THE SINGULARITY PRINCIPLE

 

In the center of a black hole is a gravitational singularity, a one-dimensional point which contains a huge mass in an infinitely small space, where density and gravity become infinite and space-time curves infinitely, and where the laws of physics as we know them cease to operate.

 

WINTER, 1994

 

August Conrad first became convinced that the world would meet some sort of end – benevolent or otherwise – at the age of eight. Had a parent thought it appropriate to drag her to therapy, said therapist may have suggested that the turmoil, tension, and fighting between her two parents day in, day out, might had left her believing that all seemingly stable things must meet a bitter end. That sort of diagnosis might have led to counseling, transparency, some sort of understanding among the three of them that they needed to be more careful with each other. Perhaps this entire situation could have been avoided all together, really, and August Conrad could have developed into a normal, well-rounded, pleasant human. But the Conrads were a stubborn people, and dragging their eldest child to therapy would have been considered by the townsfolk as proof of failure as a parent. The Conrad life had experienced more than its fair share of stumbles and failures, and an emotionally distraught child was just one more mark on their social record than they could handle.

August was left to her own devices, as a result, inventing her own means of understanding what was happening around her. Back then, she’d been captivated by it all, the drama at dinner, the bickering on the way to church, what it might have meant. Back then, she just assumed a mother tossing a colander at the wall was the way every family started dinner.

So when August attended a field trip with her fourth grade class to the local science planetarium, local in this instance indicating a distance of anything that required less than a two-hour drive, she was absolutely thrilled. She’d always stared up at the night sky and wondered what might have been going on up there, and now she was going to find out. Better, even? They were serving breakfast on the bus. Brandy Obersmith’s mom had made fresh blueberry muffins and donated a pallet of juice boxes for the trip. August wasn’t the biggest fan of blueberry muffins and juice boxes, but she knew without a doubt it would champion whatever breakfast her own mother would have tried to make that morning.

Her father Mitchell drove her to the elementary school parking lot that morning while it was still dark outside. Mark, her little brother, was asleep in the backseat, his blanket forming a makeshift pillow between his head and the window. It was strange to see her classmates, her teachers, half the parents still in pajamas in the darkness and stillness of the early morning. It felt special. She hugged Mitchell and bounded onto the yellow school bus, where she was assigned to sit next to Kenny Wilson, a kid who sweat too much and reapplied Vaseline to his lips every hour. Normally, this sort of fate on such a long journey would have annoyed her, but that day they were going to the planetarium; her excitement could not be contained.

When they arrived, the guides at the museum gave each of them a giant sticker to wear that proclaimed “Space Explorer!” in giant red, white, and blue block letters. August noticed a distinct over emphasis on patriotism within the planetarium, but she thought nothing of it. The cluster of children, by then hopped up on sugar from the bus breakfast, were led from the elegant marbled Grecian hallways of the main room through a dark, industrial hallway that eventually dumped them into an even less impressive, completely dark room. For a moment, August’s heart sank.  The walls were black, the carpet was black, and there was a black handrail to guide them in a circle around the room. A hush fell over the children. It smelled faintly of burnt plastic. One kid eventually cried out, “Boo!” as they all stood unassuming. Someone else screamed, “Science sucks!” There was a swell of giggles and laughter.

August gripped onto one of the handrails, the room so dark she could not see her hand in front of her face if she’d tried. This couldn’t have been it. “Shut up, guys!” she said, not loud enough to really be heard.

The guide with them shushed them once again. “Okay guys, what you’re standing in right now is a simulation of what the universe looked like more than 13 billion years ago.”

One of the same hecklers yelled out, “Lame! It’s just dark.”

“Exactly,” the guide said. “Everything was really dark and really quiet and there was nothing. And then suddenly, BOOM! The Big Bang.”

In a flash, a wash of light and color, red, pink, orange, yellow, blue, green, purple dashed and swirled and danced around them, above them, behind them. The room was spherical, they could see now; they could practically reach out and touch the cosmic violence. The hair on August’s arms stood at attention as splashes of brilliant, blue and teal and green clouds emerged around them, revealing a sparkling field of tiny stars. Some of them collided, merged, and began swirling into cotton candy galaxies and structured solar systems. The green clouds disappeared and galaxies rushed past them, faster and faster, bigger and bigger. They seemed to be travelling closer to the sun, to their own solar system. August held her breath, her heart racing beneath her Carolina Tar Heels sweatshirt that was still quite too big for her.  A collective, “Whoa,” emerged from the eight-year-olds.

“The universe cooled, and the planets, the asteroids, the solar systems and galaxies could finally organize themselves and form,” the guide added.

