about 5000 words
SIT STILL by Enrica Jang
For god’s sake, Lisa, you’re lying on the floor. You don’t know what’s been on this floor. Lisa, what the hell happened? The cell is an eight by ten, dirty white matchbox. You have been in boxes like this before. They’re so much bigger in a zero G environment. You curl up in the corner and think that everything in your life has led to this. It was supposed to be the shuttle, but instead it’s this little white cell. You’ve splintered into so many, many pieces. Maybe for part of you it still is. The part of you that’s still up there.
The universe is a cruel wonder. Shuttle Columbia breaking up is a bolt from the blue, clearing away the low haze of misery that had swallowed your life, jerking you awake from the
Jang / Sit Still / 2 bad dream of post-partum after the twins were born. Somewhere else, it brings into stark relief Bill’s failing marriage. Those two things had nothing to do with one another, at first. When the mushroom cloud of debris descends over Houston, NASA comes under fire and the best move anyone can make is to rally around the families of the lost. You were friends with Laurel Clark and her husband. All the astronaut candidates were close. Their son is in a terrible shock from seeing his mother’s shuttle disintegrate into a fiery wreck. You bring your son, Alex, over to the darkened house, hoping the boys will bond. “Hey Robochick.” As you follow Alex to the door, a casserole in hand, there are two men also coming up the walk: Chief Steven Lindsey, a gentle blonde bear of a man, Team Leader, and a different tall, swarthy man in mirror aviator glasses and midnight blue jeans. Bill O’Leif. Billy O, one of the pilots. How it happened after that is the blurry part. The depression after the pregnancy sent you away and spinning into space long before you would make it there for real. Even before the twins, you had to try for NASA six times, and the dream this close chokes the other elements of your life, like a weed. The twins, your girls, drift deep into a place where only the other exists. When you trouble to return, the wet clicks and whistles of their strange pigmy speech frighten you, whereas your husband, Richard, is fascinated by the twin-speak, parading your little girls around to friends and charting the sounds on his drafting desk at home. Alex was ten when his little sisters were born, but sometimes he knows what they are saying. He never tells. Richard doesn’t get to know either, but it doesn’t bother him like it does you. It’s become a joke you will never be in on.
Jang / Sit Still / 3 Your insides pitch and twist to think they don’t—won’t—love you if you finally get to do what you want so badly. There is a new, fierce camaraderie between everyone in line to go up in the shuttle (Columbia is on everyone’s mind) and that includes Bill. Billy O. shares an apple with you over lunch in cold-temperature lock. You go home late that night and Rich hasn’t saved dinner for you, again. The next night, Bill bumps into you on the way out of the robotics module and you follow him to dinner. You watch and listen; you recognize his reluctance to go home because the people there don’t understand. But you understand. And, one night, you don’t go to dinner and you don’t go home. Bill’s marriage was falling apart before there was you—that weight is not on you. He needs you, though. You spend longer hours at work, but fewer hours doing the work.
Being in the cell is like being in the suit. The white and silver skin of the suit insulates what’s inside from solar radiation, the terrestrial cold, the universe of isolation. You can breathe again. Even start to feel you’re safe in there. But the door opens. Deputies searched you before, patted you down; your pockets were emptied the moment you entered the building. Now they want to take your mug shot. You begin to have a sense of how much trouble you are in. “Look up, please.” You can’t. You are standing in front of the camera, but looking down at the rolled up legs of your jeans. “Awkon. Lisa. Look up into the camera now.”
