Gravitational Pull: Fiction by Susan L. Lin

Honorable Mention, Adult Category

In one of my earliest memories, my sister Lulu lies facedown on the living room sofa while our mother leans over her prone body, liberally applying a topical medication behind her ears. The skin there is puffy and raw, an open wound. “Your zǐzǐ pointed at the moon, and look what happened,” our mother says to me, though her gaze never strays from the task at hand. “Now you will know never to do the same.” Lulu whimpers into the seat cushion, and when she tilts her head to peer up at me, there are tears in her eyes. My older sister is the toughest person I know, so I can only imagine how much the treatment must sting. 

“I know, I know,” our mother whispers, soothing Lulu with a comforting hand on her back. “I should have warned you sooner. That’s why we won’t make the same mistake with Lana. Right, Lana?” With those last words, she finally looks my way. 

I am brimming with questions I can’t yet articulate. Grownup questions about malevolence and intent. Scientific questions about the universe and our place in it. Insteadof asking what I can’t, I grant her a timid nod. “No pointing. Not ever.” 

“Good. You’re my good girl, Lana.” But her eyes have drifted off me again. She continues rubbing Lulu’s back as she says my name, whispering it into my sister’s bloodied ear. That night, I stare daggers at the moon, which is waxing crescent beyond my bedroom window. The thin sliver of light looks harmless, like a clipped toenail glowing up there in the sky. Despite my promise to my mother, some of my limbs remain insubordinate and rebellious. They have minds of their own. They want me to raise my left hand. They want me to point up at the cosmos beyond in unguarded wonder. Thankfully, my right hand knows better. I use it to pin my left wrist to my stomach, keeping all eight fingers out of the moon’s field of vision. There, in its blind spot, I’ll be safe. 

Years later, I discovered from my eighth grade science textbook that the same moon was also responsible for the formation of tides in oceans all over the world. This new nugget of information immediately piqued my interest. Our mother had never mentioned bodies of water before! I read on, hungry to find out more. Essentially, I learned, the moon’s gravitational pull generates a force strong enough to distort and elongate the shape of the Earth. This change is so minuscule that it would remain undetected without special instruments. But our oceans are more sensitive. We can see the effect of that slight shift in mass every time the beach tides roll in and out. 

This was fascinating stuff, but what I really wanted to know about were the scientific attributes that allowed our satellite moon to cause us bodily harm. From what little I knew in those days, I assumed invisible light rays or sound waves must be to blame—something none of us could see with the naked eye. Unfortunately, once I read past that section in the book, the text had moved on to a dull analysis of the sun’s effect on global weather patterns. 

No. That couldn’t be the end of it! Not when I had been so close to solving the greatest mystery of my childhood. 

I reread the page several times. The moon, the ocean, the distortion…blah blah blah. Paragraph after paragraph about the moon’s effect on our shorelines, but not a single word about its effect on little girls’ ears.

When the school bus deposited me back home that afternoon, the house was empty. Good. I dumped my backpack on my bed and marched into the master bathroom. I still remembered that Lulu’s old medication came in a little tube, like the kind you might find in a fancy watercolor set. The label revealed a series of interlocking circles in a various sizes, printed in gray and turquoise ink. It had to still be around here somewhere. Our mother never threw anything away. 

The medicine cabinet was cluttered with small containers: rubbing alcohol, hydrogen peroxide, green oil, antihistamine cream, ibuprofen, Tiger Balm, petroleum jelly, cotton swabs, bandages. No moon relief ointment, or whatever that mysterious salve was called. I searched in every drawer and cabinet, but I couldn’t find the little tube from my memory anywhere. 

Looking back now, that was the day my curiosity about the moon became a full-blown obsession. For the rest of the school year, I spent weekend afternoons at the library, poring over every relevant book I could find listed in the card catalog. I learned many facts about the moon, like how it’s surrounded by a permanent cloud of comet dust. Or how water can’t survive on the surface in liquid form due to solar radiation exposure. I regularly stalked the aisles of nearby pharmacies, hoping to one day stumble upon familiar packaging on over-the-counter shelves. Years passed in the interim. I never did encounter what I was looking for. 

Before I knew it, high school was over. My grades weren’t terrible either, considering the circumstances. In college, I settled on a geology major after losing interest in several of the other hard sciences. I often spent hours in cramped basement laboratories, examining rock samples for unusual physical characteristics. Our entire cohort was so far removed from the outside world that I sometimes wondered whether the stairwell that led back to the ground floor would one day deposit us in the path of a sweeping tornado, or an alien invasion, or a zombie apocalypse. Like maybe the world could end while we were down there, and we wouldn’t even know it.

