The Return of Sheila Rosenwein
By Ronald Pies
“The man who does not understand the nature of the universe cannot know his place in it.” — Marcus Aurelius
Kogan knew it couldn’t possibly be the woman he had bedded in Venice nearly forty years ago, yet there she was, on the train from Glasgow to Mallaig, headed into the Scottish Highlands: the same olive-skinned complexion, the same dark, Semitic features — that same lush exuberance of curly, coal-black hair. Aside from the temporal impossibility of it all, this was Sheila Rosenwein, incarnate.
The conference in Edinburgh had gone well, and now he and Marcie were taking a well-earned week in the craggy, green countryside, stretching from the Grampian Mountains to Inverness and the far north. Kogan was a cosmologist, not a geologist, but he knew of the great upheavals, the cycles of ice and fire that had shaped Scotland, from the volcanic eruptions four hundred million years ago to the last ice age, only ten millennia ago. Great glacial ice floes had gouged out these Highland valleys, then dumped their rocky debris in fields of parallel drumlins. The whole country, it seemed to Kogan, was a collection of fragments — tossed, heaved and heaped, over untold eons.
A pimply faced young man pushed a pastry cart through the narrow aisle, replying “No bother, no bother!” to the proffered thanks of hungry customers. Kogan was annoyed that there was no dining car on the train, and reluctantly purchased two blueberry scones. Marcie, busy snapping pictures through the sun-dappled windows, kept vying for her husband’s attention.
“Joel, take a look at this loch! Wow, is this gorgeous, or what?”
But the usually attentive Professor Kogan was distracted by the young woman who sat facing him, three rows down, clad in a short plaid skirt that concealed very little. He managed only an occasional glance at the glorious scenery and a perfunctory “Um-hm” in reply to his wife’s importuning queries.
It was the summer of 1973. Kogan had first glimpsed Sheila Rosenwein at a café in the Piazza San Marco, where she was sitting outside with a group of chatty older women. She appeared bored and sullen, relentlessly stirring a large cappuccino and gazing vacantly at the milling crowd of tourists. Seated alone at an adjacent table, the young Kogan, back-packing through Europe, had been eavesdropping for a good half hour, nursing an espresso. The older women were elementary school teachers. Their young protégée had latched onto them as protection from the incorrigibly aggressive Italian men, who habitually accosted “loose” American women. Kogan had calculated that it would not be difficult to separate the listless young woman from her entourage.
He felt himself blushing. Here was Marcie — pretty, reliable, honest, superbly organized Marcie — busily snapping pictures of the Highlands; and here was her sixty-one-year-old husband, staring at the bare, ample thighs of a woman young enough to be his granddaughter. But truly — how could this be? Had a rift in the fabric of space-time opened, allowing young Sheila Rosenwein to slip through?
The premise of Kogan’s lecture allowed for such a possibility. Traversable wormholes connecting different parallel universes — like tunnels between the drumlins — might permit such an inter-penetration of realities. The Sheila from 1973 might thereby slip into a train headed for the Scottish Highlands in 2012. The idea excited Kogan, and also assuaged his feeling that, at sixty-one, he was slowly undergoing a process not unlike the death of a star. The star — our sun, let’s say — exhausts the supply of hydrogen in its core. With no more source of heat to support it against gravity, the core of the star collapses under gravity's pull.
Kogan had supposed, for a while, that his slow implosion was the result of his declining academic fortunes. Three year before he had been denied tenure at Cal Tech, despite a flurry of widely-praised papers in the Journal of Cosmology and Astroparticle Physics — but this seemed implausible to him. After all, his recent invitation to speak had come from the prestigious Institute for Astronomy at the University of Edinburgh, where Kogan had been wined, dined, and treated like royalty.
As for his marriage, Kogan could only count his blessings. Marcie had been a loving and faithful spouse for more than twenty-five years, and her habitual good cheer had been a welcome antidote to his own smoldering pessimism. Though Marcie was a botanist by training, she managed always to take an interest in her husband’s work, and to divert him with good-natured teasing whenever he sank into what she called his “pogrom gloom.” (Kogan had lost five relatives in the 1905 Odessa pogrom, and the red stain of that event had seeped through four generations of his family.)
It had not taken him long to invite Sheila Rosenwein to dinner, and the young woman had quickly accepted, as if breathing a sigh of relief. “Those teachers were driving me nuts,” she had said, flipping a stray curl from her forehead. “It was almost as bad as getting hit on by these Italian guys!”
“So,” Kogan had replied mischievously, “do I look that harmless?”