Jang / Sit Still / 4 You can’t control the trembling in your chin. Once he takes the photo, all of this will become real. You anticipate the nuclear burst of protons into your retina that will seize this reality and burn away any hope of end to this nightmare. You flash for a moment to that silly helmet set at NASA: they took your picture the day you qualified for the shuttle. Ten years of trying and training, it was taking the picture that made that day real. If you don’t look up, maybe whatever is going to happen won’t. “We’ve talked to Ms. Shipman. The woman you attacked.” You look up. The machine whirs, a short light flares and it’s done. The man who spoke is leaning against the wall. “Hi there, Lisa. I’m Detective Becton. We just found out who you are.” *** “I just wanted to talk to her.” Becton is not moved by you. There was a time you might have responded to a man like this (tough and hard edged, with a buzz cut very similar to a military style) and he to you, but he’s only looking at you impassively now. And waiting. He says, “You stalked her in the airport, Lisa.” You did. You waited. She, Colleen, stayed in the airport after her plane landed. She stayed so long. You didn’t know why until she went back to the airport office for her bag. “Ms. Shipman’s luggage was delayed, but when she got her suitcase, you followed her on the shuttle to the parking lot.” You want to stretch your neck when he says her name. How long have you been in here? “It was three a.m., Lisa. What were you going to say to her after you maced her?”
Jang / Sit Still / 5 You swallow non-existent spit. “I wanted to tell her—if I could talk to her about it first maybe—” You clench your teeth to quell the instinct to bite. “I didn’t get to talk to her. She didn’t give me a chance.” Becton hisses out a breath. “You’re mumbling, Lisa. No one is going to understand you, Lisa.” You hate the way he says your name. She, Colleen (even when you think it, Her name is to be sneered) had to know, that’s all. You can tell by Becton’s piggy face that he won’t understand. She just had to sit still and so you could tell her about you and Bill. Maybe just that. Becton might get that part. “I thought it was important that she knew about me. That she had some awareness, I guess, for my potential as his… or whatever.” Becton shakes his head and is taking notes again. You clench your hands under the table. “You were going to tell her about this guy? That he broke your heart?” He didn’t break your heart. He hurt you, and that’s not the same thing. If you had felt that he did not really and truly love you anymore, that would have broken your heart. Little Miss Lithe- Colleen Shipman- and her sexy emails and plans for Europe did not constitute love. Billy said he couldn’t think around Her; he did not say She was special. He said you were special, and so you are. Brilliant. At the time, you felt everybody would see it from now on because he said it was so. You don’t answer. Instead, you ask to make another call. They frog-marched you past a window on the way from your cell and you know it’s light out now. You told the deputies you want to make another
Jang / Sit Still / 6 call, to your daughters and your son. Then Detective Becton had you fetched to the interrogation room. You repeat your plea. You need to talk to your kids. “We can make that call for you, Lisa. Sit down.” The grate of his voice slams the thoughts out of your head. Your eyes mist over, and Becton loses his patience. “Are you going to do the mommy bit now and tell me how worried you are about your kids? You weren’t thinking about them this morning, but it’s never too early to work on a defense.” Becton’s moon-pie mug is glaring and ugly. He leans forwards and pile drives his index finger into the steel table between you. “That shit don’t play here, missy.” He’s right, of course. Maybe you were about to play that card. Becton’s job is to get a statement from you. You worry about what you told the arresting officers, and the items they found in your car. You have been read your rights, but you are very tired. “I’ve got to tell you, Lisa Marie Awkon, forty-three. You’re a smart girl. I mean, the plan was good. Execution? Eh. The wig, trench coat. Really something. And the diaper… Tough.” He holds up a lazy fist and makes a stiff lip mug of his face. “But, there’s something else to this. I want to understand it. And pardon me for saying, Lisa—I mean come on, let’s be honest—” He picks up his hands in a “don’t hate me for saying it” gesture and you wonder how long this Orlando detective is going to keep pretending to be a New York beat cop, “…that’s the thing about women—all women.”
