When she was five she read newspapers out loud to her grandfather. Mostly world news and sports scores and she didn't understand a big part of it, but reading a newspaper seemed such a grown-up thing to do. She would remember the curious, hard to pronounce place names (Saigon and Polynesia and Timbuktu) and imagined how wild and exciting places with such names must be. Her father told all his friends and some random people on street that his daughter learned to read when she was four and that she was surely to grow up to be a famous doctor or a novelist or even the president. She thought it was all right that her father said those things, but what she really wanted to become was an adventurer, a traveler and explorer.
When he was five her mother left. He woke up one morning distinctly feeling that the whole world had changed and would never be the same again. When he came downstairs, his father was sitting at the kitchen table, seemingly listening intently to some happy pop hit on the old radio and this feeling, that some integral part of his life had just gone missing was still so new and raw that he didn't really want to share it with his father yet. So he sneaked out very quietly, to go sit on the back porch and try to figure things out. When he heard his tummy rumble and went back in, his father looked at him as if it was the first time he saw his son, as if his son was now some completely other person. Someone a lot bigger and stronger.
That afternoon he threw a rock through one of the panes of the neighbors' greenhouse. He was angry and he just wanted to hear that sound, of glass shattering into a million tiny pieces. Then he stood there, contemplating the broken window for a few minutes. And then he went and knocked on the neighbors' door, told them what he had done and apologized.
The next (and last) time he saw his mother was three years later.
At sixteen she was attending a prestigious girls-only private school. She had to wear a school uniform, a blue blazer and a pleated skirt and knee-length white stockings and she hated it with a passion. Not because it was hideous, which it was, but because it implied that she was exactly like every other privileged brat in that school. She loved her English teacher, who took the time to nurture her natural curiosity, gave her books to read and was always ready to debate with her so that she would learn to get her thoughts in line and her arguments clear and to look for both sides of every story. She found that learning new languages came easy to her and wrote passionate op-eds to the school newspaper and in her junior year she got herself elected the student body president. Not because she particularly wanted to preside over that particular student body, but because she believed that the only way she could justify her existence was to be engaged in what was going on around her and try to change it for the better.
She was sure that she would become a reporter for the New York Times, but then she won an internship at the UN for the summer before college and at the end of it proceeded to change her major at Harvard from Journalism to International Relations.
Her father died of Hodgkin's when she was home for Christmas her first year of graduate school, without witnessing her becoming a doctor or novelist or the President, but he had witnessed her become herself, idealistic and determined at once, and he was sure that she would be all right.
At sixteen he was attending his fifth school and was sincerely hoping that this one would stick, that he would be able to graduate from this one because all the changes, the new towns and homes just seemed to drag the whole high school experience out longer than absolutely necessary. He never really had any trouble fitting in, he was on the football team and sat in the right zip code at the cafeteria, but still seemed to be not quite present, not quite there. So he managed to not date a cheerleader and not stuff anybody in the locker and not spend his Friday nights on the employee parking lot of the local bowling alley drinking some cheap liquor somebody's older brother had mediated from the 7-11 until he ceremoniously threw up or did something equally undignified (and, to be honest, he really preferred the occasional solitary joint procured from a stoner ex who at times got a temporary promotion to present).
In the end, he managed to put together just enough grades and credentials to be allowed to try out for the Air Force Academy. After acing the physical tests, he headed straight to the nearest used cars lot, parted from a big chunk of his worldly possessions and embarked on a road-trip back home in a green Chevy with a cranky gearbox. It took him through all four places from where his mother had sent him a postcard during the last ten years and eventually also the one that, six months earlier, had been the place of origin of another paper-based dispatch regarding his mother, worded in much more clinical terms and informing him that even if he wanted to, now he would never be able to find out if it was something he did that made her leave.
The whole project ended up taking a lot longer than he had initially foreseen. On the evening before he made it back to his father's house, he stopped the car at the roadside and closed his eyes for a few moments, trying to give concrete wording to the determination taking shape in his head. He decided that he didn't want to be alone anymore.
"You know what I mean," he said out loud, as if to emphasize the point.
She was thirty and a member of the UN delegation participating as observers at a meeting of African heads of state at N'Djamena when she decided to do the unthinkable and, on a whim, ditch the official entourage that the Chadian government had kindly provided for and take a walk down the street all by herself.
