the airport a man with a "Hi, my name is" sticker
approached me, told me he was the man named Sixto, and asked me
if I was the woman named Amy. I was, and I got in his car, which
had three wheels on the sidewalk and one wheel in the no-parking
Death probably thought I was too cheap a
shot, huddled against the "oh, shit" bar of a
government van. I think that is the only reason I survived the
hour and a half ride from the Luis Munoz Marin International
Airport in San Juan to my new home. Sixto seemed to think that
double solid yellow lines meant "please cross me."
caught the volume knob between the hairy knuckles of his second
and third fingers. He turned down the talk radio and looked at me
for ten seconds before speaking. "English is so confusing.
For example," he said, picking up a printout of my flight
confirmation, "How do you call this?"
no. In general."
piece of paper."
not that. Another word."
sheet of paper?"
A sheet." He smiled and seemed not to notice when the car's
wheels awakened cyclones from the side of the road. "So how
do you know the difference between this and what you do in the
I paused, watching the primary-colored
houses reflect against the peeling window tint and trying to
think of an appropriate response. "I guess you just get used
"English is so confusing."
we arrived at Arecibo Observatory, I decided that the largest,
most expensive telescope in the world looked more like the
largest, most expensive skate park in the world. There was the
305-meter dish, listening to the universe's twenty-four hour
broadcast, and all I could think was that I wished I had the
coordination for extreme sports. I thought that maybe Dr.
McLaughlin should have sent someone who could have come up with a
I was a graduate student, and my
advisor, Dr. McLaughlin, had applied for time on the telescope.
He was the kind of tenured professor who had enough job security
to say whatever he wanted about black holes, wormholes, time
travel, and other astrophysical subjects of interest to the
masses, so he was on sabbatical writing a sci-fi novel. Because
he wanted the data from this project but didn't feel like taking
time away from his literary pursuits, he used his NSF grant money
to send me to Puerto Rico. I found it impossible to refuse two
free weeks on a tropical island, especially since I needed
glowing letters of recommendation from my benefactor.
removed my luggage, which held clothing I considered adventurous
and books I considered grounding, and pointed at a woman sitting
on the porch of Unit 4. Anya Dauren and I would be living and
working together on the pulsar collaboration, he said. Anya was
wearing a purple plastic bracelet with the word "care"
stamped into the band, synthetic pants that zipped off into
shorts, a t-shirt from the gift shop of El Yunque National Rain
Forest, and a pair of rubber gardening clogs.
goodbye with a pat on the back that felt more like a spinal
aneurysm. His brake lights created a cone of red haze around us
as the van slid down the mountain and the molecules of humidity
trapped the light. Anya handed me a frozen drink.
con. In Spanish, it means 'with.' In Puerto Rican, it means 'with
We sat on the porch of Unit 4, which was a
2BD/1B box made of weather-treated plywood held together by
creative combinations of two-by-fours. We listened to the coqui
frogs, who are named onomatopoeically after the noise they make
from 8 p.m.-7 a.m. We talked about magnetars and millisecond
timing techniques and our limited Spanish vocabularies. We sipped
our pina coladas con. She settled herself into the porch's red
lawn chair, and in the light that came through the haze of moth
thought she had caught fire.
* * *
are formed when a massive star can no longer support fusion. The
star collapses under its own gravity. The area around it is
assaulted with enough radiation to outshine the other 100 billion
stars in the galaxy. The star lights up places that have been
dark since darkness existed. It goes supernova and never goes
Left in the middle of this expanding light is a ball
the size of Manhattan with the mass of two suns, a sphere that
spins 86,400 times as fast as the Earth and is made only of
neutrons. Every time it rotates, we see one pulse of light. Thus,
Pulsars are the most stable objects in the
universe—the only thing that can change a pulsar's rotation
rate is a starquake, which is a very exotic kind of earthquake
that happens very far away. After the subatomics have settled,
the pulsar is never the same.
