[Fiction] ‘The Talented Higgs Boson’ — Mary Peelen

When I try to categorize what I know for sure, I end up with very little—maybe nothing at all. Barrett, for example, is a complete mystery to me, and yet somehow she’s the center of things. It doesn’t make sense. That’s why I’m abandoning epistemology in favor of particle physics, where everything is relative, random, and statistical. I’ve decided to take on the notion of uncertainty as my guiding principle. 

It started with a nightmare. I woke up in a sweat, head pounding, choking for air. It happens to me sometimes. I don’t worry about it much, I just get out of bed and bump around in the dark kitchen for a while, drink a glass of water. I stare out the window over the sink waiting for my heart rate to slow, wondering if I’m hopelessly fucked up and whether I should be in psychoanalysis or something. Eventually the details of the dream dissipate, and by the time I’m back in bed, the nightmare has all but evaporated. By morning it’s nothing at all. 

This one was different, though. The nightmare kept replaying itself and I couldn’t shake it. I dreamt I’d committed a murder. It felt so real that it was still inside of me like a bad meal I ate. Maybe it was a migraine coming on. I took two aspirin from the bottle on the shelf, swallowed them with tap water, then I leaned forward and looked out the window, hip bones making two fulcrum points on the edge of the countertop. I shivered, barefoot on the floor. Outside, the Milky Way hovered over the world like a polished stone pierced with sharp points of light. 

I was anxious, obsessive even, utterly absorbed by news of the Higgs boson. And who could blame me? Scientists were on the verge of solving the most fundamental mystery of the universe: how it is that we exist. How anything exists. The news was all over the internet: at CERN in Geneva scientists were at that very moment verifying the last piece of the Standard Model of physics which should account for every single bit of mass in the universe—stars, moons, mountains, people, silver jewelry, aspirin. All of it. Particle physics is the ultimate quest in existentialism. The outstanding proof hinges on the existence of the hypothesized Higgs. Once the experiment is underway, scientists expect they’ll find the Higgs boson right away, but if they don’t, then everything we think about physics—all of time and space as we know it—will collapse instantaneously, and the theoretical universe will be unmade all the way back to Isaac Newton. The thought of it is paralyzing. 

I stood in the dark kitchen, sick with dread and disorientation. Orion descended inch by inch over Twin Peaks, and the night air went indigo with a hint of first light. My dream was still so heavy it weighed on my body, pressed itself into my neck and shoulder, unwieldy and overdetermined as a crucifix I was dragging around. I started to wonder if the dream was more than a metaphor: maybe it was the edge of a repressed memory, something real. I supposed there was a chance, however small, that I actually had murdered someone and then I simply forgot. It doesn’t seem like the sort of thing one would forget but I’ve read that trauma can cause amnesia, so I can’t rule it out definitively. If I were a murderer, it would change everything about me, my future and all the ways I think about myself as a function of the past. I’d have to confess my crime first thing in the morning, of course. I’d be formally charged, arrested. Then the horrors of prison and public shame or worse. First, though, Barrett would have to be told, and how on earth would I ever explain this to her? I didn’t even understand it myself. 

Celebration was premature but the internet was on fire with rumors about the Higgs. Doomsday prophets and other crazies were all over it, hailing the Higgs boson as the “God Particle.” Scientists hate this expression, disavow it, mention it only to say it’s wildly misleading. And, of course, there is nothing holy about the Higgs: it doesn’t create the universe nor does it destroy it. The Higgs interacts with elementary particles in such a way that they’re rendered as mass, that is, as stuff we can weigh and measure. The Higgs bestows heft to all the molecules in heaven and on earth, even the Church—all that stone. You have to admit that in this way, the Higgs has sort of a sheen of godliness. 

The nightmare haunted me still, but I was too cold to stand in the kitchen any longer so I went back to bed. Barrett was sound asleep, didn’t stir when I came back in. I was awake forever, staring at the shadowy ceiling, listening to her snore. Stray bits of conversation careened around inside my head, and I kept replaying the thing she said just before she fell asleep. The thing about taxes. It was a technical detail from the book she was reading, a biography of Patricia Highsmith by Joan Shenkar. 

