Where Nothing Ever Happens
She wasn't even that cute, with her purpled appendages and malformed head. Her skull was all catawampus, drawing into question the symmetry of her facial features. She cried a lot too initially—plaintive sobs that seemed unsootheable. But these imperfections did nothing to hamper her perfection. She was born—born six pounds, eight ounces; born nineteen centimeters long; born at 1:47 in the morning; born the fourteenth day of the eleventh month of the 2,072nd calendar year. Jenny Serene was born.
I don't think Sara had even realized how certainly she believed this day would never come. She'd accepted the bad news so completely. In fairness, what emotional strength did she have left to invest after the miscarriages, the failed fertility treatments, the surgeries. Jared became such a romantic then, trying to woo her with the possibilities of a childless marriage—flying her to Istanbul, whisking her off to late-night shows, consuming bottles of expensive wine from crystal glasses that sweated circles into their newly-purchased, sharp-cornered furniture.
She was beginning to yield too, when suddenly the waistband of her pants dug deeper lines than normal. She laid off the booze, hoping the queasiness would dissipate once she started acting her age again, but that too only worsened. Sara got angry with Jared when he bought her the pregnancy test—angrier still when it came back positive. His clever lessons on the pleasures of spontaneous sex in any and all rooms of a childless house suddenly didn't seem so innocuous. She just wasn't sure she could go through it all, so she simply didn't let herself believe.
With a fully distended belly in constant occupation of her personal space, she still didn't let herself believe. The possibility of a stillborn birth was never more than moments away from her thoughts. Even as she was in the throes of labor, she couldn't shake the fear that she was giving birth to nothing—that the doctors would soon inform her of this medical anomaly, a void she would never fully expunge.
Then the doctor laid Jenny across her chest.
Sara's proximity to such perfection released something in her, as if the moon had suddenly shifted its distance from the earth. A wave of guilt surged through her body as she realized she had spent the past months denying this miracle. Had she really such little faith? Her exhaustion left her underprepared for such waves, and her well-established levees quavered and cracked allowing tears to well in and then seep from her eyes.
"I need her to believe in something."
It came out as more of a plea than a statement, catching Jared off-guard. "OK?" He had been floating along his own emotional orbit—a much simpler path of joy and awe—completely unaware of the gravity pulling through his wife. She looked so depleted. He knew such wee and weary hours required caution. "We're not...religious," he reminded her. And they weren't. Who was these days? She laughed a little at the thought. "We could maybe pull off Unitarian?" he suggested, trying to hold the lightness in her laugh.
"No, I don't think I mean that."
The audibility of his breath betrayed the discomfort he was holding in. "God, I was imagining us going to church. It seems almost comical, doesn't it?"
She wasn't so sure; a sense of disenchantment settled into her features. "We've been to church before."
"Honey, come on." He met her eyes to help her catch the truth she was stretching. They had occasionally ventured to the church just down the street from their condo, but only after the renovations were complete. "They sell artisan breads and expensive wines. There's a cash register on the altar. It's irreverently called Communion. I don't think that counts."
"I know." She awkwardly adjusted her positioning in the bed, looking for her intentions among the strewn bed sheets. Her vacillation disturbed the atmosphere in the room, neither one of them knowing how to proceed. Then Sara found her words. "I'm not saying we need to join a church. I'm not even saying that we should determine for her what she believes in. She could believe in God, Allah, Nirvana, the Beatles for all I care. I don't know, Jared. Just look at her."
They both did. They both paused and observed, taking in the immensity of this small perfection: her ten fingers, the translucence of her fingernails that somehow already needed cutting, the creased pattern of her hand that allowed her skin to fold and to grip so naturally. Her hand alone seemed a marvel. And, suddenly this wholly cosmic event—this miracle, for lack of a better term—struck Jared too. She was a miracle—their miracle. To deny that amid such irrefutable evidence seemed illogical.
