For a really fresh take on obsession, take a look here Slushies! Lisa Gordon’s short story is a masterclass in taking a popular form and quietly exploding it (pun intended). By turns deeply human, comical, sad, and just a little bit “out there”, Gordon’s story sweeps alongside a protagonist whose undying love for civilian astronaut Christa McAuliffe drives a story with the hallmarks of space exploration. NASA’s obsessive attention to detail, understanding of real world factors, and commitment to thinking outside the box are shared by Gordon, who tells a surprising and rewarding story. You might want to jump down the page and read or listen to it in full first, as there are spoilers in our discussion!
Listen to the story Paul on Earth in its entirety (separate from podcast reading)
And in the spirit of confession that permeates this story, our team is confessing their obsessions:
- Kathleen Volk Miller – podcasts and keeping her wine racks full (purely for aesthetic reasons!)
- Jason Schneiderman – the original Doctor Who series (1963-1989), keeping it old school!
- Marion Wrenn – onion dip (very hard to find in Abu Dhabi, so it’s her go-to when she’s Stateside!)
- Samantha Neugebauer – old tin boxes
- Dagne Forrest – space exploration and marzipan
You might want to read these related links:
Christa McAuliffe and the 1986 Challenger explosion
The Week in Longing, Dagne Forrest on Rust+ Moth (a recent poem by one of our editors that references the Challenger explosion and the late 2022 recovery of a piece of the shuttle off the Florida coast)
This episode is brought to you by our sponsor Wilbur Records, who kindly introduced us to the artist is A.M.Mills whose song “Spaghetti with Loretta” now opens our show.
At the table: Kathleen Volk Miller, Jason Schneiderman, Marion Wrenn, Dagne Forrest, and Samantha Neugebauer, as well as technical team Ta’Liyah Thomas, Anthony Luong, and Sebastian Remetta
Lisa Gordon’s short fiction has been published in Paper Darts, ANMLY, Hypertext, Storychord and elsewhere. She lives in the Boston area and is working on two novels.
Paul on Earth
Paul had a hard time concentrating on the wedding. Maybeth had tears in her eyes, but then again, she cried at everything. The rabbi was saying words about how important trust is when it comes to love. Maybeth took his hands. She had nice, soft, small hands—Paul always liked that about her. She could do a lot with those hands: not least of which, much earlier in the morning, even though they weren’t supposed to see each other until the wedding (Maybeth had wanted it that way) he knocked on the door of her hotel room. Tap tap, tap tap, tap tap, so she would know it was him. He needed her, he said. He needed her to touch him. And she did. And he’d felt better, but only for a moment.
He still couldn’t get Christa out of his mind.
He still looked her up. Often. All the time, you might say. It had been years since 1986, but still—she was a household name. Christa McAuliffe. The whole thing had affected everyone, especially school children. It was one of Ronald Reagan’s most celebrated speeches, and he’d been a former movie star! Not that most people remember that. Now, there’s a show about it on Netflix. He still hadn’t watched it. He couldn’t bring himself to do it.
She was still alive inside him like a constellation, burning layers through his skin. And now he was getting married, again, to another very, very nice lady. She knew everything, and she forgave him. He was getting a chance to start over.
“Paul, Maybeth, do you take one another?” the rabbi said.
“I do,” Maybeth said, squeezing his hands.
“Yes,” Paul said. “I mean, I do. Yes.”
Little lines crinkled adoringly around Maybeth’s eyes. Her eyes were the color of limestone.
“Then it is my honor. To announce. You as husband and wife, to one another.”
The guests roared as ceremoniously as a small crowd can, gathering to their feet, a wave of low thundering applause ebbed and flowed as they kissed. Paul knew next to none of them, but luckily, Maybeth had many friends. She was liked by many people, unlike Paul. It was one of the things Paul told her when they first met: I won’t bring much to your life. I’ve tried to change but—
She had interrupted him. “That’s for me to decide.”
Maybeth’s lips were slick with lipstick and he worried, for a moment, he’d look like a clown. But he could feel her smiling through her mouth, through her kissing, and she kissed him with abandon, and he let her. He loved her. He really wanted to love her.
