The Covid pandemic had altered her plans to return regularly to Raleigh. She’d packed her first visit with academic meetings and casual gatherings, anxious to reconnect with colleagues and friends. This lunch would be her last before flying out on the nonstop to L.A.
She saw him arrive, taller and grayer than she’d remembered. His oxford shirt was open at the collar and tucked into tight jeans. Like the others, he clutched a phone and briefcase, and had the air of urgency that accompanied fitting lunch into a busy day. He followed the hostess to their table, and she rose to meet his embrace.
“So, how’s the universe?” she asked.
“The usual comets, black holes, an occasional luminescent nova. I’m still searching for my lodestar. How’s retirement?
“I spend a lot of time with grandchildren, as planned, and I’m enjoying not being in front of sleepy students at 8:05! There are things I miss, can’t say that is one of them!” They sat down, unconsciously moving their chairs closer together.
“My first class is at 10:00, makes a huge difference,” he said. “They’re all awake by then. I am, too. It’s great to see you.”
He placed his napkin on his lap, but his gaze was focused on her as she beamed back. Their eyes were feeding visual details to their brains; hair, skin color, freckles, eyes and lips, the fragile spot at the V of the clavicle; the curve of shoulders, breasts, musculature beneath shirt sleeves, the turn of a bare elbow resting on the table; long fingers with a glint of polish, large rough hands; the gentle rise and fall of breaths taken to slow the heart.
“What are you teaching this semester?”
“Two classes, Intro to Physics and an astronomy class. No one wants to teach Intro anymore, and I’m happy to support our younger faculty needing time for research.”
“Always the nice guy!”
“What about you? Have you finished your book, yet?”
“Working on it. Things haven’t gone exactly as planned, but I’m making progress. I saw that you posted a hike on Facebook.”
“Yep, six of us scaled Springer Mountain, in Georgia. It’s a camp completely off the grid. No electricity or phone service, only well water and rough cabins. You have to carry everything in with you.”
“It was. It was also way more strenuous than advertised, with a gain of more than three thousand feet over a two-mile hike. I have to admit, with a thirty-pound pack on my back, I wasn’t sure I’d make it.”
“But you did it!”
“You can always go a little farther than you think possible. It’s good to be reminded of that.”
The waiter arrived to take their order.
“Surprise me, like you used to.”
He ordered. She cracked a salty Mathri cracker in half and used it to swirl the oil and balsamic vinegar around the condiment plate.
“Tell me about the sky. Did you see any meteors?” she asked.
“The camp was heavily wooded, didn’t really have an open view of the sky.”
“Too bad. My most incredible sighting happened late one evening in Wisconsin. A blazing meteor with an orange tail lit up the sky and sparkled on the lake’s surface. I’ve been watching the heavens ever since, hoping to see another one like that.”
“You might not. Those are pretty rare.”
“I saw Hale-Bopp with Dad. Dark, cold, wintry night, squeaky snow under our boots. We were both struck by its beauty, but also the fact we’d never see it again. I’m sure you saw it.”
“I did. It was beautiful. I show slides of Hale-Bopp in my Astronomy class, telling students if they didn’t see it in 1997, it’s too late.”
They both sat back as the waiter refilled their water glasses, then leaned toward each other when he walked away.
“Do you miss teaching?”
“Not grading papers; but I do miss the crush of students on campus between classes, the banter before class, getting another cuppa at the café before afternoon classes.”
“Weren’t you going to teach ESL in L.A.?”
“My schedule is too topsy-turvy. My daughter’s health has improved since the surgery, but the kids are only two and four years old. Probably a few more years before I can teach. Do I recall you have a grandchild, maybe two?”
“Three! They’re all out of state. We interact mostly on the holidays.”
“I have a third grandchild, too, in Wisconsin. Hard to believe our kids are having babies!”
“Even harder to believe they’re approaching middle age!”
“The twins turn 40 soon, and my youngest is out of college. How is that possible when I’m only 29!”
“Well, you still look 29,” he said. She tipped her head in his direction, a crooked smile pursing her lips.
“Are you seeing anyone?” he asked.
“Just occasional outdoor dinner dates. The pandemic hasn’t helped me meet many people.”
The waiter delivered steaming bowls of chana masala and masoor dal. They dove in with their usual zeal, topping mounds of jasmine rice with savory vegetables.
“Mmmm. Well, this hasn’t changed a bit,” she said, after swallowing her first mouthful.
“I haven’t been here in ages,” he said.
She savored her food and the notion that this restaurant was theirs only. A simultaneous pause of conversation fell over the dining room, leaving only the gentle clinking of cutlery against porcelain plates, the bubbling of water in a fountain, and the melodic strains of Eastern music. She recalled when she introduced him to her elderly father, their animated conversation barely pausing between mouthfuls as they shared groundbreaking theories, beloved scientists, and their favorite authors, Carl Sagan, Isaac Asimov, and Richard Feynman. The next day, they’d met at the airport to board the Cessna he co-leased with two other pilots. Her father sat in the cockpit while he updated the GPS data before a short flight, their animated conversation a continual stream of mutual excitement about soaring through time and space.
