'How many things have been denied one day, only to become realities the next!'
― Jules Verne, From the Earth to the Moon
‘Poyekhali,’ shouted Yuri Gagarin as Vostok 1 launched from Baikonur Cosmodrome.
‘Let’s go,’ you say as our blue car pulls out of its spot in the underground parking lot.
It is the 12th of April, 2017, fifty-six years to the day when a Soviet air force pilot became the first human to go to space. A historic Wednesday. Today is Wednesday too. We are going on a trip of our own, not quite as far, but just as cosmic, our own journey in time and space.
We make this trip every week, every Wednesday. We follow the same ritual before we leave: one wallet, two sets of keys - one for the car, the other for the apartment. One you and one me. You squint through my red-rimmed glasses and wipe the recurring smudges off, while I fetch extra sweaters for us both. The weather outside may be April mild, but in the theater it might be cold.
We are hungry but uncomplaining, for where we are going, we know, a feast awaits of freshly popped, hot, crispy, salty popcorn, in paper bags striped red and white. There will be iced tea or soda too, and maybe ice cream afterwards, when we return from whatever foreign land, real or fantastic, we are off to.
‘Fly me to the moon,’ Frank Sinatra and I sing, one of us off key. Yuri Gagarin was my age, I remark, when he flew away into space. Escaping the world’s gravitational pull the only way possible, with speed, for one hundred and eight minutes he orbited the earth. The average duration of a movie.
Another boy, any other boy, would make a vapid promise in response; say he will fly me to the moon or buy me stars. But you know me better than that. You promise me tickets and concessions instead, and your arm to hold on to, should villains or monsters appear, uninvited, on the silver screen tonight.
In 1961, Gagarin’s spacecraft, Vostok 1, broke the record for manned travel at the time, at a speed of 17,500 mph. Our blue car cannot go that fast. Not that we need to; we have already arrived. We pull into the parking lot.
We stand at the entrance of the old movie theater in Saint Louis, 2017. You take my hand and we walk through the doors, into Paris, 1902. Just in time for the seven pm showing of George Méliès’s Le voyage dans la lune. We do not need to escape reality forever, just leave it outside for a while.
Méliès was one of the first cinematographers but not the first or only mad man to dream of a journey into space and imagine landing on the moon. A near half a century before him Jules Verne had already taken the world on a trip that had captured its imagination and flown it From the Earth to the Moon, and others across history and the globe had fantasized about similar feats.
Second Century Greek satirist Lucian of Samosata had thought to use a water spout, Ninth Century Russian theorist K.E. Tsiolkovskii had imagined the first rocket. H.G. Wells had written a novel of his own. Sinatra had dreamed up a tune. You and I hum it still as we sink deeper into our seats and the lights in Theater 3 dim.
‘The road to the stars is steep and dangerous. But we are not afraid.’
- Yuri Gagarin
You promised me a trip. We are at the movies. This week we are going to space. For the next fourteen minutes, to violins and cannon fire, we travel with Méliès.
To the sound of the Marseillaise, we watch an otherwise silent film of top-hatted astronomers who board a rocket shell. They fly away and land in the middle of the Moon’s eye. They see giant mushrooms, stars, armies of Selenites! They flee the Kingdom of the Moon, pursued by the aliens they disturbed, drop back down through space all the way to the Earth, where they splash into the sea. We hold our breaths with them. We resurface, unharmed. Then we all celebrate.
'I could have gone on flying through space forever,' Gagarin wrote after his trip. I feel the same way as the lights come on and the real world creeps back in.
The show is over, but we remain seated for a while, as long as we can actually, before the cleaning crew arrives. When they do you take my hand and the empty bags of popcorn. We escape before they sweep us out.
Reality and the car are waiting outside, but they look different to us now; they seem smaller than the possibilities in our heads now of what they could be.
‘I see Earth! It is so beautiful,’ said Yuri Gagarin, looking through the porthole.
‘I see the moon. It is not that far away,’ I point from the passenger window.
Reality, any reality, must be imagined first. Gagarin was not the first man to go to space. An unknown dreamer was. A poet, an artist, a musician or filmmaker, a singer humming ‘fly me to the moon,’
because the poet’s the one who speaks with the sky,
as if it were the language barrier.
- Inna Kabysh
A dreamer is not a coward out of touch with reality, but a visionary who sees it first.
Next year, they say, two tourists will be flown by a private company to the moon. One day, perhaps, if we are alive and able, you and I will go too. ‘On a Wednesday,’ you promise, and until then, you say, we will go on a lifetime of other trips. Then you ask if I would like to go to the movies next week. Same time, same place.