Special Relativity

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?”

“Yes, but—”

“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?”

“Go on.”

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.”

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We’re all transparent in the dark

When I was a kid I was mystified by the existence of my sister. Why, for example, had my parents wanted a second child? Was I not good enough? And why did it have to be a girl? These questions bothered me and because I never got sensible answers from my parents, I took it out on my sister. Demri was four years younger than me and so it wasn’t hard to convince her that she was invisible. I pretended to get a fright whenever she spoke and then I looked straight through her. Demri ran off to ask my mother if she could see her.

“What’s wrong with him that he cannot see you?” my mother wondered.

Demri returned out of breath.

“Ma says there’s something wrong with you,” she announced.

“You’re transparent in the dark,” I said.

Demri ran off to my mother and returned in triumph a minute later.

“Ma says you’re right,” she said. “We’re all transparent in the dark.”

“Yes,” I said, “but you’re adopted.”

“I’m not!” she cried.

“Why’s your hair like that then?” I asked. “Why are there no pictures of you when you were just born?”

Demri wailed like a banshee and my mother came into the garden. I scurried up a tree and sat in a forked branch beyond her reach.

“We moved just after your birth,” my mother told Demri. “Plus, you were sick.”

“I’m adopted!” she wailed.

My mother came and stood beneath the tree.

“Come down here,” she said calmly and lit a cigarette.

“You’re going to hit me,” I said.

“Of course I’m going to hit you,” she said, more calmly. “I’m going to hit you even harder if you don’t come down right now.”

But I stayed up the tree. My mother went into the house to comfort Demri, and then she returned.

“How long do you think you can sit up there?” she asked.

“I don’t know.”

Demri and Grandma stood behind her. Demri made the universal sign for a hiding with her fingers.

“Look what she’s doing!” I yelled.

“She’s invisible, remember?” my mother said. “How can you see what she’s doing?”

By then I was aching from sitting in the narrow fork. They went away and I waited. I toyed with the idea of climbing down but it was obvious that the standoff had to be broken by something else. I wished it would rain and that there’d be lightning, that my mother would come and beg me to get down out of the tree, but nothing happened. Demri came and played on the lawn where I could see her. She did cartwheels and ran in circles while I ached up in the tree. Then she fetched a picture of herself as a baby. My mother had shown it to her.

“I’m not adopted,” she insisted.

“You were adopted when you were smaller than that,” I said. “That picture was taken later.”

You were adopted!” she cried.

“I know,” I sighed. “We both were.”

Demri was stunned by this new possibility and began to cry. My mother came from the house again.

“I called your father,” she lied. “He said he’d deal with you when he got home.”

“I don’t know how he plans to do that,” I said. “I’m not coming down from here. Ever.”

“Look,” my mother said, “you’re going to come down eventually. If you don’t come down by yourself, you’ll die up there and fall down. But down you’ll come.”

Of course she was right. But long before I died, someone from the school would call. My mother would have a hard time explaining that I’m hiding up a tree because she’d threatened to hit me. News of this would leak out. I’d be famous. People would talk about the boy who refused to come down from the tree. There’d be a picture of me in the papers, taken from far away. The old woman up the street would bring a hamper of food. Men with coats would come and talk to my parents inside the house.

“Jesus wants you to love your sister,” Grandma said.

She’d pulled up a chair and now sat knitting in the shade.

“Sure,” I said. “He was alone. He never had to put up with a sister.”

Grandma put down her knitting and lit a cigarette.

“Remember how your mother said that we’re all transparent?”


“We’re all alone, too,” she said. “We’re all adopted.”

My father came home from work an hour later. I watched with some trepidation as his car turned into the driveway. My buttocks were numb and I hurt all over. I’d begun to feel like an orphan myself, thinking about what my grandmother had said. Now my father went in through the back door, and then nothing happened. I expected him to come marching out, but he didn’t.

When it was almost dark he came and stood beneath the tree. He was smoking a cigar.

“How long have you been up there?” he asked.

“I don’t know,” I mumbled. “Since 3 o’clock.”

He nodded and seemed to think this over.

“Well,” he said at length, “it’s supper time. Maybe you should come down now.”

“What about Demri being adopted?” I asked.

“I heard about that,” he said. “What do you think?”

“Are you going to—you know—like, hit me?”

My father rolled the cigar between his fingers as he savoured it.

“Remind me,” he said. “How long have you been up there?”

Then he turned and went back into the house.

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The patience placebo

My mother broke things that didn’t work. She destroyed them so she’d never have to bother with them again. She enjoyed it because it gave her a moment of power over an object she couldn’t understand and now couldn’t even use. When the TV remote acted up, my mother stomped on it until the only parts you could recognise were the batteries.

“What the hell is this?” my father asked.

