Raised to believe that she could do anything, astronomer Jillian Greer dreamed of going into space. When she and her research partner Kera Sullivan invented a specialized telescope, it looked as though these two dogged scientists would fulfill the dream they shared.
But ten years later, while Kera trains in a space simulator, Jillian is married with children, packing lunches and helping her kids with homework. With her field’s archaic “all or nothing” mindset, maintaining both a family life and a scientific career seems like an impossible task.
As her fortieth birthday draws near, Jillian decides that she must give her career one more shot. Leaving her family for ten days, one day for each year she has put her career on hold, she seeks solitude in the sand dunes of Lake Michigan, where she struggles to see if she can find her way back to the stars.
|Publisher:||Feminist Press at CUNY, The|
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About the Author
Lesert is a prolific playwright whose works include Superwoman, The Music in the Mess, and Natural Causes, a finalist for the 2001 Princess Grace Foundation's National Playwright's Fellowship. Recently, she has published short plays in The Art of the One Act and The Best Ten Minute Plays 2007.
Read an Excerpt
Day One — Settling In
AFTER THE BLEACHING SUN AND asphalt of the expressway, Jillian's turn onto Forest Trail was a turn into a world of color. Yellows, greens, browns, blacks, heightened against a turquoise sky. Turquoise! The water, the big lake, must be feeding the sky.
She had driven the busiest route on purpose — taking 23 north from Ann Arbor, 96 around Lansing, through Grand Rapids and on to Muskegon — to remind her, as she headed further and further north along Lake Michigan's shoreline, why she needed ten days alone. More than days. Through days filled with hiking to near exhaustion and nights standing at the water's edge, open to the stars, open to everything the stars had always meant to her, she would listen. She would listen so intently that only the cold water lapping over her toes would remind her she was of Earth, but still part of a great infinite stir.
She passed a huge, brown sign with yellow-gold letters stamped into its painted wood, You are now entering the Manistee National Forest, and she slowed to take it all in: the bright yellow patches of poplar and birch leaves among the darker greens of oaks and pines, and the forest floor covered with ferns, deep greens tinged with rust. It had been an especially hot summer. Even the air flowing through her windows felt saturated with hot and cold and color, and she breathed deeply, smelling the overly sweet scents of wildflowers in the sun, the tang of pine in the shade.
For ten or twelve miles the road cut straight into the woods, and she couldn't help thinking of her typical drive home: from the highway to the land of strip malls and research buildings on Victor's Way; past apartment complexes and condominiums and houses too big for their small lots; to her taupe, two-story house with a dormer, built on a mild hill. Before the neighboring fields were developed, before street lights, they had been able to see some stars.
The road began to bend and as she steered back and forth past the campground loops, the Violet, the Oak, the Orchid, and the Hemlock, she could smell the lake. Occasionally, she spotted dark shapes deep in the woods. Black rounds looked like bears or figures staring back from behind the trees, and they made her think of Jack and Manny and Peia. Motherhood brought so much anxiety and fear. She had become so strong and so responsible for them, but so worn down from her self, and those shadows — tree stumps, she knew — felt like warnings.
Ten Days in the woods was not going to be easy.
But it was going to be.
When Forest Trail ended in the only parking lot for miles, Jillian opened her door, feeling the lake's power gust in the wind. She jogged a pathway of recycled planks, tunneling through trees that rose from dirt as soft as ashes. The dark powder seemed to brew from bulging roots that wove themselves across the ground. Yes, this was a time to rejoice. Time to reconnect with her joy. The path opened onto a broad deck and she stood, overlooking the dip and swell of the dunes and beyond that, nothing but water and sky.
A sky sometimes frustratingly clouded with moisture, but a sky she and Kera had listened to for years, a beautiful, long-afternoon turquoise sky.
She closed her eyes and felt the sand and water and light wrap around her, billions of tiny photons and water and air molecules colliding with her skin from all angles.
Day One, One, One. And I made it.
To her left the Dune Ridge trail began where timbers had been laid into the dirt to prevent erosion. It would be dark soon, under those trees. She had to hurry.