“But where are we?” August asked, reaching up and touching the wall where a star had appeared briefly before rushing away.

“That’s a great question!” the guide replied as one of the kids in back yelled, “NERD!” The images surrounding them zoomed in, and their solar system came in full view. “We’re that little blue sphere right over here, the third away from the sun.”

August rushed over to the spot close to where the earth dot was. Scattered around the planet were endless stars. “We’re so small,” she said, her voice piqued with wonder.

“Indeed,” the guide agreed. “And imagine, there could be another earth out there, another little girl looking at the same sky wondering where her planet might be.”

August’s hand was resting against the part of the wall where earth was projected, when a bright light zoomed past and crashed into the planet. She jumped backward, “Wh—What was that?”

“You guys have heard about the dinosaurs, right?” the guide asked. Most of the children replied with an enthusiastic, “Yah!” while one yelled out, “Dinosaurs aren’t real!”

“Shut up, Kenny!” August yelled back.

“Well for those of us who do believe in the dinosaurs, we’re familiar with the fact that they died out a long time ago! Well that flash of light right there was the asteroid that smashed into earth and ultimately killed them and most other living things on earth.”

Very gravely, August asked, “Could it happen again? The asteroid?”

“Everything that has a beginning must have an end,” the guide said, and that August could understand. “Just look out there at all the stars, all the bodies zooming through space. Anything could happen at any time.”

“But when?” August asked, unsatisfied with the answer.

“Well, maybe you could be the one to figure it out. Did you know NASA isn’t just all about astronauts? Some of the smartest people in the country work there and their job is to figure out where all of these asteroids and stars and planets are, and where they’re going.”

The guide smiled at her and moved on to another kid who had started to cry about the dead dinosaurs. The image around them zoomed in and switched perspective. They were on earth now, looking upward, looking outward at the sky above. Above their heads, this field of stars swirled frantically before finally slowing, settling on a fixed point. The guide explained this was what the sky looked like from right there in North Carolina, and many of the stars they could see with the naked eyes on clear nights. She went about pointing out constellations, identifying the North Star, before diving into the history of the telescope and Galileo and science. August kept her hand on the wall, a cluster of stars reflecting from her skin, for the duration of the lecture.

It had not mattered what was said past that point; August had stopped listening. She’d started encircling the room slowly, step by step, running her hand along the spherical wall, touching the stars, the constellations, the planets. Out there, anything was possible. Out there, no one threw colanders against the wall. Her heart started pounding again against her ribs as she took in the digitized sky overhead. She drew circles with her finger along the wall.

“But when?” she asked again before realizing the class had left her behind, moved on to the next exhibit, leaving her alone inside the universe.   

- - - - 

 

WINTER, PRESENT DAY

 

That fall had been an unseasonably cold one. Already, the festive garland strung up between the lampposts was perfectly dusted in white. It was the kind of winter that made a girl nostalgic for muggy, hot summer nights when her hair glued itself to her neck and she had to stand in front of an open freezer door for some respite. The kind of summer nights that made a girl nostalgic for blustery, frosty ones like this one.  

She was staring at her phone - the data plan maxed out - then back at the sky, some point of reference she had determined months ago. And she held her breath. Ten, nine, eight, she waited, shivered.

She was deep enough in the park to be beyond earshot of any city activity. That’s the one thing she’d loved about the park - the quiet in the midst of the fury, buried just deep enough, she could almost see a hint of the stars. It still amazed her how much dark she could find in the middle of a city of nearly nine million.

She concentrated, she counted, she stared at the digital watch face on her phone.  It should happen at any second.

Assistant Professor August ‘Gus’ Conrad the first, née August Conrad and called ‘Gus’ by those who wanted to taunt her, had spent the past decade of her life in a bit of a rut. Truthfully, the past ten years had been a blur of self-inflicted shame and disorientation. August had graduated high school a semester early, desperate to escape, and relocated to Columbia University, where she buried herself in books and theories and musty sweaters. At no surprise to anyone, August majored in astrophysical theory and quantum mechanics. She shared a tiny dorm room and a bunk bed with a girl named Celeste whom she never saw, but who left varied and colorful sex toys in plain sight. Out of vengeance, August would sometimes re-arrange the toys – using gloves of course – to see if Celeste noticed. Celeste did not notice.

