Standing at her white board in her picayune academic office, Susan returned to the known facts, listing them as givens for the equation. Perhaps she would see something this time that she had failed to see before, some leap of logic that would take her to the other shore, where a complete and substantive equation would give her the answer that she had hoped to see. The window to her office was open and a calm, patient breeze insinuated itself, compelling her to lower the sash slightly. She wrote on the board,
The time of the year was Spring.
The location was the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign.
She erased “Illinois” and wrote it again, dissatisfied at the handwriting.
I am a professor.
A mathematical phenomenon, by most accounts.
Verbal and skilled at writing.
An astonishing racquet ball player
A third degree black belt.
She nodded her head at the impressive list, and humbly straightened her skirt. Certainly, as far as the marriage of discipline and talent could take a person, there she had gone. How many people had there ever been on this planet like her?
And this is where the trouble would always start.
Unfortunately, her equation kept showing a high probability that there had been many. And because of this, she couldn’t sleep very well, and she couldn’t date Sangay.
Fun would be out of the question until this problem was resolved.
If it was true that no one could possibly be one of a kind, or special, how could they just walk around each day with this in mind?
Susan had worked on the equation nearly every day for eight years, alone, in her office at the university, between students stopping by and faculty meetings, sometimes late at night or all day on Saturday, if the obsession overtook her. Given the number of people in the world–a lot–was it possible an individual person could be truly unique? She had tried Fourier transforms, a Laurent series, and presently, she was working with a sequence of Fibonacci numbers. Always, she could get semi-convergence, but not absolute convergence. Therefore, it was only moderately possible, but not at all probable, that an individual could be truly unique, one-of-a-kind, incomparable.
She had begun this research with her doctoral dissertation, which happened to coincide with her father’s death. She was young, but not unreflective, and had often wondered if these two events, the death of her father, and the beginning of her obsession with uniqueness, had more than a casual relationship. That when she could no longer obtain his specific approval, her scope expanded to something which, taken in its entirety, must include him. The universe.
“But you’re special to me,” her mother would say.
“That’s relative,” Susan would say. “I am in search of the absolute.”
So, day after day, she would write at the white board in her office, ignoring the advances of Sangay, the graduate assistant who was actually older than she was, and not unattractive, in his way.
Empirically, she would also try to demonstrate a solution. She would try to think thoughts which had never been thought before, and write down sentences which expressed ideas unlike any other ideas with combinations of words that were wholly unique. And she would feel fine, like she truly had uncovered a unique thought in all the world, but when she returned to the equation to demonstrate the complete uniqueness, her good feelings would dissolve as the equation once again indicated that this notion had most probably been pondered already by someone, somewhere.
The problem was the sheer number of people, which would always result at division by zero. A thought which had never been thought before. That was all well and good in a sample size of one hundred or even one thousand. But millions? It didn’t work.
Just then, there was a knock at her office door. It was Ted, the Federal Express man, and he held a thick, document-sized package under his arm. She knew it to be a dissertation by one Dr. Nathan Grigsby, whom she had met at the Worldwide Mathematics Institute.
The Fed Ex guy was standing there reading her board. She thanked him for the package and shut the door quickly, eager to get to the package and not feeling ready to expose her brilliance to the world at large, and certainly not to the masses who may not understand.
The dissertation discussed how large of a sample was required in order to replicate, with little deviation, the behavior of a very large group. If she could just get this right, perhaps she could get the equation to converge. She had long suspected that it was her manipulation of the sample size that was causing the mathematics to collapse. After exposing the cover of the dissertation, she gazed at the navy blue binding and considered the larger problem.
Ted, this Federal Express man, was about 45, with sandy brown hair and a pleasant smile. She knew that he had children from talking to him previously, and that they were younger than you would expect for his age. But certainly, the man was average in every sense of the word. Average build, more or less attractive, and he drove a delivery truck, for the sake of God. How did that man walk around every day, knowing that he was likely to contribute nothing to the world, that he was born, was living, and would die someday, without a trace? That he was entirely unspecial? But the problem was, he was doing it. Right now. She had just seen it.
She glanced back at her white board. That same feeling that had begun to plague her recently was happening again. Lately, instead of scribbling Greek symbols on her board, erasing a line and replacing it with an improved version, she would just stand back and look, her hands on her hips, trying to see the sense in what she was doing.