Anya and I were at Arecibo
to observe two pulsars that orbited each other. They had recently
been discovered and creatively named (J0737-3039A and
J0737-3039B). Together, they formed the first known system of
this kind, although surely there are millions of these binary
systems at which we have simply failed to point our telescopes. I
thought the most fascinating part about J0737-3039 was that A was
much more massive than B. Its gravitational pull was stronger,
its magnetic field larger. The power dynamic of this system was
tilted in A's favor.
A and B were spinning so fast so
close together that astronomers were already writing papers
predicting their collision and subsequent merger.
The control room looked like a rocket's cockpit.
Machines seven feet tall buzzed and blinked their communications.
Wires seemed to come out of nowhere and then snake away into
their hard drive holes. A huge plate glass window looked out on
the white telescope. Positioned on this cliff, it looked like
someone had spilled millions of gallons of paint into a valley. A
beautiful mistake. In reality, the dish is made of 38,778
aluminum panels that fit together exactly. With a few keystrokes,
I could control what all of that metal was looking at.
and I sat in the control room on our first day, going over the
plan we had made for the pulsars, when Richard came in. After
observing Richard for the next two weeks, I realized that he had
seven pairs of size twelve tennis shoes, but only one pair of
shoe laces. I knew because the plastic ends of these purple laces
were chewed off in exactly the same way every day. I was
surprised he didn't have the days of the week written in
permanent marker on his footwear. I guess he just kept track in
Richard was our telescope "friend,"
the name given to people who work at the observatory full-time
and help visiting astronomers navigate the $100,000,000 of
equipment. I can't see why they didn't trust us on our
"Where is he?" Richard asked.
observer in charge," he replied. He cleared his throat,
making a noise an octave higher than I thought could come out of
someone with such large feet.
I said, pointing to Anya, "and I are doing the
Well. There were no first names on the schedule." He cleared
his throat again.
Richard had jumped to a conclusion, and
he was not happy to be wrong. Anya and I sat down to begin
looking at the pulsars. Everything was going well until I dropped
my pencil, and he muttered, "Can't do anything right,"
and pushed my chair away from the controls. He started typing,
moving the telescope.
leave this to me. You two can go on and do…whatever you
I always remember the next moment in the way you
remember an over-dramatized movie in which there are only three
character roles: the villain, the victim, and the hero. I watched
Anya tap Richard on the shoulder. When he turned, she curled her
pointer finger in the come-hither gesture and whispered
conspiratorially, "This is what we do."
left and told the director that we no longer needed a "friend."
* * *
The karst mountains in northwest Puerto Rico were
formed during the Oligocene epoch. Between twenty-three and
thirty-four million years ago, the top carbonate rock was
dissolved by the Caribbean Sea, leaving a section of island that
looks like a crowd of giants wearing ghost sheets and growing
tropical trees on their heads. Underneath these mountains is a
cave network large enough to be used for nationalistic bragging
rights, drug trafficking, human trafficking, and the kind of
tours on which the guide points to the rocks (which are
illuminated by Crayola-colored spotlights) and says, "Those
are stalactites, not stalagmites. You can remember because
ceiling starts with a 'c'."
Traveling from Arecibo
Observatory to anywhere else on the island requires driving from
the top of the karst to the bottom, and it always felt like a
trip from the sky to the sea. The roads, on which no one found it
necessary to paint lane lines, had an abundance of hairpin turns
and a deficit of guardrails. There were no flat, comforting
stretches, and there were no certainties. Were stray dogs
congregating in the road around that curve? Would the car
tailgating me down this 50% grade push his front bumper against
my back bumper and propel us down the hill at unsafe speeds?
These questions could never be answered until you either hit an
animal or another car hit you.
Three days after I arrived,
Anya grabbed the keys to a car, pushed them into my hand, and
told me that all I needed to remember when driving through the
mountains was that death isn't really that bad. She had spent a
summer here two years before, and I assumed that gave her
authority on this subject.