While working on her PhD, her days were spent juggling a series of charts and graphs and numbers, differentials and logarithms. Her evenings were dedicated to warming up Dr. Czeszicke, a theoretical physicist and tenured professor whose life has been devoted to imagining how else the world might work, a fascinating career path for anyone who wanted to appear smart without ever accomplishing much of anything. August had been fond of this sort of intangible existence, and when she ran into him one night at the local fast food Mexican joint, half-choking on a vegan burrito with a frozen margarita in one hand, she immediately pushed her body against his and asked no questions. They exchanged some mechanical dialogue, and she lead him out the joint, demanding he take her home. She was not certain where this burst of confidence had come from, but she decided to ride the wave while it lasted.

They systemically undressed the parts necessary enough to achieve intercourse. It was awkward. He left his socks on, and there was a hole in the toe. He could not sustain an erection longer than two minutes. She laid on the bed just waiting for it to be over so she could finally no longer consider herself a virgin. Dr. Czeszicke was embarrassed afterward, and rolled over into a semi-fetal position on his bed. She spooned him for a minute just so he wouldn’t fail her next exam, then she grabbed a glass of water from the kitchen, peed, dressed, and returned back to her empty dorm room for the night. This exchange continued for years until she published a paper about the calculable end of planet earth within the foreseeable future, which earned her the disrespect of the entire physics department. Their affair ended similarly shortly thereafter. He took the high road, blamed himself, and she threw a stack of papers in his face before storming out. He later denied the whole engagement ever happening.

The years following the acceptance of her dissertation had been trying, to say the least. Her cramped studio on Amsterdam Avenue had become a veritable shrine to polynomials, her life, an exercise in complicated quantum physical calculations and unanswered proposals to nearly every scientific publication world-wide. There were accusations that she was crazy, that she was a domestic terrorist, that she was working for the Chinese government in an effort to stifle American industrialism (what was left of it) by tossing out unscientific, impossible claims.

The rejections had only fueled her, their ridicule only reassuring her that they were simply afraid of the truth, afraid that she, August Conrad, by the age of 31, had effectively calculated and re-calculated, and mathematically proven the moment at which Earth would collide with an asteroid. The asteroid, at which NASA repeatedly rolled their eyes, was calculated to be the size and impact of that which left the dinosaurs extinct. She projected it would land somewhere near Spain, resulting in immediate economic destruction, followed shortly thereafter by a dust cloud heavy enough to fatally impact human, animal, and plant life rapidly worldwide.

It was only a matter of months after having graduated and after having been hired as an assistant professor at the same university that reluctantly gave her a few degrees, before August alienated every acquaintance, weekly lay, or professional ally she had. The End was near, and the only option was to live boldly until it was over. To spend. To drink and fuck and smoke and tattoo and swim and dance and live on every last penny and then ultimately put an end to herself when she had finally exhausted all of her resources. She had crafted a simple Exit Plan. Upon impact, upon proving that she had been right all those years and her critics would realize instantly, and finally value her contributions to the department just in time to watch the world crumble. And at that moment, all she would have to do is take the pills, finish the bottle of wine, and let biology and chemistry handle the rest.

She glanced at the phone again, realizing that the moment had passed without incident. A sharp sting shot through her stomach, the doubt seeping in.

Perhaps mounting the glass coffee table and telling the entire Physics Department they could take their boson lasers and their string theories, bundle them into a collapsing white dwarf star, and lodge them deeply into their cavernous, pressurized sphincters was not the most graceful way to exit the party. Perhaps a simple, “Well, fuck you too,” would have been just as poignant.

Her fingers were stiff, the skin cracked. “Shit,” she whispered, stuffing the phone into her back pocket.

She could hear a few jaunty cheers coming from various directions. The bars must have been letting out, the jovial, holiday-spirited patrons stumbling and tripping, and giggling on their way home.

“Shit,” she said again.

August had checked the calculation nearly hundreds of times, made sure she carried the 1. She had refactored and recalculated and proven again and again that this date was the date at which an apocalyptic astronomical event would occur, rendering humanity obsolete. She staked her entire career, her entire adulthood on it. And now, as her stomach turned with the sickening realization that she had been wrong, so horribly wrong, she looked to the sky in dismay. Something inside her churned, stalled, broke.

It was really fucking cold outside.

Shivering, she pivoted on her toes and headed back to the apartment. Had she been right, her plan was to off herself with a potent cocktail of 2012 Cabernet she’d picked up in Napa along with a handful of barbiturates she’d purchased online. She hadn’t wanted to be around to suffer the fall, just to exist long enough to process that she had finally be right. Approaching her door, she noticed handwritten note held up by chewing gum. It simply read “Nut Job,” in a crude black permanent marker.

