The Monkey Handler
After many coy encounters in the Simulator, the tension was taut as a blown balloon. Dale wanted to burst it, stab it, squeeze it. He hadn’t called a woman in years. Sexual contact with a crew member was absolutely forbidden in space, but they were on land for two days. It was a technicality, but to Dale the nights in between seemed wildly open. The first night, he lay in bed dreaming of the second. On the second, he dialed it and waited, clearing his throat after each ring, then tumbling into the void, the unnatural sound of her answering machine. “Holly here!” it began, then continued into a song. No astronaut would ever have that message. It was ridiculous, it was cheesy, he hung up immediately.
She had astronaut’s blood, he had to keep reminding himself. Her parents and their hand-in-hand moonwalk, the space promenade, printed on posters and tote bags, illustrated on stamps for its ten-year anniversary. Tomorrow would be its 30th. He sat in panicky aftermath of the call. He threw himself in the shower.
After, he sat shivering in a worn towel, feeling old. He jumped at the sound of his phone. He rushed to it and saw her name blinking on the screen. Pressing it to his damp ear, he said “Hello Holly!” and waited, goose-bumped, happy. A muffled conversation relayed back, a car horn, swishing. He said “hello” once more, but the muffling kept on. He heard Holly’s girlish laugh dazzle some earth place, some usual plaza where everyone’s hair was hanging down, everyone’s feet touching ground.
Dale was tall and slender with an accusatory nose, sullen, slack cheeks, the same style glasses he’d worn as a boy. Long teeth with prominent gums. Skinny arms with bulging biceps. He sat on the edge of the tub in his humid bathroom, toilet water trembling from a recent flush, and finally accepted that no one had dialed the call. Holly was out with friends, Holly was getting undressed in a hotel, one butt cheek had randomly chosen his name. She was in a taxi, she was young, she had no idea. He dropped his towel in a sad lump on the floor and left the bathroom. She was the sexiest woman he’d ever seen in a spacesuit. If he were patient, he might hear her have sex with a stranger. This disgusted him. He flipped his phone shut and hastily pulled his underwear on. Earlier, he had prepared a sandwich so painstakingly, with a knife for every spread, paper-thin tomato slices, such an array of cheeses that he’d felt embarrassed of the whole ordeal and sulkily had left the sandwich alone on its plate. Now, dashing into the kitchen, the 29th man to dance the moon sank his teeth into that sandwich.
A dismal night was spent at home, but the morning found Dale driving to Base, an astronaut alive. His medical check-up further perked him up and by the time he saw Holly at the traditional breakfast, “Did you call me last night?” “Oh, did I?” there was no discrepancy a muffin couldn’t solve, and one crumbled into his mouth like a supportive crowd.
Looking out from the spaceship, Earth filled Holly’s field of vision. A great pile-up of smoke marked where the shuttle had launched. Her heart beat in a lagging, longing, sped-up way. She felt fat in her spacesuit, but she’d only have to wear it for launching and landing. It was stupid to feel fat. She was on a spaceship for Christsake! Holly watched Dale, Justine, and Rory carefully monitor all the levers and lights. Even the monkey was wearing a spacesuit! He was buckled into the seat right next to her. This was truly a privilege for her and the monkey handler, onboard with three overqualified crewmates. That was the toast she had made at the breakfast.
The ground curved, the Earth looking finally like a huge globe! Then like a domed stadium. It fell to a size Holly could hold in her arms, a basketball, volleyball, tennis ball, ping pong ball, a marble, an eye. It stayed an eye. Justine motioned to Rory. Rory pulled a lever. Everyone was quiet. It was unwritten code to remain silent during a launch. Anything more than eye contact is bad luck. Holly knew this, she’d been told, she told herself this again. At any moment some doomed level might react, nothing is perfect, no plan immune.
The silence was also like a moment of silence, ritual, like for dead astronauts. Dead astronauts whose souls float about outer space, along with the meteors and whatever else. Holly didn’t really believe that, like about souls, but to die in outer space? What a thing to do out there. Soon she would be shitting in outer space, sneezing. If she cried, if she dared, would her tears float, would they splat on Rory’s face?
She looked at the Earth eye. Slowly, it shrank to the size of something pulled off a sweater. Holly reached for the hand of the handsome chimpanzee and he held hers back. His name was Costello. She squeezed. He squeezed. Costello’s other hand was held by his handler. Together, Holly, the monkey, and the monkey handler were a chain. If they were playing tag and the monkey handler was touching base, then she and the monkey would also be counted as safe, thought Holly. She laughed to herself and Rory gave her a smile, like soon Holly, soon we can all laugh out loud.
