He rushed beyond the barrier and called to her to follow….She set her white face to him, passive, like a helpless animal. Her eyes gave him no sign of love or farewell or recognition.James Joyce from Eveline
Eveline is waiting. She sits at the window looking out, watching cars zip past on the wide avenue. Her hair, grey and wispy, is arranged in vain to cover the places where her wrinkled scalp shows through and she has changed from the slacks and sweater she wears in the kindergarten classroom where she teaches to a dark wool skirt and matching jacket. Her suitcase is packed. The air settles heavy on her shoulders and the house around her seems to be holding its breath as if it, too is waiting.
Frank will be there at any moment.
Eveline looks around the house. It is the same as always. There is the fish tank in the living room—her father’s hobby when she was young, empty now for decades. There is the coat rack, Eveline’s coat the only thing hanging on it—she had cleaned out the last of her parents’ things when her father had moved to the home, before he died.
“You wouldn’t leave me, would you, Evvy,” her father had said fondly to her over lunch one day thirty-five years before, when a visiting aunt asked where Eveline was thinking of applying to college. And it was true. At that moment, and even now, remembering it, Eveline becomes a little girl again, trying to make sense of her mother’s parting words:
Take care of your father.
Eveline remembers the day her mother left: waiting at the window, watching the government car that pulled up out front, looking at the clock. It is eleven fifty-nine. Her mother’s bags are packed—just a single bag. After all, she doesn’t need much. To her the whole mission will last a little less than a year.
The car idling in the driveway honks and from the other room there is a shout and a shatter and Eveline’s mother inhales like glass breaking, or did something break? There is shuffle of feet and Helen is there pulling Eveline away from the window. Doctor Helen Harris, in her dress uniform, hair scraped back tight on her head, the only imperfection a cut on her lower lip, a bright bead of blood like a rare jewel. Helen pushes Eveline’s hair back behind her ear, a motherly gesture but a mechanical one, as though Helen has read and absorbed a manual on nurturing human children. She kisses Eveline’s cheek.
Take care of your father, Eveline. You understand, don’t you? Why I have to go?
Eveline remembers watching through the window as her mother walks down to the car. She remembers it disappearing around the corner. She remembers going to the other room, her father leaning against the mantel with his face in his hands. Around his feet is what Eveline must have heard: the antique clock that usually sits above the fireplace is in shards, broken on the floor. When Eveline comes in to the room her father bends to pick it up and replaces it. It is eleven fifty-nine fifty-nine.
Eveline is looking out the window when Frank’s car pulls up. Her heart sings.
“Let’s go somewhere, you and I,” Frank had urged her the week before, over a glass of wine. “Everything will be so chaotic, with the Return. No one could blame you for wanting to get out of town. Besides—” he had reached out and touched her cheek. “When was the time you took a day off?”
Eveline had been touched at his words, at the sight of his own wrinkled fingers clasping hers. How endearing, their two old hands holding fast to each other. How searing, her excitement at the notion that she could simply get up and go, that she need not stay there any longer. How true, that she had shown up day after day to teach kindergarten, every school day for over half her life, and never once taken a personal day.
But perhaps that’s just what she does, Eveline thinks now, watching from the window as Frank puts his car in park. Eveline waits.
That morning, the morning of the Return, when Eveline left to drive to school she could hardly get out her driveway. Press crowded on the sidewalk in front of her house. Always eager to please she dutifully tried to answer their questions as she shuffled to her car.
“Miss Harris, have you been following your mother’s research on the White Hole?”
“Yes. Yes. When something is announced I hear it like everyone else.”
“Miss Harris, is it true that you used to study astrophysics?”
“Yes. Yes. For a year while I was at the community college. Years and years ago. I wasn’t good at it. It wasn’t for me. I’m a kindergarten teacher now. I’ve been that for a while.”
“Miss Harris, when was the last time you spoke to your mother?”
“Sixty years ago, the day she left on the mission.”
“Miss Harris, is this really the house you grew up in, with your mother Dr. Helen Harris, the famed astrophysicist?”
“You never moved?”
“No. Until a few years ago I lived here with my father.”
