Claire sits alone in the back of the lecture hall, high above the other seats, fiddling with a folded piece of paper. She watches as people trickle in below her, mostly in groups of two or more. Their eyes scan the steep slope of seats for friends or for enough empty spaces to accommodate their party. Once seated, some pull out notebooks and pens, others laptops.
There is a dizzying sense of nostalgia here; the low key chatter, the tick of the clock on the wall, the podium and screen at the front of the room, the tiny hinged desks on the chairs – these are all reminiscent of the four years Claire spent at university. The familiarity breeds a strange anxiety deep in her gut – like a bad dream about a forgotten assignment that never actually existed.
She shakes her head and looks at the clock — the lecture should start in less than five minutes, but the professor still has not arrived.
Claire unfolds the wrinkled paper in her hands and checks the details there once again:
Newport University Public Lecture Series
The Size of Infinity
Presented by: Professor Artemis Bell
Friday, November 17th
6:30 PM – 7:30 PM
Brighton Physics Building – 1-D
Hyun-Sook had given Claire the flyer a couple of days ago after Claire had read to her from a book of translated Korean fairy tales. When Claire had returned the book to the shelf she’d noticed a number of titles set apart from the others: books about theoretical physics, complex mathematics, the history of space travel, and others.
“What are these?”
Hyun-Sook had smiled and confessed her fascination with physics. When Claire expressed her surprise Hyun-Sook had given her the flyer, saying nothing more than:
“You should attend. I think you’ll find it… enlightening.”
Claire had been intrigued and suspicious of Hyun-Sook’s mischievous smile. Now here she was — it wasn’t as though she had any other plans on a Friday night.
Claire looks up from the flyer when the room is suddenly plunged into silence; a broad, crooked old woman is approaching the podium. Though she wears an unfamiliar tweed suit and half-moon glasses, Claire recognizes her immediately.
Oh yes, she thinks, very enlightening.
Instead of standing at the podium, Art removes a small, portable microphone from behind it and clips it onto her jacket.
“If I stand at that thing none of you will be able to see me,” she says before pausing to reconsider, “Hmm, actually maybe that’d be better for you.”
The audience chuckles as she manages to conceal herself behind its wooden girth. Art reappears and grins. She pulls a small remote from her pocket and clicks it, triggering the projector hanging from the ceiling to begin its presentation. The lights dim.
“Infinity is a terrifying thing,” Art begins, “It has driven mathematicians mad – and I mean that quite literally –and still to this day exists just beyond our understanding.”
Claire sits forward in her seat, already enthralled by Art’s words and conversational tone. She feels more like she’s being told a campfire tale than sitting in a lecture hall with a hundred or more other people.
“What most people don’t realize… is that infinity doesn’t just mean a series that goes on forever. There are different sizes of infinity. Yep. Just wrap your minds around that for a minute. I’ll wait.”
Art – or Professor Bell – continues, proving her seemingly bizarre statement. She takes great care to provide examples and visual demonstrations so that even Claire, who has never had very much interest in math, is able to follow along without too much confusion. Or at least, not any more than anyone might feel while trying to conceptualize various classifications of unfathomable size.
Art’s presentation isn’t all numbers and complex proofs either: she takes time to delve into the history of the mathematicians who built the framework of the modern understanding of infinity, many of whom met unfortunate ends. She explores the cultural and scientific significance, and even the peculiar religious significances, using language that feels colloquial but retains a sort of elegance in its simplicity.
When she finishes, the screen flickering to a final slide – starkly white in the darkness with only the words “THANK YOU” in bold black font – the audience remains steeped in silence. When the lights begin to brighten Claire finds herself awakening out of a stupor, suddenly aware of the other bodies surrounding her. There is the faint pattering of applause, and soon it crashes through the audience like a wave. Claire joins in.
“Thank you,” Art says, “I’d love to take your questions but it looks as though I’ve went a bit over time. If there’s anything you’d like to ask just come see me on your way out; I’ll be here for another half hour or so.”
Claire glances at the clock; it is almost ten to eight. She hadn’t noticed the time passing so quickly.
People begin pouring down the stairs and out through the doors at the bottom, but Claire remains seated until everyone has departed except the eager few peppering Art with questions. Only then does she slowly make her way down the steps, the wrinkled flyer and her winter jacket held tight in her hands. At the bottom she sits in one of the chairs and watches as Art shakes hands and smiles her warm and wrinkled smile at a very posh-looking couple. When they leave, Art finally acknowledges her. Claire can’t help but grin as the older woman puts her hands on her hips and frowns.
