2012 Richard Bausch Contest - 2nd Place
Mittie Babette Roger
IVAN OFTEN STANDS IN FRONT OF THE FROZEN WINDOW AT HALLEY STATION WONDERING WHAT THE HEROES MUST HAVE FELT WHEN THEY FIRST SAW ANTARTICA. How the cold must have seeped in, numbing their bones. How they must have forgotten their names. Jon Davis and his men were the first humans to rest their swollen, frost-nipped feet on this desert of ice, he thinks. Adjusting his telescope, he remains focused though he can’t see a trace of color in the June darkness. Winter has long since begun. And so has his research.
He stares into the night. It’s a night that cannot end because morning doesn’t exist. It’ll be months until sun up. His bulgy eyes sweep the empty black palette, waiting for a hint of the reds or greens he expects to appear. “Aurora,” he half sings, “Australis,” knowing the other fifteen people on base are far from listening range. “Where are you tonight?” He rubs his thumb over a smudge on the glass. “Come on out, girl.” He loves her silent ways, how she dips into unseen shadows and reveals herself in bioluminescence.
He understood his decision when he made it. There is no better place to study the weather patterns outside the exosphere than the South Pole. Beneath the Auroral oval, he has the best location to document the sun’s shifting lulls and tempests. That’s why he had to leave Katia counting the days. Expectantly. And now, in the trough of an Antarctic winter, he knows how she must pine for him in the summer heat over long cups of afternoon tea with milk and sugar, rubbing the rim of the cup with an ice cube.
In the artificial heat, he shivers at the thought of what lies outside the door. The absence of bodies and breath. Barren rock and ice. Ripped from his thoughts by a flash of color, he drops his pencil and scrambles to pick it up. Aurora tends to slip out slowly, gracefully, she rarely catches him by surprise. And he, on the other hand, can’t deny his arousal at her consistency.
Aurora bathes the ice in her grassy iridescent light. When his pencil touches the paper, he feels he’s undressing her, robbing her of all secrets. She curls her voluptuous limbs around the body of the horizon and illuminates the surface beneath. A blurred shine of chartreuse light envelops his face and he slides his hand beneath his waistband until he grits his teeth.
Ivan remembers when he first met Katia. She was smoking outside The Red Room without tapping the ashes, just letting them waft in the warm October air. Dusting the patent leather tip of her boot, she stared at him through charcoal rimmed eyes as he crossed St. Charles Street. He wanted to say something, but the words stuck on his palette like peanut butter. She pursed her lava red lips together and laughed. “Are you looking to get in this party?” Ivan said nothing. “Of course you are. But it’s invite only.” She let the half smoked cigarette fall to the ground by spreading her fingers. Twisting her shoe over the cherry, she walked to the door. Then pointing at him, she said to the doorman, “He’s with me.” Just like that she stepped inside.
It didn’t matter that he’d had prior plans. He followed her like a meteorite being dragged to earth. Surviving the mesospheric burn. The interior of the club matched its name and he lost her in the two floors of black leather couches drowning in dark red lights. Pushed along between moving bodies, he looked back and forth in the glowing darkness for her.
Finally, he found her upstairs situated between two bodies. One leg draped over a man on her right. Licking spilled juice off the beard to her left. It looked like cranberry, but then again, everything looked like cranberry. She peered directly into Ivan’s startled eyes. “You caught me.” She giggled, wiping the smeared lipstick with her forefinger.
Ivan promptly walked downstairs. What was he thinking? He stood in front of the bar, his hands stuffed in his pockets. The bartender looked him over: outdated plaid flannel and stonewashed jeans. “What can I get you?” He asked.
The bartender waited as though he expected more, “Well? Top shelf? Rocks? Chilled? Neat?”
Ivan nodded. He was thinking he’d laid down twice what he’d planned to pay for a drink in the dive where he’d been headed when she walked up next to him at the bar.
“Having fun?” She asked. He looked away, squeezing a lime wedge in his drink. “Oh, you’re cute,” she said, turning to lean her back against the bar with her arms folded, “with those Buddy Holly glasses.” Straight brown hair fell in sharp angles around her face. “You like me, don’t you?” She reaches over her shoulder to receive a fresh cocktail, “but you’re shy.”
