Mars Is a Water Planet
by Marie Chapman
part 1 of 2
At the age of eight, Jean-Marc began to dream regularly of Mars and the water channels that etched its surface. Late at night in his bedroom, he turned on the reading lamp and opened the books on the planets, his maps and guides, then peered into the small telescope set up to point out the window.
His mother and father had allowed him to keep the shutters open on warm nights. Mars was a water planet; he was convinced of this. And this was what he told his wife, Marie-Pierre, in the early days of their courtship.
At breakfast that morning, as he swirled his dry toast in a bowl of coffee and milk, Jean-Marc announced that he expected that very day to confirm the existence of water on Mars. Marie-Pierre smiled weakly and observed her husband’s hands shake as they lowered his coffee bowl.
It was Tuesday. Concepcion would arrive at ten to clean and iron. At a little past noon, Marie-Pierre’s younger sister Anne and her infant son would come for lunch. Afterwards, they would shop for food and baby clothes. Back home alone, Marie-Pierre would store the provisions and prepare the hors-d’oeuvre and what she could in advance for the evening meal; her husband would bring his co-worker, an American also engaged in the search. The three would have a roast with potatoes and then salad, cheese, and fruit. Another of the many days behind them, yet this one was to be special, he said.
* * *
Anne resumed her interrogation.
“But what will you do? Maman and I are worried about you. You must be depressed. You know there are many ways of treating that now, not only talking to someone. After Benjamin they gave me something for three months. It helped me get through it all. Why can’t you give in to that need?”
“You said the pills made you tired.” Marie-Pierre waited for the familiar script to continue. She looked at her nails and then at Anne’s. Her sister’s were polished a bright red; her own a naked, pale pink, the insides of seashells.
“Yes. But being tired makes the time pass. Everyone knows that.”
“I’m already tired all the time. And it passes slowly. Swimming used to give me energy but now it burns it up.”
“You need to stop. You need to stop and take some pills and see if you can sleep more. And before you know it, you’ll be past it.”
“You had Benjamin to care for. You had to wake up.”
The cheese plate overflowed with new blocks and rounds. There were pears, tangerines, and apples. As she carried the tray of Martini, Suze, Campari, and Pastis from the buffet to the coffee table she imagined the door opening. Instead she heard ringing. He didn’t know when he would be home, maybe not for a few days. She could hear the spit hitting his telephone mouthpiece as he sputtered.
“Remember at breakfast, when I said today would be the day? Remember? Oh, chérie, my life’s work! My dream since I spied the planets from that small room. It’s all come true! Water... water!”
Marie-Pierre sat on the couch and poured herself a vermouth, red, with three ice cubes. Then she was on the balcony. It was a clear night. The moon was almost full and the stars formed their usual patterns, patterns she had memorized for love’s sake.
She leaned forward over the railing and eyed her long reddish-blond hair hanging straight down on either side of her head, the tips pointing to the parking lot below. She matched her hair with the lot, first the left side with a painted white line, then the right side. Her gaze returned to the sky.
Water on Mars. And now what? Marie-Pierre feared the emptiness that would follow the answering of age-old questions. The dark, deep, and damp cave that would become their home as he listened for water droppings in other rooms, other worlds. She could hardly believe that after all these years her fears would now come true.
She slipped back inside for more ice cubes, another drink.
* * *
Marie-Pierre waited until Jean-Marc left for work before she rose from the bed. She stared out the sliding doors, heard the door slam, and slowly counted to ten.
“Okay” she murmured aloud, he had not forgotten his umbrella.
She had left the French door drapes open all night and Jean-Marc hadn’t noticed or he would surely have closed them. When they first met, he loved to sleep close to her here in this room with the curtains open, explaining the stars to her before his snore began.
When it was overcast, as it usually was, he indicated where the stars must be. She lay on her side facing the glass — they had pushed the bed within six inches of it — and he held her from behind. She looked up as he whispered the names of the stars and constellations directly into her ear. She often misheard because his lips and saliva tickled her. She giggled and did not ask him to repeat.
When he rolled back to begin snoring she lifted his left arm up, cupped the hand within hers, and examined his fingers in the shadows. Long, thin, and pale, she knew. When she held them above her face the fingers looked unnatural, the long tentacles of some being that normally slithered deep in the ocean, where it was darker than the night skies and where the density was excruciating to human flesh and bone.
She explored each finger, up and down, until they felt wet to her, webbed together. Something clear but thick was given off by his pores. She dozed off as the hand fell to her chest and lodged between her breasts.