“And I suppose Hyun-Sook sent you here?”
“How did you know?” Claire asks.
Instead of answering, Art shrugs and says, “Hungry?”
Claire tilts her head left and right, not wanting to admit she still hasn’t had dinner.
“Come on,” Art gestures her to follow and heads through the heavy metal doors into the hallway, “I just have to get my coat.”
Claire follows Art through the building, stopping briefly in an office where a broad, burly gentleman sits hunched over a laptop.
“How’d it go?” he asks Art when they enter.
“Horribly,” Art says, squeezing past him to grab a brown and white fleece-lined jacket draped over an adjacent chair.
The man looks to Claire instead. “How did it actually go?”
“It was amazing,” Claire says.
The man laughs when Art snorts and pushes past him back into the hall.
“This is Claire, by the way,” Art says, wiggling into her coat, “Claire, this is Dr. Chad Neuman. He’s a pain in the behind.”
“See if I ever let you borrow my office again,” Dr. Neuman retorts, then quickly adds, “Nice to meet you Claire. How do you know Dr. Bell?”
“You will,” Art says while Claire is recovers from the disorientation of hearing Art referred to as Dr. Bell, “And she’s… my student, I guess you could say.”
Claire and Dr. Neuman look at Art in confusion, but she turns and begins walking away before either have time to say anything.
“See you later! Thanks for letting me borrow the office.”
Dr. Neuman shakes his head and Claire waves a quick goodbye.
Outside, snow is falling in fat flakes that stubbornly settle onto the pavement and dead grass. Already there is a patchy blanket covering the ground. Art sets off through the campus, and Claire has to struggle to keep up with the woman’s short, but rapid, strides.
“Where are we going?” Claire asks her after they leave the campus and a number of bus stops behind.
“I told you. Food.”
Yes, but where? Claire wonders, saving her breath for warming her icy hands.
After several blocks they emerge onto a main street filled with traffic, light, and life. The street – actually called Main Street, Claire notices – is lined with rows of shops, restaurants, and bakeries, obviously hoping to appeal to the student population. Claire even notices a tiny independent movie theatre, its old-fashioned sign lit with bright flashing bulbs. Even from across the street she can smell the buttery scent of popcorn, and her stomach growls loudly.
“Almost there,” Art reassures her.
To Claire’s surprise they don’t stop at any of the hip little dining spots on the street, but instead enter a shabby comic book store tucked away in between a pita shop and a consignment clothing store. Art turns sideways to hobble through the narrow aisles between bins of bargain comics and shelves of new releases, and Claire follows close behind. The clerk – a young girl with vibrant pink curls – is busy with another customer and doesn’t seem to notice their passing.
When they reach the back of the store Art suddenly grabs Claire’s hand and tugs her through a doorway and down a steep flight of wooden stairs.
“Are you sure it’s okay…?” Claire begins, but her words are lost as they rush through a narrow hallway seemingly made of cement and cobwebs. It’s becoming dark – so dark that the only thing keeping Claire from turning back the way they came is Art’s rough hand around her own.
There is a click of a door handle and then blinding electrical light.
A washroom? Claire thinks, looking around her. There are four stalls – all of them empty – and a line of cracked porcelain sinks. There are a couple of posters by the door advertising local events and bands. And the necessary bathroom graffiti – black marker encouragement on the sea green tile and initials carved into the metal stall doors.
“Where… where are we?” Claire manages, surprised by her shortness of breath.
Art ignores her and washes her hands in one of the sinks.
“Best damned diner in all of Newport,” she answers after wiping her hands on her tweed pants. She pushes the door on the opposite wall from where they entered – Claire can’t seem to find the door they came from now – and extends an arm in presentation.
Beyond the door, just as Art had promised, is the shiny interior of retro 1950’s style diner. Lining the walls is a variety of paraphernalia not only from the 50’s but from every era between then and now. Comics from the 60’s and 70’s. Video game posters from the early 80’s and 90’s. Records from the 50’s and cult-classic movie posters from every possible generation. The effect is thematically haphazard, but visually comforting. Whoever decorated the place had an eye for colour and design at least.
