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The Cosmic Distance Ladder

by Jennifer A. Howard

His sleeping wife leaves for Mars in the morning. Once she and the rest of the crew have landed, and for the next six years, they will follow different calendars. Her day will be thirty-some minutes longer than his, her year almost twice as long. He’s not even sure if there are Tuesdays on Mars. Certainly, there is no garbage night or April Fool’s.

No paydays, premiere nights, spring cleaning. She won’t be able to keep track of the anniversary of their first date. She’ll never know when it’s time to fill out her March Madness bracket or eat Sunday brunch, turn the clocks forward, order contact lenses before her prescription runs out. She’ll miss trivia night, Memorial Day, at least one Leap Day and Senate election, blackberry season, the Scripps National Spelling Bee, Talk Like a Pirate Day, the dying of the fish flies. Every single hump day. He’ll work the second shift security at the hospital—heading in under full sun and back out when Mars is right up there where he can see it—and he’ll keep a notebook summarizing the plot of every sci-fi novel he reads while she’s gone so he can tell her what happened in his head when she gets back.

He will feel the months: September is productive, February is a drag. But she will have two moons. Phobos orbits Mars in about a Mars-day, and Deimos three times as often. Months will mean nothing on Mars, except maybe when she marks down the first day of her period. Will her cycle sync with Phobos, with Deimos; will she release an egg a day? Three? He wants to wake her up and ask her about the timekeeping, how long before her eggs are gone. Years ago, scientists dismissed their fears about retrograde menstruation, blood in lesser gravity pooling upwards, floating back into the fallopian tubes, but they never—he’s sure—solved anything about the pull of the moons.

To keep in tune with everybody they left behind, the astronauts could stretch the Martian second a tiny bit, one-Mississippi-ish. Have they thought of that?

He will not read too much about radiation poisoning or the effects of weightlessness on bones while she is gone, will not decide yet where he will bury the dog who will die before she comes back, is already prepared for the moments when Mars will seem to him on Earth to head backwards, from east to west, his wife slipping even farther away. He won’t travel over to her side of the bed once it’s empty or grow a beard or buy new coffee mugs or change his toothpaste or clear the guest bedroom to make space for a nursery, so she can settle right back into their life when she lands. Even if the moons don’t change her, and she doesn’t fall in love with a handsome engineer or simply start to forget his face, she’ll be leaving six years’ worth of eggs behind to jettison with the space debris, leaving life on Mars, sending their babies out into the cosmos, tiny unfertilized astronauts who will never find their way home. So he’ll close his eyes when he kisses her before she leaves. Because loving somebody, like any science, requires a certain suspension of disbelief.

Jennifer A. Howard teaches creative writing and edits Passages North in Michigan’s snowy Upper Peninsula. Her chapbook of short-short stories, How to End Up, was published by New Delta Review.

Lead image: “Cardboard rocket” (via Flickr user Matt Biddulph)

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  1. Extraordinary. I feel for the husband but admire the wife pursuing her dream.

  2. Clif Clif


  3. Jesse Munroe Jesse Munroe

    Metaphor game so strong. Love this.

  4. Beautifully written.
    Dana Guidera author of Seven Poems from Life

  5. Dino Parenti Dino Parenti

    This one punched me right in the heart. Beautiful.

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