So Go the Ghosts

by Daniel Johnson

Last spring, I reacquainted myself with Schrödinger’s paradox, the early 20th century thought experiment in which scientists--namely, the Austrian physicist Erwin Schrödinger--sealed both a housecat and a vial of radioactive material inside a metal box to illustrate and examine the effects of quantum indeterminacy. Attached to the interior of the box was a small hammer rigged with a random timer; should the device trigger, it would shatter the vial, releasing nuclear fumes into the vacuum and suffocating the cat. Because the box was metal, and because the death-device was random, it was impossible for observers to know the outcome unless they opened it. And so Schrödinger suggested that, while the box remained closed, the cat existed in two states: dead and alive. His theory was that whoever opened the box and found the cat dead had been the one who, in a sense, killed it.

I was, at the time, spending the majority of my time tending to my family cat. Her name was Bonnie, and she was dying. For the better part of a decade, she had slept in the crook of my arm. She had trouble staying warm. The shelter we adopted her from thought she might have had a chromosome defect that resulted in abnormally thin, soft skin. She was the runt of the litter.

At the end, Bonnie had a bum leg that kept degenerating until she couldn't walk the stairs. Bonnie was my friend. I had shared almost half of my life with her: gray-fogged mornings before the bus ride to high school, afternoon naps when I was too hungover to pet her, evenings of reading marathons, of her chewing the corners of dust jackets and nudging me for attention. During those last days of her life, I worked from home, and when I held her, walked her upstairs, placed her at the foot of my bed and watched her fall asleep just to make sure that's as far as she'd fall, I grieved like she was already dead.

And so, Schrödinger. I pre-mourned my cat's death by spending midnight hours at the kitchen table, reading discussions about quantum mechanics on strange forums at the back ends of the Internet. I followed most the users who dedicated so much time trying to calculate the odds that Schrödinger's cat would be alive when the box opened. Bonnie would be asleep at the foot of the chair, tail wrapped around a wooden leg, belly rising in harsh New England moonlight that shone through the window over the dripping sink.

My fascination with the experiment, though, peaked with the Spring 2015 issue of The Paris Review, in which a character in Mark Leyner’s “Gone with the Mind” (now available in book form) alludes to the experiment in one of my favorite closing lines to a piece of short fiction (emphasis mine):

“Life’s harrowing fucking slog—we’re driven by irrational, atavistic impulses into an unfathomable void of quantum indeterminacy—but, still…it’s nice to have a friend, a comrade, a ‘paracosm,’ whatever, to share things with.”

And so, Bonnie.

*

I was in the room at Franklin Vet Clinic when Dr. Parker squeezed the radioactive, deathbringing euthanasia into the rubber tube feeding into Bonnie's bloodstream. My hand was on her rib-cage. She breathed deeply, arrhythmically on a threadbare blue towel that was monstrously frayed at the edges. Swipes of colorless morning light from a window over the examination table. I felt her tiny pulse halt as the final sleep coursed through her body after the doctor and her aide asked one too many goddamn times if I was sure, if I had considered the alternatives carefully enough to be certain this was the right choice. They made it sound like the alternatives were infinite.

I don't think I'm ever more conscious of how uncertain I am than when I try to feign the opposite. And so not only did an uncomfortable awareness of the pathology to the whole procedure rake fire through my throat—the small gasp of the needle, the stainless steel slab that smelled like cleaning products and served as my dear companion's deathbed—but it also made me feel like I was assuming more and more agency in its execution. As is the case with many people who elect to put their pets down, I was convinced for a while that I had done the killing.

The idea of exchanging my decision for one in which I preserved Bonnie inside a sealed box is psychotic and sad. But I’m not beyond believing that, in my grief, I found some solace in the simple theoretical absolution of a cat that was both dead and still alive—still, somehow, with me—at the same time. I’d invoke Schrödinger whenever I hallucinated her ghost: black blurs of matted fur in my bedroom doorway, the phantom pat of paws on my carpet.

*

Lesser such heartbreaks followed in the summer. I was, around that time, on-and-off dating a string of women who were all committed to other men. With each of them, I absconded to hotel rooms in the New England country. If any of them were house-sitting for a relative, I made love, fucked, whatever, in beds that explicitly belonged to someone else.

It wasn’t always intense like that. There were smaller days. On the weekends we could get away, we went for riverside walks, read Ben Lerner’s poetry out loud to each other, made bets on who could better sear a blackened salmon for supper, picnicked in mountain valleys, fell asleep listening to evening rainstorms. Mostly, though, our relationships existed in the text messages and emails we back-and-forthed every day for the better part of a year. I shared things with them, told them about Bonnie. I fell in love.

After a while, as these things go, the nights when I felt good about the affairs became vastly outnumbered by the ones when I felt less so. I would eventually pressure each of them to leave their partners. They stopped responding altogether, which a friend recently told me is a modern love phenomenon called "ghosting." They all disappeared.

I never once messaged them asking why exactly they had gone away. And even if I did, I knew any attempt to find out would have ensnared me in the observer’s paradox: by trying to measure the outcome, I might affect its absolution—a mini Schrödinger on my shoulder, offering admonitions. A text might have ushered our relationship to a definitive, punctuated end. Whether they had reconciled with their men, or found someone else, I didn’t want to know. I wasn't ready for that. In a way, I disappeared too.

