I picked up on it instantly. How couldn’t I when Dr. Hostler literally slapped on our syllabuses an entire two weeks dedicated to the Great Filter Theory and the Fermi Paradox. That sucked. I had a feeling in a week it would be debunked as some natural, weird formation, a trick of the light. Like that face on Mars. And then me and the three other people who were able to put two and two together in that class would say what a fucking waste it was that Dr. Hostler got a little too impulsive. But she’d been waiting for it since the '80s when everyone was tripping over themselves for another monthly fallout drill. Maybe making it this long was a triumph for her. How someone with that mentality gets to teach at the Ivy League level is beyond me. But she’s dead now and they’re still saying they found “evidence of ancient, extraterrestrial civilizations” on Titan where those pools of liquid methane were always pulling the alien-loving astrophysicists in like moths to a buzzing tube of neon.
When they said they found something that looked a pyramid on Titan, Dr. Hostler did not finish the salad that was found sitting on her kitchen table. Instead she took a handful of potpourri pills and a bottle of Jack and her assistant found her the next day. I think a lot about the time between. How long after the new story about ancient extraterrestrial evidence play did she take to decide what it meant. How long after that did it take her to decide what she was going to do about it.
I sat at the bar in Corner Tavern where the TVs were wiped of football or hockey or anything that reminded us that anything else but this was going on. CNN, MSNBC, some usual crack on Fox News talking about it being a sign from their god. I was already sick of the chyrons and the white anchors in their pressed clothes smiling and showing clips of E.T. and Men In Black. I took a sip of beer as Tommy Lee Jones gravely said imagine what you’ll know tomorrow.
Dr. Hostler’s funeral is on Saturday. It’s going to be filled with colleagues and former students and people talking about her work. Let’s talk about how a woman killed herself because she thought aliens’ existing was going to be it for us. Thanks for the hot tip CNN.
“The Fermi Paradox, as discussed, is the apparent lack of intelligent life despite the vastness of our universe,” Dr. Hostler said to the dimmed room as a blue and white Power Point switched slides on the projector. “The Great Filter stems from the belief that the lack of intelligent life in the universe is the result of a flaw in the argument that intelligent life beyond our planet is probable.”
I scribbled that down because she was a known quick-clicker and never went back to older slides for people who never learned how to do shorthand in college.
“This threshold, if behind us, works as a measurable barrier for intelligent life that we have already overcome. If in front of us, it is almost certainly a promise of imminent destruction of life on the planet.”
I wonder if she took the time to write that on a suicide notepad somewhere or just didn’t waste time and let the impact of it all speak for itself.
“So, what? We found intelligent life and we get smacked by an asteroid?” That assistant who found her was also at the bar. Because who the fuck wants to be alone in a West Philly apartment after you found the dead body of your boss.
“I’m sorry, I just don’t understand any of it.”
I didn’t want to explain. I didn’t want to spell out why a woman killed herself. My throat was getting sore with the beginning of a cold and the news anchors would not stop showing clips of every imaginable sci-fi movie in Western canon. So instead I told her to check those copious amounts of notes she’d been in charge of organizing and I’d see her at the funeral on Saturday. When she called after me asking for a phone number in case she needed to talk, I pretended not to hear her.
I walked home with the taste of yeast and those IPA hops sticking to my teeth and I thought about finally buying that British novamin toothpaste but if we were all careening toward disaster, what’s the point? I pushed through some people who still felt the need to protest Philly’s sanctuary city status in Rittenhouse Square, despite pictures of a literal alien race on every screen in the world. Maybe they were afraid we’d harbor those aliens too.
“You’re not a very good student, Miss Kern.”
That was fair. I said as much, with a shrug.
“It doesn’t bother you that you’re sitting in an Ivy League school right now with abysmal grades?”
“My mom really wanted me to come here.”
“Why did you decide on a course toward astrophysics?”
I liked space. I had a telescope when I was 8. Maybe a part of me wanted to feel a little bit in control when I looked up at the night sky. It was a less depressing way to spend my time than sitting upstairs in my room with headphones like a cliche when the arguments in the kitchen turned into shouting matches and slammed doors.
And I was good at math. So the options were math teacher or something cooler—which is literally anything.
This was my last conversation with Dr. Hostler. Countdown to alien pyramid reveal: three days. It was office hours, which I went to because she said she gave extra credit if you showed up for them, and we mostly had conversations like this.
