Touching the Void
I love her. I love her with all my heart. This was supposed to be her dream, not mine…but in the end, she couldn’t do it. So I did it for her, in her place. I never knew what it would mean, for the both of us.
Her name was Lucy. She was beautiful, in ways no other girl could be. She had hair pale as starlight, with eyes that seemed to contain every shade of every color ever imagined. And she was the whole world to me.
We lived in a small apartment in downtown Seattle. It was cramped, and the roof leaked, and heater only worked sometimes, but it was our home. It was ours, and we were happy.
Lucy had always been fascinated by outer space. Sometimes I would come home from work and she would be lying on our bed, gazing out the skylight at the scattering of stars you could see in the dim city nights. She wanted to live out in the country, where you could see billions of stars every night, but we couldn’t afford it.
We had just graduated from college. I had been a History major--I didn’t really know what to do with my life. Lucy did. She had her heart set on the stars; she always had. She had graduated with honors: an Astronomy major--but that wasn’t what she wanted. She didn’t want to just watch the stars (not forever)…she wanted to live among them.
Thus, enter the National Program for Space Exploration. It was a new group, only having been set up five years ago, in 2256, and government-funded to boot. Ever since Earth gained the power of lightspeed-travel, many politicians talked about sending out explorations to places beyond our solar system. A few preliminary flights had been sent, but so far, no one had wanted to expend the man-power to send out long missions. Until now.
The idea behind the NPSE was that, instead of enlisting the military for such expeditions, civilian volunteers who had the necessary background would be given the additional training needed, then sent up in missions to explore the galaxy.
Well, Lucy had the background. And, more than anything, she wanted to do it. We were watching television the first time the program announced it would be accepting volunteers, and I looked over at Lucy. She was happier than I ever had seen her. Her eyes had lit up like two tiny stars of their own, and her mouth had parted in a silent gasp of wonder. She was happier, almost, than when I told her I loved her.
We went down to the branch NPSE had set up in Seattle, and it was agreed that Lucy had the credentials, and would be put through training. I was so happy for her; she would be achieving her dream, the one she had longed for for nearly all her life, at last.
The training would last six months--the mission would be two years. It would be hard without Lucy, but I knew that this was a dream-come-true for her, and anyway, she could still send me letters, from the camp at least.
I knew that once she actually boarded that spacecraft that would send her hurtling up into the heavens, all information would be classified--and no messages could be sent through such a distance anyway. But I would get through it, because this was what Lucy had always wanted, and all I wanted was to see her happy.
So I kissed Lucy at the door to the training camp, and told her I loved her and was so proud of her.
I didn’t see her again for three months.
Because, though Lucy was smart enough, and strong enough, and definitely dedicated enough…in the end, she was defeated. Because missions of this sort are extremely stressful on the body, and Lucy, it turned out, had a weak heart.
In the end, her own body betrayed her.
When I came home one Wednesday, it was to find my Lucy crying on the couch, bags not even unpacked. I was stunned, and taken completely aback. Why was my Lucy home, when she should be preparing to take part in one of the first missions outside our solar system?
But it didn’t matter; not when I saw her tears. I didn’t bother taking off my shoes, or my coat--I just ran to her, and nothing in the world was as important as drying those tears of hers.
I held her for a long time. Her sobs shook my body to its very core, as if the tremors caused by her unbearable agony would rend me asunder. I felt my face and hands grow wet, and it seemed as if she was crying hard enough to drown the whole world; as if her pain was so great that it should end the world along with her dream. And every time I glanced down at her face, red and raw and streaked with tears, but still beautiful, (oh, my Lucy…) I felt my heart shatter anew.
We sat there all night, until the tears stopped, and the salt-water drops on my jacket dried. Lucy’s breath had evened out and it was only when I pulled her back from me that I realized that she was asleep.
My poor, beautiful Lucy…This had been her dream, since she was a little girl. She would have given it her everything; held nothing back, if only she could make it a reality. It was impossible for her not to--she wanted it more than anything else in the world.
Yet…at the very end, she had been unable to achieve it. Her own body had betrayed her. It was the cruelest fate man could devise.
Looking down at my Lucy, I felt a few tears of my own drip down my cheeks. Lucy; my Lucy; my poor, beautiful, Lucy…How she must be hurting right now…words could not describe it--tears could not heal it.
I picked up my Lucy and carried her to our bed, setting her gently on the soft blue sheets.
My Lucy. My light. How it must have hurt then.
It was noon by the time she woke up. I had been cooking us a breakfast of blueberry pancakes, -her favorite- when she walked into the kitchen, platinum-blonde hair tangled and cheeks flushed from crying and sleeping.
I looked at her, and did not say a word, just placed the pancakes on a serving plate and put them in the middle of the table. Lucy sat down and took a stack of three to her own plate, looking straight at her food; silent and emotionless.