She took his hand and led him to the bathroom. Occupied. She pulled his collar toward her with long, rectangular fingernails. He tried to avoid her eyes, but the magnetism was too strong. The door opened. Catching it with one hand, she pulled him inside the black tiled room. Black toilet. Black sink. She closed the door, submerging Ivan in crimson light. The weight of the color made his legs tremble. She wiped down the back of the toilet before taking a plastic bag from her pocket and emptying a fluffy white pile from it. His breathing quickened.
With a credit card she groomed it, combing the powder into neat, tidy rows. Though he’d never been one for drugs, apart from Vodka, he immediately appreciated the delicacy with which she organized and measured the substance with her eyes alone. Rolling up a bill, she dove forward with flawless grace, inhaling a disappearing line. First one side. Then the other. She handed it to him. Waiting.
“So you don’t talk and you don’t blow either. I must be wasting my time.” When she turned to the door, the way the Earth rotates away from the sun, she heard a hollow sucking sound. She whipped back around, witness to his bent over stance.
“Ivan,” he said, glancing up.
“Katia.” And with that, she disappeared into the pulsing club. Ivan stepped out, letting another slick frame slip past him and into the atramentaceous cell. Moving through the undulating wall of bodies, Ivan felt completely alone. His heart pounded against his frail chest. He surveyed the faces: mouths open and words falling out or half-worn disconnected smiles. Silhouetted shapes on the wall. No Katia.
Ivan slunk out of the guarded double doors and paced beside the curb. Looking at his watch, he wondered if Aunt Tiki’s bartender had noticed his absence. Every Thursday he went there, sat alone, and scribbled notes in the margins of tattered hardcover books. He slumped on the curb, letting his eyes scan the reflective shine of purplish city lights on the horizon. The lack of stars. “You need a cigarette,” she said, looming above him. Her arm extended. He didn’t smoke, but took it from her hand anyway and rested it between his lips. She spread her legs as she squatted down with the lighter flame cupped in her hand. There was no wind. Only the two of them and the fiery glow of their cigarettes mirrored in the glass buildings.
Reclining in the ergonomic laboratory chair, Ivan sighs, and lets his head fall back. Outside, Aurora is fading. Retreating into outer space. Ivan sometimes believes that’s where he and Katia belong. He slides his chair up to the computer and begins to enter the data into the simulation program, sipping a tepid cup of coffee. The idea of sleep is arbitrary. Nothing rises on the inky horizon but his thoughts and Aurora.
Compared to the scientists who’ve come before him, his table seems empty. In the Antarctic winter, pictures become his company, though he only displays two. The first is Katia in a metal frame. She looks surprised as if the flash went off too brightly and blinded her for a second. Her mouth is left slightly ajar. He hadn’t warned her before he took it; the captured moment seems more genuine that way. The memory more clear. She’s picking her handbag off the table by the door. Leaving.
The other snapshot shows the two faces of Douglas Mawson, both before and after defying death at age twenty-nine. When Mawson returned alone, missing the other two men and sixteen sled-dogs, a watchman at the base-camp had to ask him which explorer he was. He changed after that. Mawson became someone else. Transformed by losing the first man (tethered to half of the supplies and a team of eight dogs) to a collapsing crevasse ledge and then, the other to vitamin A poisoning (after eating a few too many dog livers.) Not a single voice called his name. But he didn’t cut the cord. Even faced with the uncertainty of the capricious ice. That’s a hero.
Mawson missed the boat, Aurora, and its slow departure from the continent. He was forced to stay the winter, dreaming of the woman who waited for him. When he finally did get back, Ivan imagined that flowers lined the streets and the echoes of cheers filled even the narrowest alleys. The weathered face in the photo was a stoic man with little need for words. Ivan knows Katia will celebrate his return.
Lying on his back in bed, Ivan interlaces his hands across his chest. The obscurity in which he sleeps will be the obscurity in which he wakes. And so, he doesn’t yearn for sleep. What he longs for are dreams where he and Katia can exist anywhere. Limitless. The Aurora exists on other planets too, and he wonders what the view would be like from one of them. Flashes of the solar wind scatter across his closed eyes as his breathing sinks deeper into a weightless slumber.
He finds himself falling through clouds of frozen ammonia crystals, their sharp edges cutting his flesh. The temperature rises as his feet draw closer to the metallic surface. Passing through the sizzling neon and helium rain drops, he lands. The orange and white clouds streaming over him elucidate his whereabouts. The failed planet: Jupiter. The nickname makes him nervous, and he finds himself pacing. His shoes make clicking sounds against the glimmering metal.
