Recipe for a Universe

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This time it happened in the middle of a lecture. I kept on course, but answered that last question without really getting to the root of the inquiry. How could I, when the heat on my back and hips whispered a more troubling question… where did my youth go? Hot crawled up my back like a vengeful monkey while I moved on to explain hidden variables. I had been well prepared for this lesson, but my metaphors panicked and fled, leaving an empty awkward space between me and my students.  
 
“Hot flash, darling.” it taunted “You’re officially getting old.”
 
I was fully in its grip as it circled my shoulder blades and climbed my neck. Face flush and trying to ignore that my blouse was plastered to my back, I took another question, but stumbled ridiculously, merely scratching at the surface of entanglement. I would have given a C for that answer.
 
“Time’s up. See you tomorrow.” No one protested the early dismissal. And the flash retreated just as quickly as my students.
 
I collapsed into a seat in the deserted front row, grabbing a syllabus to fan myself. This wasn’t the first demoralizing intrusion of the semester and while it was true that my youth is mostly gone and I really am getting older by the minute, I really didn’t appreciate the now regular dramatic reminders. The worst part was the power of its symbolism, that emotional response to a physiological event. One that wasn’t even painful, just uncomfortable and embarrassing. There must be a way to separate the two. I needed to observe it differently. I needed to face the next flash head on.
 
I didn’t have long to wait. That night, the flash came as I was falling asleep. I woke drenched in sweat but remembered my resolve and resisted kicking my legs free of the covers. I concentrated on fully feeling it, fully examining it.  Under the sweat and anxiety, there was something familiar. I had felt this before, and it wasn’t unpleasant. I tried to capture the memory, but the flash retreated.
 
With each episode, the vaporous memory would ride the flash up my back, only to dissipate before I could recognize it.
 
Until it came to me in the supermarket. I stopped in my tracks by the sauce jars and semolina, and waited, hands gripped on the shopping cart.  Heat spread across me and I closed my eyes. Hot. Like the sun. Like the sun on my back. Like the sun on a beach. Like sunbathing and getting too warm and needing to roll over, or better yet, take a dip in the ocean.
 
Incredible, I thought. It feels like vacation.
 
I learned to close my eyes on each subsequent flash and summon the same picture: me lying on a secluded beach, smelling of coco oil, and listening to the surf. I began to look forward to each episode.
 
At the end of that semester, I had my class ask each other questions to prepare for the final. One student still seemed to struggle with the concept of multiverses. A young woman with a tattoo of a melting watch on her arm began to explain. She coolly eased into superposition and observation, saying all the right things, just as I felt the sun spread across my back. I lowered my head and closed my eyes, just for a moment’s indulgence, satisfied to hear her talk about being in two places at once.
 
Then I heard the roll and crash of the waves and the wind in the palms. I sat up slowly and opened my eyes to the brilliant white sand and azure sky. Sweat had dampened the back of my swimsuit and I was a little disoriented from the heat and sunlight. I stood up and made my way into the surf, grabbing the sand with my toes as each wave crashed into me. Each crest was an event, but it was also part of an endless salty wave.
 
I ran my fingers through my hair. Long hair, like I’ve never had before.
 
“But I still can’t wrap my head around the idea of more than one universe. If the concept is untestable with the laws of physics in this universe, how would we even know if we encounter an alternate universe?”
 
I opened my eyes to the complaint, this time to florescent lights in a classroom that ached to be repainted.
 
“Maybe we already know.”  
 
They were all listening now, some with obvious scepticism.
 
“Look, I won’t pretend to know how we could experience another universe or exactly what another universe might look like. But if it is the closure of possibilities in our lives that separates multiverses, then could it be that they are never far from us? And if there are a lot of them, it stands to reason that some of them may look pretty familiar. I’m just saying that there is an information gap associated with certain phenomenon. Dreams. Hallucinations. Meditative states. What if we didn’t need technology to access them? What if they are closer to us than we think?”
 
“Well for one thing, people would be checking out all the time,” one student argued. “You’d never know if someone was actually somewhere else when you were with them.”
 
“And that isn’t the case with everyone around you now?”
 
“But dreams? Hallucinations? Those are in our head,” countered another student. “They’re just chemistry and electrical impulses”.
 
“And what is the recipe for a universe?”
 
With that, the bell rang.
 
I waited at my desk for the last backpack to be zipped and carried out. An empty classroom holds the residue of so many students: so many possibilities. I found my seat in the front row, leaned my head back, and closed my eyes to the universe. The sun seemed to shine orange on my eyelids and I could hear the gulls in the surf. Then I opened my eyes to the impossible beauty of all possible worlds.

About the Author: 
Grace is a middle-aged archaeologist in Phoenix, Arizona. She knows a thing or two about hot flashes and science.

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