Magic in a Certain Slant of Light
By Deborah Coates
21 March 2005
"If you could wish for something magical, what would you wish for?" Jeff asks Nora as he enters the kitchen.
Jeff has been gone all day, helping a friend fix the plumbing in his basement. There's no "Hello," or "How was your day?" Just Jeff, in the doorway, asking about magic. "It can't be about yourself," he continues. "I mean, like making yourself immortal. Or about world peace. It has to be—"
"Talking dogs," Nora says.
Jeff smiles in that way he has that seems to change his face. He's wearing faded jeans and a sweatshirt that's been washed so many times its cuffs are all unraveled; it's a change from pin-striped suits and crisp white shirts. "You know, Dexter made a dog talk once and it didn't work out like he figured it would. That dog was annoying."
"Well, I don't know how to tell you this"—Nora chops onions under running water, then transfers them to the frying pan on the stove—"but I don't rely on Dexter's Laboratory for my scientific knowledge."
"Talking dogs are not scientific."
"Yeah, magical." Nora turns the heat up on the pan and looks through the cupboards for the spices that she needs. She swears that they're never where she put them, no matter how often she returns them to their proper place. "That's what we were talking about, right? Magic? You tell me, what would you wish for?"
"Zeppelins," he says without hesitation.
"Uhm, zeppelins actually exist."
He stands in the kitchen doorway, slouched against the frame, and she knows that he will leave her. There is something in the way he looks, a shadow in his eye, that wasn't there yesterday or even this morning. And it almost kills her, like being stabbed right through the heart, because he's the only one she ever really loved.
"Zeppelins," he says, crossing to her and putting his arms around her waist from behind as she turns back to the stove, "are a collective figment of the imagination."
"Zeppelins are totally possible. Plus, you can ride in one."
He kisses the back of her neck and it feels like the soft brush of sun-warmed honey. "Bring me a zeppelin," he says. His words murmur against her skin as he talks and she can feel his smile through the small hairs along the nape of her neck. "Then I'll believe you."
"Bring me a talking dog."
He pulls her away from the stove and kisses her again, this time on the lips. After a minute, she turns off the stove and they go into the bedroom where they make love under the covers for hours until hunger drives them back to the kitchen at midnight to eat cold noodles and ice cream from the container. Then he kisses her again with lips that taste like vanilla beans and curry and laughs when she wrinkles her nose at him. He plants a line of kisses along her nose and down her chest, setting up a cool shiver along her spine. She wants him more than ever, wants him right now on the kitchen table. She grabs the waistband of his sweatpants to pull him toward her and kisses him so hard that it feels entirely possible for the two of them to meld completely.
But she still knows, before the year is through, that he will leave her.
The students in Physics 101 call her Dr. No, as in Dr. Nora, but also Dr. Knows-All-Sees-All, and possibly the James Bond villain, because she can tell Susan in the twelfth row back to stop necking with her boyfriend, Gianni, without ever looking up from her notes. She tells them it's just fun with mirrors; half-seen images that reflect against the whiteboard and the metal edges of things in the room. They don't tell her what she doesn't even know herself, that no matter where they sit, whether she's looked up from her notes or has her head turned to the whiteboard, she knows where each and every student sits and calls on them by name.
Today's lecture is on thermal energy and she's given it enough times before that she only half-thinks about it as she talks. Her eyes scan the room, her right hand writes notes, mostly on the overhead, but sometimes on the board. She thinks about Jeff and wonders what he's doing. He works at a small but very prestigious law firm downtown. Indications are that he will make partner soon and she wonders if that will be it, the thing that makes him leave her. Occasionally she thinks that she will ask him—I know that you will leave, she'll say, but I don't know why.
"Nora Holt! Where have you been keeping yourself?"
In the faculty dining hall, Sara Long, professor of English, approaches Nora's table. She wears flowing clothes that sweep back from her body when she walks as if she's always facing into the wind. Many years ago at another university, Sara and Nora were roommates, an unlikely mismatched pair, but they have remained friends ever since, eventually meeting up again when they both got professorships here.
Nora smiles up at her. "I don't think I'm the one who's been hiding," she says. "I eat here every day."
Sara is pregnant but she doesn't know it yet. Nora can tell by the glow of her skin and the extra bit of brightness in her eye. She was married last year to a man seven years younger than herself and she radiates happiness down to her toes.
"How's the research going?" Sara asks her.
"It's a dead end," Nora says. Though she knows it will be at least six months before she proves this, she can see it in the way her charts shade over time, in the way light refracts when she enters her lab, in results that aren't quite anything yet, except a trend she has no name for.
Back in her office, Nora sits at her desk and attempts to map out her relationship with Jeff. He is not the first lover she has ever lost. It is not the first time she has ever known. Nora always knows; she reads the smallest signs. But Jeff is the first one who will break her heart.