I fought back the tears that choked my throat and blurred my eyes, and took my own stack, chewing slowly so that the words fighting in the back of my throat could not come bursting out.
Lucy…They cried. Lucy, love, light--I’m sorry, so sorry…
Lunch was quiet; Lucy not speaking and me forcing myself to do the same. Once the pancakes were gone, I went and poured her a glass of apple juice and spread some strawberry jam on white bread.
Finally, I got out a tangerine and peeled back the skin, putting the slices on a plate. I stared at the separate pieces of orange fruit as she ate them one by one, no sound coming from her lips at all; her eyes staring intently at the little white strands she pulled meticulously from each piece.
It wasn’t just that she was hungry, I realized, as I watched her. I was doing anything I could to keep her here with me, now; to prevent her from sinking back into the dark past. If only I could keep feeding her delicious foods, keep her in the room with me…I wouldn’t lose her.
But all too soon, the meal was over. I cleaned up the dishes and felt a part of myself break all over again as Lucy silently left the kitchen and returned to the bedroom. She hadn’t said a word the whole meal.
She was too far away right now--I could not reach her.
The next few days were a quiet agony. I would rise from our bed before dawn, cook a breakfast for two -putting the second half in the fridge in case Lucy was hungry--she never was- and go to work. I would come home after it got dark, to find Lucy sitting blankly in front of the TV, not-watching some sitcom that more often than not was in Spanish.
It seemed that my Lucy was broken…
But I would not accept that.
Though Lucy seemed barely to function, I tried to keep up our routine as normal. I cooked meals for the both of us, rented movies to watch, and tried gradually to draw her back to the present. All throughout the next two weeks, there was one thought in my mind: there had to be a way.
A way to bring her back to me, and a way to fulfill her greatest dream.
And after a while, it began to work. Towards the beginning of the second week, I saw her smile--I had come home from work, and she was there waiting for me at the door. And then, she had smiled at me the way she used to -the way that could make the stars light up like nothing else- and kissed me gently on the cheek.
And slowly, slowly, she came back to me.
At the end of the second week, when she could smile the way she used to, and hold my hand as tight as before, she told me that she was ready to talk…about the dream she had lost.
We lay on our bed, side by side, our hair intertwining -light and dark, like the flash of car lights through the dark window- and our hands clasped. She had regained her smile, and my heart had mended its breaks, and I felt whole again.
And then Lucy -my Lucy- spoke. She told me about how much she had enjoyed the training camp -the dream prelude to the day so long-looked for- about the friends she had made, and how every day had been better than the last.
Then she paused, and I knew by the tears, star-bright in her eyes, what would come next. The pain, the heartbreak. She told me that I had no idea of how much it had hurt--I had no idea of what it meant to have your dream taken away from you when it was closer than ever…To have your own body betray you. And she was right; I had no idea.
But that night I held her; our tears mingling on our pressed cheeks…and I think I came as close as I ever would to feeling her pain.
It was hard to get in--this late, and me completely unqualified. But Lucy knew people, and in the end, I was accepted into the program. I won’t go into the training--I barely remember it. What I do remember was Lucy seeing me off at the bus stop.
I cried for her -left alone while another fulfilled her dreams- but she was crying too, and the only word she spoke was a plea.
I had to succeed. I had to make her dream a reality.
So I went to the training camp, and made it through. Yes, I succeeded (I, unskilled and unqualified, the only thing keeping me there was the dream I carried in my heart for a starlight girl I loved with all my soul). I succeeded, where my Lucy (her; it should have been her) had failed.
Lucy had made friends here. I kept to myself.
Lucy had loved every day. I counted down the hours like a prison sentence.
But Lucy…Lucy could not be here. So I went in her place, with her dream buried snug in my breast.
After six months, the training was done. I was put on a shuttle with thirteen other people. Most I didn’t know. I mean, I had seen their faces at camp, but I could not tell one of their names. Nor they mine.
There was only the dream to keep me company…only the dream, and my memories of Lucy.
The voyage would be two years. Two years, and no way to contact my Lucy. I didn’t know how I would manage.
I stayed on that shuttle for two years, living out the dream.
I saw things; beautiful things. Indescribable, wondrous, amazing things. I could not even begin to describe what it was I saw. But it was lonely; oh, so lonely.
So by day, I would watch the stars in their turnings pass us by, and by night, I would cry into my pillow, trying to remember what it felt like to have Lucy’s arms around me.
Lucy…she was all I thought about those two years. Even after the dream had withered and died, I still held Lucy in my mind. Longing for her.
For two long years I stayed on that ship, with only the memories of Lucy to keep me going.
I thought I would go crazy, the first several months. I had never been so far from her--from the person that gave my life meaning. All I had of her now were a couple photographs, and the remembered touch of her fingers on my skin.
Barely; barely, it was enough. But it was, in the end. I kept going, living the dream for her, and hoping desperately for the day I could return to her.