Art walks past Claire and chooses a booth against the window. Eventually Claire follows, sitting across from her while still admiring the diner’s unique charm. A male server approaches them with a pad of paper and a pen.
“Oh hi Art! I didn’t see you come in,” he says. He is tall and broadly muscular, with his dark brown hair slicked back into a bun. His dress is casual – jeans and a white t-shirt with one of those half aprons filled with pens and straws and extra change.
“Evening, Dayyar. Just here with my friend Claire. She’s new to Newport so I had to show her the best place to grab a late dinner.”
Dayyar raises an eyebrow, “Just a late one?”
“Okay okay. They’re the best any time of day. But right now it’s late and we’re starving,” Art says.
“Well I know what you want,” Dayyar says, but then turns to Claire, “Would you like more time?”
“Um,” Claire hesitates, her mind having been dragged from her complaining stomach, “What would you recommend?”
“House burger and fries, of course. We also have all-day breakfast, chicken pot pie…”
“The last one sounds great, thanks.”
Dayyar scribbles something down on his pad and asks them for drinks before departing.
Now that he is gone Claire snatches the opportunity to try to pin Art down. “So… where are we?”
“I told you,” Art says, examining a dessert menu. Or perhaps hiding behind it.
Claire notices then, the name and logo on the back: Yesterday’s Family Diner. She smiles at the confusion the name might cause in conversation.
“So, how come we had to come in the back way?” Claire says.
“Mmm… I hope you save room for pie,” Art says before sliding Claire the menu. When Claire glares she continues, “Check your phone.”
“Huh?” Claire asks, already reaching into the pocket of her coat, now in a heap on the bench beside her.
“Tell me how to get home from here. I can’t remember what bus to take,” Art says.
Claire opens her phone’s map application as Dayyar brings their drinks. She begins to type 53 Ganymede Ave when she notices the GPS indicator on the map.
“That can’t be right,” she says, refreshing the page. When that doesn’t work she types in the name of the diner and enters the address in manually. The results are the same. She looks up to Art in confusion.
“We’re already half way home,” Claire says, before turning to look out the window. Outside the snow is beginning to pile up into uneven hills and wind-swept valleys. She looks past the snow and the dim shops across the street to the skyline, searching for a landmark to orient herself by. She notes the apartment towers and the unique architecture of the downtown hotels – the same ones she can see from her bedroom windows. They confirm what her phone has already told her. “That’s impossible.”
“Well I’d say the fact that we’re here is proof to the contrary.” Art sips a coffee, watching Claire’s reaction through the swirling steam.
“Do they know?” Claire asks, sweeping her hand around to indicate the other patrons and the staff, “Does Dayyar know?”
Art shrugs. “Probably not, but then again what does probability have to do with it? We’re here and that isn’t likely either.”
“Is it this town?” Claire selects this question from a swarm of others, all of them almost painful in their urgency. Had Art brought her here? Had she dragged her through that creepy hallway because she wanted to give Claire the opportunity to ask these questions?
“No,” Art says, meeting Claire’s eyes and leaning close as if in private confession, “That much I’m sure of. I think… I think it’s us. Something about us has changed. You know like the illusion of the dog? The Dalmatian? At first it looks like just a bunch of random spots, but if you can pick out the dog once then you can never see that same random assortment of dots ever again. Your brain wants to pick the picture out of the chaos.”
“So… you couldn’t always see the dog either?”
Art shakes her head. “Hell no. Not until I was at least your age. Not until I met Sara. She’s so steeped in… in… I don’t know… improbabilities… that she has a tendency to open some people’s eyes to them.”
“So… everyone at Ganymede knows about this stuff?” Claire asks, unsure what words could ever adequately express her experiences over the past few months.
Again Art shakes her head. “No. Some have an inkling. Others are oblivious. And Marcus was tangled up in it long before he ever got to Gany.”
“Why are you telling me this?”
Art grins a toothy half-grin, “You remind me of me of course.”
“Oh so that’s why you like me so much,” Claire retorts.
“Ha! Damn right.”
Dayyar brings their food then, and their conversation is interrupted. He leaves a fragrant, golden-crusted pie in front of Claire, and her stomach immediately growls in anticipation. She is slightly jealous of Art’s spread however – two sunny eggs, some bacon, two fluffy pancakes, and a bowl of fresh fruit. She makes a note for her next visit.
They eat in silence at first, enjoying their meals, but it isn’t long before Claire succumbs to another question. “How do the doors work? The shortcuts? Are they everywhere?”