Back at the car she checked her gear one more time. Her roll pack was stuffed with water, pouches of tuna, cheese, protein bars, and trail mix, one aluminum pan, and a tiny coffee percolator. She was roughing it, yes, but she couldn't be without coffee. Her clothes were all set: wring-dry nylon outfits, three bras, three pairs of underwear, tank tops, and a bathing suit. She had packed an assortment of necessities: one hundred feet of corded rope, a flashlight with extra batteries, a simple first aid kit (salve, bandages, liquid sutures), and treated kindling sticks.
She took out her topographical maps — two large sheets taped together — and smoothed them out across the car hood. She could have planned the trip using GPS on the computer, but the quadrangles, each representing seven-point-five minutes of earthly rotation in painstaking detail, reminded her of earlier days when she and her father, and later, she and Kera, headed off into the night with telescopes and a pocket logbook. The act of smoothing out the pale green and white sheets and locating the best observation points had always been the required sufferance before the adventure. And now, her first truly solo adventure would take place in the heart of this undeveloped tract of dunes and forest fourteen miles wide by twenty-four miles long, an expanse of solid greens and blues bound only by the white of Ludington to the south and Manistee to the north. The spot she had marked — 44 degrees, 5.4 minutes North, 86 degrees, 28.5 minutes West — was a four-mile hike away.
At five o'clock, she settled her pack across the back of her hips, clasped the belt, and unbuckled her watch. Here she would live by the sun and the moon and the stars, the water and the wind and the sky. She threw her watch into the trunk and locked the car. Pausing on the observation deck, she said a quiet goodbye to the few people she could see in the water below, their splashes cut by the wind in her ears. As she turned to face the trail, she was acutely aware of the one-after-another density of the trees.
Earlier in the day as she drove across the state, she had pulled into rest areas and paced, reciting her Manistee Mantra:
Ten Years of marriage.
Ten Months of planning.
Ten Days to make it.
And between each, she had whispered, "Day One. One. One."
Already, the act of driving away had weakened the stranglehold of home. Freedom made other things important: the kids' faces, Jack's hands on her shoulders as she packed his lunch (he should have known something was wrong). The deceit of her smiles, though she had made sure to say to the kids See you soon, not See you tonight. A day-trip wasn't going to bring about change. She needed space, that precious feeling of endlessness, to figure out what came next. At one point, she had taken out her base ten triangle. To think that a triangle, a diagram, could reset a life! But then, realizing she had taken more of Jack with her than she intended — she didn't need a list to tell her how she felt — she threw the drawing in a garbage can and hadn't stopped again.
Those tens had been important. Ten Years of staying close to home because she couldn't bear to miss their nightly "Tell About Your Day." She couldn't miss the chance to boost Manny back up when he'd sat on the bench for losing the basketball three times. His body was growing and everything about him was loose and sloppy. He'd get that tightness back. Because music was for Manny what the stars were for her. She understood. Why didn't they? Because Jack didn't notice those vague pauses between Peia's words, those shifts in her gaze and the crooked grins that said she was having trouble with friends. Some new grouping of girls was shutting her out, and because it hurt too much to blame her friends, she was trying to figure out what she'd done wrong. Ten Years of developing software for other researchers because she could, because working at Burton's wasn't a bad job. Ten Years because she could still hear, clearly, Manny's cries the one time she did leave: Let me come with you! I can help.
Her boots clumped across the deck until her heels hit dirt. This was what she had to do: put one foot in front of the other and walk. Stepping over the timbers with her ankles flexed hard, she entered the path of trees.
She let the kids' faces pester her, remnants of long glances from the night before flooding her mind. She'd take the kids with her, but not Jack. No. She had never shared this place with Jack; she wasn't about to pack him in with her now. Standing over Manny and Peia as they slept, she had worried that her anxiety might leak into their dreams. She had lain parallel to Manny on his bedroom floor, knowing the slightest pressure on his mattress might wake him. Peia was either on or off, moving or asleep. Jillian had been able to touch her face. It helped to think of their faces now — Peia's darkly golden and Manny's so fair and blonde — when her back, the back of her legs, the back of her pack even, burned to turn around. To turn around and check, not for someone or something really, but to capture, visually, confirmation that the world behind her was being sealed off by the trees, that she was being folded into the forest.
