Thanksgiving 2011, my parents, my brother, my son and I flew 800 miles from Baltimore, Maryland, to Cape Canaveral, Florida, to see Curiosity take off. There are infinite variations of where we travel and why, and of how we get where we’re going. The explanation for this journey was that my father, a scientist, had VIP passes to the launch and thought it was an opportunity we shouldn’t miss. My recent separation was another reason, though not one we would offer those who asked about the trip.
The rocket would travel 352 million miles to reach Mars at a speed of around 21,000 miles per hour. The journey would take approximately nine months and, as it happened, the rover would land early on the morning of August 6, 2012, the date of my twelfth and final wedding anniversary and, in what was once a charming coincidence but has since become a painful irony, my son’s sixth birthday.
A few days after the launch, my son would tell me that this Thanksgiving was both the best and the worst holiday of his life – it was the best, he explained, because he got to fly in an airplane, see a rocket take off, spend time with Mimi, Bop, Uncle Ben, and me; he did not need to explain (though he did, and more than once with tacit accusation) that it was the worst because his father had not been with us. Over and over I said I was sorry, waves of guilt churning in my stomach.
We arrived in Orlando mid-morning. Our hotel was 37 miles from the airport, but first we went to Canaveral Marshes, another 15 miles away. There we discovered dozens of herons, slim as Giacometti’s women; pelicans swarming above us through the cloud-mottled sky; stretches of pale sand punctuated by bright yellow beggar-ticks; raging waves that muted the crying terns.
Later, as our rental car crept down dirt roads, we spied an alligator hidden among reeds in the marsh. By the end of our drive we would see four of the creatures, the space between us and them no more than a few yards. Emboldened by those several feet, we exited the car and leaned forward for a better look.
Distance is like that: it gives us perspective, a sense of control. Having time and space away from my home in Baltimore gave me respite from the stress of lawyers, bank statements, title transfers, and job searching. I was able, for a few days, to escape the anger and guilt and fear that resulted from the mess I had made back home, the mess I was afraid I was becoming. In two months I had dropped 15 pounds; my sleep was drunk with bad dreams. I tried to distract my son from the emotional turmoil around us with boardgames, Madlibs, and walks to the local playground.
Thanksgiving dinner was itself an escape. Our options were limited; we opted for the Cracker Barrel a mile down the highway. Inside this chain restaurant, as in a vacuum or a doctor’s waiting room, time and space ceased to matter. We could have been in any Cracker Barrel in any town; it could have been 1978, the year of my birth, or 1996 when I graduated from high school, one year before I met my husband, a decade before the birth of my son.
The rocket launch was to take place the Saturday after Thanksgiving at Kennedy Space Center, 10 miles away from our hotel in Titusville. Take off was scheduled for 10 a.m. A crowd of amiable strangers, my family, and I squinted at the seemingly tiny rocket that gleamed three miles away – the minimum distance regulations allowed.
The launch took place at 10:02. One second we were straining to see the white pencil between the trees, the next we watched it silently rise from a fist of fire. After a few seconds, the ground shook and our ears tingled with the sound of exploding engines. Another few seconds, and the rocket was gone, the sky empty save tendrils of exhaust. My son, who had been waiting patiently for two hours asked me, “Is it over?”
To travel 800 miles to see a rocket launch seems insignificant in comparison to the distances that separate us from the rest of the universe: the 240,000 miles to the moon, the 54 million miles to Mars, the 93 million to the sun, and the 352 million Curiosity would ultimately travel. Yet the point, in the end, is that those distances can be traveled. There is a point A and a point B. Even though Curiosity can never come home, at least we know where it went. Curiosity may be an exile in a land we will never walk, and its transmissions may be delayed by 14 minutes as they travel to us through space, but when those images do arrive, we will see them clearly.
I know exactly where I was on November 26, 2011: a blacktop in Cape Canaveral, my son on my shoulders. I even know where I had been one year before that: in a house on a cliff by the Chesapeake Bay with my parents, my son, my then-husband. The cliff has since eroded, and the house itself has been moved back 50 feet, placed onto a new foundation like an old stone on a new grave. I can draw a map of where I have been, calculate distances traveled, the time it took, the velocity of my movements. I can feel my son beside me as he sleeps, the rhythm of his breath; I can drive him the seven miles to his father’s apartment downtown, and I can drive the seven miles back to the house we once all lived in together. But there are distances I cannot determine. The space between two people has nothing to do with proximity; who we were and who we become is a journey that can’t be mapped.
These days as I lie in bed calculating expenses, planning the logistics of the next day, I remind myself of certain laws of nature: space expands with passing time; time moves in one direction; all things tend toward disorder. Just as Curiosity can never come back, neither can I ever return to the life I once knew. But the days pass just the same. And in spite of the dismal implications of the law of entropy, there is also the optimism inherent in physics’ first law and in the promise that both time and space are infinite. What I have learned is this: the only thing that can distance us from the past – whether it is a past we long to return to or one we would rather forget – is living.
About nine months after the sky in Cape Canaveral filled with flames of a new journey, on the day Curiosity landed on the red sands of Mars, the candles flickered on my son’s birthday cake. I don’t know what he wished for as he blew them out, but I do know what I can promise him: time moves in only one direction, and, together, we will move right along with it.
Elizabeth Hazen’s poems have appeared in The Threepenny Review, Salamander, Bellevue Literary Review, and other journals.