Jang / Sit Still / 7 Detective Becton is pontificating now. You sit up straight in the chair and try to relax the tension in your spine. He looks at you reprovingly, as if you were back in the Academy and not taking notes. “A man will say, ‘I don’t love you,’ and the woman, she thinks, ‘What’s wrong with me?’ There is never a, ‘I need love. He does not love me. Ergo, we are not compatible.’ Basketcase bullshit instead. I see it all the time.” He’s trying to get a rise out of you. You are tired and aching, but even you know that. “Awkon, Lisa, forty-three. You’re not talking much, are you, Lisa? ” “Do I need a lawyer?” That hands-up gesture again. “What would you like to do, Lisa? Do you understand your rights? Do you know why you are here? Do you remember what happened, Lisa?” You remember. You’re still there. It’s still happening in your head, even as this porcine detective is talking to you. All of it at once. You saved each other.
In the whirlwind before the launch, (you are like Cinderella readying for the big dance) Billy is a gentleman. He backs off before your flight, bowing to the necessary and constant barrage of family and media whipped up by NASA. Your resume is trotted out for the hometown paper. You take pictures with your husband and children and smile up at yourself in newspapers. Ladies Home Journal and the Washington Post lap at a wholesome family fairy-tale shaped and pared to fit your life: “Astronaut from Rockville Keeps Her Eyes on Space, Heart on Earth.” It’s so sugary and good, even Richard drinks the Kool-Aid, and all the shuttle prep cum PR topping on a big NASA sundae is worth the two years of howling chasm between you.
Jang / Sit Still / 8 And it was everything you wanted. It was. You are forced to regurgitate the same stories and platitudes so often, you think you might begin to believe that space was worth it. But the truth is that the station is confusing; your mission almost fails when you have trouble maneuvering the robotic arm. Crewmates joke that you need another thousand hours in the simulator. You feel reverence, but the wonder is missing. NASAâ€™s official rating of your performance is excellent, but your heart is not in space. For your welcome home, too, Billy stays to the outside, smiling that TOPGUN smile one more time before it is his turn to dive into the whipping blades. So many banquets and hails and news interviews before every shuttle; it is his turn to go to the dance, and yours to wait on the fringe. The calls are even shorter, emails an amalgam of terse lines about work and thin apologies for lack of time to talk, none to meet. You understand (of course you do, you did it too) that he is busy. Weeks pass where you meet for joint training or during briefs; there is still no time to lock eyes as before, and telegraph the silent longing. Frustration sings in your ligaments; he is so much better than you at pretending to be just friends, professionals. You smile and chat at the appropriate times too (your face is brave) dying inside for a sidelong wink or curl of his lips that will let you know the secret passion between you is not something dreamt. The longer you wait, the more you realize it is his energy, the Kelvin in his gaze, that keeps the darkness back. In your life, the remnants of Julyâ€™s super-nova fade too rapidly into the mundane foil star twinkle of holidays and toy stores. How can anybody expect you to enjoy living inside the world when youâ€™ve just been out of and above it? Finally, in January, everyone at NASA returns to work after the first of the year. You corner Bill in his office, and make a date for the gym that afternoon. It is the first person-to-person
Jang / Sit Still / 9 contact you have had with this man since November. You watch his eyes to see if they crinkle with the warmth you’ve been missing. He agrees to meet you in the gym, but he’s already on a treadmill by the time you get there, pouring sweat and running hard. You take the machine next to his and crank it up to match his mile time, pacing your gait until you’re running in tandem with his steps. You are flying, finally next to him, matching his speed. He looks over at you once but that is all. You follow him around the gym machines after that, saying nothing. You are waiting for some hint of familiarity. It doesn’t come. He’s panting when he finishes the last of his lifts, but he only pats your shoulder before he carries his towel into the men’s locker room. Stunned, you don’t go in to change. You wait like a school girl by the outer doors of the gym. When he finally comes out, zipping the front of his parka for the slight chill of Houston in winter, you lean forward in fits and starts. “Why aren’t you happy to see me?” There’s no one entering or leaving around you. “Leese, I’m happy. I—it’s been wearing on me, what we’ve been doing. After the launch and coming home and all the craziness, man, I just need a little space.” “Oh, hah hah, Bill. Space. I get it.” You’re bursting with news to share. “I’m leaving him, Billy. Billy, it’s done. I’m yours now.” He turns his back. You have to shriek his name before he hurries back to you down the hall. “Lisa! For god’s sake—”