When she finally made it back to the conference center, a few hours later, sweaty and exhausted, she learned that her little escapade had almost caused a serious diplomatic incident, but at that point, apart from being sorry about the position she had put her friends and colleagues in, she almost didn't care.
All that she saw that day told her that even though she had the best of intentions, she was but a cogwheel in a system that didn't work. That couldn't stop the bad guys from winning, the rich getting richer and the poor getting poorer and eventually those two halves from drifting so far away from each other that one didn't really have anything to do with the other. So far that the other started to exist only in some poorly constructed fairy tale, robbed of its happy ending and lacking in any educating moral. When she thought about it, she actually knew all these things before, but had forgotten how they concerned her personally. And now she felt that her heart was broken and she wished so badly that there was someone to pick up the pieces, at the same time feeling guilty for her weakness. She kept reminding herself that this wasn't about her or her loneliness and at her state of distress totally failed to notice that this was the first time she had actually given a name to that nagging hollow spot in her life that drove her to stay in constant motion.
Her sudden West African awakening might have divested her of any semblance of a career or outlook for a future one, but the "Dr." in front of her name was quite surprisingly what saved her -- her words of protest and explanation had seemed so absurd to the big shots in charge that they were inclined to believe that she was just another nutty out-of-touch-with-reality professor.
Within a year she had published an article in a respected academic journal, establishing the need to take several big steps back and assess the dynamics and patterns of the deciding issues of the world from what she called "outer space". She was only half kidding when she said that a serious alien threat might be good for the mankind, forcing them to realize what united them rather than what made them different. She was very proud that she had found a voice to express her ideas. But she didn't really expect the President of the United States to contact her.
By the age of 30 he had participated in enough "military solutions" to conflicts to know that the family he had chosen was just as dysfunctional as the real ones he had tried to have (and for the record, he mused, falling in love, even marrying someone because you thought they needed you is not a very sustainable idea, because, more often than not, once they figure out that they have you, that they can count on you, it turns out that they don't really need you that much anymore; furthermore, when the gurus say that a relationship is a matter of give and take, they probably don't mean that one party should concentrate exclusively on the give and the other on the take). Some people's sense of empowerment just had to come at the expense of others and he supposed that the rigid hierarchy of the military just made it a conveniently suitable vehicle for them. It was a bit disappointing, but hardly heartbreaking. He had never been particularly judgmental (though, neither did he think that "that's just who I am" was a legitimate excuse to being a petty vindictive piece of shit).
It had just made him realize a few things. That he would probably never rise beyond a certain rank, for starters (he himself thought that he would top out at Major). Though he was excellent at recognizing systems and patterns, finding and correcting flaws in them, he had never felt particularly comfortable with something as heavily influenced by other people's opinion of him as politics. He couldn't even be particularly disappointed by his prospects (or lack of them thereof), because all he really wanted to do was fly, any piece of lightning-fast, state-of-the-art military issue equipment he could get his hands on (the mind-boggling speed emptying his mind of all things nonessential and the God-like rush as the heavy chunk of metal yielded to his tiniest command) and the higher the rank, the more paper-pushing and less direct action it entailed.
But he also realized that being an officer meant that his main responsibility lay with his subordinates rather than his superiors. Because no matter what kind of political maneuvering, misplaced good intentions or personal insecurities actually were behind the instructions that came down the command chain, as far as his men were concerned, those were his decisions that could potentially put them in harm's way and, in the worst case, cost them their lives. So he also had to be prepared to take responsibility for the consequences. No matter how disillusioned he sometimes got with how easily the armed forces were manipulated, he was determined never to knowingly betray the trust that his men had bestowed on him, never to lose his integrity.
A few years later, getting a first glimpse at the vast heartbreakingly white and monolithic expanses sprawling as far as the eye could see, he was forced to contend (and he allowed for a certain amount of bitterness in that contention) that in practical terms, the trust and the integrity didn't really amount to much. It was useless to argue that it had not been his despicably impulsive character that had driven him to defy direct orders and embark on a desperate, doomed mission to rescue two members of his team, but rather his deep sense of responsibility. He was willing to admit that the Air Force had little choice but to slap his wrist for that stunt, but could still muster no remorse. Having been given a certain amount of leeway in choosing his own punishment, he had requested to be posted to McMurdo in Antarctica, figuring that there he would at least get to fly something. And, for the life of him, he couldn't see a way how politics could screw this one up.
