“What’s it like sleeping in outer space?”
“Well, I’ve never been to outer space.”
“Yeah but…” she skipped ahead of him, “what’s it like, Daddy?”
He slung her sparkly unicorn school bag over his shoulder.
“It’s very quiet in space,” he offered. She didn’t seem satisfied with that answer. “It’s so quiet, you can hear your own blood cells rushing through your ears.”
“Wow!” She stopped in her tracks.
“Yeah! And if you close your eyes and concentrate, you can see your cells swimming around inside your eyeballs.
“What are cells?”
“They’re like little goldfish that swim through your body.” Well, that was sort of the truth.
Why? “They carry important messages so your body can work.”
She closed her eyes and took his hand as they walked. She slowed her pace and concentrated on locating goldfish.
“You won’t see them now. That only works in outer space.”
“Zero gravity. The cells move slower in space. Here on Earth, they move too fast to see. And it’s too noisy to hear them.”
“Oh. Too bad.” She side-eyed the noisy kids pouring out of the school. A weary teacher hollered at them to stay in line until their parents arrived, but no one listened.
She pulled on her dad’s hand so they could break away from the school’s orbit.
“So… is that what makes dreams? The cells in your eyes? They bring pictures?” She was alive with questions after a day of being told answers.
The Dad paused for a moment to find the words.
“Yeah, that’s why if you wake up in the middle of a dream, you can only remember parts of it. Because the cells try to swim away quickly before you wake up, but sometimes a few get left behind.”
“Do they leave nightmares too?”
“Yes, nightmares too.”
“Do they ever catch up with their friends?”
“No, the fish.”
“The fish!” Oh right, the fish. “They catch up, that’s when you forget what your dream was all about.”
“Makes sense. That happens to me all the time.”
They were already down the block and ascending the outdoor staircase to their apartment. It was a 5-flight climb to their floor. Soon, they would be home. It was only a 15-minute walk from the schoolyard to the apartment, but it was the most important 15 minutes of the day.
“Daddy? Is it true you’ve never been to outer space?”
“But if you did go… would you tell me? Or would it be something you had to keep top secret?”
Suddenly the stairs felt steep and they slowed their ascension. He should have eaten a protein bar earlier.
“Top secret,” he whispered.
“I knew it!” And she became light and raced to the top of the flight of stairs.
A middle-aged man skateboarded past the building. How weird, thought the Dad. Then he realized skateboarding was the cool thing to do over 30 years ago, and those skater kids were old guys now. And he was one of them.
“Daddy!” She shouted down to him. “How many stairs do you think it takes to get to outer space?”
“About 10 million.”
“That’s a lot!”
“It’s only 65 stairs to get home.”
Only? His quads were burning.
“Daddy, hurry up, I miss you!” She was more than halfway up already. The sparkly unicorn backpack felt unusually heavy for something that was probably only carrying sandwich crusts and unfinished fruit.
“What do you call it when you miss someone but you don’t know who they are? Like you haven’t met them yet but you want to be with them but they’re not here and you miss them? Like when you know you’ve had a dream but you can’t remember it?”
“I’m not sure I know!”
“You have to know! Come on, Daddy!”
He had to think of something quick, but all his goldfish brain cells were preoccupied with not passing out from extreme muscle exertion.
One day, she could very well be an astronaut, and sleep in a capsule floating in outer space. She would know by then, that tiny goldfish didn’t live in her ears and eye fluid. And maybe she wouldn’t want to hold his hand so much, and maybe she wouldn’t give him her bag to carry. And she would know what that word was, that described something he had never even thought of.
In just a few minutes, they would be home, and it would be a different place — somewhere where he didn’t have all the answers.
And suddenly, he missed her, and he suddenly understood what she meant.