Helen! Helen! Helen!
You know, no matter how hard Mission tries to eliminate it, depersonalisation is going to get you eventually: in the liquid embrace of hyperspace, it’s really just a matter of time. Usually it lasts a couple of days. Mission tries to limit depopping with psych tests and therapists, but nothing so far has worked: pass the Armstrong Line, and things inevitably get kooky, data- collection gets ignored, and the whole crew is soon totally tripping space-balls.
Still, when it arrives, I think: hello, what’s this? As if I’ve never depopped before. That’s the funny thing: the dis-recognition. Who am I? What are these feelings? And am I even real?
Shane and Cindi are also depopping. I know this because our work has taken a hard pause, and Shane keeps asking if my hands look weird. We take long lunches of rehydrated stews. We talk endlessly about death, including our own. Cindi tells us that ‘soul as nothingness’ (‘anatta’) is actually a standard Buddhist objective, and that we may have accidentally achieved anatta in the anti-atmosphere of the pressurised rocket.
Honestly I don’t know if that’s depersonalisation/dissociation/the lyrical after-matter of a leaning toward poetry at high school, but it’s not unwelcome, given what’s happening with my mom.
‘I’m thinking a lot about death,’ I say to Marianne, my therapist. ‘Over and over I imagine opening the hatch and pulverising us all. I just don’t feel real?’
‘You know you’re depopping, Helen?’
‘The death thing though! So strong this time.’
‘Most astronauts are very comfortable with death. Much more than civilians. That’s why you do this sort of thing. On the contrary, I’m homely. I’d miss my cat.’
Marianne and her cat! She adores Mr Peaches.
Marianne’s voice is so soothing, it’s like pure NPR. I love talking to her, even while she is disembodied, or in fact because she is disembodied, because recently I have been thinking, re. Shane and Cindi, that their mouths move in such weird ways, that maybe they are machines? Like totally convincing androids, and I’m the only human on the ship?
‘What’s Earth doing right now, Marianne?’
‘Raining. All day it’s rained.’
Mission won’t tell us where our therapists live because we can become very attached. Like babies. I’ve heard of astronauts trying to find them after years away. What will I be like, after three? ‘Where are you? Seattle? No? Minneapolis? Washington?’
She giggles. ‘Oh stop.’
Shane is right: there is something wrong with my hands.
‘Don’t drift off,’ says Marianne, just as I’m about to take a bite. ‘Are you there?’ I’m here.’
Marianne told me once that Mission actually tailored our psych tests to actively find Dismissive-Avoidants. Understandably it took a while to establish trust between me and Marianne. I was always just 100% terrified she’d leak everything back to Mission. She had to promise me, again and again, that she was watertight. She said she’d made this promise to her former astronauts over and over too.
‘Are you having thoughts about your mom?’ Marianne says.
The mention of my mom is a defibrillator: I’m suddenly a circuit of pain. ‘No,’ I say. ‘I’m not having thoughts about my mom.’
Who knows how much times passes but I become convinced Shane + Cindi are machines. In unclear moments I consider using the scalpel from the medbox to reveal their wiring. In clearer moments I know I’m depopping.
My data collection has slowed, and Cindi is getting annoyed with me. Cindi is done depopping, and Shane has stopped asking about my hands. Cindi tells me to wear an elastic band around my wrist and ping it when I need to. At night I cycle through my credentials: I studied physics at Vanderbilt. My therapist’s name is Marianne. I must work, exercise and talk to Marianne – who loves me, and I love her. At night I listen to the Celestial White Noise that I downloaded on Earth, and watch the stars zoom past with the hairdryer noise whirring in my ears.
I am real. I am real.
Ping, ping, ping.
Soon, though, I realise it’s not Cindi et al who are machines, it’s me!
This makes more sense. Evidence: is my voice not unvaried in tone? Everybody else’s skin is dull – Shane’s is pitted with spacne – and yet mine is glowy, and I’m not even moisturising! Also, everybody else floats kind of ectoplasmically in the spacevoid, whereas I move as if an internal motor drives me at right-angles.
‘Have you noticed this?’ I ask Cindi quietly.
Weary, Cindi is weary of me.
‘Hey, Descartes,’ says Shane, ‘It’s psychosomatic.’
Space is at a premium on the craft. It’s almost impossible to have a private conversation. ‘Thanks, Shane,’ I say, and return to Cindi: ‘Remember that game on Nokia phones, Snake? Is that me now?’
‘You’re just going harder this season,’ says Cindi. ‘I depopped badly in midlife too. How old are you? Forty? Helen, hello?’
‘It’s the lack of friction. There’s no surface tension out here. Think of someone who makes you feel real.’
I think of my mom who makes me feel half-real.
‘Call Marianne, Helen. There’s only so long we can cover for you.’
If Mission hears of my slowdown they could dock my pay, or charge me on the felony of dangerous negligence. Plus, they might find out about my minors while I was in and out of mom’s hospital. It’s unheard of, depopping under the Armstrong Line.
‘Do you want a Xanax?’ says Shane.
A Xanax will only thicken the hot flannel of my consciousness, but I want to seem co-operative, so I take one. I’m right, though: my limbs soon fluoresce with green chemtrails. Realisation: I’m not a machine, but a plant! And I must be the first thing in deep space to actually photosynthesize.
The thing they don’t tell you at space school is just how luscious hyperspace is; how sensuous. Every gesture I make is a dance. Whenever I move I swim. It’s like I’m feelingless and yet coated in sensation? The body goes cold, sure, with some affectless mortis, but there’s something to be said for this – because what is the world down there, but totally unmanageable feeling; unbearable loss?
