Dinner With Einstein (first version)

I am afraid. The world holds no promise of a happy future.

The chance of being murdered is increasing with each news bulletin. Once-every-one-hundred-year disasters are happening weekly. The longer I live, the more likely I will get cancer. I’ll never be able to buy a house until sea level rises high enough to make beachfront properties worthless.

There are no boundaries. The only black and white is in old movies. Love/hate, male/female, yes/no are all open to interpretation. I don’t have the insight to work out who to trust in the crowds of people selling answers.

Anyone can claim to be a genius, but I think all the real ones are dead. I’d like to sit down to dinner with somebody like Albert Einstein and ask him a few questions. How could he have been so certain that speed of light is constant?

Seems to me that light is smarter than Mr Einstein. Just like us, he could’ve been fooled by light bending and reflecting; tricking his brain into putting a thing in one place when it was really somewhere else. Perhaps, if he wasn’t wearing his glasses, he’d reach for a dining chair, but his hand would pat the air.

I want to ask him, “How do we know that nothing can travel faster than the speed of light? We’ll never catch it, so we’ll never know if it exists.”

His voice wouldn’t be grumpy through the bushy moustache I’ve seen in photos of him. It would be soft and playful as he tried to explain to me, “I never said the speed of light was constant. It was only a theory, but the scientists who came after me have turned my theory into law. Newton and Faraday wrote laws. I wrote ideas.”

Poor Einstein: the reluctant messiah.

I wonder what we would eat for dinner. German sausage and sauerkraut, with mashed potato and gravy is good comfort food. There might be a dog under the table, sitting on our feet and waiting for a morsel of sausage to drop. Or a cat, staking its territory by winding its elastic body through the table legs. Maybe I should get a pet.

A conversation with Einstein would be more about philosophy than physics. His equations were the essence of brilliant thoughts, but I’m not that smart. I have to think in words. I will try to impress him.

“So, Albert, what about Schrodinger’s cat? How can it be dead and alive at the same time in a closed box? Are we supposed to believe that the fate of the cat depends on who looks at it? If I open the box, I would want the cat to be alive. Would my wish keep it alive, or would it be dead anyway?”

Over a few glasses of red wine, he explains how Schrodinger’s box doesn’t hold any reality, only the possibility of two realities: a live cat and a dead cat.

“When we open the box to look inside,” he says. “Then one of those possibilities becomes reality.”

“But it’s only opinion,” I protest. “Your theory of relativity tells us that the position of the observer affects what’s seen. So reality isn’t fixed. What if I’m in the box? Does my fate depend on who opens the box?”

“Ahh! Many realities,” he says thoughtfully, nodding at his hand holding a fork full of food. “But yours is the most important to you. You would probably know if you were dead or alive.”

Oh, yes! He’s a wily one, this celebrity genius. Somehow, I have to find a way to explain that being dead isn’t the problem. I need to want to be alive.

“What’s the point of knowing I’m not dead? I have no power over what happens in my life. How can I find a place with prospects to look forward to?”

His thick, grey eyebrows frown to shade the twinkle of fun in his eyes. “Finding? Looking? These are observations. How you interpret them will define what comes next.”

“Some people believe we can change our lives with positive affirmations.”

He scoffs, “Mantras might help us concentrate on what’s important to us, but they can’t warp space and time to create the impossible.”

In my world, the impossible is happening every day. Princes are working as waiters while actors are playing at running countries. An invincible athlete is defeated by a novice, and a mother of three is killed by an insect.

“I wish…”

“Wishes have no place in the practical world. There is theory, and the mathematics of probability, but no science for wishes.”

He would be an old-fashioned gentleman, so wouldn’t interrupt me like that. What I wish for is a formula to show me how to turn fear into nothing. I’ve seen complicated equations work out to equal zero.

“Problem is,” I say, “An equation needs a constant to be any use. But there are no constants in the world. Everything is changing.”

“Exactly! There’s no way to write an equation for a future reality.”

Even Einstein couldn’t help me. The food goes dry in my mouth. I take a big drink of water to say, “Concentration is focus. What we focus on is what we’ll take with us into our future. Then, we can believe we’ve created our own reality.”

“Memories define pleasure and pain,” he nods wisely, gazing into the distance to see if truth is lurking there.

“Memories don’t count.” I say. “They can’t change what will happen to us.”

I see why sausage and mash is my comfort food. It reminds me of the time when my parents were happy and we were a real family. We would eat winter meals sitting around the stove in the kitchen; safe and warm; cared for.

Family meals are my last memory of life without fear. Anxiety would have been there, but I didn’t feel it. My parents would have had their own fears, but at least they didn’t have the worries of their parents’ generation. There was no risk of dying in a war, or living without social security.

If they had paid more attention to the timeless threat that love doesn’t last, then possibly they could still be friends. Even devotion from a pet doesn’t last. If I get a dog, it will die before I do.

What would Einstein be afraid of? Perhaps being persecuted for his Jewish heritage, or blamed for inventing the atomic bomb. He wasn’t a promising youth, and grew into brilliance. But, even then, he knew that E = mc2 was only a beginning.

He never found a unified formula to explain the universe. Perhaps he was afraid that reaching his true potential was impossible, just like me. I’ve wasted my education, missed opportunities, and bungled friendships. I don’t want to be a failure, but that’s what I am.

“I’m not rich enough, or smart enough to change my reality to suit me,” I confess. “I’m trapped.”

“Trapped!” The man who has escaped war-time atrocities and political bullying looks at me with patient amusement. “You are trapped by fear.”

“It’s too hard to hold onto happiness. Nothing is forever.”

“Everything is forever, in your past, present or future. You only see the present, so better pay attention. Are you going to jump on the train, or watch it go by? It’s up to you to decide on the best choice for you.”

It must feel so comfortable to be a person like Einstein, knowing you’ve survived to old age with the choices you’ve made. If I make the wrong choices, dying isn’t the worst thing that could happen to me. Living would be worse.

“I’m afraid to make the wrong choice.”

“You are afraid of change.” His eyes crinkle with a smile to try to lighten the weight of the truth. “But you have to change if you want to take fear out of your future.”

I serve my favourite dessert: chocolate and champagne. They say it gives you the same feel-good feelings as love.

“That would have to be very good quality champagne, or second-rate love,” Einstein says with a mischievous grin.

I wonder if a pet is second-rate love. Maybe I would say to him, “I’m going to get a dog. Looking after it might take my mind off other worries. I’ll learn how to love it, even if it is going to die before me.”

I open the champagne and pour it. He watches it fizz and settle to a sparkle, takes a sip, then watches light play through the glass and bubbles.

Raising my glass, I  say, “Here’s to wishful thinking.”

Einstein toasts to mindful observation.

This version was submitted to NZSA Top of the South 2018 Page & Blackmore Short Story Competition, and  published in the Horizon Anthology.

Judge, Catherine Chidgey, had some very nice comments. There were three negatives:

  1. The idea of sparring with Einstein over dinner is irresistible, and the points at which the two characters really engage on a human level are what make this piece work…I’d like to see more of these moments in which we experience Einstein as flesh and blood, as human; we tend to lose sight of him in lines such as ‘The man who has escaped war-time atrocities and political bullying would look at me with patient amusement.’
  2. I think the author could  move swiftly away from the conditional (‘would’) to a more realistic recounting of the imagined dinner – this will lend more immediacy.
  3. I would consider cutting the last line.

Good points! Hence my revision.

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