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Buoyancy by Chloe N. Clark


Chloe N. Clark’s flash fiction piece “Buoyancy” explores the common theme of grief and loneliness through the unique lens of an astronaut who, while orbiting in space, has been informed about the loss of their partner back home. There is such a beautiful dichotomy drawn between the weightlessness the astronaut experiences as they float high above Earth and the deep, deep heaviness that loss presses upon one’s mind and heart. In Clark’s accompanying author’s note, she says the inspiration for “Buoyancy” originated from a writing challenge to write a piece containing sex and the five senses. The “sweet tang” of lemon pudding, the distant scent of “lemongrass and cinnamon,” the softness of lips against a lover’s bare shoulder—the sensory details in this piece indeed carry weight. They also characterize the couple’s relationship as being distinctly their own, which adds dimension to this dynamic. We hope you enjoy “Buoyancy” and that you’ll also check out more of Clark’s space stories in her collection Collective Gravities (Word West, 2020) and read our hybrid interview from 2020.  —CRAFT


 

I carry her in my fingertips when I’m far from home. Feeling the heat of her skin if I press thumb and index finger together hard enough. I can trick myself into her softness if I brush my thumb against the back of my other hand, just above the wrist. They say in space, there is no sound. But floating in that dark, there’s always sound. The rush of your blood, the beat of your heart, the memory of someone laughing.

On station, everyone feels too close. Six people in a space that always feels narrow, confined, even when we are no longer held by gravity. When I bring up video screens of my wife, she always seems an impossible distance away. She always is an impossible distance away.

A memory of licking lemon pudding from one of her fingers. The sweet tang that made the tip of my tongue ache with it. A memory of tasting her, as she gripped the sheets, moved to meet my mouth.

They give us the choice on long missions, ask us if we want to know if anything happens on Earth. And you can say no, your loves are all young, you don’t believe in accidents, not really. But I’ve always been a realist, felt disaster under my feet from miles away. When they tell me my wife is gone, they speak on a delay. The words have been said but the knowledge takes so long to get to me.

In the dark of space, on an EVA, you feel every movement. Have been trained to know what every turn, slip, motion, can do. I can’t pause too long, thinking I smell the lemongrass and cinnamon of her hair. How I used to wrap a ringlet around one finger as I kissed her shoulder. The scent rushed the air when she turned in her sleep, turned in my arms.

On station, the others speak around me. They want me to know they’re sorry. They want me to know they would never have chosen to be told, but they don’t say that part out loud. They are worried that grief will make me sloppy. They watch me like they would watch the steady beep of a monitor, waiting for the flatline.

Once while training in the NBL, submerged under tons of water, I stared up and could barely see the ceiling lights. I told her about it that night, told her about the way the weight of water never felt like anything until you tried to move after. How everything then felt heavy. She said, how strange to suddenly remember your body. What is it like to forget a body? To know the weight of someone on you, in your arms, and to lose that memory? I wondered if I could practice remembering, teach my body to hold her gone-shape like a phantom limb.

Earth comes into view as the station rotates. I wonder if I stay still too long, if I look like I’m concentrating, if they’ll let me pause long enough to see where she might have been just a week before. Just a year ago. Just some time when I could go home to her. When I could wrap my arms around her, feel her heart beating, tell her I carry her when I’m an impossible distance from her. I carry. There’s not enough weight out here for my arms to feel so heavy.

 


CHLOE N. CLARK is the author of Collective Gravities, Your Strange Fortune, and more. Her forthcoming collections include Escaping the Body and Every Song a Vengeance. She is a founding co-EIC of Cotton Xenomorph.

 

Featured image by NASA courtesy of Unsplash

 

Author’s Note

It’s hard to know when a piece is done, but with this story I knew it was basically where I wanted it to be as soon as I finished writing it. A rare gift in writing and one I often second guess. “Buoyancy” started in a writing challenge. The wonderful Monet Thomas has been running sex writing challenges for several years and I always sign up for them. Having the strict parameters often pushes my writing in interesting ways, with a goal to finish a piece within the month the challenge takes place.

The challenge that spawned “Buoyancy” was to write a piece containing sex and all five senses. I’ve always been someone who bombastically embraces the senses but the idea of getting a concrete sense (don’t pardon the pun, it’s always intended) of all five of them into one very short piece was the kind of puzzle that makes my brain gleeful.

While this challenge was the impetus, there’s still the spark of a story that’s needed. For me, this came from a few different places. The first is that I love writing stories about astronauts—highly competent people in situations that require precision and control while experiencing something very few people get to witness—the expanse of the universe, the weightlessness of space. The second was something my partner, who works in the space industry, had mentioned to me: that astronauts who have been in space will often come back to Earth and still be in the mindset of being gravity-free, they’ll drop things because they’re used to the objects staying floating in the air. What, I wondered, is it like to be conscious of being weightless?

For me, the senses have always been a way of grounding myself. They have their own weight, the way they anchor us to some memories. With this in mind, blending the five senses into the story became much easier. Each moment of a sense needed to have an anchor to it, something that connected the main character to the person they loved.

The final piece of the writing came with the first line. Once I knew the main character was carrying the weight of someone they had lost and what that might mean when you can’t feel any weight at all, the story mostly wrote itself. That’s also a gift in writing I never take for granted, a weightlessness in itself.

 


CHLOE N. CLARK is the author of Collective Gravities, Your Strange Fortune, and more. Her forthcoming collections include Escaping the Body and Every Song a Vengeance. She is a founding co-EIC of Cotton Xenomorph.