At 35, sitting at her desk and scrutinizing the latest lists of candidates the IOA states had sent, she let her mind drift and thought about how, if she weren't risking being executed for treason due to exposing a state secret, she would be extremely tempted to tell people that in a course of restructuring and branching out, her employer was transferring her to the corporate office "in a galaxy far, far away". And about how what she was about to do had to have been a wet dream of every self-respecting escapist. Except, of course, for the part where nobody had any idea what they would be stepping into the moment they stepped out of the gate and there was a distinct possibility that she, along with more than a hundred others might be instantaneously killed.
And that was exactly the nature of the emotional rollercoaster going on in her mind. She was giddy with excitement almost unbecoming to an experienced leader and at the same time she was questioning everything. The odds and options, personnel choices, priorities and goals, the competence of the IOA. And herself.
Not so much herself as the head of the expedition. She knew what kind of a leader she wanted to be and felt confident that she would be able to implement her vision. But she found herself increasingly questioning her motives for wanting to go. She had always thought that her work, the kind of processes that she needed to facilitate and goals she wanted to achieve were bigger than her and therefore had to come first. She had never actually felt that she had somehow sacrificed her personal life to that work or had had to make any significant concessions to it, in fact she had always been proud of her ability to keep everything nicely balanced. But now, going home at night, looking into Simon's trusting droopy eyes, knowing that someday soon now she would just be unceremoniously yanked from his life, she started to suspect that she might just be the biggest delusional egomaniac on – well, for the sake of proportion, let's go with – Earth.
Because her mind told her that she should be distraught at the thought of having to leave him and possibly never seeing him again, but her heart was having a more of a shrugging, "tough luck" kind of a reaction and that made her ask exactly what kind of a relationship she had had with Simon for all these years. And whether, in considering her own place in history so damn important that it seemed only fair that her most intimate human relationship was kind of… bland (she winced at how easily this kind of a clinical judgment came to her), she hadn't actually been a first class bitch (wincing again, this time at reverting to that word, even if it was only in a silent conversation with herself), not only wasting Simon's time, but her own as well.
She suddenly couldn't remember why it had initially seemed so obvious that the business of changing the world would automatically rule out a fulfilling personal relationship. Knowing herself, she was sure that there must have been a perfectly valid reason and she sincerely hoped that the holes in her memory weren't in any way due to that pestering cliché of a biological clock. Cause she certainly didn't have time to turn any attention to that. Still, if the fact that she now felt so guilty when she was around Simon (for not telling him that she was leaving, for not feeling bad about leaving, for not leaving, considering that she really wasn't in that relationship anymore, for not realizing earlier that she wasn't in that relationship, for hating him for making her feel guilty, and probably a wide variety of other reasons that she preferred not to put in words) was any indication, it seemed that she had at some point changed her mind.
So she tiptoed around wondering whether she was going to Atlantis to just escape from the mess of a personal life she had completely unknowingly created, or whether she wanted to punish herself, seeing that even if she did survive the initial contact with the Pegasus Galaxy and found herself a place there, she would almost certainly have no opportunity for any romantic inclinations at all for at least the next several years. Or whether her apparently delusional (yet still surprisingly capable) mind was hiding somewhere in its recesses the hope of a carte blanche, just starting over, personal life and all.
The fact of the matter was that she really had to start being more careful about what she wished for – because now she really had maneuvered herself into such a historically important position that her imp of a personal life was completely inconsequential. Which, considering that this was its standard position, seemed to indicate that she would do just fine.
He was 35, flying some grumpy General to some mysterious research station when their helicopter was attacked by the strangest looking missile he had ever seen. He didn't get to admire it much, seeing as the nasty bugger seemed hell-bent on running them out of business and was having disturbingly good luck with that too, but if pressed to describe the thing, he would have said that it looked like some alien sea creature. Only his fast reactions had prevented it from turning their vehicle into a glorified snow blower.
The next thing he knew, he was lighting up chairs and being prodded by scientists and then he was suddenly offered a golden ticket out of there. Out of everything, really. And the only reason he didn't immediately accept was that the absurdity of the choice in front of him – South Pole or another galaxy – quite simply left him speechless for a while. Weren't there really any normal, picket-fence, 2.7 children places left for him? At all?
He was so tired of feeling useless. It was as if the kindergarten style punishment ("go to the corner and think about what you have done") the Air Force was inflicting on him was actually starting to work and as far as he was concerned, that was as good an indication of imminent doom as any. The dull landscape never offered any respite, any distraction, leaving him too much time to analyze himself. He had never particularly believed in continuously rehashing his failures, because he considered that to only unfairly distort his sense of self. And lately he simply couldn't seem to get over the fact that he was right on course for ending up permanently alone stuck on a hostile continent in a career that was going nowhere.
