That Tuesday, the mediator dropped in to the support group half an hour early. It was an accident. She still hadn’t set the clocks in her apartment back for Daylight Saving Time, and somewhere between reruns of Friends and half-boiled egg noodles, she overlooked the mistake and left immediately. If she’d been right about the time, she would have landed at the Houston YMCA basement half an hour into the meeting.
The basement flaunted signs of its neglect. Half the lights flickered and hummed like bug zappers. Most of the grout on the floor had chipped away, replaced by dirt, lint, loose hair. Chestnut-colored parabolas marked the seam where the ceiling met the wall. Rust or mold, she wasn’t sure. It might have been sweat permeating down from the Zumba class upstairs. For ten minutes, she listened to the thunder overhead like a rhythm-free bass line at a dive bar. She had never sat alone in the basement before. It was strangely comforting.
She barely noticed the first astronaut creeping into the room. He was one of the younger ones, middle-aged, maybe. An average weight with an average face and a better than average hairline. He wore a blue polo shirt tucked into khakis. He drank Starbucks.
Each movement was methodical, like someone sneaking by moonlight—weight lowered, shoulders over his toes, short and plodding steps. When he sat down, he exhaled a long, heavy breath. His eyes flicked past the mediator and fixed on the ladder in the corner of the room. Then his eyes flicked back to the floor.
“You’d think they’d fix those stairs,” he said. “They feel ready to collapse.”
“I think there’s an elevator on the other side of the basketball court,” she said.
He gritted his teeth.
“I’ve always thought elevators were like micro-shuttles,” he said. “You go up, up, up, up in a box without windows while numbers click away on a small screen. Dozens of buttons. An emergency switch. Even artificial air.”
She didn’t say anything else. Had she ever tried to make small talk with one of them before? At times like this, she wished she had a phone. At least then she could pretend to be texting someone. In her pocket, she had a crumpled up receipt from the grocery store. It didn’t list the items, only the price: $2.08, paid with credit. She unfurled the receipt, rolled it back up. Then she repeated those steps, logging a dozen repetitions in quick succession.
One by one, the rest of the astronauts arrived. Some followed the slow, clandestine movements of the first. Others strolled in, greeting familiar faces and dolling out canned observations about the weather or their families. Some smiled. Some even laughed.
The mediator put the receipt back in her pocket.
“Why don’t we get started,” she said.
All of the astronauts stared at the floor. Across the room, she made eye contact with a man who was hunched over his coffee, gripping it with both hands and gnawing at the Styrofoam cup.
“Jake, right?” she said. “Why don’t you start, Jake?”
His name wasn’t Jake. She knew that. Each week she liked to choose a new name and apply it to everyone. It was easier than remembering individual pseudonyms, and she had told the astronauts that it gave them an extra layer of anonymity. It facilitated discussion, and therefore healing.
But she wondered, did encouraging fantasies really stand in for service? And if it did, what was the threshold between healer and enabler? She could have been planting seasonal vegetables in a tucked away garden somewhere in the city. At least then something would come out of all the hours, even it if it only came around once every few months.
“Hey, Jake?” she said. “You must have something to share.”
He groaned, rolled his eyes, mumbled into his coffee cup. After another few seconds of mock protest, he stood up, cleared his throat, sipped his coffee, cleared his throat again.
“I went to see my daughter on Sunday,” he said. “She lives on the third floor, so I haven’t been to see her in about six months. I was feeling good though. The weather was nice. The Texans won. I wanted to give it a shot.”
The rest of the group leaned deeper into the circle, nodding with each detail.
“So I get to the building,” he went on. “And I tell myself I’m not going to overthink it. I’m just going to get to the third floor and I’ll be fine. I even made it up the first two flights of stairs, but then there was a window. I couldn’t help it. I had to look out. I shouldn’t have. I know that. But when I did, Jesus, I was eye-level with the top of an oak tree.”
She heard sniffles. This was not a surprise. One or more of them cried every week. Usually, the first tears didn’t fall until later in the meeting, after three or four of them had been given the chance to act out their narrative:
- Everyday life.
- Some unforeseen trial: air conditioner in the attic, meeting on the second floor, cat in a tree.
- An attempt to overcome the challenge: climb the stairs, make the meeting, save the cat.
