This is the story of how I lost everything and ended up in the desert. I dropped out. But unlike so many people who hit the road, I had a safety net. But I pretended I was free falling.
We were happy. I can’t say we weren’t happy. At least I think we were. I tell myself that. We had a few good years together before everything fell apart. Or maybe the good years were the ones we had spent in Baton Rouge.
Life at Los Alamos placed a magnifying glass on everything that I disliked about my chosen field of study, physics. When I was in grad school I had the company of my peers, my fellow students. I had Peter and David. Weekend fishing trips. Late morning and afternoon trips to Highland Coffees to hang out and chat. Happy hours at The Chimes. At Los Alamos, it was just the lab.
My lab was in a large metal enclosure. You could have put a dozen aircraft in the building. The lab was a set of walls partitioning the floor space. The floor was concrete. The walls gray. Everything hummed. The constant din of low level noise was soporific. The clatter of vacuum pumps. The buzz of motors. I spent my days hunched over a table peering through a microscope winding micron-sized wire on tiny spools.
“I’m not interested in any of this,” I said to Randy.
He starred blankly at me.
“This is performance art,” I said. “And there’s no audience.”
“I don’t get it,” said Randy.
“This a labor camp for smart people,” I said. “They keep us busy doing pointless things on the off chance that they might need clever people for something someday.”
The lab’s existence was an accident of history. Our country needed an atomic bomb before Hitler could build one, so they created this place sent all the clever people they could find out here and said build us a really, really big bomb. And they did. All those terribly clever people out here in the desert, away from the real world, all involved in a collective endeavor.
“Who are ’they’?” asked Randy.
“You know, the people that decide what to spend money on. They have us out here as part of some insurance plan. They are afraid. And I stumbled into this prison.”
“You’re joking right?” asked Randy.
“No, Randy. I’m not joking. This is soul killing.”
That I reacted this way to my first real research position shouldn’t have surprised me. I’d spent my entire adult life trying to get away from physics and failing. At every step of the way there was some wise person, like some angel, barring the way. The first was my freshman-level literature professor. When I fell in love with Milton’s Paradise Lost and decided I rather study books than physics, she said, “No. Do physics first, if you can. You can always come back and do literature later.” The advice always seemed reasonable.
The next person to bar the way was my father. I had decided in Rome that I would really quit physics this time and devote myself to writing. “No,” he said. “You should get the degree in physics. Writing won’t pay the bills.”
During my first semester at LSU I got so disheartened with physics that I walked over to the English department. I stood around in the English department office while the department secretary yammered to some man who had walked in just ahead of me. The secretary pretended that I didn’t exist. After about five minutes of waiting I convinced myself that transferring from physics to English wasn’t the thing to do. I’d set out to get a Ph.D. in physics and I should finish it. “Don’t ever give up,” said my father. Good advice if you are doing something you love.
Did I hate it? Hate isn’t the right word. I was indifferent to it which is worse. I forced myself to do the homework. I forced myself to read the texts. I convinced myself that what I loved about physics as a kid, as a high school student, was kid’s stuff, and that the physics of the solid state was real, grown-up physics.
The end result: an empty hanger in Los Alamos and a feeling that I’d made an enormous mistake. The worst part of my situation was that I didn’t have the free time in my day to do any writing. The lab schedule dominated my days. My home scheduled dominated my nights. I tried to write and I did get words onto the page, but it was always at the expense of sleep. And I became more and more irritable and more and more stressed.
When Mark died, I fell into a depression that lasted a very long time. Mark was a few years old than me. Not so much older that it made any difference. Mark and I shared lab space. We never did anything outside the lab together, but I considered him a friend just because we spent so much time together. One weekend Mark went away to play, a rafting trip with friends. He never came back. Mark drowned. Life went on. Mark’s girlfriend came to the lab and packed up his personal stuff, and the last traces of Mark’s existences were removed. The only thing left was a memory.
That could be me, I thought. Out having a good time when suddenly it’s “game over.” What would I have to show for what I’d done in this life? All those books, unwritten. I had to get out.
The Bible is full of good advice. One bit of advice that is helpful in a marriage is this: “never let the sun go down on your wrath.” Father Amos said that a couple needs to know how to fight properly. “You have to be vocal,” he said. “If you don’t say anything, then you can’t fix whatever the problem is.” Then he told Nena and I something corny about a lighting a candle as a sign that we wanted reconciliation. The candle was just in case we ever got into a situation that we couldn’t talk our way out of. The problem started (I realize now) when I treated my relationship with Nena as an experiment.
It started small. A tiny crack in the surface. One that could have easily been repaired. I’m not saying that it was Nena’s fault. It wasn’t. All I had to do was open my mouth and say something, but I decided to stay silent.
The small argument, or disagreement, was a misunderstanding involving money and sex. Two unrelated events. I bought a new laptop computer. My father had sent me some money and so I didn’t think twice about using this windfall to buy myself a computer which I desperately (or so I thought) needed. Nena thought I had used “our money” to buy the computer and so she became angry with me. We didn’t fight about it. But I could tell she was angry. I decided to do a little experiment. I would wait and see how long it took Nena to figure out that I hadn’t used “our money” without asking her. And some days later I realized that it had been ages since Nena had initiated any romantic contact between us. The boys very presence in the little house made sex a rare event. Nena was usually exhausted. I was usually exhausted. So evenings weren’t really prime romantic times. But when we did find those moments, it was usually me who noticed and started the ball rolling. I decided to wait and see how long it would take for Nena to ask for sex.
Days, weeks, months went by. She might have thought she had forgotten the spat over the money for the computer, but because we never resolved that, there were other things. Small things. Each one getting under Nena’s skin and annoying her. I saw it happening and the transformation fascinated me.
Thin, teenage girl in painted on blue jeans with a red tank-top with the word Oklahoma! splashed across the front and back.
Taxi driver wearing white gloves. A three man team to service a car rushing out into the road to stop traffic so that their customer can leave their station like a VIP.
Bicycles, bicycles everywhere. Strings of paper cranes. Near the river of the main road is a small plaque with a picture of Einstein and his famous E=mc2 equation, a symbol of the twentieth century and the atomic age, forever linked in the popular mind with the bomb.
Breakfast at a Danish-themed café before the Hondoori awakes.
A manager and his employees do exercises, calisthenics, in front of their store. “We will be the best clerks. We will serve you to the best of our ability.” Shouting in unison to the East, then to West.
The young ladies dressed as French maids at the Paris Café across from our hotel.
After voiding one’s bowels, the joy of the automatic washlet: wash, rinse, blow dry. Look ma, no hands!