My Dad Bought a Space Shuttle

He has to park his truck in the street because the shuttle takes up the whole driveway. It sits there 360 days a year, with a giant tarp over it in the summer so the thermal tiles don’t cook our house with reflected heat. The other five days a year my dad gets up early to hitch it to his truck and wake the whole neighborhood with his cursing while he hits the blocks from under the wheels with a sledgehammer. He drives it to a launch pad in the outer suburbs that used to be a soybean field, grumbling the whole way about traffic and how they’d better not give his time slot away just because he’s a few minutes later than his reservation again. Usually, one of his friends gets there ahead of him to hold the time slot, because they know how he is. He always blames my little brother Tony for making him late, which I think Tony considers the price of admission to space. He’s been even more sheepish around dad than he used to be, ever since I got banned from the shuttle.

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I only got to go up the first two trips. My dad caught me smoking weed in the shuttle on Halloween two years ago with Aubrey, the lesbian from theater club who pretends to be my girlfriend for both our benefit. That’s when the ban happened.

“You’re grounded,” he told me, “literally grounded. You won’t be going to space today, or this year, or until you graduate if I’ve got any say in it. Little shit. You won’t be taking my shuttle for granted again.”

He convinced himself that Aubrey also had sex with me in the shuttle, which is why I also got grounded in the traditional sense for a week. I didn’t bother to correct him. Every time he goes up I get a bunch of texts about how his friends say they can still smell the weed. I’m pretty sure it’s just their farts, which are raunchy as hell and don’t tend to dissipate when they happen in an airtight metal tube in space.

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My dad takes his friends up into low orbit to drink beer and talk about how much it costs to launch the shuttle. He resents every dollar he spends, so one of the best ways to be friends with him is to talk about how much things cost, and the people who stick around in his life tend to be the same way. I mean, they talk about other stuff too, but that’s always the first item on the agenda. They talk about the beer they’re drinking; how they can never get the schedule they want at work; what kinds of smart devices they have bought, or are buying; how much they still owe on the loans for their shuttles; whether they can hold their poop until they get back to Earth, or have to cram themselves into the space toilet. The shuttle gets satellite TV. They went up there to watch the Super Bowl and the picture was crystal clear, as if they were right there at the game (in Kansas City).

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My dad says it’s great that ordinary people can take trips to space now. It used to be only a few people got to do it, and they had to go through all kinds of training. Not to mention, the government decided who could go, and the government deciding anything is a big red flag, in his book. Then along came the Lex Luthors, which is what I call the guys who invented commercial space flight, because their names all sound like “Lex Luthor” and it’s easier than trying to remember which one’s which. Now anyone can go, as long as they can qualify for a $750-K loan, plus the maintenance and launch costs. As great as he says it is, though, my dad doesn’t seem any better off over it. He goes up there, uses the place as a home theater where he can float to the beer cooler, then comes back and gets mad at his cable news and goes to bed the same as always. He still hates his job, and my mom, and Tony’s mom, and our neighbors, and the weather, and whatever else the news tells him to hate. Sure, he’s got bragging rights over people without space shuttles in their driveways, but so what? He used to have a speed boat in the driveway, and that was the same deal.

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After I got banned from the shuttle, I got a job at Burger King. My dad thinks I’m saving to buy my own shuttle, since I’m not allowed in his. You’d almost think he doesn’t know how much a shuttle costs, as if he didn’t complain about that exact thing every chance he gets. I can afford other things with my paycheck, though. Makeup. Hair accessories. The odd piece of gender-affirming jewelry. No clothing yet, though—too much harder to hide that, or convince him it’s a gift for Aubrey. But I am saving, so, eventually. In the meantime, I just have to deal with him telling everyone that I’m trying to buy a shuttle so I can have space sex with my girlfriend, but that it won’t work because he won’t let me park my shuttle on his property. It’s supposed to embarrass me when he does this, but really I have to work hard not to laugh.

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The shuttle has “Janice,” which was my grandma’s name, painted on the side. Tony and I just call it the Man Cave, which has a lot more to do with the shuttle than my grandma ever would have. My dad does have an actual man cave in the garage, but he never uses it anymore now that the shuttle has taken its place. I’m not allowed in there either, but whenever my dad is up in space, I jimmy the lock so I can shut myself in and watch movies by myself. Rent, Hedwig, Priscilla: Queen of the Desert, all that stuff you’ll get made fun of if people find out you like it. The garage is soundproofed, so Tony can’t hear. I always get Aubrey to burn DVDs for me, so the movies won’t show up in the streaming history.

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The shuttle’s guidance software requires a monthly subscription. My dad says it’s a scam, but he keeps paying for it anyway. What he doesn’t pay for is the premium, ad-free version, which he says is an even bigger scam. Every launch and return flight, they have to sit and listen to a bunch of ads in a loop on the speaker. Basically what plays in movie theaters before the previews. If you don’t buy a subscription, the system locks you out and you have to chart everything manually, which means there’s no knowing where you’ll end up. Some rich frat bros from MIT tried it last year and they went down over North Korea and got shot out of the sky. The ones who survived the crash, the government had to negotiate for their release. One of them said in an interview that he doesn’t regret doing it. I guess when you’ve got that much money, you don’t have to regret much of anything.

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When the Lex Luthors first talked about commercial space flight, they talked about terraforming Mars. They talked about opening up space for everyone. Then they got themselves up there, and started mass-producing the shuttles, and gradually they stopped talking about that stuff. We don’t have colonies on Mars, we just have a bunch of people like my dad paying a grand a month to watch car commercials in zero-G. He still worships the Lex Luthors, though. Sometimes, while he watches the news, he’ll name search them on social media to find people criticizing them so he can go off in the replies. I think it makes him feel like he’s paying his dues.