"If you want me to give
you directions," she said as she belted herself into the
passenger seat of the observatory's 1993 Chevy Cavalier, "you
need to stop hyperventilating. You won't be able to hear me over
all that breathing." I turned on the radio at volume 32—the
highest it would go before the bass crackled and the left speaker
only worked on every third beat.
We listened to WLYT, Your
Station for Everything You Want to Hear, which was the most
popular of five stations devoted solely to remixes of late
80s/early 90s adult contemporary billboard hits. Unbreak My
Heart, The Wind Beneath My Wings, Please Forgive Me, etc. This
music was the only kind I was allowed to listen to from ages
0-12, when my mother always played the "Lite Rock, Less
Talk" station in the car. The musical experiences from my
formative years proved (definitely for the first time) to be
The song I knew best came on as we entered the
one-bar town of Esperanza. When I was about to say that I could
deliver the most rocking rendition of Lady in Red, she turned the
volume up to 33 and showed me that mine was only second
"Do you want to be authentic, Amy?" she
asked me after Chris DeBurgh was done crooning.
that unlit, unmarked highway about three hundred meters up? Turn
drove for a few minutes on the road least traveled before she
yelled, "There he is!" and grabbed my wrist so hard
that the steering wheel pulled us next to a van that said Luigi's
on one side and Lugi's on the other. "Authentic like
Lugi Luigi's Pizza Parlor was a vehicle that
had been in the same place for so long that I could see the
passing of the seasons in his paint. The owner's name was
actually Madesio, and he had never actually sold a pizza in his
life. He bought the van from a bankrupt roadside pizza chain, but
he thought that people who stopped to buy pizza would be
pleasantly surprised. His culinary specialty was the pincho—cubes
of chicken or pork smothered in red sauce and placed on a stick,
a piece of garlic bread impaled on the top. A totem pole of
calories. A monolith of taste. I still do not know what the sauce
is made of. It is the kind of unidentifiable combination of
familiar ingredients that makes you say, "This tastes
familiar, but." The same way strangers can look familiar
simply because their facial features are some combination of your
third cousin and your best friend from third grade.
head was too large for his shoulders. It made him look like the
food he sold.
here or to go?" he asked.
you like to eat with us?" Anya replied.
pulled a folding card table from the space between the grill and
the van's center console and said, "Business is slow."
each stood on one side of the table, placing the plate of pinchos
at the empty end. Anya made a rule that each time anyone picked
up a stick, they had to confess something strange they said, did,
thought, or thought about saying, doing, or thinking. Something
that would usually come out in late-night conversation when a
friendship was a year or two old.
Anya read the CNN.com headlines every day, but rather than
clicking on the serious news stories, she clicked on ones like
"Shaken, not stirred—cocktail robots mix drinks"
and "Emu on the run crashes kindergarten graduation".
Madesio was scared of accidents. All kinds. Because you
couldn't see them coming but you knew that eventually,
statistically, they would.
Every time I got the hiccups, I thought that the situation
would turn into the world-record kind. There was a man who had
the hiccups for 68 years. If I have the hiccups now, why should
they ever go away? Why should anything change?
We ate and
shared until the plate was a blank full moon, and Madesio said he
had to go home and make dinner for his wife. We could stay as
long as we wanted.
"Leave the table out. Someone
might need a place to sit," he said and turned off the
incandescent advertisement on the roof of his establishment. He
walked to the house across the street, and we watched his shadow
pull someone else's close.
We left a note on the table. It
said only, "We'll be back."
I still have a hard
time sitting in restaurants with cushioned privacy benches and
piped-in easy-listening music, because the whole time I think
about how much I want to eat meat off a stick, hold a can of
Medalla Light in a sweaty death grip, and look at faces visible
only because they are reflecting the moonlight. I may not have
found myself that summer, but I found a few other people.
* * *
The Tanama River is a forty-minute hike from Arecibo
Observatory. When Anya asked me to swim up the river with her, I
said no, because flash floods routinely caused it to double in
volume in 10 minutes. That seemed unnatural to me. Anya didn't
ask me again, but she did bring me a bagged sandwich and some
water and say, "Follow me."