The trail narrowed and grew darker, but turned often — thank the universe! — toward the water, and Jillian stopped at several overlooks to take in the endless expanse of blue, turning lavender now on the surface. Up and down root-grown and sandy slopes she bounced, with the green forest rustling around her and the sandy-aqua shallows rolling silently far below.
She estimated, using the sun's position, that it was seven o'clock when she climbed to the absolute crest of her dune. Four miles in two hours, perfect. Sweating profusely, she dropped her roll pack in the sand and sat, breathing in for three, out for three, in for three, out for three, feeling wonderfully exhausted and small.
A breeze blowing all the way from Wisconsin, over ninety miles of water to the west, ruffled her clothes. Behind her, to the east, the woods were fourteen miles deep. From her spot two-hundred and twenty-seven feet above the big lake, everything before her was deep and blue and green. Several strands of hair clung, dark and limp and stringy with sweat, to the sides of her face. Her hair stylist had said that her intense face needed some framing, so she'd allowed him to cut a few jagged bangs. Now, gathering the sweaty strands and preparing to set up camp, she regretted the cut.
She found a swell of sand that rose between two lines of trees. The first, poplars and birches, were clean moist trees. They'd provide good shade. The pines behind them would keep the bugs away and their needles made great kindling. With her folding shovel she leveled the sand, remembering the days when she and Kera used to lie on the slope of the dunes, their telescopes set up on the ridge or down close to shore. If they slept on uneven ground, or worse, with heads lower than feet, she would wake disoriented.
She ran rope through the tent's corner rings and bow-tied the loops around two young birches, then stood back with a smile. The climber's knot worked. Her tent puffed with the breeze, but only the flap flew into the wind. She'd set the tent parallel to the lake with her door facing north so that the wind, typically out of the southwest, could blow in through her windows and out through the flap. It was working. It was all working.
By the time she finished rolling out her bed, sealing all noncanned food in plastic containers, and rigging her hook-n-cable between two trees — where she hung her food fifteen feet above the ground to prevent any curious black bears from getting into it or coming close to her — the sky was streaked with reds and oranges.
She laughed at herself as she ducked into her tent to sweep the floor with her hands. She never would have made it to the Depot before dark. What was she thinking? She must remember the back country rule: never overestimate your speed. Two miles per hour, that was the most she could count on.
Tomorrow, she would hike to the Depot. Tomorrow would come soon enough.
She gathered twigs and dried needles, used one kindling stick and two bursts off her lighter, and sat beside a fire. Strands of clouds — way off to the west and heading north, she wasn't worried — were undercoated in fuchsia. Reds and purples fanned into lavender overhead, and within minutes, she watched the reds reach out and draw back. Now, all she had to do was wait, enjoy her fire and wait. But waiting, without the stars, left her vulnerable to the catch in her chest when she followed the colors of the sky southward and thought of them all, two hundred and fifty miles to the southeast, over the trees, at home.
Jack would have read her note several times. Ten Days, he would have read and reread, not quite understanding the duration, maybe more. Who knows? I've never done this before. The this in her note had been carefully dropped in to suggest the act of putting herself first. Restarting a life continually put on hold. Taking time that should have been hers all along, time that she was taking, now, to figure out how to salvage her science. She had planned to pack the note in his lunch so that he'd find out she was gone after the fact, but then she'd decided that was wrong. Her note announced nothing new, certainly nothing she had to hide. So she asked him to stay until the kids left for school, which created a stir. Jack was always the first one out the door. She handed his lunch to him and said, simply, "I'm leaving."
"So am I," he'd said, bending toward her to give her a quick kiss, as if she meant I'm leaving for work.
"No," she said, and he stopped, perplexed, as she handed him the note.
His pale blue eyes were so relaxed, so unlike hers. She felt embarrassed, remembering how he'd followed her to the car, looking back and forth from the note to her, saying "What am I supposed to tell the kids?" He had stood there in that loose-backed posture, nervous she figured.
Before she could call her plan silly and decide not to drive away, she'd put the car in reverse and called out as she backed down the driveway, "Tell them I had to leave. Something to do with the Planet Finder project."