Increasingly, she couldn’t. A hole had begun to open up in her consciousness. Even the floor tile at the edge of her office, when she dared to look, had a shimmering quality to it, like a mirage, that threatened to give way if she dared to stand on it. A chasm that beckoned her to examine it, a rent in the reality of the universe demanding a crossing which she was not yet fully prepared to make.
She opened to the foreward, and had scarcely begun to read, when there was a knock at the door. Reliably, it was 11:50. The person who was trying to get in would be Sangay.
“Lunch today?” he asked, hopefully. She noted his crisply pressed dove grey shirt and lavender patterned silk tie. Yesterday, she told him that he looked very nice in a particular tie, and today, he was dressed even more formally than he had been the day before.
“Fine,” she said, dropping the dissertation to her desk. The mathematics might be exciting, but the prose was dull as a butter knife. Reading the dissertation was going to be a slog.
Sangay brightened to the radiance of a main sequence star. What was it about her that caused this radiance in Sangay?
“Sangay, why does it make you so happy to go to lunch with me?” she dared to ask. It was a research question, of course. She was personally unattached to the outcome.
His smile evaporated. “Well, I,” he said, and rubbed his hands together, like he was trying to start a fire, then clasped them in front of his softly hued shirt.
“I mean, there are other women around here, Dr. Pence for example, Ann. Sharon Illinsky. Maybe not as many women as some other departments, but some. And the English department is only two floors away, if you are looking for a large supply. Even the nursing school isn’t that far.”
He unclasped his hands from in front of his belt, and shifted from foot to foot.
“Never mind. I guess it’s the sort of thing that doesn’t have an answer,” she said. “Where do you want to go?”
“How much time do you have?”
Susan thought about the dissertation. “Oh, as much as you want. Why?”
“There is a restaurant downtown that is supposed to be like nothing that’s ever been done before. And though you might accept that concept as natural, I’m nonplussed as to what it could mean,” said Sangay.
Susan grabbed her purse. “I’m beginning to think that it may not..,” she said, then recovered herself. “Thank you for the research opportunity.”
He sighed. “I was hoping that you might give this other consideration.”
“Sangay, you are a fine Indian man,” said Susan, as they got on the elevator to go downstairs. “And if I were looking for a fine man of any variety, you would certainly lead my list.”
“But why are you not looking?” he asked. “You have no man that I can see, and you have advanced to the age of thirty. Your atomic clock should be ticking.”
“I don’t have the same clock that other women have,” said Susan. “And it’s called a biological clock, Sangay.”
“You are missing out on many things,” said Sangay. He himself had a son, a boy of ten now. The mother of the boy, Sangay’s ex-wife, had been provided by Sangay’s fabulously wealthy parents, and had subsequently disappeared back to India one day when his son, Tahal, was two years old. Sangay had left graduate school for six years to care for the boy, returning just last year.
“But it seems like these things that I am allegedly missing out on have caused you a lot of trouble,” said Susan.
They got out of the elevator, and there were several people in the lobby. Sangay didn’t answer right away. Susan nodded at the Dean as he passed.
Outside, Sangay said, “There are things that you can’t understand, being as you have no children yourself. This, I would forgive.”
“You don’t give me enough credit. I understand most things,” said Susan.
“I give you immense credit. But children, they create another dimension. A dimension that doesn’t exist previously and can’t be perceived of until the time is upon you,” said Sangay. “I am in the garage.”
They walked toward Sanders garage. Susan nearly commented on the weather, which was a categorically perfect spring day. However, she loathed that kind of interchange, words which had been spoken thousands of times before.
“Do you think that it’s possible that the sky has never been this exact shade of blue coinciding with this exact lumen output of the sun?” she asked Sangay.
He stopped and stared up at the clouds. “No. But it is still a rather nice combination.”
In the garage, Sangay led her to his car, a new Mercedes, a little darker grey than his shirt. Susan briefly wondered if this affect had been planned, that of the shirt and the new car. She opened the door to get in, and had to move a sheaf of flowers, wrapped in lavender floral tissue, to the back seat.
“Those are for you,” said Sangay.
She held them, surveyed the blooms, and decided that though her impulse was to smell them, it was likely that none of the flowers were of the scented variety, so she restrained herself.
“This is a very nice car,” she said, dropping the flowers to her lap.
“Yes. Perhaps I would not need it if I were confident in my manhood,” said Sangay.
She decided to let this comment pass, as she did not see how anything that she could say would be other than a segue to discussing his manhood. Which she did not want to think about, much less discuss.
They arrived at the valet for the restaurant, and Sangay hesitantly gave the young man his keys.
