Elena Robidoux

It was strange to consider just how much of Claudia’s life was spent behind glass. She had been a tollbooth operator for the Ohio Turnpike and Infrastructure Commission in the Berea Township for exactly four years, and had not once contemplated suicide. There was something oddly stimulating to Claudia about the position. It allowed her to interact with hundreds of people on a daily basis without feeling vulnerable. Each new harried commuter that pulled up outside her window, telling their kids to go shut the fuck up, gulping down the last lukewarm swig of a coffee or fighting the white noise of the car stereo, was there out of necessity, paying her in change, but never any mind. Simple. Fast. Predictable. She liked her job. She liked people. She liked being visibly invisible, most days.

By far the best part of Claudia’s day was her commute home from work: a seated Hajj down a black expanse of smooth asphalt. 48 minutes to contemplate nothing and everything. Claudia watched the white rectangles she passed on the highway expand and recede like a flipbook. Hypnotic. She thought about layers, about the ground, about matter, about what the highway had looked like before with trees and twigs and possibly wet ferns and slugs whose ooze glistened like glitter glue pens on black construction paper. She cracked the window open, just enough to slip a postcard through. Today the sky was a grey tarp that had been slit open along the sides to let the sun breathe. A dying ray shined down on Claudia’s bare arm loosely gripping the wheel, momentarily warming her skin, which was the tint of a sepia photograph. The sharp whistle of the wind and the drizzle of water coming in through her window signaled to Claudia that it had started to rain. Claudia liked when it rained. The squeaky metronome of the windshield wipers erasing raindrops calmed her nerves, structured her thoughts.

Beep. Beeeeep. Beep.

Claudia wondered how long the light had been green.

* * *

Claudia slipped noiselessly down Collins Street, which showcased a roundabout cul-de-sac in the shape of a lima bean. Her sterile condo overlooked a series of other sterile condos and a dark green communal dumpster. Claudia turned off the ignition and stepped outside into the mugginess. The streets were sweating.

She opened the cupboard and grabbed a can of wet food for June, slipping off her tan clogs, mesh vest and overcoat in the process. She poured herself a generously sized glass of wine and grabbed a slice of Swiss cheese from the fridge, rolling it up like a yoga mat and holding it still in her mouth while she scanned the living room for the remote. Her apartment was relatively clean, aside from the stack of mail solicitations and stale pizza crust that lay scattered across the kitchen counter.

Just as Claudia was about to masturbate she heard a faint knock at the door, followed by a “Hey, Claude, it’s Hugh! I finally finished that book you wanted to borrow. Probably could’ve written it in the time!”

“It’s unlocked,” Claudia shouted, quickly buttoning her corduroys and throwing away all evidence of gluttony. The comment was unnecessary. Hugh had already let himself in.

Hugh Colby lived in the downstairs apartment. He was considerably lean with rimless glasses and a predisposition to toothless smiles. Claudia had rear-ended Hugh a little over a year ago outside of a convenience store. In a frantic attempt to compensate for the bruise to his Volvo, she had begun to hyperventilate, emptying out the contents of her purse like a child would a plastic Halloween jack-o-lantern. Hugh had found this to be terribly amusing: “Whoa there, simmer down, Sister Brown! You showed this junky jalopy who’s boss. It’s about time she got reprimanded,” he had joked. In their messy exchange of personal info, both had figured out that they shared the same apartment complex. Claudia didn’t know what it was, but something about Hugh seemed to tranquilize her anxiety. It didn’t take long for their friendship to become domestic.

“Claude, it’s not so great. My life right now, I mean,” Hugh said, plopping down on her beige armchair and effectively laminating the pile of magazines on top in the process.

“Sorry if I don’t move. I’m exhausted. Just start talking at me and I’ll listen.” Something about the way Hugh told stories was rushed and abridged—crosses between police logs and sticky notes. He quickly launched into a story about an e-mail he had received this afternoon from his ex-girlfriend. He waved the e-mail uncontrollably during his retelling, welcoming any and all paper cuts. He’d talked about her many times before; he still loved her, this stunning, free-spirited girl. Claudia watched from a metal barstool, sipping the maroon liquid to hide her disappointment. She thought about Hugh’s ex, about the e-mail, and about Hugh’s inability to digest it any of it. He was here. She was the first person he chose to tell. Didn’t that count for something? She wore a look of concern while her insides smiled.  

“I just don’t get it Claude, I’ve been trying to reel her back in for months, baiting her. She’s a fucking salmon trying to swim upstream or some shit. I swear. Just when I think I have a nibble she sends this. First she writes that she loves me, but that love is a complicated animal that isn’t so much the result of the person but of the time they have spent together. What does that even mean?” Hugh examined the paper like it had just come out of the printer, groping the edges loosely with his fingers so as not to smudge the ink. Claudia admired Hugh’s performativity. He seemed to enliven even the most trivial of realities, something Claudia had been trying to do for quite sometime. Her attempts were all mental, half-hearted at best. She liked having an actor around to bridge the divide.

Hugh gazed hard at the off-white wall, as if trying to project his thoughts onto it.

“Will you get me another glass of water? Please,” Claudia said, trying to pull him out of his reverie. Part of him always seemed to be on autopilot. As he walked past the counter she touched her hands to her arms and looked down at the counter. She was glowing from the wine and the prospect.  

