A Narrow Slice of Things


These cactus are so phallic.

This is what I say to Andrew in the early moments of what will spread into an entire February day spent wringing the narrow backroads of Puerto Rico. We’re just coming out of Arecibo after visiting the world’s largest telescope, rounding another bend in the road, when a knotty constellation of Prickly Pear bursts from a cliff of burgundy dry soil.

So phallic.

The moment I say it is the moment I realize that what I’ve said will have the opposite effect of my intention. It sounds dogmatic, not silly, but considering what erupted last night, and what’s to come, how could it not?

“I know the rules,” I continue while Andrew says nothing. “I know it’s cacti, it’s just that cactus sounds much better.”

Looking out the window, I can’t help but think that everything I’m seeing just seems too charged with meaning, too cliché: the unripe banana trees and farmers in aged red pickup trucks. The lipsticked ladies in apple-bottom, muffin-top jeans appreciated by the blonde-haired, blue-eyed surfers. Their bumper stickers. The low, womanly hills along which we coast. It’s all just too textbook, too . . . perfect. Even the stray dogs look like they’ve been cast for their role; their nipples droop down to the bridges on which they stand guard.

And then, the Organ Pipe.

The Wooly Nipple.

The Cepalocereus millspaughhi, more commonly known to the islanders as the Dildo Cactus.

Phallic. No shit it’s phallic, I think, and providing the perfect varnish of irony to our current state of affairs.


We are rubes in this mysterious land of marriage. Last night, Andrew and I sat on the back deck of an Aguadillan fish joint, one with an old jukebox covered and tucked behind the booth of a live DJ playing Western pop music. CDs. We ate off Styrofoam plates with disposable forks that made me think of rusty garbage barges that float under the sky, homeless and aimlessly drifting like sad, blind manatees.

“Let’s pretend like we’re on our honeymoon,” Andrew said.

We’d already been married 5 months, in what was supposed to be a shotgun wedding. We’d only been dating for 3 months when I got pregnant. It was an accident. We got engaged, then during the 20-week ultrasound, we learned that our baby never had a chance of survival outside my womb. Two weeks after that, she died. A month after that, we got married, and things reverted to what you might call a Traditional American Marriage. Since then, I’d been trying to be traditional, too. I’d been trying to be “normal”.

“Let’s have a bunch of honeymoons,” I said as the waitress brought me a cocktail. It was indigo and expensive-tasting, like Savannah saltwater taffy. “Tell me about the telescope we’re visiting tomorrow.”

Andrew propped his feet up against the railing of the deck and leaned back in his chair. “What do you want to know?”

I was excited about the giant telescope. How it would help us see the stars and the planets and all the other things we don’t think about during the daytime or forget to look up at night. “Tell me about how it all works,” I said.

The telescope was what Andrew called a marvel of modern engineering. He’d studied structural engineering, so for him, it was architectural wonder. Like the Golden Gate Bridge, he had said. People just come and look at it.

“Will we be able to see into other galaxies?” I asked.

“Not really. It’s just a radio telescope. Those study energy at different wavelengths,” he said.

I felt my face contorting. I could sense that my husband was on the verge of speaking a language entirely different from mine.

Andrew lifted his arm and directed my gaze to the restaurant’s open kitchen. “See those lamps? When the bulb glows, you see light energy.”

Inside the small kitchen three cooks in dirty white aprons were throwing various breaded things into a vat of boiling oil. It looked fun. I bit down hard in a dogged effort to round up all my concentration, furrowed my brow, and produced a teardrop bindi of wrinkles. I braced myself. “Okay?”

“What you feel is infrared,” Andrew said. “Thing is, when you have something like a light bulb or a galaxy, you can see the glow in the visible light spectrum. But there is energy you can’t see with your eyes.” He took a sip of beer. “Our eyes only see a narrow slice of things.”

A long arm deposited a red and white-checkered basket onto the table in front of us, and I popped a hush puppy into my mouth then wiped the tips of my fingers onto my shorts.

“How do you remember all this, man?” I said.

“How do you remember anything?”

“I don’t,” I mumbled.

Andrew started tracing the rise and fall of an imaginary line onto the palate of the charcoal sky above us. “You remember the spectrum of visible light, right? The colors of the rainbow?”

“Please excuse my dear Aunt Sally?”

“Um, no.”

“Wait, wait. Don’t tell me. Red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, violet . . . Roy G. Biv!”

“Right. Your eyes can see part of the rainbow’s spectrum. And the color of light is related to its wavelength.”

He was beginning to lose me again. Why was information like this so hard for me to retain? Even if I did remember everything Andrew was telling me, it’d be more like I was reciting the rules of some club I’d just joined. But what are the underlying causes of Roy G. Biv? I wondered. In a story, it was always love. Lack of love, secret love, tainted love, unrequited love, lust. But with physics and math, each explanation and answer always seemed to leave me more puzzled than the question.

We finished our drinks and ordered another round of the same. “Hold on,” I said. “Why is it long or short?”

A Maraschino cherry sunk to the bottom of my cup and lay trapped underneath a pile of ice cubes. I swirled them around with a tiny pirate sword, hoping to spear the cherry out.

“Energy,” Andrew said. “It’s all just energy.” He let out a sigh, thinking we were done.

But I was starting to become pleased with myself, or maybe just drunk, which made me feel a small self-congratulatory flush of pride. I felt like I had all the answers to my questions.

“Energy is coffee,” I declared.

“There you go. Visible light is coffee on a day-to-day level.”

My thoughts drifted over to how I could never got through math in school, and how I’d always felt guilty for that.

“Andrew, this is all just memorization, rules. Systems. Policies. This is exactly why I couldn’t get through this shit in school. Because we are supposed to memorize these things, and the things that go before them, and the things that go before them. But it always just makes me ask the question, ‘But why?’”

