A STRING THEORY VALENTINE
by Carla Sarett
Only weeks before, all things being equal, Anna and Jonah would have spent the day together. By this time, they might have climbed up Sleeping Beauty Mountain and admired the tawny light of late summer in the Adirondacks. Instead, Anna lay on the sofa, eyes half-closed, listening intently to Mendelssohn’s rapturous double string quarter, the Octet in E flat major.
Anna said, “By my age, Mendelssohn already wrote this. He was like sixteen, I think. And, I mean, did he ever write anything better? I don’t think so. It’s totally depressing.” She flipped herself over, face turned down, wild hair falling all over.
Faith knew her daughter’s moods all too well. “I wish you’d call Jonah. It’s not right. He’s almost a part of our family.”
“Was, mom, he was,” said Anna. “Anyway, what are you thinking? We’d get married and live happily ever after? I’m off to Julliard and he’s off to Stanford, and I mean, I wasn’t going to marry my high school boyfriend, was I.” Her foot kicked her mother’s latest book off the glass table.
“Well, what about the Octet? You said it, Mendelssohn was a teen,” Faith said, picking up the book and returning it to where it belonged.
“Well, he was like a prodigy, and anyway, that was then, not now.”
“Yes– and someday now will be then,” Faith responded—she was a professor.
Anna considered her mother’s riddle. “Yes, and someday, tomorrow will be then, too. And maybe in string theory, yesterday is tomorrow, and in another string, Jonah and I didn’t fight and we got married. Maybe we got married, and now we’re already divorced and I’m kind of stuck with the kids. Or maybe in another world, he’s here right now.”
“Not that we needed physics to know that.”
“Besides, it wasn’t my decision, it was Jonah’s. But that’s all I’m going to say, ever.”
It had been a conversation about music. Both she and Jonah studied classical music, and up to that point, she had imagined their tastes neatly aligned.
Anna had not spoken openly to her mother. She had taken it for granted that she and Jonah would grow old together: any other version of the future seemed impossible.
In fact, Anna had already formulated certain peculiar plans about her life with Jonah. Anna, and only Anna, knew about Jonah’s little brother’s ghost and how he visited from time to time. Jonah concealed these visits from everyone else, in case they labeled him loony and carted him off to therapy.
Anna had wrapped her arms around Jonah and squeezed him hard. “They’ll always be room in our house for Gary’s ghost. After we’re married, I’ll make sure he’s welcome. We can put a little chair in our bedroom, just for him. You don’t have to worry ever. He’ll be welcome. It will be like our secret.”
And he had kissed her all over with tiny feathery kisses, whispering, “I love you, I love you, I love you.” They rolled around giggling until they were out of breath with happiness.
A few weekends before, Jonah had played some music for her—blues music. In retrospect, she realized it was a kind of fare-well present, but at the time, she thought nothing of it. The names of the blues artists were unknown to her, and meaningless—Memphis Slim, Willie Dixon, who were they?
She listened for a few minutes and said, “The chord structure is kind of primitive. There doesn’t seem much to listen to, if you ask me. What do you like about this?”
Jonah looked tormented. “What do you mean what do I like? It’s Willie Dixon. It’s great.”
She frowned. “Well, what’s great about it?”
It was if she slapped him. All he said was “I don’t know how to answer. Everything, I guess.”
She shrugged, knowing a kiss would not solve anything. “Well, I don’t get it. I guess we don’t like the same things.”
And then he had withdrawn. It was like some silly movie. She could have apologized, but for what? She hated the music, and she could not pretend, just for his sake. It would have been the first lie between them; then, others would follow, each meaningless by itself, but taken as a whole, corrosive. He would have to take her as she was.
Jonah sat blocks away, listening to Willie Dixon, whose music pierced him like a knife. His dream was to rise in the world of physics and contribute to the ultimate proof of string theory– the grand theory that tries to unify the world of the stars with the world beneath the atom. It is a weird sort of theory: it divides the world into parallel universes, in which time reverses and bends like strings, and in which endings are not endings, and the world as we know it is just one among many.
Jonah’s mother, Rachel, smiled at her son. “Don’t be sad. Things will get back to normal. It’s just a matter of time. “
Jonah sulked. “There is no such thing as normal. That’s a construct, Mom.”
“And I suppose there’s no such thing as time, really, for that matter. “
“Not in the linear way you think,” he explained, as if she might be disappointed at the news.
He envisioned the distance widening between him and Anna over the years. He saw himself spinning into space, alone, and looking down years from now as Anna circled in an unrelated orbit, oblivious.
His mother said, “Time’s more linear that any of us needs or wants, Jonah. Maybe in some theory, you can turn back the clock, but not in this world, never, ever. This world doesn’t work like that. Time’s only going one way. You have to remember that.”
And Jonah and his mother were silent, knowing what they knew.
Jonah did not blame Anna, exactly. Even he admitted that a girl had a right to her own opinions—although he wondered how many. But this difference, to his mind, implied a universe of others, all unknown. He pictured two perfectly formed circles of thought and feeling with little intersection. The thought panicked him—he did not call.
