From Mars with Love part 3

And the final installment of “From Mars with Love”. You can find Part 1 here and Part 2 here.

From Mars with Love

Part 3

When Michael returned to his research, he found that the excitement he had once felt at being in one of Europe’s oldest universities, only the third university founded by theHoly Roman Empire, had vanished, just like his feelings for Kristina. The daily discoveries became boring research. Had any of those emotions been real? Like his suppressed love for his wife, he remembered his hatred of research.

As the monotony of digging through dusty library shelves started to wear on him, Michael realized he missed teaching. The brief visit back toHoustonreminded him that he missed his friends. And he also missed his dog. His sister’s kids were enjoying having Ares living with them, but he decided he should return home before they started to think it would be permanent.

Ending his research atHeidelbergearly, Michael returned toHoustonin time to get some classes on the schedule for the fall semester. He had enough data to write his planned book, and Kristina and Julian had enough to start their thesis, so he marked it down as a successful trip.

After the scare, he found things improved with Jennifer as well. The time lag for their messages was now on the decline, making it easier to communicate. Before too long, the mission was starting to wind down, and they were packing up for the return to Challenger, which was waiting for them in orbit. By the time the mighty ship had restarted her engines, the round-trip time lag was under twelve minutes.

An old familiar feeling of anticipation and excitement began to build inside Michael. He recognized it as how he had felt before he had picked Jennifer up for their first dates, and how he had felt on their wedding day. The feeling stayed with him, growing constantly during the entire time Challenger made her return journey to Earth.

Before long, they were able to hold only slightly delayed conversations.  He could tell Jennifer was feeling the anticipation, too. She was sad to see Mars receding behind her, but she was also excited to be coming home.

If Michael had thought the previous two years had been agony, the final month proved to be the worst. The Mars crew returned to Earth and was immediately isolated. They had not experienced Earth-level gravity for over two years. Much of that time had been spent on the surface of Mars, which, at 62% of Earth’s gravity, had depleted their strength. The long-term effects of exposure to the radiation of deep space was also an unknown that the doctors needed to study.

Having Jennifer back on the same planet was nice, but still not being able to be with her was almost overwhelming. Finally, after several weeks of rehabilitation, the astronaut crew of Challenger was allowed to return to their families. Tests were still being run and physical therapy would continue for months, but they could do those on an outpatient basis.

Waiting outside on the grounds ofJohnsonSpaceCenter, Michael chatted idly with the other families. Kids were running around, unable to contain their excitement at being able to see their absent parent again. When the doors to the medical facility opened, conversations stopped, but the noise skyrocketed as all the kids unleashed squeals of joy, or in the case of the younger ones, startled crying because they didn’t quite understand what was going on.

All of the noise vanished for Michael. He greeted those crew he knew well as they came out, but merely out of polite habit. His eyes and attention were focused solely on Jennifer.

Even though he had seen her on a daily basis over a video link, he had not appreciated how much she had changed. Her hair was cut shorter than usual. He liked her long hair, he but found the new style cute. Her walk was still unsteady, but she looked more trim and fit. The daily exercises she had done had kept her in shape.

In comparison, Michael felt like a balloon. Without her around, he had eaten more beef and fewer vegetables than normal.Germanyhadn’t exactly been kind to his diet, either. Fortunately, he didn’t think Jennifer noticed, because the wide smile on her face matched the one on his.

Their first hug and kiss were hesitant and muted. Neither liked displaying much affection in public, but amongst the other families enjoying their own reunions, they probably could have stripped naked, and no one would have noticed. Giving only basic notice to anyone else, Michael and Jennifer left the scene and headed home.

Once home, Michael felt more strangely awkward. When they finally made love, it almost felt like their first time all those years ago. There were all hints of something familiar, but long forgotten.

During that first night they shared more than intimate touches. Michael finally decided that he should confess what had almost happened with Kristina. He had avoided mentioning it before, simply because it was not a conversation to have over a video call from a million miles away. At least, that was what he had told himself.

After he explained how he started to have feelings for another woman, and how he had kissed her at a New Year’s party, Michael couldn’t bring himself to look at Jennifer. Minutes passed in agonizing silence. When she finally spoke, he kept his eyes averted, not wanting to see the hurt he knew would be in her eyes.

“You kissed her just that once?” she asked.

Worried that looking away would make him appear to be lying, Michael forced himself to look up. There was evident unease and fear on Jennifer’s face. All Michael wanted to do was answer yes and say that it had been meaningless. But he knew that was a lie.

“Yes, but I thought about doing it again. If that communications failure hadn’t occurred, I might have. I would have regretted it, but at the time, that might not have stopped me.”

Jennifer sat there, her lips pursed in thought. Michael could see emotions competing inside her. Finally, she said, “I understand. You were alone for so long. I can’t be mad at you for having thoughts about another woman. But you still love me, and that’s what counts in the end.”

They talked for another few hours, but by the end of the night, he thought it really did come down to that statement. He did still love her, and she him. He was surprised by how Jennifer seemed to completely understand the emotions he had felt.

