Susanne Antonetta

Nothing exists but atoms and the void. —Democritus

The universe ends. It has a point into which it's expanding and a shape, though what that shape might be is debated—a horn, or a sphere, or a dodecahedron or a donut, all of these have been popular guesses at one time. Nevertheless, as astronomers explain it, nothing exists beyond the universe, as space itself only exists inside of it. Space simply expands, into, well, a true nothing. Astronomers add that lately it appears there may be things outside of space after all—a force called dark flow, a field beyond our universe that pulls our galaxies toward itself, a field they see as a twist of strange galactic movement in a cosmos otherwise heading the same direction. So nothing real exists beyond our universe, in our sense of the word real, but there may be forces, charges pulling things where they wouldn't want to go.
    In other words, there are tiers of nothing, the true nothing the universe expands into that may somehow not be quite a complete nothing, the nothing that is emptiness in space but still is nonetheless space. The physical nothing that happens when emptiness takes over a place that used to be occupied, whether a hole dug out of the ground or the space where your appendix used to be, i.e., the nothing-that-was-something. Or the nothing built into the atoms of your body: to use Niels Bohr's model, if the nucleus were a fly in the middle of a football stadium, the electrons would be gnats circling above the outer seats. That is loneliness. And yet matter keeps stretching and pulling outward, as if it repulses itself.

With both my parents, who are eighty-six and ninety-one, and my son who's fifteen, I have nothing to offer that might move from my brain to my tongue and my lips and come forth as utterance, though all of them need me. They need me to, as we'd say in New Jersey, do for them, often the same things: cook and serve platters of food--all of them love my chicken and dumplings and my meatloaf--wash the laundry that always seems to wind up on the floor. Tidy up. All three rapt in what they see as their own dramas, my parents suffering because they're old, my son because he's young, all of them obsessed with who has been in touch with them and who has not been in touch with them, all at the center of the universe but feeling unrecognized as such, too much so to listen, though friends assure me that with a fifteen-year-old, sooner or later talk will come back.     I serve my father and mother and my son and I do what needs to be done, but I use the empty space in my body to do it. I use my void to circle them with bread in my hands or a vacuum cleaner. With my flies and my gnats--my presences, if you will--keeping their own counsel.

To act this way is easy; we are insubstantial, without substance. Too, much of what we are is sickness. Viruses we get, and—more crucial—our ancestors get, open our DNA and recode it with their imprint. Estimates of how much we are virus vary, from eight percent to forty percent to that we have seven times more viral than human genetic material. I say to my son, who is adopted, birth parent but I could as easily say birth virus, not just parents but their purges, their plagues, not only ancestors making you but that which made them weep. And which they damned, for killing others of their children, and their lovers, and their husbands and wives.     Your ancestors damned these genes all to hell, and forsook God over them. It is never an easy thing, I could say to my son, being someone's child.

Then again we're alive in a way we can barely know: the sluiceways and filtering plants within, the white cells that carry antibodies to do the fighting, as if they were slave ships. Lanes of blood. Somewhere inside us a bomb of cells may have landed and the flesh closed around it until it goes off, and it will take us months or years to find the blast. We'll look at vague pictures, take blood to spin apart, even open the body and look.     Once when doctors had to cut a hole in me and remove a bit, a friend said, take it easy, don't forget to listen to your body. She's no longer a friend and wasn't much to me then, but I heard her, while from my body, nothing spoke.

I knew a woman who had married and gained a great deal of weight. She said sixty pounds but I'm guessing, from the wedding pictures and the woman I knew, it was more. Her face was still pretty but she was short and obese, so what you thought of her looks would be affected by what you thought of her body. Her husband, an intellectual, found her repulsive and told her so with words like hog. She went to a photo studio and had them take a series of a sort of photos they called glamour shots, posed photos with professional makeup and stylized shadows and a lot of retouching, eyes and mouth enlarged and flesh slimmed. She put the pictures all over the house so, she said, her husband would see she really was beautiful. He did not come to that realization, feeling the woman he saw every day was the actual woman, and it became a deep resentment between them, the photos everywhere, her body and face that were reminiscent of but not equal to the slim, still, and unlined woman in the pictures. He was angry. She, who felt herself to be alive in the frames, was angry too.
      They argued about the nature of reality, though neither of them would have seen it that way.

When I was fifteen, as my son is now, people sent waves of electricity through my brain. Actually, my parents asked them to. They hoped I would feel better or, more to the point, behave better. I had been flunking out of school, taking a variety of drugs, behaving badly. My boyfriend dealt drugs and so did our best friend, who was also a narcotics detective; he resold what he confiscated. Homicide, in our little group, was not unknown, and occurred to several men in my orbit, by bullet: a person existing and then not.
     The shock doctors used one hundred and forty volts of bilateral electricity on me—a flow through both temples, with electrodes smeared with conducting gel—now a voltage and method considered primitive, wrong. "Shock Treatment Makes a Comeback: Past Horrors Gone with New Treatment" I read in a headline in the Spokesman Review, surprised to see the whole thing stated that way, though I don't disagree.
     No one knew or knows why electroshock should work, except that people who go into shock following convulsions (the "shock" of "shock treatment" doesn't refer to electricity but to inducing a state of shock) become subdued. They do whether convulsions come from a blow to the head or snake venom or camphor—the stuff of turpentine--mixed with the paralyzing poison curare, a poison used by South American natives to tip their arrows. Snake venom and camphor with curare, along with overdoses of insulin, have been treatments used by doctors on psychiatric patients before turning to electricity. The paralyzing curare helped keep bones from breaking during the seizure. At the end of a treatment—still—a patient's EEG or brain activity flatlines, as if the patient were momentarily a corpse.
     Electric shock meant electrons cascaded from atom to atom through my head. The gnats above the stadium in my head flew crazily in all directions, they froze, they nosedived into the ground. I did not feel better but I can't say much more of what I felt, because I barely remember the months before or after shock treatment. It's as if I had not existed then, as if I were yanked, twisted, out of myself to some gone place, and my head filled with the three brands of nothing.





I spend probably far too much time thinking about physics. And when I was a young teenager I was given shock treatment. The absences in the universe--the dark energy and dark matter, which we know by their gravitational pull, but cannot find or identify--remind me too much of the awful memory loss of that procedure. I think everyone should spend at least some time thinking about physics and I highly recommend Physics World--their newswire is amazing and it's free, and their 100-second videos on concepts in physics are priceless.