by Clint Margrave

december 2015 story of the month

"There are so many things in this world that cannot be described...It's scary, being face to face with such a sight—it's scary, prompting thoughts of life, not death. You want to live, to live..."
— Georgi Ivanov

"Did you ever want to be a cosmonaut when you were little?" Dani asks.

We're lying in bed on Saturday morning. It's our second week in the new apartment.

I laugh.

"What's so funny?"

"You said, cosmonaut."

"What's so funny about cosmonaut? I really wanted to be one when I was a kid."

"We call them astronauts," I say.

"Americans," Dani says, shaking her head. "Bulgaria was the sixth country in the world to put a man in space by the way. Georgi Ivanov. Have you heard of him?"



"I wanted to be a baseball player," I say. "Or Steven Spielberg."

We're lying here because I put up a profile on a dating website six months after Jane and I split. We'd been together five years, four of them as husband and wife. When I met Dani, I still lived in the one bedroom backhouse Jane and I rented. After I found the text messages and confronted Jane, she moved to a studio apartment on the other side of Long Beach. Six months later, I didn't know what to do with myself. That's when a friend told me about Ok Cupid or Ok Computer as I accidentally keep calling it:

"Motorhead?" says Dani.

"Radiohead," I say.

"Maybe," Dani says, then shrugs.

"It's not important," I say.

Dani liked my profile first.

I had received an automated message sent to my Gmail account that said Someone likes your profile! It literally came only a few hours after I'd put it up. When I clicked on the link, there was Dani's pretty face staring back at me in a black and white selfie: strong-jawed, smooth-skinned, deep brown eyes.

"Technology brought us together," I tell Dani.

"Eventually," she says, reminding me how I flaked on her in the beginning. I always defend myself by saying I was in Long Beach and she was in L.A. Distance was a factor. And fear, of course. I was still working out what happened with Jane.

"Consider yourself lucky," my therapist told me. (I'd gotten a therapist because people thought it was a good idea to talk to someone when you get divorced.) "A disaster was narrowly averted."

It's true Jane and I had nothing to show for after five years. Not like we had kids or anything. Not like we owned a house or anything.

"Divorce," my therapist said, "is one of the two most stressful events in a person's life."

"What's the other one?" I asked.


* * *

Things had started to go wrong.

The mission was supposed to be simple. The Soyuz 33 would dock with the Russian space station Salyut 6 and Georgi Ivanov and the Russian engineer Nikolai Rukavishnikov would spend a week in space conducting experiments with two other cosmonauts. But six hours into the mission, disaster struck. We must mentally prepare for the worst, Mission Control announced.

"Did you know Ivanov was the same age as us?" Dani says. "39 at the time."

We're both doing research on our iPhones now. Dani's had hers for five years whereas mine is newer because Jane used to insist we get the updated model every year.

Americans, I can hear Dani say. She turns to her side, away from me, rests her head on the pillow, and holds her phone up in the air.

"His birthday is July 2," I say. "A day after mine. Also, the day Ernest Hemingway committed suicide."

"I've never read Hemingway," Dani says. Which is surprising, not only because one thing that brought Dani and I together is we're both avid readers, but also because on the wall of her old apartment was a picture of Hemingway petting a cat.

"My friend gave it to me," she says. "Because I like cats."

Unlike me, Dani's never lived with anyone before.

"It's not like I don't know what that is," she says. "As a kid in Bulgaria my whole family lived in my grandmother's apartment."

* * *

"Don't worry," I had assured Dani the day we signed the lease. "Moving is easy. I'm an expert at it." And the truth is I am. Maybe my therapist was wrong about one thing: It's not the moving that's stressful. It's the staying in place.

"What if we drift apart and break up?" Dani asked.

Truth be told, it was the most extensive lease I'd ever seen before: pages upon pages of protections about pests and pets and people. Forms to sign about keys, about satellite dishes, about mold prevention. Late fees for rent. Trash and water and laundry management. It was also the first time a landlord asked for rental insurance. If only there'd been relationship insurance. If only someone could walk you through a new relationship like a new apartment. All the scratches, all the holes, all the cracks, all the pests, any mold. Then you could mark the damage before you arrived to ensure you get your deposit back.