“Your agua, Madame,” he said, setting the glass down on cold granite and resting his arm lovingly on her shoulder.


“So I’m going to ask you a favor. Don’t feel like you have to say yes, although you should. Come to dinner with my dad and me tomorrow night at La Hormiga. You know, that Mexican dive restaurant on Main with the great jalapeño cheese dip and six-dollar margaritas.”

Claudia chugged her water, curious as to why Hugh wanted her, the platonic neighbor, to meet his dad. She assumed it had something to do with the recent e-mail, with the fact that his lead actress had called out. In any regard, she was flattered to be named understudy, and tried not come off as too eager.

“I’ll go, but on one condition: you come visit me at work sometime.”

“Ha, you sure? It’s sort of out of the way…wouldn’t want to hold up traffic.” He smiled, his dimples bracketing his mouth.

“No, no. It’ll be something to look forward to. Make sure it’s a surprise though,” Claudia asserted, as she traced her index finger along the rim of her glass. Hugh laughed.

“Sure, Claude. Whatever blows your hair back.”

He stood up from the chair and watched the leather reflate to its original form.

“Hey, breakfast tomorrow? I have eggs, do you? I’ll bring eggs. We’ll have eggs! Sleep tight neighbor.” He left her apartment, shutting the door so lightly that Claudia wondered if it had even shut completely. In the shower, she let the steam fill the room, clouding the glass encasing with a layer of moisture. She felt safe.

* * *

In the morning Hugh knocked at the door out of courtesy, but impatience got the best of him. Noticing that she wasn’t in the living room, he made his way towards her kitchen.

“You have the better skillet!” he hollered from the fridge, unwrapping a loaf of sourdough and rummaging for the milk. “I still can’t believe you buy skim, Claude. That stuff is essentially water.”

Hearing the commotion, Claudia scrambled out of bed, and stood disoriented in the kitchen doorway.

“Holy hell,” Hugh said. “Forget breakfast, I’ll put on a pot of jitter juice.”

Claudia didn’t need a mirror to tell her how she looked: matted, damp hair, puffed, baggy eyes, and almost certainly a splotchy imprint on her forehead from using her arm as a pillow. Hugh took her hand and beckoned her over to the bar stool.

“Come here, pop a squat. Tell me what’s what. I’m sorry I barged in here like the Kool-Aid man last night and didn’t even ask you why you were so run down. Tell me.” Hugh started opening the blinds to let in the sun, realizing midway that it was gloomy. He abandoned the blind, leaving it misshapen at a 45-degree angle.

“Still seeing what’s-his-name?”

“Nah, it’s not really that,” Claudia admitted. Hugh was referring to her next-door neighbor. They had been sleeping together on and off for the past couple of months, pretending that they wouldn’t rather be seeing other people. He was nobody, a body if anything.

“You know when you’re just biding time, waiting for something to happen, and in doing so you just hope that the universe will take the initiative?”

“I know that same feeling, Claude! It’s what I was getting at last night, isn’t it? That’s what you’re referring to?”

“I mean, yeah. You’re who I’m referring to.”

Hugh nodded his head in obliviousness. She was translucent; he saw right through her.

* * *

On Friday evening Claudia and Hugh took the Volvo down to La Hormiga to meet his father, a squinty-eyed doctor. His big fluff of white hair reminded Claudia of a dandelion, the ones she’d collect as a kid and form into a fragile bouquet. Mr. Colby ordered the jalapeño dip, took one bite from a chip, and set the broken triangle on a napkin to his side.

“Hugh tells me you work in a toll booth. May I be so bold as to ask why?”

“Well, um, it’s just easy. No hassle. It’s um, actually quite nice, lots of people though. Just gets tiring, long days.” She hated having to affirm how bland she was.

“I see, I see. Yes, Hugh tells me you work too hard. You best be sure to relax sometimes. I hope you don’t take offense to this, but you look very tired.” She could tell by Mr. Colby’s delivery that his comment was genuine, or at least trying to be.

“I’ve been working on trying to rest,” Claudia mumbled. She pressed the rim of her margarita up to her lips, taking some salt crystals up off of the rim and waiting as they dissolved.

Hugh stayed relatively quiet throughout the dinner, as if supervising a date. Claudia wondered if he was watching her talk to his dad, or if he was watching his dad talk to her, and what sort of messages he was picking up from their exchange. When the server came back with doggy bags, Claudia thanked Hugh’s father for the meal and shook his hand with a loose grip.

“It’s been a real pleasure,” he said. “You’re a nice young lady, a very nice lady. Hugh is lucky to have such a nice neighbor.” Claudia hated being described as “nice.” It seemed so overused, so safe.

In the car on the way home, Claudia told Hugh that she liked his dad.

“I’m just glad he has a mental picture of you now,” he said. “I just couldn’t quite explain you to him.”

Claudia could tell from hearing this that she should be made to feel unique, indescribable, even. Yet it was more furtive and insulting than that. She had been asked to dinner to prove her own identity, to authenticate her own self-worth because Hugh hadn’t taken the time to see her, to remotely consider what type of person she really was. Claudia thought of all the people she came into contact with down at the tolls.  She thought about how she was only exposed to each of them for a period of roughly a few seconds. Snapshots. She thought about how little she knew about them, but how much from their brief encounters she would be able to say.

