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“Men are dogs.”
When Albert Einstein first began to explore the implications of the Theory of Relativity, his equations suggested that the universe was not static, but expanding. In those days, many people had an interest in the notion of a stable universe, Einstein included, and to fudge over the implications of his own work, Einstein introduced a mathematical sleight of hand, a Constant, which allowed him to explore the implications of his theory but avoid aspects of it that he found unpalatable. Later, of course, he realized that this was a mistake, and, in fact, he later referred to the Constant as his greatest blunder.
It now appears that the universe may not only be expanding, but also accelerating, and under these circumstances the Constant may have some value after all, one that will describe just how fast the universe is accelerating. And it might show, too, a value for dark matter. The value of the Constant is still unknown, but it still suggests that one thing will happen: Galaxies will begin to move at an increasing speed, and ultimately they will move beyond the horizon of observation. It is this disappearance, or seeming disappearance, that makes the Constant so haunting. The disappearance of so much is, at best, a prospect that makes people uneasy.
T'S ABOUT TIME someone talked about what it's like to be a man now, and how even the term “man” has become a dirty word. What you think or feel as a man when you are not a rapist, a thug, a wife beater, a cheater, arrogant, an elitist, someone not infantilized by video games, but as a man who wants to do the right thing, no matter what, and not to whine about those times, which everyone has, when things are tough. Many women will be surprised to hear that they have not escaped the human condition, and that women can lie, cheat, and kill, although often they seem to think they are a new species, a Vestal, who is above even the suspicion of such behavior.
My father was not a bigot and he taught me not to be one as well. I loved him for it, among other things. And in the background of this account I looked for that elusive moment when disaster sends its first calling card.
I now know when it all began and how.
The difficulty was that the beginning of all those thingsâthe knife, the bottom of the well, the pursuit, the attempt to
killâwasn't so large, or so it seemed, not something that much out of the ordinary. It was just another evening in the slipstream of possibilities that, with a bewildering conglomeration, sweeps by us every hour. If this story had taken place in a different era, I would have prayed many times. And, for that matter, I did pray, although it's hard to say with what effect.
I prayed, I now know, to be free of vanity. Vanity is the enemy of grace, and grace was important in our family. My father wanted me to count my blessings and to know that other people often didn't have them. Grace, these days, is not one of those things that people think about where men are concerned.
It started when my mother came to that table, a sort of imitation antique, by the front door, and found the first package of literature she had sent away for. It was from a “self-realization center,” an ashram in San Francisco, and it said that she would probably have more respect for my father if he made more money. The literature had a picture of a guy with a long beard and a loose robe, and he looked like he had been smoking dope. I always thought it was strange that a guru was so interested in money, but then I was only seventeen and at that age a lot of the world seems strange.
My mother was always talking about ashrams and Inner Energy That Was Waiting to Be Tapped. Sometimes, instead, she just dyed her hair.
So, that's part of the way it began.
The other part was my girlfriend, or sort-of girlfriend, or the girl I wanted to be my girlfriend. This was Sara McGill, who had red hair and freckles, but she dyed her hair black and used mascara that made her look like a woman in an
Egyptian hieroglyphic. She was short, thin, and small-breasted, but when she wore her black blouse that revealed her nipples, when she left the top buttons undone so that her skin, as pale as baby powder, showed with its haunting color, and when she dressed in her tight black skirt, she was sultriness personified. She was also the smartest person I knew.
She was also someone you didn't want to cross. A lot of people wished they had never said a thing to her. For instance, when some guy once called her a slut, she hacked his email address and his account at a conspiracy website and sent, in his name, a threat to assassinate the president. The Secret Service was at this kid's door in about a half hour, and they took him and his computer in for some hard-hitting interrogation.
Sara's mother had killed Sara's father, and Sara lived in a state-sponsored halfway house. Of course, she had gotten into trouble (selling dope, stealing cosmetics, and cars, too, for that matter), but she seemed better now, or at least she seemed a little calmer when she was with me. Sara's mother killed Sara's father because her mother thought he was having an affair with his secretary, when, in fact, all he had done was help the secretary change a tire, bought her a meal one evening near the plumbing supply place where he worked, and lent her a thousand dollars when she needed to rent a new apartment.
