Authors: Andrew Sean Greer
Also by Andrew Sean Greer
How It Was for Me
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THE PATH OF MINOR PLANETS.
Copyright © 2001 by Andrew Sean Greer. All rights reserved. Printed in the United States of America. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews. For information, address Picador USA, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10010.
Picador® is a U.S. registered trademark and is used by St. Martin’s Press under license from Pan Books Limited.
Excerpt from the poem “The Different Stars” by W. S. Merwin is from
The Carrier of Ladders.
Copyright © 1970 by W. S. Merwin. Reprinted by permission of the Wylie Agency, Inc.
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Greer, Andrew Sean.
The path of minor planets : a novel / Andrew Sean Greer.—1st ed.
1. Astronomers—Fiction. 2. Friendship—Fiction. 3. Comets—Fiction. I. Title.
PS3557.R3987 P38 2001
First Edition: October 2001
10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1
This is not a book about science. Nonetheless, the scientific elements required research, and I am especially indebted to David Levy’s
The Quest for Comets
Observing Comets, Asteroids, Meteors, and the Zodiacal Light
(with Stephen J. Edberg);
by Carl Sagan and Ann Druyan; Patrick Moore’s editions of the
Yearbook of Astronomy;
The Stars Are Not Enough
by Joseph C. Hermanowicz. I also spoke with scientists and their children, including Meriko Blink and my own parents, Drs. William and Sandra Greer, both trained in science but not in astronomy. I apologize if I have occasionally tinkered with the universe to suit my story.
Although numerous friends advised on the title, David Gilbert created it, and J. Robert Lennon, Alicia Paulson, Allyson Goldin, Marissa Pagano, Sandra Greer, William Greer, and Ruth Fassinger all offered careful and patients edits. Almost a third of this book was written during a summer residency at the Millay Colony for the Arts in New York, and I am grateful for that time.
My editor, Josh Kendall, pushed for this book and spent long nights working on the manuscript with me. I’m also indebted to Frances Coady at Picador USA, as well as everyone at Burnes & Clegg.
Most important, I’m grateful to Bill Clegg, not only for his tireless reading of this novel in its many forms, but for his unwavering support and friendship.
If we knew what we needed if we even knew
The stars would look to us to guide them.
W. S. Merwin
Comets are vile stars. Every time they appear in
the south, something happens to wipe out the
old and establish the new.
—Li Ch’un Feng,
The sky always kept its word.
That’s how she had seen things since she was a little girl. Shouts might ring inside the house and teachers in school might grade unfairly, jealous of her knowledge, but if little Denise leaned out her window, begging the San Francisco fog to clear from the cliffs, she might catch Jupiter’s approach, or pluck a meteor from the night’s thick hide. So she spent her nights like this, staring from her window even when the fog lay heavy across the sky and made her shiver; she still knew the stars were behind it, as always, something to count on. And as she grew up, and came to know the world a little more, she grew more and more reliant on the night sky. In high school, in college, as the other girls giggled and saw movies and went on dates, Denise instead appeared late at night at the Palomar telescope, talking to the bewildered scientists, insisting on taking a look. She often got one. You would not exactly have called it girlhood—she mooned and daydreamed through the fifties like any teenybopper, but Einstein and handsome Oppenheimer were the posters on her walls, and when she went to sleep she traveled past the Horsehead Nebula in search of quasars. She was an odd child, and became an odd young woman as she grew. Her heart had little room for anyone; it was too crammed with stars. For a long time, she took their distant heat for love.
But now, on the deck of this ferry on the South China Sea, Denise understood that what she had felt was nothing like love. At twenty-five, she had finally felt the real thing and, as often happens the first time, she had chosen badly, fallen too heavily, and lost him. His name was Carlos. It was over within six months, but the affair had burrowed much deeper than she’d first suspected. When had an astronomical mistake ever felt like this? Denise, acting out the adolescence all the other girls had long since passed through, began to skip her graduate classes, miss her meals, spending days in bed in bitter agony. It became so bad that her mother, one sunny afternoon, arrived at Denise’s apartment in a green cloak and fedora, her gold hat pin glittering, bearing soft words and, hidden in her alligator purse, an airline ticket. She comforted her daughter, but when Denise saw the ticket brought out at her weakest moment, she understood two things: first, that her mother was paying her to forget Carlos, buying amnesia the way a sly tip gets a good table in a restaurant. And second, she knew she would accept.
It was a ticket to an event hosted by her professor, Dr. Swift, the famous discoverer of a comet. This year, 1965, was the year in which his comet had returned, beautifully, just as he had predicted, and to celebrate he was taking a group of colleagues and graduate students to the island where he had made his discovery. The excuse, for grant reasons, was to observe the meteor shower which, Swift also predicted, would be brightened this March by the arrival of his comet. It was already understood that these annual light shows occurred because Earth passed through the comet’s path, but Swift wanted to know if the recent passage of that parent body would replenish the meteors, causing a spectacular display. He wanted fireworks to follow his comet, and he had chosen the darkest corner of the world from which to view them. The celebrity of the day—Comet Swift—lay in the eastern sky just now, hidden by sunlight, a streaming Chinese kite. It would come again in 1977, 1989, and so on.