Now it suddenly turned out that he wasn't useless, that he was actually, and despite himself, quite uniquely useful. Not only because he had the gene that made chairs light up under him, but also because that was pretty much the only thing he had. There was nothing that was tying him down and nothing, external or internal, that was holding him back. Not even his survival instincts.
Of course he would go. He was aware that the almost feverish shine in his eyes made his future boss a little wary, but he was hoping that she would be appeased once she saw that, even though he didn't particularly care about himself at that moment, he still cared about the welfare of others. It was his job.
He was 38 years, 6 months and 11 days old, standing in the middle of the abandoned moonlit mess hall when the woman he had been ridiculously in love with for what seemed like forever stumbled into the room and, noticing him there, turned to leave, apologizing for disturbing him. He had actually been thinking about her, which made the whole situation even more absurd – that she so willingly let him claim the exclusive use of the nighttime mess hall, apparently so that he could just stand there – that he couldn't help letting out an undignified snort of laughter that obtained a slight echo in the bare, empty space. She shot a confused look at him, but he was already so consumed with chuckles that all he could do was helplessly gesture at himself and her and shrug and apparently his laughter was contagious because before long she was laughing as well.
And that was what did him in. The sight of her in the moonlight, her head slightly leaned back, her eyes half-closed and her soft dark heir framing her face. And the sound of freedom in her laugher, of her willingness to take each moment for what they were. Moments before she had entered he had managed to somehow almost convince himself that never actually having her would be the best thing ever to happen to him (it had involved a very long and complicated set of arguments and counterarguments and some intricate word and definition twisting, a few rather dirty underhand moves on the part of himself, but the final axiom had been such). All that hard work went down the drain with mere seconds of her presence. He fell silent, unable to do anything but watch her, and in a few moments so did she.
His gaze seemed to capture her eyes and they stood there, breathing growing deep and heavy and he realized that just being able to love her already was the best thing. That just feeling this way and being reassured every day, even by the mistakes she made, even when she was tired and angry (even when she was angry at him) that she deserved his love made him feel alive and a better person and never lonely. That he had finally, finally in his life made the right choice, found the right person and that this would be enough, even if she never found out how he felt.
Except that now she was standing here, looking at him with those eyes (never before, right? He would have noticed, right?) and everything suddenly seemed different, suddenly possible. It seemed possible to reach out and kiss her, lightly just like the moon (because this was not about desire, this was not about him at all, for he already had everything, but about her and what she deserved), to cup her cheek with his palm and let his thumb stroke her skin like a butterfly. And quite possibly she leaned her face into his hand and everything was so very quiet (never so quiet, right?) that it seemed that her sigh, slightly shaky and vibrating, filled the universe. When he finally lifted her face and looked into her eyes again it seemed to him that he saw his whole life in them. It felt like this was the moment he had been always been traveling to, that everything else had just been guiding him along, that it was all just a long straight line to her and it was the same with her. That this was where the two lines met and now, whatever happened, even if she never looked at him like this again, even if the world was never this quiet, there would be just one.
It had taken 38 years to reduce her to this – all that she was seemed to be balled up into one word. It started out as a question ("Oh?") and then became a realization ("Ooh…") and then just was ("Ohhhh…"). She suddenly knew why it had all seemed unimportant and inadequate before, why she couldn't mourn the relationships that she had lost or failed to have. Because they weren't this. And somehow, though she had completely missed this before (for this moment couldn't have just appeared out of nowhere, it must have been there before, dragging her out of bed in the morning, making her feel strong and sure of herself, lulling her to sleep at night, but she had had no idea), she must have known. Must have waited, must have prepared for this, for him.
This is it, she realized, without even having to think about it. This is what I am. His. Even if it is to be something that only the two of us know and hide in our hearts.
Later she would remember that she had known this man for some time now. And for all that time she had been calmer, not searching for human contact, not even thinking about needed it. And she remembered that he made her smile, that he challenged her, that he worried about her and took her seriously, that he was always there – and she couldn't even tell whether that was because he followed her or whether she had been drawn to him somehow. But all that would come much later.
She reached her mouth up to him. Her kiss was hungry, asking for everything that she had missed, in all those years that she had taken to become the woman that he could love.