They met at a party just over a year and a half ago, the kind of thing Nora never goes to. She doesn't pay much attention to him at first; he is too tall, too thin, too well-dressed. She likes short, straight-shouldered men who wear loose-fitting blue jeans and clay-colored polo shirts. Late in the evening, past the time when Nora's usually politely bowed out, she finds herself next to him leaning against the railing of the backyard deck listening to the increasingly desperate laughter of three women in the living room whose husbands will divorce them before the year is over.
"My name is Jeff," he says to her.
At the very same moment, Nora says, "Leslie Walker is about to explode all over her husband."
"Literally explode?" Jeff asks.
Nora looks at him for what may be the first time that evening. "It will be very messy," she says with a straight face, "and they will be picking pieces out of the carpet for months."
Jeff grins, but before he can say anything further, Leslie Walker, who is standing by the open sliding glass doors, suddenly shouts in the kind of angry voice that simply stops every other conversation in the room, "Jack, you son of a bitch! You shut up! Shut up right now or I'll kill you where you stand!"
Jeff lays his hand on Nora's bare arm. "How did you know?" he asks her.
"Know what?" Nora asks him.
"That she would do that?"
"I could tell by the tone of her voice, by the way she was standing, by the other conversations in the room around her."
"You couldn't tell by the other conversations," Jeff says.
Nora looks at him. His hand is still on her arm. "Right," she says, "I meant the unspoken tensions."
"Ah," he says, "the unspoken tensions." And she is sure he doesn't notice that his hand runs down her arm and his thumb gently strokes her wrist.
He doesn't say much of anything else to her; five minutes later he's saying his goodbyes to the host and hostess and offering to drive Jack Walker home. Nora watches him walk out the door, not-quite-guiding Jack's unsteady progress, and isn't sure why she's watching him or why she can still feel a tingle across the bones of her wrist as if he's somehow been in contact with more than just her skin. There are eight bones in the wrist—pisiform, triquetrum, lunate, hamate, capitate, trapezoid, trapezium, and scaphoid. The scaphoid is the one that usually breaks. Nora doesn't know which one is tingling—it's possible they all are—maybe it's muscle or nerve instead of bone. But it's a new feeling for Nora, warm and cold, both at once. She isn't sure she likes it.
He's too tall, she tells herself, too thin and too well-dressed. She doesn't want him. She doesn't picture him standing at the base of her bed, pulling a faded red T-shirt off over his head. She doesn't imagine him touching her, making her whole body tingle the way her wrist does. She doesn't. He's not her type at all.
At dinner, Jeff brings up talking dogs again.
"Say I could invent talking dogs," he says. He's still wearing his shirt and tie from work though the tie is loose and hanging crooked. Jeff, the professional, always looks perfectly put together, perfectly cool when he leaves the house in the morning to go to work. Nora prefers Jeff at home, slouched and casual, like a secret only she has access to.
"Okay, see," she says to him, leaning on the table, "if you invent them it's not magical. It's science."
"If science says they can't exist," Jeff counters, "and I still manage to invent them . . ."
"If science says they can't exist, you can't invent them," Nora tells him. "Science makes life simple. Things that can't happen don't."
"Science makes life simple for you, you mean," Jeff says, but with a smile that erases any bite the words might have.
No, Nora wants to tell him, it doesn't. It doesn't make life simple at all.
"What about my zeppelin?" he asks later. "I hope you're working on that."
"Zeppelins exist," Nora says somewhat absentmindedly, working out a problem for tomorrow's class.
"Where's the magic?" Jeff asks her.
And it doesn't occur to Nora until later that he might have left off talking about zeppelins right then.
Nora goes running in the morning. She used to run every day, back before Jeff, before she had anything much to think about besides science and her next class and maybe ducking committee meetings. Now, she runs once a week, maybe. She enjoys it. She can feel the world open up when she runs. Possibilities become endless. It's only after she stops, after she takes a quick shower and dresses for the work day, that she knows that Jeff will leave her, that her department chair is going to announce his retirement in the next three weeks, that she will catch three students cheating on her next exam.
Between classes, she gets on the Internet and searches for "the science of love" and then doesn't visit any of the websites her search pulls up.
"Why do men leave women?" she asks Jeff that night after dinner is over and the dishes are washed. She asks it as if it's a big question—all men and all women and all the things they do—as if it has nothing to do with them. They are sitting on the couch together, she against one arm and he propped against the other, their legs intertwined.
Jeff is reading the evening paper and his reply is absentminded. "Which men?"
"Any men. Ever." Nora is exasperated. It has taken courage and planning to ask this question, as if asking manifests reality. And he isn't taking her seriously.
Jeff folds down the newspaper. "People leave," he says seriously. "Men. Women. It's all the same. They leave because they leave. Most of them think they can explain it—we never agreed on anything, he was too controlling, she never listened. But nearly always the real reason is both smaller and larger than any of those things. It's—"
"Research says," Nora begins earnestly.
