Mars Plays the Fourth Stage

(Grief)

Mars stepped onto the runway in Dallas. It was early and cold, a grey overcast February morning. Cold and misty. Her dad had moved to Dallas in the late aughts, a few years after she and her sister had run away to Atlanta to try to make it in the music scene. It had been hard growing up. Her mom had died early, so young. Dad hadn’t said much about her death. Mars and her sister, Gem, had been close growing up; their dad had only gotten more distant as time went on, as the years stretched out.

They had moved around. Left California a few years after Mom died. First they tried out Michigan, Detroit. The winters were hard; next was Phoenix, Arizona, dad bouncing between one middle management role to the next. Third tier start ups out west, dying car suppliers in the Rust belt, a novelty popcorn manufacturer with a warehouse full of empty tins, broiling in the hot desert sun. In Dallas he had found Pepsi, or maybe Pepsi had found him.

Dad was a second generation Ethiopian; mom a second gen South African. They had met in college at UC Berkeley — Dad a mediocre student at Haas with a penchant for soccer and late night music shows; mom a nature-lover studying plant biology and strawberry gene editing.

Then Mom was gone and Dad shelled, hollowed, out. He lived in North Dallas, in stretched out suburbia. Worked from nine to five.

The end.

The car ride from the airport to his house was quiet. Dallas was quiet. Cars paid slid through the toll plazas, all electronic, smooth, sparse traffic on an early Sunday morning.

They rolled up to a suburban house. One story, manicured lawn, no trees. Mars stared at the front door as the driver stopped the car, unloaded her luggage, walked around to open the car door for her. It had been years. Five, maybe six. Mars hadn’t been keeping track. Gem had, maybe. Hard to say. They didn’t talk about dad. They never had.

She had called Gem in the car ride over from the airport, hit her voicemail, sent a text. “I’m in Dallas. Visiting dad. Wish me luck.” Gem hadn’t responded. They had grown apart over the last few months, Mars’ change taking its toll on the intimacy they had felt, the togetherness, the sameness.

Dad didn’t know. Not yet. The words didn’t exist to explain it. He knew she was coming, to expect her. The old, filled in her, not this ghostly apparition. Mars was wearing a light brown brushing, brown contacts. Some realities are meant for slow revealings, the shade drawn back one gauzy truth at a time.

The doorbell chimed, echoing emptily. Footsteps, then the door opened. A sighed hello.

“Mars. Is that you? You look different.”

“Yes Dad. Dad, we need to talk.”

She sidled past him, his long lanky frame, into the stale living room. The boucle sofa and egg shaped swivel chairs, the same as always, but faded out from years of disuse. She sat down on the loveseat, a dark green cozy leather affair, the surface of it splayed with soft cream-colored lines where the leather had cracked. It creaked slightly.

Her father picked up her bag from the doorstep, dropped it just inside the jamb and shut the door against the cold humid air. He moved into the living room far enough to open the front blinds, then sat at on the sofa across the room, facing Mars, his face in shadows. The sun streamed in weakly through the slatted blinds, lighting up Mars in the grey glow.

“Mars. You look like a ghost.” Straight, pointed.

“I know Dad. It’s worse than it looks. I need, I need to know about Mom. I think my condition is related to her illness, why she died. I … I sent my DNA to get tested Dad. I know Mom died of Huntington’s. My geneticist friend says I should have it to but I don’t. The doctor that did the IVF messed up, he changed the wrong thing. The gene error, it’s affecting my skin not my nerves.”

Mars was nervous, it poured out. Her father sat there, silent, his hands in his lap, upturned slightly. He stared at his palms, the same dark earthy tan they’d always been, steady.

Mars was tired. The flight had been early. The room was warm, stuffy. She could feel herself slowly slipping down on the leather sofa. She waited.

“Your mom’s illness surprised us. It’s unlikely. No one in her family knew they were carriers, but their family history was spotty. People didn’t live long enough for the disease to show up. She found out too late Mars, but she didn’t want to leave me alone. One of her friends from university was working at a promising biotech firm. They helped with the IVF, finding the surrogate. She didn’t tell me about asking them to make fix it. We didn’t talk about it much. She wanted you, you were the only thing she really wanted, new life. A chance to know that she would live on."

His voice, monotone, paused. Mars waited.

“There were originally three of you Mars. Triplets, originally. Something went wrong though, in the final trimester, or so we were told. They said her genes had killed her. Your mom was devastated but also elated to have the two of you.”

“But I wonder now, seeing you Mars. Did they get the right child? You, my dark difficult daughter. Look at you now. You’re unrecognizable. Was it an accident? Were you the one they meant to kill? These things are imprecise. You are the damaged goods.”

Mars eyes burned. She felt hot, she was sinking into the sofa. The greyness of the day seeped deep into her bones. The tears came slowly, then faster, silently. Her makeup was washing away she could feel it. She stayed still, staring out the window towards the meek, mild sun, avoiding the dark spot that was her father. She felt alone. She felt sorry for herself. She cried, her makeup streaking slowly yet surely, white, turning whiter.

“Mars. What curse have we brought onto ourselves? What curse is this.”

Her father got up slowly, paced slowly back to the door. He looked back once, not meeting her eyes. “Mars. I know you came looking for answers, but I need you to go. You carry the curse that your mother had, you wear it on the outside of yourself now. You may be my daughter, but you are bad luck here, to me. My life has had enough bad luck up to now. I am sorry that that bad luck is yours now, that I have given you that burden but I can’t help you with this. With any of it. I love you Mars. You must leave though.”

He opened the door, and set her bag back outside, on the porch, then turned around and disappeared down the dark, quiet hallway into the back of the house. A door shut softly.

Mars continued sinking, slowly, into the leatherette sofa, staring unseeing into the distant grey sun and cried.

to be continued

These three craters in the eastern Hellas region of Mars contain concealed glaciers detected by radar. On the left is how the surface looks today; on the right is an artist's rendering showing what the ice may look like underneath. (NASA/Caltech/JPL/UTA/UA/MSSS/ESA/DLR)