The Mars Effect (Johannesburg, South Africa) When I was eleven, in the hot Alabama summers, I would wake up before dawn – around 5 or 6 am – and take my telescope to the driveway. I was always driven by the latest article in my child astronomy magazine, Odyssey, to point to a certain section of the sky I was searching for Mars. I would stare at the Viking I and Viking II photographs in my World Book Encyclopedia magazine for hours. I would re-draw them in my sketch pad. I redrew them so much my Crayola Crayon Box would run out of blue and orange crayons before all the others – because I was always coloring the blue sky of the Martian atmosphere and the desolation of the Martian surface. I read books about Mars and had the Tallapoosa county book mobile stop by my house every week to bring me the latest Mars or space exploration book. From the nearby Pick-A-Flick, I rented OJ Simpson in the movie “Capricorn One” at least a dozen times about a faked landing on Mars. One time I watched it so much – that my VCR ate the tape. I just knew that it would be me. I knew I would be the first person from Earth to land on Mars. I practiced Mars landings outside in my yard – climbing down from my spacecraft (a big oak tree) just beside Sunny Level Cut-Off Road in Alexander City, Alabama. Sometimes cars passing would honk their horn at me to encourage me. I constantly worked on the words I would say to be televised to the world as Neil Armstrong did when he made his infamous speech upon touching the surface of the moon, “This is one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.” I remember one of my iterations: “Men dreamed of flying, they did. Men dreamed of space, they explored. Men dreamed of touching the surface of another home, and today this man has.” The planet regardless of the magnification I placed into the socket of my telescope – it constantly looked like a red dot. Sometimes, depending on how hot and humid those
mornings were, it was blurrier. Sometimes it appeared more focused. But regardless it always seemed so far away, but I wanted to be there. That red dot I stared at endlessly represented my future. I knew it would take nearly two years with a conventional rocket to get me there and three to six months on its surface – and then nearly two years to get back. But it was a journey I was willing to make a sacrifice for. Then in January 1986, the space shuttle Challenger blew up while going to “throttle up” during lift off. And my hope of seeing Martian soil seemed to vanish. Then life moved on. Sometimes, during my travels around the world, I smell those mornings – I am not sure what it is I smell – something that reminds me of being up before dawn staring into my telescope. But my brain does and it triggers the memory. I smelled it once when I was in Chengdu, China. I smelled it once when I was walking home from an all night party in Bologna, Italy. And when I was walking to catch the train from Trondheim, Norway back to Oslo, Norway – I smelled it. And always when I get off the plane in Johannesburg, South Africa and arrive at O.R. Tambo International Airport, I smell it. Maybe it isn’t a smell, it is a realization, a sense of exploration, of finding a place and experiencing something I had never experienced before. And just as quickly as I smell it, the smell and sensation disappears. So subconsciously, I find myself pushing myself through life searching for that smell or more subliminally searching for the Mars Effect.
While at work, I got an instant message from Preeti in Pune, India. “Hey! I have to chat with you about something.” I typed back, “Sure. What?” And then I paused for a second as I watched the screen say she was typing something to me. “How are you?” Finally the screen filled with text, “I need to tell you we got a problem with your destiny. Something is not adding up. And yes, I am doing fine. And the family is doing fine.” I pushed back, “What is it? What’s wrong?” Preeti asked, “How are you and Sophia?” “We are not doing too good. But that’s mostly my fault.”
Preeti didn’t reply. “Why do you ask?” “Were you renamed or something when you were younger?” “I was adopted.” Preeti went quiet on the other end. Then she started typing, “Oh. Okay. That makes sense.” “TELL ME!” I typed in all capital letters. “Your destiny is different. There has been a mistake. I am so, so sorry.” “WHAT? WHY? HOW?” Preeti was quiet again. Then she started back, “Your real name changes everything.” “Why does it change everything?” Preeti keyboarded out, “It’s called the Mars Effect.”
I was going stir crazy in my apartment alone. I sent a SMS to Zen to see if she was bored. She replied back, “Very.” So we organized to meet for a late Sunday brunch in SoHo. It was such a late brunch, around 3 pm, that most of the brunch menus were being discontinued. But we found a new seafood restaurant just in front of the SoHo escalator beside Staunton Street – we took up two bar stools and looked out. Zen was always inside her thoughts and observant. But when you asked her a question, she exploded out some hilarious revelation. “I think that guy is hating being a tourist,” she said. I looked where she was looking and there was a fat, bald guy sweating profusely – standing alone - looking at a map with a scowl. “Maybe he is being a tourist because people say he is supposed to be a tourist when you travel to a place you have never been.” Zen laughed. “But I think he hates it.” She laughed louder and then covered her mouth. “I mean look at him. He looks pissed off at the map.” I glanced at him and turned away so he wouldn’t notice. “I think he might have a heart attack.”