“You look that Jewish,” she had replied, smiling, “if you don’t mind my saying so. I figure you have a few Talmudic scruples coded in your genes.”
Kogan, however, had managed to suppress any inconvenient Judaic virtues, and after dinner at Do Forni, the two of them wound up in Sheila Rosenwein’s stifling hotel room, sweating their way through tumultuous, hot house sex. The young woman had exuded a low, musky scent that flourished in the Venetian summer and blossomed in Kogan’s nostrils. Afterward they had smoked a joint and discussed music and astrophysics, which had seemed a kind of epiphany to Kogan. It turned out that Sheila Rosenwein was a double major at Stanford — music and physics. Kogan had just come out of Cornell, having spent part of his senior year at the Carnegie Institute, studying with Vera Rubin.
“So you know Vera Rubin?” Kogan had asked his paramour incredulously.
“Of course! Well, not personally, but every respectable Stanford physics major has heard of her. Galactic velocities is her thing, right?”
She had a ticket back to the States in two days, and — though they later exchanged a few fervid letters — Kogan never saw Sheila Rosenwein again. Yet the sound and scent of her brainy, musky womanhood had lodged in Kogan’s brain: an engram against which all his subsequent lusts would be measured. And now it seemed that — against all the lemmas of Newtonian physics — Sheila Rosenwein had defied time itself.
Just before the Glenfinnan station, the train began to slow, and the conductor’s voice crackled over the intercom. “Ladies and gentleman, we are now approaching the famous Glenfinnan viaduct, built in 1901. Some of you may recognize this structure from the Harry Potter movies! We will stop here for a few minutes, for those of you who wish to take pictures from the back of the train.”
Marcie brightened and said, “Hon, I’m going back to take some shots!”
“Okay, I’ll hold the fort,” Kogan replied nonsensically.
If he was to make his move, now was his chance. The woman of temporal impossibility apparently had little interest in the viaduct. She sat alone in her row of seats, reading a book, with nobody sitting across from her. Kogan stood up, swallowed hard, and approached her.
“Excuse me, Miss,” he said softly, “I hope you won’t think me rude, but — I feel that we’ve met before. I mean, that — well, you look very familiar to me.”
The young woman tossed aside a stray curl, Sheila-like, and smiled at Kogan. But she seemed taken aback. “Oh, no — I don’t think — I mean, like — you know, I don’t think we’ve met.” She squinted, then shrugged her shoulders in anxious perplexity. Her vocal inflection carried the vapid, sing-song quality Kogan associated with the term “Valspeak,” in which every statement ends with a high-rising, interrogative pitch. Kogan suppressed a sudden sensation of nausea and decided to forge ahead.
“I’m really sorry. I don’t mean to intrude, but, by any chance, would you be related to — to Sheila Rosenwein?”
At this, the young woman blanched. Her voice became tremulous, and the “likes” in her speech began to metastasize.
“Oh, my God! How did you . . . she was, like, my mother! This is, like, so weird!”
“I’m really sorry — it’s just that you look so much . . . you see, I once met your mother on a trip to — did you say “was”? Sheila was your mother? Your mom is no longer . . .”
The young woman struggled with yet another errant curl. “Oh, she’s been . . . my mom died, like, ten years ago. In a car crash. Um, were you and she — I mean . . . ?”
“Oh, no, no — we were just acquaintances!” Kogan replied, feeling his face redden. “I’m terribly sorry. I didn’t mean . . .”
But by this time, the carriage had begun to fill again as the shutterbug passengers returned to their seats. Marcie glanced quizzically at her husband, cocking her head and furrowing her brow ever so slightly. The muscles of Kogan’s mouth formed a sheepish grin as he scurried back to his seat.
“I, um, thought she was at my lecture,” he said to Marcie, his grin now a grimace.
The nature of the universe was now clear to Kogan — a child could have figured it out! There were no parallel universes; only one, in which the second law of thermodynamics rules supreme: everything tends toward maximum entropy and minimum enthalpy. Everyone, in time, becomes chaos and ice.
Copyright © Ronald Pies 2013
Ronald Pies MD is a physician, ethicist, poet, and fiction writer who lives outside of Boston, Mass. He is the author of a chapbook of short stories (Ziprin’s Ghost/Harvard Book Store); a guide to character development (Becoming a Mensch /Hamilton Books); and the recently-released book on Judaism, Buddhism, and Stoicism, The Three-Petalled Rose (iUniverse). He has published short stories in The Bellevue Literary Review, Moment, Midstream, and several literary journals.