The first time I saw him he was walking away from me. We were in a grassy park surrounded by dense pockets of trees. It was like a golf course, but wilder. I gazed at his back and traced its outline with my eyes; mapping where the dark burgundy of his shirt stopped and the blue of the sky started. He was a big man but he had a way of thrusting his neck forwards when he was being particularly passionate about something. I saw his arms rise and fall and draw confident arcs in the air. I thought he was one of those ignorant people who had no idea – or pretended to have none – that they behaved in outrageously self-aggrandising ways and I prepared myself to dislike him. My father heard me coming and turned around. He quickly turned around as well. My father smiled. “Charlie, this is Aksel.” He had the most extraordinary face; it seemed to shift from one emotion to another effortlessly like the motion of waves. It was so alive. I wanted to record every one of its movements with my hands like a blind woman. Only to see if it really would feel like the soft ripplings of water. Right then his face broke into a smile as he brought his hands up to make a sign. My father laughed. “He’s very happy to finally meet you and not very happy with me to have kept him waiting.” I smiled awkwardly. This warmth was unexpected and I didn’t quite know how to react to it yet. Also, I knew who he was now. I recognised him. He was the first deaf astronaut.
This is as widely known as can be. Becoming an astronaut is hard. I would have thought it was impossible for a deaf person. But he was there, in photographs, videos, floating against the pallor of the inside of the ISS with his hands constantly moving beside him. He was undeniably there. And I hated my father in that moment for having us meet. I had failed my training. I had not gone up. I had not become an astronaut. And he had. Despite my almost fanatic passion and exertion I had not passed the training. And he had. Therefore he was better than me, he was everything I was not, and he did all that I couldn’t do while deaf. His presence felt like a terrible pain, as if someone had carved a part of me away and had whittled me down to a stump; barely able to walk or talk. I tagged along behind them miserably for the rest of the evening. My father would occasionally translate some of his comments; usually funny ones. I would smile tightly. When it was time for us to go he turned to me and gestured.
I would like to see you again.
He was looking at me, no longer smiling, his face still and alert. I smiled and nodded.
“I’m not going to see him again. Why are you doing this?” I turned to my father angrily as we walked towards our respective cars. “It won’t do you any harm, Charlie. Talking to him might feel better.” “No, it felt worse. I don’t want to think about it, dad. That’s how I cope with things and it’s healthy for me. Don’t give me any psycho-bullshit about how I need to experience the pain. It’s just a rejection.” My father shrugged and patted my arm before walking off to his car.
I drove myself mad. I couldn’t stop thinking about him. I would forget what his face looked like and then suddenly remember it and examine it in my mind. Despite all my conversations with my father I thought, I hoped, that he would make me feel better. I thought this guiltily, as if the mere thought of it would chase away all possibility of it really happening. I hadn’t slept properly for weeks, and now night-time became even more chaotic and worrying. Everything is different at night, you become a different person. A neurotic, paranoid version of yourself. I tortured myself by alternately hoping, and then ridiculing myself for hoping, that he would change everything and change me. I found his letter outside my door on a crisp day. It was bright and clean outside and the green of the trees was fresh and dark in the clear silence. I imagined him lying curled on the grass lit up by the golden light of the sun. I imagined his body fluttering with small movements while the grass grew and withered, grew and withered; and diminish till it became part of the earth.
He asked me to meet him by the banks of a river. I recognised it. I used to go there often and it was a quiet place. We lay on the banks and stared at the sky. The water lay lifeless at our feet and the sky stretched lazily overhead. Everything was calm. Tame. He began to speak and I couldn’t understand him at first but that didn’t seem to matter. And then I slowly began to see, in flashes at first and then more and more; his hands moved confidently and surely. They drew pictures and bright movements, leaving traces of colours in the air behind them. I could smell the wet smell of the earth. He seemed to be telling me about everything. His hands were dancers in themselves and his face moved with them, letting out noises which became the howling of wind and the sounds of showers of meteors.
It began to get dark. He sat up and looked at the water and the night sky reflected in it. The water was silky and soft against my back and blacker than anything I had known. I moved in it, curving like a fish. It was so dark that the sky seemed to descend and curve itself around me and I was no longer separate from it. I looked into the black, bottomless waters and felt a sense of wonder. They hadn’t made him to speak. They had made him to see stars and speak to them. They had made him like the air and the sea and the galaxies. The water splashed and became alive as his hands rose and fell in it.
The grass began to sprout. The earth changed and a shape could be seen in it. It grew and fluctuated, filled out and soft hair sprang up. It changed colours like the sky and eyelashes brushed the cheeks.
He opened his eyes.