Tonight H is building tiny antennas for a baby spacesuit. Never seen antennas on a spacesuit before, I tease her. Sprawled on the kitchen floor she smiles, bending back a pipe cleaner. Totally antennas on a spacesuit, she says.
SPOILER: The baby has been dead two years now.
The project to convert the dead baby’s room into outer space has been under construction since she was six months pregnant. I come home one day to find tinfoil satellites strung from the ceiling, stolen rocks plucked from the neighbor’s yard posing as meteors, a bathtub full of Styrofoam balls―one for each planet + an enormous sun. Spray cans and cardboard for stenciling.
Space is peaceful, she explains. That night she begins painting the room black.
According to Einstein, time is just an illusion. Following disaster all moments begin to bleed together. Linearity becomes inane.
I swear the pale stars seem paler inside this room every day. As big as space is, the universe inside this little room is rapidly expanding, not contracting. At the rate my wife is filling it with cosmic apparatus it will swallow the entire house like a black hole. The other rooms in the house have gone untouched for quite some time.
Stephen Hawking should’ve prepared us for this.
We have become aliens.
I place the doll face-down in a field only to pick it back up again. Something about it being smothered in the dark. Ants crawl upon the face, so I wipe them off. I end up hiding it in the basement.
It hits me: I can’t let go either.
Three days before the due date she is giving me a tour of the galaxy. She points out several constellations, using my finger to connect them as she explains their mythologies. She indicates the Milky Way, a number of nebulae and other bright asteroid belts. She is proud of her creation.
Stifling laughter, she tells me to look through a jumbo telescope with a big red bow on it. See it yet? I do not.
Upset I’m spoiling her surprise, she grabs my head and drags my skull in front of it. Squint! she orders me. Here we are, she says, pointing to a petite space station smashed between Ursa Minor and a white dwarf. Inside an observation window, two stick people wave out. I’m the one with the big head, she informs me.
The inflationary theory of cosmology suggests the existence of parallel universes like our own but separate in that every possibility that can occur will occur, determining an infinite number of alternate realities. Given the presupposition that the universe is infinite, all realities are equally valid.
There are some complications, says the doctor.
A forgotten Post-it note at the bottom of a closet includes names we’ll never have a use for. Now we just call the dead baby NASA.
I have ordered for my wife a lifelike baby doll designed to aid in the grieving process. She is painting a papier-mâché rocket the day the UPS man drops the doll off at the door. I leave it unopened on the kitchen table. I won’t open it. I’ll just let her discover it, see how she reacts.
Over the weekend it sits there, unperturbed, but on a Sunday evening I find the packaging has been placed in the trash bin. I find H in the backyard, a plastic boy swaddled in her arms. She shhh’s me. He’s sleeping, she whispers.
That night she places the doll into the crib.
Good grief, a boy in the lab says upon smashing his finger in a doorway.
Don’t say that, I tell him. There’s no such thing as good grief.
We have become full of black holes.
Bare feet pressed against the glove compartment on our last getaway before parenthood, she smiles as I pretend to guillotine her fingers in the window. I could never live in the desert, she says.
David Bowie is asking me if there is life on Mars. I am asking him if there is life on Earth.
The rubble of a smashed telescope bought for our son lay strewn on the patio. My hand is cut. I can’t feel it but I know it’s cut because there is proof of my pain on the blood-splashed pavement. External verification helps, keeps us in check, letting us know what’s real and what’s wishful living.
My wife remains in the passenger seat, seatbelt fastened. Emergency brake lights blink.
I have given my wife an ultimatum: get help or else.
I come home early from work one day to find H standing not more than four inches from the television. It is the end of 2001: A Space Odyssey and she is weeping, her fingers pressed against the glass. A baby floats in space. She thinks is the most beautiful thing she’s ever seen.
That would be a nice reality . . . but it’s not ours, I tell her.
She pretends not to hear this part.
Tonight H has been making origami scorpions. Sprawled on the kitchen floor, she folds her one hundredth paper critter and places it on a spilling-over pile. Every day I check on her, every week bringing groceries, making sure she eats something. Whenever I open a cabinet, sand pours out. I offer to make her a sandwich, trying for a lame joke. She doesn’t laugh.
The project to convert the dead baby’s room into a desert has been under construction since the divorce. Now the room has spread into the entire house. There is dust everywhere, glued to the walls, in the seat of the rocking chair, coating sinks. I sweep up what I can. When I walk past the nursery-that-never-was, a fake cactus twinkles Christmas lights at me, a dirt-caked doll tangled in its web. I flip the switch.
On my way out, she says her daily sentence: The desert is romantic, don’t you think?
No, I tell her. It’s not.
The baby choked inside the incubator. The baby choked on air, as one would in space. We have never spoken of the strangeness of this coincidence. Perhaps it’s symbolic of something, but of what? I’m no psychologist, just a husband. She won’t see a psychologist.
I’m not crazy, she maintains. My baby died . . . my baby is dead. Considering that, I am as sane as humanly possible.
She won’t see a psychologist.
So we supernova.
I am dodging dishes in the kitchen. She is cursing, calling me a murderer.
Worried I made a mistake—that it was doing more harm than good—I have gotten rid of that doll in the middle of the night. When she grabs the phone to dial 911 to report an emergency, I grab her and hold her until she calms. We need help, I tell her. She is light years away.
I’m scared, but not for my safety. There is an emergency to report.
Occam’s Razor: the simplest explanation is usually true.
Here we sit coming up with names for a boy. In alphabetical order: Aaron. Aldous. Becket. Charles. Crispin. Eli. Herbert. Jack. Jaedon. Jonah. Morris. Oliver. Orson. Oscar. Pete. Simon. Wiley. Xander.
How will we ever decide? she wonders. When we see his face we’ll know.
I have decided I can’t take anymore. Inside, she waits.
I remain in the driver’s seat, seatbelt fastened. Emergency brake lights blink.
A funeral, the tiniest coffin I’ve ever seen and John Lennon singing Love is real / Real is love.
In the corner of the room there are new cans now. Colors that have no business in space. My wife, clutching a receipt, waits for me.
We need help, she is willing to admit for the first time.
Are you going to leave me now? she asks, chin twitching, eyes glistening fearful as she floats alone in the center of the room, as she floats alone in an artificial cosmos, walls threatening to swallow her, light painting spiders in her hair, floor wobbling underfoot.
I meet her there.
Wordless, we pry the paint lids. Together we dip a brush, then drag it. We white out the earth first, then each subsequent planet. Make the sun disappear, then kill off the stars. But when it comes to the space station we pause. Here we are, I tell her.
Matthew Burnside is author of Escapologies, forthcoming from Red Bird Press. He attends the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and serves as managing editor of Mixed Fruit magazine. He keeps a list of his sins at matthewburnsideisawriter.tumblr.com.