Sara sighed and stroked Jared's hair as he leaned down to kiss this delicate evidence. "I just don't want her to believe in nothing."
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Jared felt so helpless; that's probably where it all started. Sara's emotional fabric looked so threadbare. Their morning had been frenetic, the suddenness of their parenting pulling them in all directions. The adrenaline of labor kept them both alert enough through the earliest hours, but fatigue began to settle in long before they'd found the time and the space to rest. The constant tips and test results, statistics and strategies kept their gears spinning. When that finally started to ebb, then came the constant flow of visitors: Sara's mom and Bill, Auntie Jessica, Jared's parents, Sara's dad, the crew from school.
It was more than just the physical exhaustion, though. Jared could sense the friction still working through his wife's thoughts. She didn't have to say anything. He had long ago learned to mind her expressions. Hadn't they perfected that—the not talking? They had carried on the past nine months actively saying nothing about this baby—tacitly ensuring hope would never settle into a home no real baby would ever occupy.
I guess there was a little guilt mixed in too. Jared had had his moments alone—his solitary celebrations. Some weren't even that solitary. The baby was common conversation at work. They'd even thrown him a party: cigars, mini-baseball mitts—Dad stuff. He found himself listening to lullabies on his commute to work, practicing his bedtime-stories voice. There were days after work when he would just sit in the car and scream out his enthusiasm, afraid of letting it traipse behind him into the house.
Maybe that's what inspired his story. Maybe he was just trying to soothe Sara to sleep after a long morning. Maybe he was trying to prove to her that he had been preparing, that he could take care of this. Maybe he was making up for lost time, trying to placate her current ruminations after letting old doubts fester for so long. It didn't really matter then. His muse, however significant she could appear in retrospect, was altogether subconscious at the time. He was just a tired man talking—a tired man using his practiced, bedtime-stories voice in a desperate attempt to slow his wife's mind just enough to let her get some sleep.
He'd slipped into one of his lectures almost accidentally. Jared had always been fascinated by nothing—by its origins, its history, its influence. A couple of semesters, he had even taught a course on nothing. He loved that first day. He'd open by congratulating his new students on having the courage to study nothing. He'd then pass out a blank sheet of paper and call it his syllabus. It always led to such intriguing discussions. Had he really passed out nothing? Was it even fair to say that nothing was on the paper? He'd offer a cash prize to anyone who could show him a pure, irrefutable example of nothing on the spot.
His goal, those first mornings, was admittedly to frustrate his new disciples: if everything was something, could anything really be nothing? But tonight, there was no malice in his loquaciousness. He had no desire to add weight to her mind. Rather, he hoped to release her from such gravity. He hoped he could allay her fears by showing her that nothing didn't have to exist. He wanted to prove to her that he had nothing under control.
And so he began to weave his tale. He took her across oceans to distant lands and cultures long gone. He introduced her to Babylonians and Mayans, peoples who finally found a use for nothing after scads of cultures had existed without it for so long. He told her about zero, a character that defied modern logic, appearing centuries after all other numbers, though it preceded those same numbers the whole time. He talked of Ptolemy, zero's first friend dedicated enough to take the time to know him truly. He talked of nothing's challenges too—of the dangers nothing faced in a newly Christian world. He led her down the seedy streets of heresy, describing the accusations of blasphemy necessitated by a God who was everything, thus destroying nothing. He told saucy tales of female genitalia, whose striking resemblance to nothing and its symbols served as further proof of Eve's damnation. He even joked of Shakespeare's willingness to make much ado about such trifles. Eventually, though, he began to tell their story. After showing her that nothing wasn't everything—that, at times, nothing hadn't even been something—he envisioned for her possible futures where they defied nothing as well, giving their daughter only everything, something, and anything to believe in.
Somewhere between something and everything he meant to say, Jared fell asleep too. With nothing on their minds, they both slept soundly. When they woke up, however, he could see something in her eyes. Jared saw that he hadn't simply told Sara a story; he'd made her a promise.
