28 December 2018

People Do Go Back, but They Don't Survive

Subotai steps out of the airport and braces himself instinctively, but there's nothing to brace himself for. It's not cold, but it's not hot either, the air is just there. He's wearing a coat, though, so he quickly shrugs off his backpack while he takes his coat off and folds it over his arm. He's forgotten what it's like somehow. Maybe the Christmas decorations in the terminal lulled him into a false sense of winter.

He identifies his location and texts it to his mother. He hasn't been back to Tampa since he started grad school. It's been five years of graduate school, in Connecticut winters, five years of parking bans, and five years of snow that lays on the ground through spring break at the earliest.

He sees his mother's car pull up to the terminal, a bright red Toyota Yaris. He feels like it's a little too flashy for her, somehow.

A hug that goes on for a while, an "I love you," and a quick loading of his suitcase into the trunk, and they're on the road, out to the suburbs of his birth. His mother is talking, about his father mostly, and he's kind of listening, his eyes taking in the world both familiar and unfamiliar. The highways are the same, but the buildings are different. He doesn't remember there being so many condo complexes in downtown as they drive by. The Tampa of his memories is more barren.

His mother is littler than he remembers, and her once red hair, latterly brown, is now starting to gray. He had a good reason for not coming back the first year of grad school, and the second, and the third, and now it's been five.

"Your dad will be happy," she says, and he looks at her as the sunlight catches the silver in her hair, and he wonders if he even knows her anymore. It's been a rough couple of years for her, he knows, and listening to someone on the phone is never the same as being around them on a regular basis.

* * *

Subotai slouches over the computer in the physics lab, setting another simulation to run. It is Christmas Eve Eve, and he wants to be home, but he promised his advisor that he'd have results by the first, and it's now or never, he thinks.

His phone buzzes, it's a text from his husband, Christopher. When is he going to be home? His mother is starting to drive him up the wall, rambling about Christmases gone past.

He sighs. But he's right. He should come home. This simulation will work or it won't, and even if it doesn't, he won't gain anything from sitting here for another two hours to witness another failure.

He puts on his boots and his coat and heads out into the Connecticut cold. He's lived in Connecticut for five years, but he's never gotten used to the cold after growing up in Florida. It snowed last week, and campus looked pretty then, but now it's a sort of gray sludge everywhere. He still finds the crunch-crunch of moving through the snow pleasing.

He and his husband have never hosted family at Christmas time before. But now they have a baby at home, and the grandparents were not to be denied. He's not sure how five years went by without seeing his family at Christmas, but somehow the years slipped by and here he is.

He breathes out and watches his breath condense. Two days before Christmas, campus is completely deserted. It's peaceful, his footsteps echoing across the quad. There are a couple lights on in the science building, other graduate students striving to meet impossible deadlines, he presumes.

Home is an impossible deadline, he thinks, and he's not sure where home is. Connecticut is an alien land still, and slush and snow is the devil's creation, but he can't imagine himself in Tampa again. He's changed so much and home has not.

* * *

Home isn't what he remembers. The memory cheats, of course, but it's literally changed. His dad has knocked out the wall between the kitchen and the living room-- and in the kitchen, all the countertops are marble now. "Marble, really?" he asks.

"You can't sell a house these days without marble countertops," says his dad. "Well, I guess you can't sell one with them, either." He dimly remembers his dad telling him about new countertops now. His parents tried to sell the house and move into a smaller place (he's not sure why; in a four bedroom his father already doesn't have enough room for his books), but the Tampa housing market slumped a little bit this summer and they couldn't get what they were asking.

The Christmas tree is in its customary place in the living room, though. After five years of Connecticut life, where he and his boyfriend used to cut down their own Christmas tree on a Christmas tree farm, having a real Christmas tree in Florida seems incongruous. It keeps getting warmer; now it's 81. Can you have a Christmas tree up when it's 81 out? Bing Crosby croons with David Bowie on the sound system. He wonders if his father's musical tastes will ever change.

He sits at the marble countertop while his parents bustle around the kitchen, getting ready for some Christmas Eve party they are dragging him to. His father keeps putting him to work. He doesn't mind helping, but he does mind the way in which he's asked to help, which hasn't really changed since he was ten: questions phrased as though he's negligent for not having already hoped. It was annoying as a kid. It's even more annoying in adulthood.

"I'm so glad you're here," his mother says for the umpteenth time. "Did I tell you your sister won't even tell me what to get Jackson?" She starts rambling again about Christmases past. His little sister had been the favored child, he always felt, the one who got better grades and was capable of socializing like a normal human, up until she got married and then seemed to ghost the entire family. She still talked to Subotai, but it seemed like his mother only knew what his sister was up to thanks to facebook.

"Of course, Michael's family is over there all the time." She starts to tear up.

Maybe this is why he doesn't come home. Suddenly his phone vibrates. He convinced one of the lab postdocs to run a simulation for him while he was gone, and now it's finished. He pulls up the results.

* * *

Subotai feels like an outsider in his own home. His mother is watching the baby, his father is (he has somehow decided this is the most essential task) organizing Subotai's piles of MechWarrior and Warhammer 40,000 novels, and his husband is cooking. Subotai can't cook anything other than pasta or stir fry so he stays out of the way and watches. Bing Crosby is crooning with David Bowie on the sound system; he assumes his father brought his own iPod and plugged it into the sound system before anyone else could get to it. It is kind of nice to hear Bing again; usually his husband picks out the Christmas music and he always puts on this version of "Jingle Bells" that is "sung" by barking dogs.

