The Space Pirate
By Amber Lee
“Being a space pirate simply isn’t a practical career,” his mother told him after he showed her his drawing of a spaceship. Henry’s toothy smile faded as he lowered the picture slowly, so she couldn’t see it anymore. He looked down, away from his mother’s steely gaze. “Maybe a doctor, or a lawyer would be better,” she suggested, stirring the pot of noodles at the stove. She wiped a spot of sauce that boiled over onto the counter and turned her back to him.
Henry ran down the hall toward his room. The floor was cold on his bare feet. He paused at the door to his father’s study. The door was open a crack, letting Henry see a sliver of his father at his desk. He had the phone pressed to his ear, and a wry smile on his face as he murmured something into the receiver. He didn’t see Henry.
He tiptoed away to his room. Henry climbed up to the top bunk of his bed, careful not to touch the step that he knew was poisonous. He hung a sheet from the high posts so that his bed was like a fort. The sheet was deemed acceptable for playing by his mother, who said that the stitching was coming loose on the sides, but no one seemed to see it but her. He turned on the flashlight and pointed it toward the ceiling so his sanctuary glowed. Once he was alone for a few moments, he let his mother’s words and his father’s apathy seattle in. His eyes burned with tears and his lungs felt like they were trying to claw their way up his throat, but he shoved his emotions away. Space pirates didn’t cry. Not even if their foot got blown off and they needed a peg leg. Only a single tear for the beauty of the open sea or seeing how grand our little planet looked from outer space was allowed.
Henry looked at his drawing, staring intently at the details on the windows and launchers, knowing that inside the ship there was freeze dried ice cream and food in tubes. Peeking out the window from inside the ship was also a pet/sidekick monkey named Manny the Monkey who would eat bananas and never worry if people would slip on the peels in space. This ship would go to planets far away and get space treasure to buy new equipment, fund new adventures, and maybe get some candy.
He sighed and opened his favorite book about astronomy with the cracked spine. At the back of the book were at least ten other drawings like the one he clutched in his hand. He heard the echoes of his mother shooting down his ideas and stories as he flipped through the pages. He saw the faces of his classmates, who used to enjoy the pretend games and worlds he would make for them, but now they frowned and called it “baby stuff.” He traced some of his favorite constellations and thought about being a hero worthy of immortalization in the sky like Orion and Hercules. But those were only stories. Maybe everyone was right, and he was getting a little old for these things. He closed the book and told himself to forget about the stars.
Henry is in his mid-twenties, working an office job in a cubicle, with the goal of one day getting an office with a window. Even he knows that this is a fairly meaningless goal. He’d just get distracted by all the things going on outside. Maybe he should just face his chair away from the window. Then again, there isn’t a point of having a window if he can’t look outside.
He dates Meg, who works in a different department in the same office. She talks about being the first woman executive in the company. He supports her in a completely unjealous way that makes Meg think that he is something special. The truth is, he earnestly doesn’t care that she got promoted faster and makes more than he does. She’s better at her job than he is, and he knows it. Henry performs well in his position, but Meg is driven, striving for more, while he lets the current of his job take him forward. He wants this for her, because she talks about how much she wants those promotions and pay raises so often that it has to be true. He doesn’t want to work and claw his way to the top, but if he tried to explain that to her, he doesn’t think she’d understand.
A few weeks after they first met, they were sitting next to each other at a team meeting. Henry was drawing a duck that looked like Martin, the head of accounts who often made uncomfortable innuendos about his love life in the break room. Meg had to hold back her giggles when she looked over and saw the power tie creating a double chin on the duck. Her face flushed and her hazel eyes twinkled in a way that made Henry happy for the first time all week. The next day he left a cartoon drawing of Meg eating a drumstick with the rest of the roasted duck on a platter on Meg’s desk. Soon after that, they became a couple. Later, she confessed that the only reason she didn’t think that the drawing was too insubordinate was because Martin could be a real pig. That was around the time that they were getting more serious and Henry’s quirks were getting less cute. Still, they continue on.
On most Fridays Meg and Henry go to the same bar with their co-workers four blocks away from the office. This night is no different. They all walk because there’s no sense in taking their vehicles out of the garage just to try and find street parking. At the bar, Henry drinks beer and half-listens to his friends complain about the office manager, who tries to be a cheerful friendly boss, but then overcompensates when he needs to be tough. He barely hears what they say as he doodles on napkins. Meg places her hand on his, stopping his scribbling, making him pay attention to the group. When she isn’t looking, he stuffs the napkins in his pockets. He doesn’t know why he saves them, but he does.