A transparent wisp of clouds passes over him and he sees her, Katia, standing on Io. Instinct recognizes Jupiter’s moon instantly. The blur of active volcanoes. The rubbery, sulfur laden terrain. She’s standing on a mountaintop taller than Everest. Smoking a cigarette. A yellow plume consumes her face. She doesn’t wave, but he feels the pull of rectangular fingernails before the fiery atmosphere wraps her in its arms.
When she appears again, spot lit in front of the cerulean sky, her cigarette ashes freeze in the stale air. Glowing. Pale turquoise. Light projects from them like stars. Io’s Aurora, Ivan thinks as the great red spot rolls over him like the tide. He knows it may last centuries. Jupiter is losing heat by the second.
Ivan’s body jumps in the bed. He can’t tell if he slept at all. In the tenebrosity, he wakes without certainty. He lies in bed picturing how Katia might sit at the edge of her bed cradling her belly. He can almost feel her body in the bed next to his. Rolling on his side, he closes his eyes. Remembering her curves. The delicate bones protruding at her hips.
It isn’t so hard to picture. The life they could have together. The way she might decorate hand-made birthday cakes with icing and wait for him in the courtyard on cloudy afternoons. Pushing his body up to a sitting position, he thinks how nice it would be if he could call her. He tried once, but the connection wasn’t great. She seemed surprised to hear from him.
“Oh, hey. How are you?” She had sounded out of breath. Talking quickly.
“I’m in Antarctica.”
“Don’t you remember?”
“I can’t hear you,” she said. “Try me again later.”
After she hung up, he held the phone in his hands for a minute. His eyes glazed over, releasing focus. A chip in the paint. A slight peeling where it separates from the layers beneath it. A pinprick.
In the evening, Ivan monitors his telescope vigilantly. He sits in front of it, trying not to think about Io’s immense gravitational force, nor the effects of its eruptions. He slices his seal steak into thin slivers and washes it down with vodka. He finds himself shrouded in thought. The animals aren’t afraid of humans here because they’ve never known the threat. The explorers were afraid to trek here, but they never fathomed the challenge the A-factor could present. Two hundred mile an hour winds through the largest, highest desert in the world. Antarctica is the beard death licks.
Sitting the food on the metal table by the telescope, he thinks about calling Katia again. The thought makes him stab his serrated knife into the wooden cutting board. The blade sticks in the wood, leaving the handle in the air. He pushes it away though the blade still faces him. She’ll get over it. Just like all the waiting wives. Not that she’s his wife. But she will be. When he returns, he thinks.
He pictures her in his bed as though it’s a sepia-toned photograph. Naked. One leg outside the cotton sheets. The streetlight casting shadowy patterns on her skin. “I don’t know why I fuck you,” she said. He laughed at her joke. Though he’d made love to her on several occasions, she never spent the night. He yearned for her to stay. Just once. “You’re pretty good in bed, but you never say anything.” She rolled on her back. “I used to think it was cute.” He pulled a cigarette out of her pack. Stuck between her pale lips, the vibrant lipstick worn away, he lit it. Carefully. Like sliding a new lens in a broken telescope. She exhaled through her nose like a dragon. A waterfall. A descending comet. “I don’t know what I think anymore.”
He’d found her in a club, as usual. He knew which places and which nights. At first, she’d ignored him. He hovered around the bar. Swirling the vodka over ice while it melted. Slowly. In the warm New Orleans winter. He surveyed her as she circled the bar, chatting with friends and strangers alike. He believed deeply that she enjoyed how he watched her. The game they played.
At the end, he took her home. Her clothes were strewn inconsequently throughout his apartment. His discipline had paid off. The physical training. The patience. She stroked his hair as they lay tangled, huffing. Inevitable. Predictable. Just like Aurora. The image was chiseled in his mind the way meteors delve craters in the moon. Or on Earth. Clearly identified from space. Though there are others. Too deep to be easily seen. Quickly covered by lakes and jungles.
Ivan finds his gaze floating on the wall. Disconnected. When he retrieves his awareness, he pulls the eye of the telescope to his. Aurora has begun to appear. Unraveling her delicate limbs in splashes of color. Scarlet. He feels honored to see her dressed that way just in the moment he was recalling Katia’s body in the dim light. Aurora communicates with him. Through tricks, through riddles, through flashes of insight, through delicate tickles beneath his jaw. He yawns. It’s early, but the memories make him sleepy. His eyelids heavy.
