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I Love You, Michael Collins, page 1

 

I Love You, Michael Collins
 


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I Love You, Michael Collins


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  About the Author

  Copyright Page

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  For Seth Baratz, older brother and first friend.

  When we were little, you made me see things I never would’ve seen on my own. You still do.

  I believe this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the earth.

  —John F. Kennedy, in an address to Congress, May 25, 1961

  Dear Michael Collins,

  You’re going to the moon!

  Well, technically, you’re not going to the moon. You’re going around the moon. Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin are going to the moon. But still …

  You’re going around the moon! It’s very exciting!!!

  Sincerely yours,

  Mamie Anderson

  Dear Michael Collins,

  It’s okay that you didn’t write me back. I thought you might, even though I didn’t ask specifically, because that is what people usually do when you write them a letter: they write you back. But maybe you were wondering, Why is this kid even writing to me in the first place? It’s okay if you are. People wonder about me a lot. I think that’s just something that happens when a person is not like other people.

  Let me explain.

  So there I was in class last week. It was the day before the last day before summer vacation. Our teacher, Mrs. Collins—

  Don’t you think it’s funny that my teacher and you have the same last name? I do. It’s like she’s your wife or something. Which I know isn’t true. You have an entirely different wife. I know, because I asked my teacher. And you’re not Mrs. Collins’s brother or brother-in-law or cousin either. I know, because I asked those questions, too. Still, it’s kind of funny, right?

  The questions about the names came later, but first what happened was this: Mrs. Collins asked us what we wanted to be when we grow up.

  All the boys said they wanted to be astronauts. Billy Parker said it first. He didn’t even raise his hand before answering. Then the other boys shouted the same thing.

  “Girls?” Mrs. Collins said. “What about you?”

  Delores Doyle’s eyes got shiny, like Reverend Potter’s do in church when he talks about God or like my mom’s do when she talks about chocolate cake, and then she said, “I want to marry an astronaut!”

  And you know something? She probably will. Delores Doyle’s skirts are always the right length, she has perfect knife-straight hair, and she even has the deluxe set of Magic Markers, the one with every color in the world. Her dad got it for her in the city, which is where his job is. I asked my dad once if he could switch his job to one in the city, like Mr. Doyle’s job, but he said that probably wasn’t a good idea, not even to get Magic Markers. He said he doubted Mr. Doyle’s law firm was looking to hire telephone linemen.

  After Delores Doyle said she wanted to marry an astronaut, the other girls said the same thing.

  Do you think that’s strange? All the boys want to be a thing and all the girls want to marry that thing? I think that’s strange.

  “What about you, Mamie?” Mrs. Collins asked. “Do you want to be an astronaut or marry an astronaut?”

  I had no choice but to answer. Usually, I do my best not to answer things in class, because of the risks. But when your name is right in the question like that, it’s unavoidable.

  “Neither,” I said.

  “Neither?” Mrs. Collins said.

  Was there an echo in the room?

  “Then what do you want to be when you grow up?” Mrs. Collins asked.

  “How should I know?” I said, throwing my hands in the air. “I’m ten!”

  Some of my classmates started to laugh.

  I tried to explain. “How should I know what I’m going to want to be so many years from now? Wouldn’t it be foolish of me to try to predict—”

  But apparently I was the fool, because my words were drowned out by more laughter.

  See? That there. That’s the risk. You open your mouth, and people laugh at you.

  This time, though, it wasn’t too bad, because Mrs. Collins immediately shifted the class into the assignment part, which I guess was where she’d been moving all along.

  “Today we’re going to do something a little different,” Mrs. Collins said. “Everyone knows that, in the middle of July, three astronauts are leaving from Cape Kennedy in Florida and flying to the moon. Can you tell me what their names are?”

  People started shouting. If you ask me, Mrs. Collins has trouble controlling a room. Does your Mrs. Collins have that kind of trouble, too?

  “Neil Armstrong!” people shouted.

  “Buzz Aldrin!” people shouted.

  “And Michael Collins,” Mrs. Collins said when no one shouted anything else.

  “And they’re going on Apollo 11!” Billy Parker shouted.

  “Very good, Billy,” Mrs. Collins said. Then she wrote the three names on the blackboard: Neil Armstrong, Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin Jr., Michael Collins.

  “The assignment,” Mrs. Collins said, “is that I want you each to select one astronaut to write a letter to. I’ll give you the address where you can send your letter, care of NASA. Okay, who wants to write to Neil Armstrong?”

  A ton of hands shot up. But when the boys who put their hands up noticed that nearly all the girls had picked Neil Armstrong, too, those boys immediately pulled theirs down. Mrs. Collins counted raised hands and then placed that many check marks next to Neil Armstrong’s name.

  “Why Neil Armstrong?” Mrs. Collins asked.

  “Because he’s so dreamy,” Delores Doyle said.

