A cosmic explosion from a single fiery point ten trillion trillion times hotter than the sun begins life as we know it nearly 13.8 billion years ago.
Nadine May Sincock does not exist, and then she does.
On July 26, 1969, a burst of sperms bombards the thick wall of her mother’s egg until one breaks through. Polarizing itself against further penetration, the fertilized egg becomes a zygote, the earliest expression of the female known as Nadine. DNA that did not exist a moment earlier forms. Sex, eye color, hair, and physical traits unique to Nadine are determined.
On day six, the embryo begins attaching to her mother’s uterus.
On day twenty-two, Nadine’s heart begins to beat, pumping blood different than her mother’s.
By the end of the third week, Nadine’s spinal column and nervous systems have developed and her liver, kidneys, and intestines have begun to form.
By week four, the fetus that will become Nadine has grown to 10,000 times the size of the zygote she began as. Her hair and skin are forming. By the end of the week, her mother knows she’s pregnant; the news is exciting to her parents. Her mother hopes for a girl; her father for another boy, a friend for her older brother.
By week eleven, Nadine is able to frown and smile. By week seventeen, she can dream. At forty weeks, Nadine enters the world outside her mother’s womb and breathes on her
At 10-43 seconds after the Big Bang, time and space churn together in a superheated, unearthly quagmire.
At 10-35 seconds, inflationary energy actuates a burst so explosive that, in that miniscule moment, it expands from a microscopic dot to fill the cosmos.
At 10-32 seconds, particles of matter and antimatter appear. Most of these end in a fabulous radiation explosion, but some pockets of matter remain.
At 10-6 seconds, in the continuing expansion of the universe, quarks commingle into protons and neutrons.
200 seconds after the Big Bang, in the roiling expanse we call space, neutrons and protons emerge, forming hydrogen and helium in billion-degree heat.
By the time 380,000 years have passed, the universe’s temperature drops to a balmy 1,000 degrees, creating a Brobdingnagian bay composed of three parts hydrogen to one part helium and becoming transparent.
Later, collapsed gases broil together, resulting in stars. Gravity’s inexorable pull gathers those stars into swirling, twirling galaxies, which then coalesce into clusters. Dark matter fuels
cosmic expansion. The Milky Way Galaxy emerges when space debris and other matter draw together the earth, its moon, and neighboring planets.
Life on Earth begins.
Nadine’s mother cuddles her, feeds her, sings to her, changes her, and loves her, occasionally wondering what her daughter will become. Will she grow up to be rich? Famous? A scholar? A doctor, lawyer, teacher, musician, or politician (not a corrupt one, of course, but a great one like Lincoln, Gandhi, or Churchill)? Although Nadine’s mother is none of these things, she likes to dream.
In the meantime, Nadine is developing in ways her mother cannot fathom. The white matter in her brain is growing rapidly and expansively. At two days old, she is learning in her sleep and adapting to outside stimuli. By five months, she can sense the difference between happy and sad, angry and satisfied. By six months, she recognizes a change in the speech patterns of her older brother, Jack, when he comes home and spouts off the French words and phrases he’s learning in preschool. By nine months, she can figure out which of her brother’s friends she can trust. By ten months, she recognizes who wields the authority in numerous settings. By the time she turns one, she can move her arms, legs, and torso to music. Her mother adds dancer to her mental list of possible professions for her daughter.
Is the Big Bang the end of existence for some other universe, some other species? Did another world exist before our own, begun by its own Big Bang, millions of years ago? Trillions of years ago? Did the term “years” have any meaning then? Was there time? Did the other universe (if there was another universe) run on the same principles as our own? Was there life?
Was there a world where intelligent beings lived? Did they share the world with other species? Did they care about other species? What were their relationships like? Did they divide themselves into subgroups and did each subgroup think of itself as better than others? Did they develop speech? Did they cooperate to invent the wheel? The printing press? Tools? Did they develop their own version of cars? Why? Did they see the need to travel at thirty, forty, fifty, ninety miles an hour? Did they travel faster than the speed of light? If so, where were they going to in such a hurry? Did they develop a way to communicate with others on the opposite side of their planet? Why? Did they worry about paying their bills? Did life lose meaning for them? Did they grow bitter and old? Did they die? (And, if they didn’t die, then where are they now?)