Sara's mother had bought a gun at a pawnshop in Albany and a box of adult diapers so she wouldn't have to stop to use a bathroom on her way to a sales conference in New Jersey, where she shot her husband. The detectives found the box of diapers in the trunk of her car and asked her what they were for. Sara's mother was in a prison in upstate New York, about one hundred miles away from us, within visiting distance.
Sara had written to her mother, but the mother didn't write back. “Too fucking ashamed” is how Sara put it. Then Sara shrugged in that sultry way, as though if she were just sexy enough, just desirable enough, no one would ever think of giving her any trouble.
Sara dropped by our house when she couldn't stand the “Gulag,” as she called it, where she lived. She'd just show up and look in the window or knock on the door.
This, I have to say, was part of where it all started, too.
I want to be clear about something. My father never taught me things as though I were a Boy Scout trying for a merit badge, or that grace and decency could be summed up in easy sound bites. It wasn't like that at all, but the message still came across that at times you would feel as though things were horribly wrong, that you had been broken into little pieces, or that someone had managed to get a pit viper in your guts, and that you could feel every bite, but even so, even under circumstances like that, you had to be careful with people you cared about, or who needed you not to whine or carry on. He never used four-letter words. Well, only once that I know of.
Our house, which looked like it had been picked out of a catalogue of plans, sat at the side of a field that once held sheep. A hundred yards away, at the tree line beyond the backyard, were some high-tension lines, held up by towers that looked like enormous men made with an industrial-grade Erector Set. The wires gave off a sort of hum, a
that must be like the last thing a man in an electric chair hears. Five houses, the plans for which all had that catalogue look, sat in the field near the high-tension lines. These houses put your teeth on edge because they sat in the field for no practical reason, dumped
there like Monopoly houses from a box so a contractor could make money. Now the field didn't have sheep in it anymore. Just those houses and that
Sara showed up one evening in her tight-fitting shirt and her black jeans and stood for a moment on the front porch. My mother looked through the literature from the ashram, and my father had some papers from his work as a wildlife biologist. I was going through some algebra homework. We got into the habit of her just showing up, and on this night, when my father glanced up from a paper on mortality rates for ruffed grouse, and Sara stood at the window, like the most beautiful face in a window in a Fifth Avenue department store, that is, if they used real women as models, he stood up, went to the door, opened it, and said, “Sara. You're just in time. You know what I am going to do tonight? I'm going to make a chocolate soufflÃ©.”
“No kidding?” said Sara.
“You want some?” he said.
“I never had one,” she said.
“Well, you know what?” my father said. “It's about time.”
He separated the eggs, melted the chocolate, beat it into the egg yolks, mixed it into the beaten egg whites, and put it in a dish that sat in the oven for thirty-five minutes. He beat some whipped cream, and then we all sat down, my mother with her ashram brochure, and had that soufflÃ©. Sara closed her eyes and swayed back and forth at the first bite.
“That's the best fucking thing I ever tasted,” she said.
“You better fucking believe it,” said my father. He turned his green eyes on me.
“Fucking-A right,” I said.
My mother was silent as she tasted the chocolate.
“What's new at the ashram?” said my father.
My mother shrugged. These things couldn't be talked about. Mantras, meditation, the preparation for death.
SO THAT WAS just one occasion that Sara dropped by, but the time that was the beginning, the moment, I now realize, when the machines of fate began to grind exceedingly slow but exceedingly fine, was another evening.
Sara moved with a delicacy of touch, as though the ground she walked over were made of thin glass, and often she appeared with a sort of magic, as though she had been cut in half and was now whole. So, on this evening, she arrived as before, not wearing that same tight blouse, but another one that was even tighter, that showed her beauty even more obviously.
Her face was at the window. I came into the living room, which was part of the open downstairs, next to the kitchen (all those plans from a catalogue seemed to be like this . . . maybe because it was cheaper not to have a wall between the two rooms). Of course, I moved quietly, too, especially when that white face was at the window. Then Sara opened the door, with that same legerdemain, with that same lack of sound, and came in. She let the door just slip into its frame, a gentle embrace. In front of me, on the coffee table, was a picture of the Horsehead Nebula, so haunting even then, when I hadn't even heard of the Constant or known that it could explain how galaxies disappear. Sara brought her slight musk and her sent of baby powder and sat down next to me.