But the world never ended. And whenever I emerged from the labs in the evenings, themoon was still there. Its menacing existence remained a constant in my life through the blur of work that followed. My senior thesis, in which I analyzed the mineral composition of meteoritesfound in the nearby desert. My personal statement for graduate school applications, in whichI found myself pulled back down to more Earthly concerns. 

By then, I’d dismissed many of my mother’s inexplicable stories as superstitions with no basis in reality. That business with Lulu’s ears once upon a time was no exception. Why teach your child to wash behind her ears when you can give her a lifelong complex about the moon instead? I was over it. But as the living conditions of our planet deteriorated before my eyes, I found my attention wandering back toward the stars. The sight of the moon now comforted me, no matter what shape I found it in on any given night. Chasing that fleeting feeling of security is what eventually got me where I am today. 

 

Fifty years have passed since Neil Armstrong first left his footprints on the surface of the moon. In all that time, no woman from any country on Earth has ever followed him. But two years ago, NASA announced that I would be one of the first. Now, decades later, we are finally returning to the moon. 

A month before my launch date, a box is waiting on the doorstep when I return home from a long day of training. The annual Mid-Autumn Festival is also nigh, and each year Lulu and I exchange surprise packages to celebrate. When I tear open the cardboard flaps, I’m not surprised to find a commemorative tin swaddled in bubble wrap. 

Lulu has outdone herself this time. The metal container is illustrated with white rabbitsgazing at the night sky against a matte burgundy-and-gold backdrop. A black notecard is securedto the lid, “Congrats!” written in silver looping script. Lulu has always had perfect penmanship. 

The mooncakes nestled inside are my favorite kind: a chewy Cantonese-style crust filled with white lotus seed paste and a salted egg yolk in the center. I waste no time retrieving a knife from the kitchen to cut one of the glossy pastries into quarters. After taking a gigantic bite from the slice with the largest piece of yolk, I swear I can hear Beethoven’s famous sonata playing int he heavens. I’m about to call Lulu to thank her when I notice that the other three mooncakes in the box don’t appear to share the same filling. According to the Chinese characters stamped on top, one contains red bean paste while another is stuffed with candied fruit. Both common, ordinary ingredients. 

I don’t recognize the characters on the final one though. That comes as no surprise, of course; even after years of lessons, my language skills have remained elementary-level at best. I frown, looking around for an insert that might include translations, but I don’t see one. With my free hand, I try lifting the plastic tray up out of the tin, along with the remaining cakes. Maybe there’s something underneath…?

That’s when I stop mid-chew, nearly choking on a sharp, involuntary gulp of air. Because there is something hiding underneath the tray. But it isn’t a helpful slip of paper detailing the contents of the box. It’s a Polaroid. More specifically, it’s a Polaroid of me

I pick up the square photograph to get a better look. I can’t remember the last time I posed for an instant film camera, and sure enough, no aspect of this image rings a bell. It’s overexposed and my facial features lack clarity, but the person in that picture is unmistakablyme. Those are my glasses. That is my hairline. What I don’t recognize is the top I’mwearing. I’m certain I don’t own that top. Even so, it looks suspiciously like a shirt with a sailor collar I wore frequently as a toddlera hand-me-down from Lulu, as most of my childhood clothingwas. It can’t be the very same garment though. That’s impossible. I don’t exactly shop inthelittle girls’ section anymore. But the chilling fact that I’m holding a photograph of myself inaperplexing outfit I have no memory of is not even the most troubling part. 

In this picture, I have a toothy grin plastered on my face, and I am looking directly at whoever is behind the camera. 

In this picture, I have my arm stretched out in front of me, and I am pointing at whoever is behind the camera. 

In this picture, I cannot see my ears, because someone or something has scribbled over the space where they should be with a bright red magic marker. 

I call Lulu.

The other end of the line trills and trills. But just as I’m convinced I’ll have to leave an unhinged voicemail, she answers. “Lana! I’m so glad you called.” “Thanks for the mooncakes, Lu,” I say, unsure how to broach the subject. “You know I love the ones with the yolks inside.” 

There’s a long silence, during which I wonder if she now regrets orchestrating such a sick joke right before my mission. Finally, “Oh Lana, I swear I didn’t forget this year. I’ve just been swamped with work. I was going to order them this weekend. Really. We still have two more weeks, after all.” 

“Wait. You mean you haven’t sent them yet?” 