Then the crying once they had reached the safety of the YMCA basement. She had never figured out what purpose the tears served. Was Jake crying for himself or so the audience could see him crying? Expression or spectacle? She wasn’t sure it made any difference.
She was fidgeting. How long had she been there? She figured the half hour head-start she had on the meeting had to count for something. Upstairs, the Zumba class had ended. Now she only heard gym shoes skirting over the floor.
“We should take a break,” she said. “Go ahead and get some coffee or use the bathroom. We’ll start back up soon.”
The crumpled receipt was back in her hand. This time it was damp and torn. She stuffed it in her pocket and went to the coffee station near the door. Folgers Instant and a carafe of lukewarm water. She didn’t know who had set it up. It was always just there. Maybe it had been abandoned by another support group earlier in the day, one with more hospitality. Maybe it was only their leftovers.
She was fumbling with a sugar packet when one of them crowded in beside her.
“I’m going to climb the ladder today, I think,” he said.
“Really?” she said. “That’s a big step.”
She wasn’t sure if that was true. It sounded true.
“I know,” he said. “I think it’s time. I think it would help me focus on the things I can actually control, you know? Not just the things that happen to me.”
She filled the Styrofoam cup with hot water. Only a small amount spilled onto the vinyl tablecloth. She knew exactly where the conversation was going. He would tell a story. Whether it was based in reality or not, she had no idea, but she had the same conversation with the same Jake every week. She couldn’t imagine anyone creative enough to make up stories about things so mundane. Maybe Jake was just more skilled at spotting and stowing away tiny catastrophes in his life.
“Like yesterday,” he went on. “I ordered a pour over, but instead of doing a pour over, the guy at Starbucks just used brewed coffee. Can you imagine?”
“I can’t,” she said, buoying the Folgers in the water.
“Exactly,” he said. “I didn’t say anything. I just went to work, but I couldn’t stop thinking about it. I should have yelled at him when he was making the coffee, or I should have asked for someone with more experience right from the start. I was so caught up with it that I walked right past my building.”
The coffee tasted like copper. She wished she had some cream to cut it with.
“So after work,” he said, “I had to take things back under my control, you know? I went to Starbucks and the same guy is still working. So I go up to him and grabbed him by his apron.”
Were any of the community gardens even still around? Maybe in that alley off Bissonnet where the Church of Helping Hands spent an entire summer cleaning up the trash and bottles and needles.
“And I said,” Jake went on, “if you ever fuck up my coffee again, I swear to God. I swear to God. I swear to God.”
What would they even grow there, in that alley? It couldn’t have been food. Maybe flowers. Something desperate people wouldn’t care about. Hadn’t there also been a garden on the other side of the Houston Zoo? A block away from the hospital. She used to walk by it.
“But then they made me leave,” Jake said. “And I asked if they knew I was an astronaut. They didn’t listen.”
Had he actually been one? Had any of them, or were they just, people? She toyed with this notion every week. All of it might have been part of the gimmick, but could their fear be real if their backstory was fake?
“But all that was out of my control,” he said. “You know?”
She put the coffee to her lips. A small stream trickled over her chin, onto her sweatshirt.
“It’s always better to focus on the things within reach,” she said, lifting words verbatim from a brochure she found on the bulletin board upstairs.
“I guess that’s what the ladder is for,” he said.
When the group came back together, one of the Jakes stood up.
“I’ll go next,” he said. “If that’s OK?”
“OK,” the mediator said.
“Well,” he began, “I used to have a good time on Earth. Parties, women, barbecues, golf with my buddies every Sunday. I had friends and family. I was a pilot. I mattered.”
Jake pinched his lips together, inhaled deep through his nostrils.
“Then I went up there,” he said, eyes to the ceiling. “The Earth was just floating, spinning, spinning. I wasn’t there anymore, but nothing changed. The Earth just kept spinning, like a merry-go-round without passengers. I was important, wasn’t I? I had a house and an Audi and a mailbox with my name on it, but the Earth is so enormous that I could just float away and nothing would change.”
Dramatic pause. The mediator’s eyes were fixed more or less on the floor.
“Ever since then,” he said, “the higher up I go, the less I matter.”