* * *

Later that night the other neighbor came over. Tim was a young divorcee who liked to downplay his bitterness with sarcasm. Claudia assumed by the way Tim acted that he was using her to evidence to his ex-wife how utterly unaffected he was by the divorce. She also thought that if he ex-wife actually met her, she would’ve thought the opposite. Regardless, Claudia felt numbed by dinner and thought that a casual fuck from Tim would at least make her feel like a person again. She was wrong.

“Hey, I thought you’d dropped off the earth or something!” Tim said with immediacy. “I sent you a few messages but you must not have seen them. It’s okay. I know how hectic shit is. I of all people should know, right? Ha. I can barely keep my head on straight. That Laurie, she just makes this so easy.”

Claudia immediately regretted her decision to call Tim over. She wasn’t in the mood to play fan girl. For someone with little self-assurance, she was often tasked with giving it out.

“Would you like a beer? I think I have a few left in the fridge.” The offer was directed more at herself.

“Yeah. Yeah, sure. Thanks.”

By the time Tim was subdued enough to get frisky, all sexual inclinations had been soured. Claudia felt embarrassed for calling him over, but she couldn’t ask him to leave because now she felt like she owed him something. When he started to kiss her neck she went along with it, the whole time envisioning her life as a sad montage of highways and wine.

* * *

Before parting ways, Hugh had asked Claudia if she would be interested in going up to Haddix Lake to help him collect water samples. Hugh was a specialist in freshwater ecology and was constantly making daytrips in and around the state. Although she was hesitant to go, she wanted affirmation that her thought process wasn’t jumping the gun, which was a possibility given the strength of the margaritas and all of Mr. Colby’s probing.

Late that afternoon, Hugh drove them both down a freeway south of town through a labyrinth of dirt roads to his research facility. He parked the Volvo in back and grabbed a black crate of vials and pH strips from the trunk. The sun was barely visible in the summer haze; it seemed out of focus. “It’s just a ways down here,” Hugh said. They trudged along the dirt slope towards the water to the soundtrack of cicadas and Hugh’s whistling. The ground was littered with fragments of glass, likely remnants from the late-night frivolities of hobos and high schoolers. Hugh stopped at the bridge of his tune to thank Claudia again for entertaining his dad. When they finally reached the edge of the lake, Hugh upturned the crate and sat down. It sunk easily into the muddy bank like a cookie cutter through dough. The grass around them was scratchy and high on all sides.

“You sure are quiet today, Claude. What’s your mind saying? Hmm?”

“I was just wondering if you’d thought anymore about that e-mail?”

Hugh looked off at the sky as a plane marked it with a loop of exhaust.

“I’m done fishing. I want something surefire, something attainable.” Claudia stood next to him, hopeful. Hugh began to drum on the crate.

“It’s so friggin’ hot out, isn’t it? It is. Let’s go swimming.” Claudia loved Hugh’s bursts of spontaneity, which compensated for her lack thereof. She though about how maybe all of this exposure time with Hugh would make her picture a little more interesting, a little more developed.

Hugh began untying his shoelaces, which were as limp as ramen noodles from contact with the wet ground. He peeled off his socks, shirt, and khakis, then waded into the water. Claudia followed, discarding her jean shorts and tee on the gritty shore. The water felt tepid, like milk.

“It’s…refreshing,” Claudia said. She waded toward Hugh as if by magnetic pull. For once, she felt bold. She faced him straight on, standing waist deep in the water, knees wobbling from the uneven subsurface. To her dismay, there was nothing remotely romantic about the cesspool. She looked around at the low-hanging clouds of gnats and brown water and tried to imagine a better scene. In her mind, she and Hugh had just re-entered a warm bath.

“Claudia, if I didn’t know any better, I’d say you were trying to kiss me.” She took his observation as a cue and leaned forward, pressing her lips together with his. They were cracked, but gentle. Suddenly Hugh broke the moment, dunking down beneath the surface and coming up strong with his hair plastered to his scalp. He pinched his nose momentarily and blew out the excess. At this point Claudia just wanted closure. But more than that, she wanted to sink down into the muck and have the lake freeze over.

“Hugh, in all honesty, what do you think of me? Do you think I’m awkward or something…?”

“Well, I think you’re whimsical in your awkwardness.”

“Oh. Care to elaborate?”

She waited for Hugh to confirm what she had believed all along.

“I dunno. You’re just so difficult to place. Being with you is like, talking to glass mirror or something. Like, you just listen and stare and listen more and don’t really ever say anything. But that’s what I like about talking to you. Sometimes I think I’m losing it, Claude, but you make me see myself clearer. You’re just a presence. But a good one, you know, in a Zen-ish sort of way.”

It took her a while to process the words, so slow, like watching something online with a poor Internet connection; there was a lag time between his mouth’s movements and the audio. She wanted to yell out, to rewind everything. She wanted him to capture the words that swarmed around her like porch moths around light.

“Right. Thanks for clarifying,” she said.

* * *

“One dollar. One dollar. One dollar. That’ll be one dollar.”

After a while Claudia just let them read the sign. They all could just spare her the trouble and ride through without charge, for all she cared. Today she felt amnesic; everyone was faceless.

“Fucking go, Mac! We’ve all got places to be!”