“Don’t know,” Art answers through a syrupy mouthful. She swallows and continues, “Some I’ve stumbled on, and others… well, Sara’s made some of them herself.”
“She made them?” Claire thinks back to the attic, to Declan’s footsteps above her. She phrases her next question carefully, not wanting to give away his secret. “Is that what happened to the tower attic? I mean, why it’s missing?”
Art’s mouth purses together – the beginnings of a guilty smile. “Uh, that’s my fault.”
Claire tilts her head in askance.
“I was a renter. Am a renter. Anyway, that’s how we met. 53 Ganymede’s history goes back long before Sara, and before it was hers it was her parents’. Let’s just say… for various reasons… that they didn’t like me much.”
“I can’t imagine why,” Claire jokes.
Art’s face is rigid, the deep lines between her brow stern. “Yes, I’m sure you can.”
Claire drops her eyes, out of guilt and frustration. Could even people who took care of a magical place like 53 Ganymede – the people who raised Sara — really be so backwards? The thought weighs heavily inside of her, threatening to drag her down into a lonely emptiness always lurking in the darkest corners of her mind. She’s grateful that Art is smiling when she looks up again.
“We were adults, and they realized there wasn’t much they could do, but they kicked me out anyway and put a strict curfew on their daughter. Wasn’t that uncommon back then,” she leans forward, and whispers conspiratorially, “That’s when Sara made the doors. One opened in an old antique shop in the daytime. The other in Gany’s basement, at night.”
“So you had a place to stay and she could visit you at night,” Claire finishes, and Art nods. But one thing still didn’t make sense, “But why can’t Sara find the doors now?”
Art’s smile fades, “That’s the strange thing. Well, stranger than usual anyway. The doors were only supposed to be visible to the person who lived in the attic – me – and the people they wanted to invite in – Sara. She made them that way. But after her parents retired and left Sara the house, I moved into Sara’s room on the first floor and the doors vanished.”
“They vanished?” Claire asks. But then how had Declan found his way into the attic in the first place? Claire’s mind was spinning as much as it had contemplating the unfathomable reach of infinity back in the lecture hall.
“Yep. One of the few things I’ve ever seen stump Sara.”
“What were the other things?” Claire sits on the edge of her seat, her stomach full and her mind begging for more.
“When I asked her to marry me,” Art winks at Claire, “And a couple other things. Usually people. I don’t think she’s got a good grasp on Marcus for one. And there’s another boy I see her talk to sometimes, but whenever I ask who he is she gets confused and can’t seem to remember.”
Declan, Claire decides.
“What about Hyun-Sook? Why did she send me to see you tonight?”
“Oh, you mean Professor Park?”Art nods in confirmation of the question Claire is about to ask before continuing: “Hard to say. She keeps to herself a lot these days. We both used to teach at the university. She’s retired now, and I’m mostly-retired, but we used to collaborate a fair bit. I’m the one who told her about 53 Ganymede when her husband… well… when she was looking for a place to stay.”
“What field was she in?” Claire realizes the answer before Art can respond: “Physics?”
“Well, this certainly has been enlightening,” Claire remarks, realizing how quickly she had assigned the residents of 53 Ganymede their own caricatures, flimsy facets of the people they really were. Hyun-Sook had seen through that and, like Sara, she had given Claire a new perspective on the seemingly ordinary people around her.
Dayyar returns and asks whether they want dessert.
“Well Claire, think you can manage it?” Art asks.
It’s tempting – the pictures on the laminate menu all look divine – but Claire can’t deny that she’s full. And exhausted. “I think one pie is enough for me for tonight. Another time though?”
The question is directed at Art, and she nods once in agreement. She may have more experience in this strange world than Claire, but in many ways Claire feels that they are still outsiders together, both seeking a companion who can share in their confusion as well as their awe.
Art covers the bill and they step out the front door into the stinging night air.
“So, you have any other shortcuts to get us home?” Claire asks as she shoves her hands into her pockets and shrugs her shoulders up almost to her ears.
“Better save that breath for walking,” Art answers, “We’ve got a long, cold journey ahead of us.”
The snow crunches under Art’s boots as she scuttles along over the lamp-lit sidewalk. Claire sighs a frosty-white cloud and hurries after her friend, eager for the warmth of home.
Photo by David Werbrouck on Unsplash