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Authors: Phil Stamper

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BOOK: The Gravity of Us
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I mute the notification. Of course my followers would notice how short my NASA segments are, how my eyes dart away from the camera when I mention the search for the newest astronauts.

Everyone wants to know why, and I’m staring at the reason: my dad just flew back from Houston from his final round of interviews with NASA.

If he has it his way, I’ll never escape this mission.



“Stop waiting by the phone,” my mom shouts. “They said they’d call you today if you were chosen. It’s five thirty. You’ve used all your vacation days and it’s barely June; you’re flying back and forth from Houston every few weeks—it’s taken over your life. It’s taken over

She points to me, and just like that, I’m a part of their game. A pawn left out conspicuously to lure a bishop and set up a checkmate. She makes eye contact with me, and I briefly see the exhaustion on her face. The panic, the stress. But my gaze darts away. I won’t give her that power. I won’t be a part of this.

“I’m sorry, but it’s time to drop this fantasy,” Mom says, turning her attention back to Dad. “Just … think about it practically. We can’t relocate. I have a life, a job.”

“Does this really have to happen
every other
day?” I say as I rush down the hallway toward my room.

“It’s only four thirty in Houston.” Dad clears his throat,
almost nervously. “And you work remotely. You could code anywhere. I know you don’t want to hear it, but there’s still a chance. A
chance this could happen.”

“What about Calvin?” she snaps back. “We’d pull him from his school just before his senior year? Did you ever tell him about what this would mean for his videos?”

“Wait. What about my videos?” I spin back toward them, but as I do, the pieces fall into place. If he got the job, we wouldn’t only be moving to Houston, we’d basically be stepping onto a TV set.

Every moment of our lives would be monitored, recorded by StarWatch for their annoying
Shooting Stars

They’re both avoiding eye contact.

“Well, we don’t know anything for sure,” Dad starts, “but there was a clause in the paperwork.”

clause,” Mom says as she slowly massages her temples, “that said no other public video transmissions can be made including people involved with the mission. And as family, they would consider us a part of the mission.”

And I’m gone.

“Cal, wait!”

I slam my bedroom door and lean against it.

Within seconds, my parents are back at it, and there’s a part of me that wants to turn around and fix this. To make things right again. They still fought before the astronaut thing, but rarely, and not like this. My fists clench as I argue with myself, wondering whether it’s worth sticking my neck out, trying to help them, trying to

But that’s never worked.

“You’re making me dread coming home, Becca. Every time I come back with good news, you fly off the handle!”

“I’ve lived here my whole life.” Mom’s hurt voice creeps through my door. It’s like they’re having two separate conversations. Neither’s listening to the other. “This was our first home. I was born here, my … family was born here.”

I hear what she doesn’t say—my aunt was born here too. She lived down the street from us for years. This street, this neighborhood is all tied up in memories of her. No wonder Mom doesn’t want to leave.

“You didn’t have the decency to run it by me before you—”

That’s all I let myself hear.

This is another reason why my dad can’t be an astronaut: we’re clearly not fit to be an astronaut family.

NASA picked their first astronauts for the Orpheus missions three years ago, in small groups—three or four added each time. Orpheus I through IV tested individual components of the spacecraft, each test more successful than the last.

The families, though, became stars. What they have is flawless; their personal and professional stories follow a story arc that even I couldn’t write. It’s hard to look at them and not think they have everything my family doesn’t.

The astronauts have heated arguments that line the pages of
magazine, and sure, sometimes one of the spouses will have a little too much to drink during brunch. But they still smile for the cameras. They know how to make their imperfections seem … perfect.

In the end, they stay happy and supportive—two qualities my parents haven’t shown in a while.

I plug my headphones into my retro tape deck and put them on. I add my new finds and sort through the rest of my eclectic collection of cassettes: Nirvana, Dolly Parton, Cheap Trick, bands and artists I only know thanks to my thrift store finds. I settle on Cheap Trick and jam it in, and let the guitar overtake the voices.

Dad wants to be one of them. The astronauts, that is. Way more than he wants to be who he is now—an air force pilot turned commercial air pilot who wants to ditch the 747 for a spaceship. NASA announced they’d be hiring the final five astronauts for the Orpheus project. He applied months ago, when most of the spots had already been taken up.

I didn’t have the heart to talk to him about his chances. I covered them all in my reports: one of the new recruits was an astrophysicist with a social media following nearing Kardashian levels, another a geologist/marine biologist who’d won two Oscars for her documentaries and even a Grammy for a spirited reading of her audiobook—which was a bestseller, of course. And those weren’t the most impressive ones.

