Special Relativity

The Postscript short fiction contest’s third-place entry by Natalie Morrill, ArtSci ’10

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It was raining when Laurie arrived on Ken Mayata’s doorstep, which was reason enough to make tea. That Ken’s wife Sharon was away for two days at a conference, and that Laurie had Jonathan Hubbard on her mind, made it all the more natural.

Ken had put the kettle on to boil.

“You look stressed. Between friends, mind you.” She half-sighed, half-laughed, sat down on a kitchen chair. “I don’t know. Stressed is the wrong word, maybe. I’m… anxious. I’m worried about Jon.”

He glanced up from the tin of tea leaves he’d opened. “Worried about him? What’s wrong? Besides the usual glitches, I mean.”

“I don’t know. Maybe it’s me. He just seems more absent than usual. More caught up, I suppose. I thought you might have some idea. You see him at work, and I feel like that’s where his life is right now.”

He stared into the teapot now as he spooned out leaves. “I don’t know that I’ve seen anything unusual.” The rain drops hit the kitchen window with a slapping kind of splat, heavy. “He’s just being Jon. The absent-minded professor extraordinaire.”

Laurie’s laugh was soft. “Maybe he is just being himself. I don’t know.”

“He’s a unique case, isn’t he?”

“Yes. That’s who he is. Probably what makes people love him to begin with.” Her words seemed to shrink.

Ken frowned. “I think everybody who knows him wishes he were a bit different sometimes.”

“I feel terrible thinking that, though.”

“Laurie, really.” The kettle shook and he picked it up, steam tracing the movement. “You know better than any of us what an eccentric he is. It’s not a crime to resent that sometimes.”

“I don’t resent it…”

“Okay, fine. But it’s hard. I write papers with your husband, Laurie. I know. He’s a genius; I’d never have half the credibility I do if I wasn’t a collaborator on his stuff, but… well, to be honest, I doubt he’d have written up a single result in the last two years if I hadn’t been there.”

“That’s true. I know that’s true. He’s grateful for that. I am too.”

“Well. It’s not selfless, as I’ve said. And Jon is a lovely guy, when he’s not absolutely lost in space. But I do wonder about you two sometimes.”

She looked up at him. “Wonder about us?”

He shrugged. “He’s the sort of man I’d envision remaining obliviously single his whole life. Sometimes I wonder if he isn’t obliviously married.”

“No.” She said it quietly, with a frown. “No, he’s not ‘obliviously married.’ Just…”

“Just oblivious.”

Her shoulders seemed to crumple. “Absent-minded was a nicer way of putting it, I think.”

“Well, like I said, if you were to say you wished he was a little different, I would understand.” He swirled the teapot and its contents. Weak, but warm.

“I feel like anything I wish is like wishing Jon weren’t Jon, though.”

The trickle of tea filling cups was intimate, warm. “I think there’s a lot of things going on there. I suspect he’s a difficult person to be married to.”

“What do you mean?”

“Oh – well, nothing. That came out wrong. I just mean that he’s not really all there, as it were. I imagine it would be hard for him to put his whole self into something.”

He passed a cup into her hands and she wrapped her fingers around it, both hands.

“I don’t know.”

“Okay – sorry, that was out of line. I guess all I meant was that he… he doesn’t pick up on cues the way you or I do. He just doesn’t notice things unless you lay them out bare for him, you know?”

“That’s true. Yes, that’s true, in a sense…”

Ken laughed, tapping the back of a chair with his pen. “You know, when was first hired, they wanted him – Lester, I mean, wanted him – to teach a graduate course in general relativity. He kept arranging meetings with Jon to talk about it… Vlad Mlotek used to teach it; they had all his students’ papers, even –”

“Oh, Dr. Mlotek! He was at the faculty dinner. Jon loved him.”

