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Red Letters from a Red Planet
In Tucson, I rode my bike until the heat turned into something else, something alive, something I could make my own—my cheeks flushed red, I sweat out any water I drank, and I didn’t care—that was just how I moved from one place to the next in ninety degrees. I lived in a house so old I told people it was haunted, even though I didn’t have any proof. I liked finals week, when the library was open all night and no one knew where I was. I didn’t keep a journal then. I was busy, or I thought I was, but mostly I thought anything important would stay with me. Perhaps it has.
The team’s second machine had already been catapulted toward Mars by the time I started working at the operations center. Their first attempt had exploded after failing to land a few years prior. It would take nine months to find out for sure, but this one, they said, would make it.
Phoenix—or, as I wrote in press releases later, NASA’s Phoenix Mars Lander—was on its way to the planet’s northern hemisphere, the polar region. Its robotic arm was designed to reach out and dig through the dirt until it found water ice, but no one knew for sure what lay beneath. It was 2008, and no one had ever sent anything to the top of the Red Planet. I was an undergraduate studying journalism, and the public affairs manager needed an assistant. I would help her write image captions that went out with the press releases each day. As the lander sailed through space, the team assembled at a warehouse in Tucson and waited.
From the porch at my friend’s party one night, I heard the shhh shh of spray-paint cans. When I looked at the wooden fence across the street, I could see men in hooded sweatshirts with their backs to us, moving their arms up and down, painting their names.
They walked toward the party, pulled their hoods down and their sleeves up, exposing their tattooed arms and filling the porch with leftover fumes. Cody was the most memorable of them—I’d admired his pronounced brow bone from across a room before. I’ve always liked men who look as if they’re from another time. We’d been introduced once at The Grill, the twenty-four-hour diner with blue walls and a neon sign that read, OPEN LATER THAN YOU THINK. On the porch at the party, he said, I’m Cody, and I said, I know who you are.
Downtown was vacant at night—not even the police bothered as Cody and his friends wrote all over everything as if they owned it. In the mornings after, a hired worker always appeared in some form, holding a white roller and a bucket. Sometimes Cody would get there before they did, and he could take a picture in the daylight before his name disappeared under more paint. One building for one night—that’s all some men get.
Cody and his friends rode around town like royalty until everyone began actually regarding them as such. Crowds parted to make way for them on the sidewalk, and bars banned them for fighting, which just made them more infamous. Seeing one of them meant the rest were somewhere nearby. They ruled downtown, filling the spaces their fathers had left behind—men betrayed by cops, some jailed, one killed.
Cody’s earlobes were long and saggy and had holes the size of quarters from the ear gauges he’d once worn. In the backyard of someone’s birthday party, he told me he didn’t wear the gauges anymore, and soon someone was going to sew his ears back up to look normal. I’ll miss them, I said, sitting on his lap, taking the cap from my beer bottle and placing it inside one of the holes. I’d never been attracted to someone I was afraid of before, but I could tell Cody was tender because he couldn’t look me in the eyes when I became bold and touched him. He was big and tough and tattooed, like a bad boy a casting director might dream up, but when he kissed me, it felt specific.
Cody banged on my screen door like a warning, and I always answered. It felt good to be summoned. One time he came over in the middle of the day to meet my friend who was visiting from out of town. He didn’t sit down, he just paced around my living room while I tried to make conversation. After a few minutes, he pointed at his backpack on the floor, said, I have to deliver that. I asked, Drugs? and he smiled, said, I’ll never tell, then left.
I gathered secrets like little pieces of survival, and I was so healthy. I never knew the whole story, just enough to be on their side. One of his friends slept on my couch one night while cop cars rolled through our neighborhood’s streets, looking for him. Another of his friends went to Nogales and almost didn’t get back in at the border. I knew fighting was bad, but I was so in love with Cody, I believed what he believed: that some people deserved to get hit. The men thought their badness made them special, and I thought my devotion to their self-imposed justice made me special, and I think we might have both been right.
At work, I milled around the operations center drinking free espresso some company donated because they thought we were astronauts. I was the only one who bothered with the espresso—I even had an argument with an engineer who told me drip coffee was more powerful. No one knew what to do except pretend to prepare—the lander soared through space, and we were on the verge of either everything or nothing. It was a part-time job for me, but some men’s lives had led up to this landing, and they’d failed before.
In preparation for the landing, my boss and I helped the team rehearse what to say to the public, who might not understand the timing. Make sure to explain that the signal could come later, my boss said. It doesn’t always reach us right away.
During finals week, I reached for my highlighter pen to stripe my geology textbook yellow. I was learning about my own planet—its tensions and the resulting shifts. I liked the inevitability of nature, the violence required for Earth to endure. The lecture hall was filled with a hundred students, but the professor had asked that we all e-mail her a photo of ourselves so she could memorize us. She actually did it, and I found myself frightened every time I raised my hand and realized she still knew my name.
The halls of the operations center were empty most of the time. Or if I did encounter someone and met their gaze—even if I greeted them—they’d usually look away. The lander was getting closer after its nine-month, 140-million-mile journey, but there was still nothing to do yet. I pretended to be a scientist; the scientists pretended to work—or they did work, I just didn’t know what they did.