“They could park your car standing up, on the front bumper,” said Susan. “That hasn’t been done before. Someone could have produced machinery which would lift the car, turn it sideways and stack it neatly next to the other cars, like magazines on a bookshelf.”
“Absurdity is not unique,” said Sangay. “People can always think of something ridiculous.”
“There are basically three concepts here, and I think that they are related but not the same,” said Susan, as they peered into the restaurant through the front glass to a bar at the front, like many other restaurants. “There is new, as in never been done before, as in the refutation of the statement, ‘there is nothing new under the sun’. There is perfect, which is complete achievement in all aspects. And then, there is unique, which is the intersection of new and perfect. Related to this restaurant, I don’t how it could be anything but new, if even that. It certainly will not be perfect. That would be impossible to achieve, with so many people involved. Perfection would be possible with only one human variable, and no more. And that only if the scope were severely limited.”
“Hmmm,” said Sangay, distractedly. He was looking forlornly down the street as his new car disappeared around a corner.
Susan was looking up and down at the façade, noting a presence of bricks and mortar and a complete absence of uniqueness.
Then, they went in, Sangay naturally detaining the door for her. The foyer and entrance area was floored in wood and lit from above. Nothing new here.
They both looked around. Susan looked in the same direction as Sangay, and as his gaze was trained elsewhere, she had a moment to contemplate him. His skin was a very nice shade of toasty brown, and his black hair was cut neatly above his collar. He carried himself as if things were held fast with him, as if nothing would escape and go unattended.
“It appears to be raining in that part of the dining room,” Sangay said. “It seems the diners are sitting under umbrellas.”
Susan’s gaze left Sangay’s shirt collar and looked at the raining in the dining room. The diners in fact were sitting under umbrellas, just as if they were outside, and it was raining. The umbrellas were lit softly from underneath, and it was a pleasing affect, that of a gas-lit lantern gently resisting the edge of the night. A clear tube pushed up through the floor just then in the umbrella section, in the rain, a man tube, and the waiter stepped out with a small tray, like a disgorged capsule.
Susan looked to her right and saw a sign with an arrow that said, ‘Antigravity room. Please leave shoes and all valuables at the front desk.’
“Do people eat in there?” she said. “How unpleasant would that be?” Though she guessed it might have certain advantages for patrons with a weight problem. A person would have to work very hard just to catch their dinner as it floated by, and may not be successful at all.
She surveyed the rest of the dining room. There was a waterfall section, where a waterfall rose four feet above one side of each table and cascaded over and down some kind of flume to the other side, where it disappeared into a shallow basin. The din was incredible.
“I would say we could sit at one of those tables,” said Susan. “But we wouldn’t be able to talk or anything.” Which perhaps might not be so bad under certain circumstances. A first date. A long marriage.
She was suddenly tired of the game. “Could we go somewhere else? Would you mind?”
Sangay looked at her in surprise. “But this is your patois, Susan. I expected that you would enjoy this.”
“All I can tell you is that my systems are shutting down.” And it was true. Her eyelids were trying to close. She felt swimmy, like she needed to sit down or else she would faint. She looked around for a chair, and saw that all the people waiting in the lobby were sitting on tables, not chairs. The ridiculousness of it shocked her out of the faintness. There were tables set around the darkened lobby, and patrons perched on them, legs dangling like vampire bats.
She took Sangay’s hand, suddenly fearful, which was very uncharacteristic of her. “Please, let’s get out of here.”
“My car,” said Sangay, with obvious relief, as he handed the ticket back to the valet. “The restaurant is too busy.”
“Yep, we’re always busy,” said the attendant. “I don’t understand it.”
The inside of the car was sepulchral as they drove off, noises from the other cars dimmed to nothingness. The air conditioning softly breathing into the interior the only reminder that they were in the bounds of the living. Susan was feeling curiously ungrounded.
“We could take a drive,” suggested Sangay, no doubt reluctant to relinquish his car one more time on this sunny afternoon, either to an attendant or to a distant parking lot.
Susan nodded, ready to cry.
Sangay, who was feeling rather long suffering at the moment, said, “What is it?”
“I’m not sure exactly.” They rode out into the countryside, which was close by in Urbana-Champaign. The road parted the corn and soybean fields like the red sea. On the right, they passed a hitchhiker, a beanpole of a blond man, a backpack on his back and a sign that said, “Shunyata”
“Where on earth is that?” asked Susan.