“Miss Harris, would you ever go into space?”
This, Eveline couldn’t answer. How could she tell them that though to her mother the stars were like beacons, all she, Eveline, had ever seen when she looked up was the distance between them? How to explain that though her mother had felt trapped by her life on Earth by the toils of marriage and motherhood, and though she had trapped Eveline too, the prospect of leaving home was even more terrifying? She had never done it.
In the teacher’s lounge, her co-workers—quick enough to realize the relation between the astronaut Harris who was returning to earth after sixty years and the sixty-seven year old Harris they worked with—listened to interviews about the Return on the radio and stared at Eveline while pretending they didn’t. Eveline drank her coffee silently and tried not to make eye contact with any of them. She could feel greasy Mr. Melvin eyeing her from across the room, and Ms. Thornton, who was always oddly romantic in the way she followed current affairs, kept clearing her throat whenever the newscaster mentioned Dr. Helen Harris. But Eveline gave no sign that she was with every inch of herself tuned in to the same broadcast. Instead, she looked at her phone. She had a text from Frank:
I saw you on the news. Couldn’t believe they came to your house that way. Are you alright?
It was only recently that Eveline started allowing herself to truly sink into her romance with Frank. It began slowly, with coffee after her visits to the home where her father moved when he became too sick for Eveline to care for on her own, where Frank was a nurse. After a few weeks, he asked if he could take her to dinner. It was lovely; Eveline had two glasses of wine and laughed so hard at Frank’s stories that other table stared. It had felt like a real beginning, the first one she’d had in a long time, or maybe ever. And tonight they were going away together for the first time. After a year of slow courtship Frank had convinced her to take Friday off and spend a long weekend with him at a bed and breakfast in the mountains. She hesitated at first—go away! With a man! Spend the night with him, three nights with him! Eveline turned red just thinking about it.
She had been on dates before, kissed and been kissed. In high school she attended prom with a boy named Thomas who was a year younger than her and who held her hand on the drive to the dance. Then she went to the community college, driving over every day in a car borrowed from her father and driving back in the evenings in time to put dinner on the table. Though there had been time for a few boys, a few late weekend nights, Eveline always had responsibilities—to her father, to her job at the school.
But now, with Frank, Eveline thinks as she imagines herself picking up her suitcase and going to him, everything is suddenly wide open. She is not Helen Harris’ daughter when she’s with him. When he’d begun courting her he hadn’t even known there was any connection.
“Oh, that astronaut,” he’d said when he figured it out. They were at a restaurant. He’d just taken a bite of mushroom stroganoff and it showed in his half-open mouth when his jaw dropped in realization. “Huh! I’ve heard of her. Didn’t realize you were related.” And then, when the Return started gaining publicity over the year leading up to the momentous date: “That’s something, huh. That really is something.”
It had been no coincidence that he had suggested that weekend for them to go away. Eveline had been fretting: the prospect of seeing her mother, after so long, and her mother still so young…
“Let’s get away from it,” Frank had suggested. “You don’t owe her anything.”
A funny thing to say about your mother, Eveline had thought. Don’t you owe her everything? But Frank had convinced her. And as Mr. Melvin and Mrs. Thornton whispered about her from across the teacher’s lounge, Eveline answered his text:
Just have to get through this day.
He responded immediately. Tell me about it—how am I supposed to wait eight more hours to get you alone?
Eveline had smiled—let the other teachers wonder why.
But then the radio broadcaster had trumpeted, And we’re counting down, just three hours to go until the Explorer xvi reenters Earth’s atmosphere after sixty years of deep space study—and Eveline’s smile faded.
She and her kindergarteners had, along with Mrs. Thornton and Mr. Melvin’s classes and the rest of the world, streamed live footage of the Return over the net.
The class had been restless.
“Where’s the spaceship?”
“Are we going to go outside?”
“I wanna see the astronauts!”
As part of the yearly unit on Outer Space, Eveline had her class do an exercise: construct a scale model of their solar system, with a basketball as the sun, a pin as the earth, dust (invisible) as the asteroid belt. In a model of this scale, she had told them, there was nowhere on Earth they could put a representation Sagittarius A*, the supermassive black hole at the center of the galaxy. It was this that Explorer xvi had been sent to study. If a single star was the size of a grain of sand, Eveline explained to her class, to keep a model of the galaxy to scale would require fifty kilometers between each of them. The model would exceed the size of Earth’s moon’s orbit.