Claudia snapped back to a series of loud car horns and realized her mechanical arm had stopped working. How long had she been motionless? She looked at the window, only to see Tim, the other neighbor, literally parked in her lane. She had been drunk the last time she had talked to Tim, and could not guess for the life of her what he was doing.

“Tim, what are you doing?” she said. “You’re holding up traffic.”

He looked as though his seatbelt was the only thing confining him to his seat. His eyes were wide and earnest.

“You haven’t been too responsive lately, so I thought I’d come by in person and check in. Would you want to come by my place for spaghetti tonight? I don’t know if you like Italian as much as Laurie, but I thought I’d offer.”

“Sure, Tim. Sure. Just please keep going,” she yelled against the symphony of car horns. Tim nodded. “’Round seven!” he called back, rolling up his window and speeding off down the lane. In a matter of seconds the line quickly resumed, bringing with it a series of agitated faces. Claudia sighed and brought the sleeve of her shirt to the window; it was chilly this morning and the glass had started to fog.

* * *

It was almost 8:00 by the time Claudia arrived at Tim’s apartment. He had it neatly organized with a leather couch pressed up against his back wall and an etching of a mallard above the mantle. The remotes on his wooden side table were arranged in ascending order from smallest to largest. To the right of them was a ceramic ashtray and a crossword, half-finished. The place smelled like a mixture of conifers, cigarettes and marinara sauce, scents of compulsion and yearning. Bill Evans was playing.

Claudia sat at the bar while Tim prepared the meal. She was still hurting from what had transpired at the lake and would rather have ordered take-out. Engaging with anything other than June at this moment in her life was a chore. She hadn’t spoken to Hugh since.  

“Rough day?” Tim said, breaking the stack of raw spaghetti in half like sticks and dropping them cautiously into the foaming pot. He put on a cover and reduced the heat to medium-low, letting out a breath of accomplishment.

“Understatement,” Claudia said, forgetting to feign emotion.

“I’m very sorry to hear that. Would you mind giving the sauce a stir? I have to use the restroom.”

Claudia agreed. She walked over to the stove and hovered momentarily by the pot. She stared down at the clumpy red puddle, stagnating there, bubbling, begging to be stirred. She empathized with the sauce. After giving it a quick go round, she sat back at the bar. When Tim got out of the bathroom, he looked puzzled.

“Didn’t you say you were going to stir the sauce?” he said, grabbing a paper towel to dry his hands.

“And I did…” she responded, with a hint of annoyance.

“Sorry, I just put a lot of time into it. It’s puttanesca, my great-aunt’s recipe. I didn’t want it to burn.”

“I literally just sat down, Tim. I stirred it. Relax.”

“Okay, yeah I should have specified for how long. I just want it to taste its best. Do you like the music? If jazz isn’t your thing I have other CDs, and Sirus radio, or…”

“You know what Tim, I’m really not up to this tonight, whatever this is.” Claudia didn’t understand why Tim was being so anal. She motioned for her coat that was draped around the seat, accidentally knocking another jar of homemade sauce onto the hard linoleum. The glass container shattered, sending sauce and shards dispersing in all directions in what looked like a crime scene.

“I-I-I’m so sorry, Tim. I think this is a sign I should leave.”

“No, it’s re—”

“Tim, it’s my fault. I’ve got it.”

Claudia knelt on the ground and began cleaning up the mess. There was so much sauce on the floor and Tim’s shitty paper towels did more guiding than cleaning. The floor looked pinkish once all of the sauce and glass was finally mopped up. Claudia apologized again and put on her jacket with haste.

“I appreciate the invitation, Tim. But don’t feel bad for me. I know what we are, so lets stop pretending this is more than it is.”

“Come on, Claudia, please stay,” he pined. “I went to all this trouble. Sometimes I just can’t get through to you.”

Elena Robidoux (1993) is a writer of prose poetry and creative nonfiction from Boston. Her work has been featured in Pulp Metal Magazine, Wu-Wei Fashion Mag, Purple Pig Lit, Potluck Magazine, and Jerkpoet.

Unreality House is on Tumblr, Twitter, and Facebook.

Photo by Jason Pratt (Creative Commons)

Night on Earth

A day with my friend on Earth

Luke Demetrios

I woke up and lay in bed checking social on the ceiling. I thought about people who used to drop their phones on their faces.

I paused for a long time on a photo of Ali Wheeler in a bikini. I realized my friend was awake, lying on the floor, and I asked him if he took any celebrity feeds. He said NerdGirls, which he pays for because that makes him feel better about it. I told him it bored me to look at girls who weren’t famous and who I wasn’t likely to meet. I couldn’t see him, but I imagine he shrugged.

We talked about our options for the day. He suggested going to see a 2D movie called The Blair Witch Project at a revival house, but I said I wanted to see Mars Terror. He said he assumed I wouldn’t want to see that, but I assured him I could separate the faithfully simulated colony from the fictional events that took place there in the movie. We agreed to see it at 1:00.

I went to the kitchen to get breakfast, and I saw that in the living room my dad was playing guitar and watching the California water riots. He was playing one of his country songs and singing quietly. I got toast for myself and cereal for my friend and went back to my room.

We spent the morning reading. I was glad when my friend finished his cereal, because I find his slurping disgusting. I’ve told him this. He was reading a school lesson on physics, and I was reading academic papers on interplanetary life support systems.

