We finally visit your parents after two years in the States. It’s sometime between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, and Jerusalem has that lazy, half-holiday feel I remember from past Septembers. People take long lunches, leave work early, go to the beach. Your parents say we can borrow their car for a few days by the Red Sea.
When I wake up, you’re already in the kitchen. You fill plastic bottles with water while your mother peels beets over the sink. We drink Turkish coffee with cardamom, and share yesterday’s apple cake.
We get going late. It’s hot, already. Bright Jerusalem heat, blazing clear and honest like the voice of God. Or some God, anyway. Tell this clear and honest thing to the black-hatted hassids, running around begging forgiveness for a year’s worth of sins. As if sweating rivers in their coats weren’t penance enough. One of them watches as we drive past, shifting a plastic bag of pomegranates from hand to hand.
When I was a kid, I thought becoming a physicist was something that happened to people as they got older. Like going gray or getting fat. My parents: both physicists, with physicists for friends. They huddled over the kitchen table. Arguing, scribbling on grid paper.
Later, I rebelled. Or tried to, anyway. I read Márquez, memorized Prufrock, talked about Dante with my boyfriend in the park. An English professor told me my soul was too sensitive for science. Maybe it was. But there I went, standing at the registrar’s wooden counter, declaring physics as my major in blue ball-point pen.
A weight settled on me. A good weight. The kind that grounds you.
The road out of Jerusalem climbs to Ma’ale Adumim then snakes back down through the Territories. It’s all scraggly sagebrush out there, serpentine paths marked on dusty slopes. Olive groves. Chain link fences dense with barbed wire.
I don’t ask my usual questions about Zionism, about why people kill each other over these scrubby hills. Instead I ask about your friend Gilad, the one who went to India and came back an astrologer. Later he became an insurance agent, like his dad. He and his wife are really into Falun Dafa, though. They run the organization’s Hebrew language newspaper, and come to New York every year for the Falun Dafa international conference.
Maybe Gilad has a sensitive soul, too.
Physics was safe. Steady. Nuclear fission, the planets’ frenzied spinning, fizzy water straining against a cork — all tamed, quieted, contained. With a single formula. Maybe two.
I loved solving equations. I loved the symbols marching one after the other, inevitable, a line of ants. I loved the gradual acceleration when I simplified expressions, faster and faster, equals equals equals to the answer, pi or two or one.
I loved cutting to the center of things. Peering through the forest’s feathered pomp to trunks, roots, branches. Structure, pared down to the essentials.
We reach the desert. The desert I think about when it’s raining in New York. The hills press their golden bellies against the sky and it cups them tenderly, with so many azure hands.
The road runs down and down. We pass a sign marking “Sea Level” in four languages. Tourist buses rest in the parking lot like weary whales. Sandaled passengers mill about, faces flushed under their sun hats. Two bored-looking camels bat long eyelashes. Their owner takes money for pictures.
“Remember when you said you never pursue girls? That you just end up with the ones that fall in your lap?”
“I never said that.”
“Maybe it’s not such a bad thing, you know? Taking life as it comes to you.”
You smile and put a hand on my knee. “I hang onto a good thing when I find one.”
“So you admit you said it?”
You laugh and keep your eyes on the road.
When we both worked at Weizmann we would meet at Charlie’s Cafe every afternoon for coffee and a Krembo. Then we’d go watch the cats in the parking lot behind your building. In the spring there were kittens. White-pawed little things, napping piled up in the bushes. We named them Albert, Rufus, Abdullah. They drank from the cream cheese container someone always filled with water, and stole scraps of schnitzel from the trash.
I was working on stability back then: figuring out which crystals hold their shape and which ones collapse onto themselves. Strange that math tells us more about stillness than motion. That it’s hard to know if stillness is pause or permanence. Is this the instant a ball stops flying up so it can start falling? Or is it the instant it lands in my hand?
The Dead Sea appears behind rows of date palms. Flat, impassive. Smaller than it was. Salt-encrusted mounds gnarl their way from road to water. Signs warn of sinkholes that yawn open suddenly as the sea recedes.
Why is the sea so dark? It looks like deep water, where light travels a long way before reflecting off the bottom. But the Dead Sea is shallow. Shallower every year. It’s the angle, maybe, or the mineral content. Something that changes the index of refraction.
Did I always think this way? Or is it a mental tic I’ve developed? An occupational hazard?
The AC struggles, whirring and sputtering until it gives up and starts blowing warm air. Red dust sifts in through the vents. Tonight we’ll scrub it from our hair, from the creases of our elbows, from inside our ears. You fiddle with the radio until you find Middle Eastern music, a DJ speaking Arabic. An Amman station, most likely. Those mountains across the water are in Jordan. You could walk there almost, if not for the sinkholes.
I stopped thinking of physics as truth.
It’s a language, formed around a grammar we built ourselves. Maybe it does describe the universe, but only because it has to. Didn’t we make English to talk about bread and love and grass? We’re not surprised it has words for them.
I am just a zoologist, compiling a bestiary of the cosmos as frugally as I can.
We get to Eilat late. We eat, sleep, get up early, go to the beach.
We snorkel, breathing borrowed air. Fish flit in and out of the coral like colored dreams. The water is so clear. When I look away from shore underwater I imagine I can see all the way to Jordan, to Saudi Arabia even.
When we get cold in the water we go lie on that red sarong you brought back from Goa. The sun is so bright it seeps in through my eyelids.
I tell you about black holes. When you cross the event horizon, you don’t even notice. It’s just like any other point in space, a nothing, a line on a map. But after that, your time flows toward the center. Your only future is falling. I find this strangely comforting.
“You’re the most morbid physicist I know,” you say.
And you tell me about the blue hole down the coast, off Sinai. A hole in the coral one hundred meters deep. Divers drown there all the time. The hole is so deep they get disoriented, they can’t tell down from up. “Who’s morbid now?” I say. But I am thinking about the feeling I get sometimes when I am working. That I’m swimming down down down through limpid water, looking for the floor of the sea.
Sophia Domokos is a theoretical physicist and managing editor of The Cooper Square Review. She is on the hunt for her next scientific adventure.