“This is a lot of money you’re wasting.”
It was hard to explain that money came from a settlement. That my dad hit the gas one night instead of the brake after a heavy dose of some $9 whiskey and went through the front of the house, and all my mom had to do was be competent enough to pick up the phone for any lawyer who answered and everything in my dad’s bank account went to her. It’s easier just to say we came into some money and smile and nod when people talked about their student debt.
“I was hoping to recommend you to a colleague at the University of Colorado doing research on exoplanets.”
“Moving is a hassle.”
“A few weeks ago you said you wanted to get out of Philadelphia.”
I did say that. Maybe I meant for a weekend in Ocean City or a drive up to New England. Maybe I just meant somewhere the stars were more obvious and it was less noisy and smelled less like garbage water. Maybe I just didn’t like how humid it was feeling during the Indian summer or the way there was always a story about a shooting or burglary. Maybe what I really needed was just one good bender in my apartment to snap everything back come Monday. Or maybe I needed antidepressants and to stop dreaming that my dad was yelling at me in that old home on Kendall Lane when he stopped being able to tell the difference between me and my mom.
After a few more disappointed, gentle tongue lashings from Dr. Hostler, I went back to my apartment in University City and stared at the open textbook. She was the type of professor to assign her own work during class, though a couple other foreign sounding names—Rupi Patil, Pelle Lindstrom, Oleg Malkin—were thrown in there after her own. She wasn’t big on pictures. Lots of words in small typeface line after line, and after a while my yellow highlighting seemed like a useless spin of the wheels in my head.
I drank decaf coffee. When it cooled I looked at the clock and then poured wine. I drank that until I noticed in the bathroom mirror that my lips got stained and I wondered at what point my father became self-aware before he slipped over that invisible cliff into the land of DUIs and AA meetings.
I watched the sun go down through the crack in the blinds that I never opened because I liked it to be a cave at all times inside. I put on old episodes of background noise from Netflix and ate snacks for dinner rather than the salmon or eggplant I bought with such high hopes for a meal worthy of slapping in front of my 54 Instagram followers. On the laptop screen were people yelling at each other through keyboards on Facebook, was the birthday of someone from my freshman dorm in undergrad, were people sharing a video of a dog dancing to a Celine Dion song. Outside it was getting louder with the sounds of students going out for the night and Ubers honking to get their attention.
I didn’t think about what Dr. Hostler said again. But then she died.
Over too-hot coffee before the sun comes up, I like to think about what Dr. Hostler was specifically afraid of. It’s become my new morning pastime. My first thought goes to the obvious places: global warming, overpopulation. Those slow-moving beasts become the glaciers they shave out of existence one year at a time. I look at the little red plastic stirrer in my cup and think I’m part of the problem. But it’s not my fucking fault. Capitalism just likes to eat whatever’s in sight and I can’t undo it with a $10 metal straw from Amazon.
Then I like to think a little more fun: rabies outbreak, Ebola, zombie apocalypse, nukes waving to each other in the sky as they chug along. It’s all on the table. I crunch down on a few grounds that got through the filter. It feels like sand in my teeth. That’s us. Sand in the teeth of the universe’s waiting mouth.
“When I was younger I had a life or death incident,” she told me once, in office hours.
“We saw something we weren’t supposed to see.”
“Like mob stuff?”
“A kid in the neighborhood told us it was a basilisk—of all ridiculous things—that lived in a cave—this was before Harry Potter—it was a great big creature that looked you in the eye and killed you that way or breathed some poison gas on you and got you that way. The parents let him do it because it kept us away from the fence and the national guard men standing around it sometimes. Mostly they just relied on the fence and the stories though.”
“Wait. Holy shit—sorry. What was it?”
“A beast from an accident in the power plant they never told us about. A glob of corium from a meltdown that would be buzzing out radioactivity for the next thousand years or so. The grass around that place was brown and dead for so long. In short, it was a basilisk.”
Dr. Hostler stared into space then as her tea steamed up between us on her desk. It was apple and cinnamon, and she always put a little bit of almond milk in it. “I think radiation is the universe’s kill switch. The self destruct.”
She looked in a trance. “‘The history of mankind is the history of attainment of eternal power.’”
She swung the conversation back to class, back to the thesis statement I hadn’t submitted yet for my final paper. Back to how the weather was finally changing.