“Hm, I don’t know exactly,” said Sangay. “Japan, perhaps. I can pull over to the side up here and research it on my iPhone.”
“It’s not important,” said Susan. But she did wonder what the man was doing in a cornfield in Illinois, if his destination was so distant.
Out Susan’s window, a gentle breeze wafted through the recently sprouted rows of corn, blurring them into an indistinct wave of green that was strangely beautiful, like the fields on the way to the Emerald City, the sun glinting off the broad, protective leaves. The wind was on the right side of the road only, and the corn on the left stood stark and unmoving, the corn plants isolated on the brown earth, like hair transplants bursting from the follicle.
They pulled up to a stoplight, which was red. There wasn’t a car for as far as the eye could see.
“You could go,” said Susan.
Sangay said nothing, staring intently through the windshield at the light, which was unchanging. They sat motionless. The light went on and on. They could go no further.
Finally, Susan said, “Perhaps we should turn back.”
Later that evening, lying sleepless in the single bed in her apartment, she was still unsettled by the restaurant. She contemplated the limited scope of what she had seen, and her very strange reaction, which was a systems failure. She became uncomfortable even thinking about it right now. Since she wished for sleep to arrive on the horizon, she turned her thoughts to Sangay. She could remember the first time she met him, and that was significant. With all of the important people in her life, there would be stored somewhere in her mental filing cabinet, a snapshot of the first time she had met the person. That’s all, just a snapshot. She would remember nothing about what was said, just the moment frozen in time, a picture of the person’s face as it had first appeared to her.
Sangay had been in for an interview. He had done the first two years of graduate work at Boston University, and in the six years he was off, his advisor had moved to University of Illinois. Sangay wanted to resume working with the same advisor. Susan saw Sangay in the fourth floor Applied Math corridor, outside of Vijay’s office. Sangay was dressed formally, as he often was, and that day, he had been wearing black pants, a white shirt, and a tie with abstract gray and red. Susan could remember shaking his hand that day, some four years ago, and that she met his eyes, and was touched by a sudden energy from them, which made her look away.
Her mind went back to the restaurant, and she felt that she hadn’t even seen enough to be as unsettled as she was. She must go back tomorrow. It was important to follow that which scared her, and face it down, like she would confront a cobra in a labyrinth.
But why had her being rejected the restaurant so thoroughly? Was it her gut reaction, her instincts? And why?
Well, instincts were beyond the why, in the theater where why is not entertained. Where right action is prized and the time for right thinking has passed. Her advisor, once commenting on this phenomenon, had said, “It isn’t that you are not thinking, it’s that the thinking is happening on a plane deeper than cognitive awareness. In the subconscious, which has access to all that has come before and all that will come after. With the instincts, it’s that particular thinking mind that is leading.” She had written the words down as soon as she had left the advisor and returned to her desk. This kind of thinking presented a problem to her, she who wanted to be cognitively in control at all times, and have her facts presented linearly, not rise up from the unknown like a hot spring through the Earth’s mantle.
First by thoughts of Sangay, then by bizarre restaurants, she had been led entirely away from the sand dunes of sleep into the tumult of anxious night musings. She rose from the bed for a glass of water, and Nigel jumped down off the bed and followed her into the bathroom.
“Good boy, firmly present in the physical realm. Existing mostly from moment to moment, with very few unresolved childhood issues,” she said to the dog, who was perhaps the only being that loved her without conditions. Here was a being that anyone could buy which would provide a reflection back of individual specialness.
Perhaps that would have to suffice.
It was well past midnight when she turned on her computer, typing “Shunyata” into Wikipedia.
“It’s not a place,” she said, reading the screen, and patting Nigel’s head distractedly. “A Buddhist concept which means, the nature of all phenomenon is emptiness,” she read aloud. “The nature of all phenomenon is emptiness,” she repeated, as she exited Firefox and turned off the computer. “Emptiness.”
It was an abstraction so fantastic that when she tried to contemplate it, her thoughts skittered over and around it, like mercury in a Petri dish.
Not quite ready for sleep, she logged in to her facebook account, just to see if anything had transpired in the last several hours. She scrolled through her news feed, not able to believe her eyes. It really was time for bed. She could swear that every single post was the same, and that they all said, “I’m special. I really am.”
The next day, she immediately went to see Sangay, before setting down her bag in her office. He was in, and turned towards his computer, which faced away from the door.
“We must go there again today,” said Susan.