At the end of the night Meg asks if he wants to go to her place. Her apartment is very practical except for the fact that there are too many uncomfortable decorative throw pillows. Henry knows that there are fudgesicles waiting for him at home. But Meg is looking at him expectantly, and he doesn’t want her to sigh and say it’s fine, when it never is. He hauls his bike in her trunk. He apologizes, but she doesn’t have a bike rack on her car like he does, so there is nothing he can do about it. “It’s fine,” she says in a quick, clipped tone. She drives them to her place in her new model sedan that has excellent gas mileage and reliability; he stares out of the window at the dark sky. With the city lights, he can barely see any of the white specks above.
They walk into Meg’s apartment and she locks all four locks on the door behind them. The neighborhood isn’t bad, but she lives alone and likes to feel like she has extra protection. She kisses him with a dry mouth.
“I think we should exchange keys to each other’s apartments,” Meg states without preamble, her eyebrows raised and her lips slightly pursed. She’s blunt sometimes. It helps when she is direct like this, instead of trying to make hints that Henry only occasionally grasps. Sometimes it still feels like getting lightly smacked on the face though. Pay attention! her tone demands. “I mean, we have been dating for about six months now. Don’t you think it’s time?”
Henry wants to fidget. “I’ll get a key made. If that’s what you want.”
This is not the answer Meg is looking for. “I want you to want to give me a key.”
“I want to give you a key,” he says. He pulls his key ring out of his pocket. He keeps his spare key on the ring; he has never had anywhere else to put it anyways. Using his fingernail, he pries the ring open and slides the spare key off. He takes Meg’s hand and sets it in her palm, and closes her fingers around it with his other hand.
She smiles a little, softly. “Okay.”
She places her other hand on his chest. Henry thinks that she wants another kiss, but she just smoothes out a wrinkle on Henry’s shirt. Meg turns and walks to the granite countertop. She grabs a key from a dish with a few other keys and holds it out for Henry to take. He puts it on his key ring to replace what he gave her. It feels heavier in his pocket, but he knows that can’t be true.
As she walks toward the bathroom to change and brush her teeth she calls out, “this is going to make things so much easier now that I have a key. Maybe I’ll bring some of my things over and we can go grocery shopping and spend the weekend there.”
Henry feels a sweat break out on the back of his neck. He wants his key back so bad he considers taking it off her keyring when she’s asleep. She will try to throw away some of the stuff he doesn’t need, like his toy robots that he displays on a shelf, and replace it with her stuff. He doesn’t want to be her project.
Later that night they are in bed, naked. They had sex earlier and now Meg has her head in the spot between Henry’s chest and shoulder where she fits nicely. The forward moving of their relationship had put her in a romantic mood. Her hair is a little mussed up and she is still flushed. She looks beautiful and natural and it makes Henry’s heart swell a little. He wishes that she looked like this more often instead of the controlled look she usually has. They are blissfully quiet together.
Henry pulls the covers up over them, causing Meg to detangle herself from him. They settle back in bed together facing each other.
“You know how I talk a lot about being an executive in the company someday and working my way up?” she starts, looking nervous.
“Yeah?” Henry replies and slides his hand up and down Meg’s shoulder.
“I still don’t feel like it’s going to happen.” Henry gives her a questioning look. She sighs. “I want to be as confident as I seem at work. But I see the way the men look at me. It makes me feel like I’d still have to sleep my way up to the top. I know I’m qualified. I know I put in the work. But at the end of the day I only probably have a few more promotions ahead of me before I bottom out. I’ve sickeningly started to accept it. It’s okay though. I’ll make enough money to have a comfortable life with a double income.”
“Meg…” Henry runs his fingers through her hair, searching her eyes. They start to water. It’s moments like this where Henry wishes he could be more for Meg than he is. When she is vulnerable and open with him, he felt so connected with her. They are both stuck and struggling not to drown in the muck of their lives. She always has her walls up, trying to be the “strong woman” that she needs to be in order to be successful or respected in the small ways that a woman in business can be. Meg wipes her eyes, and her face scrunches up in shame. “Oh Meg,” Henry croons, cupping her cheek in his hand.
She sniffles. “Oh God Henry. I’m scared. I’m so scared. What if nothing happens to me?” Meg speech starts speeding up, words slurring together in terrified stream, no, river of anxiety and raw emotion. “What if I just fail and fail and my parents are disappointed in me and I don’t get the house and career and the kids and the husband and the life that they wanted for me? The life that I was supposed to have. I’ve been trying so hard to do what I am supposed to, but I’m barely making enough to pay off student loans, and rent, and bills, and everything else. What if it’s not enough Henry? It was all supposed to be enough!” Here, she starts hiccuping and shuddering.