At noon we got dressed and walked out to the theater. We stopped at Rumbas Deli and bought falafel and a 200 mL bottle of Bacardi 151. At the theater, we bought a Coke and I went into a toilet stall and poured a lot of the rum into the cup. I wondered whether everyone assumes that’s what you’ve been doing when you emerge from a bathroom stall with a cup of Coke.

After the movie, my friend asked if I was scared. I said no, that an extraterrestrial intelligence was the least plausible plot element with which to try to scare someone who was going to Mars. I told him that a condition that killed you over a period of three to five years due to the buildup of micro-granules of sand in your lungs would have been a much more plausible and frightening plot development, though we agreed that wouldn’t have been as entertaining to simulate.

We walked to Central Park. A community orchestra was playing Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, and we laid down on a hill where we could hear it distantly. Back where we were, no one was paying attention—they were talking and reading their social and making out. I thought about the crowd near the front, and I imagined someone crying. I also imagined someone extremely bored, and I imagined someone wanting to urinate.

We decided to finish the 151, so we went to a bodega and got another Coke. I looked at a direct from my mom, which said she was ordering pizza. I replied asking if my friend and I could have Cubans, and she said no, she’d already ordered. We walked home, drinking the Coke very quickly, and drunkenly ate pizza with my parents. I had a lot of questions to ask about the neighbors, for some reason. I thought the neighbors were a subject I could safely discuss drunkenly. I believe I was correct.

After dinner we passed out in my room, and when we woke up I checked my invites. There was a party at the apartment of this girl I knew freshman year. My friend agreed that was our best option. I showered, and my friend asked me to give him a wet washcloth so he could take a sponge bath. I told him I didn’t think that would work, but where we were going probably no one would care. We said goodbye to my parents and walked out, stopping at a bodega for some Adderall.

We were early to the party, and the girl hosting the party offered us alcarettes. I said that seemed appropriately freshman, and took one out on the porch. Some guys were about to tap the keg out there, and I looked out at the street and said that a keg in that location didn’t seem sustainable. They agreed, and moved it inside.

The girl hosting the party and I talked about old times, and I realized there was a better-than-expected chance we might hook up later. I backed off and walked around the party, looking for someone to talk to. Some girls were trying to start dancing way too early in the living room, and the keg guys were playing Beirut in the dining room. My friend was hanging on the edges of the dance party, and I asked how he was doing. He said good, and I went to go read the titles on the bookshelf. The books were ordered by color.

I leaned against the wall and watched the dance party. There was no one I wanted to talk to. I was bored. I counted the days until liftoff, and realized that it was fewer than 30. Right then, I was ready to go. I would have packed my bag and left for Mars that night. I knew that I would miss Earth when it was gone, but in that moment, I couldn’t feel sad.

Unreality House is on Tumblr, Twitter, and Facebook.

Photo by Lotus Carroll (Creative Commons)


The things we carry…into space

Abby Knapp

Proponents of “living small” will appreciate our interplanetary lifestyle. We each have a “room” barely big enough to fit our own bodies in, and we were each allowed one carry-on when boarding the Ibn Battutah. Just one. On the up-side, all luggage fees have been paid by the MacArthur Foundation.

A few days in, we had a show-and-tell session where each of us revealed what it was we chose to bring. We’d discussed our choices extensively before take-off, but for lack of anything more compelling to do out here in the void, we opened our suitcases (standard issue) and each displayed at least some of their contents.

Interestingly, each of us brought at least one book. It seems like a waste of weight to launch hard copies into orbit, but we’re all writers, and we all turn out to have physical books that are important to us. I brought a signed Housekeeping first edition that I bought in Iowa. Rona brought a Clive Irwin poetry book, the first book her press ever published. Amber has her favorite issue of the Stars & Bleeding Hearts comic.

We also each brought at least one piece of clothing. I brought my favorite sweater. Emma brought lingerie—she doesn’t like the government-issued underwear. Scott brought a scarf. Apparently clothes are brought very commonly, and there’s practically a thrift store’s worth at the colony already. One colonist is trying to crowd-fund her own clothing line using synthetic fabrics, although there’s no immediate prospect of anything other than Martian crust samples being shipped back to Earth.

Luke actually brought less than his allotment would have allowed: a physics reference book, seven copies of his favorite hat, and something he says his mom asked him to bring that he doesn’t want to share with us.

Rona brought a piece of Earth: specifically, a rock. She says she deliberately didn’t try to choose a special rock. She walked down to the bank of the Mississippi River and picked up the first hand-size rock she noticed. Choosing a rock that looked unusual or that had special value, she said, would just have reminded her of humans’ problematic relationship to their home planet.

I chose my belongings—the bag of items that now, for all practical purposes, are my only belongings in the world—by process of elimination. I piled all the things I thought I might want to bring into a heap on the living room floor, and one by one I removed the least essential items. When I was left with enough to fit into my bag under the 20-pound limit, I packed it up.

It was liberating to free myself of all the detritus that seemed so essential to my life for 30 years. I don’t need keys any more, or a phone, or a wallet or a purse. I don’t need furniture. I don’t need jewelry. I could have brought some—Rona and Amber and Emma did—but there will never again be an expectation that I’ll have a necklace or earrings to wear to an event.

