AFTER MY FATHER left, I used to dream he’d gone away to become a spaceman and would come back to pick me up in his rocket.
This was a time when there seemed to be something like abnegation in hiding out in the backyard until the sun puffed up my face or falling asleep under the dinner table at my mother’s parties. Cheeks to the green-stained tiles.
Long before I’d discovered outer space, with its plummeting stars flickering out like wheezing winter fireplaces, I knew some things about absence.
It was where you waited after school all afternoon. Then it was night and someone came to pick you up and took you to a room and put a bowl of food in front of you. Even the room, hard and boxlike as it was, seemed a vague and flimsy thing, just a concept really, to give you something to believe in, something firm as the skyline of the city, with its hobbling people riding public buses around the dark as if they were drowning.
I remember the thick hair on the back of my father’s neck as he drove us out to Coney Island in the green Dodge Dart. Clutching the arms of my sloping car-seat, it seemed like a kind of space pod as we hurtled through the night towards the last winter lights along the beach.
The Radio said this is Ground Control to Major Tom then tell my wife I love her very much she knows. My father seemed to worry that I understood a concept as fine as the tentative momentum that carried two people away from each other in space and time like spinning planets. Vanishing forever.
Because we were Quaker, because I couldn’t show an interest in martial matters, I taught myself to wake up long before my mother and sneak downstairs to watch television with the sound off. Some local station out on Long Island had jerry-rigged the plots of Japanese cartoons with bad English dubbing for American children in the wake of Star Wars. The logic was sound: a generation of us needed our fix of bright starships with laser blasters and shaggy-haired heroes who just escaped the jaws of the villain’s gauntleted madness before the seventh moon exploded as he reached hyper-speed. There was always a faded prophecy, a clambering race of people willing to die for it, and a princess with long-swooping locks just grazing her marvelous galactic sports bra. If you were a child with more of a nautical bent, who perhaps dreamed of being a kind of outer space mariner, there was “Starblazers,” “Galaxy Express 999,” and “Space Captain Harlow.” But if you just wanted your weekly dose of laser smoke, noise-light, and the stealth of sudden deep space attack, you watched “Battle of the Planets.”
Originally titled “Science Ninja Team Gatchaman” in Japan, the hip 1970s teenagers of this inter-cosmic mod outfit, led by Mark (and sometimes Jason), talked into their high-tech wristband communicators and turned automatically into superheroes with bird-themed costumes and wing-like capes. With a certain Japanese spatial economy their individual motorcycles and airplanes all fit into one supernatural robot ship called The Phoenix. All together again, they were an abstract family unit, a group of four brothers and one sister. free to bicker and plan. They would subvert family togetherness in exchange for work, in this case saving the world, over and over, from a meddlesome fellow called Zoltar.
Saving the world for the children of Brooklyn divorcées every Saturday morning required a level of sacrifice, of pain, of that bitter abstraction death, that we would never understand. This was confirmed for us several years later when our own space program, still sitting in the rubble of its former triumphs like the moon-landing and those impossibly cool earth orbits, sent a teacher into outer space and blew her up.
When we played Star Wars, my best friend Jon and I would take turns being Luke and Han in the shadows of his mother’s backyard.
A best friend, we understood, was someone who’d cut open his Tauntaun’s stomach for you when you were freezing. We’d giggle and shudder, remembering the mysterious rotting loops of his insides as Han shoved Luke in, struggling with the sour bile smell.
Hoth. Sixth planet. The rebel base domed in ice. Sometimes you could hear the Wampa cry out to each other as night came on with its tide of moons. Last light shafts dancing over the blankets of their icy tombs.
Take me and keep my only friend. My lightsaber on your midwatch.
When we grew up, Jon studied to be a scientist. He wanted to save men and women from the despair of illness and death. He found out he had lung cancer on his honeymoon and died soon after. He was thirty.
Sometimes in dreams he cries out to me. He is falling through the bitter cold of outer space. Stars and forest moons pass us on each side as I try to reach him in my X-wing. To save him, I must become him. And he me. Our lives belong to each other. But my craft is not strong enough. I cannot save him. And the stars flow quickly past.
I finally made it to the space academy when I was fifteen.
We stood around the mouth of a threadbare parking lot. The parapet of a T.G.I. Friday’s was just visible through the sluggish spring trees of Westchester County. Suddenly a joint was at my lips, and I inhaled into the silence, the crumpled paper cigarette soft in my hand. A stray draft whipped in from nowhere with the indifference of the world. My friends were ragging me for taking too many tokes. Then something propelled me up towards the trees, above them, into the black places, past the roof slates, the fine blanketed lawns of Irvington, the slanted box mansions of Tarrytown. Sculpted in dreams with children’s voices. Flying. Further out towards the Hudson. The river growing dim. Flying outward. Making the atmospheric leap. Sonic boom. The drone in chattering pulses. Children’s voices. Gone. Only the cold now, radiating out like a frozen sun.