“That was the TV remote,” she said.

“I said I’d fix it,” he sputtered.

My mother lit a cigarette.

“Sure,” she said, “but the TV would have died of natural causes long before that.”

“Nothing dies of natural causes in this house,” my father observed. “Why do you do this?”

“So we don’t sit around like idiots, shaking a remote.”

“But I would’ve fixed it—”

“You can still fix it,” she said. “On your own time.”

My mother’s abandon drove my father insane. He didn’t mind the money it cost to replace the broken remote. What he couldn’t understand was that she didn’t respond when challenged by the universe, as he did, always, regardless of the odds of victory or the timing of the battle. Fighting the universe gave him an opportunity to be patient and that’s what he really excelled at. Under normal circumstances, patience is a virtue. It helps when nothing else seems to. But my father’s patience was so boundless as to constitute a disability. He couldn’t give up on whatever he was trying to do, no matter what. He kept at it long after common sense had ruled out any chance of success. He kept at it because the real test was to keep at it, not to solve the actual problem. If he solved the problem, by some fluke, he complicated matters until there was something else he could be patient about.

I remember one weekend when he tried to fix the light in the living room. The job was supposed to be simple—replace the corroded fitting and be done with it. Things started out well. He replaced the fitting and the light worked. He was done.

“Now get down from there,” my mother urged.

My father took his time to give her a dirty look from up on his ladder.

“This was easy,” he mused.

“Sometimes it’s just like that,” she said. “Get down from there.”

“This wire looks suspect—”

“Come down here—”

He tugged the wire that ran from the light into the roof. The light went out, as did another one along the wall.

“See!” he said in triumph. “I told you.”

Within the next few minutes he managed to short out half of the wiring in the house. He spent most of the weekend swearing softly and standing on the ladder while my mother smoked cigarettes at him.

“Can you go away?” he said through gritted teeth. “I know what I’m doing.”

My mother regarded him darkly.

“When?” she asked.

“When what?”

“When can I call someone who actually knows what he’s doing.”

“Go away.”

My father took the Monday off so he could devote himself more fully to the faulty wiring but my mother had called an electrician behind his back. The man arrived and fixed the problem in a few minutes. My father was deflated but visibly relieved. He secretly admired the ease with which my mother viewed the world but he never admitted it.

“What should I do now?” he wondered.

“Leave things alone,” my mother said. “Go see what’s in the shed.”

In the garden was a shed in which my father kept things he’d rescued before my mother could totally destroy them. Now and then he spent the day holed up in this shed, being patient. Sometimes he got lucky—like a gambler—and managed to fix something that was in there. Those times extended his belief that success required suffering and that his way was the right way. He tried to get me interested in his tinkering but I always disappointed him.

“You’re just like your mother,” he once said.

To give me some spine my father made me do various chores around the yard. Every weekend I had to sweep the pavements around the pool, clean the pool itself, and mow the lawn. The lawnmower was an old thing. Like me, it didn’t want to mow the lawn. My father had worked on it many times but that had only made it more prone to cutting out. I sulked and I wanted to go and play with my friends.

“Be patient, dammit,” my father said and twiddled a few knobs.

“Why’s it hard to mow the lawn and hard to start the lawnmower?” I asked. “It doesn’t make sense.”

He gave the cord a pull but nothing happened.

“What do you mean, it doesn’t make sense?”

“Bad things are easy to get into, not hard. To fall out of a tree I just have to let go.”

He pulled the cord again and adjusted a valve.

“This isn’t a tree, goddammit! This is entropy.”

He started the mower and gave me a long look.

“What’s entropy?” I asked.

“The world’s like that,” he said and walked back into the house.

It shouldn’t be I thought as I struggled on. A few minutes later the lawnmower cut out again. In a fit of rage I pushed it into the pool. It sank to the bottom and sat there, looking suddenly smaller and surreal. A few bubbles and some oil began to rise to the surface.

My father, who must have been watching me, strode from the house with stiff legs, like someone on stilts. He was so angry he was calm. He shoved me into the pool. Then his anger broke free from somewhere inside him. He grabbed the scooping pole and began to prod me.

“You son of a bitch!” he cried.

My mother didn’t say anything about that. She knew it wouldn’t help to mess with my father at the height of his anger. That afternoon, while he swore and banged things in the shed where he tried to resurrect the lawnmower, she laughed.

“Did it feel good?” she asked.

A few weeks later the lawn had become rampant but my father still insisted that he’d somehow fix the lawnmower.

“I should’ve drowned that boy,” he remarked and gave me a sidelong glance.

“It’s a pity,” my mother said.

“That I didn’t?”

“That it wasn’t me. I would’ve killed that lawnmower good.”

My father returned to the shed without a word.

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