THE EQUIVALENCE PRINCIPLE

 

Gravity accelerates all objects equally regardless of their masses or the materials from which they are made.  The gravitational "force" as experienced locally while standing on a massive body, such as the Earth, is actually the same as the pseudo-force experienced by an observer in a non-inertial frame of reference.

 

WINTER, PRESENT DAY

 

Standing in Mark’s apartment in downtown Providence was as mind-boggling as seeing him as an adult. Despite his poor taste in beverages and clothing, Mark had cultivated a sophisticated, minimalist aesthetic. His apartment was stunning, spotless, and perfectly muted with a soft gray pallet and touches of white, navy, and lime. The dark-stained furniture perfectly popped against the walls.  August was speechless as she entered, hoisting a plastic bag of Eugene General bootleg booze at Mark. “Merry Christmas. This is for you,” she muttered, wandering over to run her hand across the top of the couch, the corner of the coffee table, the gentle arch of the clear polyurethane chairs that scooted up to the mini bar he had set up in the corner. She absolutely loved it.

“Who the hell even are you?” she asked, aghast. Mark was a grungy, slovenly human who used to fight with Abigail when she plead with him to shower at least once a week. Growing up, Mark’s room had been just piles of dirty clothes through which he would sift to find something to wear for the upcoming day. Sometimes, Mitchell had washed a load and returned it to the pile so at least he would have some clean clothes to toss onto his smelly teenage body.

Mark tugged at the SPAM t-shirt that stretched tightly across his midsection. “Yeah, it’s not me. It’s Fred.”

“Your roommate? He has amazing taste.”

Mark nodded, smoothing his shirt over his stomach. “Uh huh, yep. And he’s my significant other.”

August nodded slowly in response, not expecting that sort of admission by her brother. “Uh huh, cool. Okay. Right.”

“My boo. My better half. My boyfriend. My beau. My lover? That’s a weird one, lover. We hook up and he cooks me food and outfits my apartment and, in turn, I, ah, I love him.”

August giggled, grabbing him by the shoulder. “That’s so mature of you, Mark.”

He shrugged it off, blushing. “Shut up, Gus.”

She grinned at her younger brother, moving toward the alcohol stash to mix the both of them a drink. Mark declined, swearing he only drank beer at that point, but mentioned that Fred would appreciate it. Where Fred was, she did not know, but she set the whiskey-lemon-honey cocktail aside for when he decided to show up.

“So when is this thing getting started?” August asked, looking around at his immaculate, empty apartment. “Or is arriving on time to a holiday party still lame?” She had doubled booked her evening, fitting the party in right before she was supposed to meet up with Jordan. It gave her a legitimate excuse for leaving early, before things truly got insane. 

“Everything you do is lame, Gus,” Mark teased, clinking his beer bottle with her tumbler. “Give it half an hour or so.”

Inside of the hour, Fred burst into the apartment donned in a slim-cut red and green suit covered in elf and Santa print. There was a bright green bow-tie to and sequined green driving moccasins to match. He came in yelling, “I fucking love this holiday,” and guzzled down August’s cocktail before asking who the fuck had made it and could he get another one.

It took twenty minutes for the shindig to devolve into absolute insanity. Mark, noticing August nursing a whiskey in the corner, wandered over. “You never were a fan of this kind of thing.”

August took a giant gulp and agreed.

Mark clinked his beer bottle with her whiskey glass. “So I hear Mom is trying to sell the house.” When August just stared down at the floor he added, “Are you okay with that?”

August, who had procrastinated searching for the box in the yard, shook her head. “I’m just not ready to part with it yet. Everything that we are is in that house.” Mark corrected her reminding her that it was just her stuff that remained, that he’d gone through a cleansing stage when he first got together with Fred.

“We’re more than our stuff,” Mark said, trying to sound more sophisticated than he was.

“Says the guy in a SPAM t-shirt,” August laughed.

Mark’s teasing quieted. “I’m serious, Gus. What are you going to do if the house sells while you’re still here?”

She shrugged, admitted she hadn’t honestly considered that a possibility. “Your place looks pretty roomy,” she grinned.

Mark stretched out on the couch. “You and I both know we’d kill each other if we had to share a roof again. Don’t you remember how filthy the bathroom was?”

August playfully swatted at her brother’s arm recalling the mountains of dried toothpaste, scattered curly pubic hair, and dirty towels in their childhood bathroom. Abigail had attempted to clean the space once a week, but by the time they’d reached puberty, she had all but given up. Its filth was their punishment, it seemed, for being so horrifyingly gross. “Oh my God, you might actually be the most disgusting human I know.”