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The school guidance counselor says I should try to have empathy for my dad. He went through two divorces and he’s been taking care of us mostly by himself for almost a decade. My mom and Tony’s mom don’t want anything to do with him. They didn’t even want alimony or child support, because they already learned what happens when you accept anything he gives you. They’ve got visitation rights, but they know better than to come around, so we only get to see our moms when we visit our grandparents. Somehow, in this equation, my dad is the one who needs the empathy (according to the guidance counselor), and also the space shuttle (according to my dad). I go to a charter school, so the guidance counselor isn’t a real therapist, he’s a friend of the principal with a master’s in film.

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I think my dad is looking for an excuse to ban Tony from the shuttle too, so he’ll be able to bring another one of his friends to space without going over the weight limit. I’m basically adult size, but kicking me out didn’t do any good, since all his friends are other truck drivers from his work with big beer guts who wear their steel-toes all the time because they think it’s more manly. Tony’s only eleven, but that 105 pounds could make all the difference. So my dad’s always chewing him out over every stupid thing. Problem is, unlike me, Tony’s a figurative and literal boy scout. He always makes honor roll. He doesn’t even play video games. What makes it even harder to watch is that Tony thinks dad’s on his case because he’s not a good enough kid. If dad tears him a new one because he was too busy doing homework to take the trash out before bed, he’ll think it’s his fault for not doing it faster. I’ve tried to help him get wise, but why should he listen to me? I’m banned from the space shuttle.

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The Lex Luthors are too old to go into space themselves anymore. Nowadays, their thing is The Matrix. As in, the movie. They want to be able to cryogenically freeze their bodies and hook themselves up to a computer simulation of the real world. Well, the real world plus them being able to fly and whatnot. One of them keeps posting about having sex with VR catgirls in his Matrix. All of them post about living forever. They say their simulations will include time dilation technology to make a second out here last a year in there. None of this is even close to existing yet, but they’ve got all the money and people in the world, so who knows.

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Last November my dad decorated the space shuttle with Christmas lights and an inflatable Santa, which he tethered to the top so it looked like Santa Claus was riding the shuttle. He’d turn off the air pump while he was at work, though, so the Santa would slump forward, deflated, and lie there with his face smooshed into the roof and his arms dangling over the sides. Some guys from school saw it and thought it looked like Santa hugging a giant dick. They kept asking if it turned me on. I didn’t answer, so one of them stabbed me in the arm with a mechanical pencil and got detention. 

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My dad and his friends always talk about wanting to have sex in space. Not with each other, of course, but with some hypothetical woman. Preferably one half their age, with H-cup breasts and a rail-thin waist, who can somehow still walk. Their voices get all warm and round and throaty when they talk about it. My dad hasn’t had a girlfriend since the second divorce, but he is on a few dating apps. He likes to scroll through them and try to figure out whether the women whose profiles he sees have all their teeth. I don’t know what he thinks he’s going to do with those teeth, but it’s very important to him. Recently, he’s also started talking about wanting to skip the dating apps and have Matrix sex with VR catgirls, though I’m not positive he knows what a catgirl is. He always makes sure I and Tony are within ear shot when he does this, like he’s trying to prove something or maybe trying to set an example. One time he said he had a better chance of fucking Aubrey in space than I did. I wasn’t sure how I was supposed to react, so I kicked him in the balls, then got swatted with a belt and grounded for a month. It was worth it.

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A couple years ago there was a billionaire who died in space because his kid hacked their smart home system and transmitted the airlock open code from the surface. Unfortunately, he wasn’t one of the Lex Luthors, but probably one of their friends. My dad spent a day yelling at customer support on the phone to help him unpair his shuttle from his smart home system. I’m not that good with computers, but he figures, better safe than sorry. He likes to complain about not being able to start the dishwasher from space. He says it makes him look bad.

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My dad wants to be like the Lex Luthors, in the sense that he wants enough money to do whatever he desires, and he wants a million strangers to jump to his defense whenever someone criticizes him online. What I don’t think he realizes is that he’s already like them, just in a different sense. They might be rich enough that they’re above the law and no one alive can hold them back, but they still get old and they still die. They might have legions of people who worship them, but it doesn’t change who they are. All they do is run. First to the penthouse, then the dozen mansions, then the superyacht, then space, then an entire virtual world just for them, if they can manage it. It’s like they’re convinced that if they hoard enough, and spend enough, and run far enough, then eventually they’ll be able to look in the mirror and see someone who isn’t them—someone who’s above not just the law, but life and death and humanity itself. My dad does the same thing, just on a smaller scale. Nothing he buys is gonna fix who he is. It’s just gonna keep making him more and more isolated and resentful while he keeps having to find room in the house for all the crap he buys to fill the void. But God damn it, he’s gonna keep trying.

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I’m like the Lex Luthors myself, in another sense. I hate what I see when I look in the mirror too. I see a girl, dressed as a boy, surrounded by people who hate her just for existing. The difference is that I’m not running away from it. I’m trying to fix it. I might take years. It will take a lot of sacrifice. But every so often, during those five days a year when I sit in the neglected ruins of my dad’s man cave and try to work up to being who I am without pretense, I can see a glimmer on the horizon. Every so often I look in the mirror before I have to wipe everything off, and I see something that makes me think, “Okay. Maybe. Just maybe.” Maybe I can see a future where both of us get what we want: he’ll be himself, miserable in space, and I’ll be myself, content on Earth. If I can just have that, then whatever time I’ve got here, in whatever ways the world goes to Hell while I live it, maybe that could be enough. Until then, I count the days and watch the shuttles launch, and think about how they look so small from down here.

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