"Oh, research." Jeff shrugs and the motion rustles his paper. "Research can tell you anything."
Nora bites her tongue on a long speech about scientific method and framing questions and double blinds and statistics because she knows it won't help the current situation.
"I'm still working on that talking dog thing," Jeff says five minutes later from behind the paper.
Nora doesn't really hear him. She's thinking about what he said—"she never listened." What was that about? Does he mean her? If she asked him, she knows he would say it was just an example. But it must be true. Why else would he say it? She thinks she listens. She intends to listen. But maybe she doesn't. Maybe this is why he leaves her.
"What did you just say?" she asks him, a shade of desperation in her voice.
"What?" He lowers the paper.
"What did you just say?"
The next morning as Jeff is tying his tie, he asks her casually, "If I bring you a talking dog, will you get me my zeppelin?"
Nora's throat is suddenly dry; she has to clear it before she speaks. This is it, she thinks, the test she will fail, the path by which he will leave her. "Zeppelins are easy," she says.
"That's what you think," Jeff replies.
Nora thinks she sees a zeppelin directly overhead as she's driving to her office, a blinding flash of silver that makes her stop flat in the middle of the road and climb out of her car. She stares up at the sky as if staring is the answer, until a battered orange pickup truck, swinging wide around the corner, almost takes her arm off.
She is more absentminded than usual in her morning class. One of the students asks her how time works in a black hole and she tells him that "time" and "black" and "hole" are all just symbols of actions and objects. "In a way, they can be whatever you want," she says.
"I don't think that's right," he says cautiously. "I mean, the book says—"
"Yes," she says hastily, "of course." She can't tell him that she was thinking about Jeff, wondering whether he was playing word games with her, cleverly redefining "I'm leaving you" into zeppelins and talking dogs.
After class, instead of heading back to her office, she exits the building and crosses the busy quadrangle to the low, ivy-covered brick building that houses the English department. Though it won't be announced for at least six months, Nora knows that the Provost is maneuvering to demolish the three old buildings that house English, Foreign Languages, and History. She knew at convocation by the way he leaned on the podium, by the words he used to welcome them back, by the interplay of shadows on the wall just past his shoulder. She finds Sara in her office sitting cross-legged in a battered leather arm chair, talking to one of her students, who is perched nervously on the edge of a straight-backed chair. "Look, it's quite simple really," Sara is saying to the student. "Find out what your character wants most, and then take it away from them."
"What?" the student asks, a frown creasing her earnest forehead.
"What will they do?" Sara asks. "When what they want most in the world is gone, what will your character do?"
Nora stands in the doorway, her breath caught in her throat. Jeff cannot possibly be what she wants most in the world. She wants the Nobel Prize, an endowed chair, the next great radical rewriting of the rules of the universe. She wants . . . oh god, she wants to own her place in the world.
A memory six years gone flashes into Nora's head: her first postdoc in Finland. "Why would you want to go there?" her mother asked her nearly every time they talked on the telephone in the weeks before she left.
"For the lights," Nora told her.
"The lights? What lights? Are you insane?"
"I mean the research," Nora said.
"All right, then," said her mother.
Nora has been telling people she means the research ever since.
She's halfway down the stairs when Sara catches up with her. "Nora," she calls, "did you want to talk?"
"What do you think a zeppelin costs?" Nora asks her.
"Millions," Sara answers without hesitation, the only evidence of surprise a half-raised eyebrow.
Nora nods as if considering. "What about a talking dog?"
"I don't think you can actually buy one of those," Sara tells her.
Nora looks up the stairs at Sara. There is a crispness in the air, as if winter is coming early. Nora can feel her life, her careful, controlled, scientific life sliding down through the soles of her feet and tumbling, broken, down the stairs.
"I don't want Jeff to leave me," she says as if that's what their conversation has been about all along.
Sara appears more stunned by this uncharacteristic confession than by talk of zeppelins and talking dogs. She recovers quickly, though, and descends the stairs to grasp Nora's shoulder. "Oh, honey. I don't think he'd—why would he leave you?"
"I don't know."
"Then you don't know that he'll leave."
When Nora doesn't answer, Sara sighs and says, "Look, just ask him."
Nora understands that asking would be simple for Sara. "What's up?" Sara would say. "Are you leaving me or what?" But for Nora it would be like ripping her own heart from her chest—because what if the answer is something she can't fix? "The thing is," Nora says, "if I don't ask, then I can't get the wrong answer. Like Schrödinger's cat, you know."
"Is that the cat that doesn't die unless you look at it?"
Nora rolls her eyes. "Sort of."
"You need to get over the science thing," Sara says prosaically. "Thought experiments are not going to help you here."
