Greta was the first middle-aged woman to find herself in a live pod, within viewing distance of the moon. It was peaceful in her two rooms, the curved thermal glass a barrier to infinity, to obliteration. She watched stars die at close range, the slow flowering of cobalt gases, glowing red eye at their centre. As she drank wine from a sipper cup, she pressed her hand against the glass and the cold of its surface spread through her like dry ice.
The headphones beeped—her only measure of time. She picked them up and placed them on her head.
‘Come back. Please.’
‘I don’t like the world anymore, Joachim. This is better for now. I see so much outside the windows, sitting on my red couch. I’ve watched a dying star. There was a meteor, like an orange-streaked dragon. Nothing but wonders and silence. You’d like it, except the meals are rather plain.’
A monthly shipment of food was delivered by an unmanned ship, shaped like a cross between a frisbee and a stingray. A metal tube extended and connected with a fixed point on her pod. She flicked a button and the delivery slid into a mesh basket inside.
‘Greta, I know our country and the world has taken a bad turn, but I can love you so hard you’ll barely notice. That’s a promise.’
‘I don’t want to need you or anyone, Joachim. I’m tired of wanting, needing, craving. I want to feel autonomous in the purest sense. Do you understand?’
‘A little. I need to touch you and I can’t. Surely you miss that?’
‘Yes, often. I miss you kissing my clavicle. The calluses on your hands. Breathing you in at your neck. Being held.’
‘Do you want me to stop talking to you?’
‘Never. But I must warn you, I may be here a long time. If you find someone else, I’ll understand.’
‘Please don’t say that. Can we do 3D video chat tomorrow?’
‘Can I ask you something?’
‘Did I not love you enough? Is that why you left?’
‘No, that’s not it. Your love gave me courage to do this. Even with you so far away, with only your voice to comfort me, I feel it strongly. I need to get to a certain place within myself and I’m not there yet. Once there, I’ll return and we’ll be two people who hold each other lightly.’
‘And the world?’
‘The world may veer close to oblivion. Yet, don’t you think, there are enough who treasure it and each other to flip the tide in the other direction?’
‘Yes, Greta. I think you’re right. To be fair though, am I not already ‘holding you lightly’ by releasing you into space?’
‘Yes, my love. I’m going to sip my dinner now. Tomorrow.’
Greta removed the headphones and climbed onto her retractable bed, suspended from the ceiling with thick tensile wires. Her appetite had vanished. She lay on her side and clutched a pillow to her chest. Outside the window, stars plummeted like raindrops and she ached.
She wondered if Milarepa had experienced the same surges of loneliness as he sat in his cave, his skin turning green from nettle tea. His teacher, Marpa, had ordered him to build towers from rocks with his bare hands, only to have them torn down. After years of harsh treatment, Marpa gave him the keys to enlightenment in the form of the Mahamudra teachings.
All her life she had craved solitude and the purity of mind she hoped would come with it. Now she was here, there were lucid moments, but others where she stood in the middle of her pod and howled.
The calls from Joachim were a balm. He had been her solace on Earth, he remained her solace in the pod. The ache dissipated when she thought of him and was replaced by waves of pleasure. Like a sonogram, the spiked graph morphing into rounded forms. She stretched out and remembered.
Joachim was a divorced composer and university lecturer. He had long since been without hair when they met at the launch of a poetry chapbook by a mutual friend. She noticed the pleasing shape of his head and a mischievous glint in his blue eyes. He gave her his full attention. At no point was he distracted by the thrum of the crowd. He enclosed them with his intensity, his desire to find out as much as he could in a short space of time. The mutual friend left them in their cloud, bemused.
They progressed fast. By the time the year was out, Joachim had moved, inch by inch, into her house and heart. Six months into this arrangement she was like two people. One, buoyed by love. The other, full of misgivings and panic. She was incomplete, she knew. Her other relationships had left her criss-crossed with scars and insecurities. Negative thoughts assailed her, like flick knives between a honeyed caress.
Greta created conflict and baited him. Arguments flared.
‘You’re crowding me,’ she said as he did the dishes. ‘You’re in my face.’
He looked stricken, the dish brush poised in his hand like a question mark.
‘I’m not crowding you. Just loving you.’ The creases around his mouth were pronounced and a small patch of soap bubbles gleamed on his forehead.
Her mother’s death meant a large inheritance. Everyone said it was a blessing after years of dementia. On a work trip she saw an ad for live pods in the airline magazine. She tore it out, folded it and placed it in her handbag. A pang of guilt tore through her.
She only spoke to him about it once. It was out of courtesy as she’d already made up her mind. His face greyed and he steadied himself against the wall.
‘You’re avoiding life. It will catch up with you eventually.’
‘I’m confronting life. My delusions about it. If it was good enough for Milarepa, it’s good enough for me.’
He snorted. ‘You think you’ll become enlightened, in a million-dollar space pod?’
‘But I love you.’
She busied herself by unpacking and repacking, trying to condense her belongings. Her suitcase needed to reflect her anticipated clarity of thought.
At first, he shunned her and she spoke to no one in a month. The silence was charged with menace, the memories jostled and taunted. Then he called. She was forgiven.
Greta woke feeling odd. She swung her legs over the side of the bed and shook her head, trying to disperse the fog. She no longer knew if she slept or ate at the right times, doing both when her body demanded.
The sensation was the same as when she spoke to Joachim, but it was no longer in a wave formation. It had solidified, but she felt it emanate outwards, through the thermal glass, weaving around the stars into infinity. Her insecurity had vanished, her uncertainty and fear. This is it, she thought. Warmth blossomed in her like a magnolia unfurling from its bud. She smiled and touched the glass. The headphones beeped and she placed them on her head.
‘I’m there,’ she said.
‘Yes. I was already there and I didn’t know it. I was there because of you. It can extend to everyone and everything.’
‘Will you come home?’
She breathed out as a falling star streaked powder white.