In the spring we started going to the Grad Centre on Friday afternoons for a few beers. We would sometimes drag a faculty member or other grad students along; usually it was just the two of us. I still spent my time adjusting parameters on my photometry program, without getting anywhere – venting my frustrations during the first beer. Diego would nod his head and look at me thoughtfully. “You’re sure the computer was on?” he’d say. Or, “What if you sat in a different chair?” He reacted the same way when I told him of my current love interests. “Maybe you dialed the wrong number?” After I was done he would change the subject to something completely unrelated: from the next trip he was planning, to newspaper articles about injustice in Nicaragua or a letter he got from his sister, Julia. Once he said, “I heard Bach’s Cello Suites on the radio last night. Have you heard them? They contain so much silence it’s astonishing.” Life was in slow motion for Diego. When he told me that Julia was going to have a baby his eyes were radiant. “I’m going to be an uncle,” he said. I congratulated him and he just sat there glowing. “Yeah,” he said softly, “yeah.”
We went hiking once. It was a clear Saturday and I was at the department working on an observing proposal when I heard Diego’s familiar footsteps.
“C’mon,” he said. “Let’s go.”
“Wherever it is, I can’t.”
“That’s what you think. Garibaldi: there might be snow at the top.”
“I can’t afford the time.”
“Yes, you can.”
He insisted. We took a relatively steep trail; I was soon laboring up the path, though Diego had an easy time of it and went slower for my benefit. He seemed to take it as a pilgrimage and didn’t say much. We took a break at a clearing by a half-frozen lake. Diego pulled an entire gourmet lunch out of his knapsack: cherry tomatoes, marinated olives, French cheeses and baguettes, orange juice, nectarines and chocolate.
“Don’t just sit there, dig in,” he laughed.
We spent so long eating everything that we didn’t have time to get up to the snow. It was dark before we got down the trail again.
It happened the next weekend when I went camping with a girl I was in love with: Sonya, one of the other grad students. She liked my company but only tolerated my attentions. One of the faculty members told me when we got back. I was walking down the hallway to my office, smiling, because I was looking forward to catching up with Diego again. But he wasn’t in his office or the lab. Nobody was around. Then I ran into John, one of the junior faculty members, in the hallway. He taught a course on stellar evolution and sometimes came with us to the Grad Centre on Fridays. I saw the grim look on his face and knew as soon as he asked if I had “heard.” Diego was the only other one who was going away that weekend. I knew it was him.
The boy on the shore is joined by another. They each have a handful of stones and are throwing them into the water. Two land in unison, their ripples mingling as they spread out through the water. The man’s breathing is regular – no hint of a sigh.
The sun was brilliant that weekend. We read novels on the beach of one of the tiny Gulf Islands. After Sonya split with her boyfriend I spent about two weeks trying to convince her that we should go camping together to get away from everything for awhile. Diego told me, “Forget her and come sailing with me instead.” We were the only ones on the beach. I couldn’t make Sonya understand what was so funny about my book. And, much as I tried to get her to come swimming with me, she wouldn’t; even though she was wearing her bathing suit. That was probably the same time Diego was going under a few hundred miles away.
Two stones crisscross in midair and slip into the water. There’s hardly any splashing. He goes under again. The water opens up, drags him down. Eyes still open.
A woman on her front porch pushes a carriage back and forth, trying to get her baby to go to sleep. Her face is drawn, bags under her dark eyes. She looks wistfully into the carriage as she pushes it, rocking it softly. Her face gets larger and larger as the camera closes in. Strong eyes, tired yet warm.
That night we went back to the beach and sat under the stars. (We had gone there the night before, talking quietly, and I held her hand as we walked back in the dark. I remember the dark road, the brilliant stars, and the touch of her fingers.) But she was still mad about the ferry and didn’t say much. Waves lapped at the shore and the sky was just as pretty as the previous night. But now we were light years apart. I couldn’t get her to respond to anything. I asked her what she wanted to do with her life, what she dreamt about, and if she was over her ex-boyfriend.
“Oh, I don’t know,” she sighed. I took out the binoculars that I’d brought with me and began scanning the night sky. I located the bright globular cluster M13 in the Hercules constellation and the binary stars – Mizar and Alcor – in the Big Dipper. Then I turned my attention towards the pair of nearby galaxies: Messier 81 and Messier 82. M1 was a spiral galaxy and M82 was irregular. Looking at them then, they both looked like thin, fuzzy blobs.
“You know what’s annoying about all this evidence for an accelerating universe?” “I liked a closed model better.”
“Big Bang to Big Crunch,” I said. “It seems more appropriate. A cycle of birth and death.”
“What does that have to do with anything?”
“I just like it better.”
“It doesn’t matter what you like. It’s all about the data.”
“Everybody has their favorite models and I have mine.”
“Who cares what anybody thinks or likes or wants?” She stood up. “It’s not about opinions. It’s about observations — data — like my variable stars and your red giants. It doesn’t matter what we think. We just have to make the observations make sense.”
She continued ranting about scientific bias and narrow-mindedness. I had no idea why she was going on about it and tried to ignore her in the space between M81 and M82. I thought how Diego would laugh when I told him about this. She threw a stone into the water. “I’ll see you back at the camp,” she said, and walked down the beach.