The cockpit, living quarters and operator's station were located in the forward fuselage. The airlock provided access for spacewalks. The mid-deck contained provisions and storage facilities, sleep stations, lithium hydroxide canisters and other gear, the waste management system, the personal hygiene station. There was an escape capsule for emergencies that could dislodge from the craft. There were exercise machines, a dvd player. There were astronaut journals from old missions. The ceiling, walls, and floor were covered with handles and ropes.
When first built, the Spec 5 looked sly and modern, but 30 years later, the shiny white had yellowed, scratches and scuffmarks covered its interior, and rust grew on its metal beams. This gave it a homey feel. To Holly, it felt like time-travel, drifting on the very craft her parents manned for their famous launch. Holly was an off-Broadway stage actress, invited to join in a ceremonial mission on the big anniversary. At first, she’d felt nervous around the astronauts, but Rory had been so nice, they got along immediately, and Justine so stoic. Besides, the monkey handler knew far less about space than she, and she was a quick learner.
Dale told her all the names of the astronauts to have reached beyond Low Earth orbit, because his was one. Also, Justine. Justine Boswin became a star astronaut at an early age, and still held the record for youngest woman on the moon. A Time Magazine cover from that time showed her in zero gravity standing very straight, gazing intently at the camera, while behind her, her crewmates were a mass of tangled limbs. Justine was efficient and professional. She moved gracefully about the cabin. She had a crew cut and never referred to her land life.
The crew fell into familiar rhythms. They floated around in their socks. Dale worked on carbon growth experiments while Justine checked all interior and exterior levels, recording endless data. Holly put on Radiohead and Dale scoffed and switched it off. The monkey handler communicated in sign language to his monkey. Holly distracted Rory from her afternoon exercises, making her play theater games. “Say the line again, but this time as the sophisticated old lady.” Rory and Holly’s laughter distracted Dale and he grimaced. He glowered at the controls. He beamed at space phenomenon. He cleaned the kitchen.
Dale watched miserably as the monkey picked a bit from his nose and then with one finger, casually flicked the bit off, following its tiny path through the air with his big brown eyes, gauging its wayward course. It could go anywhere. It turned and drifted. The monkey lost interest and made a face at Dale. Dale returned with the meanest, ugliest face he could conceive of and Holly saw. Dale’s ugliest face was the face of his soul, she thought to herself. She felt hot and tried to breathe herself down. She bumped her way to the Sphere.
One of the few private spaces on the spacecraft was an observational room, a glass Meditation Sphere, where crewmembers were assigned an hour to themselves every day. In the Meditation Sphere, Costello crawled like spider, Holly practiced flips, and Rory cried. On Earth, Rory never cried. But alone in space with the glaring absence of things, Earth seemed pedestrian, like level one, and this, level two, so complex and refined, absent of all clues and weight. No fluff here, and she could cry for this, how foolish the all of everything seemed in that Sphere, check-out lines and ATM machines, karaoke, bumper stickers, game shows, ties, dresses, all that stuff, attics full of stuff, closets full, dressers full, fortune cookies, aprons, quilts, trophies, pinwheels, nail polish. In space, she was free of these, she was alone and she could cry.
Onboard the Spec 5, Dale flirted with Holly to unusually absent results. Differences between the Simulator and real space typically occur, but this difference was felt so keenly that Dale experienced early stages of Space Adaptation Syndrome (SAS), which he had never suffered before. He took vitamins, did exercises, but his eyes were hot on Holly. Holly clumsily washing her hair with water bags. Holly signing to the monkey, dancing with the monkey, playing with magnets and balls of spit. Holly playing Tetris on the computer, reading Isaac Asimov books, Holly happily indulging in every space cliché he’d ever heard of. His nausea grew worse. Holly and the handler should have been getting SAS, most first time space visitors did. Instead, they wafted about, discussing space like two stoned teenagers, while sweaty Dale silently endured his symptoms, fumbling after a pill that floated past him and into the monkey’s open hand.
Costello had been commissioned by a publishing company to write a short book about his trip. His handler was doubtful. “Sure, he’s smart. But he’s not particularly literary. His jokes are mostly physical and won’t translate. I’m more his friend than anything else.” The monkey handler had lied on his medical exam, neglecting to admit he was a smoker. When asked if Costello smoked, his handler laughed and the nurse laughed too. She hastily checked no, but man how many cigarettes they’d split between them! On car rides to deaf schools, in the woods behind Costello’s lab habitat. Costello smoked long before he met the handler. Before meeting Costello, the handler had always refused cigarettes, even when he played in jazz clubs (trumpet) where the air was thick with blue smoke. Costello had many qualities to admire, but when he held a lit cigarette in his big hands and ruefully pulled it to his lips, his handler was re-reminded of Costello’s infinite attitude and presence. Anything good for Costello was good for him too, so as soon as the deal went through, he and Costello went strictly on the patch.
