One night at home last summer, my family watched part of a documentary about Apollo 11 together. Mom and Pop were frozen in front of the screen, transfixed by its grainy footage of the little blue astronaut. He swam a subtle dance through that incomprehensible blackness. I was exhausted from my summer job, playing tag games with kids on a searing hot blacktop all day long. The nine hours a day spent outdoors was making the skin on my face harder and my legs more exhausted than they’d ever felt before. And I sank into the softness of the couch like it was a tomb.
But I was restless. I couldn’t sit still and focus on the screen the way my parents were, and God knew they were even more tired than I was. Pop sometimes comes home from one job painting houses just to eat a hot meal before he goes to the swing or graveyard shift at his next job as a security guard. He stands on his two huge feet at the Port of Oakland, and watches the cargo ships roll in. I imagine how small he looks next to mammoth ships. The cranes stretching their snouts out at the water. The blue Bay Area fog boiling overhead. And all the quiet power of the port on its brave little edge of Oakland, its precipice overlooking the smooth expanse of the East Bay shoreline.
I thought about all the family dinners of my childhood. We dutifully share our highs and lows with one another while we chew our paprika-dusted chicken, red buttery rice, the baked beans curled darkly in a corner of the plate. The purple bag waiting for my twin sister Jilly and me on the kitchen counter, a handful of its cookies looking smaller in Pop’s deeply creased palms than in ours. The French bread from Semifreddi’s bakery that Mom cradles home. My eager hands tug at its sweetly-crusted edge, until it pulls away to reveal the white pillow-softness underneath, the bread melting on my tongue like forgiveness.
It’s not that we don’t have family dinners together now. But they’re less frequent enough that I noticed when we were silent and still then, watching the documentary. I looked at my family around me, their expressions glazed over, twin moons reflected from the screen in each lens of Pop’s glasses.
Now, back at college in Oregon, I’m lying on an air mattress next to a leaky pipe, and I’m looking out the window at a charcoal sky. Clouds jagged and rough, like they would slough the skin off your heels if you were to run barefoot on them. I suck on a spoonful of peanut butter straight from the jar and wonder what kind of skies the astronauts thought of while they were in space. What purely human images they must have been aching for. No warm sidewalks, no chalky smell of rain, no fog to unfold in overhead like a drink of water. What did they think, when they looked out and saw a sky that must have looked so unreal, like painted cardboard all around them, rendering their spacecraft as small and vulnerable as the Earth must have seemed below?
That summer night at home, watching the astronauts make their bizarre swim, I fell asleep on the couch. Floating around me were the fuzzy, near-indistinguishable voices of the mission troop. Their recording devices blanketed the documentary in an ethereal wash of words. But the blackness of space burned holes in my sleep. And I brought my palms to my eyes and pressed down hard, feeling relief at the bright neon spots that soaked across my field of vision from the pressure.
This past summer was the 50th anniversary of the moon landing. The astronauts stepped on the moon on July 20th. Last summer, July 20th was the day I swam in Lake Tahoe for the first time, my skin reeling in white shock at the water’s brutal freeze. What was space like? Was it a similar lung-crushing kind of cold? Could the astronauts feel it there with them, when they walked that surreal threshold: an expanse of the purest nothingness closing in and opening up all around them at once?
The mission duration was eight days. Not a long time. But, did the astronauts miss their families? Their homes? Their kitchen tables? Once they had touched the sky, could they even imagine that return?
Pop gets home in the morning, bones heavy as stones from painting houses all day and standing at those docks all night. I had a dream once that the Vallejo Bridge lifted away from its moorings along the Bay and my little green car rode up into the clouds. Pop says he falls asleep during some of his shifts, especially the ones where he gets to be inside. I wonder what the docks transform into behind his own closed eyes.
During the summer, it’s 6:30 a.m. in our kitchen. I’m piercing my lungs with the steam from a cup of black coffee, getting ready to go to work as Pop walks through the front door, going to bed.
“Good night, Pop.”
“Good morning, kiddo.”
View from the Apollo 11 Command and Service Module (CSM) “Columbia.” Earth rising above the Moon’s horizon on July 20th, 1969. (NASA)