During the trek down
to the Tanama, we assumed we only had to be careful to avoid wet
rocks, wet dirt, and wet lizards. What we failed to consider were
the chickens. While clinging to a tree in a particularly steep
(and wet) part of the jungle, I heard the call of a rooster. I
automatically assumed it was some eight-foot-tall doppelganger
alien that used the cockadoodledoo to lure in its prey, which it
would skewer and roast and feed to its doppelganger family.
"Holy shit, what was that?" My voice came out
was a chicken." Anya's did not.
let a chicken into the jungle. Chickens can't go in the jungle!"
here," she said, then smiled with her head tilted down and
her eyes looking up, the way people do when they want you to
forgive them for something stupid. "The farmers around here
don't keep their livestock in cages. It's a very adventurous kind
I looked around and saw the
domesticated bird sprinting through the underbrush. The three
claws dug into the ground, and occasionally a leaf stuck to one
for a few steps. The rooster saw us, panicked, and ran into a
When we finally got to the Tanama canyon, the
whole scene was straight out of the Mesozoic Era. I usually don't
associate rivers with amazing beauty (it's more like alligators
and algae), but I felt like I should have brought a camera to
film a dinosaur documentary.
The water was cold, a rarity
this close to the Equator. Anya and I swam upstream a bit, and I
tried not to think about the flash floods. The cliffs were
probably 50 feet above us, and when I floated on my back with my
ears underwater, the only sound was flowing and the only color
was green. The canyon's rock formations made me wish I were a
geologist, simply so I could do more than mutter, "Awesome,"
over and over again. Water gushed out of holes in the cave
systems surrounding us, and stalactites screamed, "We are so
much older than you!"
"Can I take you
somewhere?" Anya asked.
She took me to a place where
the river was mostly blocked, and it fed a wide pool of
translucent green water. A thirty-foot waterfall flowed out of
the pool, crashing at a 30° angle against some rocks before
continuing on to more rocks at the bottom. We sat on a safe rock
and looked over the edge.
"They died here," she
said, focusing her eyes on some distant point past the treeline.
"They thought the water looked calm."
me about two other grad students who were at Arecibo during the
summer she spent there. The three of them hiked to the Tanama.
The two others, a man and a woman, were not thinking about the
undercurrent that pulled water from the river, across the falsely
placid pool, and down the waterfall.
Anya was taking
pictures of the mountains, and she turned around just as the
woman tried to grab a rock and stop herself from being pulled
downstream. Anya's shock caused her muscles to tighten, pressing
down the button on her camera. She has a picture of a woman, arms
reaching upward out of the water, her head about to hit a rock at
a 30° angle, her face registering knowledge of this. The
press reported that the man's body was found under a rock at the
bottom of the waterfall, but that the woman's was never
"That's why I don't read the real news."
Anya's tears mixed with the river water. When she spoke,
she said that she was sorry, and it looked like the words were a
line of blue jazz notes coming out of her mouth. I said I was
sorry too. I said there was nothing she could have done.
felt her arms around my waist and the rock biting my vertebrae.
My eyes were closed, and I didn't say anything—I only
wanted one sense to feel this moment. If it were split between
five, a part of it might be lost or the pieces might be
separated. I knew her only as heat. I was sure one side of me
would blister by morning. That was how close we were.
couldn't last forever. "I think we should go get some
pinchos," she said. "I need to get out of here."
night we went back to Madesio's. I let Anya drive; she needed to
fear death a little bit less. When we arrived, he said, "Ay,
gringos!" and immediately brought out the card table.
wife bought me a new grill for our anniversary," he said. It
was a nice grill. It had racks for the pincho sticks, a gas
heating mechanism, and a control panel, while the old one was
based on the combination of steel, charcoal, and a match.
love her," he said, "but I hate this." He kicked
the grill and glanced across the street at his house. "This?