August left the note stuck to the outside of her door and didn’t bother locking it behind her. The walls were covered in paperwork, equations, articles, photos. The trash can was piled high with the Styrofoam coffee cups she used to consume the wine it took to get through the past month. All that remained was the final bottle she’d been saving for the end.

Without missing a beat, she reached into the trashcan for the freshest cup, dug the corkscrew into the wine bottle, and poured until it overflowed. She had to sip some off the top just to move the cup over to the clutter coffee table.

Technically, she could still take the pills. Technically, this massive miscalculation didn’t have to change the plan she’d crafted. It wasn’t like there was anything left by that point. She ate the last cheese out of the fridge for lunch, and she hadn’t paid any bills in weeks. It would only be a matter of days before her landlord would start asking for the rent check, and there was no way in hell that kind of money was left over after her binge shopping and restaurant tour there at the end. It was a tempting though, though, ending it all.

But to die in a place, an apartment, a filth where no one would discover her missing until the decomposition set in and the neighbors complained about the stench? To die in the wake of such a flagrant miscalculation? This was not how she envisioned going out.

She fidgeted with the white cap on the medicine bottle, pouring out a few pills on her coffee table. August spent much of the next hour staring pointedly at the collection of pills, eventually abandoning the coffee cup and drinking directly out of the wine bottle. Outside her window, just beyond the wilted tomatoes she’d try to grow in the summer, a group of women broke into their favorite nineties song. August groaned and slipped further down on her couch. A few stray papers fell to the floor.

 

On the first day afterward, she awoke on the couch, still alive, still perfectly intact. She began to move. Toes, fingers, everything was still there. The headache was immense, and there was no goal to accomplish, no mission to prove. She pushed more papers off the couch with her feet, and turned to face the opposite direction, covering her face with her hand. It was chilly in the apartment; she must have left the window cracked last night. She did nothing to solve this problem.

 

On the second day, she departed from the couch to pee. She kicked some of the paper stacks on the floor before returning to the couch. This time, she took repose with her head on the other arm. She discovered that sitting on the same cushions year over year had made a significant depression in one of the cushions, while leaving the other quite plump. She was extremely uncomfortable.

 

On the third day, she juggled the pills once more, choose instead to guzzle water from the kitchen sink faucet. She scribbled a note on the back of a student’s thesis paper and taped it on the door of the department director. “I’m taking sabbatical,” it read. “I don’t care if I’m not tenured.” She picked up another bottle of wine on the way back with what little cash remained.

 

On the fourth day, she awoke to a blinding hangover, her lips and hands and feet cracked and dry from four days of consuming a diet consisting of only alcohol and water.

There was nothing left in New York, nothing left for her at Columbia. She'd made sure of that days before. August groaned as the only remaining option came into focus, burying her face into the back of couch.

Years ago, her father had suggested there was some sort of bounty on the property. An ‘insurance policy’ should any situation go “tits up,” as he’d called it. Though at first she had believed him, she’d begun to doubt its existence, this treasure buried deep beneath the Mason Dixon, deep beneath the foundation of the original house, deep beneath the dirty secrets husbands and wives stopped sharing with each other.

There was no other choice, she determined as she caught a glimpse of her disheveled reflection in the window that faced the building’s air shaft. She shoved some clothes in a bag, grabbed what was left of her toothpaste and pills, plucked the car keys from the rental car she never intended to return and exited the building. Over the past several days, snow had accumulated and the sidewalks were pleasantly dusted. She ducked into the car, a four-door Nissan with a missing gas cap and a cracked rear view mirror. She’d had the car for quite some time, and had avoided answering emails or calls with the demands to know where the car was and was she even still alive. In her neighborhood, tenants tended to purchase junker cars, as anyone who could afford a car but couldn’t afford to park it in a garage knew all too well that leaving a vehicle outside overnight practically guaranteed some superficial damage. And the more damaged the car already looked, the less likely it would be to sustain further damage. She made certain to rip off the gas cap the first day it was in her possession. Later that same evening she took the heel of her boot to the rearview mirror. The whole experience was pretty cathartic.

August shoved the keys into the ignition. Nothing decent was playing on the radio, everything too jubilant and holiday-themed, cacophonies of bells and carolers were unwelcome reminders of her situation. She exhaled, her breath forming a cloud in front of her face. The car was still freezing, the leather seats and steering wheel practically ice cubes.

It had been twelve years. 4,380 days, 105,120 hours, 500 miles since she had been back there. It had been long enough.

