LIFE ON MARS – DAPHNE BELLFLOWER

LIFE ON MARS – DAPHNE BELLFLOWER

 

She stepped inside and immediately double checked the address on her device. Apparently this was the place. The elegant restaurant was packed and noisy. Annie stared at the crowd, picked out her path, and squeezed her way to the bar. There was one empty stool. She tossed her briefcase on the bar and sat down. She studied the bottles on the shelf and caught the bartender’s eye.

 

“I’ll have an Old Fashioned,” she said. “How old,” the bartender asked, smiling at Annie. She stared at his crooked teeth, fixated by the little brown bicuspid on the left. “Sorry,” Annie said, forcing herself to look away. “20th century. Hope you have cherries, or anything that’s round and red. Surprise me.”

 

She spun around on her stool and studied the crowd. Everyone was tall and slim and beautifully dressed, with smooth tight faces and perfect teeth. Annie stared, trying to find some vestige of the past in the faces that filled the bar. Mars was not what she remembered, not what she expected. In fact, it was so generic now that it might as well be Earth. She turned back to the bar and stared at her drink, overwhelmed by nostalgia. Her throat tightened. She closed her eyes and allowed herself one minute of emotional indulgence. She swallowed hard, grabbed her glass and took a long drink.

 

“You look like you needed that,” the bartender said, leaning across the bar just a few inches too close. “Did you just get in? You look like a first-timer.” Annie sighed. Apparently he was a talker. She looked for his tag. “Skip,” it read in cheerful pink letters.  Skip, Andy, Chad, Trevor. It was like if you had a white male child you threw in towel immediately, beginning with the name. She couldn’t help but feel a little sorry for Skip, it wasn’t like there were many employment options these days for people like him. But she found that the familiar stereotypes still manifested easily; the presumptiveness, the unearned familiarity. She forced herself to smile.

 

“It’s not my first time on Mars,” Annie said. “I lived here 25 years ago. Right after they got the Enclosure up and running.” She poked at the misshapen red sphere in her drink with her straw. “I came here with the original Hsieh Faction. A lot has changed since then.” She looked up at Skip. His eyes were glazed over, fixated on her chest. Mars might have changed, but some things never would. She picked up her drink and grabbed her briefcase. “You can put that on my tab. I’m waiting for someone. I’m going to look out the windows for a while.”

 

Annie walked through the beautiful crowd to the viewing area and looked at the night sky. The city was so bright now that she could barely see the stars. She squinted, trying to see the moons through the artificial glare. It was the first thing she noticed when she arrived, those two oddly lumpy moons. “The big one’s Phobos and the little one’s Deimos,” Steve had told her, his arms around her, stroking her face in the dark. That was back when everything Steve told her was significant, a revelation of sorts. But by the time she found out Phobos and Deimos meant Fear and Panic in Greek, Annie had already returned to Earth.

 

Mars wasn’t much back then when she first arrived, certainly not as beautiful as Earth where she grew up. California was still lovely back in those days; huge fires burning in billowy puffs, a constantly changing spectrum of oranges, reds and yellows. Her family lived in an enormous temperature-controlled compound above it all. The views were nothing less than spectacular. It was a simpler time then, or at least that was how Annie remembered it. Steve’s childhood had been the polar opposite of Annie’s and he preferred not to look back.

 

Annie first met Steve on the flight out from Earth. She was sitting on the station floor with the one bag she was allowed to take, studying the group of 18-year-olds who would be her companions for the next two years. Steve was the only white male on the flight. Annie wondered how he felt, if this made him uncomfortable. She watched as he paced back and forth, a small nervous oval. Feeling her stare, he turned to look at her. She caught his eye and smiled.

 

They talked from the moment they left Earth until they landed on Mars, 16 hours of forced intimacy. Steve’s background broke Annie’s heart; his fractured childhood, his lack of family, his poverty. “It wasn’t all bad,” he told her. “We were free. No expectations from anyone.” He smiled. “We didn’t have to work, we weren’t responsible for anything anymore. I could read.”