It was this impossibly far thing that Explorer xvi had been sent to study.
But she couldn’t help but feel that the implications of this were lost on her class. They did not, as she did, grow up in a house with two astrophysicists, with blitzars and blue dwarfs at the breakfast table. When Eveline herself was kindergarten-aged she had nestled close on her mother’s lap in the big easy chair with a star chart spread out across both of them like a blanket, her thumb in her mouth.
“The white hole,” Helen whispers to Eveline in memory, taking her daughter’s tiny finger and tracing with it the route from Earth to the Milky Way’s center. “They call Sag A a black hole but it’s the black hole’s opposite I want to see. The white hole! You see, matter can’t be created or destroyed, but why couldn’t it be sent somewhere? The black hole has to have an other side and I want to find it. White holes could turn out to be the source of all matter in the universe: debris sucked into the gravity of the black hole and funneled into another dimension. Infinities on top of infinities, endless possibilities. A purely hypothetical star at this point, but it’s poetic, isn’t it? The decay of one reality begetting the birth of another?”
When Eveline was eight her mother was still twenty-eight, still speeding towards the center of the galaxy. Eveline tracked Explorer xvi’s progress on the chart of the Milky Way that is tacked up on her wall. But Helen moved slowly. At first Eveline moved the thumbtack that represented the ship a millimeter a day but the imperfection of the chart’s scale nagged at her and eventually she started moving it once a week. Still unsatisfied, she began moving it every year, on her birthday, an inch at a time.
Eveline was eleven when she realized she would be sixty-seven when her mother returned. She had just learned in school the basics of relativity and time dilation, understood for the first time the power of space travel to bend a timeline. She did the calculations: for Helen, just two weeks will pass from when the mission leaves Earth to when it arrives in orbit around the black hole. That they can orbit it at all is a miracle of technology, derived from Helen’s own dissertation, allowing them to stay poised on the edge of oblivion. Her team will stay in orbit for a year, time measured in food rations and energy reserves, before making the two week journey back. A year and four weeks is what will pass for Helen. For Eveline and everyone else left on Earth, twenty-nine and a half years will pass before Explorer xvi reaches its destination, and another twenty-nine and a half once it sets off on its return. Sixty Earth years round trip, and only the year the ship is in orbit around Sagittarius A* will pass for Eveline and her mother at the same rate.
To a child, Eveline thought as she looked at her kindergarteners settling in for the day on the morning of the Return, imagining oneself at sixty-seven is the same as imagining oneself as dead: loss of everything familiar. A being alien beyond recognition.
Once it set in that her mother was, for all intents and purposes, gone forever, eleven-year-old Eveline began to imagine her mother’s days as fractions of the years on Earth. It was late August when Helen left and by the time the trees outside Eveline’s bedroom window had dropped their leaves Helen was still just closing her eyes to sleep through her first night on Explorer xvi. She woke the next morning in space and it was Thanksgiving on Earth, and by Christmas Eve as Eveline realized there would be no tree, no stockings, no presents that year, her father deep in his bottle and her mother gone, Helen was swinging her feet over the edge of her bunk, zipping up her uniform. If Helen so much as blinked an eye, Eveline aged a year. In the time it took Helen to prepare a meal, Eveline in high school had bought hundreds of school lunches, gone from despising asparagus to eating it every night to, for a period of six months in her first year at university, not eating anything at all. If Helen, as she measured out rations of grain for her team in transit had thought of Eveline, her daughter’s seemingly disproportionate accumulation of years might have reminded her of pregnancy: the cluster of matter growing rapidly enough to observe from week to week or, with a strong enough microscope, day to day.
Eveline turned eighteen, nineteen, twenty. When Helen was twenty she had just met Eveline’s father. He was her lab partner, a man of unremarkable and unmemorable appearance, but quick with numbers and, while himself not particularly creative, receptive enough to her creativity. When he asked her to dinner Helen did not feel strongly one way or the other about it. She was in love with her work. Not one cell, not one thought, was Eveline.