They were on their way to that island now, on an old wooden ferry from the mainland, braving the noonday sun that beat down on their heads like a mallet. All of the grad students—whether they luckily had been part of Swift’s grant, won their own awards, or scraped together money for the trip—were huddled in the violet shade of the boat’s canopy, hiding from the sun and laughing. Denise looked at them, gathered chatting together, and wondered if they had gone through what she’d felt. They were scientists, as well, passionate, arrogant. Had they grown up as stunted as she had, unable to cope when love at last approached? Or had they pruned their hearts like bonsai trees? How had they managed it?
Denise was managing by getting a little drunk. She was not used to drinking, but she’d brought a flask of bourbon along and it helped dull her mind a little. She was not what people expected of young women in 1965; her mind whirred on without her willing it. It covered every object with figures, trajectories, velocities, barnacling the world’s underside with calculations. It made her brilliant, the best student on the boat, obsessive, wearing sunglasses all the time to protect her night vision, but she felt this kind of madness also spoiled life a little. She wished, at times, that she had been born with a duller mind. This blundered love affair, for instance; her brain tugged at it relentlessly, a dog with a rag.
That is how Denise, twenty-five and nearly beautiful, came to sit on a coil of ropes, her face mottled with specks of light that fell from rips in the canopy; how she came to be drunk by the time they were halfway across the water.
“Isn’t this great?” she asked her friend Eli. She grinned, leaned out into the hot sun with her camera, and took a furtive picture of him writing in his book. The young man scowled, and tried to grab the camera, but she easily escaped. She had brought this to annoy him, along with an atomizer of water that she sprayed at him and his wife until Eli had to confiscate it. Ten minutes from now, he would have her camera as well.
“I don’t know what’s come over me, really,” Denise told him merrily.
“I’d guess a fifth of bourbon….”
Denise squinted under her white hat; the sun flashed like foil in the sky. She said, “Well, and who could blame me? I think I have license to drink.”
“Give me a sip,” he said quietly while his wife looked away. He gulped the bourbon happily, looking up at Denise. Gulls were cackling around them.
Faces are rooms, and Denise thought of her own as clean, rich, but carelessly arrayed. You might have said that, like furniture, all her best features were inheritances from her mother’s French family. You could tell at a glance, though, that while women before her might have been beautiful, she hadn’t any idea about how to use her looks. On her, they were fine but ordinary; she knew this, and accepted it. Denise felt she was a boarder in her own face; she leased its loveliness. What Denise had instead, of course, was her mind, and in her face you could in any moment see a thought sitting there in a chair, or in a corner, cross-legged on the tattered rug.
Denise laughed at Eli glugging her bourbon. “That’s enough,” she told him, grabbing the flask back and dropping it in her purse.
“Do I have to confiscate everything you have?”
She grinned and looked at him. Eli had changed so much even in the two years she’d known him: hair cut close, his goatee gone. When she first met him, in the hallway of the grad student offices, he’d seemed so long-haired and wild. His wife had smoothed him down, a young married man, like a cool bed in the morning.
“Make sure Kathy doesn’t fall over,” she told him and his head turned quickly to see his wife, a mysterious, bookish woman with glasses, long black hair and a slouch. She was leaning far over the railing, dropping bread into the water.
“Kathy!” he yelled, and the woman lifted her head without expression. She was too distant to hear correctly.
Denise said, “Ask her if she wants a drink.”
Eli watched his wife resuming her bread-toss, and the lit quarter of his face, that crescent, was bright with fear. In a moment, he turned back, and the shadow covered his expression. “She doesn’t want a drink.”
“I’ll ask her.”
“You know they’re going to take that booze away when we get there.”
She raised the half-empty flask and laughed. “I’m well aware!”
The canopy cracked in the wind, changing their view of the sea and the hot lavender sky. There was no island on the horizon now, either before them or behind.
“Spray me with the water,” she told him, and he took out the atomizer and did. She yelped and he smirked as the Muslim guards turned and watched.
Denise would look back, days later, on this scene when she felt dizzy, dry as tinder, sick with the waves and the way she’d let her mother buy her heart. She would look back so differently on it all— the scene on the boat would seem idyllic, sweet and bright with sun. Before the night was over, something was going to happen that would subtly change things for each of these scientists, for her and Kathy and Eli. She would think, years later, how funny it is that you can’t know which moment will matter, what to pay attention to, how to pull yourself out of the muck of
How could they have worried about anything except what they knew: old loves, bright stars, all that? We strain to hear the future, she would later think; we are deaf to it.
“Spray me again.”