Barrett is tenured in English Literature at Stanford. She writes as she breathes: regularly, effortlessly, copiously. She’s a belletrist, composer of beautiful phrases, strictly nonfiction. She reads voraciously, greatly preferring newsprint over bound books. Towering stacks of journals, newspapers, book reviews, and magazines of every ilk proliferate in her study, on the kitchen table, the sofa, the living room floor, all over the bed. Articles and student papers pile up on the countertops, coffee tables, in the car, too, and I don’t even want to think about her office at school. Everywhere Barrett goes, text  scatters around her like a musky fragrance she wears. Which is precisely why I was suspicious. Barrett tends to dip into books; she rarely reads one cover-to-cover. But not so with the Highsmith biography. She pored over every word, and the book kept her singularly rapt for weeks. She talked about it all the time, went on and on about Patricia Highsmith, her habits, her obsessions. She was delighted with Highsmith as a writer, which was unusual for Barrett, too, because she often claims she hates novelists. “I don’t trust people who write fiction,” she says, “they always lie.” How she maintains this categorical disdain while occupying a Distinguished Chair in the English Department is a feat of intellectual acrobatics that dazzles her dean and frustrates her colleagues to no end. 

We purchased the biography in an adorable little musty bookshop in Provincetown while on vacation. We’d met up with some old friends there, ate lobster on the beach, danced every night, drank too much, went to a party where the host served up an entire case of poppers. It was fabulous, wholly unscripted, passionate as the early days between us. We could sense the significance of the interlude and we wanted something to mark it, to make it real. So we bought this book, a small thing that was lightweight and easy to carry home. A keepsake.  

To my surprise, Barrett was hooked on the biography immediately. Every night she read long swaths of it aloud, quotes from Highsmith’s letters mostly, and intimate passages from her diaries. Barrett scoffed at much of the author’s literary analysis, yet I’d never seen her more enthralled with subject matter. Patricia Highsmith had an extensive roster of girlfriends. She wooed scandalously, boldly, and—if you believe what she wrote—she despised all her lovers in equal measure. She penned elaborate fantasies about murdering each of them, one by one. As a character herself, Highsmith comes across as highly paranoid, domineering, suspicious, and constantly on alert for sabotage and plots against her. She trusted no one and died alone. She almost always lied. 

Unlike Barrett, I love fiction and I read tons of it. I believe it takes a rare kind of genius to sustain the complexities of a well-executed novel, and I’m not ashamed to confess my fawning adoration for Virginia Woolf, same as all the old bookish girls. I admire novelists even above the great poets. But not Highsmith. I can never get into a murder mystery. I know, I know, don’t start—everyone says it’s not genre fiction. Yes, Highsmith is nuanced, intensely psychological, literary, and terribly clever, but I can’t help it: if the plot involves a murder, I’m not interested. I have to admit, though, that I’ve never actually read an entire book by Patricia Highsmith, not cover-to-cover. I’ve tried. She gives me nightmares so I always quit before the end. 

“There’s a secret code in the front matter of The Talented Mr. Ripley,” Barrett whispered to me in bed one night after she put the Highsmith biography down and turned out the light. She loves a story with ciphers, conspiracies, a trail of broken hearts. “The novel is dedicated ‘To All the Virginians’ but actually, Highsmith wrote it for her lovers, a series of them, all named Virginia.” 

“What?”

“Originally the inscription read, To All the Virginias. No n.” She threw her head back and laughed. Her long neck was warm, vulnerable, exposed. 

“A series of them?” 

“Isn’t that hilarious?”  

Barrett talked about the Highsmith biography constantly, compulsively, inappropriately even, with colleagues, over cocktails with friends, during intimate dinners. It was a strange obsession because she insisted she hated the book. So badly written, she muttered, criticizing Shenkar’s fawning style, her excessive focus on salacious details, the sheer banality of the subject matter. Nonetheless, night after night, Barrett regaled me with vignettes about Highsmith’s lurid psychopathologies, how she conflated love and death. Highsmith’s fictional murders are exceptionally cunning and creative, exquisitely drawn, and almost always committed by a loved one. 

I saw a movie based on a Highsmith novel, once, the one where Matt Damon kills Jude Law. The character played by Gwyneth Paltrow is so horribly entitled, such a perfect snob, that you absolutely hate her, and yet at the end of the movie, she’s the only one who sees the truth about the murder. No one believes her, of course. It’s a very disturbing film. 

Tuesday morning at breakfast, I was reading the Science Times while across the table Barrett checked Facebook. Without looking up, she gestured in the direction of her phone. 

“Vanessa thinks Gwyneth Paltrow is hot. Can you imagine?” 

“What?…” 

“Some yoga thing…” her voice trailed off. Vanessa is Barrett’s colleague at Stanford. Vanessa Renwick, a medievalist. Her name comes up frequently. A smile spread across Barrett’s face as she composed a two-thumbed text, then she got up from the table and stood at the sink washing breakfast dishes. “Vanessa’s hilarious,” she said, half to herself.  