“Yes – haha, yes, I remember that. Anyway, Lester said anytime Jon sat down with him, he would mention the students’ background in general relativity, and Jon would just take off – you know, the way he does.” Ken laughed again, standing behind the chair, staring down at the seat. “He just – he’d just say things like, you know, ‘We can’t even begin to teach them the permittivity of free space – we don’t even know what it means.’ And just run with it! Lester said he just sat there, listening to Jon tear apart the entire endeavour without even realizing he was doing it, and at the end of it Jon would be so happy, so excited, just completely convinced Lester had got exactly what he wanted out of the meeting. Lester tried it three times. Jon just thought he wanted to discuss shortcomings in contemporary theory.”

“Well, that is Jon’s job.”

“Well.” Ken snorted, sat down in the chair in front of her. “It’s also his job to teach. At least it was supposed to be.”

“Yes, I know. Lester has let that slip a few times. But you know Jon…”

“I do, I do know him! That’s my point.”

“But can you imagine him teaching a course? The poor students! He’d love them, he’d adore them, but they wouldn’t stand a chance –”

“But that’s just what I mean! He doesn’t see it. He just gets set on one of his problems, and for the life of you, you can’t make him talk about anything else in the world. The other day I just said, ‘How’s it going, Jon?’ and before I knew it he was trying to tell me that some well-established theory or other was a tautology… I don’t think he even got it out of his mouth, what exactly it was we were referring to; he just kept saying, ‘It’s totally self-referential, there’s nothing in it, the equations just start talking to each other and the theory just dead-ends.’”

“Yes. I remember when he was talking about that.”

“Hmm. Perhaps not talking so articulately, though.”

She chuckled once, quiet, and seemed to read the leaves at the bottom of her cup.

He scratched his chin with a laugh. “And I was just getting a coffee at the time! I actually had to go out the door to end the conversation. He just doesn’t pick up on it.”

“No, he doesn’t. But then he does, in a way. No, I don’t mean he can converse with you about it like that. I don’t really know how to put it…”

“Yes, I know he’s a wonderful person. He’s a wonderful person. He’s a genius, and he’s kind, really kind. But he can’t – I mean, I just don’t know how one would exist in a marriage with him. His head is stuck so deep in his work, you know? Well, of course you know…”

“But Ken, it’s more than that. He really does hear what you say. He really does. But first, well… first of all he just has this idea that everyone is as interested in his work as he is – actually, either that they’re as interested, or they hate it and don’t want to hear a single word about it. Neither of which is true, of course. But he does hear you, too. He just hears you and processes what you said for three days. Then he responds to it at some point in a conversation three days later, when you’ve forgotten you even mentioned it.”

“But isn’t that hard? That’s not normal! Everyone loves Jon – don’t get me wrong. But none of us could live with him, I don’t think. None of us could be his best friend.”

She peered at him now. “I think he believes you’re his best friend.”

“Oh! No.” His face was pink as he shook his head. “He doesn’t think that. You’re his best friend, absolutely no question about it. He’s crazy about you.”

They sat looking at each other for a moment. Ken dropped his gaze.

“He does love me.”

“Yes. Yes, he… he does.”

She brought the cup to her lips, both hands still wrapped round it, and tipped it all the way back, slowly. Her throat moved under her skin. Ken stared at his hands.

“Thank you, Ken.” She set the empty cup on the counter. “It’s nice to have someone to talk to about it. It helps put things in perspective, I think.”

“It does.”

He stood, took their cups to the sink. The metal and ceramic clinked as the water hissed against them.

“I’m going to go home,” she said, and stood, “but thank you.” She touched his shoulder. He shrugged, smiled without turning, scrubbed soap into her cup. “Well, what are friends for, eh?”

But she was already halfway to the door, and smiling at someone not there. He waved one soaped hand at the door as she pulled her boots on, shouted “Bye” through the splatter of rain when the door opened, half-heard her reply and wondered suddenly if one could retract one spoken truth and substitute another. The door shut, and at the kitchen window he watched her walk down the street through the rain, head bowed against the wind and under some unknown weight.

He turned on the tap to rinse her cup. Jon was Jon, and she would be back.

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