These are questions an inquiring mind would like answers to.
As Nadine grows, her senses acquaint her with the universe.
Reds, violets, fuchsias, and aquamarines burst into her consciousness in an endless but ever dwindling progression of firsts in her life. She sees these colors in flowers, sunsets, and paintings. By the time she’s three, Nadine opts for clothing vibrant with these hues, though she can’t express why she likes them. Is her unique DNA, twisted into spirals that would stretch to the sun and back four times if laid end to end, responsible for her preferences?
Her greedy sense of taste seeks out new flavors. The first time rhubarb—in the form of pie—touches her tongue, nerves send happy signals to her lips, eyes, and hands and she reaches for more.
The jazz her father introduces her to, full of bendy saxophones, mellow clarinets, tinkling pianos, and slinky solos surge through her, evoking unexpected but pleasant emotions.
Nadine never loses her delight over a new book’s scent, though a boy in fourth grade dubs her “book-smeller” and she sniffs in secret thereafter.
Nadine comes from hearty stock. Her ancestors on her mother’s side immigrated to America in 1715 from Scotland, settling in the Chesapeake Bay region, bringing with them Halloween, fiddles, and other things Nadine never learns about.
One of her ancestors collected clocks. When he died, Seamus Donaghy left behind forty seven timepieces, including: eight stop watches, eleven cuckoo clocks, one sundial, nine wristwatches, one hourglass, five pocket watches, two alarm clocks, one grandfather clock, three chime/mantel clocks, and six other wall clocks. He took as many of these with him to the next world as Nadine will of her possessions.
When she’s nine, Nadine wonders what’s at the edge of the universe.
Other questions line up after that one. While she lies in bed at night at age fifteen, she’s troubled by larger issues. What’s death like? What happens after you die? Is there a heaven and a hell, as her best friend Mindy believes? If there is, why don’t more people know about it and talk about it? If there isn’t, then what is the purpose of life?
On further reflection, she decides that the question of life’s purpose remains regardless of our eternal fate.
When Nadine is eighteen, she wins the Miss Chesapeake Bay Beauty Contest. Though she’s felt self-conscious about the size of her hips since seventh grade, the judges at the contest, including two handsome local celebrities, decide she’s the best the area has to offer. (This
observation does not quell Nadine’s worries over her hips, especially after she sees her bathing suit shot in the Chesapeake Bay’s quarterly, “Goings On in the Bay Community.”) “Don’t combust, Nadine,” Mindy, who tends to be overly dramatic, tells her. “You won. Anyone else would be thrilled.”
The title is Nadine’s for a year. She never enters another contest, never reaches for another crown.
Some Big Bang theorists contend that the universe was created ex nihilo, though others cast doubt on such an assertion. “Nothing cannot come from nothing,” they say. “There must be something—some One—behind it.”
Nadine eschews discussions over such issues. “I’d rather concern myself with more pressing matters,” she tells Mindy.
Nadine adopts a cosmogony similar to Hindu Vedics (though she is unaware of them): questions about primordial desire neither occur to nor impact her.
Cosmic inflation—the exponential expansion of space in the early stages of the universe—effectively explains the horizon, flatness, and magnetic monopoles problems of physical cosmology. Outside of physicists, cosmologists, and other scientifically inclined individuals, few speak of such things. Even after graduation from university—with a BA in English Literature—Nadine is not one of those few.
Nadine is celebrating the Fourth of July with Greg Adams, a man with chestnut eyes, a
slightly disjointed nose (which she’ll later find out is the result of a teenage brawl with a boy two years his senior), knobby elbows and knees, and a smile that makes her feel as though she’s swinging on a star. While fireworks above them burst into sparkling trails of blue, pink, yellow, white, and green, Greg takes Nadine’s hand and detonates a flurry inside her.
She decides she likes what her world, her universe, is at that moment: a polychromatic blend of smashing pleasure, explosive exhilaration, and raging contentment (she likes the tension in these incongruous ideas). When Greg yanks her up from the ground and kisses her, fireworks explode in her brain.
