Kate Wenner

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Dancing With Einstein
by Kate Wenner

Dancing With Einstein

(the opening pages)

    It begins between the thoughts of Marea. Marea,
named for the dark seas of the moon. It begins with the token it takes to enter the subway station beneath Union Square, where a solitary woman stands by the tracks, waiting for the trains to cross in front of her. She is waiting for the moment when two passing trains line up so perfectly that she can see through their windows to the other side. It doesn't always happen. It depends on coincidence, timing, and luck. It depends on one train traveling north and another traveling south, crossing at the platform at just the right speed. Sometimes there is so much screeching and banging of metal wheels that it can be difficult to discern the direction from which the trains are actually coming. Marea is keyed up, but patient. Hope rises in her chest when a second train appears. She smiles as the north and southbound trains begin to cross, their windows shuffling like a deck of cards. Heads blur, gestures drift, and the row of opened newspapers flows into a radiant ribbon of white light.

When the northbound train comes to a stop in the station, Marea steps in to take a seat and opens her subway map to check her destination. She traces the Lexington line, and then runs her finger along the other routes, the Broadway local, the A, B, and D, the L traversing Fourteenth Street, the RR, the NN, all weaving over and around each other like brightly colored neon piping, the urban arteries. Marea is happy to enter the map, to enter the world of the subway. She learned very early as a child at a school desk that maps can replace the territories for which they stand. Maps can substitute for places, as travel can substitute for life.

The subway car swaying north rocks Marea into a childhood memory of maps. The immense and imperious Miss Pearl wielded her wooden yardstick like a scepter, whacking it against her huge palm, the slap of flesh curdling the stomachs of the children who sat before her waiting for the promised land of morning recess. The day’s lesson was about Pharaohs inbreeding to make morons, Chinese babies preposterously crowned as emperors, Indian children of a caste so vile they could not be touched. Miss Pearl hauled her massive body around the classroom, her chin melting into her neck, her neck sloping into the Matterhorn of her undulating flesh. Sweat made moons below her armpits, and the odor curled nostrils as she handed out tracing paper and boxes of crayons –- emerald green to color in the Fertile Crescent, cerulean blue for the Mediterranean Sea, burnt umber for the deserts of Egypt. When Miss Pearl’s fleshy hip saddlebagged over the Formica of Marea’s desktop, Marea withdrew into the safe territory where her crayoned map replaced the living world.

The lesson in maps, the lesson of one thing standing for another, came in handy on the day Miss Pearl ushered in "our very important visitor from the Department of Civilian Emergencies." A short beetle man with a black pompadour, dark blue suit, and shoes planted like duck feet, had brought his own map, and climbed up onto a chair to hang it from the hooks above the blackboard. He climbed back down and borrowed Miss Pearl’s yardstick to give the third-grade class their instructions for survival. Marea saw that he was uncomfortable with his task of confronting children, and she smiled at him to help ease his pain.

The beetle man settled down to his responsibilities. On his map of the United States he stuck large black plastic dots over each of the major cities from Washington, D.C. to San Francisco. He used Miss Pearl’s yardstick to count them off in the order the Russians would destroy them. Then he took a black crayon and drew five concentric circles around each of the targeted East Coast cities. The concentric circles around New York and Washington, D.C. intersected at Princeton, New Jersey, where Marea and her classmates listened silently to the man’s grim prediction.

Concentric Circle One would be a huge crater into which all of New York City would disappear before a bird had time to flap its wings. In Concentric Circle Two bodies would melt like ice cream left in the summer sun. In Concentric Circle Three gases would fill lungs with death-breath and people would collapse like rag dolls without bones, and the only hope for life would be to flee in station wagons to Concentric Circles Four and Five. Cars would line up outside Abraham Lincoln Elementary, and good children would be brave and never cry or think about melting mothers and fathers. One by one the station wagons would fill and begin the drive into the western mountains where children would be given shelter and new parents and, God willing, be saved.

During air raid drills Miss Pearl stood at the front of the room with her arms folded across her vast breasts. "When we go outside, you will line up nicely, children, even if there is an atomic bomb."

At home Marea kept the lesson of the concentric circles to herself. Her parents fought. Did all parents fight? Maybe, but not all fathers made bombs big enough to blow up the world. Each time her father left to work with Dr. Teller in New Mexico, Marea could hear her mother’s crying through the walls at night. Marea wanted to tell her mother how lonely she felt when she got under her school desk to practice for nuclear war, but she knew her mother would blame her father. Her parents argued so much that Marea worried that one day her father might leave forever.

In the subway car Marea’s eyes travel to a pair of lovers pressed together against the door between the cars. Teenage girl, mouse-face, shagged hair, pregnant belly pushing at the buttons of her satiny shirt. Marea sees the fetus tucked inside a cavity of fluids, eyes protected by unseparated lids, still God's creature, the ropy umbilical cord winding around the cells dividing and redividing with the propulsive force of new life. The pregnant girl cups her hand below her stomach, feeling the weight of this growing thing that will rely on her, a child like herself. When the girl notices the odd woman who is staring at her, she quickly drops her hand to her side.

Marea regrets that she has made the pregnant girl ashamed of what is growing inside her. Marea is her own growing thing. In her jeans pocket she has a folded piece of paper with a name written on it, a name she found in the address book of a man she met in a bar. The name was listed under S for shrink. Dr. Angela Iris. Marea called, left a message, got a call back: "Why don't we see what's on your mind?" East Ninety-first Street, between Park and Lex, second floor, Tuesday morning at eleven, ring up.

In the palm of her hand Marea cups the token she bought for the return trip. It is small enough to lose. Small things -- the morning, perspective -- can be lost in the bowels of the earth, in tunnels where trains convey bodies, human beings with purposes, human beings surviving. Marea wishes to survive, but she doesn't know if she has the skin for it.

Selected Works

Dancing With Einstein
"The fallout of America's atomic nightmare is a touching, humanistic story."
-- Kirkus Reviews

Setting Fires

“Intense and touching."
—Publishers Weekly

"A winner...rich and riveting."
—The Toronto Sun

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