Murmurs of support oscillated through the circle. Next to the mediator, a man slumped forward in his chair and dropped his cigarette. A burst of tobacco spit out on the floor like specks of dirt.
“I used to think that,” Jake said. “But that isn’t it. When I got up there and looked out the window, you know what I did? I made a circle with my hands, like I was getting ready to catch a football, and I fit the entire planet in that circle. That’s when I realized how small the thing was. I knew that if I could travel farther, if I went up higher, the Earth would completely vanish. Now the farther I go from anything, the more it disappears.”
When he finished, his hands stayed poised in front of his face, miming the same shape that had encircled the planet. The other astronauts gawked at him, like children waiting on a magic trick that would never happen.
“Jake,” the mediator said. “Jake?”
He didn’t respond.
“What wrong with you?” she said.
A dozen faces snapped her way. Jake’s hands fell to his lap.
“I mean what’s wrong?” she said.
He didn’t answer. Another Jake stood up to speak, but the mediator wasn’t listening. After a few minutes, he finished his story. She glanced up, but he just sipped his coffee like someone well within the inertia of his everyday life. Could his story really have been so vacant? Or had she just not been paying enough attention? Even Jake seemed unmoved by his experience. But why wouldn’t he be? The past was never far except for when it was.
No one was speaking.
“Let’s get the ladder,” she said.
The astronauts shrieked and sprang from the circle, reciting a long list of complaints and protests, verging on outright rebellion.
The ladder wasn’t safe, they said.
It was missing pieces.
A janitor had been spotted tinkering with it.
Instead of climbing it, could they just lay it on the floor and jump over it?
She ignored them. When she dragged the ladder to the center of the basement, the groan of aluminum over tile drowned their protest. She unhinged the ladder, snapped the bracers in place.
“Who’s going first?” she asked.
No one moved.
No one ever moved.
She would wait. Five minutes, maybe ten. One or two of the astronauts might come within arm’s reach without any intentions of stepping foot on it. But, she knew that was the perfect place for them, almost-but-not-quite at the finish line. Who would they be without their recovery? Just average people with average houses and average jobs and averages lives. The shared focal point was the thing they cherished.
If she left as soon as the hour was up, she could catch the city connector to Bissonnet. She could probably walk the rest of the way to the garden before dusk turned. Did she even know where she was going? Maybe she could ask for directions. Maybe it had been shrubs or bushes that they planted.
Like clockwork, Jake stepped forward. He placed his hand on a rung at eye-level. The mediator wondered if it was the same man who had spoken to her by the coffee station. She couldn’t be sure. The basement was hot. She was tired. Had she eaten anything that morning?
Jake leapt forward and planted both feet on the bottom rung. He hugged the ladder with his eyes pinched shut. The rusted aluminum left a crimson smear across his cheek. The ladder shuttered, swayed.
The other astronauts grew frantic.
They yelled for help.
They yelled for him to come down.
One man fainted.
Another started dialling 911. He made it to “9,” then froze.
The mediator just stared, more curious than surprised. She peered around the circle. She took in who-knows-how-many faces blanched with terror—pantomimed or otherwise. She wanted to hate them. She wanted to be disgusted. How hard can a stepladder be to overcome? She couldn’t sustain enough energy to feel anything. They were so animate. Could someone be addicted to recovery? Not the state of being recovered, but the thrill of the path to it?
She was sweating. Was it that humid? Didn’t the basement have some ventilation? Why were they frenzying around? They felt so far away. Were they screaming or had she imagined that?
Jake’s grip loosened, then gave way. He slumped to the floor, but the rest of the group had him back on his feet instantly. They were cheering. Cheering. They hugged him. They congratulated each other. An ellipse formed. Each astronaut crossed his arms over the shoulder of the astronaut to his right and his left.
In twenty minutes the basement would be empty. The mediator wondered where they would all go. Did they ignore each other if they passed on the street? Eyes on the sidewalk. Feet moving forward. Were they strangers there? Or did the ruse go on?
The hour might have been up. She wasn’t paying attention. They were on the other side of the room. They might have been dancing now, but they were too far off for her to know. She felt like she was studying them through a telescope. If the hour was over, she was going to find one of those alleys and see what, if anything, was buried there.