The lunch-crowd conversation roared back, the sounds of cutlery, water, and music now indiscernible elements of the white noise.
“Are you still seeing the homeopath?” she asked.
“Yes, I am, and I’m working with a trainer. But for all that, I’m still just a big old fat guy.”
“You are not! I could see the effect of your efforts in the hiking photos.”
“I definitely feel better. But sometimes when something hijacks my schedule, I’m afraid I’m going to forget my laptop, my phone, the briefcase, my papers or lecture notes. Sometimes it’s overwhelming.”
“I’ve felt that, too. It’s usually connected to too much caffeine. You don’t drink any caffeine, right?”
“That used to be the case. I got an espresso coffee-maker, now I drink it all day.”
“Maybe you’re overdoing it. Whenever I start overreacting to things, I switch to water—only for a few days.”
“Huh, I’ll give it a try.”
“See this?” she asked, waving the slip of paper in the air. “It’s my other solution to anxiety. I make lists, afraid I’m going to forget something. Let’s see… what’s next? Are you still taking pictures?”
“Of course. I’ve got a new DSLR Nikon. I’ve updated software on my computer. It’s astonishing what we can do with imagery in the digital age.”
“I still have the photo you took at the Eno River Music Festival. Remember, on the bridge?”
“Oh, yes, I remember.”
He had presided over an ecology information booth during the morning while she and her son strolled the fairgrounds. They had agreed to meet before lunch on the bridge, where it would be easy to find a six-foot-four guy in the throng. With his ever-present Nikon, he posed them in the dappled sunlight beneath the overhanging pin oaks. They squinted happily, the warm colors of their reddish hair and freckles melting in the heat and humidity of the summer day.
“What else is on your list?”
“Feynman. You posted a letter on Facebook from Richard Feynman to his wife. I wanted to talk with you about that letter.” She unconsciously tapped her breastbone, covering the glinting necklace with her hand.
“Ah, yes, that letter where he writes to his dead wife, saying she was the only person in the universe for him.”
“Yes. I was moved by it.”
“Unusual letter when you consider the fact that he was remarried. I wonder how the second wife felt.”
“Really? You didn’t mention any of that in your post. I only saw the letter where he was inferring their relationship was like a cosmic miracle, inimitable.”
“Well, he is also known for saying something to the effect that physics is like sex; it may give practical results but that’s not why we do it. He was a notorious womanizer, even while married to his second wife.”
“Oh, dear,” she cleared her throat. “Can we talk about the contents of the letter and disregard the unsavory aspects of his life?”
“Yes, I think so.”
“Perhaps it’s actually better to know that Feynman only talked the talk. Makes what I want to say even more important.” She sipped her water, cleared her throat.
“When your wife unexpectedly returned from out of state to plead with you for a second chance…”
“How well I remember.”
“You gave it to her.”
“Yes, I did. Mostly for the kids’ sakes. But I was also open to trying to salvage our marriage.”
“And I supported you in that decision.”
“Yes, you did.”
“I supported you, but I also assumed it wouldn’t work. And, if you had decided against it, I wouldn’t have argued her case.”
“I know that, too.”
“Yours was an incredibly honorable choice. In our throw-away culture, where everything is disposable, you chose to try to repair your marriage.”
She laid her hand upon her breast, exhaled deeply. “Twelve years ago, we were the last two passengers to board a cramped turbo-prop at O’Hare. Neither of us was supposed to be on that flight, but canceled plans, rain, and wind, all conspired to put us there.”
“Sort of a cosmic accident,” he said.
“I prefer to call it a cosmic miracle. But no matter what you call it, I am grateful our paths aligned.”
“I am, too. Thank you for telling me. I wasn’t sure,” he said.
He reached for her hand. They peered deeply into each other’s eyes.
“The necklace. You still have it,” he said.
“It reminded me of a comet, its tail sparkling with ice crystals.”
She tapped her breast gently with her free hand.
“I fully intended to follow it up with something more significant,” he said.
She inhaled deeply, then read from her list. “In Feynman’s letter, he says, ‘I love you. I want to love you. I will always love you. You stand in my way of loving anyone else… but I want you to stand there.’”
“I don’t want…,”
“Wait, let me finish. I’ve always had high standards, but frankly, our relationship set the bar higher. I know, now, what ‘right’ feels like. I’m grateful for that. I believe that some of us have few true partners in the world. Your choice a dozen years ago, while difficult, was the right one. I see who you are, and I love you.”
“I love you too.”
And still he held her hand. After a few minutes he asked, “What else is on that list?”
“Back into the universe. Flight #962, departing soon.”
Author's CommentMy stories and poems all find their sources in my personal experiences growing up in Wisconsin, teaching in N.C., and enjoying travel to South America and Europe, as a student and later as the director of a study abroad program with NCSU. The genre of creative non-fiction allows me to occasionally revise how the dots are connected, to strengthen a story arc or pacing, but never to tweak the truth.
4 Comments on “Diamonds in the Universe”
So many things to learn about your from your writing. A poignant story, beautifully told.
Thank you, Lynne!
Enjoyed your story💥 😍
Thank you for reading my story, Joel!