* * *
Paul was 15 when Christa McAuliffe was his teacher, and he fell for her like a rocket burning through the universe. (It was a cheap analogy, he knew that. It was cliché, obvious. But it was how he felt.) She was so pretty—! Just so, so pretty. All the school boys seemed to like the girls with big hips and big hair and pink mouths, always open. It was the early 80s, after all.
But not Paul. It was Mrs. McAuliffe, with her brown eyes wide as planets, her tall teeth, her curly hair, she was—well, she was a lot of things, but mostly, she was the mother figure he’d needed at the same time his sexuality was burgeoning, so she represented the classic oedipal complex, except a little inverted, for Paul. At least, that’s what he was told in therapy, later in life. It seemed true enough. He accepted it. But he couldn’t change his behavior.
His behavior didn’t take hold until after the explosion. She wasn’t even his teacher then—she’d moved on to another school, and Paul was floundering without her presence to steady him. To give him something to look forward to. But it was after that when his obsession really bloomed. He was devastated for her two children. Of her husband, he was fiercely jealous—jealous that he got to be the husband, even after she’d died. Jealous that he could mourn, really mourn. He called their house often, back then. He’s not proud of it, but he did it. He got to know the sounds of all of their voices: the little girl’s, the young boy’s, the husband’s. Lots of people were calling then, obviously. It wasn’t too invasive. But they did change their phone number, later. Unlisted, of course. Paul was saddened. Deeply.
Back then—then being, before the internet—there was only so much he could do. Newspapers stopped reporting. He kept copies of some of the ones he could find, the issue of People Magazine with her face on it, and the like. He kept them in a notebook. He went to college. He went to class. He tried to connect his obsession with the idea that maybe he was obsessed with space—! Yes, that had to be it! He majored in astronomy, but he just couldn’t take to it. It was too mathematical. Too science-oriented. Christa had been his English teacher. It was escapism, he preferred. He graduated with a degree in Literature and asked Sandy to marry him. It was what you were supposed to do. She expected it, but she was happy, very happy. They lived in a little apartment in Boston for a few years, while she finished her Masters’ degree at BU. He took a teaching job in a small town called Concord, west of Boston, in—what else? English. It was not lost on him that Concord—albeit, New Hampshire—was where Christa was from. And he’d learned that she’d lived for some time in Framingham, Massachusetts. It was not far from Concord, not far at all. He spent his days driving around strange neighborhoods, aimlessly, wandering, or in the parking lot of the high school she’d attended, which was still there. He told Sandy he’d started a chess club for his students. He’d never played chess in his life, but she believed him.
That was all for a long, long time. He was happy enough. He enjoyed teaching, though he feared he wasn’t very good at it. When he closed his eyes, he could still see Christa’s back, the way her arm would raise to the chalkboard, how her writing made a pleasant sound. Tap tap, tap tap. He’d developed some decent cooking skills, and Sandy baked, and they ate well. They made love occasionally, and then frequently, because Sandy wanted badly to have children. Paul was thankful that they were inexperienced lovers—they’d only really had each other—and didn’t know that he didn’t touch her the way a man does when he loves a woman. When he’s in love with her. But after a year or so, the test results came back with bad news: she wouldn’t be able to bear children. And she stopped turning to him in bed. And Paul found that he was pleased. It allowed space in his mind for the obsession to grow. And grow, grow it did. It was like a whole other place in his mind he could turn to, retreat into: he could go into different parts of Christa’s body and inhabit them, and they were in love in a way that didn’t exist on Earth—it was unique to them, and them only, and it was everything; it was his world.
Years passed. Years upon years. Until finally, one day, he was arrested. A little girl in the town of Framingham, Mass. had been abducted. She’d been missing for three days and discovered later, in the conservation land lining the towns’ perimeter, murdered, sexually abused. Such an awful, tragic thing. Paul had been seen too often in her neighborhood, and others nearby, idling around in his brown Pontiac, a stranger. His likeness matched the description of the abductor: tall, glasses, a non-descript male. He was taken to the station and questioned for hours.
He was bewildered. Truly and simply bewildered. He wouldn’t have known where to begin, is what he said.
“Where to begin with what?” the detective had said.