Dad’s a good pilot, I’m sure, but he’s not like them.

He’s angry. Impatient. Surly. Okay, I’m not painting him in the best light. I mean, he is an okay dad in other ways—he’s super smart and gives killer advice on my calc homework. But it’s like everything my mom says hurts him like a physical
attack. He snaps back, which triggers my mom’s anxiety. Their fighting isn’t camera ready. It’s messy, it’s real, in a way that’s too raw to be captured by a camera.

If they can’t put on a show for me—at least pretend that everything’s okay, like Deb’s parents do—how can they put on a show for the world?

I get through a few tracks while I sit on the floor and close my eyes. There’s nothing else but the music. And a few cars beeping outside. Okay, more than a few. This is Brooklyn, after all.

After a while, a calmness pours over me, drowning out the fear. I feel … at peace. Alone and no longer worried about my future plans. Not worried about the BuzzFeed internship I start next week. Not worried about the hundreds of messages in my inbox—replies to the weekly Cal Letter (I couldn’t think of a clever name, don’t judge)—where I link to my videos along with important news stories, geared toward those who give a shit about the world.

I think about these things, but I’m able to push them out of my mind for a few minutes, then a few more, until I have to get up and switch cassettes. The tension in my chest eases. It’s meditation. For me, it’s the most effective self-care system in the world.

That is, until I hear a knock.

Through noise-canceling headphones and blasted music, I hear it. Which means it’s less of a knock and more of a pound, but regardless, I take off my headphones and shout, “Yeah?”

My mom peers into the room—she’s always afraid she’ll
catch me doing “something,” and we all know what that “something” is, but I’m also not an idiot and can figure out how to do said “something” twice a day having never been caught thank you very much.

But then I notice her expression. She’s tearing up, which is not good.

See, she doesn’t cry. They fight, they yell, they make things seriously unpleasant for everyone in a two-apartment radius, but they don’t cry. They shout, then Mom retreats from the world and Dad goes for a walk. It’s how they process. Getting at each other’s throats, but not offending the other bad enough to let them carry their hurt to the next hour.

And … here she is, crying.

“I, um.” Mom comes into the doorway now. I scan her for bruises, for covered arms, for anything—though I know Dad would never hurt her like that, I never see her upset like this, so my mind reaches for options.

Until she speaks.

“Come into the family room. Your father has news.”


My mind freezes. Did the phone ring sometime in the past hour? Did NASA interrupt their fight to tell Dad he was chosen for …?

But that doesn’t make sense. We’re not like them. We’re not ever going to be like them. NASA should be able to figure that out, right?

Before I get too far ahead of myself, I stop the tape and make my way to the door, seeing the empty space where my
mother just stood. She turns the corner quickly, leaving just a fluttering patch of fabric in her wake. She’s running away from this conversation, and away from the face I know I made when she said “news.”

Like it could mean anything else.

I make it halfway down the hall when,
, a champagne bottle confirms the fears flowing through my body. My gut turns to mush. My heart rate doubles. I feel it all over my body like an electric shock, but instead of causing sudden jerks of movement, everything is slow. My nerves dance, but my limbs won’t cooperate. All is ash and tasteless, and smells are weak, and I can’t even come up with metaphors that make sense because …

“A glass for each of us—even for you, Cal. It’s a special occasion.” Dad hands them out, his happy face immune to the terrified, broken expressions on ours. “And a toast, well, to me. NASA’s newest astronaut.”

It takes a few seconds for the words to sink in, and it’s like my brain is the last one to this party. My fists clench. Breaths won’t come. I feel the pressure building everywhere, in my back, my sinuses, my stomach. My legs ache as I repeat the word in my head: Astronaut. Astronaut.


You know how sometimes you say a word so often it loses its meaning? That doesn’t happen. The definition sticks in my brain—and it’s even in the etymology. Astro-naut. Space explorer. What every three-year-old kid has not so secretly wanted to be since the sixties.

I slam my champagne glass down with a clink and push past my mother. The hallway blurs by as I barrel into our bathroom. I don’t know what this means for my dad, my mom, or me. But I do know one thing:

I’m going to be sick.


