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Real Distance

by Nuzback

She’s talking against the wind as I let my sunglasses hide the fact that I’m not looking forward. I’m glancing down to my right at the chains that line the sidewalk between posts of coquina, gently tapping them as we walk, studying their movements.

What power we are capable of in theory; in the barren vacuum of space, these gentle taps last forever. On Earth, the rules are different. Down here, we have friction. The energy I disperse into the chain travels in waves from one end and back between the two posts. You can see it, it’s like electricity. Link by link by link, friction robs the chain of my energy so they can heat up a fraction of a degree. Each successful rotation of back and forth sends impact running through the posts—-through coquina, a stone soft enough to absorb the impact of cannonballs. A few metal loops raise an immeasurably small amount in temperature and scraps of shell and coral quiver as my energy finally dies.

Sofie summed up my problem quite nicely the day before we left on vacation for Saint Augustine; I’m losing touch with what’s right in front of me. I look at everything in its smallest parts, and the smaller things get, the more the bigger picture becomes clear. Somewhere along the line, I lost that middle ground. Ever since Tad Javert. Ever since—-

“—-the experiment. Paul, are you even listening?”

“Wha--? Oh, sorry, I—-”

I look up at her and even through her sunglasses I feel those stern blue eyes piercing me coldly. Just as well, my sentence had no ending anyway. She looks forward and we walk on in silence, her face effete, stoic as a stone post.

We’re back in our hotel room overlooking the Matanzas River. I sit on the bed, gazing at the inlet through the window as she paces in front of me, her tirade obstructing my view and my bid for serenity. The kind I found in her. Sofie Barrett, a 5’2” firestorm. Her normally soft voice blares with assertion and her short red hair flares in stride with her step in contrast to—-or compensation for—-her petite frame, bare to me as she changes for our dinner reservation. She seems to go down our entire history in one great breath, ever-agitated by my silence.

She says she was the one who helped me get off the bottle and start a real career, which is true. No more hiding pain with a handle. Three sheets to the wind, all of them imitating ghosts. Two voices left to whimpers by alcoholic fathers, hers was the assertion I needed. Concentrate. Concentrate on school. That same sultry voice I met at our Spring Colloquium fourteen years before hair dye hid the grays in those radiant red strands. Her grace was an anesthetic, an anti-drug, an academic steroid.

She says that I wanted this vacation, which is false. I didn’t care where we were. What’s one more beach in Florida? I just wanted time to think, to figure out why my sources of contentment keep drifting off somewhere I can’t touch.
She says she tried her hardest, well so did I.

She says that ever since the experiment, I’ve become distant.
She knows nothing of distance.


The experiment went beautifully. It was like music. It even had that sing-song quality. It went like this: follow the bouncing ball.

Matter travels in waves; the double-slit experiment proved this decades ago. Project light onto a surface, block it with a barrier containing a single slit, and you have a steady sliver of light with a steady diffraction pattern fading into the fringes around it. Try the same thing with two slits and the pattern widens, the fringes become vivid. This is because the particles of light are now doing more than just diffracting. They are interfering with each other. Waves of light like hurricane waters. Crashing, countering, canceling each other out until they produce that pattern on the surface. Eight fringes on each side of a gleaming center, bright bands and dark bands uniform next to it as if lines of radiant toy soldiers—-a portable sunrise.

Department chair Tad Javert—-my mentor and the only true mad scientist I’ve ever known—-rushes into my office reeking of the burnt copper stench of the R&D lab. He beams with the stern ecstasy of a conductor, his hair frizzled, grayed with age or knowledge or some perverse combination of the two. He booms that our apparatus is complete; we have successfully honed a cathode capable of firing single electrons at a constant rate, one at a time. It is the late afternoon, and he has a class. Arden, he says, I need you to test it.

The R&D lab is petrified by awe at this machine. Eager grad students peer through the shoulders of colleagues at the glistening contraption, itself like a large vacuum tube. It shimmers under the sterile fluorescent lights while I install the specialized acetate film stock which will show where the electrons hit. Before I hit the switch, I outfit the ion cylinder with a makeshift double-slit adapter. I don’t know why I choose the double-slit experiment as the basis for a test; mere scientific exhibition, perhaps. The machine fired up with a low hum as the cathode swelled into a dull gleam under the glass and steel. After a few awestruck minutes the crowd disperses, and I’m left alone with the apparatus.