I had a feeling there was something going on between them but it was impossible to say exactly what it was. This much is a fact: Vanessa gave Barrett a signet ring with a dull green stone set into silver. If you ask me, a signet ring is undeniably an object with surface area and mass. A weighty thing. “A token of friendship” was how Vanessa defined it. The significance of the ring was subject of considerable controversy at our house throughout which Barrett maintained that a signet ring is a very small thing. Practically nothing at all. 

In The Talented Mr. Ripley, a stolen ring linked Ripley to the murder. Although it meant his crime was imperfect, he pocketed the ring because he fell in love and wanted a keepsake. You have to admit, there was something terribly sweet about it. 

We met in a bookstore. Barrett was finishing her Ph.D. in Comp Lit at Berkeley and I was working at Moe’s on Telegraph Avenue. I’d seen her around. She browsed the store frequently, mostly for textbooks, critical theory and the like, but the first time we actually spoke she was buying poetry, a copy of Love, Death, and the Changing of the Seasons by Marilyn Hacker. I rang up the purchase and asked her if it was a gift. She looked at me oddly, and I was caught off guard, made nervous somehow. “You never buy poetry,” I said by way of explanation. 

She stared at me, a gaze that was strange and intense but not awkward, exactly. Her eyes are the blue of arctic ice. I’ve never grown tired of them. “Can you giftwrap it, please?” she said. 

I was certain I’d offended her but when I handed her the package, she asked if I was free for a drink that evening. Exactly one year later, I found the poetry book under my pillow in the morning. Still giftwrapped. 

I’m worried things could become even more complicated. Turns out, there may be more than one Higgs boson. There could be a series of them, advancing the case for a principle in mathematics known as supersymmetry. Apparently it’s a promising hypothesis, but supersymmetrical math is so complicated that it’s impossible to verify because practically no one in the world can understand it. 

I was relieved when Barrett finally finished reading the Highsmith biography and put it away in her study. As a palette cleanser, of sorts, I was re-reading the Science Times coverage on the Higgs. Downloaded it. After so many nights of infidelity and murder, it was soothing to read about a neutral particle with zero spin. I asked, but Barrett didn’t want to hear any of it aloud. She isn’t interested in particle physics. When I turned out the light, she said the thing about the taxes. 

“Did I ever tell you that Highsmith moved to Switzerland to avoid paying American income tax?” Somehow, Barrett found this detail exceedingly amusing, and she sparkled with an unguarded playfulness I’d not seen in ages. The back of her hand brushed my cheek. 

Jesus,” I bristled. I couldn’t help it. “Why are you bringing up Patricia Highsmith again?”  I thought that chapter was behind us. 

“You brought her up.” 

“What are you talking about…?” 

“Switzerland.” 

I still didn’t understand. 

“CERN is in Geneva…?”  

Actually, Patricia Highsmith moved to Locarno, not Geneva, and she didn’t realize that American tax codes applied to her even though she lived abroad. She ended up having to pay the taxes anyway. Barrett had told me the story before. I couldn’t hold back any longer, I had to name it, this matter. Whatever it was. 

“I think you have a crush on Patricia Highsmith,” I said in the dark, my fingers gripping the edge of the mattress. I was nauseous and my head was starting to ache. 

“Very funny,” Barrett sniped back. And that was all. She rolled over and fell asleep almost instantly. It’s a talent she has, the ability to sleep anytime, anywhere, on demand. It’s uncanny. 

Window open to the garden in back, our bedroom is cold but fresh. I took some deep breaths. It seemed as if I was awake forever, tossing and turning, but I must have slept eventually, because that was when I had the nightmare. I dreamt I murdered Gwyneth Paltrow—it was bloody and fantastically brutal. I stabbed her in the chest with a carving knife and then buried the body out in the garden with my bare hands and a grapefruit spoon. Grit lingered under my fingernails for weeks. I was sure someone would notice she was missing, that I’d be identified as the murderer, charged with the crime and arrested. Every single day, I waited for police to show up at my door but instead, years and years went by and no one ever suspected a thing. 

Technically speaking, the Higgs is a field, the way magnetism and gravity are fields. It travels through space like waves do through the ocean, invisible, smooth, completely undetectable until something happens: a chance encounter, the inciting event. Up until that moment, there is nothing—nothing whatsoever—but uncertainty. Benjamin Franklin claimed that nothing is certain except for death and taxes, and my guess is that Barrett would agree. But for me, it’s the Higgs. So surely you can forgive my obsession? In the face of existential anxiety, I needed something solid to hang onto. 

*

Mary Peelen is a writer who lives in San Francisco and Paris. Her fiction, nonfiction, and poetry have appeared in New American Writing, Poetry Review (UK), The Massachusetts Review, Bennington Review, Michigan Quarterly Review, and elsewhere. Her poetry collection, Quantum Heresies, won the 2019 Kithara Book Prize.

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