We have a history of missed connections, you and I. Years ago, when you called goodbye from the shuttle launch, my flight was landing in Zurich. I’d changed planes, been re-routed from Frankfurt. That’s why you got my voicemail. I’d have answered if I could, and would’ve wished you luck, even if you wanted a life without me. I never managed to see Europa, like you did—just Europe, where I met my first husband. The one I wished was you.
When I heard your message, I was glad you were happy—yes, I’ve always wanted you happy, even during our divorce. I thought of you traveling to Alpha Centauri, time dilating between us like a portal. I envisioned it like a slow-motion movie. You’d be back in forty years. I’d be sixty-four, and you’d only be half my age.
I saved your message for weeks, until I accidentally deleted it. It felt symbolic. We’d be happier apart, I thought to myself. But “apart” was always the way we connected. The word defines us relative to each other: one cannot be apart without the other.
• • • •
Einstein spent ten years thinking about a mirror that troubled him. If he traveled at the speed of light and looked into a hand-held mirror, would he see his reflection, or not? Setting aside vampirism, or poorly-made glass that cracks at high speeds, the answer is that he must. Relativity means that you can’t tell how fast you’re going unless you have a point of reference.
• • • •
We’ve been together for as long as I can remember. Just kids, running around the Sacramento suburbs. I liked you because you’d play with a girl. I ran faster, fought harder, and hit harder than any boy—and I knew it. Remember that time we played Capture the Flag and you couldn’t find mine? I shoved it in a drainpipe. You could still see its corner. That counts.
I was the girl next door—safe, reliable, undesirable. When I was thirteen, and you were sixteen—I was crazy-in-love with you. But you were blind. “Best friends forever,” you told me.
I thought that you’d never see me as a woman your own age. I had to hear about all those girls you dated. Remember that awful redhead who stole cigarettes from her grandmother? I bet she got lung cancer.
“Best friends,” I told you too. We were together, yet completely apart.
I used to wonder how to make you see me. Should I tell you what I felt? Stay silent and hope you‘d see?
But you made the choice for me: you left for the military. So I joined the Peace Corps—the polar opposite of what you did. This drew us together again like magnets. It’s why we ended up living together in San Francisco. Roommates and lovers.
I didn’t know this then, of course—all of this I figured out during the journey to Alpha Centauri.
Two magnets, apart, continue to exert force on each other. Their power lies in the space between.
• • • •
Einstein says that nothing moves at the speed of light, because the faster things get the heavier they become.
It’s true that as I accelerated, everything had more weight: two decades of child-rearing, juggling flute practice with my photography career, balancing a marriage’s weight against single independence. But weight is relative, and what’s heavy on Earth is light on the Moon and monstrous on Jupiter. Yet the mass remains the same. The more things change, the more they stay the same.
When I think about the changes in my parents’ lives—and how much more I’ve already seen, in fewer years—I think of Moore’s Law.
My world is doubling every year. Somewhere in old Italy, Galileo is searching the skies with his telescope, wondering why his life doesn’t feel as full as it should. It’s because I have it all, four centuries later—his life, and millions of others.
The doubling sequence surprises people who’ve never thought it through.
• • • •
Reno, you told me once. Reno, Nevada. When we lived in San Francisco, in that tiny apartment above a Mission District taqueria. Do you remember that conversation? We were sitting on that awful brown loveseat you’d rescued from a dumpster. You were heating dinner in the microwave, and the room smelled like curry. The fog rolled through the city and we both wore old sweaters. I didn’t yet know the relevance of Reno.
“If we’re separated,” you said.
“It’s inland. When the big quake hits the Bay, Reno’s safe. Or if there’s a missile strike or something. No one strikes Reno.”
“You’re paranoid,” I said.
You shrugged. “I’m aware.”