Eli did, methodically, as if he were watering a lawn, and Denise thought he looked so old, so middle-aged, as if he should be stroking a beard and smoking a pipe. Calm, serious and wise. Yet he was her age; he was twenty-five. Would he never act young at all? Or would it overcome him in a later decade, rush at him in a ball of abandon and regret? She watched him put the atomizer back in his pocket.
“Happy?” he asked.
“Hardly,” she answered.
It was at this point that Eli stole her camera. She yelped, noticed the looks from the guards, and held her hand over her mouth. Kathy appeared above her, eyes large through the glasses, a cryptic smile on her pursed lips.
“Denise,” Kathy said. “It’s solved. I have a new man for you.”
Eli’s wife, quiet and small, was nonetheless intimidating. How mighty her hidden thoughts and passions were. Like some rare and intelligent species, Kathy would not be domesticated. She often disappeared for hours at dinner parties to sit on a rainy porch, read a book or go through the hostess’s medicine cabinet in search of unusual drugs. Eli seemed not to notice any of this. Denise adored his wife, but was slightly scared of her, of what she might think of her own spoiled, indulgent life and mind; but Kathy, wearily misanthropic toward most of the other grad students, was kind and attentive to Denise. She called her late at night with ideas, plans for art shows they could see together, political events they could go to. Kathy treated her like a favorite, but it still surprised Denise to find that Kathy had thought of her at all.
“I don’t want a man,” Denise told Kathy, unsure of herself. She knew that her chest was so wide open that any man could walk inside, anyone who seemed a little kind. Her voice seemed angry, frightened. “Well, I only said I
one. You don’t have to take him.” Eli, looking suspicious, asked, “Who is it?” Kathy said, “It’s Adam—I don’t remember his last name.” He laughed. “Oh that’s rich, Kath. He’s out of his mind.” “Perfect for me,” Denise said. She watched Eli tilt his head to one side, raising his thick eyebrows. Sometimes, Denise thought, he could be handsome. His dark, shadowed eyes under a thick brow, the shining bone of his nose, his boy’s mouth always open in thought— Denise admitted to herself she’d had a little crush on him when they first met, in that hallway, when he threw his ideas at her with such passion. That was before she’d learned he was married, and now the crush had become a harmless trinket to carry; obvious, impossible. She knew how his wife loved him. Denise was in their house once, washing cordial glasses in the sink, and she saw Kathy standing, staring at a photograph of her own wedding day—yellow daisies and bare feet and a stern rabbi to contradict the mood—and Denise imagined Eli’s younger, beautiful face approaching the woman like a ghost.
The Spivaks were a funny couple. Together, they were aggressive and fun; but when you got either of them alone, in a coffee shop, or in the corner of yet another dreadful department cocktail party where sullen and attractive undergrads served tiny ham sandwiches, each would always talk about the other one. Secretively, adoringly, as if they were truly the constant subject of one another’s thoughts. Kathy and Eli still acted so adolescently crushed that Denise sometimes wondered if they’d had sex yet.
Now she’s mooning over him!
Denise thought that afternoon when Kathy stared at her wedding photo, wearing a loopy grin as she twisted her pearls.
But she’s got him! She married him!
In the lab, astronomers analyzed a star’s light to find its composition; here, with the Spivaks’ marriage cast before her in a spectrum, Denise read only bars of gold.
The Spivaks had taken in unmarried Denise without the words of pity other couples tried. The gentile couples, Denise could not help thinking. She hadn’t ever met Jews before, and she tried to say nothing, to ask no particular questions when they first sat in that dining room full (it seemed to Denise in memory) of various many-armed candelabra, inscribed velvet cases, leadless silver pencils, scroll boxes and urns. The room shone blindingly—how did bookish, intellectual Kathy find time to polish all these religious dishes? Was there a miracle Hebrew product that gentiles knew nothing about? She asked nothing; she acted as if she knew all about it, were practically Jewish herself, and found ways to have a common religious talk without promoting any difference—
those Mormons, weren’t they a kick?
The Spivaks had taken in the single girl, and she was grateful. The single blond California girl, arguing politics at a dinner she didn’t know was Shabbat, sitting in front of a scroll she didn’t know was Eli’s family’s Torah. Maybe they were as relieved as Denise—they had only the stars to talk about.
“I’m convinced,” Kathy announced again out of nowhere. “That your Professor Swift is wearing a false beard.”
“You know, Kath,” Eli said, not missing a beat, “I think you’ve really hit on something.”
Birds were flying overhead, crying, and the three could see those shadows cast on the canopy above them, turning and joining and fading as they rose. “See you later,” Kathy said without a smile, and made her clumsy way over coils of rope, out of the canopy’s shade and into the sun. Eli watched seriously, reminding Denise of the way a young father might watch his child. Kathy and Eli had no children.
How had they done it, with all those stars in the way? Had he compromised his astronomical first love for this second one? Or had Kathy paid somehow in the end, slept alone while he was at the telescopes? Denise would have to start over, learn from them, forget what Carlos had taught her. Her mother had paid, after all, a great deal for her to forget.