  “I can’t argue with you there,” Mrs. Collins said, laughing.

  “And he’s the commander,” said Lisa Burke, who is Delores Doyle’s best friend.

  So apparently, in addition to wanting to marry the thing that the boys all want to actually be, the girls also want that thing to be good-looking and have lots of power.

  “Okay, who’s writing to Buzz Aldrin?” asked Mrs. Collins.

  This time, every single boy in the room raised a hand. Some even raised both hands.

  “He’s got the greatest name!” Billy Parker yelled before Mrs. Collins could ask the question we knew was coming. “Buzz!”

  “Indeed he does.” Mrs. Collins laughed again. Then she counted hands and made check marks next to Buzz Aldrin’s name, just making a single one for each kid, even those who had both hands up. Once she was done doing that, she added up the total number of check marks. And once she was done with that, she turned around to the classroom, puzzled.

  “Someone didn’t select an astronaut to write to,” Mrs. Collins said. Her gaze zeroed in on me. “Mamie? Did you pick an astronaut?”

  There it was again: my name included in a question.

  “Michael Collins,” I whispered.

  “I’m sorry,” Mrs. Collins said, placing a hand behind one ear. “I didn’t hear you.”
<
br />   “MICHAEL COLLINS!” I said.

  I couldn’t help it. There were those two other astronauts, with every check mark in the world beside their names. And there you were, with none.

  “Oh.” Mrs. Collins looked surprised. But at least she put a check mark beside your name, even if it looked kind of lonely up there by itself. “Can you tell us why?”

  I couldn’t. I couldn’t say it was because when I saw all those check marks for Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin but none after your name, it made me feel a weird kind of sad for you. So instead I said: “Because he’s the best one.”

  That’s when it really happened, so much worse than before. Everyone laughed at me. Even Mrs. Collins cracked a smile before covering her mouth with her chalky hand. The laughter, it was so loud, like in the Peanuts comic strip when Charlie Brown says something and the response to that looks like HA! HA! HA! HA! HA!, with HA!s as far as the strip allows, everyone laughing so loud it’s like a tidal wave of sound that could knock a person over, just washing her out to sea.

  “That’s so stupid!” Billy Parker guffawed. “Michael Collins? He’s not even going to the moon!”

  “Of course he is,” I said. Now who was the one being stupid? Everyone in the country except for babies and people in comas knew that three astronauts were going to the moon and what those astronauts’ names were.

  “Not really.” Billy Parker had trouble talking, he was laughing at me so hard.

  “What do you mean?” I said—and while I hate to use the word, it’s the only one that applies here—dumbly.

  Billy Parker took a deep breath and said with a bit more patience than I was used to from him, “Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin are the ones who will walk on the moon. Michael Collins is just going to be orbiting it. So he won’t walk on the moon, not ever. He has to stay with the ship.”

  The whole class nodded. Apparently, this was common knowledge. But I hadn’t known. I guess that’s because I’ve kind of had a lot on my mind lately.

  I thought of you then. I thought of you coming so close to the moon, how you’ll be coming closer to it than all but two other people in the entire history of the world so far, and still you won’t be able to touch it, at least not on this trip.

  “Well,” I said, folding my arms across my chest to show I meant business, “I don’t care. I’m still going to write to him. He’s still the best one.”

  Of course the laughter came again then, like a bucket of icy rainwater pouring over my head.

  But that was okay, too, because this was the last assignment of the year and once we were done with our letters we started talking about Vietnam, which Mrs. Collins has us do a lot. I know it’s an important subject, Vietnam, but sometimes it is hard to truly understand what is going on there since that country is so far away, particularly when a person is still in elementary school.

  So now you know, Michael Collins. You know why I wrote that last letter to you: because I had to. It was a school assignment, I said I’d do it, and I did it.

  But this time? I wrote to you because I wanted to. I wanted to explain, and now I have.

  Sincerely yours,

  Mamie

  Dear Michael Collins,

  It’s okay that you didn’t write me back again. You’re probably busy doing stuff to get ready for your trip. I know that whenever we go on a trip my mom draws up a list of everything we will need. She uses a legal pad and a separate sheet of paper for each family member. Just between us, I think it’s a lot of extra work for nothing. We all need some of the same things, like socks and underwear, so why write it down more than once? Does she think if it’s not on a list, we’ll forget those things? Believe me, I’ve been told about the importance of clean underwear more than once, how it has to be that way in case an ambulance ever comes for you because you do not want to suffer the embarrassment of dirty underwear in such a situation—I’m not likely to forget about that!

  And then there are the things that just one of us needs, like my dad and his shaving kit. Does my mom think that he’ll only remember if he sees the words “shaving kit” on his list? Or does she think that if I don’t have a list, I’ll somehow pack a shaving kit for myself by mistake? That’s ridiculous. I’m a girl!

