I think the first place I saw the wormhole was above the sink where the mirror should have been, in the women’s bathroom at Moustakas diner in Falmouth. Abdul was off presenting at a conference, and I was there by myself with our children, ages seven and ten. So sweet that I didn’t trust myself to remember them exactly as they were at this moment, when I might try to remember years from now, because how can a regular human mind, by definition limited, hold images that crushingly and perfectly sweet: the sight of them, the smallness of their faces and hands, the way they looked at me, so hungrily and so sure of my love? My son, the older one, was dancing in the middle of the room, near the wall of sodas and bottled waters, and I videotaped him and made a GIF of it so that his little hip roll could repeat from that day, endlessly. His little effortless, unselfconscious hip roll. What happened to space-time, I found myself wondering, when a little boy’s shimmy repeated? Did it affect the space-time continuum each time the light hit his shy smile and his soft, girlish, curly hair a little differently? What would happen if there were a skip in the music, unplanned and unintentional? In some larger loop, would his movements adjust so imperceptibly that watching him, I wouldn’t be able to notice either the skip or how his body adjusted? These were the kinds of questions that agitated Abdul, not because he couldn’t think of answers—he is brilliant—but because it bothered him, in ways he couldn’t put into words, that my mind was full of innumerable useless questions. Many times he’d said, shouted in fact, how much he hated the way my mind generated, followed, obsessed over such questions, as I did all the time, even while he was trying to tell me about something he saw on Colbert; or if I was driving in a traffic circle in Cape Cod and at risk of being hit by careless, drunk people; or if there was rice on the stove and my “reaction time,” as he called it—an index Abdul used to evaluate my performance as a wife—left too narrow a margin for not burning down our house. He feared that following the loose strings in my head, as I insisted on doing, could break up our family. Could tear up the space-time continuum. I knew this risk yet couldn’t stop. I didn’t want to stop. But I was tethered to my children securely. They were, are, mine. When I said that, Abdul muttered darkly, voicing the phrase he often used: “Well, then be a mother for once.” I was a mother for always, I answered in my head, coming over to Abdul, the father of my children, to diffuse his anger with a stroke, a pat, or even a tongue kiss, putting his hand inside my shirt if he was really mad at me or if he was mad at the children, especially our son, but all the while continuing to think of my questions, adding to them the one familiar question as coda: What if I left Abdul?
My little boy didn’t mind how I was though. He knew I was recording him dancing on my phone, and he liked it. His hair was longer at age ten than it is now, at age fourteen, when he is involved in all sorts of puffing and pulling up, teasing out his hair and mimicking the boys in his class who shave their faces and have girlfriends. Those soft little boy curls—I wish I could remember them clearly without scrolling back and checking photos. I was in love with my son then. Also in love with my daughter, whose hair was even curlier than his, whose voice was still a baby’s at seven, who pronounced words like spaghetti and sandwich like a younger child (“pas-ketti,” “sham-wich”), and who was so perfect in this space and time, at that plain little diner in Falmouth, so much so that sitting at the table, putting my phone away after I’d made the shimmying video, I cried a little knowing this moment wouldn’t last.
I am still in love with both my children now. I never left. Or: In another world, they are with me, but Abdul has relinquished them, and all I do, all day, is concentrate on canvases and let the questions be pulled out of my head by some invisible spell-maker who translates them into paintings that are clearer than my dreams. In that world, I spend my days either in my studio or with my children. Whatever my physical appearance when I’m painting, I wouldn’t know. There are no mirrors there. No obligation whatsoever to be some male artist’s fantasy. There aren’t any male artists there. Abdul isn’t there either, to compliment or criticize me. In that world, he doesn’t decide how highly to rank my desirability, or lack thereof, on any given day. In that world, every person remains utterly desirable, no matter what. And in that world, it isn’t that we’ve fallen out of love, but that any understanding of what it would mean to love me evades Abdul to such an extent that while he’s back in this world, the normal world, so frustrated and furious, I’m sitting there doing my work and loving him excessively, infuriatingly, my life complete with paintings and with my children. Who were half-made with Abdul’s DNA, then twisted up and kissed with coils of mine.
In the diner, once I paid the check, I asked a waitress I knew from the local library, a sweet lady truly fond of the children, if she could watch them while they stood near the bathroom and I went in for just a second to wash the syrup out of my hair that my daughter, in a burst of affection, helpfully put there. “I’ll keep the door open so I can see them, but can you please watch too?” I said, hearing in my mind those words Abdul tormented me with, “I’m the one who practically raised these children by myself, while you were wasting time woolgathering, being selfish, being generally useless, like always.” I bowed my head when he said this, murmuring, “Sorry baby, I will try harder,” but secretly disobeying Abdul’s directive to throw away the lists of questions I was always writing down, to “just give them up.”
Was I angry? I suppose so, enough so that I knew not to show anger. What I didn’t know, and still don’t know, is where Abdul’s conviction came from, given that he traveled several times a month for conferences, stayed out late “hosting” various faculty dinners more than once a week, and sat in his office playing sudoku, listening to soccer from the Arab world as well as arabesque music that made the children laugh, while I was always with the children when I wasn’t at work and sometimes took them to the hospital with me, where they played in a lounge and waited while I saw patients. “But when are you not at work?” Abdul often demanded, watching me take advantage of the time he was looking after them in order to write up clinic notes, or leave the family movie night to answer calls, or fail to play soccer when he said we all had to play, or fail to go to the beach whenever he demanded it. I was a hospitalist but also a dualist, believing in both mind and body. My mind could contain useless questions while my body marched, doctored, performed, mothered, often evaded Abdul but also remained available to him whenever he wanted. Which was often enough that the children laughed outside our closed door, trying to get in and shouting, “We know what you’re doing in there!” though they didn’t.