Once, across the table from Frank at dinner, Eveline had wondered: what if she had been twenty when she met Frank? She had just given up her own studies in astrophysics then, had realized that she wasn’t made of the same stuff has her mother. Her father had not liked that she spent long hours in the lab, anyway, preferring for her to come home right after class to put dinner on the table, to pour his drinks and adjust the television for him.
Once a scientist himself, Eveline’s father had retired not long after his wife left for space. He had understood Helen’s commitment to her work up to and until she had decided to trade sixty years with him for one studying the white hole. What had their fight been about? What had he asked her? Eveline wondered sometimes, imagined her father threatening, crying, begging. No matter what he says, Helen says no. Helen will not stay. If at twenty Eveline had met a man, Frank or anyone else, if she had announced she was moving out, would her father have threatened, cried, begged? She remembered her father yelling at her mother; remembered his sweaty arm sweeping the clock off the mantle, the shatter of glass, a cut on her mother’s lip, that same day or before or both, and never had the guts to find out.
When Eveline was twenty-eight she was, for one year, the same age as her mother. She wonders if Helen aboard the ship, still eight and a half Earth years from Sagittarius A*, was aware of this odd, unnatural overlap, this impossible eclipse. Like an eclipse, it was over before she could fully grasp what it meant: when Eveline turns twenty-nine she is older than her mother and will for every year after remain so, the gap growing and growing until Helen returns to Earth and their timelines are once again synced with the same rotating axis, the same three-hundred and sixty-five day trip around the same yellow dwarf star.
For the sixty years Helen has been gone Eveline sometimes thought of her as selfish. But other times, she imagined it: Helen, twenty-four, in an apron in the kitchen, sweating and swearing. Her husband on his way home with the men from the lab who he had just called to say he was bringing home for dinner. Eveline, three, thundering up and down the stairs, jumping on the landing, screaming. Finally Helen can’t take it anymore. She goes to the bottom of the stairs, looks up at her daughter. Eveline is wearing a huge sheet of paper like a cape and when Helen sees that it is the map of the Andromeda galaxy that hangs like a mural in her office, the one with the orbital planes charted carefully in her neat handwriting, her frustration, simmering like the too-salty soup on the stove, boils over. She shouts and Eveline starts to cry and this is where they are when Eveline’s father comes in, and this is who Helen has become: Helen, who had published her dissertation at age seventeen, Helen who only ever needed to write out the first half of a problem before the answer came to her as though sent straight from the heavens. No wonder she’d had to leave—no wonder Earth felt too small for her, the task of raising a daughter too dull, a husband jealous of her intellect boring, boring, boring.
You understand, don’t you? Why I have to go?
Take care of your father.
Sometimes, Eveline does.
When Eveline was sixty-six she attended her father’s funeral. It was just a year before Helen would get back. The media had began to hype the Return and Eveline’s co-workers started to give her odd looks. But though a year is short in comparison to the fifty-nine that came before it, Helen is still completely out of touch, out of reach, in deep space.
No emails or radio signals can reach the Explorer xvi as it travels at thirteen hundred times the speed of light back towards the Earth.
Helen will not know her husband is dead until she is back on Earth.
Will she be upset? Eveline wonders. Despite the years she had lost bound to him, the life she might have had set aside to care for him, as thankless a task as anything, she, Eveline, had been upset. Take care of your father—it was all she really knew how to do.
“You see,” Ms. Thornton piped up as Mr. Melvin fiddled with the net stream and they all waited for the image on the overhead screen to show something other than a blank ocean, blank sky, “it’s such a very long way that it takes a very long time for the astronauts to get where they’re going. But they’re going so very very fast, it’s like no time at all has passed at all for them.”
No time at all, Eveline had thought as she listened to this explanation of relativity. Yes, that sounds right. No time has passed at all. We are the same, she and I both, as we were when she left.
It was overly simplistic, she knew, but sometimes the answer to the most complicated questions are themselves quite simple.