“Then don’t try to memorize it,” he said. “Visualize it.”

“Oh Jeez,” I slurred and took another mouthful of my cocktail.

“Think of oil,” Andrew said. “Oil has energy when you burn it. It becomes heat. And what do you have without heat and light?” he asked.


And with nothing interesting more to say, I looked back behind me and surveyed the restaurant. Everyone was dressed up. Women carried boxes of Whitman’s and had balloons tied to their wrists. I’d forgotten it was Valentine’s Day. “This place looks like the Ball Joint,” I told Andrew and nodded to the waitress to bring another Blue Lagoon or whatever the drink had been carelessly named. “Did you ever go to the Ball Joint? That big sports bar in my hometown?”

“When would I have gone there?” he answered.

And then, something.

Ever since the sudden end of my pregnancy, I couldn’t have a drop of alcohol without changing into an entirely different person. A few swallows, and I’d simultaneously become relaxed and outraged.

When would I have gone there? This question gnawed at me because I had recently found out that, in the late hours of his bachelor party, the groomsmen had taken Andrew to “Hotts”, the one and only strip club in my hometown of Battle Creek, Michigan. It’s open 24-7, and in the morning, they serve Breast-fast.

An aggressive pang hit me in the middle of my forehead as I slowly turned back to Andrew, who had ordered himself another beer and was looking quite content.

“Not even for your bachelor party?” That instant, with a sudden twinge, we both knew where we’d be going next.

“I just don’t see anything wrong with going for a bachelor party,” Andrew said.

“Give me a break,” I said and crossed my arms. “You went, after I asked you not to go.”

“Come on,” he pleaded. “The boys took me there. I had no choice.”

“For Pete’s Sake, Andrew! It wasn’t a normal wedding! We-did-not-have-a-normal-wedding!”

The waitress winced at us from behind the kitchen. “Happy Valentine’s Day,” Andrew said and sighed tragically as she brought us a menu.

“Look,” he said. “I don’t remember anything other than Gabe falling in love with one of the strippers. And if you really want to know, since I was the groom, I got dragged onto the stage and whipped, but I just sat there.”

“I asked you not to go, and you said you wouldn’t. It was disrespectful.”

“Look,” he said.

“No you look. Do you know where I was when you were getting spanked on a stage?”

“At a male strip club?”

We were getting nowhere fast.

“No.” I said, and stood up. “I was at home.” Then I twisted the knife. “And I was still bleeding!”

“Please,” Andrew said. “Maybe you just weren’t quite ready to be married.”

With that, Valentine’s Day quickly drowned under a tidal wave of misunderstanding.


“So what’d you think about Arecibo?” I ask Andrew as our car passes another village nestled in the flora. “Did the telescope blow your mind?”

“It was okay. It’s just cool that we have these big machines that can look deep into the universe.”

I thought Arecibo was okay, too. I ate some astronaut ice cream from the gift shop and learned that a James Bond movie was filmed inside the telescope, but mostly I enjoyed watching my husband’s face when we walked onto the ramp and saw the telescope. He looked like a little boy.

“I’d put it in the same category as going to see the Golden Gate Bridge,” Andrew says. “I really wanted to climb around it, but they don’t let you.”

“It looked like an egg. And it felt like it was being cradled and protected by all the pastures and hills surrounding it,” I add, twisting the wedding band around my finger.

“You know,” says Andrew, “all the energy from space travels at the speed of light, so it takes a few minutes for the sun to reach us.” He scratches his ear. “So in a sense, what we see today might have happened years ago. In a sense, we’re looking at the past.”

At the end of last night’s dinner, Andrew and I sat in our car in the restaurant parking lot with the engine turned off. We could hear the muted laughter of people walking behind us and into the restaurant. We didn’t talk. We didn’t try. We just sat and just let everything be. After a brief foray into silence and introspection, we looked at things with a different perspective—with distance, and together, as a team–finally agreeing that the strip club was not the issue.

The issue was that we were moving on. We were experiencing life from different perspectives, just as we always had, but I suspected we’d continue to see things differently, much differently. I didn’t want to grow apart. I didn’t want to be alone. I was afraid. Ever since losing the baby, everything that was once common and normal about life was bizarre and hard for me to overlook. I wanted Andrew to see things the same way as I was because I wanted proof that I wasn’t crazy, but it was clear to me that the common ground between us was being overshadowed by the differences and this made me angry. I was a changed person. I was terrified of myself, this new self. And despite it being terrifying, at the end of last night, I realized that I would never see things the exact same way as my husband, or that I ever had. I knew that we would never fully lose the baby we never had.

I need you to see it, I said. Just try to see how I might feel but I knew he couldn’t, and never would, so I leaned over and pulled my wedding ring out of Andrew’s blue jean pocket, where he’d safely placed it after I’d thrown it at him, and set it on his knee. Eventually, the atmosphere between us thawed. He asked me to be his wife again, put the wedding ring back on my finger, and kissed it.


“So do they just sit and wait? I mean, at Arecibo, do they ever find what they’re looking for?” I ask as our car pulls onto a freshly-paved road.

“I mean, they don’t see images, because if you look at something burning across different wavelengths you can pretty much register everything uranium to gold to nitrogen to helium,” Andrew says.

“So aren’t the stars just exploding gases?” I say, petting his head.

“They’re nuclear explosions,” he answers.

“Like the sun?”

“Like the sun.”

“Like Uranus?” I kid.


Mira Ptacin is a creative nonfiction and children’s book author, New York Times bestselling ghostwriter, as well as the founder and executive director of Freerange Nonfiction, a New York City reading series and storytelling collective. She is currently in the process of moving to Maine. www.miraptacin.com Twitter: MiraPtacin. More from this author →