Day after day, a short story by Ruth McKee
‘It’s a love letter and a dying letter. He has surpassed himself’
– Do you realise – he blew out smoke – that the astronauts on board the International Space Station experience sixteen sunrises and sixteen sunsets every day. Photograph: Nasa via Getty Images
Do you realise, he begins, with three words he used to say almost as much as the other three.
Do you realise, I read again.
I know how it ends. My eyes have skimmed the email, sieving through Arial size 12, garnering salient words. Crucial ones catch: discovered, needed to tell you, by the time you read this. It’s a love letter and a dying letter. He has surpassed himself.
I close my eyes tight for a second, a childlike gesture to make it not have happened, or for it to vanish.
Do you realise, I read.
How disappointing for him that the message doesn’t come on exactly the tenth anniversary of our goodbye. It’s not even a significant day, an anniversary of a kiss or the first time we made love. Then again maybe it is, I was never very good at keeping up with those things. Sometimes we’d meet and he’d take out something in a fancy bag and I’d know instantly it must be a day. I could ask Siri how long it has been since we last spoke; she’d give the time in years, months, days, hours and seconds, a bastardised version of that Sinead O’Connor song.
– Do you realise, he said that night, a bit under ten years or a lot over nine years ago, stopping to light up with the same tone of voice people use when they’re talking in between bites of food.
We were looking out his skylight at the International Space Station, draped in a bedsheet, standing on a crate. We could have been a cartoon, drawn from behind with a caption.
– Do you realise – he blew out smoke – that the astronauts on board the International Space Station experience sixteen sunrises and sixteen sunsets every day.
He said the numbers in measured syllables, like he was reading out lottery results. I did my yeah-well-be-more-specific voice.
– Define day. Define sunset.
He ignored the bait.
– Do you know what speed it goes at?
– My pulse?
He had his thumb on my wrist.
– No – his intonation rose, warm but exasperated – The ISS.
– Let me guess. Fast?
– It flies at a height of 400 km and at a speed of 28, 800 km per hour. It takes 90 minutes to make a complete circuit of Earth.
– Just how we make love.
He could never tell if I was being serious.
– Okay, he said, between sincere and flippant, I’ll raise you your observation, and I’ll give you mine. How you spend your days, beautiful, is how you spend your life.
– Quote actually, apart from the ‘beautiful’ bit.
– Can’t remember. It’s true though.
– Right this second – I said, slinking my hand around his abdomen– I quite like how I’m spending my life.
We had to get dressed, go outside, put on all the heaviness of the world again.
– It’ll be hard seeing your face around the internet.
– Yours too.
I stayed stony. He was the teary one with snot lodged in the hairs of his nose, so that when I looked up to kiss him, it distracted me from thoughts that this would be one of our last.
– It’s been –
– Don’t you dare.
– Dare what.
– Say it’s been the best time of your life.
– It has.
– And stop using the present perfect. We need to start using the past simple. Because it’s over, isn’t it. In the past, finished action, not carried into the present. Use the past simple.
I could tell he wanted to point out that the past was in fact rather complex; he was struggling not to be funny, to throw me a line. And I really wanted him to, I wanted him to say he took it all back, so I could take it all back, so both of us could go back to limbo, to weightlessness, to moving in the same circles we’d been caught in for months, to not making any decisions, to not following sensible advice, to not listening to reason. But the building panic told me that this was really it it.
He was feeling the same because the way he managed things was with life rafts.
– I’ll do you a deal. Let’s meet up again in ten years.
I made a horrible sarcastic noise.
– Ten years is a long time.
– Believe me, it gets shorter as you get older.
– I didn’t realise you could get any older.
He gave me a nice-try-but-it’s-not-helping face.
– I’m serious. In ten years, I’ll meet you. We can look at the International Space Station again. If things have changed then great, and if not, well.
We both felt the tone, it had that ring to it, the one holiday romances have when someone says I’ll come and visit you and we can move in together once I find a job.
It didn’t stop me from imagining scenarios over the years. An of-all-the-bars accidental meeting, seeing him on a platform as the train pulled out (my imagination was stuck in black and white). I had also thought of the real possibilities, spotting him at a gig, a small girl on his shoulders, bumping into him at some supermarket near a European airport, meeting him at a mutual friend’s funeral. I had entertained the thought of his death, though in my fantasies it was always easier if I was the one who was doing the dying, so much less detail to worry over, even in hypothesis. But my vignette included a last walk on a beach, another kiss, him saying something dramatic like ‘you haven’t changed’ and me being able to drag the words out of myself, those words I was never able to say. Then the credits would roll.