“It’s not a bad idea, though,” Mark offered. “Not you living here, but you moving downtown. At least you’d save 90 minutes every day commuting.”

August shook her head. The house being on the market had escalated the urgency of finding the buried goods, and worse, it meant she would have to be tactical and specific in where she went digging. She couldn’t just overturn the entire yard. “I’m just not ready yet,” she resolved. “I’ll probably stay until they actually close on something, you know? Figure it out then? I’m not going to be here that long anyway.”

Mark stood up from the couch, smoothing his shirt over his belly once more. “You’ve got at least 11 more months, sis. May as well have a plan.”

She wasn’t so good at planning for long term lifestyle changes, so she dismissed his comment with, “Best laid plans, am I right?”

Mark didn’t seem convinced, but left her on the couch as he returned to the raucous party where someone wearing felt antlers belted out a Mariah Carey Christmas classic on the karaoke machine. August took the denouement to excuse herself from the party, setting her half-consumed drink on the counter as she exited the building. Main Street was quiet and, dare she think it, pretty. The street lights had turned on, speckling the sidewalks and streets with a warm yellow light. What was left of the snow made downtown absolutely brilliant. She hadn’t wanted to feel so fondly about the area, but she couldn’t help it.

A few minutes past nine, she spotted Jordan Hall walking toward her underneath the street lights, the same pea coat and cranberry scarf he’d been wearing the day before. “Hello stranger,” he’d greeted. When he reached her, he’d leaned in to kiss her on the cheek. She’d been awkward receiving it, and the kiss landed somewhere near her ear. They both laughed nervously.

“Fancy meeting you here,” she said, her breath fogging up in front of her. He shrugged, grinning ear to ear.  

“How is the family?” she’d asked, and he seemed reluctant to answer.

“Oh, you know,” he’d said. “Still kicking. Anyway, I was trying to come up with something for us to do tonight, alcohol notwithstanding, and I thought, well, we may as well cause a little controversy.”

August’s heart was racing again. “Do tell.” She hadn’t wanted to sound so flirtatious, but she was wholly incapable of poker face in front of him.

Jordan produced two red Santa hats from his coat, and he pulled one over August’s head. He’d taken care to brush the wavy auburn-brown locks that had escaped the bun she’d been wearing for a month from her face. Her heart veritably ached as he touched her with such familiarity.

“August Conrad,” he asked, stepping back from her just a bit to examine his work. “Would you do me the honor of accompanying me to the creek?”

The grass, brown and withered, crunched beneath their feet as they barreled towards the smooth boulders along the edge of the creek. Jordan Hall had always been the type of human who had the luxury of being spontaneous and a little irresponsible, an undeniably maddening part of his charm. He had once awoken in the middle of the night before their high school’s home coming football game and rallied a group of students to desecrate the opposing team’s side of the bleachers with silly string and toilet paper. He had been caught, of course, red-handed in the middle of tossing a roll of paper down one of the aisles. Rumor had it that the only thing he’d said to the teacher who witnessed the event was, “Can you blame me?” Jordan was Jordan, and Jordan Hall never once in his life had been on the receiving end of punishment. He was too charming. Too tall. Too strapping. Too influential. He had gotten off that night with a firm warning and a pat on the back for his school spirit. How he had ever gotten tangled up with the likes of August Conrad perplexed many of the townsfolk.

August climbed up on top of one of the large rocks along the creek bed, an electric chill creeping its way through her veins. Out there, the velvet darkness was so thick, August could taste it. “Come here,” she said to him, extending her hand in his direction. Curious as to what she had for him, he bounded over. When he reached her side, she was already staring up at the sky. “Look at it,” she said, her voice electrified with a familiar, endearing sense of wonder. Jordan joined her, glancing up to the sky. In the darkness, from the middle of the field, they could make out nearly every star in the galaxy, or what felt like it at least.

“Is it any less beautiful?” Jordan asked, pulling his eyes from the sky and fixing them on August.

“What?” she asked, still glancing above.

“The sky? Is it any less beautiful now that you know everything there is to know about her?”

August grinned and shook her head. “No. There’s always something up her sleeve.”

He hummed in agreement, and they rested for a while, gazing at the sky, the stars, questions they still weren’t able to answer.

It wasn’t until he tossed back the last of the liquid in the flask he kept in his breast pocket that August finally came right out with it. “You know, you’re the only person I’ve known this long,” she stated, swallowing as she fought the combustion within her chest.

“No shit,” Jordan said with a soft laugh.

