It was like so, but wasn't.
I lost my thirty-fifth year. We got separated in the confusion of a foreign city where the language was strange and the authorities hostile. It was my own fault. I'd told it, "Wait here. I'm just going to change some money. Check on our papers. Don't move from this spot, no matter what." And chaos chose that moment to hit home.
My other years persist, like those strangers I still embrace in sleep, intimate in five minutes. Some years slip their chrysalis, leaving only a casing to hold their place in my sequence. Each year is a difficult love with whom I've played house, declaring, at each clock tick, what it will and won't put up with.
My thirty-fifth trusted no one. As soon as I said I'd only be a moment, it knew what would happen to us.
Thirty-five shamed me into seeing that I'd gotten everything until then hopelessly wrong. That I could not read even my own years.
At thirty-five, I slipped back into the States. I did not choose either move or destination. I was in no condition to choose anything. For lack of a plan, I took an offer in my old college haunt of U. The job was a plum, my premature reward for a portfolio that now seemed the work of someone else.
I thought the year a paid leave of absence. A visiting position, where I might start again with the recommended nothing. House, meals, office, expenses, and no responsibilities except to live. I clung to the offer without too much reflection.
In fact, I had nowhere else to go. I couldn't even improvise a fallback.
It had to be U. U. was the only town I could still bear, the one spot in the atlas I'd already absorbed head-on. I'd long ago developedall the needed antibodies. When you take too many of your critical hits in one place, that place can no longer hurt you.
Nothing else remotely resembled home. Time had turned my birthplace into an exotic theme park. I could not have gotten a visa to live where I'd grown up. And I'd just spent the last seven years in a country that seemed exile already, even while I'd lived there.
But U. I could slink back to, and it would always take me. We were like an old married pair, at exhausted peace with each other. I did school's home stretch here, learned to decline and differentiate, program and compose. U. was where I took Professor Taylor's lifechanging freshman seminar. Twelve years later, a stranger to the town, I passed through to watch Taylor die with horrific dignity.
U. was the place where I first saw how paint might encode politics, first heard how a sonata layered itself like a living hierarchy, first felt sentences cadence into engagement. I first put myself up inside the damp chamois of another person's body in U. First love smelted, sublimated, and vaporized here in four slight years.
I betrayed my beloved physics in this town, shacked up with literature. My little brother called me here to tell me Dad was dead. I tied my life to C.'s in U. We took off from U. together, blew the peanut stand to go browse the world and be each other's whole adulthood, an adventure that ended at thirty-five. The odds were against this backwater having anything left to throw at me.
Since my last trip back, I'd achieved minor celebrity status. Local Boy Makes Good. I'd never get my name on the city-limits sign. That honor was reserved for the native Olympic legend. But I now had the credentials to win a year's appointment to the enormous new Center for the Study of Advanced Sciences. My official title was Visitor. Unofficially, I was the token humanist.
My third novel earned me the post. The book was a long, vicarious re-creation of the scientific career I never had. The Center saw me as a liaison with the outside community. It had resources to spare, the office cost them little, and I was good PR. And who knew? A professional eavesdropper with a track record might find no end of things to write about in an operation that size.
I had no desire to write about science. My third novel exhausted me for the topic. I was just then finishing a fourth book, a reaction against cool reason. This new book was fast becoming a bleak, baroque fairy tale about wandering and disappearing children.
Even I could not fail to see the irony. Here I was, crawling back to the setting I had fictionalized in my sprawling science travelogue. The University put me up in a house, the seventies equivalent of the barracks where the hero of my book had lived on his arrival in town. Beyond a lone bed and desk, I left my rooms unfurnished, in my character's honor.
I bought a secondhand bike, perfect for the stretch from my house to the Center. The research complex had sprung up since my last visit. A block-long building in a town the size of U. cannot help but make a statement. The Center's architecture laid irony upon irony. It was a postmodern rehash of Flemish Renaissance. In the Low Countries, I'd lived in postwar poured concrete.
The Center had been built by an ancient donor couple, two people archaic enough to get through life still married to each other. They reached, the end of that shared existence with nothing better to do with the odd fifty million than to advance advanced science. I don't know if they had children, or what the kids were slated to get when the folks passed away.
U. got a warren of offices, computer facilities, conference areas, wet and dry labs, and an auditorium and cafeteria, all under that jumble of Flemish gables. The small city housed several hundred scientists from assorted disciplines. Thankless Ph.D. candidates did the bulk of the experimental drudge work, supervised to various degrees by senior researchers from all over the world. Galatea 2.2. Copyright © by Richard Powers. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.