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They didn't simply remove nothing from her life. Rather, Jenny's life was constantly filled with something. Semantics were important, they'd learned. They never spent lazy Saturdays doing nothing anymore. Could anyone really? There was always something to do. Instead, they lounged, they loafed, they lolled. They studied the decadent art of relaxation, introducing substance through complex observations appropriately categorized.
It wasn't always so simple, though, this change. Before Jenny, they'd practically worshipped nothing. Their life together in New York constantly encountered obstinate voids attempting to pull them back in. Old friendships suddenly seemed so vacuous. They wondered how they'd ever sat and talked of nothing for hours. Occupations no longer kept them occupied. They'd invested in such trivialities, so they moved—a drastic move to the outskirts of Terre Haute, Indiana. They homeschooled Jenny too. What other choice did they have? She was certain to learn nothing in school.
Even homeschooling had its scares, though. Subtraction was dangerous to teach in abstraction. It wasn't long before little Jenny was asking what would happen if you subtracted three from three.
Jared slid the fruit bowl across the table top and closer to the two of them. "So, we have three oranges, right? What would we have if we subtracted all three of them?"
Jenny shook her head. That was her question. She couldn't put into words the missing oranges.
Jared refocused her. "Look at the bowl, Jenny. What would you have left? You'd have two apples, right?"
She took note of their presence where the oranges had been and nodded.
"And if you subtracted those two apples?"
"Good," he paused as he began to lead her through the next questions, "and if you subtracted the bananas," he picked up the empty fruit bowl and spun it obviously in his hand, "you'd have...?"
She looked to him for an answer.
"You'd have?" His eyes danced between hers and the bowl.
"Exactly, and subtract the bowl?"
Her energy grew from the realization that subtraction was endless. There was always something to replace the subtracted goods. From then on, "more of something else" became an appropriate answer to three minus three.
But, Sara and Jared hadn't suddenly become naïve or illogical. On the contrary, they were well aware they couldn't fully prevent Jenny from any and all exposure. Like adult jokes in kids' movies, they'd hoped such references would waft over her head and out of her thoughts. They knew she'd meet the words; they just hoped they would always sound foreign. And, they tried to keep her head a little too full as well, constantly shuttling her from place to place, activity to activity.
It worked too. Jenny never finished her food. She could rarely tell an entire story without getting distracted by digressions. She always had a name for everything, even if she had to make it up. She was always busy; there was always something going on. Her life was unique, yes, but it was far from disconcerting. It was really quite beautiful, actually. She could find meaning in anything. Jenny believed in life.
She believed in open spaces. She loved running through grassy fields with her arms extended. She loved the caress of open air as it rushed across her outstretched palms. She could feel the substance in the air around her.
She believed in silences. She recognized the role they played to fill out the music. Thelonious was a religious figure for her. She absorbed his syncopations, trusted in the rhythms they created. She knew that jazz couldn't dance without silence, and so she believed in it. She'd even listen to her music with the volume off sometimes. There was still so much to hear.
She believed in simplicity, too. For someone so young, she had a sophisticated understanding of feng shui, never letting clutter disrupt the ambiance of the spaces she controlled. She wasn't one of those too-many-animals-on-the-bed type girls. She liked gaps between the clothes hanging in her closet. A picture or two on the wall would distract from the wall itself. The geometry, the texture—those were something too.
She believed in distance. She grew tired of friends she saw too often, appreciating relationships that had space to breathe. Old maxims that paired absence and fondness rang true for her. When she got a little older, the magic of her first kiss was not in the meeting of too-wet lips, but rather that moment's hesitation. Her imagination thrived in that smallest of distances, the anticipation of before energizing her with the possibility of love.
And she believed in darkness—loved the power of opportunity hidden in such absences. On cloudless nights, she would lie on her back and get lost in the spaces between the stars. She understood that the darkness allowed stars to shine. She wallpapered her room—her walls, her ceiling—with the starry night. Her room became her everywhere. Each night, in the moment before sleep, she would shut off her light and even the stars would disappear. She would lie there for a moment hovering in the possibility of everything before she drifted off to sleep.
