Big Ball of String Theory

Yoo-hoo! I’m back here, in the bedroom, in the bed. I’m seventeen, I’m twenty-two, I’m thirty-seven, fifty. I dress in white and lie here. Let’s just say it’s mono, or Some Disease, the lazies, or the dreads. Let’s just say I never learned to spell élan vitale right. Let’s just say I should be dead.

My mother says I don’t complain. I’ve been sentenced to six weeks. Not that people will notice. I’m barely a blip at school. Mom tries to fix that with plenty of pudding to fatten me up. She buys me a blue Princess phone for my bedside, and dashes off to work. She went back to school and is all professorial now in her swinging skirt and trim jacket. She always carries a stack of papers. Always. Since Daddy died, she’s raised us on her own.

Sweetheart, she says, I hope you get better soon. Better to her means going to school, cheering her up, not dying. Better to me means getting a letter from my boyfriend back east at one of the Ivies, closing my eyes, floating back to holding hands, filling the neighborhood streets with Prufrock’s love call, back and back again through pheromones thickening the air in the back seat of his mother’s blue compact car. Oh please, don’t wake me up.

Problem is, I’m stuck between hormones and hosannas, shopping for a mate when my purchasing power is zilch, and will be for years.

Problem is, I’m stuck between hormones and hosannas, shopping for a mate when my purchasing power is zilch, and will be for years. In Mom’s dictionary, college always comes before marriage, a case of the pot trying to keep the kettle from turning black. Get married, and I’ll cut you off at the pockets, she threatens. So I lie here, spend hours composing letters to send far way. I am what I write. It’s perfect. Just don’t make me talk on that phone, make the words come out of my mouth. If I knew what to say, it would have been, Shut up and kiss me.

Mom comes home at night and asks after my day. I got a letter, but it’s my sweet secret. At dinner she talks about work, so I’m off the hook. I study the grain on the table, cultivating my opaque veneer. She has single-handedly integrated the faculty senate by crossing the aisle to sit with the men. Feminism is just around the corner. What are you reading that for? she asks when The Feminine Mystique shows up on my lap. She has always preferred male company. If she had a best friend, it wouldn’t be me.

After dinner, she types on the Royal. Seventy words per minute, hour after hour—lesson plans, letters, agendas. She’s been doing this my whole life. My first lullaby. No matter what her job is, she never stops being a secretary. I want to be a philosopher. I read Durant’s one-volume history into the night. Plato, Augustine’s Ethics, then on to Spinoza. She makes me take two terms of typing, which I ditch, forging her name on the slip.

Last weekend my sister came home. We’ve slipped into a truce now that she’s going to college away. She got a call during dinner—a meeting of all the new cheerleaders. Mom and I couldn’t stop laughing. She’s always tripping over herself. I was the acrobat. She got the boobs and the bubbly thing, all those guys with their gropey hands. If I had a line of guys at the door, I’d probably crawl back in bed. What she didn’t know then is this—one guy used to kiss me.

Let’s just say I’m not proud of it. Let’s just say I needed the practice. Let’s just say, Every dog has its day, which is what she said to me when she finally caught us.

One year later, my love and I turn eighteen three time zones apart. It’s spring, and his letter says he wants to get married. Nay, nay, I say, my wings are still wet. He mentions his mother, who’s for it. I don’t mention mine. We call the thing done, and I date his brother, who dated my sister, then romance a flurry of friends and friends’ friends, until the connections dead-end. After four years, he finds another blonde hometown girl. After forty years, they’re still at it.

At twenty-two, I’m a senior at Berkeley, where my words are confined to paper, my spoken self broken, no dates in two years. America’s armies invade Cambodia. My fever won’t break. In the next bed a Japanese student is reading haiku. They tell me you can’t get this twice, but, Look, here I am! I feel my credibility sinking as low as my blood count. Outside my window, my classmates are marching, out raging and outraged. Some students are dead on TV. I am holding my debutante ball here, so white and so pure. No one drops in, no one dances. The nurses are starchy in nurse-caps, my makeshift attendants. Two little white pills a day and you’re back on your feet in a week, right back where you started.

When you spend lots of time between sheets, things start to look different. When I turn thirty-seven, they give it a name. Something I had all along that turned ugly, like the divorce. They want to cut out the pain, but I won’t let them do it, not yet. I’m thinking of healing. Months later, a chastened shadow, my ghost gets the message to let it begin—the removal of scraps of organs, one piece at a time. Let’s just say I must have had more than I needed. Let’s just say there are surgeons still sunning themselves on deck during cruises Aruban. Let’s just say there was only one time in ten when I didn’t want to wake up.

When your body is disappearing into biohazard bags at a good clip, it’s time to take stock. Are you still the who that you were, without this, without that? Have you left all the right things behind? What about all those brain cells that live in the gut? I turn on the TV that hangs from the ceiling. The Challenger shuttle explosion is looping the loop, transfixing a nation, blasting carnage and smoke from incredulous skies, and indelible tears from school-aged eyes. My neighbor tells me she’s seen my son ditching classes. My step-daughter hates him. Her friends steal my car.

Let’s just say you’re the Maytag repairman, so lonely the phone is repelled and refuses to ring, or the Dalai Lama, watching it all move through you like wind through tall grasses.

Let’s just say you are Donna Reed, and the kids are clean and squeaky. Let’s just say you’re the Maytag repairman, so lonely the phone is repelled and refuses to ring, or the Dalai Lama, watching it all move through you like wind through tall grasses. Let’s just say you are Harriet and Ozzie is on his way home with takeout. After dinner, the whole family sings.

At fifty, I have my lastectomy. My son stops by with a jones and I pay him off so he’ll go. They stitch me up crooked, take out some nerve endings too. Who cares. I’m getting divorced again. I move to a new town, re-date my first love’s brother, but soon get re-dumped, after making fast friends with their mother. Who the hell knew.

Most days I’m fine now. My own mother’s up on the mantle. I don’t complain. Let’s just say I’ve made some adjustments. Let’s just say I can make the case for adversity, and then rebut it. Let’s just say that in another universe, available in theory via strings, quarks, and quantum leaps, my mother stands in a doorway, misty-eyed in an apron, and blesses a union, one in which love finds a voice that speaks in my voice—a world where I not only squeak through alive, but finally walk away whole.


Linnea Wortham Harper writes on the banks of McKinney Slough on the central Oregon coast. A retired psychiatric social worker, she labors under the impression that she is still writing chart notes to make sense of what otherwise won’t. When she was five, she introduced W.H. Auden to the works of A.A. Milne. This has been her greatest literary accomplishment.