Shooting Stars

Season 1; Episode 6

EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW: On this episode of
Shooting Stars
, astronaut Grace Tucker sits down with host Josh Farrow and gets straight to the question we get most from our loyal StarWatch fans. (First aired 6/15/2019)

“Good evening, StarWatchers, I’m Josh Farrow. Tonight we welcome Grace Tucker: a fierce pilot, a brilliant engineer, and above all else, a determined astronaut. Who knows what role she’ll play in the Orpheus project? Will she assist from the ground, or could she possibly leave the first human footprint on the surface of Mars? It’s only her third month on the project, after all, but she’s made quite a name for herself. We have Grace in the studio tonight to discuss all this and more … Grace, thank you for joining us tonight. There are nine of you now, and NASA recently announced they will add up to eleven more to the Orpheus project over the next year.”

“Thanks for having me, Josh. You and I know NASA wants the best astronauts. There was a time when NASA’s astronauts were only the toughest, roughest white men. Think back to the Mercury Seven and the New Nine—men like Deke Slayton, Alan Shepard, Jim Lovell, Pete Conrad. They were all smart as hell, sure, but in time NASA realized the benefit of diversity. Diversity in skill set; in place of life; in race, gender, identity, and orientation.”

“Yes, of course. But we—
Shooting Stars
viewers—also know NASA has not always been at the forefront of these issues. Like how Mae Carol Jemison, the first black woman in space, went up on
in the early nineties. That was, what, thirty-some years after the space program was founded?”

“Which, if I may interrupt, is why diversity in the space program has always been one of my top priorities, and I’ve made that clear from my first days at NASA. So I fully stand behind NASA’s decision here, and I look forward to meeting and flying with the new recruits.”

“Let me put this another way: Do you think your chances of leading this flight are dropping, given how many new recruits NASA’s bringing on board?”

“I’m not worried, Josh. Nothing’s a given in this environment—you must know that. I could be taken off the mission for getting the flu a day before launch. The government could pull funding; your fans could lose their interest. I just do my best every day. It’s all any of us can do.”



Maybe it’s the panic, but Grace’s first StarWatch interview plays in my mind. Over and over and over. It’s the only thing I can think of. Grace’s upright posture, her camera-ready attitude. Her subtle concern.

I flush the toilet and stand to stare at my reflection. My face glistens with sweat, and my panted breaths fog the mirror. I wipe it away and start to brush my teeth, holding my own gaze like it’s the only thing keeping me here, keeping me grounded.

My mind fills with more news stories. Local, national, gossip, blogs. The barely covered press release announcing the relocation of all astronaut families to Houston, the rumors of a shuttered mission—why spend money on space exploration when we could better fund schools or infrastructure?

And I remember the moment it all changed.

StarWatch Network announced its partnership with NASA,
complete with a teaser episode of
Shooting Stars
featuring a pilot in a simulation cockpit. Sweat dripped down astronaut Mark Bannon’s brow as the narrator explained the test.

During the simulation, as the craft entered Mars’s atmosphere, the screen goes blank. As the surface of Mars comes into view, fast, Mark resets the gauges. When this fails, he reaches for a pen and paper beneath his seat. The scene cuts to Mark entering coordinates and new trajectories into the still-glowing command module. As the craft nears the ground, all panels come back to life, giving Mark just enough time to make final adjustments before …

“Orpheus V has landed,” he says between breaths.

Then the screen cuts to a message to tune in weekly to watch StarWatch’s new show:
Shooting Stars.

The uptick in attention the families got from adoring fans was instant. To some, they became American heroes; to some, they became the newest reality show. They’re interesting. They’re perfect. They’re …

Not like us.

“Calvin, honey?” My mom’s voice is hoarse.

My parents file in after I gain the strength to unlock the door. Mom’s got the look of a concerned mother down perfectly, all creased brows and soft eyes. But my dad’s got a different expression. His mouth slants, and he seems detached from it all. I can’t tell if he’s annoyed, or just not tolerating my reaction. Yeah, it was a little much, but I don’t exactly have control over when my falafel cart lunch decides to make a fast escape.

“Are you done?” he asks, and all my muscles tighten at once.

“I’m fine,” I say. “I—uh—ate too much.”

Dad chuckles and takes a generous sip of his drink. “Right. So it had nothing to do with—”

“You overcoming literal impossible odds to become an astronaut?” I force a laugh. “No, not at all. For the record, it’s also not about the fact that we have to uproot our lives in a few months. It’s
got nothing to do with how I won’t be able to stream my reports anymore. It’s just a lot to take in, okay?”