  But maybe, now that I think about it, the things you’ll need for your trip are a little different from the things my family needs when we go to Lake George for our summer vacation, which is only every other year—my dad doesn’t take much time off from work for any reason. Plus, I guess if you and the other astronauts forget something, and you realize it five minutes after leaving, it’s not exactly like you can turn around and go back for it the way we always do.

  Anyway, you probably want to know more about me and my family.

  My parents are old. I’m talking about super old, Michael Collins, even older than you, I bet. No one in my grade has parents as old as I do, except for Delores Doyle, whose father is sixty. But her mom is only thirty, and my mom says that’s a crime and not something we should ever talk about.

  My dad is forty-four and my mom is forty-three. Do you see what I mean? Between the two of them, they are eighty-seven—that’s almost ninety.

  I already told you my dad is a lineman for the telephone company. He is tall and what you would call lanky. His hair is brown, and even though it looks just fine on him and my mom says he is still as handsome as when she first met him, it is not any of the special kinds of brown, and that’s what I wound up with, too. People always say I take after my dad, and while his face looks fine on a forty-four-year-old man, I think it may take me some years to grow into it. As for my mom, she’s a homemaker. She is also very particular about her appearance. Her blond hair is always perfect. She won’t leave the house to throw out the trash unless she’s got her pearls on, even when it’s summer and she’s wearing her Bermuda shorts.

  Sometimes my parents fight about things. They say these are just “discussions,” but I’ve had plenty of discussions with my best friend, Buster, and none of them ever sounds like that. My parents have always been like this, but lately it’s getting worse and worse. Lying in my bed at night, listening to them have discussion after discussion, which mostly I can just hear the volume of but not the specific words, well, it is the opposite of fun.

  My oldest sister is Eleanor. She is twenty-four and favors our mom in appearance and prettiness. Eleanor moved out of the house six months ago, which became another occasion for a “discussion.” My dad said Eleanor shouldn’t leave home until she’s married. My mom yelled back that she didn’t want Eleanor to get stuck leading the life she herself has led. My dad asked what was so bad about my mom’s life. My mom said, “What life?” That part didn’t make me feel so good. She also said she wished she’d waited longer to start a family. Somewhere in the yelling, Eleanor just quietly left. Now she has her own apartment.

  My other sister, Bess, is sixteen. Bess looks like a cross between both our parents, and somehow on her it looks good, because she got the best of each. She has a boyfriend. That’s pretty much all you need to know about Bess right now, other than that she’s mostly okay. Well, except when she says stuff like “I was upset when I first learned Mom was going to have another baby. I didn’t want the competition, but then it turned out to be you, which was no competition at all.” Also, Bess is a hippie, which is not necessarily something my dad appreciates about her. Bess has long hair that is between blond and brown, and she likes to wear scarves tied around her head like a pirate, which I don’t think does anything for keeping her cool in the summer like a ponytail would, but I guess that is not the point. She’s not big on footwear these days, but anything with suede fringe attached to it, Bess will take it.

  Eleanor, Bess, and Mamie.

  Do you see what our parents did? They named each of their daughters after whichever First Lady happened to be in the White House on the day that daughter was born. Eleanor made it under the wire just before Franklin D. Roosevelt died in office; otherwise, we might have had two members
of the family named Bess. Bess was born on New Year’s Day, 1953, so she got the Truman vote. And I’m of course named for Mamie Eisenhower. That’s bad luck for me. Just two years later, I could have been a Jacqueline or even a Jackie. (I think maybe a lot can be determined by a person’s name. Who knows? Maybe if you were named Buzz, you’d be walking on the moon, too. Because I checked in the phone book and I hope you won’t be offended, but let me tell you, even around here, there is more than one Michael Collins.)

  So now you know about my parents and Eleanor and Bess.

  And, of course, you already know all about me.

  Sincerely yours,

  Mamie

  Dear Michael Collins,

  There is one other important person in my life you should know about. Buster Whitaker is my next-door neighbor and best friend all rolled into one, has been since his family moved in there when we were both five—so, half our lives. The movers had barely unpacked their sofa when Buster yelled over, “Hey! You wanna play?” and I yelled back, “Okay!” And that, as they say, was that. Nobody, including me, knows what Buster’s real name is. Well, obviously his family does. But outside of them? Buster says it is so awful, if people heard it they would just laugh and laugh. I don’t think he realizes, but I would never laugh at Buster, because he is the finest person I know.

  Also, what name could be so awful that “Buster” is an improvement on it?

  One thing’s for certain. It is a crime against the universe that Buster and I have never been in the same class. This means that during the school year, we have never been together outside of lunch and recess, so he wasn’t in Mrs. Collins’s class this past year, which is a shame because I know he would never have laughed at me when I said you were the best one. The good news is that now that it’s summer vacation, Buster and I are able to be together from the time we get up in the morning until dinnertime and sometimes even beyond.

 
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