When things went well, in there, Abdul might even stroke my hair and say with a yearning that I craved to see in his eyes all the time, “I wish you’d think about me sometimes, the way you think about your art. I wish I could imagine what’s in your head.”
At the Moustakas diner, that weekend in Falmouth when Abdul was traveling without any of us, the women’s bathroom door remained open and both my son and my daughter were standing just outside, answering the questions the sweet waitress was asking them, very astute questions that reflected their concerns: their favorite color and best friend and meanest friend and best dog and the most boring or best thing to do on rainy days. Also, could they use some free candy, which I then heard them eating. I felt content, washing all the maple syrup out of my hair and off my hands and shirt, hazarding a look into the place above the sink where in the past, there’d been a mirror. But instead, there was a wormhole, and I, peering into it, passed through.
You would think my passage would be accompanied by shouting, or by grabbing, pulling, clawing to get back to my children. And I would have done those things if my children hadn’t been sitting and playing happily on the train that was here, inside the wormhole. Don’t underestimate me though, please, like Abdul does—I understood I could be getting played by the sinister creator of the wormhole, if there was one. In Abdul’s community, there were genies who did such things, for instance. Spiteful powers who could also befriend and protect us, he’d explained to me once in the beginning when we were driving somewhere beautiful, before he decided as a good husband to rid me of all my questions, including about genies, which included the question of why a genie couldn’t let himself out of a bottle, or out of any container, if he could change size at will. Why not make himself nearly invisible? Or for that matter, actually invisible by making both his own body and a cloak of invisibility so small and deft that it could move like water being poured between the mouths of containers, between the mouths of curious children? And what if genies answered other people’s questions, like Descartes’s, for example, and genies actually were the evil forces Descartes so feared because he was racist, or anti-Islamic, and the Meditations were actually an anti-Islamic, Christian screed, but actually, from genies, we had nothing to fear?
Abdul, hearing this question, sighed heavily, saying, “You always find a way to bring up heavy topics even on a pleasant day, don’t you?” prompting me to save my other questions for myself. Stare out the window, dream of them, then get jolted awake by Abdul shouting, “Stop fucking sleeping! I’m taking you somewhere really nice,” and on and on. For years. Long enough to have two beautiful children, I reminded myself now, in this strangely exhilarating wormhole, where the children were within arm’s length, playing with toys I didn’t understand but that did not look dangerous while sitting on the train with me, the train seat cushions clean and comfortable. Not unlike the cushions, I imagined, in Aladdin’s palace after he benefits from a genie’s largesse. Marries the princess. Answers her questions. Keeps the magic carpet handy, in case any more come up. “But is it really fair to expect me, as a human man, to know where to get ahold of some magic carpet? You got mad when I bought all those perfect Persian carpets for the house, remember?” I heard Abdul’s voice in my ear, on the train, but when I turned to look, amazed, he wasn’t there. Also, at the same moment that Abdul’s voice faded, I heard my daughter, loud and clear, back in the other world, shouting for me, and with a sense of urgency, I passed back through the wormhole, back to this world and the bathroom, even though if anyone asked me to describe my method, I wouldn’t have been able to delineate the steps.
Is that what had made me, in Abdul’s eyes, in his assessment, no good as a mother? That I proceeded in blind faith and instinctively, without ever being able to explain or elucidate the nature of my love? That’s what I knew it took to love each of my children as they grew—a knowledge I attempted, with increasing urgency, to pass to Abdul, whose anger grew and with it, both our children’s fear of him. Our children’s growing sense of shame about themselves because of him, which they hadn’t developed yet, at ages seven and ten, but which came later.
But what did the concept of the future mean anyway, if there were theoretical past, present-tense, parallel, and future wormholes? What predictive value might each wormhole have? What about the technical specifications of the wormhole, and more intriguingly, who had set up those specs to begin with, here in the diner’s women’s restroom? I knew enough—from Star Trek, Stargate, Philip Pullman, others lured by wormholes—that every wormhole was probably governed by rules, that every relationship of alternate realities to the known world was potentially limiting as well as expanding of possibilities. Speed, pace, reversibility, precise distance that could be traversed, changes to matter passing through these, and mathematical equations named after physicists—it was all too much for me; I didn’t need Abdul around to tell me that. I would have been the first one to admit I didn’t know specifics. Regarding wormholes, Abdul’s common frustration with the vagueness of my knowledge was valid.
How I yearned for my husband Abdul to be here so I could ask him any number of questions about wormholes. So—as he’d once sworn he would—he could sort out my mind. If he’d been here, but only (impatiently) allowed me to ask one single question, I might then ask him about wishes and wishful thinking, including those granted by genies. I knew from experience that any number of my questions regarding bargaining, negotiation, and prediction were—if articulated to him the morning after a night when I had pleased him—much less likely to be interpreted as useless. Yet at the same time, even while laughingly answering, he dismissed them as simplistic, knowing his own grasp of such concepts so vastly exceeded mine; it was as if the gap between us was the same distance as between genie and human.
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CHAYA BHUVANESWAR is a practicing physician, writer, and PEN/American Robert W. Bingham Debut Fiction award finalist for her story collection White Dancing Elephants: Stories, which was also selected as a Kirkus Reviews Best Debut Fiction and Best Short Story Collection and appeared on “Best of” lists for Harper’s Bazaar, Elle, Vogue India, and Entertainment Weekly. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, Salon, Narrative Magazine, The Sun, Tin House, Electric Literature, The Kenyon Review, The Masters Review, The Millions, Joyland, Michigan Quarterly Review, The Awl, and elsewhere. She has received fellowships from MacDowell, Community of Writers, and Sewanee Writers’ Workshop. She is at work on her first novel.