Nadine’s joy at her marriage to Greg dims a week after the ceremony. She’s setting up their studio apartment, located three blocks from the newspaper where he works as a sports reporter and a half-hour’s bus ride to her bank teller job. “Why do you want all this junk?” she asks, only half kidding, about several boxes full of sports memorabilia.
“You’ve got a lot of nerve questioning my stuff which, by the way, is worth a fortune,” he snaps and then scowls at the snow globe in her hand, one in a collection of thirty. “You’re the one with the junk.”
She wonders briefly if he would have acted this way if she had dimples like his previous girlfriend. When she was in second grade, Nadine used to jab her index fingers into her cheeks to create dimples. Later in life, she’ll discover that a woman named Isabella Gilbert invented a machine to make dimples in 1936.
On second thought, Nadine remembers that Greg dumped his last girlfriend. Dimples are apparently not as powerful a force in the universe as Nadine once believed.
Her internal sensors tell her that the clear cerulean sky outside the window of her life has dimmed, as though a gargantuan five-year-old has thrown the water he’s been dunking his
paintbrush in across the heavens. Drops of murky gray drip from Nadine’s heart. She never expected the elation she felt during her wedding and honeymoon to transform into tumult and discord.
“I was only playing with you,” she explains in a microscopic voice.
Greg stomps from the room.
What would Nadine’s life have been like if her looks, brain, family, place of birth, and a million, zillion other details had been different? Would she even be married to Greg?
Cosmologist Edwin Hubble helped to establish the field of extragalactic astronomy and observed that the further away distant galaxies are from ours, the faster they’re moving.
Phoenix will be the name of the baby growing in Nadine’s womb, the fruit of the sometimes fiery love, sometimes dark expanses between his parents.
Some days Nadine regrets not having listened to her parents’ advice before she married Greg: “Don’t you think you’re rushing things a little? You two have only been dating for two months. Take some time to get to know each other better.”
Her grandmother put it more succinctly: “Marry in haste, repent in leisure.” Tucked away in the drawers of Grandma’s mind are dozens of pithy sayings, ready to pull out and unfold at the perfect moment. Nadine’s parents wish that Grandma could remember things more relevant to her everyday life. Most days she can’t even remember where the bathroom is and gets confused about who’s who, often mistaking Nadine’s father for her grandfather.
Instead of waiting, Nadine and Greg eloped. That sure fixed them, Nadine often thinks, her inner self wagging its head at her.
Each day as her midsection expands, Nadine convinces herself that the baby will be good for her and Greg. Phoenix will be not only a symbol of change, but the means through which Greg will transform. His blistering outbursts and irrational anger will dissipate, reacting to an unseen force radiating from Phoenix.
Though Nadine is hopeful, she’s no naïf. Greg’s abuse so far has been verbal, not physical. If he ever raises a hand against this baby, though, she’ll make sure it never happens again. Greg’s Big Bang will signal not a beginning, but an end.
It’s likely that the universe consists of vast amounts of dark energy and dark matter that we cannot see. It’s also likely that our universe contains far more of these than of visible matter.
Nadine has been gathering up baby items like a black hole does matter. She scours the newspaper on Friday and Saturday to find garage sales featuring baby items, circling each with a thick red marker. She leafs through every flyer in the Sunday paper for items she’ll need and makes a list of stores to visit during the week. She’s stockpiling her purchases in the room she and Greg have set aside in the two-bedroom ranch house they’ve moved to. So far she’s found a crib, a playpen, oodles of baby boy clothes to fill the cute chest of drawers someone was letting go for $8.00, other clothes that will dress Phoenix until he’s at least four (she might as well get them now while they’re on sale; besides, who knows how busy she’ll be in four years or what the economy will be like?); a walker that she’s not entirely sure she’ll use because of some articles
she’s read about them, but at least she’ll have it and can decide later; a Johnny Jump Up; a baby bouncer; two car seats, one for when he’s a newborn, another for later—she’ll keep her eyes peeled for the next size up; several activity centers, one for the crib, one for the playpen, and one that’s a separate unit she can relocate at will; a swing; crib sheets; packs and packs of disposable diapers; a lamp decorated with wooden animals in primary colors; a port-a-crib for trips; bottles and pacifiers, of which she has ten and seventeen respectively; crib blankets; and shoes that are so cute. She has other items that she’s lost track of because they’re stuffed in the closet where Greg won’t see them. “Do we really need all this junk?” he asks, often. She answers with a long sigh and, “Babies these days require a lot of stuff. Ask anyone.” Then Greg mutters something about chaos and walks away. At least he’s a little nicer to her these days.
