To Professor Ivan McKinowski,
Yes, we should all be laughing. Such are the strange ways of human nature …
Marena pushed the letter aside, went to the mini fridge and poured herself another tall drink. She knew it was early, but the choices were few, and she’d only recently stumbled upon the simple pleasures of a Bloody Mary. Leaning against the cold linoleum counter, she assessed her drab apartment. She lived in one side of a duplex, a shabby, little place with flimsy windows that shuddered in the wind. The thin walls functioned like a sieve, letting in all sorts of moaning and churnings. Her front window stared at a gigantic brown donut atop “Sally’s Hole in the Wall.”
She sipped her drink and for the first time noticed black marks running haphazardly a couple feet above the floor molding. It looked as if the room had been tipped and someone had dragged herself along the wall. Where did those come from? Now that the apartment was nearly empty—except for the table exploding with papers and books for her dissertation—there was nothing to conceal the marks. A month ago when her boyfriend had moved out, he’d taken nearly everything. Most of it was his anyway, so what could she have done? She sat down at the table and began again.
Through the thin walls, I can hear you’re up pondering the meaning of life, or at least wondering about the thin layer of dust covering your furniture.
She was rereading her opening, considering its tone—she wanted something lighthearted, yet serious, whimsical, yet intelligent—when the newspaper smacked against her front door. Startled, she splattered her drink on the letter. Small red drops dotted the margin. Not only did her neighbor probably think she was loony, he’d think she was murderous. She crumpled the letter.
Before last night, she had felt encouraged by her new form of pampering. She’d read in her self-help book, When a relationship ends, it’s like going through a little death. Find fun and creative ways to pamper yourself. She’d been cleaning her bedroom closet, avoiding the stack of papers on her table—that dissertation, why hadn’t it moved out?—when she came across her stack of Michael Jackson records. She remembered those high school dances when the D.J. put on a Jackson song, and she and the other girls went wild, wiggling their hips, clapping their hands above their heads, tossing their long hair behind their shoulders. The rangy boys crept to the edges of the room, alarmed, she thought now, at the explosive strutting and stomping and sex, which didn’t require them. Michael J. disappeared for a while, then appeared again in her aerobics classes, where the women kicked up their legs and shouted, Whooo Whooo, this time without any boys to scare.
She’d slipped the record out of its cardboard cover and blew off the dust. The black sheen gave her a feeling of hope. She put the record on the player and MJ barely made it into the second stanza of Beat It! when she was up, dancing and spinning, twirling and leaping around the room. With all the furniture gone, she had plenty of room! She was in the middle of a big finale, something involving a cartwheel and a pose resembling a star fish, limbs spread out, when she saw her neighbor, Professor Ivan McKinowski, staring at her through the back window. She threw herself down, belly to carpet—why had she let Frank take the curtains?—crawled over to the record player and snapped it off.
I might present myself as a person distinguished by the strangeness of all she has seen. But if that were the case, we’d all have perfect alibis, wouldn’t we? What would we do with the concept of crime and punishment? And all that money spent on jails.
How did you explain irrational exuberance to someone who probably had an IQ of 200? Who’d become a full-fledged professor in his 20’s? It was all beyond her, and, really, she didn’t mind. While his life was one solid, steady upward trajectory, hers seemed to languish and scuttle around on the floor, like an unlikable insect. Seven years in graduate school?
She sighed, set the letter down and went to retrieve the newspaper. When she opened the door, Professor McKinowski was standing on his doorstep, two feet from her, newspaper in hand, studying the headlines.
“Morning,” he said, peering over his heavy eyebrows. “Heartbreaking loss at the zoo.”
“Really?” she said.
Through his thick glasses, he seemed to be staring at a spot beyond her shoulder. He probably couldn’t look her in the eye, not after last night. She rearranged her terrycloth bathrobe. He was wearing his robe, a frayed, blue thing, as frazzled and stained with food and coffee drips as hers. His eyes loomed large, as if he was stunned by everything, and he had a full head of fuzzy, brown hair, like a slightly stained halo.
