Sisyphus in Space
It was well after midnight when I realized.
We are like Earth before the Copernican Revolution: Thinking that everything revolves around us, but slowly, painfully, and because finally someone did the math, we’ve come to understand that it is, in fact, us that are constantly changing position.
It was after midnight because it was before sunrise — our little lives nothing but trapped between the before and after — , but in my room the silence felt timeless. I had only moved in a few weeks earlier, filling my home with books instead of people because at least they couldn’t run away, eating pears on bread and lying to everyone about how full my days were and how empty I felt. It was winter, and I was constantly hungry. On cold and lightless afternoons, I would sit in a café, pretending to write, and listen in on the middle-aged waitress listing off which and how many cigarettes she missed most — there were three: The one to wake up (life-inducing), the one for when things got hectic at work (stress-relieving), and the one she would smoke right after getting out of the shower (ease-allowing). Apparently, these cigarettes were no longer in her life, and I felt sad for her because I didn’t know yet that we only care for someone’s sadness because they remind us of our own.
From Earth, you never see the back of the moon. Not that anyone ever bothered to look; every planet is busy with themselves. But still, like the moon, they see you differently each night. They see you appearing and disappearing, undressing and ever-changing, and yet to all this they’re indifferent, like the bored audience in a bad play: It’s always only you that’s spinning, full of hope, rolling around like a celestial Sisyphus, moving fixedly but without end and oh how lonely an orbital plane can be.
We even measure time by how many times we’ve completed this futile process, senseless spinning around arbitrary axes: A day of orbiting around ourselves, a month with the moon — dutifully pushing our glowing rock up the hill — , a year around the sun, a life turning in circles, counting like children in play that pretend not to notice they always end up exactly where they started. It feels a lot like waiting, most days.
Then it went dark again, and I was hungry. The half-eaten moon was hiding under a black napkin of clouds because set against a full moon like in the pictures this story would have been too perfect, too round, and no one would believe me. Science, like life, is imperfection. This way my story stays real, and in the darkness no one can see me staring at my phone as if it was a stellar constellation. I still think someone is watching me, sometimes.
When the screen finally lit up at exactly 4.34 am, transmitting a message from space — a past love — , my fingers jerked away from the surface as if I’d burned myself. Every day we’re waiting for these limbless machines to do something, and when they do, we’re stunned. It was well after midnight when I realized.
That they knew: They knew it all this time, Copernicus and Galileo, Kant and your lover: You are not the center of the universe — because you’re not even the center of your own universe.
Once I understood that, I decentered myself in my own solar system — nothing was different. But everything changed.
Iseult Grandjean is a German-French journalist and writer living in Vienna, Austria. She is currently preparing a doctoral dissertation about the geopoetics of climate change, philosophy and space being also the spine of her writing. She works as cinema editor and freelance writer for different journals and magazines and her prose has been published in literary journals or anthologies in Europe and overseas, lastly The Offing. Feeling most secure as well as most free in her native tongue yet also fascinated by the nature of different languages, she has taken up self-translating her short stories into English or French. Her work also appears in Mason Street’s Spring Issue 2020.
Photo by Sanni Sahil