“Maybe they could let him keep doing the videos?” Mom says. “Why don’t you ask them when you go—”

“I can’t believe
is what we’re talking about right now,” Dad says, splashing the rest of his champagne into the bathroom sink. “Look, I’m sorry you won’t be able to play on social media anymore, but this is real life.”

I choke back a laugh. “
Real life?
I have to give up my journalism, plus my
entire life
, because a reality show says so. You really think what I do is less ‘real’ than StarWatch?”

My mom’s caught between us in our tiny bathroom. She’s wringing her hands and looking back and forth. Not daring to say anything else. When she and Dad fight, she always knows what to say, never backs down. But now, her face is frozen between panic and helplessness. I know this isn’t good for her anxiety, so I take a deep breath to calm myself.

I squeeze by her and into the hall and break into a quick walk to my room.

“Cal,” Dad says, and I stop. It’s short, but not sweet. His voice has an edge of pity to it. “I’ll … I can ask them.”

“No, it’s fine,” I say. “It’s great, actually. Why would I need to do the
thing I’m good at and actually enjoy, when I could be out there enjoying the Lone Star State? I’ve always loved the allure of Texas. Tripping over Republicans every other step, somehow keeping vegetarian in the land of Tex-Mex and barbecue ribs, it’s a literal dream come true.”

I’m being selfish right now, and I know it. But this whole thing is born of selfishness. Dad didn’t tell us he was going to apply. He didn’t explain what would happen if he got in. He just plopped a binder on the kitchen table one day. It was his portfolio—I have no idea why his r
needed to be in a three-ring binder, especially when you could have just as easily scribbled “Delta” on a napkin and used that.

And then we waited.

Well, he waited. Mom and I gave him shit, because that was so much easier than accepting that he could actually make it in. He could change our lives, make us regulars on
Shooting Stars
, which, despite its patriotic and unifying start, slowly devolved into the overdramatic, ratings-hungry reality show it is now. But he never asked if that’s what we wanted.

“Jesus. Get it together,” he says.

Looking at my mom’s eyes, I can tell we’re in agreement here.

“Let’s leave him alone for a bit,” Mom says, voice squeaking, and ushers him away. I can breathe easier, even if just for a second, even though I know what’s about to happen.

“It’s not my fault he can’t process it. Neither of you seem to get how important this is.” His voice rises. “I’ve worked my whole life for this.”

“I think you can drop that,” Mom says. Her voice is stronger now. Anxiety be damned, she doesn’t take his shit. “We’ve been together seventeen years, and we all knew you loved space, but you never mentioned considering being an astronaut until you slapped us with that ridiculous binder.”

I take the opportunity to flee to my bedroom. As I’m shutting the door, though, Dad comes stomping back down the hall.


I do, briefly. I take a deep breath and push out the nicest response I can muster. “I can’t be excited for you right now. I have to go clear out the troll comments on my video, plus my BuzzFeed internship starts on Monday, and I have forms to fill out. We’ll talk later.”

“Cal, you don’t get it,” Dad says. He looks nervous now. “We don’t have time to wait for you to get on board.”

A beat, and all the energy gets sapped from the room. My legs feel wobbly. I feel my heart rate spike, and my hand feels slimy on the doorknob. I breathe, but it’s shallow and unfulfilling.

“We need to start packing tonight,” he says. “They’ve got a house for us.”

“What do you—”

on Monday.”

My insides stop working. I’m experiencing literal—okay,
figurative—organ failure right now. I just stare, and blink, and stare again. Then I pull back and unfreeze my body for a second. Just enough to clench my fingers around the doorframe and slam the door in his face.

I click the button lock and dash to my headphones. I press play on the cassette deck and let the sounds pump through, blocking out the shouting and the expectations and my frustrations.

I block it all out.

For a few minutes. The music isn’t working. I can’t concentrate, and everything sounds like noise and makes me tense up. I feel angry and sad, but I don’t know which feeling brings the tears to my eyes faster. I start to cry, but I take off my headphones before I let myself do it. I can’t let him hear.

My parents resume fighting in the other room. Well, not fighting, actually. It’s a discussion. I hear numbers being thrown out, and words like “movers” and “salary” and know they won’t be settling this anytime soon.

I pull out my phone and send a text to Deb.

Can I come down? Need to get out of here for a min

She responds in a flash.

Yeah, we heard the stomping. Door or window?

I send her an emoji of a window and double-check that my door’s locked. They wouldn’t mind me going down to talk to
Deb—it’s only one flight down—but I can’t bear to look at them right now.

