art by Tihomir Tikulin-Tico
Man on the Moon Day
by Amy Sundberg
Two packs of balloons, pink and blue. Ellen knows Rick's favorite color is green so she avoids it on purpose. Red plastic cups, white napkins, a bag of lime-flavored tortilla chips, and store-bought salsa. This is what she brings every year for the celebration, which she privately calls Man on the Moon Day.
She drives the two hours to Grass Valley with Sarah sitting in the back playing with her action figures. "Pow pow," goes the bad guy. "Zoom zoom," goes the good guy, dodging out of the way. "I'll never give up," the bad guy declaims in a fake British accent.
Ellen has given up. Her insides feel limp and rubbery like the packs of empty balloons. Most of the year she can keep up a good front, find happiness in Sarah's smile, their old Victorian house, her inquisitive students--but not today. Today is the reminder that keeps the wound inflamed.
They pull up in front of the small tract house with its dead brown lawn. Drought year again. As Ellen unbuckles Sarah, her little daughter smiles up at her. "Mommy, someday I'm going to the moon, too." She shoves her fat little thumb into her mouth with pride.
Ellen hopes not. If she prayed, which she doesn't because she's no longer convinced anyone's listening to her (he certainly didn't, did he?), that is what she'd pray for. That Sarah will keep her feet firmly on the Earth's surface forever. Or at least until Ellen is safely in her grave.
She smiles, though, and says, "You can do whatever you put your mind to, Sarah Bear." Not even Rick can turn her into one of those mothers.
Sarah runs to the door while Ellen retrieves the bag from the trunk. She hears the low voice of Mrs. Murray ("call me Tracy," but she never does) greeting her daughter and grips the bag harder. She doesn't dislike her ex-in-laws, she dislikes the memories. She will remind herself of this fact at least fifteen times before making the drive home tonight.
Mrs. Murray hugs her, takes her paltry offerings (everyone else cooks for the big day, but Ellen spends too much time at the lab to bother with domestic niceties), and leads her inside. Ellen wonders if she's imagining the sympathy in the older woman's eyes. (She doesn't want anyone's pity. She feels sorry enough for herself to supply an entire nation with stunted hopes, or at least a good-sized university department.)
Mr. Murray is already stooping over the grill out back with the other men. Sarah has jumped into a game of freeze tag with her cousins, who have had mercy on her (for once) and not made her start out as "It." The women bustle in the kitchen, tossing salad, chopping vegetables, and washing fruit. Ellen's chips are the most unhealthy food in sight. Ellen stands by the screen door, watching Sarah try to stay still (she's good at it, considering she's not even five yet) and blowing up balloons, alternating pink with blue. Girl colors and boy colors. The girl stays home while the boy goes to have all the adventures, isn't that how it's supposed to go?
It's certainly why she bought Sarah action figures instead of Barbies.
A glass of wine later and she's beginning to relax, her inner coil of anger loosening, transforming into something sadder. There's a small part of her that still can't believe he left. She eats her free-range organic barbecued chicken breast but avoids the vegetables. The chips leave little alien balls of green clinging to her fingers.
The dark creeps up slowly, and she wastes a minute wondering if they can get away early this time. But no, there is always Sarah to consider. Always Sarah, the most beautiful little girl with her fly-away hair and sunny disposition. Sarah, who is more important than any lump of rock.
When it gets full dark, they all stand in the backyard looking up into the sky. The moon is almost half full this year, glowing as silently as ever. When she was swollen with pregnancy, abandoned and alone, Ellen used to go outside every night and yell at it in her head. She could be just as silent as Rick when she had to be.
Now she usually tries not to look up.