As the water search dragged on, he wanted the drapes drawn and the bed pushed back. They moved slowly away from the night sky.
She sat up and stretched, noted the drizzle, rose and walked to the salle de bains. On the way she removed her cotton pajamas. From behind, Marie-Pierre had the body of a fortyish woman, still graceful and thin, but with a certain sagging at the hips and back of the buttocks. From the front, she was given away when she smiled and the lines around her eyes danced, or when the decidedly downward trend in her cheeks was noticed.
Gravity is the strongest force of all, Jean-Marc had said; it will in the end keep us from reaching Mars in person. But her belly had not suffered too much from this pull, her pregnancies never having gotten very far.
As a young woman, Marie-Pierre had attended the École du Louvre, the prestigious art history and conservation school where the future curators and restorers of the Louvre and other national museums are groomed. She met Jean-Marc for the first time outside the museum one gray afternoon as she headed for lunch, alone. He seemed determined to enter the building through a Painting Department entrance and turned quizzically when the door declined to open. Marie-Pierre asked if he needed help and they ended up eating together.
He never did visit the museum. She liked the idea of marrying a rocket scientist, an astrophysicist who knew nothing of art but still somehow was not stupid. Too many of her peers assumed that art was the only way to God or whatever higher being one proposed. Marie-Pierre was rather shocked but finally relieved to hear that physicists felt the same about their work. The only avenue to eternity.
Jean-Marc noticed Marie-Pierre’s eyes and told her he would call her because of them; a sort of mucky green, they gave her an absent look, as if she were under water; yes, they were the green of the deep Atlantic.
She received her diploma from the École but turned down an internship to begin a family with her new husband. The truth was she was tired of looking at paintings laid out horizontally in front of her and five or six other students. She couldn’t bear the look of another Mary, Mother of God, or Louis XIV On a Horse or On His Way to Vespers. She wanted to live in the world of the vertical and decided that having a child was the easiest way to do so without having to explain. She could move vertically through the world and expand outwards at the same time; she could become three-dimensional. This thought brought her a joy she did not really understand.
But she did not get pregnant for two years, and then she lost the child in a miscarriage. She was home alone when she felt it coming on. She got into the shower and turned on warm water. The bits and pieces, the relics, went down in a tiny whirlpool as she watched from above. Her next two pregnancies were also cut short.
By the time they stopped trying it was too late for Marie-Pierre to think of the art world again. Her mind had gone dull, she felt, and she lived in a city where one begins at the beginning or one does not begin at all.
Marie-Pierre’s younger sister had just given birth to an eight-pound boy, who was added to the three she had already collected. They were lined up like paper dolls made by cutting a figure into construction paper that has been folded over several times.
Enough already, Marie-Pierre thought, you must hate me. But she dutifully invited Anne over, coo-cooed at the infant, and sat for the flock when asked. She had two friends, one from high school and one from the École. The former was depressingly alone and lonely, the latter unrepentantly successful and single. Marie-Pierre met up with the one or the other and they grinned and smoked a cigarette. Her husband thought the first was crazy and the second a man-eater. They, in turn, found him to be impossibly inert.
Only swimming truly absorbed her. The water gave her buoyancy. After her miscarriages, it was her way of re-entering the world of the horizontal, the world of those who are alone. She curved her arm, with its light red hairs and scattered freckles, over her head, turned to the side to breathe, and advanced forward, gliding. She stared through goggles to the bottom of the pool, painted as a pale sky; she saw far and deeply. Disappointment met her at the end of each lap, for the wall would be there and she would have no choice but to turn.
While at the École, Marie-Pierre took to roaming the streets of the city after classes. She was Parisian, used to crowds, and she moved swiftly and anonymously through them. She swung a book bag over her shoulders, knotted a sweater around her neck, asked her shoes not to constrict her feet, and swayed along the zigzag streets of the Marais district. She walked on a saturated sponge, a land mass that could endure her weight: Paris was a swamp, a marais.
She wore sunglasses whether it was cloudy or clear blue as a Gustave Courbet sky, not because she was sensitive to the light, but so that men would turn their eyes away from her. The sensation she had during these strolls was what others called freedom: her pores open, her blouse buttons loosening, a run in her hose crawling at a snail’s pace up a leg.
Often she discovered fantastic scenes, alleys, moments. An old statue peering from the corner niche of a stone building; a teen-aged girl proud as a tree selling warm chestnuts; an art gallery with the poster of a monkey in the window, a capuchin.