Henry pulls her close, tucking her head under his chin, stroking her back. “What if I fail, Henry? What if I have to go home to my parent’s house and admit to everyone that I can’t hack it. It’s not fair Henry. It wasn’t supposed to be this hard. No one told me it was going to be so hard.” Henry says nothing. He has no answer. Her fears are his own. If he voices them, he thinks he would crumble and take her down with him. He holds her closer. It is the least he can do.
She settles down a bit after a minute, then looks up into his face. Her eyes and nose are red. “You love me, Henry, don’t you? At least I have you. At least we have each other.” Suddenly she is kissing him, fervently, ardently. He isn’t sure if she is trying to feel complete or in control, but he recognizes her hunger like his own. He kisses her back, wondering if she is being selfish or he is. He whispers that he loves her over, and over, and over. She clutches him tight to her and chokes back a sob at his words. For the second time that night, they are intimate. This is a rare occasion for them, even rarer for them to be so frantic about their love-making.
Afterwards, Meg gets up to use the restroom. She wipes her eyes as she stands. Henry watches her naked body as she gets up, her silhouette as she turns on the bathroom light and then closes the door behind her. He feels the absence of the warmth of her body.
Meg comes out of the already dark bathroom and quickly hops back into bed. She curls up on her side, facing away from Henry, not even touching him. She feels like a stranger in his bed, no longer the woman who was desperate to love and feel that she was only minutes ago. He wants to reach out to her, to recapture those emotions that made them feel so close, but he knows this is futile. She’s gone now. He hopes she will come back to him, but he knows better than to hold his breath waiting.
In the following month Henry gets a promotion at work. It doesn’t seem that way, but his title changed and he is getting paid a little bit more. He is basically doing the same work but now people treat him like he has more authority. Meg was pleased with him, but he caught a look on her face, like she was calculating his status versus her own.
Meg and Henry spend almost every night together. Henry is starting to feel antsy and stifled as Meg starts changing little things around his house one at a time, as if he wouldn’t notice that way. He can see her everywhere. Her blanket, made of a material that makes him colder than he would be without it, now draped on the back of the couch. His things tucked in drawers and cupboards. His disorganized piles of notes on his desk are shuffled together until he can’t find anything anymore.
This is one of the few nights that Meg is out to dinner with some friends of hers and isn’t there. Henry had been looking forward to this night, but now that he has the apartment to himself, he doesn’t know what to do. He opens a book to read, but his eyes glaze over the pages and absorb none of the words. He starts to walk around his apartment aimlessly. With everything that has been changing, he feels like he’s exploring his own home.
They never spoke about that night where Meg had been so vulnerable with Henry. He wanted to bring it up, more than once, but that door felt nailed shut. Meg hasn’t been that open with him since then. If anything, she has doubled down, her sense of focus and determination heightened as they move about their lives as if nothing happened. It makes Henry’s heart ache. Not just for the gap of intimacy he feels, but because her shutting the door on him makes him feel like he can’t expose his own fears to her. He feels the instability of that keenly, but Henry is never one to rock the boat.
He ambles to the fridge, opening it and closing it, not even hungry. He looks around his kitchen. There is a pad of paper on the desk that Meg put there so they can make a grocery list or leave notes for each other if they leave when the other is gone. Henry sits down and looks at the blank pad. Absently, he starts drawing a bird sitting on a tree branch, then some vines, and then a monkey. The monkey is trying to get the attention of the bird by showing how he can reach the bananas up high, but she is shy and hides behind her feathers. Before he knows it, Manny the Monkey and Phoebe the Parrot are going on an adventure through the jungle, and he can almost see himself in it.
He glances up at the clock. Meg is out later than usual. There is a shiver that crawls up his spine, like he is doing something wrong, as he looks at the cartoon he drew. He takes the paper, folds it, and hides it in the back of a nearby book without even thinking about what he is doing.
A week later Meg is staying the night at Henry’s. They’d mostly been at her house that week. When they go to bed on Friday night, Meg grabs her book and reading glasses. Henry climbs into bed next to her and turns on the TV. She side-eyes him and he turns down the volume and brightness. She opens her book and his drawing from his night alone falls out. Meg blinks rapidly and holds up the paper in confusion. Henry’s stomach drops.
“What is this?”
“Oh, I, um-” Henry stutters.
Meg slowly opens the paper and turns it over, looking at it.
“Did you draw this?” she asks.
“Yes,” he admits quietly.
“Huh,” she says. Henry’s heart is pounding. “Cute,” she says dismissively. “In the future, please don’t put your doodles in my books, I don’t want the ink to smudge the pages.”
