by Joshua Isard
Rachel’s tattoo read: ~10.167 nanoseconds. It was on the lower side of her forearm, where her skin was lightest, in black print.
When she reached for her water bottle on the table, everyone watching her sample class session could see it.
“So you can understand,” she said, “why the concept of Schrodinger’s Cat has been so misinterpreted over the years. Schrodinger wasn’t trying to show how wonderful quantum physics is, he wanted to demonstrate the inherent absurdity of it, to argue against it.”
She walked over to the podium to call up the final slide of her presentation, a picture of a hissing cat, captioned: “I survived. Suck it, Schrodinger!”
She went on: “We’ll discover over the course of this semester just how truly absurd the quantum world is by the standards of our own experience. And why our experience isn’t any more valid than all the quantum absurdity.”
The five faculty members in front of her, Rachel’s only audience, gave her a measured applause.
“Thank you,” she said.
Dr. Sara Berg, the department chair, asked, “You find that underclassmen respond to this sort of presentation?”
“Yes,” Rachel said. “Beginning a course by tying some of the concepts to a larger, more popular consciousness helps them connect with the material. Sometimes, when I talk about uncertainty, I bring in my black Heisenberg hat.” No response. “It’s from Breaking Bad, the television show.”
“Oh, right,” one of them said.
“Students are going to struggle with these ideas,” Rachel said, “we all did at one point. So, connecting them to something more accessible like pop culture, to keep up interest levels—that can go a long way.”
“I’m sure you’re right,” Dr. William Kerr said. “Do you find that your tattoo also achieves this?”
“Excuse me?” Rachel said.
“Well, perhaps it makes you seem a little more approachable. A little bit cooler.”
She thought that, for Dr. Kerr, cool still meant Coca-Colas, poodle skirts, and doo-wop.
“I’ve never had a student ask about it,” she said.
She could feel everyone looking at her forearm. She turned it slightly, to make sure they could all see.
“Would you have asked me about my ink if I was a man, Dr. Kerr?”
“I’m sorry,” he said.
“If I was a man. A man with a tattoo on his forearm. Would you have asked me how it played into my pedagogical philosophy?”
“I’m not sure what you’re implying,” Dr. Kerr said.
“I’m not implying anything,” Rachel said, “just wondering. Are you curious about professors with tattoos, or women with tattoos?”
“You didn’t,” Michael said.
“Of course I did.”
“You don’t actually believe that’s what he was thinking, do you?”
“No,” Rachel said, “but I had to give myself a fighting chance.”
“You may have nailed it with the presentation. Now you’ll never know.”
“If I get the job it means it wasn’t bad. And I do have that résumé thing working for me as well.”
“If you get the job you have no way of being sure if you did because of your qualifications, or because of that bullshit discrimination hint you dropped.”
“It wasn’t really as subtle as a hint.”
“Fuck, Rachel, why would you do that?”
“Because I need a job. Because being a finalist a bunch of times doesn’t actually make you a professor and pay the bills.”
“Go work in finance in the meantime. You could figure out those algorithms in two days, and make a bunch more than adjuncting.”
“I want the freedom,” she said. “I want my whole job to be my research.”
“I said, ‘in the meantime.’ Just to be a little further over the poverty line.”
“Once you leave universities, it’s hard to get back in. There’s that gap in experience. Besides, I’d never make it in an office.”
Michael got up and took both their coffee cups to get refills. He’d bought the coffee, and the pastry.
When he got back, he said, “Suppose you got the job, and your one course per semester teaching load. Would you really want it if you couldn’t be sure you’d gotten it on merit?”
“I’ve got a whole lot of merit. I’ve got my name on a half dozen papers, two awards in grad school, three degrees all with honors. If I have to pull the vagina card to get a job, I’ll sleep fine.”
“You could get a million other jobs. I could get you a job with me at Cooper. You don’t want a job, you want your job. Your fantasy job.”
“It’s not fantasy, it’s just academia.”
“Not that far off,” he said.
Rachel sat at her kitchen table, in front of her laptop. She had a folder full of midterm papers to grade, and couldn’t bring herself to click on the first one. Another eighteen-year-old’s explanation of entanglement, or electromagnetism… she already wanted a drink.
“One out of twenty,” she said.
That was the proportion of students she’d worked with who she thought could feasibly go on to do serious scientific work. The rest, if they’d even stick with science, would probably work some middling job figuring out how to make the plastic panels in SUVs better withstand the impact of a sippy cup thrown from a car seat.
She knew the ones this year. She always knew in the first two weeks of school. Four classes, five students who could make it. They were the ones who asked some questions, but not too many. Always the “why” questions, never the “how.”
When she graded, Rachel saved their work for last.
She was still on one of the first papers: “I will begin by showing why quantum entanglement cannot possibly be real, despite the adamant insistence of my professor that it is.”
She poured a measure of scotch and kept reading.
Rachel woke up at five in the morning, dressed, walked to Dunkin’ Donuts where she bought a large coffee, then got on the subway to campus.
She was in the building before sunup. The only one there.