Jang / Sit Still / 10 “Billy.” Calm. Trying to be calm, your fingers twist in the zipper of his parka. He takes your hands in his own. You take a breath and try again. “Billy. Christmas was awful and Richard and I, we just can’t do it anymore. I can’t stop thinking about you, still. I want—I mean, I’m finally—” You peer around him and check down the corridor, and then you coil your arms up to embrace— “Lisa, I’m seeing someone.” —his neck, and then you crowd in close to— “Lisa, I think I’m in love.” —kiss the dimpled left corner of his perfect mouth, but— “Lisa, I’m sorry.” “Billy.” —he pulls away. He takes your hands in his and rubs the pads of his thumbs over the trembling bones in your wrists. “You are one of my best friends, Leese. Be happy for me.” He shakes his head as he backs full away from you, and the space between you yawns open, terrifying. It hurts so much more when he tries to be gracious. The humiliation cripples you when he says, “It’s a cliché, but it’s true: what we shared will always be special for me. You know that.” And this part you relive over and over, because his eyes drop to the floor before he turns away. He saw your soul and he averred. Later that night (for a week, forever) you wish you had smashed his face into the floor at your feet. You want to sink hooked fingernails into his eye sockets for daring to look away.
Jang / Sit Still / 11 It takes a few weeks for your thoughts to completely clear. She, whoever she is, is an insult, a slap. The relationship over, maybe you could understand that. It was all too, too much. You were married and so you understand why he feels this way now. You thought you sensed it too, that last time you made love in his apartment, in November. You could only stay an hour that night and you joked that he was your fix, your drug. But afterwards, he was thoughtful and quiet. He sat naked, cross-legged on the bed. You watched him watch you while you fastened the clasp of your bra and checked your cell phone for messages from Richard and you knew without having to be told that this was becoming a problem. He, divorced and free. You still living your life as if nothing was happening. Never mind the escalating fights with your husband. (A month later Richard pitchess his dinner plate against at the kitchen cabinets. “You’re a bitch, Lisa. Why can’t you be happy with what we have?” Later, you think you hear him crying behind the bedroom door, and the disgust drives you to sleep on the couch that night. Your suitcase is waiting, packed and ready, the next morning.) But he’s not backing off for you. He’s backing off for Her. It doesn’t matter what he says later. “I want you to understand, Lisa. Lisa. You’re my girl. But you have a family. I think you need to—” You don’t have the stomach to hear the rest. For every five times you call, pretending acceptance and light (what you will not do is say, “Please.” It’s never just that word) he returns one message only. Billy. Billy-O. Nothing has ever hurt more than this. Nothing. He refuses to start a conversation. He refuses to talk about Her, whoever she is. After the times you were there for him in the beginning, listening to his divorce unfold, he can’t pretend
Jang / Sit Still / 12 less than mild distraction for you. You tell him how hard it is dealing, the aggravation of the separation, how bitter Richard is, when it was no one’s fault. You leave sentences open, waiting for him to fill them. “It’s just like when Mary wouldn’t let you go, remember? It’s so frustrating. And do you remember how many times you had to hold the phone away from your ear, and we laughed that time because we could still hear her yelling across the room from the phone?” You laugh, desperate, willing him to join you in the reminiscing of that magical time. Instead, he said, “Maybe you could give the guy a break, Leese.”