For, you see, what I realized over those long two years in the void…was that the dream was hollow. How could I, billions of lightyears from Lucy, ever possibly share this experience with her? She was the one that had yearned for this, not me…how could she ever perceive any of this?
And the answer came back cold and hard, like the stars beyond the viewport: she couldn’t.
I had undertaken this to make her happy…and the only thing that had come of it was that now we were both alone. I had lost my Lucy. Lost her to an unfulfilled dream, and the cold vacuum of space.
When word finally came that we could return home, it was with a hollow, bitter joy that I nodded my head and returned to my quarters.
Finally: was my thought. Finally…I would return home to my Lucy, and everything would be back the way it was.
Only that was not true. It had been two years since I last saw Lucy. Who knew what could have happened in those two years? She could’ve moved on from me, found another lover who would hold her and kiss her, and whose long hair could encircle my Lucy--a world for just the two of them.
She could have died. My Lucy could have been snatched away from the world by Death, while I was not there to protect her.
Or…she could have gotten on with her life; moved out of our small, cold, damp apartment and forgotten about me.
No…I couldn’t think that. I had to believe, had to, with every fiber of my being, that Lucy would be there waiting for me.
I had to--because it was the one thing that kept me going on this long voyage into the deep. And if I couldn’t hold onto that, at the very last (right when I was about to return to her)…I would break.
Because life without Lucy wasn’t life: it was colder, and emptier, and darker than the void of space through which I traveled.
Life without Lucy was like a winter without a spring. It was like a night without a dawn, like tears not followed by laughter.
So as we traveled ever closer back to Earth, it was all I could do to hold my conviction that she would be there; that she would be waiting for me.
After what seemed like an eternity, I looked out my viewport, and saw (finally--finally) the earth spread out before me.
It was with both an immeasurable joy and an immeasurable dread that I saw it -blue oceans and green land like a jewel- because I knew I would see my Lucy…and yet, there was this tiny, nagging doubt that something was terribly, terribly wrong.
The ship set to dock, and we were shuttled down to the planet’s surface. It felt so good to stand there on solid ground, to feel the heat of the sun and look up to the blue sky. To have the wind pass through my hair, and to reach down and touch green grass. To hear the noises of people and animals all around me.
It was a relief, a salve on the soul--but it was not comfort enough to take away the unease that was still growing inside me. I had to get to my Lucy.
I took a train back to Seattle. The time seemed to pass so slowly as all my doubts grew inside me.
What if she had found another?
What if she was dead?
What if she had forgotten me?
These thoughts filled my mind as I sat in the train as it slowly wound its way to my home; thoughts of Lucy--my Lucy.
I did not dare think of what would happen if these thoughts proved to be true. I felt sure that if I did, I would break apart. But, sooner or later, the ride had to end…and it did, and I was left standing at the Seattle train station.
I took deep breaths, trying to calm my wildly beating heart. But it did nothing, and I had to eventually resign myself that this could only be settled one way.
I stepped out into the cool Seattle night.
Every step to our apartment was agony. Every kind of worst-case scenario possible flashed through my mind. My heart was pounding so hard I thought it was trying to escape from my breast.
Finally, I reached the building that housed our home. I felt like I was going to be violently sick if I took another step--yet I had too much energy to stay still.
I climbed the steps two at a time, every memory I had of Lucy flashing through my mind.
I climbed the last step, and walked the last few feet to our door, The nameplate was still intact, reading both our names side-by-side. It was a good sign.
I hesitantly reached up a hand to the door, fingers trembling and unsure, like a shy girl reaches to her first lover’s face.
I rang the doorbell.
Throughout the long voyage through the darkness of space, there was only one thought in my mind: Lucy.
Lucy, the woman I loved more than life itself. She was my sunrise, my flower, my shining star…she was my everything.
I loved Lucy more than I had ever loved anyone in my life.
Throughout those two years apart, I counted down the seconds until I could see her again.
I pictured her in my mind: beautiful and perfect, with starlight hair and eyes of a thousand colors. She filled my mind, my heart, my soul.
I loved Lucy. I loved her so much it hurt.
But what they don’t tell you when you get on that spaceship, to go flying into the dark void, is that every jump you take away from your loved ones is another nail in the coffin of your time together.
Because there is something called Time Dilation. Time slows down when you travel at the speed of light. For every year that passes while you travel like that, over thirty years pass for the rest of the universe.
And when the door opened to our apartment, it all came home to me.
Because Lucy was there, waiting for me--but she was not the Lucy I remembered.
She was old, and worn, and tired. She had waited for me…she had waited for over sixty years.
Her hair was white and thin, her perfect skin now wrinkled and fragile-looking; her million-color eyes now rheumy and nearly sightless.
“Lucy…?” I choked out, tears coming to my eyes and a lump to my throat.
“I waited,” Lucy said, voice weak. “I waited for you…I knew you would come back to me.
“I waited for you, Mary. I waited.”
“I know…” I said, and let the tears fall.