I imagine them coming to check on me and hearing no response. They’d think I was ignoring them, or if they used that little gold key above the doorframe, they’d know I bailed. And they’d stop the fighting for one second, and they’d sigh “oh shit” at the same time. And for once, I wouldn’t be the one trying to make things better, to fix our problems.

Finally, something would be about me.

I lift the window, then the screen. I duck out onto the fire escape and feel the wind tear through my body. I welcome the feeling, refreshing and calming, and stretch out on the landing. My eyes scan the world beneath me, all strollers and parents and dogs, rushing home for dinner before the sun finally sets. Bikes and cars and trucks and brick buildings line the avenue. Beyond that, the trees block my view of brownstones.

This might be the last time I stand out here.

This might be my last weekend living in Brooklyn.

When I reach the third floor, I hesitate at the open window. Her sheer curtains are drawn, and I see her silhouette frantically darting back and forth—she’s probably throwing all her dirty laundry in the hamper so I can find a place to sit.

It hits me so hard I stagger back and lean against the railing: I’m about to tell my best friend that I’m leaving immediately,
indefinitely. Probably. Unless there’s some chance Dad’s being majorly pranked.

She pushes aside the curtains, and I gasp. The moment she sees my face, which must be lined with tears, her jaw drops.

A familiar pang hits me in the chest. I’ve seen this expression before. I’ve
given her
this expression before. Last year, I crawled in her window, a panicked mess, to break up with her.

For some reason, I didn’t ease her into it with talking about us growing apart or going different directions, or wanting to focus on school or exploring other options. These were all phrases I had rehearsed.

But she was my girlfriend … and my best friend. She deserved more than a weak excuse, so I went right to the point:

“I kissed Jeremy.”

We talked it out, and—months later—she accepted my apology. The thing was, Jeremy was always there in the back of my mind. He was the unattainable senior, and I was content with Deb. Unfortunately for her, I found something better than content as I sunk into his lips, the taste of Coors Light on our tongues.

I found a fire, a passion that I was missing. My identity seems to change by the minute, but I knew I was queer—and Deb did too. The hardest thing for her to accept was that it wasn’t that I didn’t like cishet girls … I just didn’t like
like that, and after dating for three months, I wanted to find someone I did like. And I found Jeremy.

Two weeks later, Jeremy found someone else.

“Calvin?” She grabs my hand and pulls me closer. “Come in. What’s—wow, last time I saw you looking like this I had to bring you back from a panic attack so you could break up with me. What’s going on, babe?”

My breaths aren’t coming easily. I’m suffocating, drowning in the overwhelming pink of her room. The pink beanbag chair with the pink fuzzy pillow and the—
why can’t I breathe?
—pink rug that I’m somehow lying on now, though I don’t remember crawling in through the window.

I focus on a point on the ceiling, and I don’t let it go. Breathe in. Breathe out. Slowly, I pull myself together. I’m okay.

“I’m okay.”

Deb rolls her eyes. “Yes, I see that.”

“I’m leaving. On Monday. Dad’s a fucking astronaut.”

This is when she busts out laughing. Like, I’m still crying, and she is one-hundred-percent losing her shit. I can see her try to hold it together—clenching, biting her lip—but nothing’s working.

“Oh, god, this is bad. Sorry.” She pauses to grab my arm. “It’s just so fucking unlikely. Your dad’s the least qualified person for this job.”

I shrug. “I mean, he’s a pilot, I guess.”

.” She leans on that word like it tastes bad in her mouth. “He’s got to be the first nonscientist they’ve picked since, like, the seventies.”

I decide not to tell her that his degree in aeronautical engineering
make him a scientist.

“Focus.” I reach out to her, and all the air’s sucked from the room. She breaks eye contact and starts picking at the chipped paint on her toenail. “I’m leaving, Deb. On Monday, apparently. We’re moving to Houston, and I don’t know when I’m coming back. Or if I’m coming back.”

It’s as if the world reacts to my words. A cloud passes by, casting the window in shade. The pink around me dims. Her lips almost pout as she considers me.

She’s not laughing anymore.

So, no, I didn’t love her like that. But I do love her. From the moment we met at the mailbox downstairs, when I was geeking out about the vintage Prince cassette I’d just scored off eBay. She’d just moved in that day, but that didn’t stop her from relentlessly mocking my obsession with cassettes.

BOOK: The Gravity of Us
9.49Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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