Of course, we’ll find new trappings to cling to on Mars. Within a few years, we’ll be able to have almost anything on Mars that we had on Earth and that we really want. We just won’t be able to have everything, we’re told—as if, on Earth, we ever could have.

Unreality House is on Tumblr, Twitter, and Facebook.


Yeah, because we’re so totally normal

Emma Collins

Hey, y’all, how’s it going? It’s Saturday morning for you. I’m writing this in the bubble, trying to be social instead of squirreling away in my room like we mostly do when we want to write something. It’s weird to look out the window at the sun and think that’s the same sun that’s shining down on brunches in Brooklyn, on playgrounds in Cleveland, on beaches in San Diego. It’s also incrementally baking the human race alive, so…six of one, half a dozen of the other, I guess.

The funniest thing I read this week was a community post on Five Years arguing that we’re the first crew of truly “normal” people going to Mars. “Ironically, this specialized crew of writers are the first people I can really relate to. Maybe it’s just because they can express themselves, but they seem like a nice change from the square-jawed space heroes and noble, boring educators who usually get shipped off.”

Yeah, we’re normal, I guess. For sure the most different thing about us, compared to you back on Earth, is just that we’re here. Here’s some more irony, though: “normal” was never anything that any of us, I think, was ever called back on Earth. We had to board an inflatable spaceship to Mars to start seeming like, whatever, just normal folks.

Now that we’re here, we do everything we can to try to make our lives seem normal—like, Earth-normal. We have movie nights and snack on these salty chips that are the closest thing to popcorn we can make. We have what Rona calls “family dinners.” We make artificial nights and artificial days.

One reason I decided to go to Mars is that it seemed like when I lived on Earth, I was really just living on the Internet anyway. It seemed like the most important people in my life were my Internet friends—and you are, you are you are, but the longer we’re up here, the more I realize that I had a life on Earth too.

I still have my Internet life, and now I’ll have a new life on another planet—which is thrilling, and what I thought I always wanted—but I find myself thinking back on stupid things that I’ll never have again. Things like brunch on a patio, like having a whole house to myself, like losing myself in a crowd of people who don’t know who I am. Like bowling at a grotty old bowling alley, with shoes full of fungus and drinks that are weak but it’s all okay because you have someone to kiss.

I’ll have someone to kiss again, I know. Maybe someday my life on Earth will seem like a relationship that you don’t think you could ever live without until suddenly you realize that you can, and in fact you’re better off. Maybe someday I’ll look back on it like high school: so important at the time because it was all you knew, but in the grand scheme of things, really just a passing phase of your life.

The phase of my life that took place on Earth has passed, and I think I’ll get over it. Right now, though, I miss it. I want to hug it to me like a pillow wrapped in a t-shirt from a homecoming game that was lost years ago.

Unreality House is on Tumblr, Twitter, and Facebook.

Photo by Ginny (Creative Commons)

UN Flag

In praise of internationalism

Rona Boyle

Since the terms of our funding require this mission to comprise exclusively American crew members, I feel it’s important to state as plainly and as publicly as possible, on behalf of our entire crew, that we applaud the spirit of internationalism that has thus far characterized the process of Martian settlement. We hope it continues.

Writers have always been acutely aware of the poignant contradictions of nationalism.

On the one hand, we celebrate the parochial spirit in our art: we compile anthologies and teach classes on “American literature” or “Russian literature” or even “New York writing.” There are ample constructive reasons to do so: the best writing has always been rooted firmly in place and time, and regional networks of writers support and challenge one another. Even so, we’re painfully aware of the potential such activity has to encourage those who would valorize one “national character” over others.

On the other hand, we recognize the unique ability of literature to bridge barriers of space (as it were), time, and language. What is so specific to place and era as the writing of Chekhov—and at the same time, what is so universal? Shakespeare’s plays, like the music of Bach, have been reproduced and reinterpreted innumerable times precisely because those quintessentially Elizabethan works of literature carry such timeless insight into the universal human character.

It’s both apt and ironic, then, that the first Martian crew consisting entirely of writers also consists entirely of American writers. What a strange situation we now find ourselves in, both as humans and as artists: is the writing we produce to be counted as “American literature,” or should it now belong to an emerging “literature of space” or even “Martian literature”? The simple fact that I’m the first black writer to go into space makes this humble post, by definition, an important work of African-American literature—and yet, from here inside our tiny vessel on an interplanetary path, such a distinction somehow also seems utterly absurd.

I like to tell people that my high school—the Baldwin School in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania—had no cliques because it was simply too small to accommodate such petty rivalries. Try as you might to exclude someone from your social circle, you could only do so for a short while before you inevitably found yourself working on a class project with her, or playing on her intramural sport team, or compelled by your mother to attend her birthday party. We all understood that maintaining the integrity of the whole was more important than defending any one little piece of social turf.

Thus far, the dynamic on Mars seems to have a similar quality. Of course there are short-lived tensions and disagreements, and the highly public nature of Martian life permits (indeed, seems to encourage) a sort of jostling for support in the vast public realm. Still, the bottom line is that one’s status as a Martian colonist is so much more overwhelmingly significant than any other status one might possibly have, and the stakes so high if relationships among the small number of settlers were to sour, that everyone seems to see reason at the end of the day—and no one goes to bed angry.

We can only hope that this spirit of empathy, good will, and sound reason continues to characterize relations among colonists as the population of Mars grows. Our lives may depend upon it.