Once I found the barrier, the pure interface, once marijuana and later psychedelics had proven themselves as agents of isolation, I was able to stumble forward on land, at school, knowing I had the key, the angle of ascent, the vector that could shoot me back to deepest space when my little antennae started to tremble.
Through the silver lattice of my escape hatch, I was able to look down at the tranquil earth as it made its golden cycle around the sun, and allow myself to remember. Ghosts and uneasy bursts of feeling. Sometimes the soft sway of tears as they glistened to earth…
Now I could remember my stepmother and her violence: bent over me as I lay in our bunk bed with its sheets advertising Disney’s 1979 Star Wars rip-off, The Black Hole. Now I could remember the heat of her anger. Her fists sinking like stalks into my stomach. Slushing like goldfish. Now that I was safely in orbit, I could remember the invisible knot between us. The hatred. The things she wanted me to say, to apologize for loving my father, for the insinuating clarity in my eyes when I looked at her, saying strike me down…if you strike me down, I shall become more powerful than you can possibly imagine…
When I was sixteen and said to my father, “I feel like an alien wherever I go,” he said,”So do I. So does everyone.” I thought for a moment, then said, “But not like I do.”
I hit my apogee freshman year of college. It was the Ides of March and I got high with Frank and Shaky H out on a porch-like leaning place in our dorm. The wind was fresh, the trees a tamish green. We were drinking forties, and Frank was talking about Shakespeare and Caesar. They stabbed him twenty-three times. I was already turning the curve, the Kármán line they call it, toppling out of this atmosphere, ready to be swallowed by the breath of another, when I realized I couldn’t understand what he was saying. Shakespeare? Caesar? Ides? March? History? How was that even possible? Could you smoke it? Ingest it somehow? In the hands of an old beldam? With the haruspex Spurinna?
Someone put on a new track, a Max Romeo song, called “Chase the Devil.” The sun had gone somewhere and the moon was rushing in now all mongoloid and magic. The lyrics went Lucifer, son of the morning, I’m gonna chase you out of earth…. Scaly, chicken-scratch chords went clacking on the 1 and the 3, and Romeo sang gonna put on an iron shirt and chase Satan out of earth… gonna send him to outer space, to find another race… When the song ended, I asked them to play it again, sensing dully that I’d at last found a personal anthem, a theme song full of achingly pertinent content. At some point my companions left for dinner or class, depositing me in a damp armchair in the dorm lounge. Things were changing quickly now. Everywhere I looked was dark and everywhere I went was inside, deeper into the middle of my skull. In and out through the faint stars, painted perhaps by Shakespeare’s or Romeo’s own flickering hand, I did not find another race or another world. Only echoes. Futility. I remember a nice girl saw me sitting there in the dark. Her skin was like milk and her eyeballs white cotton. Everything else about her was pixilated. She bent down beside me and asked politely what I was doing. “Cartwheels,” I said. “I’m doing cartwheels through outer space.” She smiled with a slightly bleached weariness and patted my lightly on the shoulder. She got up and walked away.
Oddly, it was right around that time that outer space made a comeback.
Stereolab had successfully recycled the space-age pop of Juan Garcia Esquivel and turned us all on to lots of other accoutrements of the space race and the moonwalk like Barbarella, Googie architecture, and Pierre Cardin, who claimed we are all astronauts. Freshman year of college was an ECT-style crash course in cool stuff I’d missed out on in my THC orbit, but of all those things Mars Audiac Quintet stared out at me like Buzz Aldrin directing traffic and said, This way please, young man. There was a song on the album called “International Colouring Contest” about a groovy gum-popping chick named Lucia Pamela who goes into outer space because the moon is the place where there’s space for Lucia. So she and her friends take all their instruments and record on the moon, gathering a variety of sound from where the air is different. All the songs on Mars Audiac Quintet had an intergalactic color to them, but the story of Lucia finding a place for herself in space hit home with the new coterie of pouting indie rock cosmonauts I’d joined. I’ll never forget watching the girl I loved dancing around the room in a sparkly turtleneck the color of cypresses like a go-go girl on the Star Trek Enterprise. Soon we were all dancing off into outer space with Lucia, laughing as we shuffled our feet in time to unspeakably new cosmic places.
