When the astronaut is a girl, she and her mother go on a trip. Her mother calls it a trip later, a girls’ trip, with that familiar bubble in her voice, just us girls, but the astronaut remembers the crinkle of cotton underwear in its plastic wrapping as her mother tore it open with her teeth, the three-day wear of her favorite striped shirt, the unfamiliar taste of toothpaste spit into cracked-basin motel room sinks. She remembers telephones in bare-wall motel rooms, ringing and ringing till her mother took them off the hook, covered them with the extra pillows. She remembers sleeping bean-shaped in twin beds beside her mother, breakfasts of granola bars and convenience store soda pop. She remembers the night they nearly ran out of gas in a town with one streetlight blinking yellow yellow yellow, her mother telling the gas station attendant, bubble-voiced, we coasted in on fumes, and driving away in the dark, headlights off, inching along the unfamiliar road.
The sky was full of stars, fuller than the astronaut had ever realized, and she put her forehead against the car window looking out at them, left a little crescent moon mark that stayed until they went home.
Her mother flicked the headlights on, said: I read somewhere once that we are all made of stars.
The astronaut is away at school when her mother dies. It is her first year of college, and the path between campus buildings is thick with crackling brown and yellow leaves. The astronaut has been calling home every night like her mother asked, the astronaut has been looking at the stars, the astronaut has been mailing blank postcards to the house of the neighborhood girl she will someday marry. She buys pairs of postcards at a time, fills one with words of longing, tears it into pieces that she flutters down into her dorm-room garbage. Her roommate plays love songs sung by boys in torn jeans and leather jackets, boys with pouting mouths and weak chins. Her roommate says what I like about them is it feels like they’re singing to me, and hums along, head bobbing.
The roommate is humming along when the phone rings and it is the astronaut’s father, who never calls.
Your mother, he says.
Your mother, your mother, he says.
And finally he can say it all: Your mother has died.
There is no note, no letter. There is only the quiet of the astronaut’s childhood home and her mother’s gardening shoes, neatly set at the front step, the way they had been all summer.
The astronaut drives all night to get home. The radio flickers between static and song, and the stars overhead follow her, follow her, follow her, all the way home.
The astronaut remembers coming home with her mother, coming home from their trip, the car parked askew in the driveway, leave the windows down, her mother said and her voice was a ferocious jangle, it got so stuffy in there! She remembers the house was empty when they went inside, or she thought it was, except there was her father sitting in the kitchen in the quiet, her father holding coffee mug still steaming, saying you’re back and nothing else.
We’re back, her mother agreed, and sent the astronaut to her room with the plastic bag she’d been using as luggage. And in her room, the open window and smell of summertime air, and the girl from the house across the street waving to her first, then running over, barefoot on sun-warm pavement, pressing her fingertips against the screen, the astronaut pressing back.
I was waiting for you, the neighbor girl says, the way she will say every time, when the astronaut returns for her mother’s funeral, when the astronaut finishes school and her father has gone and left an empty house, for sale sign in the lawn, when the astronaut comes back from space: I was waiting for you to come home.
— Cathy Ulrich (from Jet Fuel Review)