Yes, Jenny believed in the everythings she discovered in our nothings.
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Jared barely saw it, that one night. To be honest, I'm not exactly sure how he did. Apparently the sheen of the Sharpie didn't quite match that of the wallpaper. Still the differences were entirely negligible—the wallpaper's muffled gloss, the marker's matte finish. Maybe they were slightly different blacks too. I guess, over time, Jared had gotten good at such subtle distinctions.
He was just about to flick off the light. That alone was an anomaly. The tucking-in process had long given way to age and independence. What fifteen-year-old wanted tucking-in? But, they'd had such a good day—the city, the museums, the planetarium. Jared worried such days were numbered, and rightfully so.
Jenny didn't mind either. There was something comforting about the presence of her father occupying her open doorway—his broad shoulders eclipsing the light of the hallway behind him. She felt a wave of nostalgia as she was allowed a moment of helplessness, buried under covers too heavy to let her up to turn off the lights.
Jared scanned this scene—a familiar photograph stored on some hard drive. That's when he saw it, the faint black circle just a foot off the ground. At first he thought his tired eyes were mistaken. He'd crossed the room anyway—a habit of cleanliness, I guess—and brushed at the spot with his hands. It wasn't dirt, though, and it wasn't some depression, some accidental divot that cast off the light in a different direction.
Jared bent his knees and squatted to get a closer look. The circle was almost perfect, and minute. It couldn't have been more than a centimeter in diameter. Still, it was unmistakably drawn there, a purposeful addition to what had normally been a clean wall of stars.
Jenny hadn't volunteered any information, but she hadn't reacted uncomfortably either. The maculation wasn't a violation or anything. They'd have let her draw all over her walls had she wanted. It just seemed out of character—an unexpected shift. That's the rationale Jared used, at least, to turn around at the door again and inquire.
"So, what's with the circle, hon?"
"Oh that?" Jenny said. "It's nothing."
Jared had flicked off the light and turned to leave before the enormity of her reply touched down in his thoughts. Like a noxious gas, nothing had subtly seeped into their home, and Jared couldn't breathe. How long had nothing been there? He had a sudden sense of confirmation, that they had been right all along. He could sense something in her nothing.
He and Sara resumed their tuck-in process religiously, monitoring this pustule, which grew nightly and in direct proportion both to their discomfort and to Jenny's time spent alone in her room. The black circle had a voracious appetite, consuming their thoughts and their ability to communicate with their daughter. The thing was, Jenny was still their daughter. She displayed no symptoms to help diagnose this change in behavior; there were no side effects to her artistry. She was chipper and sociable when they saw her. They just saw less and less of her.
Some days she'd spend hours adding rings to her growing black sphere. They didn't even know where she was getting the markers. She must have gone through scores of them, as if she'd had some secret stockpile buried away for just such an occasion. It became an occasion too. Jared and Sara began to make note of her progress: the first absorption of a star, the day she reached the adjacent wall, her first mark on the ceiling, when the initial wall was entirely black. They kept hoping to use these events to start a conversation, but it never felt natural. Or maybe they were just afraid of whatever was hidden in all of this.
She finished in late February. The room was entirely black, the marker's imperfect layering creating undulating rings that radiated out from her initial starting point. There were conditions under which Jared and Sara would have even been impressed. It was quite a feat. They even debated a celebration of sorts, but then Jenny stopped leaving her room.
They'd hear her at night sometimes, clanging bottles and sliding drawers, as she rummaged through the fridge for sustenance, but they didn't see her anymore. Granted, they probably could have. They were operating solely on inferences at this point. Maybe she'd have welcomed them openly into her space, but it felt like hers alone, and they trusted that she needed it. They believed she would eventually leave her space to reenter their atmosphere.
