The Physicist’s Lover Dies of a Stroke

Jennifer Zeynab Joukhadar

Carmen had had a sudden stroke. There was no family history of stroke, no prior warning, no risk factors. Before disaster, there had been nothing — or rather, there had been everything: Carmen, in the kitchen that morning, humming as she smeared peanut butter on an English muffin; Carmen, five years ago, pinning a paper crown to her niece’s hair; Carmen, ten years ago, the night they both got drunk and fell asleep on the floor after making love; Carmen, two days ago, storming out the door after their shouting match; Carmen, five minutes ago, the ominous twitch in her little finger as she’d taken Mona’s hand after their fight; then Carmen, on the ground, her earlobe dotted with red.

It was a subarachnoid hemorrhage. Mona had called 911, and the medical kits had rattled when she’d climbed into the back of the ambulance behind Carmen’s stretcher. Mona rubbed the smell of antiseptic out of Carmen’s palm and ran through formulae in her mind as though rummaging through an overstuffed garage: the Planck constant, the Hamiltonian, the formulae that proved that matter and space could not be cut into infinitely small units but were made up of discrete particles, how these particles themselves were space, how they allowed matter to exist at all. As a physicist, Mona knew there was no such thing as emptiness.

And yet here was the soul of nothingness: here was Mona with the woman she loved dying in her arms, and all she could think was how useless all of this was, all of the knowledge of the universe she had spent decades pursuing in her office that overlooked the Bay Bridge with its windows that wouldn’t even open to let the sun in on a Tuesday afternoon. How useless the swarms of particles were that made up everything around them. How useless the particles were that had, by chance, coagulated to form oaks, ambulance tires, grey sky, Carmen’s frontal lobe, gravity itself, the space that curved around them because mass itself caused space to bend.

Mona thought of how time had not passed evenly for the two of them over the course of their lives because time was an illusion. She began to count in her head the number of conferences Carmen had attended for work over the years in Denver, or Santa Fe, or even the trip she had taken to Chile alone to visit a friend who was living nearby and wanted to make the trek to Machu Picchu. All this time Carmen had spent at high altitudes while Mona had spent her life at sea level, watching the cars cross the Bay Bridge in the half-light and return again in the dark, revising papers on physics that never got her tenure because queer brown women hardly ever made tenure. Mona realized that she did not know how old Carmen was, not really, because for all she knew either of them could be older by several seconds; one of them could have had, in some way, more life than the other, because time passes more slowly at sea level than at altitude. She realized all the life she would still have, alone, the equations she would copy, the constants she would try and fail to calculate, the distant offers of tenure she might now be able to take without a partner in tow. And it all seemed so pointless, the years they had spent without each other before Carmen had even come out, before they’d each quietly reached thirty and realized all the things they didn’t want out of this life and all the things they did, the tiny fraction of the life of the star Sol that had seen their two swarms of particles meet, by chance, on a sunny afternoon in North Beach when they’d both ordered a double espresso at Café Trieste.

How careful they had been. How they had loved each other across the space between them, the space that had never been empty because there was no such thing as emptiness. They had always been aware that they were two people who were lucky to share the same planet but belonged, first and foremost, to no one but themselves. This did not lessen their love but freed it. They never said what they both felt: that they were unlikely to find another love like this in the time remaining to them.

And now this chance gathering of particles that formed Carmen’s face would begin to decay, atom by atom, and the accumulation of years that had rearranged those particles as she had begun to age, as she had smiled, as she had eaten Mona’s cooking or hammered a nail or tugged a splinter from Mona’s thumb, all of those little moments would be gone forever. Because Carmen had never been solid: Mona’s lover was a chance arrangement of the same stuff that made up the planet and the wind and the interstellar dust of the universe. All else, Mona realized, was an illusion. The person she had called her lover, her person, the face she had kissed each morning, the hands that had been inside her body, that had caressed her hair, that had sewn up her wounds — all this had taken the shape of a woman for a fraction of a moment in its life as the boiling center of a star, the event horizon of a black hole, the foam on a breaking wave, the crust of ice on the summit of Everest. The illusion of this woman was formed of these same undying particles, and just as this world that would one day be swallowed by darkness would soon reclaim Carmen’s eyelashes, so this separation, too, was an illusion.


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