I realized I’d dreamed this very moment one morning when I was five, just after waking, with the baby-fat on my elbows against the cold floor, staring at the TV. I had always wanted to belong to a science ninja team and here it was. Andy, with his loose smiles and close-fitting polyester polo jerseys was clearly the leader. Justin, with his stripy windbreakers, was Jason (the Condor) to Andy’s Mark (the Eagle). Justin was the wild-card, with something of the commander to him but capable of falling into listless trances. Then there was Dave (the Falcon) with his bright Superman hat and tireless, searching eyes. I’m not sure who I was, Keyop (the Swallow) I suppose. Pee Wee they called him. The kid who didn’t do much but watch. Though sometimes he watched so hard he saw things in between other things. And finally Jen, who I loved, but so did everyone. Jen was Jun or Princess (the Swan). Her eyes were black and Swedish like the purest topsoil. She could move with the speed of sound and tended to be off somewhere, chasing the fringe tides of the future, long before the rest of the world would learn to in those hothouse days of the internet when people still said ‘cyberspace’ with a straight face. There was still a faint kind of planet love to the whole thing then, before it came to resemble the blind jaundiced curves of a cyborg moon.
In those swirling days of the mid-nineties, people still read Mondo 2000 and Wired, and still took DMT and Ketamine and sat through airlessly earnest debates about nanotechnology and Donna Haraway. And, Jen introduced me to my first real spaceman.
He was an Irish guy named Dermott in orange parachute pants who’d taken so many drugs they’d devoured his nervous system, leaving him with a constant head-bob and watery eyes. His major in college was to make techno music and he sold drugs on the side.
In the same way that everything I write from now on or do in life will in some way be about plagiarism, in the same way that there will always be a kind of feverish valuation of my sins to it, so was everything in Dermott’s life about drugs.
Ecstasy, in particular, seemed to be the original star in his orbit.
It was certainly a pleasant thing. A pleasant good time. A high without flaw. A trip to outer space with the taste of religion to it. That awful, heavy old prayer they’d say on gray Sunday school mornings when my step-mother dragged us. In heaven. As it is on earth. A taste of wild afterlife. Just like honey.
Yes, I understand you now. We are together now. And I love you. So good. Not sure I can take much more of this. Are we being born? Everywhere all at once?
Ecstasy had enough of a fume of that connection the early internet hippies had promised us to make me want it all the time.
One Friday night in winter Jen and I borrowed a car and drove with Dermott to Detroit. There was going to be a factory mingling of young people who liked designer drugs and electronica. Richie Hawtin would be there as well as Dermott’s supplier. I remember staring out sleepily at the miles of industrial trusswork before you even hit the city. My reflection in the stubby car’s back window panes kept getting pierced by fluorescent lights from all those black cubicles of waste yards. At the rave, Dermott left us to find his main man and get our drugs. The slate-blue floor of this particular Temporary Autonomous Zone was already scuffed from dancing suede Pumas and Converse. An explosion of pinched bleeps and breakbeats streamed from the far corner of the room as Jen and I were bathed in strobe light amber. Someone played a techno version of “Chase the Devil.” We waited by a random pillar watching the ravers make out with each other. A flow of kids smiling in their retro space age vestments kept us entertained as we waited for Dermott to return. But he never did. We stood there four hours.
Thoughts and feelings, the kind I was trying to suppress, began to mass like rainclouds. It had all started looking pretty idiotic, these kids in their baggy clothes dancing as though they had burning lumps of light in their hands, kissing strangers on the stone floor. The haunt of something dismaying flooded up around me. I had traveled too far, traversed too many worlds to be there in that particular dark of that particular wintering city. It was cold and smelled like cigarettes. All I wanted was to be home in bed. With the whisper of the heater on nearby and wool blankets spread out all over me. To wake with the light. To throw off my blankets and go to breakfast in the safe groves of our college campus and watch the winter brightness from deep inside the modernist library with its space age pod chairs. I leaned in to kiss Jen, and she seemed surprised. When Dermott finally showed up, he told us without the slightest trace of guilt that he’d taken all the drugs we’d paid for.
He was the real spaceman, after all.
I drove us home past the million exhaling chimneys of Michigan and dawn came on like cream. Dermott sat in the backseat telling us about the colors and the textures of the planet he lived on, the planet he was from, where there was no solid matter, only luminous beings, spirits unchained to bodies, floating and fawning around the atmosphere like the smoke of a morning’s breath.
It sounded wonderful. A world of only pleasure and light and transmigration. But I was already busy shifting gears, changing lanes, dodging cars and tall trucks, all heading off towards different places. Real places. To see their cousins or their children or their grandmothers. Wherever it was, it was towards. The big kiss, the handshake, the fond thank you, the swell of the heart. The apology.
Years later, when I got into trouble for making a pasted-together book, someone would write the word “pastiche” about it. And I would think: pasticcio, something pasted together, remembering that drive home with Dermott and his talk of floating souls the same way way I remembered those summer mornings when I cut open my Tauntaun and put my best friend inside, the same way I remembered those hourglass evenings when I’d watch the horizon for my father’s rocket, so that I might reach up into the sky and grab him and paste him to me.
Because he was my father the rocket man and I was the pasted-together boy and we would always orbit each other through the darkness of all space like a satellite and its ghost. Always close, but never touching.