The Phoenix lander was seven feet tall and eighteen feet wide and weighed 772 pounds. On May 25, 2008, we all gathered in the operations center and waited for Phoenix to descend into the Martian atmosphere, activate its heat shield, and slow to one thousand miles per hour. The lander survived what everyone called its seven minutes of terror—a free fall, a blue parachute—and then it landed the way we’d hoped it would. The solar panels bloomed and sucked in light. The ovens adjusted their temperature. The machine photographed its feet and sent us the picture.
When the images appeared on-screen an hour later, the room erupted in applause. I felt like an impostor—how had I gotten there? When I noticed everyone around me was crying with joy, I tried to do the same. I’d never felt I was in the same room as history before.
The following day, I heard someone at a press conference say, We will find water; it is there. It was the same tone I used to announce that I loved who I loved.
Cody was tall, but his posture was terrible, as if he hadn’t fully evolved. For this reason, I could spot him blocks away when I was on my bike, and then I’d get to spend whole minutes doing nothing but anticipating him. When he changed a record on the turntable in my apartment, he’d spin the record on his finger and tell me to watch. He was good at it—the record seemed to play from electricity he made. I remember he was the first man I told, I love your body. I don’t remember what he said about mine.
I was always asleep by the time he got into bed and draped himself over me, finally done tagging—another night of not getting caught. In the morning, I always woke up before him, but I’d stay under him for as long as I could, memorizing his tattoos, as if someday I might need to describe them so he could be found and returned to me, the one who knew his entire body by heart.
Once, just after midnight, he came over with bloody knuckles and torn jeans. It wasn’t unusual for him to bleed, but it was the first time he’d come to me afterward. I found a translucent purple ruler in my desk, broke it in half, and made a splint to keep his ring finger straight. He told me the story as I washed the red from his hands, his shirt, my floor. He kissed me on the kitchen counter, threw my phone across the room when it rang. I didn’t yet know who I was, but I saw the opportunity to become a certain kind of woman. Harm swayed toward me. I responded with something else.
The Martian day, called a sol, is forty minutes longer than an Earth day. That meant we came to work a little later each day and stayed a little later, until soon we were arriving in the middle of the night. Photographs came in hours ahead of me—as a series of zeros and ones.
Phoenix’s cameras worked better than anyone had anticipated. One evening, the lander captured an image of the sunrise after Mars’s seventy-five-minute “night.” The photo looked straightforward, but the image’s caption explained, The skylight in the image is light scattered off atmospheric dust particles and ice crystals. We thought we knew exactly what we saw.
At The Grill one night, a painter looked at me too long, and Cody asked him to rate the importance of his hands: You use them a lot, I bet. Another night, Cody pointed to a red bicycle’s crumpled front tire, locked to a fence, and said, That’s where his head was. If I was alone at a bar and someone approached me, one of the graffiti men would appear and ask, Is this guy bothering you? and I’d say no, because he’d already be gone. I felt safe in their small-town grasp, special, but really I was just on one side of my mind and the world was on another.
When I needed a ride one night, one of Cody’s friends drove me home in his powder-blue Cadillac, asked, What were you doing out so late? As the streetlights shone through the windshield, I saw the gun on his hip, glittering. In Arizona, it was legal to carry a gun as long as it was visible, Wild West style. We passed the hotel where John Dillinger left $23,000 in a fire in the 1930s, the same hotel where this friend with the Cadillac had been blacklisted. I admired the way they maneuvered through the world, making it theirs.
At the Phoenix Science Operations Center, a group of sleep researchers from Harvard came and installed blue boxes on our desks. One group of scientists was instructed to look directly into the simulated sunlight for an hour each day. One group was asked not to look at all.
I used to sit at the bar still wearing my school backpack, sipping whiskey Cokes and pretending not to hear what any of the men said. But I did hear, and once I was asked, Do you think it’s wrong to cut off a finger? I said no, not if someone really deserved it.
Even now, I feel compelled to protect their identities in a noir kind of way—to refuse to give them up, even under interrogation. I want to see them again. Sure, I was an accessory, a warm body, a room to sleep in, but I felt as if I was a whole building being written on. Their violence was blinding, their light immeasurable. Every time I tried to take a photo of anyone, they’d look away, or appear as an orb, as if I’d dreamt them up.
But a dream does not leave blood on the pillowcase, does not get into bed smelling like spray paint and other women, does not write his name on a wall or my thigh, does not finish high school or ask for forgiveness. They were waiting to get rich. Every time it rained, we knew another year had gone by.
There was a replica of the Phoenix lander at the operations center. It was built to scale, looked real. When I gave a tour to a middle-school class, one student looked at the lander and asked, How will it get back to Earth? and I said, It won’t.
Many of the photos I captioned were actually composites of photos—different cameras captured different angles, and the images needed to be put back together. By the time I saw them, they appeared whole.
When photos showed strange clusters of dirt on the Martian plain, one of the scientists said, We expected dust devils, but we are not sure how frequently. It could be they are rare, and Phoenix got lucky.