Henry feels like he’s been punched in the gut. He should be used to this. His mother used to say things like that, worse probably. That thought makes him sick. Not only should he not be comparing his partner to his mother in such awful ways, but she probably shouldn’t remind him of those things to begin with. He looks at Meg, frustrated, but not in a way he can express that would make sense, while she placidly reads her book. Somehow, her obliviousness makes him feel worse.
Meg reads for about a half hour while Henry stares at the TV blankly, his mind racing. She yawns and puts her book and glasses on the bedside table. He looks over at her and she gives him a peck on the cheek. She turns off the lamp on the side table, signaling that she is going to bed. She puts earplugs in her ears. Drowning out any noise is the only way she can sleep. “Turn off the TV and go to sleep soon babe,” she murmurs as she rolls over with her back facing him. He clicks it off, the darkness consuming the room.
He hasn’t felt this awake in years. He has to find all of the other drawings before she can discover more. The tickling nervousness of cleaning up a mess before someone could find it made his chest feel tight. When he is sure that Meg is asleep by the sound of her soft snoring, he carefully gets out of bed and tip-toes into the living room.
He opens the drawers in the desk and takes out all of the doodles on napkins from their hidden places he stashed them in. He didn’t realize how many he accumulated, but there are stacks of them crammed in multiple drawers and between other papers. He opens manuals and paperwork and notes with scribbled drawings in margins and blank back pages. He tears the doodles out until he has a little unkempt stack.
Henry sees all of the little scraps and turns toward a box in the corner of the room. The box is a decorative storage bin that his mother sent him. The box is filled with some of the contents from his childhood bedroom that his mother had sent him a year ago in one of her cleaning fits, trying to get rid of old junk. He set it in the corner and left it there without looking through it. He had intended to, but he got busy or forgotten somewhere along the way.
Lifting the lid, he peers into the box. He picks through the odds and ends of his childhood. There’s a stuffed bear that he never liked much, a few trophies and photos from his youth, and a few knick-knacks that he collected. Finally, near the bottom of the box, he finds a slim book, worn from years of intense study. He huddles on the couch with his phone as a flashlight, the book on his lap. He starts flipping through the maps of the constellations within until he gets to the back pages where the folded leaves of paper were kept safe. Henry opens them up and smoothes them out. He grabs another book and opens it to the back, finding more of the same, cartoons, doodles, and stories hidden in the back of old books. He sees years of stories and imagination folded and hidden, years where he wanted to please people more than follow his own dreams.
He takes his desk pile of doodles and puts them in the box with the old ones, until the box is nearly full of drawings over the years that he kept hidden from himself. He stares down at all of the sketches. Individually they feel infinite, but together they feel small, he could throw them away so easily.
Sliding to his knees, he sees all of the adventures that were happening in his mind that he was too afraid to embrace. For a moment, he feels ashamed. Every one of the drawings is evidence of his head being in the clouds when he had responsibilities and obligations. He feels like his chest and stomach are being squeezed in a vice. The feeling travels up to his throat until he can hardly breathe. He sees the moments of joy in each one of the drawings, but it aches to see it all in one place, confronting him.
Henry sits on the floor, going through each and every drawing. He drops them to the ground, letting them all scatter around him until he is surrounded. About halfway through the box, he feels bitterness and anger rising to the surface. He’s done nothing that has mattered in his whole life. All he has to show for himself are doodles hidden away like dirty secrets. His head buzzes so much it’s disorienting. Henry’s hands clench into fists and he throws the box across the room, trying desperately to get himself away from the evidence of his failure. The box lands on a rug with a muted thump and the papers fly out, strewn all across the floor. He wants to scream, but he hasn’t screamed in years. His throat wouldn’t know how.
He takes his book on constellations in his hands and starts ripping the pages out. It’s frantic, tearing page after page after page. With each screeching rip, he thinks about how the stars he sees at night may already be dead. The light is a trick, giving false hope and false wishes. He tears and tears until there is nothing left but the binding, but he still feels unsatisfied. He starts to crush and destroy the scraps of paper, ripping them up until he can’t reach any more.
Henry’s head falls into his hands as tears burn his eyes. He sobs, ugly and uncontrollable. Feeling lost, small, and stupid, Henry curls up into himself, clutching his knees as he cries for the first time in so long. The consequences of all of his actions and inactions pile on him all at once until he fears that he may suffocate under them. But he does nothing. It’s the only thing he knows how to do.
First-time contributor Amber Lee is a creative writer, world-class Dungeon Master, and super-friend, based out of Portland, OR, where you can find her sipping tea, listening to the Mountain Goats, and thinking of new ways to make stories hurt real good.