he felt through his shoes the fissures where Barnyard grass had pushed through the concrete steps. He touched the aluminum siding next to the threshold and it left a powdery residue on his fingertips; it was long past time to repaint. He hadn’t paid much attention to the house since the accident, and everything seemed to have fallen apart in an instant.
He pulled back the screen door and nudged the main door open. The small kitchen was warm and full of cooking smells. Jeanne glanced at him over her shoulder when she heard him enter. She clattered the lids on the saucepans and wiped her hands on a dishrag. JP stood in the threshold with his duffle bag in one hand and his jacket draped over the other. He knew he should embrace her, but he didn’t, feeling suddenly that his hands were too full and his arms too heavy.
“Long drive,” she said.
He nodded and started to walk towards the bedroom just as she stepped toward him. They froze like strangers awkwardly trying to pass on a sidewalk. He managed a smile but let his eyes fall away from her, so she took a step backward to let him through. Jeanne returned to the stovetop, and only then did JP look back at her. Her hair was done up prettily, the kitchen table was set for two, and he could smell a roast baking. JP’s stomach turned.
He headed for the bedroom and dropped his belongings in a heap next to his dresser. He unbuttoned his shirt and tossed it over the back of a chair in the corner. In the bathroom, he splashed hot water on his face and stared in the mirror at his eyes, still red and swollen. He closed them tightly and gripped the sides of his head with both hands.
“You look tired,” she said.
JP saw her in the mirror, leaning in the doorframe. Her hand reached for his back. Everything in him told him to turn and pull her close, but instead his flesh deadened under her touch and his stomach knotted. She didn’t say a word, but hurt flashed in her eyes before she turned to go. He caught her hand, and she stopped short. He squeezed her fingers softly. I’m sorry, he wanted to say. But he was too afraid that she would reach for him again. She smiled back, as if to say it was OK.
They ate dinner together, and it was the finest meal JP had tasted in weeks. He said so, but his manner made it seem like the opposite, he knew that. He made himself talk about his drive and picking up Jane. Jeanne listened intently and nodded her head. She let him lead the way and didn’t ask many questions, for which he was grateful. He asked about her work and what had happened in the last few days, and she told him about the sweet-smelling flowers of Huisache trees that had opened up behind the house and the carpets of Big Bend bluebonnet springing up along the driveway. JP preferred it when she talked and all he had to do was listen. He tried his best to keep her going, but eventually she let her voice trail off, lost beneath the gentle clanging of two people’s knives and forks working politely to finish a meal.
He had a hot shower and put on a clean pair of under shorts and a T-shirt for bed. The small comfort of bleached, clean cotton went a long way in relaxing him. Now, late at night, he let himself appreciate this humble homecoming. He vowed to tell her how grateful he was, how selfish he had been, and that all of this was his fault. She was finishing up the dishes; she wouldn’t let him touch any of it, said he needed to rest.
She dimmed the lights of the house one by one until only the bedside lamp remained on. Her nighttime routine was quiet and peaceful. When she came to bed and slipped the robe from her shoulders, the soft yellow glow played kindly against her skin. His head heavy against his pillow, he watched as she climbed under the quilt next to him. Now he should say something, say everything, he thought, but the sensation of her hand on his chest made him clench with discomfort. She adjusted her limbs to give him more space and so that she touched him more lightly, but he stiffened further. The slow movements of her fingers against his skin slowed and then stopped. He thought he heard her draw in a tiny breath of air, as if she would say something, but she said nothing, and instead turned over and quietly killed the light with the a pull of a cord.
JP was mildly relieved by her repose, but hated himself deeply for it. He lay awake for nearly an hour, glancing at the plastic clock next to the bed. When her breaths were steady and long, he rose from the bed, walked into the dark kitchen, and found the smooth familiar bottle hidden high in the cupboard.
Blake Marie Bullock lives in Southern California. She earned her B.A. in astrophysics from the University of California, Berkeley and an M.A. in astronomy from Wesleyan University. Her writing appears in the program notes for the Kronos Quartet's performance of Sun Rings. Death Of An Astronaut is an excerpt from her novel-in-progress.
Photo "Couple On The Beach" courtesy of Bianca De Blok, Netherlands.
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