Electron particles firing off one at a time should result in random placement, double-slit or no. With no other wave patterns to interact with, there’s no diffraction, no interference pattern. I look at the film stock under the microscope attached to the apparatus and try to remind myself of this, all the while wondering how what I’m seeing can be true.

Javert returns to the lab after class and when he sees what I see, we don’t leave all night. Hours drag on as electrons fire off on at a time—-click, tick, click, tock—-every hour confirming more and more our suspicion. By the time the electron count reaches 140,000 somewhere around sunrise, the interference pattern is unmistakable.

Particles that never interact with each other in the double-slit act as though they have; the same fringes, bright bands and dark bands, clear as day on the film stock. We spent most of the night arguing about what this proves, what this means, how it is even possible, what Heisenberg would think. We must have looked pretty silly, bickering with uncertainty about the Uncertainty Principle. Daybreak is just the final realization of all the suspicions we labored to determine.
The only way an interference pattern could have developed is that each electron interfered with itself; every particle its own self-sustaining wave. In the context of the double-slit, this meant every electron had to be going through both slits. At the same time. Our sub-atomic matter, the tiniest fractions of what we perceive as our “whole,” has just defied every law of reality. They are constantly elsewhere and still here, in a co-existing realty.

We cannot function under the pretense of an exclusive “whole,” some sense of self, not when every minute speck of the self is constantly in the opposite place. What of that reality in which my physical self is transposed into a place where my parents weren’t my parents? My mother is not “my” mother--my Dad not “my” Dad? I wondered about that narrow reality in which my life was my life but without “my” Dad. Or the even narrower reality of life with “my” Dad without “his” problem. Or, even narrower still, what of that reality where Javert and I never concocted this self-realizing, self-defeating edifice?

Somewhere between the reality where Sofie and I never met and the one where everything worked out like we planned, I realize “A is B” and “A is not B” are no longer mutually exclusive terms.

Exhausted and disheveled, we take our leave with the night. I pack my suitcase as Javert shuffles meekly towards the door. He’s about to leave when I call to him.

“Tad.” He pauses in the doorway. “Is A still A?”

He walks out the door without looking back.

I’m awakened from an uneasy sleep by a phone call later that evening to be informed that Tad Javert drove his car off of a bridge into the East Bay River on his way home to Navarre. I spend a moment wondering if it made any difference.

I spend a week at the university, shifting listlessly through the hallways of the Particle Science & Technology Center while every person in the department recreates the experiment again and again and again. They try to find some fault somewhere, some place where the logic we’ve relied on all our lives will make sense of this thing we have made. The faculty buzz and Javert’s death eventually reaches Sofie in Holland Hall. She calls and suggests I take a break. Suddenly realizing I had not seen her, talked to her, called her, or even thought of her since reimagining our reality, I agree.

It’s getting too hot in Gainesville anyway, she says. Why not a change of scenery? Some water? A nice breeze?

“Some water, sir? A nice brie?”

A waiter enthusiastically offers me from a silver pitcher and a cheese plate. I wave him off as politely as I can feign.

“Very well, your appetizer should be arriving shortly.”

As he walks away I look up at Sofie, a concerned look on her face at my nodding off. She claims I’ve been doing it a lot lately. I haven’t noticed. She asks if I’m sick. I don’t want to answer. I’m not even sure how I’m supposed to answer. Clearly a “yes” or a “no,” but what difference would that make? It isn’t even that the answer is inconsequential, it’s just simply both yes and no, coexisting binaries. Either one would require further inquiry to confirm, so what answer do I really have? Automated. Antagonizing. Positive. Negative. Zero. One. I don’t want to think about it anymore. I don’t want to think at all. I’m too tired to think about—-

“Anything else?” The waiter grins at me as he lowers a plate of fried eggplant onto the table. For the first time in a week, I sense an automatic response.
“Yeah. Cutty Sark on the rocks.”