He wishes he was back in New Orleans, so he could feel the sweat drip down his back as he walked down the French Quarter Streets. Feel the stark contrast between the slick ice in his Styrofoam cup and stagnant humid air. His flushed face filling with blood. The rush of circulation. Aurora undulates before him. Making waves in the sky. Wind erodes rock over geologic time like water. In curvy lines. Like her body. He stands up.
When thoughts prove too distracting, he checks the satellite and camera readings. He reviews the data and enters it into the computer simulation program. He paces around the room. Smoking cigarettes. They remind him of. What he doesn’t have. Later, he watches the recordings of the appearance Aurora made. Knowing she can’t engage with him if it’s not in real time. Disconnecting in Antarctica seems futile. Humorous even. But when he checks the computer, something’s wrong. One of the recording feeds has been cut.
Frantically, Ivan resets the control panel. Still nothing. He gets up, walking around the laboratory equipment. Indecisive. Losing the feed compromises everything. The flower-filled streets of return. Facing Antarctica’s winter climate without the protection of the building in which he is quarantined might as well be facing the solar winds themselves. But. A hero’s return trumps no return at all. His decision is already made.
First, he raids the equipment closet: harness, rope, carabineers, and ice clamps. From his room he retrieves the heavy duty boots, over pants, and coat. Before suiting up, he layers various sets of long underwear, already feeling the chill creeping up his spine. Like a harbinger. “This is life,” he says to himself, “my real life.” Before he opens the door he ties two strong knots: one to the inner door handle, the other to a steel beam. Along with making sure he can follow the rope back inside, it will secure the door in the event the wind is too strong for him to open it again. For an instant, he imagines Katia sitting outside Café du Monde. Swirling the chocolate sprinkled whip cream into a Frappachino. Her legs outstretched and ankles crossed.
When he turns the handle, the door blows open slamming against the wall. He’s pushing against a tunnel of air. The sound crashing like ocean waves in his ears. Passing the threshold, he ties the first of many stiff knots around a line of steel loops leading to the research equipment. His cheeks burn from the frozen, arid gusts. Insatiable. Making his way slowly, one metal hoop at a time, the intense pressure keeps him pinned against the building wall. Like a display case. An incubator.
The next time he went to look for Katia she was gone. He passed all of her frequented clubs but she’d vanished. He asked various bartenders if they’d seen her. “The model?” They raised eyebrows of doubt while looking him over. “Who are you?” In the end, no one knew. Or at least they didn’t share their knowledge with him. He began to pass by the closed bars in the daytime hoping to spot her walking by.
He ties the last knot before reaching the equipment. With gloved hands he reaches for the first machine to pull himself to the landing where he can tie the final knot. Anchor. His thoughts take on the movement of a curtain in the breeze. The dull sting has subsided and he can’t feel his face. Aurora is hidden.
He finally ran into her at Coffee Du Monde. She was wearing a thin, grey tee-shirt dress. “What a coincidence,” she said. He didn’t see it as such. He bought an extra beignet and asked to sit at her table. “Yeah, okay.” She shrugged.
“How are you?” He stammered.
“I’ve been better.” She dunked her pastry into a steaming latte.“You?”
“I haven’t seen you …” He began to say but quickly lost his nerve.
“Right.” She glanced down at her belly.
“Is something wrong?”
“What do you care?” She asked. He rubbed his hands together but said nothing. “That’s what I thought.” She picked up her bag. Slung it over her shoulder.
“Wait,” he said. He raised his eyebrows. “I want to …”
“Don’t worry.” She dropped the remaining half of the beignet on her crumb-laden plate. “It’s not yours.” She dropped some change on the table and walked out.
As he pulls his body toward the equipment, the wind pulls him back. The metal contraption tilts ever-so-slightly toward him. Two corners lifted off the ground. It balances for one breath and falls. Crushing his right foot. For a fraction of a second he feels nothing. Then the searing pain of broken bones surges up his leg.
He crouches down in the rock-hard ice. Whimpering. Quick, short breaths make him dizzy. Iridescent black spots flash in the darkness. He tries to lift the dead weight. Get it off of his pulverized appendage. It won’t move. Summoning all of his energy, he pushes it. Slowly. Across the fractured bones. Around his wrist he twists the rope twice, staying hunched over. Beaten by the wind.
He knows he must move. The cold has already begun to take his weakened form. Pulling himself along the rope, the series of looped knots, he drags the mutilated limb behind him. Inside the warmth of the station, he unties the inner knots before hobbling into his room and slumping against the closed door.