He told her the auk passed away. A remarkable bird, and he jabbed his finger at the newspaper article.
“Oh, the auk,” she said. She felt her face heat up and her arms fidget. His head was slightly tilted ahead of the rest of his body, as if it was too weighted. She wanted to close the door, and yet she wanted to know for certain if he saw what she thought he saw. If he hadn’t, she could get on with her grieving and pampering. The books said to set aside a certain amount of time to mourn her small death and mark the ending date on a calendar. She had one more week and then, Out out with grief! And there was her crowded pampering schedule. In her stack of records, she’d recently found MJ’s Thriller.
“Well, good luck on that dissertation,” he said.
How did he know?
“I assume you’re about to graduate,” he said.
“What’s it on?”
“Twentieth Century Writers’ Use of The Color Blue to Capture General Cultural Malaise and What We Can Do About It.”
He nodded. “Interesting. Very interesting. Good luck.”
But before he closed the door, he paused and seemed to study her face. There was no doubt: he’d seen her finale. What did he think of her?
She knew Frank’s opinion of her. “Beddy?” she’d asked.
“Heady. You’re in your head all the time,” he’d said.
What were the options, she’d like to know.
“Look,” he’d said. “I just need some time to breathe. The whole world needs to take a break and breathe.” Ever since he’d taken that stupid yoga class, all he’d talked about was breathing.
She finished the rest of her Bloody Mary and was about to head into the bathroom and fill the tub for a bubble bath —that was on the book’s list of pampering ideas, Take a bath! Your little death has taken a lot out of you—and read her Plath book when the doorbell rang.
Her neighbor stood on her welcome mat. He’d changed into jeans and a T-shirt and held a plate of steaming scones.
“Thought I’d bring some by,” he said. “When I bake, I tend to lose my head.” Then he laughed loudly, with a touch of hysteria. “It’s always too much. Too much.”
He lost his head; she was too much in her head. Perhaps this was what happened in duplex living situations; the pairs roamed around in too close a vicinity, canceling each other out. She thought she’d read something about it in Science magazine. Or maybe it wasn’t a canceling effect, but a doubling effect. She wasn’t sure.
“Well, shall we consume some baked goods?”
He had a faint accent that she couldn’t quite place. She’d forgotten he was from another country. Was it Romania? Or Czechoslovakia? Whatever it was, she could explain in a gentle, slightly patronizing tone that every single American woman danced wildly in her living room. A curious cultural phenomenon. Strange, weren’t we?
He carried in his plate of goods like a deliveryman, and she suddenly realized she was ravenously hungry. What else didn’t she know about herself? Her self-help book said, you’ll be learning a lot about yourself these days. A LOT!
She walked into the kitchen. “Tea? Coffee? Maybe a stiff drink?”
“Whatever you’re having,” he said. “Do you have ants?”
“I’ve got ants in all my cupboards, and I don’t know what to do. Where did they come from? One day, nothing. The next, hundreds of small black-bodied creatures crawling over everything. I figured they’re multiplying at a rate of ten to the fifth.”
“You calculated their rate of reproduction?”
He took a bite of a scone. “I put out a bowl of sugar to attract them to one spot,” he said, “but I think I’ve only managed to lure more into my kitchen. You really don’t have any?”
“No, but last week there was a cricket in my bathtub. It kept me up all night.”
“Shocking. The things we put up with. Rude. No invitation. At least I brought treats.” He motioned to the scones.
“Yes, treats.” Those Czechs or whatever he was and their phrases. She handed him a Bloody Mary.
“All this time, and we’ve never done this,” he said. “We’re neighbors for God’s sake, and this is America.” He pounded his fist on the table.
“Yes,” she said. She was still thinking about those ants.
“I’ve been up since four working on a theorem for an anti-Einstein relativity theorem interposed with the growth rate of rhesus monkeys—”
“I thought I heard pacing and mumbling.”