Has too much power."
can always turn the gas down," Anya said.
but will the gas listen, is the question." Madesio gestured
toward the panel of knobs and then turned the flame from red to
blue. "I like being able to put out the fire myself."
said, "But you can control it."
no. We are not partners. We are in this relationship, me and this
machine, but I am afraid always that it will find out it has much
more power than me. Do not tell it, and do not tell my wife."
understood Madesio then. Empathized. But he laughed and said he
was just kidding, that it was just a bunch of metal and that it
had no thoughts and not to worry. I did not feel like it was a
joke. At least not a funny one.
* * *
days Anya and I spent hours in front of four control room
computer screens. For thirteen days we saw nothing interesting.
Nothing worth writing either home or the Astrophysical Journal
It was the last day. Anya left the control room and
came back with two paper cups. The kind with windowsill flowers
printed on the sides. The ugliest kind. Caffeinated steam escaped
from the tops.
"They were out of Styrofoam," she
said, handing me the one with unidentifiable flora the color of
coffee is too dark for Styrofoam, anyway," I replied. "It
looks much nicer next to the flowers."
until the caffeine made us dizzy with the feeling of being awake.
Anya brought the coffee in new cups every time because she said
that the sooner the supply was gone, the sooner the world would
be a better place. At least the world inside the control room. I
We were slewing the telescope to its final
rest position when Anya looked at Screen 3 and drew in so much
breath I thought her lung would puncture itself to relieve the
she whispered. "It's different."
I looked at the
computer and saw that J0737-3039B's profile had changed. Anya and
I would later write a paper describing how the starquake was
caused by J0737-3039A's magnetic field. The powerful north-south
magnetic lines had twisted around the smaller pulsar in a way
that made its surface crack, shift, settle. But at that moment we
weren't thinking about publishing.
couldn't find any appropriate words. I had always thought,
without ever saying so, that starquakes never actually happened,
that pulsars remained always the same. That the theorists who
came up with the idea had botched a differential equation or, at
least, forgotten to carry the one at some point.
thing that could have changed J0737-3039B was J0737-3039A. They
had approached close enough to become gravitationally bound, and
A transformed B. Was this power good? Was it bad? Or was A's
potential for influence just frightening? I thought about
Madesio's not-funny joke.
you think J0737-3039A is scary?" I asked Anya.
she said. "What do you mean?"
you think it was J0737-3039A's right to disorient J0737-3039B's
we ascribing consciousness to balls of neutrons?"
guess it's more like a metaphor," I said, and turned
Anya pushed my ergonomic rolling chair into the
window that overlooked the telescope. I thought I might fall
through the glass, maybe just drift out and over the expanse of
tiles. Get away. I wished that the binary pulsars had just
collided and merged, like everyone thought they would. That would
have been fairer. More balanced. If we were ascribing
consciousness to balls of neutrons, that is.
go to Luigi's and discuss our discovery over some food and maybe
some beverages con," Anya suggested.
had more coffee than there is in water in the Caribbean," I
is a stimulant; and beer is a depressant. I think we deserve to
even things out."
When we arrived at Madesio's van,
it was mostly gone. Everything was the color of his secret sauce.
The flames ripped upward and sent their ashes to Madesio's roof.
As we passed by, a piece of bread shot out of the roof and
fractured. It looked like a flock of birds on fire.
man sat cross-legged ten feet from his burning livelihood.
Watching, just watching. His wife stood farther back and waved
her hands at the fire as if that would make it stop. "She
looks like the woman in my picture," Anya said.
did not stop.
I took Anya's right hand in my left and
moved my thumb north to south along her lifeline. Up and down.
Touching the places hardship had washed away, feeling the karst
topography of her skin. Seeing her sheeted ghosts.
made a U-turn, and we went back up the sky without saying
anything. Lady in Red was playing in my mind, and I could feel
Anya's hand shaking. A handquake, which is a very exotic kind of
earthquake that hits very close to home.