Dreams weep into his brain like humidity collecting on a pane of glass. The burning surface of Mercury melting the flesh on his foot. The nerves and tissues. His eyes water. Through the blurred liquid he sees her. Smoking. “No, please,” he says. “You’ll hurt the …”
“It’s not yours.” She steps on the cigarette butt, leaving him crumpled behind her.
When Ivan wakes, his thoughts nebulize, grow hazy and absent with the intense throbbing. The pain shoots through his body, spilling into his mind, leaving it completely blank. He raises his body to a sitting position, desperately thirsty, sliding his heavy boots off the bed. He still hasn’t removed them. He downs the glass of water placed beside the plate. Hobbling to the medical closet, he retrieves a pair of crutches. The medic must be sleeping. Ivan doesn’t know whether it’s day or night. Though his body feels broken, his mind is sharp. Clean. Behind the closed door of his lab, he checks the feed nervously. To be sure it’s working.
Weeks have passed. Ivan knows the ship will be coming soon. That he’ll soon return to find Katia’s face resting on his pillow. How she’ll smile when she opens the thick fringe of lashes. “Good morning, cowboy,” she’ll say, closing them again and slipping into sleep. She might not even have noticed his absence, not having gotten out of bed. No, of course she will have. She’ll be waiting eagerly. Dinner on table. A fresh vodka in his favorite glass. This idea has become so viscous, so entrenched that even his capillaries feel swollen and weighted with it. He wants to call her but. No. No, he doesn’t. His fingers push the tender spot at the edge of his boot. Maybe he should see the medic after all. He’s ignored it for some time, thinking it would heal, but the pain has changed into a dull numbness. The redness has begun to fade. To turn brown. He still hasn’t taken off the Gortex protection to see, but maybe if. He calls Katia.
“Hello.” The noises of a crowded street reverberate through the receiver.
“Hello.” The empty sound of nothing answers back.
“Who is this?”
“I’m coming home soon.” There is a stagnant silence. A hollow, half-expected nothing. Like blood slowing down in the vein. “To you.”
“Look.” She sighs. Audibly. “Ivan, right? I’m not sure what you’re trying to get out of this.” Car horns sound in a one way street. “Calling me.”
“There is no our because there is no us. I’m sorry, but.”
“We have something.”
“Yeah. We had something. We fucked a few times.”
The dial tone cut through the empty room like a steak knife through flesh, lingering on ligaments and tendons. He readjusts the telescope’s position and tries not to think about how poorly he’ll sleep tonight. Maybe he won’t sleep at all. He needs to see Aurora. The first wave in a volley of solar storm particles has hit Antarctica’s barren surface. There is nothing left to do but wait.
Ivan no longer gets up to go to the bathroom. He pisses in a jug next to his chair and empties it before he sleeps. Teetering stacks of dirty plates and napkins surround his workspace. Knives stuck in the cutting board like a pincushion. He reuses the dirty ones, wiping them on his shirt sleeve. Since he locked the door to the observatory, he hasn’t seen another human in weeks. He’s been with Aurora. He’s making love to her in the slow evenings when all he can think about is Katia. Still, he hasn’t taken off the boot. Not bathed. Completely forgotten. The result of a geomagnetic storm. The coronal mass ejections funneled into the poles.
The absence of sensations makes it easy. He in Antarctica. In the source of the Earth’s magnetic field, days have become minutes. The second hand on an eternal clock. Her eyes grew heavy and sad when she saw him walk into the coffee shop. He thought about how happy she’d be to see him return. It’s a shame he can’t return this year, he thinks. That the boat will come and go without him. But, there’s still so much research to be done. Still so much.
Ivan tugs at his pants leg. The creeping sensation of something climbing. A subtle itch over his numb shin. When he slides up the hem of his trousers, he sees. Brown, the color of wet leaves, and purplish-black. He thinks of the empty New Orleans back alleys, roots busting through the concrete. Outside Aurora glistens as she spreads across the obscurity.
Mittie Babette Roger
Mittie Babette Roger is a native Louisianan, born and raised in Baton Rouge. After earning her B.A. at L.S.U., she set out for the sunny mountains of Boulder Colorado where she received her M.F.A. from Naropa University in Creative Writing. Mountains have been a theme, along with international travel, that led her to the UNESCO World Heritage site, San Miguel de Allende in Guanajuato, Mexico, where she currently resides. Now bilingual, and certainly Mexican at heart, she works as a translator and tequila blogger.
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