“What can we expect from the daughter of the time’s most famous astrophysicist?” the press may as well have asked. “What has Eveline done? What did the years’ passing bring to Eveline?”
And the answer: why—nothing. Nothing at all.
“Then, this is the tricky part,” Mrs. Thornton had gone on as they all continued waiting, “they have to land, but landing is very tricky, because the Earth is so big and the spaceship goes so fast! The only way they can land is to leave part of the spaceship behind. They left part of it behind at the star, and they’ll leave another part of it behind in Earth’s orbit, and only the little return module will come back to Earth! And that’s what we’re going to see land in the ocean.”
This pronouncement was not found by the kindergarteners to be particularly impressive.
“Where are the astronauts?”
“Is the spaceship going to hit the moon?”
“When are we going to go outside?”
“Who drives the spaceship while the astronauts are sleeping?”
“That’s a very good question,” Ms. Thornton seized. “A very good question! You see, it’s a very, very smart spaceship with a very, very smart computer—”
“There,” Eveline said suddenly. “It’s right there.” She pointed to the top right of the screen as the newscaster said we have visual confirmation of the shuttle—the explorer has cleared the atmosphere—all four parachutes have opened—
And there it was: the return module, parachutes fluttering like pennants against the bright blue sky. Tiny at first, but bigger as the cameras zoomed in and the excited chatter of reporters trying to talk to their own cameras grew louder over the sound of the wind over the ocean. It fell for longer than seemed possible.
A beautiful re-entry, the newscaster gushed. Textbook, just beautiful, the command module Explorer has landed at one twenty-two pm local time here in the Atlantic, and we have word that the whole team inside the craft is doing well and happy to be home. For those of you just joining us we are watching the return of Explorer xvi, the first manned mission to Sagittarius A, the black hole at the center of the Milky Way. Explorer xvi launched almost sixty years ago—
The camera zoomed in on the module, bobbing in the sea like an acorn, as the coast guard approached in lifeboats and went to pry open the door. It was then Eveline saw her, hair shining like a new penny, a smile splashed across her face: her mother.
Eveline is waiting.
Frank is there, just outside. Frank can offer her the life she never lived: life, and love. She had agreed to go with him. But now, as she looks at Frank sitting behind the wheel of his car, flowers in his lap, Eveline can’t help but imagine a different car pulling into the driveway.
She imagines her mother getting out.
Helen will be in a wheelchair, the year of simulated gravity in the lab around Sagittarius A* meaning her legs will need time to readjust. She will come to the door of the house she left sixty-seven turns of the Earth ago, and Eveline imagines her mother’s delight to see her daughter just where she left her all those years ago. Helen will have a suitcase on wheels and a debriefing packet under her arm, just as she did when left, and looking at her will be, for Eveline, like looking at a photograph of her younger self: her same face, but unlined; her same curls, but thicker, the deep auburn of Eveline’s own twenties and thirties and forties.
It occurs to her that it is simply too late. It is strange that she should still, all these years after her father’s death, feel imprisoned by her mother’s words in the house with the broken clock. But what she could not fully comprehend or articulate at seven—what she could not tell her mother then—what she can not tell Frank now, still feels inexplicably true: that Helen’s escape then meant Eveline’s staying, now; that Helen’s gain was Eveline’s loss; that she, Eveline, had been sucked in a long time ago.
It is too late. She cannot escape the event horizon now. Even though her father is dead and she should be free of her mother’s parting words to care for him, too much time has gone by Eveline, too many opportunities missed. Frank, though an escape, could never undo what Helen had done to her all those years ago. Eveline is the black hole and her mother the white: polar opposites, infinite decay begetting infinite growth. Only at her mother’s side can Eveline glimpse the possibilities her duties denied her; only with her mother back can the clock start for Eveline again.
She sees through the window as Frank, through the windshield of his car, notices her watching him. He waves. But when Eveline looks at him it is as though she does not recognize him. In the shadow of her mother’s return Frank seems unfamiliar: the life he can offer her is not her life. Eveline’s life is with her mother. When she stands it is not to take her suitcase and go to the door. Instead, she reaches to close the blinds, and goes to make a pot of coffee, in case her mother comes home.