The monkey handler had guiltily smuggled the patches onboard. Just his luck if the patches didn’t agree with the special air in the spacecraft. When asked about the patch on Costello’s butt, he said it was a vitamin supplement. Patches helped, but he and Costello both craved cigarettes, making it one of Costello’s most frequent signs. When the handler interviewed Costello to generate content for his book, Costello would reply, Cigarette. I don’t know outer space. Cigarette. His handler tentatively titled the book I Don’t Know Outer Space and transcribed all of Costello’s replies. There are not trees. Not birds. Not Martha. Hungry. Cigarette please. You my friend. Walking strange.
Sometimes on the Spec 5, Holly reminisced about the Simulator. How she’d spun in the Simo! Euphoric waves rushed her brain. Weightlessness unbound her thoughts and they flashed casual in her head, skipping around, teasing. Any movement was a joke and Dale was laughing with her. The ballet of the everyday! Slowly, the instant joy had dissolved into calmness. Eventually, she was sorry to admit, the calmness carried the gloss of boredom. She held a rope on the wall and watched the same people she’d been watching. Watched them doing nothing. Would space be as boring as this? She wouldn’t mind. She probably wouldn’t mind. How could she mind? There wasn’t a choice. She decided she wouldn’t mind. She did a little dance to boost her disposition and Dale laughed. She felt drowsy with relief. She knew once she got up there she’d feel romantic. Boredom and adventure always dragged out romance and this would be so much of both.
Rory was doing routine examination on the Spec 5 when she realized the computers in the dislodge capsule weren’t working. The air control levels and circulator still worked, and the mini waste system, but there was an error in the main computer. Justine ran a built-in diagnostic program. Dale blamed Costello. To him the monkey was a mammoth toddler, sign language or not. “This isn’t just some video game,” Dale said. He found the monkey and his handler to be messy crewmates. Costello, in particular, was a sloppy eater, and had room for improvement with the space toilet. His toys were always drifting into Dale’s lab.
The monkey handler was gullible and easy to be with. His face was untried and new, he looked like a child actor grown older. He knew nothing about space. He’d attempted to explain the scope and importance of the trip to Costello, but was unsuccessful. “He doesn’t understand books to begin with, and he’s only once been on an airplane, let alone a space shuttle.” Dale pitied this monkey handler. “The Spec 5 is actually an orbiter, a winged spaceplane, the shuttle is the apparatus that blasted us off,” Dale explained haughtily. Not everyone deserved space was Dale’s theory. Space was elite. It wasn’t for the sloppy or foolish, the unambitious or annoying.
Playing catch with Costello and the monkey handler, Holly overthrew the ball into mid-deck. The monkey handler and Holly climbed rope to rope racing after it. Costello leapt about distractedly, drifting into Dale's lab. For once, it was empty, and Costello poked around. He played with a floating pencil tied to a string. He went sniffing every surface, opened a jar containing soil and cathartically jammed his hands in. Eventually, he busied himself snacking on one of many potted plants anchored to the table, arranged neatly in Dale's control group. Its leaves were lazy and familiar. Costello disliked the taste and spit them out. Soggy leaves bobbed in front of his eyes. The jungle! He tore another leaf from a plant. It ripped easily and he ripped another.
Dale was instantly furious. His screaming sent the monkey handler rushing over, apologetic and blushing. Bitten leaves spiraled around them.Costello grinned and frowned, stood smirking and falling into the wall. The monkey handler rushed around cleaning up. After a lengthy groan, Dale commanded the faulty dislodge capsule be converted into Costello’s room.
They outfitted it with snacks and a stereo, and when Rory needed a break from her work, she’d tumble into the dislodge capsule where Costello, the monkey handler, and Holly were all making necklaces out of toothpicks and dates or dancing to the same Rolling Stones CD they’d found in the player when they boarded. Rory became friends with Costello. She taught him how to thumb wrestle.* * *
On Earth and in space, humans prove themselves human. Circular thinking, temporary joys. A Hall and Oates song will bring on the same feelings. Waiting for Costello to get out of the bathroom, the monkey handler slowly peddled on the stationary bike. Holly signed him something. Rory saw and absently tried to translate. I’m hungry happy. This day has time. Rory couldn’t remember the signs Holly had taught her.
The monkey handler met Holly in the Meditation Sphere. Holly was used to the weight of a man. Pushing and leaning, letting down on top of her, her breasts usually rolled and flopped how all do. Her butt was a weight that kept her thoughts from lofting. In space, sex was astounding. They laughed it was so great, maneuvering in one position then spinning spontaneously into others. The monkey handler held the ceiling handles and Holly floated freely. Her breasts were buoyant as floats. Sex made sense in outer space. His penis was a thing that kept them together.