“It’s sort of crazy,” she mused as she leaned back against the cold rock. “You know more about me than anyone, but I haven’t actually talked to you in a decade.”

Jordan met her on the floor. He was silent for a moment before he reached over, pulling the Santa hat off her head. Several stray hairs sprung up from the static electricity. “I’m sorry about that.” He had sounded sincere. She had believed him.

“Shit happens,” she said as she shrugged, her head spinning with the whiskey. She had been waiting for some admission of guilt, but she had not wanted to dampen the mood. August erupted into a laughter that broke up whatever confession Jordan seemed to be working toward.

Jordan lay down on the rocks next to her and placed a hand on her cheek, gently coaxing her to roll toward him. Her face felt hot beneath his skin, and she willingly followed. They exchanged stares, though he quickly lost the courage to hold eye contact and looked elsewhere around the room. His hand remained, however, his thumb eventually moving back and forth across her cheek. “August,” he whispered, his voice laced with sadness. He had nothing else to say, it seemed. There had been something on the tip of his tongue, but he had neither the courage nor the freedom to admit it.

“Jordan,” she half-mocked in reply, cutting his serious tone with one of frivolity and humor.

He reluctantly smiled back, removing his hand from her face. Fifteen years ago this would have been the moment they kissed, the moment they touched each other over their clothes, the moment Jordan got hard just looking at her. Things were different now. He took a breath. Stumbling, he stood up to shake off whatever moment they had just created. Swiftly, he hoisted her up and over his shoulder and ran into the creek, shoes still on. The water was like ice, and she screamed with excitement as he dunked her under water. Resurfacing, she splashed wildly, the two of them soaked, ignorant of the cold, as if nothing had happened, no wounds uncovered, no nerves exposed. As if there were no silver ring around his finger.

 

- - - -

 

SPRING, 1998

 

It had not mattered that August had never taken astronomy, cosmology, physics in any capacity, complex math. What had mattered, what had always mattered, was the endless reach of the sky above her front yard and that no one knew, no one really knew, how it all worked. No matter the season, August could often be found face-up in the front yard at night, her hands behind her head, gazing at an endless black sky - perhaps the only benefit of living forty-five minutes from civilization. These were the kind of skies that worlds got lost in. These the kind of nights that fed dreams and hopes and hunger. August knew even then she wanted so much more, but she had not known of what.

She was not yet old enough to seek solace and forgetfulness in alcohol, so she sought escape elsewhere. She sought the truth in the stars. Everything made sense in the front yard, fingers in the grass and a damp air sitting on her skin. Within the Conrad house, conditions had become unsavory. August could not recall a time in her brief life where conditions had been delightful, but there had been a decided degradation of the already-not-so-great vibe within those walls. The fighting had begun some time ago, perhaps before she was born. Truly, the timeline, the longevity of the bickering had not mattered any more. By the age of thirteen, August was spending most of her afternoons and evenings in the yard, just far enough to escape the muffled arguments.

The quarrelling had become asinine and repetitive. Having run out of meaningful issues to fight about, Mitchell and Abigail had taken to arguing about the consistency of the mashed potatoes. Ever the frugal spouse, Abigail refused to purchase actual potatoes, and instead had always favored the powdered kind that came in a box with the directions on the back for preparing in both a stove and a microwave. Abigail always chose the microwave. At the time, August had not cared whether her mashed potatoes came from the ground or a factory; it didn’t change the fact that she often snuck the box, opened the bag, and stuck a dampened finger in the cream-colored powder to sample the dehydrated potato-flavored mixture. It always tasted like salt and cheese, two of her favorite flavors. The disputes usually escalated from there, August’s finger in something associated with dinner.

When preparing dinner, Mitchell would offer up a colander from the cabinets. Offended that her husband assumed she would labor over dirty roots to prepare dinner, Abigail would feel compelled to snatch the strainer out of his hands and chuck across the kitchen.  It would usually knock something off the fridge. There was some ugly name-calling, and the whole thing usually came screeching to a halt when they’d forgotten the vegetables in the microwave and with a desperate beep, they would discover a lumpy, brown mush where green beans used to be. Mitchell would sigh, taking his place at the table, lamenting that it would once again be a meat and potatoes kind of night.

