By Susan Holcomb
Last night I dreamed that I was back at the physics department of the University of Maryland. Up on the fourth floor I passed a classroom with an open door, where I saw a girl I used to know when we were students. She, too, had been a physics major, though we had never spoken much. I stood at the door of her classroom and listened. She was teaching a class about fruit flies.
When the class ended boys in loose T-shirts streamed out of the room haphazardly and I went inside. “From physics to fruit flies?” I asked.
She said: “You have to do what pays.”
She gathered her things and we walked down the stairs together, past the third floor where I had fallen in love with statistical mechanics, past the second floor where a professor had once shut the door and asked me to go with him to Chicago. “I have missed this place so much,” I said to the girl as we walked, and she said, “Yes, I’ve missed it horribly.”
We reached the first floor but we didn’t stop there. The stairs kept going down and down and down, leading us places I had never been as a student. At the next landing we passed a mirror and I took stock of our bodies: perfect, rounded, feminine, still young though not as young as they once were. Before us was the door into the basement. When the girl opened the door I asked her: “How did you keep loving it?” The physics, is what I meant. I wanted to know how she had managed to stay on here, in this building I had left so many years before.
We were down in the basement now, where all around us were the remnants of classroom experiments: planks of wood set at angles for testing the speeds of rolling balls, pendulums and hanging weights, magnets that had lost their magnetism, broken lightbulbs, homemade batteries, and mirrors. “I wanted to build a path to discovery,” the girl said. “I wanted to build a discovery. I wanted to discovery. I discovery.”
On the wall beside us was a list of names. Boys’ names, I saw as I looked closer. “We know these names,” I said. “These are boys we went to school with.” I scanned the list, looking for the two of us. But I couldn’t remember the girl’s name, or my own. “We should be on here,” I told her. “Are we on here? Did they forget to put us down?”
The girl did not respond. She had not heard what I said about the list, or couldn’t see it, or didn’t care. In a dream you can do two things at once, and so, simultaneously, we climbed the stairs into the light but also watched the stairs dissolve before we reached them, leaving us trapped in the basement. Both things happened at once, you see: the climbing and the dissolution. Under quantum mechanics a thing and its opposite can both occur. When we reached the light I felt no happiness; when the stairs dissolved I felt no fear. But either way, in both realities the girl and I kept standing side by side, waiting for what would happen next.
Susan Holcomb holds an MFA in writing from the Vermont College of Fine Arts and studied for a PhD in physics at Cornell. Her fiction is forthcoming in the Southern Indiana Review and her nonfiction has been published in The Boston Globe. She lives in Los Angeles.