“I knew that you would say that. I drove the old car today, in case that they have that parking contraption in use that you described,” said Sangay, without turning around, so she was able, once again, to quickly study the fine lines of the back of his head.
Susan left his office and entered her own. She tossed her satchel on the chair, and went back out to do the field research she had been planning on yesterday, with just a notebook in hand and a #2 pencil, the point sharpened to nirvana.
It was another categorically perfect, though eminently repeatable, early summer day. This was her research idea. She would walk about the campus, and upon seeing people, she would say, as a given, that they were not special or unique in absolute terms, to the universe, that is, though they might be in relative terms, that is, when n was some finite number, less, much less than infinity, the person’s family, say, or their community. And she wanted to see how this affected her, these individual realizations of non-specialness. What they said about the possibility of her own specialness and about her burning desire to prove that her specialness existed.
It was still early enough in the day that the stone bench where she sat down in the Academic Quad was pleasantly cool, and she imagined for a moment, that she was sitting on a throne, in a drafty old castle on the continent, passing judgment on the subjects. Wasn’t that what she was doing, assuming that she could perceive that the passing kinfolk were somehow less than her, or average, and that she was omniscient and knew all of their stories, and their thoughts, and knew that there was nothing spectacular, unique or extraordinary there? Her brain experienced a shutdown, and the breeze blew straight on through, like a wind through the black canyon of the Gunnison.
She happened to be sitting under a very old, towering oak tree, with the Starbucks she had just bought clutched to her breastbone for easy access. In that moment, the leaves pattered against each other like rain drops. The marching band practiced in the distant stadium, the bass drums like rolls of thunder. A red winged blackbird sang its one long note, one whole step up.
After many minutes spent in a time that was more like space, the clock in the student tower struck the hour, again and again. She must be going. Interest in her research had dissipated to a vague sense of obligation, and she decided to weigh the evidence and hand down the verdict on another day.
Sangay came into her office promptly at his customary time, and though she had somewhat regained her executive skills, the feeling of summer vacation for the mind hadn’t entirely receded.
“Sangay, I am feeling weirdly at the moment,” said Susan, despite her relative certainty that “weirdly” was not a legitimate adverb.
“Does it have anything to do with me?” inquired Sangay, hopefully.
Her impulse was to say no, and disregard his statement as so much male egocentricity. But somehow, Sangay was conjoined with whatever she was feeling.
She decided to laugh nervously, just so that he didn’t get any ideas, but also, so that she wasn’t forced to say anything false. He didn’t press her, as he led her again to his car, this time depositing her at the side of a maroon Toyota Camry, which was at least ten years of age. “In case they have that parking contraption in use that you envisioned,” he said, again, she guessed so that she would know that ordinarily, he would not have driven a car of this nature.
At the restaurant, she paused at the edge of the sidewalk, and looked up at the front of the building. An unassuming façade. Her eyes traveled up the brick face. It was a remodeled three story warehouse building, originally built at the turn of the last century. Sangay spoke with the attendant for a few minutes, to determine how and where they did park the cars.
“Sangay, I don’t want to go in,” she said, loud enough for a few others to hear and turn in her direction.
He hurried to her side. “What is it?”
“I already know it isn’t what I want. I already know that my life’s work has been ridiculous up to this point, and I’m going to have to change it,” Susan said. It was remarkable though, how little regret she felt.
“Well, let’s say that this restaurant has nothing to do with your research, then,” said Sangay. “It is a place to have lunch. It is the noon hour. We are hungry. We go in.”
“No, it’s what happens if you pursue uniqueness for your entire life. Everyone is unhappy,” she said. She thought of the strange lobby, with the patrons seated on tables, like captive kindergartners, with just as much freedom.
Sangay turned back to the valet. “The lady would like to leave,” he said to the attendant, and the young man produced the keys for the car, still at the curb.
“So what is the antithesis of that restaurant?” asked Sangay, as he pulled out in traffic. “May I take you there?”
“Well, that depends on if we consider it to be perfect, which would be the most imperfect restaurant. I would say that there are any number of places that could fit that bill. Or unique, which would mean that we would go to the most uniform, which would be McDonald’s or something,” she said. “The opposite is not a solution to the problem.”
In the end, they purchased deli sandwiches from Ricardo’s, and shared a bag of kettle chips in front of the Washington Street fountain. The rushing of the water was exactly what Susan needed, to calm her nerves and herald in the next phase of her life.
“So after all of this, would you consent to an evening date with me, dinner perhaps?” said Sangay.
Susan nodded. “But where would we go?”