Mark was too young to really process what was happening around him, or at least that’s what the family told themselves at night after fighting in front of everyone. Even if he had been truly aware of what was happening, Mark seemed to handle himself well. There was always something to preoccupy him; Legos, the television, the occasional puppet shows with forks and asparagus from beneath the table. August usually gave up on dinner all together and would sneak out the front door to the front yard, a box of dried pasta in tow for snacking. It would be late summer, and the evening would still be warm and inviting, if not a little humid. She had been counting the stars, realizing every time she thought she’d catalogued every one, another one appeared. Jordan would emerge at some point out of the shade of the woods, a sandwich wrapped in aluminum foil that his mother had prepared for her.

“Any new constellations?” Jordan asked, laying down in the damp grass next to her. He usually balled up the foil next to him after unwrapping the sandwich.

“One to the northwest,” August cataloged. “I’m pretty sure it looks like a mini-van.”

“Or maybe a seashell?”

“Yeah,” they said in bewildered unison.

When they got too sticky from laying outside in the grass, August would follow Jordan back through the woods to his sprawling McMansion house several acres away. His mother would make her whatever healthy dessert she was cooking up that week -- broiled grapefruit with balsamic glaze, grain-free banana bread, avocado-based brownies – set her up in one of the guest bedrooms in their perfectly finished basement, and remind her that the spare toothbrush was just beneath the sink. Diana Hall was a master of hosting, and there was never a shortage of clean towels or new colorful toothbrushes, freshly preserved in their plastic and cardboard packages, just waiting to be opened. Recently, she’d gone to the trouble of purchasing the nice soap that smelled like lavender, and August loved that she could smell it on her skin even by the end of the day.  These sorts of sleepovers at the Hall house had become common, and August was grateful that she never had to explain her presence; she was simply welcome, and she always went home with a plate of baked goods.

The Hall family, comprised of two parents, four children, one grandparent, one eccentric uncle, one dog, one cat, and a school of goldfish, moved to the plot of land next to the Conrad’s in the late 90’s when there was a welcome, but brief, agricultural boom. They were new money, unsure of what exactly to do with it, so they had taken to land grabbing in various corners around the state. This led, very quickly, to a collection of property and real estate so vast, the family was never quite sure where the any of them was most of the time. Jordan’s mother had taken to purchasing a magnetized dry erase board and designing a chart so the Hall family could place tiny colorful magnets of where they planned to be any particular day. Mountain House. Lake House. Beach House. Virginia House. Tuesday House. Here. August loved the concept of the Tuesday House in particular, as it was technically the eccentric uncle’s house, but the entire brood agreed to meet there the second Tuesday of every month to cook a feast worthy of Thanksgiving and afterward play a rousing game of charades. The Hall family was something of a unicorn, as they actually enjoyed spending time together in ways August could not process.

Once she had been invited to these elusive Tuesday dinners. She wasn’t to prepare anything, simply show up ready to dive in as needed. By the time they arrived, after August had spent most of the car ride peeling off her fingernail polish, the Eccentric Uncle Carter already had three things boiling on the stovetop and an animal carcass sitting out on the counter covered in herbs. The two youngest Hall children shot out from behind her, barreling into the living room and grabbing Carter by his legs in a tiny version of a bear hug. There was a fire in the smoothed stone fireplace, the mantle decorated with the fare of early spring: fresh peonies, lush leaves gathered together in a billowing arrangement. Diana took her coat, leaving August without any further shields from the family goodness in front of her.

The youngest girl ran over to them after deciding she was finished with Carter. “Why are you at our house all the time?”

August laughed, shooting a pleading look at Jordan. He simply shrugged, a smirk on his face. “Because it’s so awesome,” she replied. “Don’t you think it’s pretty awesome?”

“It is pretty awesome,” Hannah replied and grabbed one of August’s hands. “Let me give you the tour.”

The tour consisted of a short walk down to the girl’s shared room with the other youngest sibling, a room with a twin-sized bunk bed and a trunk of toys that was already spilling onto the floor. The girl grabbed a doll, the one whose hair had been tangled into a bush atop her head, and placed it in August’s hands. “You’re going to be the assistant, and I’m the boss. You have to do whatever I tell you, and if you’re nice, maybe I’ll share some of my Diet Coke with you during lunch.”

Bewildered, August laughed and agreed to the game. After fifteen minutes of fetching doll dresses, snacks, and organizing a doll shoe closet, Jordan poked his head in the door called them upstairs. Too old to still be playing dolls, but too close to the age when it was appropriate behavior, August was reluctant to admit she was thoroughly enjoying herself. She hadn’t noticed the time passing.