Now, classes were canceled for the rest of the week. I’m not sure if it was aliens around Jupiter or the dead professor. But I went back to the Corner as soon as the clock struck noon and ordered a different beer because I figured I had a limited amount of time to try new things.
“Wild, right?” The bartender was energetic, hyped up on the Red Bull he got himself from the tiny fridge on the back counter where they advertised a vodka too. Not to give anyone any ideas.
“My grandmom died last year, sucks she never got to see this.”
“See it and she probably would have died when they announced it.”
One of the stations decided to cover a Neo-Nazi rally down in Georgia. But that was only because their platform was that this whole thing was a deep fake by liberals to sneak some legislation in while everyone was goo-goo eyed over a sci-fi dream come true. The guy talking had impeccably cut hair, a pressed and clean suit; he looked like he smelled nice and expensive. His audience was a sea of tattooed, rail-thin, shaved-head, toothless ghouls shouting affirmations at virtually every word that left his mouth.
“Everything is just insane.”
I turned. The assistant was back. She must have thought I was a regular here.
“It’s a time bomb,” I said, wondering if I really believed that or if I was saying it like someone says the sky is blue and the ocean is big.
“Dr. Hostler had convictions, but she also had other things going on,” the assistant said. She had a name. I’d seen it on the syllabus under the contact information. It was Andrea. “People are going to talk at that funeral on Saturday about how she did what she did in the name of science and her staunch beliefs but it wasn’t that at all. At least, I think it would have happened anyway.”
“Armchair psychology?” I ordered her a beer without asking what she wanted.
“She was sick.”
Ah. That got a pause from my tapping fingers. Andrea took a sip of the lager I ordered her and looked up at the news screen where they showed Trump smiling like a rag doll with loose skin that had been pulled back to show teeth. He was waving, someone had a sign about the Space Force. The chyron read Trump Vows To Protect US From Alien Invasion. It wouldn’t even have been out of the ordinary to read a week ago.
“She had leukemia,” she said. “From an accident as a kid. ‘Keep out’ signs are like catnip to kids.”
“I didn’t know adults could get leukemia.”
“I think she had it for a while and they were managing. Adults usually don’t last long with it, and she was in the final stages, so this was just the cosmos putting it all together, I guess.”
“What happens when someone finally debunks that thing?”
“You believe the alt-right bullshit that it’s a ‘liberal diversion tactic’?”
“No, I just mean we have no fucking clue what it is and even natural geological structures on earth have done some whacked out stuff. Look at the Giant’s Causeway or the Bimini Road.”
“I,” she said before taking a massive gulp of her beer, “just find it hard to believe that a pyramid on a moon hundreds of thousands of miles away is the reason it all ends here.”
“It’s not the reason, it’s like, it means that we’re not unique and other sorts of beings have gotten to our level of intelligence and then maxed out because there’s some crazy hard level to conquer and no one’s done it yet and chances are we won’t. If we kept on not seeing signs of intelligent life then it means we did something unique and that really hard level is somewhere behind us.”
“So, what is it? Global warming? Loss of resources? Mutually assured destruction?”
More sips of beer, more ramblings from the bartender, and more shots of protests and stern-looking men telling us what it all means. The church was starting to get irate. The Middle East was downright refusing to believe any of it. If the world was going to end, I decided I wanted to do it right here, at this bar stool with some asshole craft beer in my hand. But I wanted to be watching Spongebob or Rugrats or something that reminded me of my parent’s first house on Kendall Lane.
I went to the funeral and it was uneventful. I sat next to Andrea and she cried a little bit and I pretended not to see it. I ate at the luncheon after and felt ridiculous eating shrimp skewered with toothpicks while a woman was newly dead in the ground and we were telling jokes and smiling. Andrea gave me her number, told me to call her sometime, told me we should go out and not talk about death.
I thought about it, for a minute. I thought about us at a bar or a craft cider house or somewhere we made reservations. I saw us watching movies on a couch and one day telling people about how we met because her boss—my professor—killed herself. We’d have Thanksgiving and Christmas and kiss at midnight on New Year’s Eve and wear matching Halloween costumes. We’d smile in vacation photos and get married somewhere ridiculous and bring kids into this world and yell at them. We’d have a suburban house and a suburban car and a suburban life. We’d watch our kids go through the whole thing too, when they were old enough.
I pocketed the number and never took it out again.
Hopefully the world would end before she came looking for me at the Corner Tavern again.