My father believed in moral absolutes, despite everything he knew about the workings of the universe. He kept his promises and he told the truth. It was the least he could do in a world of chaos. My mother couldn’t care less about the workings of the universe. She felt no need to strain against its chaos. Instead, she added to it. Unlike my father, she made promises she had no intention of keeping. She once promised to let him teach her to play chess if he’d help her shop for a sofa. When it came time to learn chess, she lay on the sofa and laughed and laughed. My father was perplexed. Had he not shopped for a sofa? What was the problem?
The truth was equally pliable. If it interfered with a story my mother wished to tell, she changed it on the spot. In her stories, my father often did things he hadn’t done at all. He could never understand how she managed to do this. Was it she who missed the point, or was it he?
Because the truths of physics and mathematics were impossible to change, my mother rejected them. As far as she was concerned, there was no reason why they had to be that way. She was pretty sure that humans didn’t know everything they thought they did about the world, and that mathematics was just a cryptic ruse to cover it up. Because my father loved these things, my mother could rile him about them. Once, when she complained about gravity, he took the bait.
“What do you mean,” he growled, “what good is gravity?”
“It does me no good,” my mother dismissed him. “It limits my freedom.”
My father swallowed with difficulty as he calmed himself and followed her around the room.
“Tell me,” he asked, “what do you think the tango would look like in outer space, free of gravity?”
“I don’t care about the tango,” my mother replied.
“What do you care about?”
“My breasts,” she said after some thought. “I’d like them to be weightless.”
“Yes,” she said. “Free.”
“Then you’d better undock them from the mother ship,” my father said.
My mother lit a cigarette and waved it about in a grand gesture.
“You give up far too easily,” she said. “They must stay docked. But they must point where I’m pointing.”
My father tried to ignore this.
“It’s limits that give you freedom,” he said.
But my mother was no longer listening.
Even though it never worked, my father continued to believe that he could one day instill a respect for the laws of nature in my mother. She encouraged his efforts from time to time but only so she could thwart them. Once, when he tried to explain time dilation to me, she hovered nearby.
“That’s Einstein’s stuff, isn’t it?” she interjected.
My father paused in drawing the diagram he was busy with.
“It’s not Einstein’s,” he said. “He just discovered it.”
“I knew it!” my mother cried. “Whenever something doesn’t make sense, Einstein’s involved.”
My father pushed his glasses up the bridge of his nose.
“It does make sense,” he said, “because it’s true. Satellites and space telescopes work because of it.”
“How do they know that time slows down?”
My father looked at my mother and then at me.
“It’s been tested many times,” he sighed.
He took off his glasses and cleaned them with his handkerchief.
“Do you actually want to know?” he asked uneasily.
My mother lit a cigarette.
“Not really,” she said. “I want to know about those travelling twins you mentioned.”
“Oh God,” my father whispered.
“It’s about time, isn’t it?”
“Why’s the one older?” she demanded.
My father rubbed his eyes and put his glasses back on.
“Because time slowed down for the twin who travelled.”
“Things go slower when you travel,” my mother agreed.
“Jesus,” my father said under his breath, “take me now.”
“Why not the other way around?” my mother asked.
“Because the one who travelled experienced time dilation,” my father said, “not the one who stayed behind.”
My mother stubbed out her cigarette.
“If it’s all supposed to be relative,” she said, “why can’t it be the other way around? Why can’t the travelling twin say that he remained where he was and that the earth and his twin moved off?”
“There are other considerations,” my father said wearily.
My mother regarded him.
“If it makes so much sense,” she said, “why can’t you explain it to me? Didn’t Einstein say that if you couldn’t say it in English, you didn’t understand it?”
“It wasn’t Einstein who said that,” my father countered. “It was Rutherford. He said you should be able to explain it to a barmaid.”
“So I’m dumber than a barmaid?”
“Here we go,” my father sighed.
“I don’t think you understand this stuff yourself,” my mother added.
“I do,” my father said, “but it takes some mathematics to explain.”
“Why hide the thing in mathematics?”
“It’s not hidden. It’s made visible, that’s what. Mathematics is a language like any other. Unfortunately you can’t say things like she died mysteriously in mathematics, but I could give it a try.”
My mother lit another cigarette.
“It’s about as useful as a wooden leg for swimming,” she remarked.
I’d seen this pattern of argument before. It always started with some law of physics that my mother didn’t like, and ended up at the foundations, mathematics.
“Mathematics is not only useful,” my father insisted, “it’s vital. I’ll demonstrate with something simpler.”
“Are you serious?” my mother said.
My father held up one hand as he drew a diagram of an inverted parabola with the other.
“Imagine the English are over here,” he announced, “with their longbows.”
He pointed at the one end of the parabola and drew two stick men with crude bows. Then he drew two stick men beyond the far end of the parabola.
“And the French are over here,” he added.
My mother stared at the diagram in disbelief.
“Now,” my father went on, “the English see that their arrows are falling twenty feet short of the French.”
He pointed at the gap between the parabola and the French stick men.
“The arrows travel in a parabola, like this—”
“Those archers didn’t know mathematics,” my mother objected.
“Dammit!” my father exclaimed. “Forget that. Just imagine. Ok?”
My father looked at me. Then he resumed.
“If those mathematical archers knew how to calculate the correct parabola, they could use it to figure out the angle at which to shoot to hit the French. Like this—”
He drew a different parabola that hit the French stick men.
“See?” he said.
My mother shook her head slowly.
“That’s nonsense,” she said. “Just move the English twenty feet closer.”
When she was gone we sat together in silence. After a while my father spoke.
“One day you must do what I did,” he said.
“Find a woman who can bring out the worst in you.”