The rage inside you is hollowing and pure. You love him so you forgive Billy his arrogance—that sickening hypocritical sympathy for the husband he was happy to cuckold for three years. But this is also a revelation. Maybe Bill just threw in the towel. Maybe you needed to be the strong one this time. He divorced his wife two years ago; he is punishing you for being a Lisa-come-lately. He loved you when he had you, but he could not keep you while your husband was in the picture. But now… you are both free. Mostly. One Friday, Billy is not at work. You make it to lunch before you ask your section chief where you can find him, did he call in, is he sick today, he’s not answering calls to his cell phone. Chief Lindsey looks up from unrolling a packet of schematics and says Bill put in for a few days leave. “He has a guest in from Florida.” Florida?
Jang / Sit Still / 13 You leave the office without telling anyone and race over to Bill’s apartment. You still have the key; he never asked for it back. No one is home, but once you’re inside, you laser in on a picture of a young woman you’ve never seen before, on the faux mantle of the gas fireplace. Pointy, smug face. Smiling blue eyes. You crouch down in the middle of the place and beat your fists and slap your head open-handed, trying to exorcise the pain away. Over the next hour, you systematically search his closets, drawers, computer for information about this woman. It was going on for months. He met her before he went up in the shuttle in December, wrote to her, made love to her. He only told you about her a few weeks ago, and he’d been home a whole month by then. You are aware every second that they might come in the door together. You want her to see you here, to know you still have a key; it’s a miracle that they do not. You are about to sit down to wait when you see scrap of paper on the kitchen counter. An itinerary.
Becton keeps throwing volleys in your direction, wanting something to stick. “Did you think about this ahead of time, Lisa? I mean, was there ever a time when you said to yourself, ‘So what if he doesn’t love me? I’m a fucking astronaut.’” You don’t answer (you are sick with yourself, and this man in front of you is so small). There was a moment, though. Doubt crept in. The whole night driving, your hands on the wheel at ten and two and cruise control set at seventy-nine (you are very careful, you can’t afford to get a ticket here, the guy at the motel won’t need your ID, but the cops would) you feel powerful. You are willing to do what must be done. You examine the knuckles of your right hand, gripping the wheel so hard you have no
Jang / Sit Still / 14 feeling below your elbows. What will happen to you if you have to… do something…more? If you can’t make her see reason? You wonder. So many people have no qualms over inflicting pain. Burglars. Rapists and serial killers. You understand that freedom now, you’re just on the other side of it. What a basic, human way to live; you’re almost ready to blast over. The stars don’t care. You know how uncaring the universe is. You’re a fucking astronaut. So the plan goes something like this: confronting them at Bill’s apartment would give Her too much power. Billy can’t see her as a victim. The key is that he left you and now he has Her. He left because he could not have you and now he has Her. If he did not have Her, he would have you again. You understand how this man works, how he stayed with you until someone new came along. So, he will come back, at least for as long as it takes him to find someone else. But he would not leave you if he really and truly had you. And now that you are free, he can have you and keep you. The timing will be perfect. The perfect love you share will make everything that happens in the next seventy-two hours completely irrelevant. You blasted off in your own rocket. You saw stars. You became the arm. You see yourself reaching in to pluck out the malfunction. Can you do it?
The question swelled, but then there were signs for the airport. You rented a room at the first motel that purported a courtesy shuttle; you thought you might have time to shower before Her plane landed. You were naked, stripped down almost all the way, when you caught a glimpse of your body in the yellowed mirror. Runner’s breasts and the smiling scar along your lower belly, from where they took the twins. You saw your reflection, half-crouched and desperate, and you did wonder if this would work at all.