Schrödinger’s logic is abstract, but it holds. When you reduce the jargon of it all, you get a tautology and a platitude: we won’t know for sure until we know for sure, and sometimes not knowing is the safer state. Ignorance is bliss, after all. (Note: I spent a whole night searching for any online evidence that Schrödinger had been heartbroken prior to conducting his experiment. Jury's out.)

I had never been "ghosted" before. Handling such a sudden loneliness left me wayward. I took off to the Midwest, where I lived for a while in a friend’s study. I walked her dogs through dairy fields, gardened for her, bird-watched for sandhill cranes in soybean farms. I lived at the margins of other people's lives because it was clear I was a self-destructive time-bomb when I existed at center of mine. Sometimes my friend would let me talk to her about Schrödinger, about how I so obsessively believed the essence of his experiment was inseparably linked with all my most recent ghosts. For the most part, I tried to forget about him, move on from all of it.

I live in New York City now. People here ask me why I’m not dating, why I haven’t downloaded Tinder, why I stay after hours at the office, why I bring work to the bar. Mostly I don’t answer. I’m content, and it’s hard to talk about ghosts. There's no lighthearted way to articulate that I’m still learning how to gracefully repopulate—navigate, even—a world affected by all this absence.

*

So much of it had been well off my mind until a few weeks ago, when I heard news about the cosmic superstorm, and the gravitational ripple that all but confirmed Einstein’s theory of general relativity. I’ve been trying, as we all should, to understand the incredible magnitude of what this means.

All of it may suggest that the probability of plural realities and multiverses is more likely than ever. And so perhaps most fascinating about the impact of those two black holes coming together is the way its scientific implications echo religious sentiment. A hopeful reading of the multiverse theory offers a comfort not so unlike the idea of the afterlife, should you believe in it: whatever dissatisfaction we have with the current reality can be mitigated and even justified by the idea of salvation in that “Something After.” Now, it’s coupled with what one might call a “Something Adjacent,” a single reality—or billions of them—moving parallel to ours onto which we can superpose our most desired personal storylines. Theoretical places where, instead of becoming them ourselves, the ghosts we carry might be alive yet.

And so, again, Schrödinger and his cat. Of the infinite possible outcomes, our world is merely one of them. We’re just a random, mildly grizzly scene—“a harrowing fucking slog,”—that the universe came upon after it peeked inside its own box.

After the news, I thought first of Bonnie. After she died, my family received in the mail a glossed postcard from Dr. Parker, along with a handwritten note of condolence and a transcription of the prose-poem “The Rainbow Bridge,” one of the more famous consolatory pieces of writing regarding the death of a pet. In the poem, Rainbow Bridge is a destination for the departed—both a literal bridge and the place beyond it, two realities no longer gapped—described as an other-worldly meadow where “those who were hurt or maimed are made whole and strong again, just as we remember them in our dreams of days and times gone by.” There was a fairytale drawing in the corner of the postcard: a wooden bridge, some fluffy trees, a vast green country, blue skies. A reality where our ghosts are both dead and alive, where Bonnie tumbles between states, between that reality and the ones in my dreams.

I thought then of my affairs. In the throes of my Schrödinger fascination, I had spoken to each woman about different worlds where they weren’t with other men, where we were, in some actuality, together and uninhibitedly so. Ours were connections that transcended singular worlds, I said. Plainly, the most insufferable pillow-talk. But this was how I had justified their decision to leave me in boxes, locked in the dark metal chamber of other-manhood. It’s how I rationalized my decision to stay there. I told myself it was possible that I existed as a haven for them in their complicated and otherwise unhappy relationships. My very presence in their lives suggested a multitude of other worlds. That might have given them some sort of hope. It definitely gave them attention.

Most days, in the midsummer thick of grief, and of virtual and occasionally physical passion, it seemed like reason enough to stick around. In the days since the discovery, I’ve found myself wondering again whether I was right, replaying the memories, enduring weeping fits when I think of the way Bonnie looked at me from my lap as we drove her to the vet that spring morning, as if that wave of gravity bent me back through time.

*

I think the common misconception with Schrödinger’s experiment is that its findings can encourage indecision. But choosing to make no decision, to take no measurement, to send no text, are still in themselves active resolutions. I’ve consciously left the ghosts of those affairs in the box, cryogenically frozen, petrified in time. They’re still there. In having done so within the Schrödinger framework, I elected for their life. Rather, I chose life and death and everything else; I elected for their infinity.

This, however theoretically, stripped from those relationships a lot of the ugliness inherent in affairs. Over time, whatever love I felt for each woman has returned to its unspoiled, uncarved state, like the glimmer of poetic possibility before the pen touches the page. It exists now in its purest, quantum form: boxed away, stuffed in some corner attic of the heart, left to crust over until I haul it to a landfill, or reopen it to find something still breathing.

There are moments when I feel like this is as close to acceptance, closure, forgiveness, any of it, as I can get. There are others when I wonder if it’s more like desperation, or the unwillingness to let go, let die. But you don’t keep a ghost with a stranglehold, or with any conscious grip at all. You just let it be.

It’ll stick around until it won’t. You’ll know it’s gone when you feel it pass through the walls of your room, your apartment, the twilit cityscape, the atmosphere—cardboard thin, all of it.

Ghosts go quietly, graciously. They’re like fireworks that don’t combust until the uncatalogued reaches of the universe, where black holes collide and gravity is a tidal thing, eroding us in waves.