Jonah and Anna left for college without a word to one another. But, in their first semester, they exchanged a few messages. They made casual plans to see one another – but as it happened, Anna’s family moved from the Adirondacks to Princeton. Jonah vaguely promised to visit, but it was a distance, and he did not.
After that, they stopped writing. And soon they had love affairs and new interests; their lives spun outward in different directions, planned and unplanned.
A decade later, Anna lived in Paris and returned home only infrequently. In Europe, she had managed to find a measure of success as member of a string quartet. The quartet’s touring schedule made her life somewhat nomadic, but that was the price for a life in music, or so she reasoned.
Anna now felt an affinity for what she grasped of string theory and its mysteries. She sensed an existence in multiple realities. In her dreams, she saw other places: enchanted villages with winding streets and old-fashioned houses. Sometimes, walking through streets, she caught sight of Jonah’s little brother, just ahead of her, almost within reach. Upon waking she knew these worlds existed. Underneath the streets and sidewalks of the everyday, another universe intersected with hers—like a misty cloud passing another in the night.
In Paris, one late summer afternoon, another man played the music of Willie Dixon and Memphis Slim for Anna. And this time, she heard pain and joy, and other things that were inexpressible.
She said, “Amazing, I heard this years ago, and it sounded like absolutely nothing at all. I had a fight with someone about it.” She remembered Jonah’s hurt expression.
The man who would become Anna’s husband said, “That’s not that surprising. Your ears weren’t ready. You hadn’t learned to listen yet.”
“And what changed them, education, Paris, what, you?” she asked.
“Time, time changed them. Time changes everything. It’s not the same music to you. You’re not the same person. It’s not the same world, even. You listened too early in life– before you were ready to hear. And when we listen to it in ten years, it will sound different to us,” he said.
“Time, of course, it’s the fourth dimension,” she said, thinking, with pleasure, about ten years from now.
Anna imagined Jonah laughing at his absurd conceptual error. He, of all people, should have weighed the power of the fourth dimension, when he was juggling so many others. She had liked the music, just not that specific moment. It seemed so obvious —like so many other things, obvious only when viewed from behind, looking backwards.
Jonah was laughing at that moment – as he listened to the same music, in Boston – but he laughed at his own adolescent illusions. His work in string theory had yielded no results, despite much effort. Other scientists had failed as well, but that was beside the point, as far as he was concerned. In fact, he had doubts, which he kept to himself. Time moved one way toward weakness and death – surely, there was no reversing it. To imagine otherwise was a conceit.
Jonah’s marriage was not the worst of marriages by any means. His wife was a practical woman – a fine scientist in her right — who had the sense to feign a love for the blues. She was not the sort to let nonsense stand in her way– after Jonah realized her harmless ruse, he was mildly amused, nothing more. By then, like many husbands, he leaned on his wife and valued her judgment. But he could never speak to his wife of Gary’s ghost, as he had once spoken to Anna. That part of Jonah remained shadowed.
As it happened, as he listened to Willie Dixon that day, Jonah’s life shifted course. He finally conceded what he had known for a while, longer than he cared to admit. His mind was good, but it was not great: it would never go far in physics. As for the paradoxes of string theory, he must leave them to others, maybe even his own children. He released his early dream with a sense of freedom—and then, began planning his work on the blues.
Over the years, Anna and Jonah built lives and families and gained respect in the world. They vaguely knew of one another; and they took secret pride in each other’s accomplishments. Contact between them seemed foolish, though. They never spoke or wrote to one another.
But they were bound together by the story of Jonah’s little brother—the story he had told to Anna so many years ago. The tale was part of Anna’s own memory and imagination; and by now, it was hers as much as Jonah’s.
And together, Anna and Jonah remembered.
Jonah and his brothers had gone on a treasure hunt, searching for pirate’s treasure in the dark woods behind their school. The boys had wandered hours and hours, and found themselves lost and chilled in the woods. And then it had begun to rain, first lightly and then in a thick downpour.
And the sky blackened and the children became frightened. Find us, find us, somebody find us, they cried. And when the rain stopped, for a moment, they ran as fast as they had ever run, without looking back even once.
But once they were home, they realized that their little brother had been left behind. And now, they rushed back to find little Gary—this time, they went with their mother– and they found him, collapsed in the woods. They carried him home but Gary did not wake. A doctor came and said Gary would never wake. And Gary was buried in a tiny coffin, and they watched black dirt thrown on it. And some time after, Gary’s ghost began to visit Jonah late at night.
And when Jonah had concluded his story, he had held on to Anna as tightly as he could.
Every once in a while, “not often, but often enough to mention” as she puts it, Anna feels the presence of Jonah’s brother. And like Jonah, if she holds her breath, she hears little Gary walking lightly in the dark woods where she used to walk. And her heart opens to the frightened boy, lost in the woods and then lost forever, yet as loved in death as he was in life.
And at that very instant, Jonah is with her.
Together, Anna and Jonah circle one another in the woods, in a hidden dimension. Together, they go backward and forward, twisting up and down, winding across the universe that they have made. They meet again and again and again– until time itself bends and flips them back up to the sky where they belong, together.
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