The spread for the evening was magnificent. Rosemary-rubbed lamb, charred to a perfection on the outside and a tender pink on the inside. The family had thrown together a few side dishes of stuffed grape leaves, a cheese and fig platter, a spinach salad, and a lovely bowl of perfectly plump whole grain bread still warming beneath a gingham-print napkin. There are no potatoes to be found. August piled her plate high with two servings of everything. She’d never had lamb in her life, was pretty sure she wouldn’t be having it again any time soon, but it nearly melted in her mouth like butter, and she couldn’t imagine eating anything else.

“Where did you learn to cook like this,” August asked, still shoveling grape leaves into her mouth. “What even is this?”

Carter laughed, refilling the adults’ glasses with a garnet red wine. “Technically, it’s called a ‘dolma’, but we all sound like pretentious assholes when we call it that. It’s marinated grape leaves that have been stuffed with rice and herbs. I’m thrilled you like it. Hannah over here hates it.”

The little girl, doll next to her plate as though it were a utensil, stuck out her tongue.

“It’s phenomenal,” August praised, asking for the platter to be passed back down toward her for another.

“You know, Carter could teach you to make them sometime,” Diana offered. “It’s so nice to know at least someone associated with this family is interested in food. I thought Carter and I would be the only ones.”

Smiling, August locked eyes with Jordan from across the table. He returned the sentiment. It was rare for her to feel this kind of comfort in a room full of happy humans. She didn’t mind.

“But seriously, where did you learn to make this?” August pulled her gaze from Jordan back to the chef de cuisine. “Do they teach these kinds of classes at DCC?” Another hearty laugh erupted from the adults, her confident bubble deflated. “No, I mean, like I know it’s the community college, but I mean if I wanted to take a cooking class or something, you know, like maybe.” She shoved a forkful of lamb into her mouth.

Carter didn’t seem to mind. “That’s a great question, August. I did not take a class at DCC, though that probably would have been a sounder idea. Certainly cheaper. There was this one summer back in the 80’s, and I decided I needed to take a trip to Greece and find out if I was, you know, well to discover something new about myself.”

“He thought he might be gay,” Jordan embellished. “Uncle Carter decided to take a sabbatical from his job and moved to Greece for a summer to work on the fishing boats and, um, see if he really did like men.”

The family erupted with laughter once more.

“Turns out I’m as straight as they come, I was just married to the wrong woman! My apologies to anyone who ever actually went through a legitimate struggle with their sexual identity. Truly. I just needed to find myself, and I guess I thought the only place to do that was on the white beaches of the Adriatic coast.”

“So he moved in with this guy named Kostas,” Jordan prompted. “A fisherman from the boat who was particularly skillful at catching baby octopus.”

“And Kostas, while the most unattractive man I’ve never known in my life, had a weird mole thing happening on his chin, but he was the most elegant, delicate chef you could possibly imagine. What he did with spices! My God. Sumac changed my life.”

Each of the Halls raised their respective glasses of liquid and toasted, “To Kostas!”

“To Kostas!” August joined in, one hand full with glass, the other with fork.

She was impressed by the quantity of wine consumed by the adults on a Tuesday night. Soon, the living room was riotous, a different type of riotous than at her own house. Old stories, embarrassing memories, inside jokes, Hannah plopping her doll in the emptied bowl where the bread once lay and running circles around the table as she chased a brother laughing. August grew quieter, saddened by the comparison she couldn’t keep herself from making. Jordan stepped away for a brief moment, and soon tugged at the back of her arm, prompting her to slip away with him. He’d managed to snag a few beers from his uncle’s fridge while the adults were too busy reminiscing.

“There’s something I want you to see up here,” he said, leading her down the expansive hallway, up the rickety attic ladder, and through the crystal clear moon roof above.

The sky from his uncle’s rooftop was deeper and brighter and more breathtaking than from her front yard. The midnight black backdrop was almost velvety smooth, speckled with the glitter of bodies that had died long before. August was speechless. Jordan cracked open the beers and passed one over to her.

“Yeah, it’s pretty great up here,” Jordan said coolly.

She took a swig, her throat full with hoppy bubbles. “I mean, not to give your uncle too much credit, but yeah. Not too shabby.” Chilly in the early May evening, she scooted closer toward him. He leaned in to the contact, and she eventually rested her head against his sweatered shoulder. “I’m not sure how I feel about this beer, though.” They chuckled. He drank her beer. She nestled in a bit closer.  “I really appreciate it though.”

“You don’t have to thank me,” he shrugged. “I just figured you needed a big meal before seeing the greatest view of the sky in the whole fucking state.” It was more than that, of course. It always had been. “How about that lamb though?”

“Oh, my God, the lamb!” she emphatically whispered.

“And anyway, you needed a new perspective. You know, to find your next constellation.”