One theory about the universe posits that ours is but one of an infinite number of spaces, each acting and reacting separately to the forces they hold.
Sometimes Nadine wonders if there’s another Nadine or perhaps many other entities known as Nadine in parallel universes. Are other Nadines fretting over the fifty pregnancy pounds they’ve gained? Do other Gregs snark about how big those Nadines’ butts have become? Are the breasts of the other Nadines hard and large as grapefruits? Do stretch marks evidence the growth of their babies? Will they also name their boys, if they have boys, Phoenix?
The possibilities are interesting to contemplate.
After the discomfort of her last month of pregnancy, when she feels she’s carrying an animated watermelon inside; after fifty-six hours of labor, including back labor so intense all she can do is moan and writhe and beg for drugs from her obstetrician, who is one-hundred percent committed to “natural childbirth”; after a bowling ball squeezes out of her vagina, ripping as it goes; after the doctor stitches up the carnage left behind following the worst pain of Nadine’s life (including breaking a leg and using the road as a body wipe when she bolted face-first off her bike)…
…After all that, birds join together in celebratory song, church bells clang, the sky explodes with rainbow colors hundreds of times brighter than normal, and her heart bursts with uncontainable joy. Nadine likes to think in colossal terms and recognizes this as an exaggeration, but the truth is just as good: the birth of her baby makes her happier than she’s ever been before and thinks she’ll ever be again.
Even Greg smiles at Phoenix, though he returns the baby to her after holding him only briefly. “Don’t you want to hold him some more?” Nadine asks. She’s kind of tired after all those “afters.”
His mouth is a prune. “No. You’re better at it.”
“I’m sick of your shit, Nadine,” Greg yells, kicking over a pile of magazines she’s saved to enjoy when she has a few spare moments. “I’m going out. Clean up your garbage for a change, would you? I’m tired of living with a slob.”
Greg goes to his favorite bar to hang out with friends. Strangers come in, looking for a fight. Greg gladly complies. One of them has a knife. Greg is dead before the ambulance races to his rescue.
Nadine learns all this from a young cop named Sam Something who won’t meet her eyes. “I’m sorry for your loss,” he says at the end.
With three-year-old Phoenix asleep in the next room, Nadine cries herself to sleep.
This is her fault.
“If the rate of expansion one second after the Big Bang had been smaller by even one part in 100 thousand million million, the universe would have collapsed before it ever reached its present size,” writes Stephen Hawking in A Brief History of Time.
How would Nadine’s life have been different under changed circumstances? She thinks about this though she’s never been schooled in theoretical physics.
How can Nadine compensate to Phoenix for the death of his father?
Greg was not a perfect father. In fact, he might have damaged Phoenix far more than helping him had he lived. Nevertheless, Nadine is stuck on this: Phoenix will never again have the opportunity to know or speak with his father. He’ll never be able to play, wrestle, argue, fish, or do a thousand other things with him. She’s to blame, since her failure as a wife and homemaker led to Greg’s foul mood that evening, which led to his going out, which led to the bar fight, which led to his death.
A very small action, she concludes, can result in cataclysmic results. She fears that her future actions will likewise impact her son.
She must take control and atone for her misdeeds by providing Phoenix with everything within her budget and power. She begins with toys. If other kids have boxes and shelves full of stuff to play with, Phoenix will have rooms full. Nadine doesn’t earn much from her job as a bank loan officer, but she’ll spend as much as she can afford to furnish Phoenix with things that
will bring him joy. She dedicates her weekends to garage sale-ing and hunting down bargains at local stores.
Remarkably, scientists have discovered that, beginning roughly seven and a half billion years after the Big Bang, the universe began to expand at an ever-increasing rate.
Some might find this fact alarming.