And just like that, the fat, bald guy got caught up in the crowd crossing the street and taking the second escalator. “I don’t believe in being a tourist.” I said matter-of-factly. “I know. All you know is Central. You have never traveled off this island.” “That’s not true. I have been to Kowloon and Mong Kok.” She took a sip of her orange juice. “Really?” she raised her eyebrows. “How many times?” “I don’t count.” “Riding the Airport Express doesn’t count.” I took a sip of my mocha. “I travel too much as it is. The last thing I want to do is sightsee where I live. When I am home, I go where I feel comfortable.” We went back to being silent and watching people. Just then I saw some tourists walking up the middle of Staunton Street, and one of the women looked familiar. And suddenly, my heart stopped. I heard one of them say, “Eh?” Like a Canadian. “Oh my god,” I said. Zen looked over at me. “What?” “I think I know her.” And my heart began racing. “Who is she?” I took a sip of my mocha. And then I got up enough courage and yelled out, “Carolyn?” Then I said it louder. “Hey Carolyn!” But the woman still didn’t hear me. I turned to Zen. “Hey, can I ask you to do me a favor?” She looked bemused. “Okay, I guess. What is it?” “Can you go up to that woman and ask her if her name is Carolyn?” Zen punched me in the shoulder. “You go ask her yourself! Don’t be a baby.” “I can’t.” And my heart was fluttering. “Because if she is who I think she is – I think she is a girl who I had a crush on prior to meeting my ex-wife.”
Zen laughed. “God you are full of ex-girlfriends and stories.” She then punched me again. “Just go ask.” I stared dangerously at the woman in front of us. And the most obvious feature of her was her lips. They definitely looked like Carolyn. “That can’t be her. She lives in Calgary. And how random would it be that she and I would meet here in Hong Kong.” “Did you date her?” “No. I only kissed her once. That was it. I met her while she was an intern for a pharmaceutical company in North Carolina. And we both liked each other. But she had a boyfriend back in Canada. One night we accidentally kissed. And the next day she was gone.” I watched her taking pictures with her girlfriend and two guys that were with them. “Then three months later I met my ex-wife.” Zen laughed. “Good lord. Yes too many ex’s.” “No, it’s not that.” Zen then turned to stare at me. “So you don’t have ex’s? Is that what you mean by ‘it’s not that?’” “It’s complicated.” I said directly. “No, you are complicated.” “You want to know the truth?” I asked. “No. I want you to lie to me.” She said sarcastically. “I don’t think I can belong to anyone. I think I am supposed to just float around the Earth.” “And do what? Float around the Earth and fuck people?” Zen laughed. “I don’t just fuck people.” “Oh, that’s right. Fuck them and have conversations? Remember life is not always about sex. There is such a thing as a spiritual connection. Remember your Christian roots.” “Are you witnessing to me?” I asked. “Maybe.” And she winked at me. “Well I don’t believe God has an ultimate plan.”
“Why not? I don’t believe in chaos. I believe everything has a purpose, a destiny.” I blew out a breath. “Please don’t get me started about destinies. I had my destiny read while in India – and it had two directions – and then because of one flaw – my name – everything got screwed up. And I lost both.” Zen stayed quiet and suddenly our brunch arrived. The Nepalese waitress gave Zen hers first. And then she put the plates down for me. Her breakfast was larger than mine. Her eyes got wide when she saw the difference in portions. “I think you will have to eat some of mine.” “Gladly.” I said. “You never lose your destinies.” She continued. “So you feel that life is pre-destined. Planned out. No possible ways to be improvisational.” “No. I believe if you want something to happen – be like the Royal Bank of Scotland: make it happen.” That’s when the woman who looked like Carolyn and her friends – moved on up Staunton Street and disappeared. Zen looked at me, “So you are not going to talk to her?” And she poked her head in the woman who looked like Carolyn’s direction. “No. She dumped me for a construction worker boyfriend.” “Construction workers can be hot.” “Whatever.” And I rolled my eyes. “So what do you believe?” Zen asked me with a mouth full of food. “I believe love and life is a war. It’s always a battle.” And I took in a fork of egg into my mouth. “And I am tired of fighting.” “Is that what happened between you and Sophia?” Zen asked watching the people coming up the escalator. “Maybe.” “Remember women are from Venus and men are from Mars. We are almost different species.” “I can’t believe that the simple introduction of a vagina or a penis – can screw up everything – and make us from totally separate planets.”