This is why she kept her job, why she wanted to stay in academia. This could be her whole day, every day—not just in the predawn quiet.
In her office, she turned on the lights and pulled her whiteboard to the middle of the room. Her office mates wouldn’t be there for hours. Even the administrative assistants didn’t show up until 9:30.
He first sips of coffee kicked in, and the rest had cooled enough that she could drink it quickly.
Within twenty minutes she’d finished the equation she’d been working on the morning before, realized it wasn’t where she wanted to go, erased most of it, then started again.
She was trying to expand on her graduate work in quantum gravity and M-Theory. The most recent journals were stacked on her desk, already read. When they’d come out, the science librarian would put each one aside for her. She’d sometimes come to campus even earlier to look through them before starting on her own work. She wanted to know her ideas were fresh, and to see if anyone else’s had clues to the solutions.
If she was full time, she could do this all day, in her own office. But she had a 10:00 class, and by the time she got back the place would be bustling, her office mates would be having conferences with students, and her board would be shoved to the side.
Rachel ended that morning with some nonsense work. She should have seen where it was going a half hour earlier, castigated herself for wasting time, not concentrating. By the time she heard others in the hallway, she needed to get ready for class.
It was that interview. It weighed on her, kept her from thinking clearly, like an article out to a journal—except that getting this job would change her whole career, not just a line on the résumé.
She settled into her chair and began reviewing her notes for class, but kept thinking about her tattoo, what Dr. Kerr had asked, how she should have been able to control her response.
In eighth grade, Rachel learned about the nature of light for the first time. Science class that year was basically a survey. Geology, meteorology, chemistry—none of that excited her. Then one day Mr. Schmidt talked about light. He said that light traveled at 186,282 miles per second. That it could get from the sun to the Earth in eight minutes. Go around the Earth seven times in one second.
The speed of it got to Rachel. She kept trying to push the fast things she knew— the cars, trains, fighter jets—faster and faster in her imagination, but couldn’t conceive of something moving at that speed. And she started playing with the idea in her mind, like it was a new toy—rolling it around, examining each square inch, trying to know all of it.
She came up with the fact that, fast as it was going, it still had to move. The teacher spoke of light years and trillions of miles. Rachel thought smaller—not about the universe, but instead her tiny fraction of it.
So after class she asked Mr. Schmidt how long it took light to go from the TV to her eyes when she was watching on the couch.
“186,000 miles per second,” he said.
“I know,” Rachel said, “but it still has to go from the TV to the person viewing it. That has to take some time. Can’t we measure it?”
He said again, “186,000 miles per second.”
She left the room.
Rachel started high school in advanced English, history, and French classes, but standard math and science. By her junior year, she’d shown that she belonged in AP Chemistry, Trigonometry, Calculus, and then Physics.
When she was an undergrad, though her grades in math and science were high, and she enjoyed those courses best, she didn’t declare her major in physics until the end of her second year.
Even after all the graduate work, awards, conference presentations, and published papers, she still couldn’t figure out why Mr. Schmidt hadn’t answered her question. Some of her doctoral classmates said it was because she was a girl and science teachers never encourage girls. Some said it was because he was an ass, couldn’t be bothered to think outside the textbook, probably had tenure and a pension only a few years away.
Rachel never really cared to know.
But that’s where her tattoo came from.
It took ~10.167 nanoseconds for light to go ten feet, about the distance from the TV to the couch in her parents’ house where she grew up.
Dr. Berg, the department chair, called to tell Rachel she didn’t get the job.
“I’m sorry,” Dr. Berg said.
“It’s OK,” Rachel said. “Thank you for calling. You didn’t have to do that.”
“Well, I thought some of the things that Dr. Kerr said were a little bit out of line and I wanted to say—”
“Forget it,” Rachel said.
“You’re OK with it?”
“It’s no big thing. I could have played that better, myself.”
“I do appreciate the phone call,” Rachel said.
“Yes, you’re welcome. Good luck to you.”
Rachel texted Michael that she didn’t get the job. She was in Dunkin’ Donuts, getting her morning coffee.
Michael responded: “I was asleep. The sun’s not even up.”
She wrote: “Why isn’t your phone on silent?”
“Whatever, I’m up now. Sorry about the job.”
“Want me to look for gigs where I am? We could work together.”
“No, I’m OK. Appreciate it, though.”
“Yes. Go back to sleep.”
She got to her office, put down the coffee, pulled out the white board. She had a few hours, and thought she was getting somewhere in the last few days. She picked up a marker. She couldn’t stop.
Didn’t want to.
Joshua Isard is the author of a novel, Conquistador of the Useless (Cinco Puntos Press), and his stories have appeared in numerous journals including The Broadkill Review, Northwind, and Wyvern. He studied at Temple University, The University of Edinburgh, and University College London.
Joshua directs Arcadia University’s MFA Program in Creative Writing, and lives in the Philadelphia area with his wife, two children, and two cats.
You can find him on Twitter @JoshuaIsard, or on his website JoshuaIsard.com.