By the time Phoenix turns fifteen, Nadine’s house is so jammed with expressions of her affection, most of which she’s lost track of, that she and Phoenix must walk through their home along pathways lined with three-foot piles. He complains that the smell of rotting food even penetrates aluminum soda cans in the refrigerator and that roaches crawling over him have woken him up. Nadine accordingly buys a cooler for storing the drinks and dozens of roach traps. “Roaches check in, but they don’t check out,” she says triumphantly.
Over the years, Nadine has been curious about Phoenix’s friends, since he stopped inviting other kids to the house when he was five. She reads somewhere about something called doorbell dread, but when, with trembling lips, she asks him if he’s ashamed to bring friends home, he laughs bitterly. “No. Are you kidding? I can count my friends on two fingers and even they have no interest in entering this toxic waste dump.”
When she starts to cry, he wraps her in his arms and shh-shhs her. “I’m sorry,” he says.
Her parents, who stopped visiting when Phoenix was ten, sometimes gently encourage her to get rid of stuff, “At least so you’ll have more room to move around.”
“I can’t,” she answers, blinking fast and hard each time. “This is Phoenix’s life, his
history. How can I ask him to part with things that mean so much to him?”
“Ma, I don’t know how to help you,” Phoenix says when he’s eighteen and graduating from high school. By now, the house is so jammed that they can’t use either the kitchen or bathroom; they find creative ways to compensate.
Phoenix is fighting back tears when he tells her, “I’m moving out. I can’t live like this anymore. You’ll have to clean the house if you want me to come back.” He lives only two streets away, but to Nadine he seems as far away as the moon.
She visits him one weekend and is startled to find his apartment almost completely bare. He’s taken on something called the “100 Thing Challenge,” which is minimalist living to the extreme. “How can you live this way?” she asks again and again.
“More possessions don’t make life better, Ma.”
She leaves shaking her head, wondering if he’ll allow her to contribute some items essential to survival.
Some have theorized the universe will end in a Big Crunch, where all matter collapses in on itself thanks to gravity.
The Big Rip, the Big Freeze, the Big Bounce, and heat death are other possible endings.
One method used to determine the likelihood of each conjecture is by “weighing” the universe. Such a concept, if someone were to mention it to Nadine, would sound utterly nonsensical. How, she’d wonder, would that even be possible?
Shortly after Nadine turns 44, the health department sends an inspector to investigate claims that her home is a health hazard. The man slips a facemask over his mouth and nose when he enters. While he’s examining one room, she catches a glimpse of the clipboard he’s making notes on: “pile of bags near the bathroom likely filled with excrement,” “smell of rotting flesh; when asked, subject said one or two cats disappeared a while back,” “mold and mildew everywhere,” “doubtful whether house is structurally sound,” “fire hazard,” “fleas and traces of rats or mice present,” “recommend removing woman.”
A day after his visit, the health department orders Nadine to pay huge fines and to either clean the house or face eviction.
102310: the number of infinitesimally minute incidents that have shaped who Nadine is.
She’s sure that, back in space and time, there were fiery, fantastic phenomena that affected her life in ways she can’t fathom. Lacking recollection of such, she recalls more quotidian influences: the gold finish of the family car her father bought when she was seven; the stranger who raced her to the emergency room when she’d been stung by hundreds of bees; being locked out of one course in university so that she was forced to substitute it with another that, in the end, became her favorite; and her grandmother’s pithy aphorisms that have stuck with Nadine in times of trouble.
She knows that if she carries out her plan, she’ll be rejecting any further influences, positive or negative.
Sometimes, in the moments just before sleep, a thought slams her in the gut: she’s spent her money, her days, and her years on things that have slowly, steadily stolen her life away. When she wakes up, depression soots her world.
Has her life counted for anything at all? What good would come of continuing on?
But she a son. How would her suicide affect him? For once in your life, she commands herself, think of someone else.
Two nights before she must leave her home for good, she sighs deeply as she curls up in the hallway on the blanket that has become her bed. A mountain of boxes tower overhead. How will she survive?
The next day never comes, at least not for Nadine. When she fails to show up for work on Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday, a coworker arrives to investigate.
Rescue workers spend an hour extracting her body from beneath boxes of things she forgot about years ago.
Nadine’s cremated body becomes part of the universe in a way she never contemplated.