Unreality House is on Tumblr, Twitter, and Facebook.

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Things you may not know about how our ship operates

Luke Demetrios

Thus far we haven’t much troubled to provide a detailed account of our ship’s functioning, because we’re aware of what a vast body of data you have available to you. After 16 prior successful missions, with videos and text constantly being transmitted back to Earth, those of you who care to know the workings of the Ibn Battutah can be practically as well-informed as we are. Still, there are some details you may not yet appreciate.

For example, you may not realize how much blood we’ve had floating around in zero-gee—unless, of course, you’ve been watching Scott’s vivid videos. Our small, sound-proof “rooms” provide a welcome escape from social interaction when we so desire (and we all often do), but after a time stopped up in a room, one tends to want to exercise large muscles and bounce about the bubble. As we’ve discovered on multiple occasions, for those still getting their “space legs,” this can be hazardous.

One of the most exhaustively well-documented aspects of the transit ships is their ability to reprocess liquid and solid waste into edible form. What has most surprised me about the system as it actually functions, though, is neither taste nor texture but the seeming inability of my shipmates to refrain from making scatological Captain Picard references while using the device.

There’s also the matter of graffiti. Since upon our arrival the bulk of the Ibn Battutah will be parked in orbit, at the end of a chain of prior transit vessels for potential emergency use only, there’s a sense among its crew that it will—indeed, should—function as a museum dedicated to the memory of our flight. Unsurprisingly given her profession, Amber has taken the lead on “customizing” her room with decorative markings. At Emma’s request, Amber has drawn on the walls of Emma’s room too. It seems inevitable that this practice will eventually spread to the public areas of the ship, though at present Captain Boyle (and NASA policy) forbids it.

Finally, you may be surprised—given the closeness of our quarters, and the several people packed into them—at how possible it is to move about the ship unnoticed. Here in my room, I have little sense of where my shipmates are; I can only presume they are for the most part where they were when I came into my room a short while ago. I can sense through vibrations when my immediate neighbors enter and exit their rooms, but I don’t know if anyone is entering and exiting with them—and I certainly have very little idea as to what’s happening on the other side of the interior stem. When all of us are in our rooms, as is the norm at night, a substantial amount of unobserved activity would be possible.

I’ve experienced this myself when, being unable to sleep, I’ve occasionally ventured out of my room at night to find myself alone in the bubble. With the interior lights deactivated, and my shipmates all stowed away, those have been the only occasions on which I’ve found myself truly enjoying the opportunity to look out onto the stars.

Unreality House is on Tumblr, Twitter, and Facebook.

Photo: NASA


In my defense

Emma Collins

I knew it would be like this. I’m the crazy fangirl. Because I can list all of Linnea Barnes’s 38 lovers offhand, I “don’t have a life.” Because I have opinions about autogen anime, I’ve lost touch with reality—but you’d still be happy to be stuck on a spaceship with me, because you find me physically attractive.

I have my own fantasies, yes—and one of the reasons for that is so I don’t need to be yours. I know what I want, and what I want is a complete set of Ding-Ding mysteries in hard copy. (I left them with my parents.) More importantly, what I want is friends—Internet friends, yes—who respect that, and respect me. If you respected me, you wouldn’t treat me like a slot machine, pulling my levers to see if I pay out.

I’m way over paying attention to trolls, but this isn’t about the active trolls—the ones who try to get my goat. This is about the passive trolls, the ones who comment publicly about me and simply don’t care whether I see or not. Don’t you understand that you’re just as bad? You’re worse, in a sense, because you’re not even pretending to engage me in a dialogue. You’re just talking trash about me, and you don’t care who hears, even if it’s me.

I’m flying away from all of you at a speed I can’t even comprehend, really, sealed up in my little chamber here, but you’ll always be with me. If I thought I couldn’t continue my online life as I settled on Mars, I wouldn’t be going. I need it way more than I need an IRL life on Earth, and you know that—or you should know that—and yet you comment about me as though being physically far away (and kind of famous now, I guess) makes me blind and deaf to you.

I’m scared. Of course, I was scared to be on Earth too, but at least there—at least, in the moment, from hour to hour and day to day—it’s possible to imagine that nothing will ever change. I was a frog in a frying pan, and the heat was turning up so slowly that I couldn’t feel myself fry. I can feel this—feel the weightlessness, feel the cold, feel the isolation.

There are five other people with me, yes, but it’s like having a shelf of five thick books: they feel infinite until you spend some time with them. I’m not saying that my shipmates are boring, I’m saying that they’re finite. So am I, and so are all of you, but I’ve spent my whole life among billions of you.

I need you—I need all of you—to keep my grip on reality here, okay? You’re all part of my universe, more important than you’ve ever been. Every like, every comment, every follow, it’s all meaningful. When I check back and see I have a few thousand notes, that reminds me that life is going on, and that I’m still a part of it.

I know a lot of you are jealous, and I’m not telling you not to be. I’m just asking you to please be compassionate. If this wasn’t me out here, it would be someone else. Would you rather it be someone else?

Don’t answer that.

Unreality House is on Tumblr, Twitter, and Facebook.


Bring on the interplanetary drama

Scott Kendall

Of course living on Mars will be like being on a reality show—that’s the main reason I’m going. Here are the ten people I’m most excited to hang out with.