We’d been living together for six months. We made good roommates—both of us loud, and neither of us tidy. You took out the trash, and I sorted the mail; we both did dishes when needed, and not more often. I didn’t mind your waterskis propped against the fridge, or your physics books scattered on the pizza-stained carpet. You didn’t mind the way I always slammed doors and drawers, no matter how quiet I tried to be. It was a good arrangement. But not what I wanted.
I knew you loved me, of course. It was written in your eyes when you looked at me, a physics problem with no clear answer. If an irresistible force meets an immovable object, what happens then?
They meet. That’s all we know. Relative to each other, they are in contact. From within the object or the force, there is no way to tell if you’re in motion.
• • • •
For a while, I was Charon to your Pluto, keeping the same faces to each other as we circled around endlessly.
And through all of this you still thought of me as a moon, and yourself as a planet. But it’s not so easy as that. Our orbit is erratic, an ellipse among circles, an offbeat pattern in a regular solar system. Do you see the sun, far in the distance? Even when our orbit sweeps close to the sun, it takes four hours for its light to reach us. It’s a centerpoint that keeps us captured. We circle it so we don’t fly off into space. It’s a point of reference, and it proves to us that we’re always in motion.
We keep moving, along with everything else. Even if we can’t see where or how.
• • • •
By the time we got together, it was more for convenience than anything else.
It was what we did: have sex, fight, break up, meet someone else. And when the new relationship burned out, like a magnesium ribbon flared and gone, we’d find each other again.
The best thing between us was the sex. We fought—oh, yes, we fought—and then had make-up sex. Hard, hot, and heavy. You’d drive into me just before I was ready—making me ready—then finish just after me, both of us collapsed together, trapped in each other’s gravity wells.
When you slept, I’d stroke your rough, calloused fingers and the Superglued cuts in your feet from waterskiing. I’d think about our next fight, and my body tingled with wanting you.
“I’ll marry you,” you said once, “if you can’t find anyone else.”
I laughed because I thought you were kidding. You couldn’t even propose right.
It was the last push on a decaying orbit. I was not your fallback option. From the time you said that, our path downwards was guaranteed, calculable. We fought about the phone bill, Chinese leftovers, a broken plate that didn’t get swept up. When you told me about your new job repairing relativity shuttles, I was secretly glad. Your work would take you to Reno. Out of my path.
• • • •
I was completely over you, over us—or at least I was then, when you left. I was on the rebound, ready for someone new.
Gunther, the German engineer, was everything you weren’t. So I married him. Once you knew his first few digits, they repeated in a predictable pattern. He was a wonderful father for our two sons. I thought of you sometimes as I raised my boys, perfect squares in their rational world. I never forgot you.
Thanks to genetics, we expected Gunther’s heart problems before they happened. He lasted twenty-five years with me, then slipped away. My kids were on their own by then, and I had time and money. I was free to choose irrationally, and so I took up waterskiing.
When you came back, I was surprised you came to my door—and even more surprised that you wanted me. I didn’t think you’d stay with me—a hot young thirty-something, with this dried-out old lady. You kept saying you liked my maturity, you found me sexy. But it was different for me. I saw you like my kids. More like a son than a mate.
If I can’t find anyone else.
That’s a terrible proposal. It makes a woman feel like you’re just putting up with her. I did find someone else. I had twenty-five happy years with him, while you were living through just a few months. I accumulated the weight of years—of a woman building decades with her partner, of a mother renewing herself by raising her children. All of this weight I gained—not to mention my new-found belly.
But I married you anyway. You wanted to be with me, you said. All your recent thoughts told you so. My age didn’t matter—you still wanted me, the woman you’d loved all this time, you said.
As for me, now I had what I’d always wanted—but it wasn’t what I thought it would be.
One night after we made love on the beach, I watched the stars. They shone with light from billions of years ago. The stars offered us time apart. That’s why I sold everything I had—to see what you’d seen.
The new relativity shuttles were even faster than yours had been, and now they were open to tourists. It had been forty years here, after all. I’m sorry I didn’t leave a note.
I figured it was all relative.