The kids had heard her talk about the conference, watched her, night after night, poring over old drawings and images of her and Kera's last spectral studies at Lick. They knew she had exhumed something important, very important, and her time to present was drawing near.
Jillian pictured all of them in the big bed, Jack pulling Manny and Peia close. That's how Jack expressed his love, he pulled everything to him.
The crackles of her tiny fire echoed into the woods and she turned, several times, knowing there was nothing behind her. But the hairs on her neck rose when she didn't look. A dune chair — she would dig a dune chair with an arch for her neck, just as Kera had taught her that first time Jillian had spent a few nights at the Depot on her way back home from school. Her parents had been so surprised when she didn't come home immediately that June. But they weren't hurt. Jillian had found someone like herself, a girl who drew with math and loved the stars.
Just a few feet down from her tent, into the slope of the dune, she dug her own shape into the sand. Over and over she sat and pressed her body into the slope; finding creases that needed smoothing, she scooped and smoothed again. The sand cooled and the horizon warmed with an intense, cerulean glow, an oceanic fullness of color her mother had always loved. The brighter stars: Altair, Vega, Lyra, began to appear. To the south — she couldn't help it, she kept looking south toward the Depot, toward home too she supposed, though home was far to the east and over the trees — Scorpius was visible with his orange-red heart, Antares. She squinted, reducing her view to lights and darks, searching for clusters and nebulae beyond Sagittarius's cocked arrow. If the skies remained clear for the new moon, she might see the central bulge of the galaxy, where millions of hot, white stars orbited in a chaos of heat.
To the north, Cassiopeia cleared the trees. Soon, the queen of the night sky would drag Andromeda, Perseus, Aries along with her. What an incredible black backdrop for Capella, Algol, Aldebaran, the orange eye of the bull.
And finally, the Pleiades would emerge, zenith blue.
Movement below drew her eyes to a dark form on the beach — a man? — walking near the water. In the water? The only way she could tell where the sand ended and the water began was by concentrating, locating the sound. It was probably a shadow from her own memory, a walking representation of her wife-mother-leaving anxiety. Or was it a hiker, struggling to focus in the half-black, half-gray of early night. She remembered that spooky pre-black time, filled with shadows and noise, with bugs and flying squirrels and foraging raccoons. The sky and the air would cool to true black and grow quiet. In the Porcupines and the Smokies, she and Kera were often separated by hundreds of meters, but they always knew the other was near. They had their radios and they'd chat.
She found the Corona and used one of its brighter stars to draw an imaginary beam from her, to the star, to Kera, down in Houston. Kera, too, was on the water.
It was a man; she was certain by his gait. And now, seeing her in the light of her fire, he knew she was alone. As he passed below, she imagined his profile straightening with his upward gaze. She bent her arm at a ninetydegree angle and waved, only slightly, a mannish gesture. This was one of the real dangers in being alone: being discovered alone. But no. From two hundred feet below, he wouldn't know she was a woman. She stayed with his slight form, losing it and finding it several times before it faded completely.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Base Ten"
Copyright © 2009 Maryann Lesert.
Excerpted by permission of Feminist Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
1. Day One — Settling In,
2. The Great Rift,
4. Day Two — Sully's Depot,
5. Day Two — Sunset,
6. A Long Smokies Day,
7. Peia Again,
8. Day Three — Inland,
10. Open Drawers,
11. Day Four — South Manitou,
Life on the Main Sequence,
12. The Call,
13. To the Roof,
14. Something and Nothing to Prove,
15. Day Five — The Old Man,
16. Bad Mornings,
17. Day Six — The Lighthouse,
18. Any Woman,
19. On the Star Deck,
20. Evelyn Young,
22. Time in Heaven,
23. More Pictures,
24. In Tens,
25. Day Seven — His Body,
27. Day Seven — A Theory of Dreams,
28. Day Eight — The Waters of Hamlin,
29. Day Eight — Telescope of Trees,
30. Day Nine — Late Night Radio Call,
31. Day Ten — Back to South Manitou,
32. Day Ten — What Mishe-Mokwa Knows,
33. Day Eleven — Call Home,
Afterword: Balancing Lives for Women (and Men) in Science by Florence Howe and Sue V. Rosser,