He nods politely, leaves us our silverware, and walks off to the bar. Sofie merely stares at me, mouth slightly agape, perhaps waiting for her ears to register what she just heard. I simply stare back, watching those stern blues of hers fade to vapid. The waiter puts a crystal tumbler of icy scotch down next to my hand and, perhaps sensing the tension, walks away without a word.

Still staring I put the glass to my lips and sip slowly, savoring an old friend. It’s cool on my tongue as I let it sit in my mouth for a moment, letting the barely linger. The sweat of the glass refreshes my hand, so I don’t bother putting the glass down.

“Paul,” her voice finally creaks, “why?”

“Why not?” It occurs to me that this is a perfectly reasonable answer. I tip the crystal glass in her direction. “Here’s to us, lovely, and the life we have.” I nod at her and finish off the crisp amber fluid, motioning at the waiter for another. “After all,” I say with a sigh, “we truly have everything to be thankful for. Look around—-swank dining, beach vacation, not bad for a couple of fossils.” The waiter brings me another round, taking the old tumbler off. I think he tries to make eye contact, but I’m focused entirely on Sofie and her on me. Strong girl; I always admired how when she gets angry she doesn’t blink, and her voice takes that low tone, subdued.

“What are you getting at with all this, Paul?”

“Nothing, dear. Just grateful is all. Fancy university jobs, the life of the mind, separate little homes to go to at the end of the day. Twenty-two years together, still unmarried. Not bad. It’s liberating, really.” I’m the one to finally break gaze and stare down at the tumbler, rolling the ice cubes with one hand, taking a sip. “Yeah, I guess I’d have made a shitty father anyway.”

I don’t see the look on her face, I only hear her pause her breath, and I know there’s no going back.

“Yeah, picture me, some little Paul running around the office. Messing up Daddy’s papers, drawing pictures on Daddy’s research. Daddy’s busy Paul, can’t play catch right now. Daddy’s busy Paul, watch cartoons with Mommy.”

I look up and she is stone, the expression of statues looking on from time immemorable. My voice is a docile hush; consoling and one decibel away from making a scene. Staring at the glass, twirling the base along the table, halfway hoping that dull bowling alley hum drowns my words into a whisper.

“Yeah, but Mommy would have been working all the time too, wouldn’t she? Maybe not, though. Maybe if Mommy weren’t barren, she would have made all the time in the world for Paul Jr. Then Daddy comes home to dinner and finds out what you learned in school. Then he stubs his toe on the toys he told you to put away. Then he finds the window in his office broke by a baseball. Then he pulls a bottle out of his desk and sits alone in frustration. This is why Daddy drinks, Paul. This is why Daddy drinks.”

Strong girl; her lip quivers a little, but she won’t give me the satisfaction. She stands up, poised, and walks out of the restaurant.

I imagine the rental car will be gone when I walk back to the hotel, replaced by a long note I won’t read. No matter, just matter. She’s no farther away from me in Gainesville than she was when she walked out the door, when she was sitting directly across from me, when we were lying in bed together. Seventy-two miles is just as well as thirty-six miles. Thirty feet is just as well as fifteen feet. Twenty-four inches is just as well as twelve inches. A millimeter is just as well as a half-millimeter. We’re always distant. There are always an infinite number of half-distances we have to travel that never really equal zero. All those close dances, all those held hands, all those nights in each other’s arms, all those phone calls from the road pining for one another, all those times we tried to spite infertility with passion; one inch became a half-inch became a quarter-inch became an eighth-inch became on and on and on, never really touching. Just co-existing. Different realities.

I motion to the waiter for another round, rousing from the table myself with a timid stretch. Fresh scotch in hand I make my way towards a flight of stairs indicating a lounge area on the top floor. I find a smoky attic filled with kids around my students’ age murmuring among beer mugs and backgammon. Leaning against the back wall, between young couples curled together in leather chairs, I spot a trio of young men in blazers pointing at the war footage on the small television above their booth. The one seated alone shakes his head and says it’s the end of times.

I never will understand the fetish young people seem to have with the complete destruction of the world, as if they’re the first ones. Not for lack of trying, but we didn’t sin enough to end the world a century ago, a generation ago, or even a week ago. What harm will one more night do?

I look down at my glass and wonder what harm one more night will do.