When we pull into Venus port, I don’t head to the hauler bar, and the rest of the crew don’t ask me to. Where they turn left, I turn right, and head off among the locals. The buse I take is new; they have different restraints now. The driver, too, probably. But the route is the same as it was when I left Venus for the first time, seven years ago.
I see her before she sees me. Natalie is almost thirteen now, and oh wow, she’s getting tall. She leans on the school fence, talking to a friend; both girls wear their school uniform belts at an odd angle, but it’s the same off angle, so it must be the latest teen fashion or something. There is laughter in her eyes and the ugliest paint I’ve ever seen on her nails and crystals threaded in her hair and I’m almost surprised that I can even recognise her on sight. It has, after all, been a full year since I’ve seen her.
Then she catches sight of me, and her eyes light up with joy, and without even pausing to say goodbye to her friend she runs over and throws her arms around my neck (not a strain at all, she’s getting so tall). “Mum!” she shrieks in delight, and pulls back a bit, smiling. “You look the same.”
I nod. It’s not surprising. It has, after all, only been a month since she’s seen me.
“Let’s get to the restaurant. We’ll meet your dad there.”
“Are you going to stay for my birthday?”
She always asks, and the answer is always the same. “Of course I’ll be here for your birthday.”
The restaurant is the same one that we always go to – my favourite, mostly because it never seems to update the décor – and unlike Natalie, I almost don’t recognise Samuel. There are new lines in his face, new grey in his hair, and he’s stopped bothering to wear clothes I’d remember; only his position at our usual table, and the way Natalie rushes right over to him, tips me off that this man is my husband. I sit down, and I smile at him, and he smiles back and there’s so much love there, but also tiredness. So much tiredness.
“The usual?” he asks.
“You know what I like.”
We order, and Natalie orders something with Neptunian prunes in it. I frown. “You hate Neptunian prunes.”
She rolls her eyes. “I love them, Mum.”
“I could have sworn…”
“I think what your mother means,” Samuel cut in, “is that you used to hate them when you were younger.”
“Well, yeah; when I was a kid,” Natalie says, and pops a prune into her mouth.
Throughout dinner, Natalie tells me about the latest fashions and the latest music and the latest drama with her friends, and I drink it all in as best I can. I’m in port for a week, and then I’m off, and by the time I get back next month this will all be a year out of date, but I try to keep up. It’s all I’ll have. Hair diamonds are in but hair rubies are out, if all you’ve got is rubies then you’re best to go ‘barehead’ without any jewels, and Venus Fog is the latest upcoming band and Natalie thinks she’ll get into acting and also I should tell dad how great it would be to get pet rats. Eventually she excuses herself to go to the bathroom, leaving Samuel and I over the scraps of our meals. I push some vegetables around my plate, not meeting his eyes, while he watches me.
“You look the same,” he says.
“You always say that.”
“It’s always true.”
“Next time I’ll get a tattoo or something.”
He tenses up at the phrase ‘next time’. I fall silent again.
After several long, awkward seconds, I ask, “How’s Valerie?”
“Fine,” he says. “Valerie’s doing fine.”
I bite my lip, not caring if I look jealous. I’m not; really, I’m not. It would be ridiculous for me to expect Sam to wait an entire year to see me, over and over, and not have someone else. He would never have even pursued Valerie if I hadn’t suggested it. It was a necessity of the situation.
And honestly, it’s not even just the long waits. Sam and I had been school sweethearts and gotten married when we were both nineteen. Now I’m twenty seven, and he’s… thirty five, I think? No amount of love in the world will change the fact that I am simply getting too young for him. And that’s the real problem with Valerie, I guess. She’s always been younger than him – two years younger. And me? Well.
“You’re staying for Natalie’s birthday, right?” he asks.
“Of course I’m here for Natalie’s birthday. I’m always here for Natalie’s birthday.”
“And not much else,” he mumbles under his breath, and I drop my fork and glare at him.
“What would you have me do, Sam? We have bills!”
“Everyone has bills. Everyone manages.”
“If we want to get Natalie into a tier one quarternary school – ”
“We both managed fine in a normal quarternary school.”
“ – then we need an income; a good income. Being an interstellar hauler makes me ten times the money I could make anywhere on Venus and you know it.”
“Ten times the money, for twelve times the time. You realise that, right? It comes out less on our end.”
“Do you need more? I can borrow from – ”
“No! This isn’t about needing more money; I work, Valerie works, it’s fine. It’s about your excuse for this job being oxshit! On our timeframe, you pull in less money this way, and you know it. You’re out there on the edge of lightspeed, for a year at a time, letting it do this to you, for – ”
“Do what to me? It isn’t doing anything to me; I’m fine. Just because I’m living slower than you doesn’t mean – ”
“It’s stealing time from you; time with your family! Do you see yourself? Hear yourself? To you, it’s a month-on, week-off job, but every time you go out to haul near lightspeed, it’s a year before we see you again.”
“I understand that. I – ”
“I don’t think you do! I don’t understand how you can – your daughter is turning thirteen! Half a year ago, she was six to you, right? In half a year for you, I raised a child into a budding teen. Six months more of this, and your daughter will be an adult. You realise that, right? In less than a year and a half, your time, your daughter will be older than you. And she’ll barely know you! She barely knows you now! This isn’t time you’ll get back, you know. Once it’s gone, it’s gone.”
“I know,” I say. “I know, I just… one more haul, maybe two. Then we’ll have enough for Natalie’s education, and I can come back and with that nest egg I’ll have time to actually spend with her, an so will you, since neither of us will have to work long hours any more. Just a couple more months, and we can – ”
Samuel reaches out and wraps his large, soft, gentle hands around mine. “Love. If you get back on that hauler ship, then when you get back, there will be divorce papers waiting for you.”
Natalie comes back then, so I’m forced to bite back my reply, and I think I manage to hide my rage through dinner. Afterwards, I decide to walk back to my dorms in port rather than take the bus; maybe I can walk off some of the anger.
He doesn’t understand, he really doesn’t understand, how good the money is for so little time. He’d really rather I stay on Venus and work for over a decade to make what I could in a single year on the ship. And he’s right, to an extent, about missing time with Natalie, but wouldn’t I me missing almost as much time working long hours here? This way, I have a full week off to see her every month. And once I’ve made enough, I’ll have as much time as I want with her.
Divorce. Ha. I should’ve known he’d fall more in love with Valerie in my absence. This is just an excuse.
I get to the dorms, and keep walking. Walk all the way to the hauler bar. It’s full of lightspeed haulers and basically no one else but waitstaff; we haulers tend to keep to our own kind, on the whole. My crew are there, of course, as are a few other crews, all mixed up and chatting with each other, because when you’ve spent a month cooped up with the same people you don’t want to hang out with just them on your downtime, too. We all share friendly, familiar nods and looks, friends and strangers alike. Lightspeed haulers intrinsically understand each other. There are experiences we all share that people like Samuel just don’t get.
My captain presses a drink into my hands. “So your little girl’s party is in three days, and then you’re free, right?” he asks without preamble.
“Not so little any more. But yeah.”
“You don’t mind if we head out a day early, then?”
I look out the window, up through the environmental dome and toward the stars that are completely hidden by Venus’ thick atmosphere. Already, I can feel the thrum of the ship’s engines in my bones.
“I can be ready a day early,” I say. “I don’t mind at all.”