When the Heart Closes

by Jennifer Page

Cigarette burning and smoke rising

My dad was fascinated by quantum physics. “The physics that explains how everything works: the best description we have of the nature of the particles that make up matter and the forces with which they interact.” (New Scientist) My favorite time of day when I was five was when my dad got home from the studio. I would crawl into his arms as he lounged on the bed, end-of-day screwdriver on the nightstand, the colors of dusk radiating over our huge backyard and pool. The opening theme to PBS news in the background as he told me about how physics relates to life. How it’s possible to make quantum leaps. “When you can skip through time and leap into something entirely new,” he said as his feet twitched, toes on top of one foot, then switched to the other. Over and over again. It was never-ending.

“Dad, why do you do that?”

“Do what?”

“Twitch your feet.”

He paused as if he had never even thought of it before. “I don’t know. Nerves, I guess.”

I didn’t know that seventeen years later, I would have my own quantum leap.

Thinking about physics and life can be overwhelming. Within a lifetime, there could very well be trillions of thoughts coming together to make billions of options for the choices human beings can make. And on one day of your life, a series of moments can distill all of those infinite possibilities and choices into one big thought that resonates into the future, creating new pathways. Is it random chance, perfect order, or both?

My first quantum leap happened on one hot August day. One single thought strong enough to map out my future and stunt my ability to open my heart. I don’t remember a lot about this day. I just remember the whirring of the hospital machines, the raging anger I was suppressing, and his hand in mine—how he faintly squeezed it when I gave him the okay to let go, and that one powerful thought.

I walked out of UCLA Medical Center in Westwood, CA, in shock. Not capable of processing anything, I walked down the concrete stairs and noticed the leaves of the lush trees, swaying in the slight breeze, the sun reflecting off of the leaves, still green on this dog day of summer. That sun. That California sun that had warmed my shoulders for twenty-two years. Something about the LA sun makes you believe your dreams can come true. But on that day, it was just hot.

I lit a cigarette as I walked to the #2 bus. The smoke polluting my innocence felt familiar. My arteries still pumped blood through my body, and my heart still beat, but the smoke constricted the loving energy I learned from my father. The energy I used to think ruled the world.

My father died later that night. He was the first man to look at me and love my face. And after ten years of a slow suicide, he was finally gone. The guilt of feeling relief was the cherry on the top of my sundae of grief.

“From now on, I will depend on no one. I will go through life alone. I don’t need this shit anymore.” And just like that, out of all the combinations of thoughts and questions and sorrows and griefs, that is the thought that expanded out into my future, then wrapped around me, constricting my body, keeping me safe.

And that thought was strong.

Strong like the nicotine that would seduce me into a twenty-year addiction. Strong like my father before the cocaine. Strong enough to keep me just barely moving forward in life—closed off yet still smiling and surviving until one day I stood in the steps of an icon, and another thought formed that shook me out of my ten years of zombified living.

Those last moments in the hospital were a mix of shock and anger. I thought I had fully prepared for this day. But when I looked at my father’s jaundiced face, and his protruding belly housing his battered liver, I knew he needed to be at peace. “You can go, Dad, it’s okay. I love you.” Then he squeezed my hand. I didn’t even stay to watch him pass into that glorious place I had often considered escaping to. Exhausted from his alcoholism, I just left. I don’t remember leaving the actual hospital room; I just remember exiting the hospital and thinking how I didn’t want to open my heart anymore.

Life becomes a scary place when you realize how easy it is for the mightiest of souls to get beaten down into a bloody oblivion. My dad was and still is one of the most beautiful people I have ever had the pleasure of knowing. A mighty soul indeed. At the time, I was too young to understand just how many punches my dad took. On that day, I was just furious at him for ruining my plans.

I should have gone to college.

I should have become a news reporter.

I should have stayed all day in that hospital bed, drinking in my last moments with him. Quick, forget that thought. Push it down. Replace with, “From now on I will depend on no one. I am going through life alone.” The thought reinforced the map that was forming. The quantum leap was over. I was on the other side. I crushed the cigarette under my flip-flop as the bus doors opened.

I sat on the blue plastic seat and looked out the window at the college kids enjoying what was branded as “the best years of their life.” The bus doors hissed like the machines in the hospital room. Then they shut like my heart.

Category: Featured, Fiction, Short Story