#

Things were a little uncomfortable at first, but they both managed to put the turmoil of the last three years behind them. Jennifer had stopped taking her birth control during the quarantine period, and they both decided they still wanted to begin trying for a baby. Life started to return to a degree of normalcy.

Six months after her return to Earth, Michael noticed Jennifer looking worried and distant. The last time he had seen her like this, she had just gotten a secret abortion. Not wanting to wait a month for her to decide to tell him what was wrong, he confronted her more doggedly.

Nervously, she said, “I have a gynecologist appointment tomorrow.”

Unsure why that would worry her, Michael said nothing, waiting for her to continue.

“I want to get some tests done,” she said.  “It’s been six months since we started trying to have a baby, and yet nothing.”

Her words matched worries Michael had been keeping to himself. Six months without becoming pregnant was not normally something to worry about. Jennifer was past prime baby-rearing age.  But more than two years away from Earth’s protective atmosphere could have all kinds of unexpected consequences.

Sensing her unease, Michael tried to sound confident. “I’m sure it’s nothing. But just to be on the safe side, let’s get some tests. I’ll even get some myself, to rule everything out.”

Jennifer nodded nervously. They made an appointment for him the next day, and she scheduled some tests for herself when she saw her doctor.  Michael thought the ones for him were unnecessary and highly embarrassing, but he did them anyway, in hopes of distracting Jennifer from worrying about any problems being all her fault.

When the results finally came back, they hit Michael like a punch to the stomach. Jennifer was no longer capable of getting pregnant. What surprised him the most wasn’t the news, but their reactions to it.

Jennifer sank into a deep state of depression. She stopped wanting to do anything or talk to anyone. At home, she sat on the couch, not watching TV. She slept late, even on work days, and went to bed early.

As for Michael, he thought he was fine. It was disappointing news, sure, but he had known this could happen. Radiation could do weird things, and even though Challenger had been shielded as best they knew how, you could only do so much and still keep the ship light enough to fly.

Their friends and family suggested adopting. His mom, desperate for more grandchildren despite the three his sister had, told them that adoption would be a simple matter for them — Jennifer was a world-wide hero. Michael ended up snapping at her and hanging up after she mentioned it one too many times.

After he hung up, he found Jennifer staring at him. Defensively, he said, “She keeps harping on the idea of adoption. I didn’t want to listen to it anymore.”

Jennifer shrugged. “I know. My mom’s the same way. But I didn’t realize how angry you were until now. Michael, I think we should go see a counselor.”

Michael growled, “I’m not angry. Just annoyed at people who won’t leave me alone. And why should I go see a counselor? You’re the one who killed our one chance to have a baby.”

The crushed look in Jennifer’s eyes made Michael regret his words, but not enough to take them back. It felt good to say out loud what had been pestering him at the back of his mind. Steeling himself for a good, loud argument, Michael was surprised when Jennifer turned and left the room without another word.

Over the next few days, Michael found himself spending more time on campus to avoid being at home with Jennifer. They seemed to spend less time with each other than they had during the Mars mission. Michael even found himself regretful that Kristina had graduated and moved on to another university for post-doctoral work. If she were there, he could show Jennifer what it felt like to have someone make a unilateral decision that ruined both their lives.

Some part of him could admit that his anger was ridiculous. His mother was right — adoption was still a viable option. Jennifer had returned safely from another planet. They should be happy just to be together again.

But the fact that they weren’t happy, even though they should have been, just added to his anger. Plus, every time he would convince himself to try to fix things, Jennifer would do or say something that just pissed him off again. Logically, he knew that this was more his perception than anything she was doing on purpose, but that proved no consolation. He started to wonder if divorce might be better for both of them.

One morning, as he left for work, Michael saw something in Jennifer’s eyes as she said good-bye. There was sadness there, like there usually was. But today he caught a glimpse of familiarity, the old love that had been missing. As he drove to work, his mind lingered on her eyes.

Their first date came to his mind. He had spent months flirting with Jennifer, getting nothing concrete in response. They had ostensibly been friends, despite his flirtation. When she had finally suggested they go out on an actual date, it had made him giddy.

From there, his mind ran through every moment they had spent together. Their first time making love had been in a hotel inBoston. Michael had gone with Jennifer to an interview for a summer fellowship.

When he had proposed to her during a vacation to DC, he had dropped to one knee in the Smithsonian, right next to one of the Apollo modules.

Even then, he had known they wouldn’t have a marriage like his parents. She would become an astronaut and fly the solar system. He had always known he wanted a regular family, but at that moment, he had known he had wanted Jennifer more.

Suddenly, Michael found himself turning the car around. Without a thought to anything else, especially traffic laws, he raced back home. Rushing inside, he surprised Jennifer as she was getting out of the shower. With a sense of urgency that he had not felt since her return to Earth, he kissed her. All of his doubt and resentment disappeared completely in those precious seconds. Afterwards, he felt stupid that it had consumed him for so long.

Their relationship finally began the slow return to the happy state Michael had not experienced since before the plan for the Mars mission had been revealed. It didn’t happen overnight — that kiss was the catalyst, not the cure. But they had the rest of their lives together, on the same planet. Everything else was just part of the story.

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