And she did. After about three weeks of isolation, Jenny walked into the living room, mouth agape, as she stared at her phone, reading and rereading some message on her screen. "I got in," she said, the disbelief evident in every gesture of her being.
She handed the phone to Jared, who read the declaration aloud: "Jenny Serene, Space Cadet, Class of '93."
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The suddenness of the dark caught Sara by surprise. She was certain that she'd finish the walk long before her headlights shut off, but she'd either misjudged the distance or her speed—probably both for that matter. She definitely wasn't moving quickly anymore. The obscurity that surrounded her was entire, a darkness so complete that the only sensory distinction she noticed when closing her eyes was the slight pressure of lid on lid. She breathed deeply, willing her pupils as open as her lungs, and waited. There was no rush today. The sunrise was still three hours away. She'd have time.
When she did open her eyes, she could just begin to make out the dissimilarities in the degrees and proximities of the blackness all around her. She wished the moon would have stuck around long enough to guide her to her bench, but he was off visiting some other hemisphere. The stars, however, were alive in his absence, providing just enough light for Sara to make out her path. She willed her body into motion again, a process that she couldn't believe took so much effort, and she shuffled her heavy footsteps along the gravel path.
The feel of the bench was welcoming, its sturdiness providing her support as she maneuvered around it and took a seat. There was finally substance in the ether that surrounded her. Safe in place, she had her first opportunity to recognize the cold that accompanied her this early morning. It was much cooler than Sara had anticipated. All those years in Indiana had misled her. She'd never expected Texas to allow such a chill this early in October. But her shawl was in the car, and the car lay somewhere in the interminable emptiness behind her.
Besides, she welcomed the discomfort somewhat. This wasn't supposed to be an easy morning. Already she was struggling to muster up the sorrow. This good-bye was just too ethereal—no proceedings, no interactions, no confirmations. Nothing like the last one. She hoped the cold would help usher in some of the pain she should have been feeling—the pain she'd felt here before.
Nonetheless, she leaned back a little against the bench and let her eyes walk up the eastern horizon. She found her twins lying dutifully there, still holding hands. She laughed at how familiar Gemini had become to her. She was barely aware of the big dipper as a kid. She'd always loved the idea of constellations, but she'd never had the patience to catalogue them. She'd just look up at the night sky and get lost.
But those were different days. Now she had no problem identifying these figures; life required such changes. Not only could Sara find Gemini, she could name the stars that comprised its outline. She knew Castor and Pollux, the lesser stars as well. It still beguiled her that she could even see Gliese 251, knowing it had been wholly swallowed some fourteen years ago. That it would still glow for at least four years—that all these stars held her captive in some past was a reality she still struggled to accept.
And Sara was held captive. Of all people, she should have understood the staying power of the past. Thirty-six years, four months, sixteen days, and about a dozen hours ago, she had sat on this same bench, saying this same good-bye to the same disappearing daughter. The images from that day still radiated in her thoughts. Even through the darkness, she could still sense the presence of the scaffolding looming between her and the horizon.
That day—the slightest flashes of those memories still pulled such discomfort through her. She hadn't prepared herself fully, hadn't thought about the celebration others would infuse into such a day. She'd let herself believe that she and Jared would have some solitude, just the two of them saying good-bye to Jenny. When they pulled into the full parking lot, when she saw the thousands of people already assembled, she realized her foolishness.
They meandered through an excited crowd of revelers—young families, couples on blankets, college kids huddled around coolers—all eager for the launch. I don't know why she thought the bench would be vacant in such a crowd. I guess it had been the day before. Its occupation was simply one stone too many tossed onto the weight of grief inside Sara. She collapsed a little onto the backrest and let go of a tear.
"Oh, you're..." The man on the bench looked up. Sara's eyes met his, which alit with recognition, though she knew they'd never met before. He must have seen her in the news. "I'm so sorry. Of course. Please." He gestured toward the bench as he moved his two kids to the open grass nearby. Settled, he looked back at them one more time. "You must be so proud."