Later I call Marianne so that she can tell me I’m not a plant or a machine but a real person, but Marianne doesn’t pick up. It must be out of hours.
I switch on Celestial White Noise, watching the astral highways of cats-eyes and space fog. The noise is comforting. I think of the Voyager II recording, and the mother’s first words to her new-born. I remember how, when I first heard this, I thought the mother would say ‘Well, hello, baby,’ or ‘Here you are!’ in her TV-mom voice, but instead it is ‘Oh, come now,’ and the mother’s tone is annoyed, almost angry, and then the baby cries.
I take another Xanax.
Marianne does not pick up my second call either. It’s somewhere between 3-7 a.m. if she resides in the continental United States. If she had just told me where she lives I wouldn’t be such a nuisance.
I miss her.
Because we’ve never met in person, Mission gives us photos of our therapists so that we can picture them when we talk. In mine Marianne has chestnut hair and small teeth. She looks like those perfect women journalists aggregate from the most attractive eyes/noses/mouths of celebrities, who then turn out to be not that pretty at all.
I think of Marianne telling me about how the monkeys in the experiment always went to the cloth mother rather than the wire mother, even when the wire mother was the one with milk.
She told me this after my psych test results.
‘What does it mean?’
‘That’s why you’re so good in space, Helen. You’re in the wire ship for years! And you don’t even really notice you’re there.’
Marianne can be a little offbeat like this; unexpectedly candid.
‘Helen!’ Shane now. ‘Helen! Helen!’ A smell, somewhere. Of burning?
When I wake the lights are on and so it must be morning. No-one’s around. My mouth has saliva again, which means the Xanax has worn off. Marianne calls me back. ‘I tried to call you earlier,’ I say, but I’m so pleased by the soothing register of her voice that my frustration soon wears off.
‘Yes, that’s right. I was out.’
‘Something like that,’ she says, a little absently.
‘Helen, I need to talk to you. You know Mission tell me things, but I don’t tell them things. Right?’ ‘What is it?’
‘Cindi said depopping is getting in the way of your work. Would you agree, Helen?
I have done close to zero work for some time now.
‘Mission wants you to be flight-fit.’
We don’t speak for a while as if we’re in a real therapy room. I have read that some patients can withstand the silence for the whole hour, trying to ‘break’ the therapist into speaking first.
‘It’s more… overwhelming, this time,’ I say, finally giving in.
‘Do you want it to stop?’
This time it’s Marianne who breaks. ‘Do you know the kids’ story, where the children go on a bear hunt? They encounter many difficulties. Mud, dark forests, swishy grass. In each place they realise they can’t go around the thing, or under it, or over it: they just have to go through it.’
This is such psychobabble that I’m tempted to terminate the call. ‘I’m in deep space, Marianne. I am not on a bear hunt in a cartoon place.’
The smell, which I thought I’d dreamt, is back: metallic, like a burnt- out clutch. It’s the same smell as when we return from our spacewalks. There’s some light scratching on the hatch, too.
‘Helen.’ Marianne’s a little nervous, I can tell. ‘Your mother is very ill. I promised I wouldn’t keep things from you… Are you there?’
‘Did Mission tell you to say this?’
Marianne is lying. Mission has asked her to use my mother’s health as an arousal; a stimulant to wake me up.
‘Your mother’s situation is worse.’
I try to resist but her technique works efficiently and without my consent: a memory of my mother’s pretty face asleep, pre-illness, is so clear, I could touch her. Piano music – dah dah dah de dah! – aching, beautiful; a break into emotion, a crash of a wave, a memory of a man I’d loved. What is this? Sorrowjoy? Joysorrow? It’s not unpleasant, and yet it is; it is; it is too much!
‘What are you feeling?’
‘I don’t know.’
‘But feeling something? Feeling something again?’
I am a machine, a machine, a machine.
Something is pushing through my brain. A wrecking ball. It’s travelling at such velocity that I must hold my head to keep my mind inside. ‘You’re there?’
Marianne has betrayed me. She is working for Mission. She never was my friend. No wonder astronauts went hunting their therapists. It was probably in rage.
‘Are you lying? About my mom?’
‘But did Mission ask you to use this against me?’
‘Listen: it’s not your mother that’s having this effect on you. It’s me. It’syour relationship to me. You think I’ve betrayed you. I’m causing you to feel things again.’
‘Marianne,’ I say, ‘you’ve upset me. Why would you do this?’ ‘Because—’
‘I feel so sad, Marianne.’
‘I know. And I’m sorry for that. I am. But it’s not safe: not to live. It’s not safe for those around us either.’
‘I don’t want this.’ My voice is tiny, child-like. ‘It is far too much.’
‘I know, honey,’ she says. She has never called me this before.
It makes my heart sing. ‘But feelings, Helen: they’re the only things that tell you you’re not a machine.’
Naomi Wood’s stories have been published in the Washington Square Review, Joyland, S Magazine, and Stylist, and have been shortlisted for the Manchester Fiction Prize, the London Magazine, and the Galley Beggar Press Prize. She has also written three novels. Her first story collection, This is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things, is out with Orion in the UK in 2024. She lives in Norwich, England, with her family, and teaches on the MA in Creative Writing at UEA. ‘Helen! Helen! Helen!’ was shortlisted for the 2023 Desperate Literature Prize for Short Fiction and was the recipient of their Writers’ House of Georgia (Tbilisi) residency. The Desperate Literature Prize for Short fiction opens again in January of 2024.
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