He looks at the Christmas tree mournfully. In past years, he and Christopher cut their own down, but with the hectic life of having a baby, they settled for an artificial one this year. His father has been complaining about it since their parents got there.

His mother's hair is graying these days, he realizes as he watches her hold the baby. "Thanks for letting us come this year," she says for the umpteenth time as she gently rocks the baby up and down. "Your sister won't have us over if Michael's parents are there, so we'd be sitting home yet again."

His husband catches Subotai's eye; he shrugs.

Suddenly his phone vibrates; he pulls it out of his pocket. His simulation has finished running. He opens up the results and reads.

* * *

Multiple realities are one of those mainstays of science fiction. Subotai can remember watching the evil "mirror universe" on Star Trek with his dad. It seems like every show his dad watched had them in it at some point: Doctor Who, Stargate SG-1, Quantum Leap, probably even Transformers. He's pretty sure he talked about this in his Ph.D. applications (he's too embarrassed to check), and it's a good, popular touchstone for the quantum research he does.

There are two things wrong with this. The first is that the many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics is much less sexy than you'd think by watching mirror Kira kiss mirror Dax on Deep Space Nine; the other universes aren't going to be "evil" universes or "Communist" universes or what have you.

The second problem is that this motivation is a lie. His father was a science fiction fan, of course (the effect of this on Subotai has primarily been his deep abiding obsession with series of profoundly un-literary sci-fi novels), but first and foremost, his father was a professor of English, and Subotai grew up hearing about stories. "Stories," his father might say in a particularly pompous moment, "let us imagine others different to us. And thus they allow us to imagine ourselves as other than we are." Sometimes when high school was cancelled and his parents couldn't arrange childcare he'd end up sitting in on his father's lectures on "The Modern Novel" and hearing about Graham Greene, Toni Morrison, Jeanette Winterson, Rachel Ferguson, and Lawrence Durrell.

So many of these books were about imagining yourself as different than you were. Could author of cheap paperbacks Rollo Martins be a real detective and/or a real literary writer? Could Pecola Breedlove be the kind of beautiful child her mother would love? Could Jeanette be who her mother wanted her to be? Could the Carne sisters leave behind their elaborate fantasy worlds and survive in the real one? Could Darley uncover the real Justine underneath all the layers of stories? So many stories about stories, about how people constructed themselves out of other versions of themselves, left an impression on Subotai.

Would he have been a different person if his parents hadn't named him after a general of Genghis Khan? If his father had taken a tenure-track job in West Virginia and not Florida? If his mother hadn't put her own science research career on hold and become a high school teacher instead?

Even now, he still wondered. What if he had gone home every Christmas instead of working through break? What if that one night with Christopher had gone differently? Physics lets us imagine this, and science fiction literalizes the physics, but underlying both was the stuff of story, the original alternate universe. Subotai had no aptitude for telling or interpreting stories (hence his complete collection of Gene Roddenberry's Andromeda tie-in novels), but he could do math, and thus access those other worlds in his own way.

* * *

The results pop up and Subotai is thrown for a loop. The simulation has worked. The results pour down the screen of his smartphone. Suddenly he sees it all. What if he had gone home for Christmas every year? What if he had never left home? All those worlds, all those stories are within his reach  now.

At dinner, he tries to explain it to his parents. His father points out that the timing couldn't be more appropriate. "Arguably the first alternate reality story was also a Christmas story," he says, between popping little smokies into his mouth. "Ebenezer Scrooge is shown the regrets of the past and a dark future, but also given the ability to change it."

After dinner, Subotai goes back to the results. Was it all worth it? he wonders. Home changes and home does not, he changes and he does not, the world changes and the world does not. Christmas is the time of year we are confronted with this more than any other, because whether we go home or not, we are confronted with home in some form.

You sacrifice for your family or you sacrifice your family, but all the same something gets sacrificed. That's all the other stories that you'll tell but you'll never live, all the homes you'll remember but never visit.

* * *

What if he switched with one of those other hims? Two realities claiming him at once. You can always wonder this, and maybe you can even know. You can see how things would have changed if you had been different. At Christmas, the barriers between stories thin, allowing other stories to leak through; that's where you get your A Christmas Carols and your It's a Wonderful Lifes and your One Magic Christmases from.

He tweaks the math and he falls through the barriers between stories, switches places with one of those other selves, having the Christmas he isn't having and cannot have. His family is different but also the same; he is different but also the same. A family who thinks he's different, but refuses to recognize the difference inasmuch as he refuses to recognize theirs.

* * *

Of course that bit didn't happen; this isn't that kind of story. Subotai is good at math, but not that good; good at hearing stories, but not that good at telling them.

Christmas morning he sits down with his parents next to the tree. "I'm sorry I don't come home and I'm sorry I don't call more, but I'm glad I'm with you now," he says, knowing now with mathematical certainty-- even if he always knew with literary certainty-- that there's another world where he's done worse and another world where he's done better, and another world where he changes his behavior now, and another world where he doesn't. All those stories piled on top of each other at Christmas, continuing to change as much as they always have change, coming to an end as they begin.

"God bless us," his father says, "every one of us." The misquotation is appropriate in context, Subotai realizes, thinking of those other Subotais and those other Christmases and those other stories.

Snow doesn't fall.

* * *

People do go back, but they don't survive, because two realities are claiming them at the same time. [...] Going back after a long time will make you mad, because the people that you left behind do not like to think of you changed, will treat you as they always did, accuse you of being indifferent when you are only different.
Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit by Jeanette Winterson 

* * *

Some other story of Christmas.

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