Sara lost control of her descent and collapsed onto the bench in anguish. Jared's arms worked quickly to help her gather back her composure while his eyes stared vacantly at this young father below them. "Proud? We're saying good-bye to our daughter today."
But Sara knew how right he was to ask. She understood that today was a culmination of sorts, an aftermath. That's why she was crying. And maybe she should have been proud. That first day in the hospital—wasn't this what she and Jared had planned? Granted, this was so far beyond the scope of her imagination that day. Still, she couldn't deny their role in all of this. It was that silly plan of theirs that had totally obnubilated Jenny, preventing her from recognizing that she was committing her life to nothing. Or maybe Sara just lacked the capacity to see whatever something was drawing her in.
They had cultivated a prodigy of sorts. Jenny's inability to see nothing provided her with a uniquely gifted vision. Jenny had excelled so quickly in school. Her exceptional capacities were apt for discovering. Where her peers saw emptiness, Jenny saw possibilities, and she was drawn to such places. Who wouldn't be? Who wouldn't love to find what others so casually overlooked? It wasn't long before she'd discovered it—a neophyte of a black hole whose burgeoning concentration of gravity was just strong enough to be captivating. They thought at first she was joking. She was still years from mastering the astrophysics necessary to measure such gravitational fluxes, but they did the calculations, and she was right. And, it was close too, relatively speaking—a mere seventeen or so light years away, on the verge of gobbling up Gliese 251, marring forever the features of Gemini.
Once Jenny discovered that concentration of gravity, there was no escaping it. A place where nothing ever happens, she had grown to believe in the unperceived magic in such places. She had placed her faith there. When they offered her the opportunity to visit, to be the first astronaut to fly through a black hole, she couldn't say no. I guess they had never really given her the words. The thirty-six years it would take to get there? It was nothing.
Nothing. God, that word still haunted Sara. As the images of the launch faded, she found her eyes settling back into the space between the stars and staying there, transfixed. She knew she wouldn't see anything, but she still wanted to be watching when it happened—when Jenny disappeared for good. She understood the science now. She knew that whatever cosmic disruption marked Jenny's passing wouldn't make its way to earth for at least seventeen years. Occasionally, hope would play tricks with her eyes. She would believe she could distinguish some gravitational shift or the subtle shimmer of something, but she knew those glimmers were internal. That's what was so hard about this good-bye. There was no way to know when it happened.
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Jenny came back faster than Sara had expected. Sara was surprised at how easy it was for them to find her. She barely knew herself where she was these days, some hospital bed somewhere. But the packaged arrived, a thick manila envelope addressed to Sara Serene, the return address stamped unapologetically in the corner.
The irony of them sending her actual photos, using such dated technology, wasn't lost on her. Who did that anymore? It was odd holding the photographs. Sara could vaguely remember the texture and weight from her childhood, such youthful ties adding resolve to her normally anemic memory. At least she was having a good morning.
The first picture was unmistakably Jenny, sitting so eager amid the controls and gadgets of her craft. She assumed it must have been an early shot, taken right after the launch. She still looked so young. But the series of pictures did little to change Jenny's face. Sara had never expected to see her again, but when she let her imagination travel to such places, she worried about the stranger she'd encounter. She worried she'd fail to recognize her much older daughter. But this was her Jenny, still moving too fast to grow up, losing track of time.
It was the final photograph, though, that overwhelmed Sara. She had let herself grow so accustomed to this repeated picture that she fully expected to keep seeing it. The sudden contrast then was jarring—Jenny instantly gone again. Without the white border outlining the photo, she wasn't sure how she would have kept hold of it. The blackness filling the frame was so entire—no, blackness was much more tangible. Sara felt she had suddenly looked behind her without the cooperation of her eyes. She worried about dropping her glasses—that they'd fall forever into this emptiness. So this was Jenny's impact. Sara couldn't look away. It really was something.