 

As the weeks passed, Annie discovered just how much Steve read. After listening to him for hours on end, Annie observed that Steve’s opinions were a combination of obscure philosophical combinations that didn’t seem entirely legitimate, yet were difficult to analyze due the sheer amount of reference. She came to the realization that his intellect was not the product of original thought. Over time, Annie began to despise Steve’s reliance on textual detail over experience and emotion.

 

“You should read Derrida,” Steve had suggested to the homesick Annie during one of her increasingly frequent sobbing outbursts. “Your nostalgia for your childhood, for your home, it’s bourgeois. Derrida would tell you that nostalgia for primitive societies contravenes basic structural imperatives, contrary to Levi-Strauss’s emphasis on the primitive or pure society as true autonomy of the state. Derrida believes that…”

 

“Um, fuck Derrida,” Annie said, standing up. “And Levi-Strauss too. I get it. You’ve done a lot of extracurricular reading. If you want to lean French, stick with De Beauvoir.” She brushed the purple grit off her pants and put her tool belt back on. “I’m going back to work,” she said. “We’re behind. Arrivals start next month.” She had walked away, angry again with his insistence that words and logic could somehow counter her emotions. “I’m back from my break Selena,” she had said to the foreperson. “What do you want me to do next?”

 

Annie pressed her face against the window and took another sip of her drink. She thought about the inconsistencies of time, how it sped up and slowed down, how capricious it could be. Her two years away–her life on Mars–were so vivid to her now, far more memorable than anything in the past two decades. The most ironic thing was that at the time she considered those two years the worst of her life.

 

For her two years of mandatory government service, Annie signed up to go with the first wave of pioneers; the Hsieh Faction. Hsieh was one of her heroes, a start-up billionaire who used his money to clean up the mess left by the old ruling faction, quaintly referred to then as the “one percent.” That group of men, by then dwindling in numbers and influence, created and left what history now called the era of Great Chaos.

 

Annie learned about this legacy in school; the fossil fuel, global warming, meat and guns. Rapidly losing power, the white men clung to the old ways. But it was the beginning of the end when the first black president of the then United States was elected. After that, it was just a matter of time before Earth was rightfully governed by the majority.

 

Hsieh, the son of Taiwanese immigrants, was one of first to deviate from the established billionaire ethos. He relocated his successful cyber shoe business to Las Vegas and created a village out of shipping containers and recycled materials. It wasn’t just another attempt at social engineering for the low income and homeless; Hsieh lived in a shipping container and gave up his car along with everyone else. He created green space where empty parking lots were before. There were community gardens, grocery stores, and public art. The homes were simple and affordable, and public education was free and outstanding. His success in Las Vegas started a movement that spread across the Americas. But Hsieh’s efforts were too little and too late. By the time Annie was born, most of Earth was under water or on fire.

 

By that time Earth was dying. There were too many people and not enough food or livable space to sustain the population. A team of scientists came up with the obvious solution, to move the most unfortunate from the floods and fires to another planet. Mercury was too hot, Venus too small. Before the Great Chaos, select missions had been sent to Mars. These efforts were discontinued after the disasters started on Earth. But as the situation became more desperate, the Enclosure was developed. This clear structure encased Mars and allowed the synthetic atmosphere to be created. With a couple of adjustments, it was ready to populate.

 

Annie finished her drink. She stared out the windows trying to focus on the stars. After a few minutes she gave up. The electronic billboards were more beautiful than the stars could ever be. She supposed that she should be sad about this, but it was too late to care about how she used to feel, what she used to value. She didn’t care about nostalgia anymore. She looked at her watch. He was 10 minutes late. Of course.

 

Denouement=next week.

 

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About bbcstudiowrites

This blog is me archiving the BBC Studio Writers Workshop.

Posted on November 17, 2015, in Fiction, Seattle, Short Stories. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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