Most nights, Cody expected to get caught painting his name. One day I’ll run out of luck, he said, not stopping.
There was a rumor that the cops kept binders full of graffiti photos, organized by name, in the hopes they’d catch that name someday. A friend of Cody’s friend got caught writing on a freeway sign, and, in court, the prosecution showed dozens of the same signature on other walls. He went to jail for all the photos combined. The men wondered if they had binders dedicated to them. They smiled when they talked about it.
NASA’s Phoenix Lander Might Peek Under a Rock—that was one headline. The team thought there might be ice there. The robotic arm reached out.
I met a man who complimented me all the time, but instead of feeling admired, I felt nervous. I realized Cody and his friends never seemed to look directly at me. There was comfort in that. Sometimes it felt like a favor.
Alice was the name of the rock near the lander. Snow White was the name of the trench Phoenix began digging. The robotic arm dug a little more each day. And then, after fifty scrapes, a white square appeared—what the scientists had hoped to find. The soil-and-ice mixture was scheduled to be dropped into an oven, then cooked. They called the sample almost perfect.
But the arm was imprecise, the movement was wrong, and the sample missed the oven. From the press release: We will repeat what we did successfully with small modifications to adjust for what we learned.
I’d learned almost everything about Mars by that point—the temperature, the presence of the icy layer, the wind speed—but when I tried to describe Cody to a friend who had never met him, all I could say was, He has this pull on me. I mimed myself unloading an imaginary rope from my stomach, kept unloading it. My return to my previous life had always seemed inevitable, but now I felt so far away.
These were men who fell in love but not fully, wanted a mother but not really, wanted a whore but not all the time, wanted me in the room but quiet, and I liked trying to be everything at once. Cody said he wanted the word honey tattooed on his throat, and when I asked why, he said, To remember everyone I ever called honey. I said it was a bad idea, but really I just wanted to be the only one called honey, I wanted to be the word he kept in his throat.
The operations center tried to contact Phoenix on Mars, but we didn’t hear back. We countered silence with another press release: Phoenix was not designed to survive the dark, cold, icy winter. Still, we listened.
I started to believe Cody’s friend with the Cadillac would eventually be caught. I saw men get hurt, jump fences, get handcuffed, go to jail. He’d been arrested twice before for other things; another seemed inevitable. One day, he noticed a man sleeping in an unmarked police car across from his house. Another followed him to work. This is how these things end, I thought, remembering a movie. I could get left behind so easily.
I saw a scientist place a black piece of paper over the blue box of light, then pull it up slowly, say, Total eclipse.
I knew about the trio of girls with frizzy black hair and greasy eyelids, but I didn’t know they’d come for me. Their cutoff shorts exposed green-purple bruises, their purses were big enough to carry forty-ounce bottles of Mickey’s. I liked to drink, too, but not like that—they didn’t care if they died or not, they didn’t care who belonged to whom, they’d show up to parties and suddenly there’d be a bonfire in the backyard, suddenly they’d be lighting their cigarettes with it. One of them got cancer at one point, lost all her hair, and lived.
Cody and I slept together, one of the girls said to me on the phone one night. I didn’t know you were still together. I didn’t bother raising my voice with someone who seemed as if she was telling the truth, someone who seemed sorry. I asked logistical questions: Did he wear a condom? He did. Did she know about me? Sort of. I thought if I had information, I could have control. I thought if I stayed calm, I could keep it from being true. I waited for Cody to come home.
When I confronted him, he had me call his friends to confirm her unreliability. She’s just jealous, a few of them said. Others deemed her plain crazy. Cody seemed to think the more people we called, the more innocent he’d be. I knew he was guilty, but I stopped fighting it and started listening to the sound of their lies. They became like a chorus of men who loved each other. They were singing their song.
In the morning, she texted me, I’m afraid you believe whatever he told you, and it was true—I loved him enough to look away. That’s how much he loved me. We were even.
A caption for a photo of morning frost on Mars: This false color image has been enhanced to show color variations.
I put Cody in an essay once before, but I wrote it wrong: I made him the villain. I forgot women can be wrong, too—I forgot I could be. Against all logic, I perceived touch from a burned hand as a form of greatness. I hope to make a mistake like that again someday.
Phoenix’s signal officially died when ice appeared on its solar panels. The attempts to reach the lander were called listening campaigns.
From the press release: The Phoenix spacecraft succeeded in its investigations and exceeded its planned lifetime. Although its work is finished, analysis will continue for some time.
We cleaned out our desks, wiped our hard drives, went out for lunch, ate french fries covered in ranch and bacon bits. The principal investigator of the Phoenix mission said to the press, Somewhere in that vast region there are going to be places that are more habitable than others.
Some men never loved me. I didn’t care. Their names sounded like answers, and I used them as such.
In one of the last photos received from Phoenix, its solar panels looked like an umbrella protecting the—I want to write earth here, but that’s incorrect. The red dirt made everything red. Then the photos stopped.
Cody kept staying out all night. I kept not saying anything, kept thinking eventually he’d come back to me for good. My room was too bright for sleep, so I held my pillow over my face, exhaled into the black of it. I saw beautiful things.
Copyright © 2018 by Chelsea Hodson