“I blame the penis,” Zen said. “I blame menstruation,” I said.
When I got home from Open Mic at Take Out Comedy late on Tuesday night there was a message in my Facebook inbox asking if I would be interested in performing for the Nando’s and Good Hope FM Comedy Festival in Cape Town, South Africa. There were two shows one on the upcoming Sunday and the big one, final showdown, on the upcoming Monday. I had a week of mandatory holiday that was the very same week – and I had planned to go to Manila – to try and repair things with Sophia. But again, I was tired of fixing things and breaking things later. So I hit the reply button, and typed, “Yes. I would love to be apart of it. Count me in.” And then I logged in to the Cathay Pacific website and redeemed my unused air miles for a free trip to South Africa.
On Thursday night, a night before I was leaving for South Africa, in the middle of the night, my mobile vibrated from a SMS. I was half awake and half asleep. Then there was a second vibration from another SMS. I rolled over and pulled my Blackberry off its re-charger. I looked at the time – it was nearly 2 in the morning. I saw the glowing asterisk on my SMS icon. I pushed enter and it was a message from Eve Covet. After weeks of absence, suddenly, in the middle of the night, she replied. Her message was simple, “Are you okay?” “Why do you reply back to me only now?” I shot back. And I kept the Blackberry in my hand and closed my eyes again. It suddenly vibrated. “You didn’t answer my question.” She typed back. “Well I am as good as can be expected.” “I got a message from Preeti. She said she was worried about you. She also told me that they messed up on your destiny because of your name before your adoption.” I simply replied back, “Yes.” And before waiting for her to respond back, I pushed back, “So you going to slip in my life and slip out again? If that’s the case, you don’t have to SMS me.”
“I am letting you focus on Sophia.” She said. “She really appreciates that. She hates me. And more than that, she hates you.” I said. The Blackberry vibrated. “I just wanted to make sure you were okay. And I read your blog.” “Yeah. What did you think?” “I think you should stop drinking. It magnifies the pain. You should sleep more and stay at home watching DVDs eating popcorn.” “Thanks doctor.” I sent back. “Don’t be a smart ass!” her text replied back. “What do you expect me to do?” “Not be a smart ass.” I didn’t reply and just kept the Blackberry in my fingers. “I talked to my priest about us.” She said suddenly. “And what did he say?” “He said you were born to bring change. He called you an ‘indigo’ person. A person of the spiritual world – who was put on Earth to bring people together and change them.” “So he called me a white Obama? Or the anti-Christ?” “Maybe. He said you were born to do something great.” “And about us? You said you talked to him about us.” “That’s for me to know. Right now, he told me to focus on me.” “Well you are good at that.” “I am not here to argue. I just wanted to make sure you were ok.” “I am okay. I miss talking to you.” And she replied back, “Good night.” Suddenly, I couldn’t sleep anymore.
I only got scared just before boarding my flight around midnight Friday. What was I doing? Why was I running away? Why was I going to South Africa? And then I reminded myself, I was going to my global therapy session – this time in Cape Town, South Africa. I was going to unload my fears, my faults, my issues to a new international audience – so they could laugh at my mistakes – relate to my mistakes – and maybe let others know – they are not the only ones who make the same mistakes in love and life. That calmed me down. I boarded my flight, and after take off, in my Business Class seat, I watched “17 Again” and was taken back when the high school Senior year class was from 1989. I suddenly felt old. I reclined my seat to a bed and fell asleep. And while sleeping I dreamed I was on a rocket ship, and I suppose when the airplane hit turbulence, I incorporated it into my dream – imagining I was on my 18 month voyage to Mars. Suddenly, the lights came on in the cabin, and the pilot came on said we were about to descend towards O.R. Tambo International Airport. I brought my seat upright and nibbled on breakfast. And while lost in my thoughts, the plane bumped to a landing. Suddenly the seat belt went off, and all of us stood. And when I stepped out of the airplane exit and while smelling the African air, I remembered being in the driveway in Alabama looking through my telescope. And I remembered the words that would be televised to the world when I landed on Mars: “Men dreamed of flying, they did. Men dreamed of space, they explored. Men dreamed of touching the surface of another home, and today this man has.”
Written by GS Jackson, © 2009 LOL Entertainment Group, LLC (USA) Limited (HKG)