10. Liz. Not just because People officially declared her the hottest person on Mars. I’m also interested in talking about her nonprofit aimed at funding Mars education in Earth schools. I 110% agree that kids should know all about a planet they’ll never get to go to.

9. Jim T. The only colonist who’s publicly requested a ride back to Earth if and when such transportation becomes available. I understand his reasons, but what I want to know is whether homesickness is really the most important reason—or whether this is really about his break-up with Ashley.

8. Ashley. Now that she’s single….

7. Imani. Everyone talks about Imani’s expertise in fighting infectious diseases, but what want to talk about is the fact that she’s the officially designated delivery doctor. What’s she going to do when the first Mars pregnancy occurs, and who is she betting it’ll be?

6. Isaac. The oldest man on Mars! Just six years from being the first-ever sexagenarian on the Red Planet! God willing this decision is still decades away, but…burn or bury, aren’t you curious?

5. Wei. Mars’s only officially certified rocket scientist. Has Jim asked him to build a ship that he can escape on? What does one bribe with on Mars, if not sexual favors?

4. Alice. The “crazy one,” according to Five Years. I think that’s a little harsh—just because she tried to plant a tree on Mars and made a one-woman show about it that she sold tickets to live-stream. That must have made her the richest person on Mars…now who’s crazy?

3. Stella. The only (formerly) professional writer on Mars, before our ship of fools arrives. Of course she says she’s retired, but it must be tempting to succumb to the demand for a sequel to her pseudonymous bodice-ripper. Sex in space: it’s the first, second, and third thing anyone ever asks about when they’re talking to a colonist. Stella could write the novel—ideally a thinly-veiled memoir—that could answer everyone’s questions and put the matter (so to speak) to rest.

2. Jacob. The sexy hydroponic farmer, runner-up to Liz in the hotness contest. How does he get that definition in his obliques? I was never much of a gym monkey before, but now that it’s doctor’s orders to work out at least two hours a day—an easy goal to meet, given that there’s nothing else to do up here—suddenly I’m following workout streams and flexing in the mirror. How can I stop being a weightless (75 pounds on Mars) weakling? Mars has plenty of sand for people to kick in my face, so I’m understandably nervous.

1. Charli. Who are you, Charli? In a Five Years poll, 67% of people say you don’t really exist, or that you died en routeand everyone is just covering for you. If I could get a Charli tell-all interview, my literary fame would be assured—or, at least, I could write something that would get 20 times as many readers as my novel did.

Unreality House is on Tumblr, Twitter, and Facebook.

Mars 3-6

Our new home on Mars

Rona Boyle

In Kim Stanley Robinson’s seminal space-exploration novel Red Mars, the initial group of settlers on the Red Planet number 100—evenly split between Americans and Russians. When the Ibn Battutah lands on Mars, our six crew members will raise the population of the planet to just over 100; to 102, to be precise. We can only hope that space elevators and vastly expanded lifespans will quickly follow, as they do in Red Mars.

Like Robinson’s characters, though, we have to dig down before we build up; the diplomatically-named International Mars Colony exists increasingly under the surface of Mars, where colonists and equipment can be shielded from radiation and other environmental hazards more readily than above the surface under a giant dome (if only!). In our lifetimes, we’re not likely to see the colony rise very far above its rows of sturdy barracks.

The colony is rapidly expanding, however—both down and out. Each month brings a new shipment of colonists, and a new shipment of equipment to aid with the expansion. As the colony expands, our hope is that its capacity will grow geometrically. Even at the current pace of settlement, in a decade the colony will number nearly a thousand; the most optimistic hopes are that it might grow as large as several times that size.

Looking beyond that, as President Rey has said, America’s hope is that children being born today will have the opportunity to become colonists if they set it as a life goal and work consistently towards that goal. By century’s end, our hope is that the International Mars Colony will have built the capacity to spawn its own colonies—perhaps on the moons of Jupiter. That’s as far as we dare hope, rushed as this entire process has been by the rapidly deteriorating situation on Earth.

For the time being, though, what will our lives on Mars be like? They’ll be full of work, first and foremost. Our work is as writers and creators, and we’ve been assured that allowances will be made for us to spend significant time at our vocation, even if, perhaps, not quite as much as we’ve been able to spend on Earth. While the colony is stable and growing, all hands are needed to maintain the hydroponic farm and to insure that expansion efforts continue apace—lest we find ourselves with unexpected roommates.

Speaking of unexpected roommates, I’ve been mildly surprised—though certainly not shocked—to see how salacious gossip from the colony has become a central subject of fascination on Earth (and, surely, even more so on Mars). Those who choose to follow Five Years and other, even less respectful, content streams are apparently able to stay up-to-the-minute regarding the vicissitudes of relationships among colonists. We’re already being treated as the newest additions to a rapidly-growing reality show cast.

Regarding this matter, I can only say that we’ve been strongly advised not to feed the beast with social media postings of an inappropriately personal manner, and I for one certainly intend to comply with that common-sense guideline.

Our new lives on Mars will be full of challenges, to be sure—both physical and psychological. I think I speak for my entire crew, though, when I say that we’re all excited to land and to play our landmark role in this exciting chapter of human space exploration.

Unreality House is on Tumblr, Twitter, and Facebook.

Image: NASA