She drove for the better part of the day, stopping only for ungraceful bio breaks on the side of the road and to refill the gas tank with what little cash she had left. She wound up on I-95 southbound, passing the telltale “Welcome to the Mason Dixon” sign that still gave her heart palpitations. She sat in traffic around the Beltway, merged onto NC-86, an empty, two-lane excuse for an interstate. It was an old habit, this drive, the dreary, naked trees and yellowed grass along the interstate reminding her of the last few trips she took during college years ago. She’d sworn she’d never take this trip again, but given the circumstances, she had no other options.

Well after dark settled in for the night and her gas tank once again threatened her with a steady, yellow light, she found herself on an utterly barren two-way road. She thought about driving without headlights just to see if she could get away with it. She was used to this drive – the forty-five minutes it took to get anywhere and the sleepy, lonely little house that waited at the end.  Just a few minutes down the road, she spotted the unmistakable mailbox, still missing its box, its splintered post still unrepaired after twenty years.

Nine Old Highway 86 in Providence, North Carolina (pop. 2,001) was the site of an old family plantation – a little house by the big front yard – just behind a half-mile long driveway. It was a compact little house, barely big enough for the family of four, encased in vinyl siding and bolstered by a cement basement. Everything about it was a little too patina-ed, a rusted knock off of the dream and the home and the life they’d pretended to live. By the time she’d left for college, left for good, really, only her father and her brother had remained. He hadn’t wanted to live there anymore, none of them had, but he had nowhere else to go.

Originally, there had been a much larger house made of wood and brick that sat further back into what were now the woods. When someone in the family recounted the story of how the Conrad Farms were once filled with thriving crops, they often over-emphasized the jade green of the grass, the gentle slope of the front yard, the hearty chickens that came from what was now a decidedly gnarly wooded area. It should be noted, too, that there was a significant effort made to omit any mention of the people who worked on the farm back then, and the inhumane circumstances that kept them there.

During the start of the of the nineteenth century, the main house burned to its foundation. Any Conrad would have explained that the house had succumb to natural disaster – an untended oven caught fire and spread through the rest of the house within minutes. Tragedy, they would have lamented, total tragedy that the family lost everything they’d ever owned. The members who had not survived were buried in the yard. As the story went, those who survived slept in the woods for several nights before they started to rebuild. Shovel in the dirt, foundation in the ground, walls to the sky, the Conrads rebuilt their lives in much more modest space. Legend had it that their fortune was later buried far from the house, an insurance policy should disaster befall the house, or the family, again.

In childhood, August had convinced herself that the yard was haunted with the ghosts of those who perished in the fire. On balmy summer nights, she and her brother would run out into the yard and search for them. By the time her father inherited the estate, and really estate was an optimistic term, they had learned to the truth about the house fire and the angry group of people purchased to work against their will who ignited the flame in the middle of the night. Her father had wanted nothing to do with the house, but economy and circumstance left him no choice.

This irony was not lost on her as she parked the car at the foot of the gravel driveway just behind the mailbox and left the keys in the glove compartment. She doubted anyone would find the car, let alone attempt to steal it.

Hoisting her bag over her shoulder, she hiked up the gravel driveway, her breath frosty. The first few hundred yards were speckled with half-dead pine trees and clusters of browned pine straw. At some point in the 90s, her father had attempted some form of landscaping to no avail. The rotting pine rails were still lying in a square in the grass, just one of a dozen abandoned projects she didn’t need daylight to point out. A yard littered with hopeless crafts and buried hearts.

August hated this place.

She held her breath when she gripped the door handle, hoping her father would have left it unlocked like always. When it gave way, she was overcome with relief, angst, then disappointment. The house was utterly dark and silent. She left her shoes at the front door, an old habit she never broke. Her bare feet stuck to the linoleum of the hallway, leaving August dismayed that Mitchell never upgraded to the parquet. It was too dark to see, but she remembered where everything sat: the plush coffee-brown recliner three steps from the left, just next to the upright piano that likely hadn’t been tuned in decades. Down the hallway, just a few more steps, the kitchen slash living area would open up. To the left, more linoleum, a six-person oak-colored dining table and high-backed chairs in what her mother had referred to as “country chic.” To the right, a metal strip would separate the linoleum and flattened cornflower blue carpet. A buckwheat microfiber couch would block off the “living area” from the rest of the hallway, down which the room she planned to crash in would be. She turned the corner, feeling her way down the hallway. One, two, three doors down would be her childhood bedroom door, just past the basement and the bathroom she was forced to share with her younger brother Mark. Pushing open the door, she was shocked to see that it hasn’t been sanitized from its early 2000s teenage form of boyband posters and green paint.

“Hello, stranger,” she muttered before she collapsed face-first onto what was left of her childhood bed. She would not stir for another twelve hours. Her shoes were still on.