• • • •
Gunther was always patient with me. Slow. He’d wait for me to orgasm, like he was holding a car door open for me, and then he’d finish quickly and silently. Sometimes I pretended he was you to make things more exciting. Once I pretended he was Albert Einstein. It was the accent, I swear.
With you, the electromagnetic pull bonded us together. We could ionize briefly, visiting other molecules and forming weak bonds—but we always came back together, circling each other endlessly.
An electron and a proton. You and me.
For a long time I thought I was the electron, spinning wild patterns around you. Then I realized the electron was you, because I always knew either where you were or how fast you were going, but never both.
• • • •
So I left you and went to the stars, like you’d done. Alpha Centauri! The brilliant star burned into my mind. It was a vacation for me, a short time away from Earth. For the first time, I saw the lights up close. The luxury ship went 99% the speed of light. Much faster than you had gone, faster than before.
I figured you’d be dead once I got back. It simplified things. Stopped the fighting. You’d be ashes, like you’d always wanted. I wouldn’t even have to see your body. I thought about it, as I looked through the viewport, and realized that I was still thinking of you. That was when I understood that no matter how far I went or how fast, I still responded to you in every way.
Every action produces an equal and opposite reaction. Our bond pulls me back, and I love you.
• • • •
Reasons why I have loved you:
2. Yes, again.
3. Because you’re you.
None of these are love, perhaps, but they’re forces of physics. And if love isn’t subject to physics, then it has no grounding in our universe. I can’t believe that’s true.
• • • •
Just when I got back, you left again, like one metal ball clacking another —the opposite side of our kinetic motion toy. You were off for the Andromeda Galaxy, moving at 99.38% the speed of light.
Simpler, indeed. I was sixty-eight. You were gone.
It was time to move on.
The world had changed since I left. The human lifespan was up to 150 years. I hadn’t imagined this possibility. I had decades left for music, art, whatever I dreamed of. My health was good—they killed a malignant breast tumor and grew me a new liver, twice—but otherwise, my body kept working for years.
But my nervous system paralysis—that was incurable. I opted for cryogenesis, hoping they’d find a cure. If they did, years from now, they’d revive me and heal me.
It was exciting. I wondered if it’d be hard to fall asleep, like Christmas Eve—not knowing what Christmas Day would bring. But of course the freezing was instant. As I lay down in the cryochamber I thought to myself: Reno. That’s where I should have gone, when disaster struck. I was thinking of you.
And then I was frozen, like Charon and Pluto.
• • • •
If I’m a train leaving Philadelphia at 3:00, going 50 miles an hour, and you’re a train on the same track leaving San Francisco at 4:00, going 55 miles an hour, at what time will we collide and run each other off the tracks?
More importantly, if we move at the speed of light, and I shine a light in your direction, will you blink and tell me to stop blinding you, or will you not see me coming until it’s too late?
If Einstein is flying next to our train, looking into a mirror and wondering where his reflection has gone—will you ask him whether anything stands still, or if everything is always in motion? Relative to everything else, of course.
And ask about Reno. If our trains crash there, should we consider that they’ve stopped moving? Or are they still in motion on Earth, relative to everything else in the universe?
• • • •
Everyone’s joined in the same future, except you. Time moves so quickly—accelerating to the point where we can hardly imagine what’s next. I went to sleep expecting to be cured. Instead, the AI woke me and said I no longer needed my body. It downloaded my mind, and now I see. You and I are eccentric, but part of a solar system, and I know now where we belong. It’s easy for me to travel along circuits, to expand my mind everywhere in the network—and then condense myself so small as to be negligible in the universe, here in one corner of a virtual city.
I see they’ve sent a ship after you, moving at 99.99% the speed of light. It’ll reach you eventually. They’ll download you and you’ll fly back to me. Here, where we belong. I think I never left your orbit.
• • • •
I wrote you a long message to explain all this, but I think I’ll erase it and just leave ten words. I’ll tell you the rest when you arrive—when our perpetual motion comes to a relative stop.