Jang / Sit Still / 15 What if She stayed in Houston? Said, “Screw the plane,” and just rolled over and… Damnit, there were so many nights you wanted to do just that. Curl up like an embryo in the sheets of Billy’s bed, in his arms, to sleep and then be born the next day to a new life and make love all morning. When you are with him again you will never leave that bed, not for days. But what if she did say, “Screw it,” and took the next one? You looked up and scanned the ceiling in the bathroom as if you could x-ray through the plaster and thirty-five thousand feet and peer into the planes thundering overhead to make sure she was sitting in one of them. Damnit, Lisa, you don’t have time for this; the plane is going to touch down. You stopped the water running in the shower and stand a moment longer, looking at yourself in the mirror, cold and miserable. You imagine you can smell yourself, unwashed, fearful sweat and greasy hair. The wig will cover it. Your skin felt like this on the shuttle, too; it was hard to discern when the alcohol in the body wipes dissolved the sticky, scummy surface that mottled your skin. You have one leg back into your pants when you realize you’re still wearing the absorbency trunks. You can’t stop now, though, and you know it will not be feasible to take bathroom breaks when you’re staking out the flight. The diaper stays on. All you want is to talk to her. You say it out loud. “To talk to her.” You don’t want to do anything else. The rest is a matter of will.
Detective Becton sends you back to the cell. It’s not over, you can feel it, but the glassyeyes puddle you’ve become in the interrogation room is more than any man can take for overly long. That’s one lesson you are learning fast.
Jang / Sit Still / 16 When the deputies bring you back, a big blonde man is standing in the open doorway, peering into the empty room. “Chief?” Steven Lindsey turns when he hears your voice. You want to cower in the corner. How did they find out so fast? Oh my god, Bill… “NASA knows already?” You know the answer. Stupid idiot. Stupid, stupid little girl. Steven nods and says nothing, then confers with one of the deputies, showing him a paper in his left hand and cupping his right as if whispering state secrets. Something on the paper is important; the deputies confer. You go in to the open cell of your own accord, and sit down on the bench. It feels safer there. One of the deputies remains while the other takes the paper and disappears. Steven stands briefly in the doorway, wavering as to whether he should enter or retreat. Finally, he simply stands still and looks at you. Then he takes a breath and looks down at the floor. “NASA is providing temporary counsel. He should be here soon.” The Chief gives you a moment to digest the implications of this. “I understand you already phoned your parents.” You want to die. Steven is embarrassed. You can read it in the stiff, heavy way he stays back. He’s ashamed to be here, and he’s embarrassed for you. All of the events of the last two days splash together into a neat, round cannonball of grief and hopelessness, shot straight through your heart only to lodge in your gullet and choke off all the air. You baby. You stupid victim. You were an Astronaut. You’re nothing now.
Jang / Sit Still / 17 “They try not to concern themselves with their employees’ private lives. This is different.” Steven walks in a few steps and looks around the cell. “It’s like the station in here, huh?” “They know about Bill? I never said his name.” “You and he are Naval officers, Lisa. JAG will weigh in.” Emotion flushes his brow. “They’re not going to let you up again after this, Lisa. It’s over.” He says this stone-faced, staring forward, better able to deliver this information in the direction of the door. You feel sorry for this rock of a man. You admire him more because of this awkward artifice. NASA’s superstars are all boy scouts. “They were never going to let me up again anyway, Chief. You thought I didn’t know?” His eyes flick to look at you out their corners. You think that he must be wondering if all of this happened because you knew the dream called Astronaut was over. Had known, all this time. In a small, infinitesimal way, this might be true. No time like the present to start building a defense. “Thank you, Chief. For being here.” You put a hand on his arm, briefly. He looks down at the place you touched him and bristles almost (but not quite) imperceptibly. Stricken, you imagine he’s suppressing the urge to brush at his sleeve. “No one has forgotten what you did for Laurel’s family. That’s why I’m here.” You think about that time and remember how it was easier to mother a dead woman’s child than to touch your own. “How did it get out so fast, Steve? I haven’t told anyone.” “Bill called NASA, Lisa, as soon as he heard. He knew it was going to come out.”
Jang / Sit Still / 18 Burning hard as a star, there’s a second that you think it worked. Despite this serious cluster of a mess you’ve made, Billy understands. And then you realize that the only one who could have told him was Her.
Houston to Orlando by car: fourteen hours, twenty minutes. But only eight minutes (and fifteen stories of jet fuel) to blast up off the planet. You wish they’d left you there. You’re there now.