There were more signatures on our lease than on the divorce papers I signed with Jane. The whole thing cost $700 bucks since we had no assets or anything complicated. I'd gone to this document preparation place in Long Beach called We the People. The good part was We the People handled all the tedious stuff. The bad part was I had to pay for it myself. Jane didn't have any money. She hadn't planned for my reaction to her cheating all that well. She thought we could still relaunch a failed relationship.

"There's always that risk," I told Dani.

Dani's been at her place for 15 years, ever since she came to Los Angeles. Whereas I figure, I must've moved about 8 times in the past 15 years. And three of those times had been to live with different women, one of them Jane. I still worry about Dani's naiveté in that field, but maybe she has more reason to be worried about me. I worry about that too.

"Why don't you try dating yourself for a while?" my therapist had suggested when I first told her I'd put up a profile on a dating website.

After I laughed, imagining candlelight dinners and long walks on the beach alone, I got bored one Saturday night and took her advice. I drank a few beers, ate, and read at the bar of this trendy overpriced restaurant called The Social List. The space between Social and List was on purpose. Later, I'd take Dani there and we'd have a laugh about the Soviet memorabilia inside.

"I'm probably the only real Socialist who's ever eaten at this place," she said.

"Is that South America?" the waiter asked, when he'd heard her accent.

"I don't feel very American," Dani once said, despite her already having citizenship for years. "But when I go back to Bulgaria, I don't feel very Bulgarian either."

"I know what you mean," I told Dani.

"You do?" she said, joking, her accent putting an extra "o" in "oo." She was right, of course. How could I know what she meant? Not like I had packed up at the age of 25 and moved to an entirely different country where cosmonauts were astronauts.

* * *

"It was the main engine that shut off," Dani says.

I cuddle up to her and look over her shoulder at her phone. Rukavishnikov had been the first to notice the main engine was failing, putting the craft in danger of explosion. It was the first time it'd ever happened before. There weren't enough supplies to wait for the ship's natural descent from orbit. They had only one choice: fire up an untested engine and chance reentry.

"Watch that speck of dust," Rukavishnilov told Ivanov. "If it starts drifting towards the floor we'll live."

This was dangerous stuff.

Though the ship had been designed for reentry, if they got it wrong, coming in at such a steep angle could result in unwanted acceleration.

Mission Control waited nervously.

* * *

The text messages I found were between Jane and a classmate. I wouldn't know this, of course, until later when I confronted her. It was all so cliché. Couple marries, wife returns to school, meets some younger guy who really just wants to fuck an older woman, ends up having an affair. The kind of thing I wouldn't even want to write in a story myself because it'd seem too obvious.

"Thanks for the drinks!" her first message said to him. What drinks? A few days before I discovered the texts, Jane had blown off our usual Thursday night ritual of going out to dinner to stay at school and "study." I had thought I smelled alcohol on her breath when she came home, but when she denied it, I thought I'd just imagined that. After all, you have to trust your co-pilot. Lying about a drink wasn't lying about an affair. Only later did my hunch prove correct.

"He's lighthearted," she said when I asked her why.

"Of course he is," I said. "He's 25 and still lives at home."

"All we do is send cat videos to each other. Think I can send you a cat video? You're always so dark."

"Really?" Dani would say when I told her this story. "But you're such a clown!"

After that, Jane decided to post about our divorce on Facebook. We were both going our separate ways to try to "find ourselves," according to her status update. I wasn't trying to find myself. If anything, I should have been trying to find a place to hide because soon I'd be bombarded with messages from mutual friends.

I guess in the end, the only part that wasn't cliché was how little I bothered to fight for her. It turned out she had done us both an enormous favor. Maybe I didn't really love Jane as much as I thought I had. Maybe I was just tired of moving.