She took in each scene quickly; she dared not stop and fix her eyes. But since she often took the same path she was able over time to puzzle together the images, until after a few weeks or a month the monkey came into focus. It then disappeared, replaced by a bowl of angular fruit.
Thus she constructed Paris, not as a whole that matched the maps bought in kiosks, but as a canvas of colored bits here and colored bits there, a pointillist masterpiece were it ever to be finished.
Occasionally during these jaunts there occurred bewildering events that Marie-Pierre relived in minute detail for months, even years, afterwards. A young well-dressed man sat alone on a bench in a deserted corner square, head in hands and crying unabashedly; a dog ran round and round a small block of buildings, not barking, as if mute, grasping to catch something already long gone; a coil of black and green became a snake under her feet, ready to wrap around her legs. She yelped in fear, sidestepped it, and turned back to see a fishmonger’s water hose.
When she gazed at Jean-Marc’s maps of Mars she was ill, as though she would vomit if her belly was not empty. Mars was red with dust, rocks strewn about with monstrous regularity. The crevices that water would normally run into, the gutters that would collect the waste and the rain of city streets, were lacking. How silly to believe this to be a water planet. She kept this to herself while Jean-Marc delighted in describing the signs of life that lingered in the remains of a dust storm.
She coughed from the thought, could not stop coughing, until he brought her a glass of Perrier. She took a sip and settled the glass atop the map, noticing the urgency of the bubbles that rose to the surface of the water and the red color reflected in it. Whereas years earlier he would have lovingly chided her for treating his map so cavalierly, he now took a possessive tone.
“Okay, this is the... Wait, what’s that? No, no! Please move that at once! Setting a glass of liquid here, really chérie, have you been paying no attention to what I’ve told you of these maps? I can’t just go out and get one photocopied. This is the real thing!”
“Yes, yes, I just forgot. Thought I’d spice the map up a bit with some Earth water. Oh, stop looking at me with that eye; I’ve got it all off, it’s fine. I thought you said they use some special coating to protect the maps?”
They would continue this way, arguing over the materials instead of discussing the matter at hand. Jean-Marc could not bear everyday life intruding upon his science; Marie-Pierre could not bear his science without a trace of the kitchen, bath, or balcony.
“So here we are, please look! This is Bonneville Crater, where the vapor is indicated. What is that cough? Is that why you asked for water? Are you catching a cold? No? Then please stop! The drops from your mouth are distorting the landscape!”
“It’s the dust, I can’t breath so well.” Marie-Pierre’s throat tickled, not with the lightness of feathers but with the dry of the desert.
“What dust? Didn’t Concepcion clean today? Here, again, is Bonneville and over there, another large one, El Capitan, that may also contain some ice, at least some indication of ice.”
“Yes, I see. But one doesn’t see the vapors on the map?”
“Of course not, silly. Anyway, there are no vapors per se. Don’t lean over with your hair down like that. Those drops are going all over again! If you’re just going to cough you may as well take your drink off the table. I don’t know why I share these things with you. It’s just coughs, tics, yawns, or yelps. You don’t take any of this seriously.”
“But I do. And perhaps that is why I cough and tic and yawn and whatever the other one was.”
“Okay, okay, Marie Pierre. Now you’re off again with your analysis... of what? Yourself! And I thought we could speak about my project!”
“The whole world is speaking of nothing but your project. Is their way of speaking more helpful than mine? Or should I be the mute viewer before the television set? Of course I am interested — excuse me, I’ll take another sip — but you can’t expect me to be like your colleagues or your mother. Where are you off to now? Yes, go on, find peace in the study.”
This man believed in the presence of water where there was, if anything, only its dry remains, a salt ring left by a glass on a tabletop. He believed this as one believes in God, his desire for it rendering its existence self-evident.
Yet he noticed nothing of the water around him. The shower in the morning, his soapy hands under the faucet before working with maps, Marie-Pierre’s tears as she told him she had no idea what was the matter, the drizzle of almost every Parisian afternoon: none of this indicated water for him.
Once Marie-Pierre convinced him to come watch her swim. He sat and stared for half an hour, then interrupted to tell her he must leave, that he could no longer bear it. He never told her what had disturbed him that day and she did not ask, secretly glad that the truth of water had overwhelmed him. From then on they kept their notions of water separate from each other. Chlorinated water, rain, tears, sweat, were hers; his, slow vapors emerging from red dust, thirty million kilometers away.
* * *
Copyright © 2009 by Marie Chapman