Nora knows that this conversation will eventually inspire Sara to write a series of short stories dealing with the domestic lives of scientists, played out against the background of historic events. Characters will lose what they want most in all the world and science will not help them win it back.
"Science explains the world to us," Nora says.
"How's that idea working out for you?" Sara asks wryly.
"I have to go now," Nora says, backing away.
"Just ask him," Sara says to the back of Nora's head as she hurries out the door.
Nora sees flashes of silver in the sky when she's walking across campus, when she's in the parking lot getting into her car, when she's driving through downtown. She stops, gets out of her car and looks up at the sky. Red light from the setting sun slants across the clouds. Nothing silver, nothing big, nothing like an airship. She looks away and there it is—a flash of silver—out of the corner of her eye, just out of sight, just out of reach.
Nora gets back in her car and drives to the park, where she parks in the nearly empty lot and walks out into the middle of the open green. She stands there for twenty-seven minutes until the sun has completely faded from the sky, until the shadows have spread from horizon to horizon, until the moon rises.
Nora leaves her car behind and walks across the park. The moon is three-quarters full and the light it casts is so silver that it turns the shadows blue. There's a nip in the air, like the promise of winter, but the breeze is warm. She crosses a dry creek bed and climbs the bank to a large open field. She puts her hand down on a half-liter plastic soda bottle someone has tossed and picks it up. Nora has never walked this way before, though she knows where her home is from here, like a beacon lit by rooftops. Scattered throughout the field are tall stalks of dried grass that look silver in the moonlight.
In the center of the field, Nora drops to her knees and gathers silvery dry stalks of grass in her hands. The moon shadows and brightens as clouds like wispy cobwebs filter across the sky. Nora winds strands of grass around the plastic bottle in her hands, weaves silver in and out, length to length. She discovers to her surprise that she is crying, as if what she's doing is both destroying and creating the world.
When she's finished she holds the long cylinder, woven all around with grass from the field, up to the moonlight. It is very light and seems to nearly float in the soft breeze. It glows like bioluminescent plankton, like the afterglow of rocket engines, like the eyes of wolves in wilderness. She walks the rest of the way home, which seems to take longer than it should, carrying her prize gently in her hands.
She comes to the house from the back and stands for a moment on the porch looking into the kitchen through the window. Jeff is standing at the counter, his jacket off and his tie askew. His hands are flat against the counter and his head is hanging as if he's staring at his own hands. Nora wonders what he's thinking. Is he wondering where she is or has he not yet noticed that she's gone?
She wipes dried tears from her cheeks, takes a deep breath and walks into the kitchen, holding her woven-grass-soda-bottle-zeppelin in one hand behind her back. Jeff looks up when the door opens and smiles, that breathtaking smile that Nora can scarcely bear—it slams her heart like a hammer, like a promise and a threat, and she's not sure which one's a good thing.
"Where have you—" Jeff begins.
"I brought you something," Nora says at the same time. She brings it out from behind her back and shows him what she's created. "Your zeppelin."
There's a moment of silence. Jeff takes the grass and soda bottle creation and holds it at arm's length, turning it slightly in his hands.
"You may have to squint," Nora says, tilting her head to the side. "Or look at it in moonlight, maybe."
Jeff just stands there silently and looks at the object in his hands. It looks so crude, just broken stalks of grass, that Nora wants to cry. She has rarely been so foolish—so fooled—because it really looked, out in the moonlight, like something magic and silver and—
Jeff takes her hand and pulls her outside.
On the open back porch, moonlight slants across the whitewashed plank floor. Jeff holds the woven-grass-soda-bottle in the open palm of his right hand. In the moonlight the awkward strands of dried grass seem to knit themselves together into a smooth whole that swallows the shape-holding soda bottle and becomes something that encompasses the world, something so right in the space and time in which it exists that it becomes more than its components, an extension of the moonlight, and seems to float on its own just above Jeff's hand.
Jeff stares at it for several minutes, his other hand still clasping Nora's as if the connection is as important as the silver object in his hand. Eventually, he sets the zeppelin carefully on a rail post and brushes Nora's hair gently away from her face. He doesn't say anything, just kisses her. Nora wraps her arms tightly around his neck and kisses him fiercely back.
Sometime later, he says, "I haven't had a lot of luck with the dog thing yet."
Nora laughs. "Don't worry about it," she says.
Nora knows that within the next six months Jeff will take on a pro bono property case for a family in Montana he's never met. He will hike through three canyons on the border between Montana and Canada with a local survey crew, lose track of the arbitrary lines between one country and the next, and find an entire valley that no one has ever mapped. He will return from that trip with a dog that never barks or cries, though occasionally, when the two of them have been arguing about money or chores or other things that don't actually matter, the dog will jump onto the kitchen table and stare at them each in turn until they are forced to see the world reflecting back at them through its eyes.