By Peter Obourn
My family all loved each other, but I don’t think we understood each other.
My dad was honest about it. I just don’t understand you kids, he’d say to my sister and me.
My sister would say she understood but she didn’t. She was clueless.
My mother was hard to read. When I told her stuff, she’d say, um, hmm, the um a lower note than the hmm, which might mean she understood me, or maybe she was simply acknowledging she heard me.
Then I met Mindy. We fell in love. We talked about getting married. She said maybe. We were on the beach in the moonlight. Our limbs were kind of entangled and she was kissing me.
“I love you so much,” she whispered.
“Then why do you keep saying maybe?”
She untangled herself and sat up, hugging her knees and pulling the beach blanket up to her chin. “Because,” she said, “because, because, I just don’t know, Bill.” She looked at me and put her face in her hands. She talked into her hands, not looking at me. “You have some weird ideas. Like you told me that all adults are spies.”
“It’s true, Mindy.”
“How the hell did you get that crazy idea into your head?”
“I’ll tell you how. Here’s just one example. After my tenth birthday, when I had been given my first two-wheeler, I was allowed to go anywhere in town, as long as I was home in time for dinner. I loved the freedom of it, but it did bother me a little that my parents would be uncaring enough not to keep track of me. Then one day I realized that they knew everything. They knew where I’d been every day and what I had done, even who my girlfriends were. I didn’t know how they did it. At first I thought it was some kind of sixth sense, some kind of magic. When I figured out how they did it, I was thoroughly disgusted. They were spies. This whole town is a nest of spies. When I was sleeping all the adults got on their telephones and told each other everything, everything they saw, everything they heard. My private, secret life was known to every adult in town. Volumes of secret stuff about me.
“Then, as I grew a little older, I found out that they don’t tell on each other about each other. Husbands and wives cheat on each other, and somehow this sordid, horrible information is kept secret from the one who needs to know it most. The adult world is cruel, secret, conniving, and malicious.” Mindy didn’t respond. She just sat there with her face in her hands. I leaned over close to her hands and gently pulled one of her fingers away until I could see one eyeball. “Do you see what I mean?”
“No, Bill, I don’t see. I mean, I see a little bit of what you say is sort of true, but it’s not like that at all. You and I are on the cusp of adulthood, about to become actual adults. I was kind of looking forward to it. What if we have children?”
“Okay,” I said. “I would prefer to remain a kid, but, for you, I will consider being an adult. However, I will not spy on my own children or anybody else’s children—unless they commit a serious crime, like murder or embezzlement.”
“It sounds to me,” said Mindy, “that you think a family should live in a state of anarchy.”
“Maybe,” I said.
“That’s crazy. That’s why I said maybe I will marry you. When I understand you, maybe I’ll marry you then.”
She kept saying maybe but I didn’t give up. I knew I had only one life to live, and I wanted to live it with Mindy. When she started to avoid me, I wrote her notes.
My first note to Mindy:
You love me, Mindy. You said you did. You said you needed to understand me. Don’t you realize that no one understands anything? I try to understand but the more I understand, the more I am mystified. As I learn, the gap between what I know and what I don’t know increases, leading to the inescapable eventuality that someday I will know so much that I know nothing. Knowledge obsesses me. Every single new fact leads me to search for two more. I search for more and try to fit it all into a pattern, a matrix, a system. And I fail every time. There is no pattern.
So, you have to marry me.
First reply from Mindy:
It’s still maybe.
Then I wrote her more notes and received a lot of similar replies, and then here’s my last note to Mindy:
We have to accept ignorance, that we know nothing, to decide that the universe is infinite, that space is infinite, that there are infinite stars in infinite galaxies and that there is infinite smallness. Things less than tiny. Things that continue to get smaller. Inside the smallest bit of an atom there are infinite galaxies. Nothing is so tiny that there’s not some other thing else that is smaller still. And it might not even be a thing. It might be a wave, or both a thing and a wave in two different places at once.
And what about the black holes, infinitely dense singularities? Light does not escape. Time cannot escape. Where gravity is infinite. Everything compressed into nothing. I don’t understand that. And that, my love, is reality. Marry me.
Final reply from Mindy:
I give up. Okay. Okay. I’ll marry you but I think we should wait until after junior high.
So I waited. Several years later, the summer after college, Mindy and I got together again. We were on the beach again in the moonlight. Our limbs were kind of entangled and she was kissing me.
“I loved you so much,” she whispered, “and I still do.”
“Then marry me,” I said, “and don’t say maybe, because you don’t understand me. Say yes or no.”
She didn’t untangle herself and sit up. She just kept kissing me. “I still don’t understand you,” she said. “But now I understand myself. I love you because you are crazy. The answer is yes.”
So we did get married, six years ago, and we had a child. Things are going pretty well. We named her Nicki. She’s in kindergarten now. She’s learning to read and that’s opening up a whole new world, but she’s having a little trouble with math.
Last month she came home from school and said that the teacher told her and everybody else in her class that one plus one is two. Nicki says she happens to know that one plus one is three.
Mindy immediately accused me. “Did you tell her that?”
“Certainly not,” I said.
“Well, whatever. You better do something about it.”
So Nicki and I have had a lot of arguments about it but she’s held her own. “That’s what I’ve decided,” she said.
“But one plus one is two,” I said. “It just is. It’s not up to you.”
“Three is prettier,” said Nicki.
“Look,” I said, “if you don’t accept that one plus one is two, nothing else works. Math just won’t work.”
“It works for me,” said Nicki.
Nicki’s teacher wrote a note informing us that Nicki has half the class believing that one plus one is three.
I wrote back and said Nicki has to figure it out for herself. Then I gave up. Last week I asked Nicki how math was going.
“Great,” she said.
“So you figured out that one plus one is two.”
“No, one plus one is three, but Mrs. B and I made a deal. She said she would agree with me that one plus one is three if I would pretend that it’s only two. Just pretend, you know, and just for homework.” She winked at me. “So I’m doing that.”
“That’s a clever idea,” I said. “How’s your deal working out?”
“It’s working okay,” she said. “It does make homework a lot easier.” She put a little hand on my arm. “You know, Daddy, sometimes it helps to agree with people even when you know they are wrong.”
And that’s where we are right now—somewhere between 1 + 1 = 2 and 1 + 1 = 3. I think it’s probably two, but who knows?
Maybe she’s right.
Copyright Obourn 2023