“And I can’t get it.” He grabbed big fistfuls of his hair. “It’s terrible. The pressures. We’ve got a new department head. He keeps a scoreboard, rather like a sports event, of our publications. But I suppose you’re under your own strain as a graduate student.”
“Yes, the strain. It’s important to find ways to release it, you know. Like boiling water lets off steam.” What was she talking about?
“Yes, steam,” he said.
“Or these,” she said, raising her drink.
“Cheers,” he said.
She clinked her glass to his.
The phone rang. Probably her mother who spent all her time on the Internet and left messages on Marena’s voice mail about what she’d found. The other day, she’d called to explain how to conduct a Japanese wedding. Then, she’d phoned three times, her voice urgent, announcing she’d found one of Professor McKinowski’s papers, “Risk Analysis of Strong and Weak Nonlinear Systems.”
“You have a genius eligible bachelor probably sitting six feet away from you,” she’d said in an excited voice. “By the way, I ordered you some new underwear.”
His smile was lopsided. One corner tipped up in a friendly smile shape, the other lay there, under the weight of something huge. Probably his anti-Einstein theory. She liked his double-featured smile. He obviously could do more than one thing at once. After Frank had taken up yoga, he’d stopped doing more than one thing at once and complained it was America’s primary problem. “Think about it. Driving and talking on the phone. Tapping away on the computer and listening to music. We’re splintering into a thousand pieces. We’re fragmenting and soon we won’t know who we are anymore.” He was working himself up. At the time, Marena was sipping tea and reading Plath. He turned to her. “And you. Do you know who you are?” He asked her in an accusatory tone, as if she’d hidden parts of herself from him and he’d caught her in the act.
“Of course,” she said, slowly setting down her book. Marena argued she preferred doing two things at once. In fact, she thought it was an ingenuous defense against death. If death was going to get you in the end, why not pack in two simultaneous lives? She worked on her dissertation and listened to him rant about breathing.
“It’s like you’re dating two gals at once,” she’d said.
She thought the argument was a good one until she found out he had in fact been dating two women at once. The other, his yoga instructor.
Ivan pushed the plate of scones toward her. “Here, have one.” He watched her bite into a scone. They were good! He finished off his Bloody Mary.
“Another?” she asked.
He smiled and held out his glass. She gave him a fresh one. He drank it as if it were juice, smacking his lips. She ate another scone and brought the jug of tomato juice and vodka to the table. He mixed himself another. A small tomato mustache was nestling above his upper lip.
He looked around the room. “Interesting what you’ve done with your side. Such space. Space is another interesting concept. Space and time. Everyone in science is fascinated by it right now.”
She told him she was launching a kind of protest, one against couches and chairs and relationships that lounge around on them.
“The black scuff marks remind me of the equation for a finite universe.”
“I thought it was infinite,” she said. “Filled with possibilities.”
He vigorously shook his head. “An illusion. The cosmos has its limits.”
And he said more, things she couldn’t wrap her brain around, but she liked this idea of an end point. That at some point, the universe just sighed. It had had enough and wasn’t going to keep on trying to be infinite and grand.
She looked at her plate. The crumbs from four scones scattered everywhere—had she really eaten that many?—her insides pressed up against an expanding ball of dough and strawberry jam. She needed to nap or dance to work it off. Ivan’s mustache was creeping higher on his upper lip. A small bit of it had dried and crusted on the right side.
“Those scones,” she said, rubbing her stomach.
“I’m glad you liked them.” He grabbed the draft of her letter, turned it over and wrote the recipe on the back. “Well, it’s been a real pleasure.” He stood and gripped the edge of the table to steady himself. She walked him to the front door.
“We’ll have to do this again,” he said.
“I’ll bring the treats,” she said.
He smiled, extended his hand, and she took it in hers and shook it, warmly and vigorously, and smiled back at him and the tomato juice mustache traversing just beyond the corners of his mouth.