TRANSCRIPT: Today’s writer, Leah Lopez is a Chicago writer and the playwright-in-residence at EDGE of Orion Theatre.
“So, it’s magic?” I replied.
“No. And yes,” my uncle returned, pushing his wire-rimmed glasses back up to his nose.
I turned the heavy gold medallion in my hand. It looked like a doubloon.
“You’re not very helpful,” I sighed, avoiding looking at the envelope he had placed in front of me an hour ago. Instead, my hand gripped my coffee mug, no longer hot, and downed it in one gulp with a grimace.
“Science and magic are the same in theory, Jules,” he explained. “A round earth, herbs used by women thought to be witches to cure the sick, potato batteries, sending messages over wires, picking up wifi signals. People say they don’t ‘believe’ in climate change or dinosaurs or the moon landing or vaccinations. What’s the difference in story between the fantasy you write and the science fiction you’re lumped with all the time?” he asked.
“Long hair and elves,” I said, slightly sarcastically.
An hour ago on the day before my 30th birthday, my uncle Fritz showed up at my house with a weathered manila envelope and coffeecake from the day old section of the grocery store. I come from a family of scientists: physicists, geologists, biologists, astronomers. Fritz is an astrophysicist who studies dark matter and was two years older than his sister, my mother. He has two ex-wives, four children (microbiologist, two paleontologists, and a dentist), and dogs he names Charlie. He doesn’t have more than one dog, but just one dog at a time, always named Charlie. A parade of never-ending Charlies. I used this once in a short story and he hung it up in his office. Tore the pages right out of the anthology and stapled the pages in order. He had to buy two to make it work.
I eyed my phone.
“A wiki page on string theory will not make it any easier to understand,” he said with his mouthful of coffeecake.
I sighed again. At least I had some keywords now.
“What is the choice I have to make? You present sentimental history in the form of family letters written to me from when mom and dad died and then a veritable golden ticket to another dimension to maybe see them alive. Were I to write a science fiction story, it definitely wouldn’t make interdimensional travel look so emotional,” I said more to myself than to him.
“It’s more transdimensional than inter,” he said. “And you once said that good science fiction knows how the science works in the story, which is why you chose fantasy, so your version of this story would have a magical gnome bringing you an enchanted acorn,” he said, then laughed at his own joke.
“Stick to astrophysics,” I shot back, taking the letters out of the envelope.
“You don’t have to decide right now,” he said. “It might not work, but we won’t know until you give it a turn. Three turns to be exact. We had plans for other devices that worked differently, but those were lost in the crash with your parents.”
“Great, now I’m in a comic book,” I said, completely sarcastically. “Why does our family have such weird hobbies?”
He gathered his coffee and other papers he brought to explain how it all worked and threw his backpack on over his shoulders. He kissed the top of my head and said, “Jules, you’ll figure it out.” And with that bit of casual advice, he walked outside.
“You suck and I hate you,” I shouted after him from the doorframe. He waved to me over his head, still walking across my overgrown lawn. “And why wait til I’m 30? And why did you make it a stupid doubloon? Next time don’t bring stale cake!”
I walked back in and slumped in my chair.
In all honesty, the letters were more difficult to process than the prospect of seeing my parents alive. They maybe potentially who knows for sure exist in another dimension I could maybe potentially who knows for sure travel to with god damn pirate money. But the letters. The letters were in front of me, real and full of grief. They were tiny ribbons of memory linking me to a time I lived through, but barely remember. Thumbing through them, I could see that they had collected them from around the time my parents died when I was just 5 years old. They were all addressed to me; they were filled with stories of the three of us, of when I was the daughter in a little family and not the orphaned cousin, niece, granddaughter of an only-ever extended family.
Dear Julie, For Little Juliana, To Julie-Bell, Dear Jules.
“One time I babysat you and we ended up at the Art Institute and a burly security guard yelled at me for letting you run around, but you loved the paintings and then we had ice cream. You liked mint chocolate chip.” Uncle Simon, zoologist
“You were the most beautiful baby. Your apgar score was 10 and your dad said your cord fell off at exactly two weeks, right on schedule. I never heard you cry.” Grandpa Gene, doctor
“You loved yellow roses, just like your mother. She had them in their wedding and you had yellow roses painted in your room.” Grandma Stella, botanist
“I’m sorry about your parents. You are very good at writing on the sidewalk with chalk and you like to pretend fairies lived behind your house.” Cousin Ada, mathematician
These were little notes jotted quickly on cards. It must have been during a wake. They were sad and raw and tinged on the sides with grief. Many of them still in present tense, the burden of past tense too heavy. I sucked my breath in as I scanned my memory of all the backyards of all my family. Every single one had yellow rose bushes, tiny threads of remembrance woven into our daily lives.
I ignored all of this for several days. Eventually I avoided the kitchen all together since seeing the letters and the gold medallion strewn across the table made me think about the way my life could go once I made a decision. I had what I wanted, I argued with myself, all I ever wanted. I had a house, books with my name on them, good friends who were there for me, family who loved me. And there sat this tiny coin that could upend everything I knew in my life, everything I held dear, for the chance at something I couldn’t even begin to understand. For the chance to wake up tomorrow and hug my parents, let them see who I grew into.
“You aren’t guaranteed tomorrow either,” my cousin Ada told me another handful of days later as she poured over the cards. “Seriously, Jules, did your parents dying teach you nothing? Every oncoming second has a million strings attached to it depending on which one you pull. I could leave now and be hit by a bus, stay and choke on a cookie, make it home fine and be bored. They’re all weighted the same.”
“Since when did you become a philosopher,” I shot back. “Let me have the arts, ok? You stick to the sciences.”
“I’m just saying that there isn’t a better choice here and so you should go with the obvious one,” she explained as if it were simple. But people who don’t have to make the decision could always boil the emotional parts down to simple and easy and obvious.
“And which one is that,” I asked, avoiding eye contact, because maybe I was overthinking it. Probably not. But maybe.
“Go see them,” she said gently, her hand over mine.
“And if I don’t come back,” I asked her, all the worries rushing into my voice as my throat closed and my chest tightened. All the unspoken fears she could read on my face about meeting two people who reached mythological status in my life, in all our lives, and find that I didn’t measure up. That smashing the past into the future was too much of a decision for any one person.
“Then it was nice knowing you, cuz,” she said, and then she punched me on the arm. “Can I have your house if you don’t come back?”
“Go home and be bored,” I said to her.
“See?” she said, grabbing cookies on her way out, “choose a string and pull it, Juliana. Easy.”
Except it wasn’t easy, I said out loud later that night on the back porch in conversation with the moon. I held the gold coin up, let the light reflect all the decisions. I had everything I wanted in this life save two people who maybe existed in another. Now, with nothing left to gain here, I suddenly found myself with everything to lose if I go there.
I took a deep breath, closed my eyes, and chose a string.
Today’s reader, Lauren Davies is a Podcast host and historical researcher, focusing on the criminal justice experiences of the Suffragette movement. She lives in South Wales.