* * *

These last two weeks, I must admit, have been disorienting. Every light switch is in the wrong place. Every doorway. The floors creak in all the wrong spots. The faucet knobs turn in the wrong direction. Hot water comes out where it is supposed to be cold. The kitchen light is next to the fridge instead of the doorway. The cupboards still smell like spices from the tenant who lived here before us. The books aren't in alphabetical order. Half of them are in a different alphabet.

"I really ought to learn Cyrillic," I tell Dani.

"It's very easy," she says.

We spend the morning in bed together laughing.

"Let's go to the grocery store," she says, setting down her phone on the mattress.

I know what people are going to say. Has it been enough time? Are you sure you're ready to do this? It takes no certification to be a therapist these days. But this is what you do in life, right? You get back out there. Take that risk. Test those boundaries of space. And the truth is living together isn't really that scary. Some days it just comes down to going to the grocery store. And Dani likes to do that often.

She shrugs when I make fun of her.

"Don't you know," I say, "in America, we just go once a week and buy everything in bulk."

"You also have relationships in bulk," she says.

"Maybe we're just always trying to secure the future," I say.

"The future," Dani says. "If we're alive."

This is one of her favorite catch phrases whenever we plan something too far in advance. When we first started dating, she mentioned she had a "sad Slavic soul," which I found refreshing after being told how dark I was.

"The force of gravity that began as a gentle draw on a speck of dust became a roaring pull..."

A gentle draw on a speck of dust. I like that.

"But even when he thought he was going to die, according to the ship's telemetry, Ivanov's pulse never rose above 74 beats per minute."

I stop reading.

"Holy shit," I say. "Who knew Bulgarians were such bad asses?"

I look at Ivanov's picture. He is indeed a bad ass. Thick jaw, full head of hair, bushy eyebrows, solid brown 1970s mustache. He's standing next to the bald, pockmarked faced Russian Rukavishnikov, who looks like he may have smoked too many cheap cigarettes. I wonder what it's like to be so valorous.

"Neil Armstrong was badass too though," I say. "I assume you know who that is."

Dani laughs.

"I'm not like you Americans."

"I always liked how Neil stayed out of the limelight even after he walked on the moon," I say. "I mean, what do you do if you're one of these guys? What do you do if you're Georgi Ivanov? Make it back from almost losing your life in space and then what? The toughest reentry is coming back into the world."

For the six months after Jane and I split up, all I did was get drunk.

"Instead of ten drinks a night," my therapist said, "how about you try five?"

She told me about a patient who was alcoholic and one day just never came back.

"If you can believe Wikipedia," I tell Dani, looking at my screen again, "Ivanov also helped draft the new Democratic Constitution of Bulgaria. And in 1993 became an airline executive. That's the last entry. The rest is about some other Georgi Ivanov. A Bulgarian football player. He seems to get the most hits these days."

Dani takes my phone away. I scoot in closer to her warm body, which I admit, in the beginning, had been as disorientating as the new place after years of being with the same person. She pulls the covers over our heads and we kiss.

* * *

"How are you feeling?" Commander Alexei Eliseev at Mission Control kept asking as the Soyuz burned through reentry, a fireball plummeting down to earth. "Tell us, what is the situation?"

"Be quiet, we're at 6G's here!" Georgi Ivanov radioed back, struggling to keep his breath, his body thrusting against the force of gravity, until at last the parachute opened and the cosmonauts landed safely.

Note: Some quotes and information about Georgi Ivanov are taken from the article, "Bulgaria's First Cosmonaut and the Near-Disaster of Soyuz 33" published at Blazing Bulgaria.

BIO: Clint Margrave is the author of The Early Death of Men, a collection of poems, as well as a forthcoming collection, Salute the Wreckage, both published by NYQ Books. His work has also appeared in The New York Quarterly, Rattle, Cimarron Review, Word Riot, and Ambit (UK), among others. In 2016, his story "Acrobats" will be featured in the forthcoming Red Hen Press short fiction anthology about Los Angeles, where he currently lives.