“Like I said, I’ve been busy.” Lulu sounds annoyed now. Defensive. “And I’m going to make sure they ship by Saturday. I know you have to enter quarantine at the end of the month. I have the date circled on my calendar.” Her voice softens. “Congrats again, by the way. I’m so proud. I was just thinking last night about that weird phase you went through when we were younger. I was legitimately worried for a while there. You were really fixated on that moon in an unhealthy way. But you must be so excited now.” 

That was the problem with Lulu. She never understood that it wasn’t a phase. That my so-called fixation had never waned. I never understood how she could so easily brush off a formative incident that should’ve affected her more than it affected me. “Thanks,” I tell her, “I am excited, but that’s not what I meant. I did get a box of mooncakes in the mail today. I thought they were from you, but I guess not.” I scrutinize the accompanying black card in my hand more closely, hoping it might hold a clue I’d previously missed. No signature, no identifying marks of any kind.

“Oh, maybe a colleague then, someone from the program? That’s sweet of them. Aren’t you the only Asian person assigned to the mission?” 

“As far as I know.” But I can’t think straight. “Listen, Lulu, do you still remember that time when we were kids and your ears got really infected?” We’d never talked about it as adults. For all I knew she had forgotten the ordeal entirely, however inconceivable that seemed. 

“Yeah, I think I had an allergic reaction to my new shampoo, and of course I made it worse by constantly picking at the flaking skin. You know how I was back then.” I can almost see her rolling her eyes from hundreds of miles away. “Anyway, you live and you learn, right?”

“Sure, but don’t you remember what Mā said to us afterwards?”

“Uhhh… Not specifically, no. I just remember whatever cream the doctor told her to buy stung like hell when she slathered it on. Obviously it worked though!” I want to press her further, but she says something about taking the kids out to dinner before excusing herself and ending the call. 

Talking to Lulu usually makes me feel better. But that conversation didn’t answer any of my questions. If anything, it only raised more. I could always go directly to the source and call our mother, but that would be an even more futile exercise. I can already hear her exclaiming in Taiwanese Hokkien: “I never told you that!” That has always been one of her favorite sentences, and it’s sure to be her response now. I endured years of therapy before realizing that I wasn’t the crazy one with the selective memory. 

I refuse to be the crazy one now. Not when I’m so close to fulfilling all the dreams I’d worked for years to achieve. 

On the eve of liftoff, I remain in quarantine near the launch site. The moon is a few nights short of full, but it’s so round and bright that the light emanating off it peeks into my room, even with the curtains drawn. I feel that itch again. I feel that insubordinate, rebellious part of my body waking up again. It’s the part that wants to point right at the moon and shout, “In only a matter of days, we’ll be there! We’ll actually be standing on the moon! Isn’t that incredible?” 

Still, an unpleasant, nagging feeling claws at the back of my mind. I still don’t know who sent those mooncakes. Everyone I know has denied any involvement. Nevertheless, the tin was sealed, so I ended up finishing off every last crumb. Lulu’s frustrating phone call left me ravenous. And even though I couldn’t quite place the taste of the mystery flavor, it proved to be the most delectable treat of them all. 

I’m not afraid anymore. I haven’t been for a long time. 

I don’t yet realize that maybe I should be. 

From where I’m standing now, I can’t see the future. I can’t see what will happen in a few days when we safely land our spacecraft on the moon’s cratered surface. I can’t see the vast blackness that surrounds me when I disembark from the vehicle. It’ll be there though, when I become the first woman to ever walk on the moon. I’ll feel a huge weight lift off my shoulders when it finally happens. 

But then I’ll notice one of my fellow astronauts waving her arms wildly in my direction. The expression on her face will suggest extreme distress. She’ll mouth words I cannot hear and I will panic with the split-second fear that I’ve gone deaf. That I’ve somehow misplaced my ears and lost my ability to hear. But then she’ll gesture to the remote on my suit that controls our communications device, and I’ll recall that in the excitement I forgot to activate it. By then, everyone will be crowded around me, concerned looks on their faces. “Your suit,” she’ll say, and the words coming through my headset couldn’t be clearer. “Lana, you’re bleeding.” And that’s when I’ll finally witness the early stages of my undoing: tiny droplets of blood suspended inside my helmet, floating red before my eyes.

About Susan Lin: Susan L. Lin is a Taiwanese American storyteller who hails from southeast Texas and holds an MFA in Writing from California College of the Arts. Her novella GOODBYE TO THE OCEAN won the 2022 Etchings Press novella prize, and her short prose and poetry have appeared in over fifty different publications. Find more at https://susanllin.wordpress.com/.

Twitter: @SusanLLin
Instagram: @susanlinosaur

 

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