“With stealing a child,” Paul had whispered. “With touching a child.” He clasped and unclasped his hands.
Yes, he’d been around the neighborhood. Often, on and off, for years. No, he had no business there, knew no one, not a soul who lived there. No, he had no alibi—he had, indeed, been driving around that very night. He’d been lying to his wife for so long he’d begun to believe there was a chess club. The only way out was the truth.
“McAuliffe,” they’d said. “The teacher astronaut lady? The one who got blown up?” The detective. A lawyer. Repeated it, as if they hadn’t heard him right. Couldn’t have possibly heard him right.
“Yes,” Paul said. “That’s the one.” He told them about the file he kept in the magazine in the downstairs bathroom. They sent a squad to get it, and his wife followed behind, hysterical. The questioning was relentless. He was shoved in a cell for 14 hours. Eventually, they found the right man. He’d committed a similar crime in Western Mass., in the Berkshires. They opened the door to his cell and he was free to go. But they recommended he get therapy.
“We think you’re a little nutso,” one of the policeman said, on his way out. Behind him, echos of laughter. He started his car—it sputtered and died. It was a freezing, gray day in November. Sandy wouldn’t pick him up. He tried to hitch, but no one would stop for a man who looked like the man who abducted children. Eventually, he called a cab. It cost him $143 to get home, and, not having that kind of money on him, the cabbie had to drive him to a bank. He watched the cabbie eying him in the rearview mirror as he peeled away.
Sandy left, which didn’t surprise Paul in the slightest. What did surprise Paul was how little he cared. Somehow, they didn’t fire him. He’d thought they would have, but they didn’t. (“You didn’t commit the crime, Paul,” the principal said, disapprovingly. As if he’d wanted him to have been the criminal.)
His time was his own, finally. He couldn’t drive around the way he used to, which left a void in his life he wasn’t sure how he’d fill. But it turned out, it wasn’t as hard as he thought. He grocery shopped and cooked elaborate meals, gaining weight, filling out in places he didn’t think could grow. He masturbated on the couch as he pleased. He read different books and grew excited by new lesson plans. He even became energized by teaching in new ways. His life, it seemed, was changing. Christa was there—she would always be there—but he needed her less and less.
But then, as if out of nowhere, the internet became faster and stronger and more ubiquitous, and suddenly, the world was at his fingertips—anything he wanted could be his, information of any kind—and, well. Life took on new meaning. He bought a printer. He printed everything. He posted the photos, the articles, up around his house, a shrine. He was scared of himself. His teaching suffered. He stopped eating. He was fired. He’d hit rock bottom. And then, one day—it really was like that, just one day—he saw an advertisement for Addicts Anonymous. Whatever you’re addicted to, we can help, is what it said.
Paul went. He didn’t know what his life had become and he didn’t want to give up, not yet. He was 40 years old. His father had died long ago. Sandy had moved to Virginia, adopted a daughter, gotten a dog. He drove to the meeting, concentrating on the way the cold winter air felt in his lungs. And at the meeting, he met Maybeth. She was addicted to painkillers. She was a tiny, cute thing. Sprightly. Energetic. “But I have a dark side,” she said, when she spoke to the room. She’d been watching Paul carefully. He could feel it, even when he turned away. After the session, she approached him. “I’m looking for a new boyfriend,” she said. “Addictions don’t bother me.”
“Even mine?” Paul had said.
“Even yours,” she had said.
He’d addressed the room—all 27 of them (he’d counted) and he’d said, “Hi, I’m Paul. And I don’t know why. Or maybe I do. But—and sorry if this freaks anyone out—I’m addicted to Christa McAuliffe.”
There’d been chatter, a couple of laughs. Some of them looked at him quizzically. He heard someone whisper to someone else “Challenger”. And he’d felt very much like crying. It was the first time he’d felt like crying in—well, maybe ever. Since he could remember. And it felt like being opened, like a present.
When he told that to Maybeth, she cried. “I’m your present,” she’d said. “And you’re mine.” She smiled into his neck and curled up in his lap like a little dog. Paul held her. Never had his arms been so full. He closed his eyes and tunneled through space, slowly at first, just exploring, until he was rocketing through her again, ready to find what he was looking for.
Leave a Reply