It used to get to him, that I was never able for those three words.
I wasn’t heartless; but I suspected that it wasn’t for real, that I wasn’t doing it right, that my heart was an imposter. Look at the evidence, my brain argued, and you won’t see a whole lot of love.
A star-fingered newborn, then another, had gifted me the sensation of love as a patrolling beast, the taste of it in the small hours so like fear it was indistinguishable. This is the closest I’ve come to something not steeped in desire, attachment, dependence, something that doesn’t reek of selfishness; of course it is selfish, my genes tell me.
– Children are resilient – he said – adaptable. It wouldn’t mean the end of the world, just a change.
– That’s just the shit adults say to excuse their self-centred decisions. You should know.
He did know. Ironically this was one of the reasons I came close to going with him that night.
– You always come close with me – he joked when I told him, but I detected bitterness. Even the most hopeful spirit becomes disillusioned, with enough oppositional force. He gave it one last go.
– You know that the world, the universe, your psyche, whatever you want to call it, will continue to teach you this lesson. This will keep happening to you until you are able to get it.
He was good. It was a great shot.
– I doubt it, I said – I really think I’m getting too old for all of this. This won’t come around again.
His persuasive attempts deflected off me like whatever it was he’d told me was on the ISS, to protect it from the vicissitudes of space.
I continued looking up.
– What do they do if there’s an emergency on the station – he said – like if there’s a fire?
I knew what he was doing, it was one of our games, this what-if thing. What if you only had one day to live, what if you could fix one mistake, what if you could save one person.
– Or something hits them?
I played along, though it was threatening my invulnerability.
– Or the oxygen system fails?
– Or someone goes nuts?
– Or someone has a heart attack?
We were torturing ourselves with this goodbye. It was his idea; I would have been happy with a text. But then that was him, all about the big moment.
It was due to come round again. Ninety minutes. I knew once it did that he would go.
I read on.
Do you realise, he says, that one life is as good as another?
He’s not here for me to ask where he stole that from. If he were he’d try to make me laugh; instead my throat is tightening which is about as close as I usually come to crying. I can’t reach out to touch him so I touch the screen like a corny scene in a drama series.
I feel those three words about to come out of me the way you can tell a splinter is about to emerge, one that has been there for ages, the way it festers, then aches, then there’s the urge to squeeze it, to see the pus and the foreign object suddenly spurt out and, if you keep pressing, the fluid runs clear until there’s blood.
Yeah yeah yeah, I imagine him saying, then a scab forms and then you can finally heal, right?
– Right– I say out loud, but still not those words.
If a tree falls and no one is there to hear it, no one hears it so it doesn’t matter if it makes a sound.
It’d make you feel better though wouldn’t it, he’d say.
Do you realise, he says, that love never ends.
He’s quoting from the Bible now for fuck’s sake, bringing out the big sources; I guess if your number’s up then you have poetic license.
Do you realise, he says, that quote appears on burial sites all over the world, in all sorts of phrasing, love never ends? He goes on about the seasons for everything, a time to mourn and a time to dance, a time to be born and a time to die – but he says it’s really all the same season, all the same moment, that we have a human, limited view of time, we can’t imagine anything that’s not linear. He says he hopes I can find comfort in this.
If he were beside me I’d give him an Elaine Benes shove and tell him to get out! Off guard with this thought, like the distraction I need sometimes to climax, the three words slip. I say them idiotically to the computer screen, with my finger touching the stupid goddamn email.
Then, making it over the threshold where if you think about it they stop, like orgasm, tears come.
I’ve underestimated how good relief feels, almost the same as hope.
I can tell that the email finishes in a few seconds because I can see the outline of his name after a white space, and I read slower as I don’t want it to end; now that I’m vulnerable I need to hear him say I love you back.
He does, in a way.
He says that he told me that thing about the sixteen sunrises and sixteen sunsets all that time ago just to impress me, and that I was right to ask him to define day, to define sunset, as really the whole thing - for the seven and a half billion of us on earth, and those few astronauts on board the International Space Station - the whole damn show is just an illusion, caused by the world spinning round.
Ruth McKee is editor of Spontaneity. She was nominated for the Hennessy New Writer of the Year 2017 and was joint winner of The Irish Novel Fair 2015.