The Deciding Problem
In their last session, the marriage counselor told them to start dating each other again, so Akash took it upon himself to surprise Jennifer with a trip. He reached over the dirty dinner plates and proudly presented her with a TravelZoo voucher for a budget hotel in Niagara Falls.
Jennifer was not surprised; Akash liked clear directions, she knew he would plan something. She was, however, disappointed with him, and then with herself for expecting more from him.
“And,” Akash drew out the word like a TV announcer. “The next morning, we can go to the Butterfly Conservatory.” He bounced on his toes, unusually excited. They would spend a quiet evening relaxing before bed, breakfast (included!) and then the butterflies.
Jennifer bent over the dishwasher, still full of yesterday’s dishes, and began unloading. “We’ll be so close to wine country. Why can’t we go on a wine tour?” She refrained from saying “like normal people” and shoved a clean plate at him instead. The counselor had advised her against being so critical.
Akash, always uncomfortable in the face of change, demurred. “The plans are all set.” His head twitched. “We should follow through.” He felt he’d somehow screwed up again, let Jennifer down in his strange ability to get nothing right. What did one do on a wine tour, he wondered. Wouldn’t you get drunk? How could you enjoy the tour if you were drunk? How would you drive home afterward? He stood, holding the plate halfway to the cupboard, turning over the questions in his mind.
For a moment, she watched him look to one side and then the next, as if he were having a very confusing debate with himself. She used to find this endearing. “Plate!” she snapped, regaining his attention. She held out another plate, a polished blank clasped under her thumb. He looked from one dish to the next, unclear for a moment about which action to execute first, taking the new plate or putting away the old one.
“Couldn’t we at least stay in a cute B&B?” She pulled clean cutlery out of the dishwasher and began dropping pieces into the plastic tray in the drawer. There were still flecks stuck to the tines of the fork. Once, she would have scraped them off with her nails.
“Breakfast is included with the room,” he said. “It’s really the same thing.”
She blew her bangs off her face and then shut the cutlery drawer with her hip. There was no satisfying bang; they had installed soft-closers on each drawer. Instead, she kicked the dishwasher door closed. Then she went upstairs to pack, leaving Akash to deal with the kitchen.
They drove down to Niagara Falls that night, the QEW dark and smoothly curling around the lake, the road itself white with dry winter salt. Neither of them looked back at the glittering, postcard-perfect Toronto skyline behind them. Akash focused on the road in front of him, both hands on the wheel, twitching slightly. Jennifer watched the lighted cookie-cutter housing developments and big box stores go by. Her purse sat on her lap and under her purse she hid her hands, gripping her cell phone. She waited for it vibrate at the arrival of a text message. She knew it wouldn’t.
“How was your day?” Akash asked.
He’d asked her that question already, just as he always did as soon as he got home. “It was fine,” said Jennifer. The same answer she gave every day.
“The counselor said we should share more.”
“The counselor gives the same advice as Cosmo.” She let go of the phone and pulled her hands out from under her purse to stretch her fingers. “That’s a women’s magazine.”
He furrowed his brow. “I’ve never seen you read those magazines.”
“You don’t need to read them to know what’s in them.” They were predictable, those magazines. Sex, relationships, fashion, cooking, dieting: the advice never changed. Still, she always paged through them when she saw them. There was a certain comfort in that predictability.
They drove for a few minutes and then Jennifer asked, “How was yours?”
“It was fine.”
“What did you do at work?” Akash was a mathematician. Jennifer didn’t know how a person could discover new math.
He never knew how to explain what he did, except to say that he spent his day thinking. Sinking into math and searching for patterns gave him respite from the world, even when these patterns taunted him from the periphery, always elusive and out of reach. Once in a while, he could almost piece them together, elegance arising from chaos, a way of making everything make sense. But as soon as he tried to write it down, pin it into place, it was gone. “I worked.”
She turned away, stared out the window again.
“I reread the papers that lead to the Church- Turing thesis.”
“For fun. There’s that Turing movie.”
She was surprised that he knew that, and felt bad for explaining what Cosmo was. He always tried, even if he didn’t know what to do.
The phone felt heavy in her lap, and so she gripped handles of her purse and searched for a question to ask him. “Who was Church?”
“Turing’s the movie guy, right? So who’s Church?”
She kept her eyes on him, trying to think about anything but the phone in her lap.
He glanced at her, surprised by her attention. His first thought was to try explaining lambda calculus, but there would be that moment, when her eyes glazed over: the moment that always made him feel like he failed again. He never minded failing at work—research was a process of getting things wrong until you didn’t. But with Jennifer it was different. No matter how often he got it wrong, math would never leave him.
She focused on her breathing, cold air in the nose and warm air out. Akash had a habit of disappearing into his mind, fascinated by what he found there. Sometimes Jennifer thought he preferred being there to anywhere with her. In counselling, he’d insisted that this wasn’t true, but Akash wasn’t aware of how often he went away.
But eventually he spoke. “He came up with the same solution as Turing, but before Turing, and in a different way.”
“So why does Turing get a movie?”
“Turing’s answer was easier to understand.”
They drove along for a while. She longed to pull out her phone again, send a message. But she couldn’t do that in front of Akash, or even at all. Not anymore. As suddenly as it had all began, it was over, and she was shut out. The message would be sent, and there would be no response, and while this silence was unthinkable, the silence after she reached out would be unbearable.
“What does it do?” she asked. “The Turing thing.” If she kept asking questions, he would keep answering.
“It deals with the Entscheidungsproblem.” He was proud of his ability to pronounce it properly; he’d spend time in his undergraduate years practicing in front of a mirror.
“The Deciding Problem.”
“What does it decide?”
“It doesn’t decide. It just asks if something can be decided.”
She screwed up her forehead, trying to figure out what that had to do with math. “What good is that?”
He tapped the steering wheel, simplifying in his mind and hoping not to lose her. “If there is no solution, you don’t waste time finding one.”
“So Turing and the other guy solved it?”
“No. They proved it couldn’t be solved.”
Annoyed now, she put her hands back under her purse. “What good is that?”
His voice was sad and distant. “It’s complicated.”
Once they arrived at the hotel, they checked in, and went to the room. Akash carried both of their bags: her leather overnight case and the canvas tote bag he got free at a conference. With her snow boots still on, she marched to the windows and pulled back the curtains. A parking lot. The room did not have a view of the Falls. But the moon was shining brightly, casting a romantic glow over the piles of dirty snow. “We could walk down and see them,” she suggested.
Akash paused, one boot off, the other half-unlaced. “It’s pretty cold out.” He held his bootlaces tautly. “Do you want to?”
She let the curtains fall shut. “I guess not.”
He stood still for a moment and then awkwardly kicked off his other boot. It tumbled and thudded against the wall.
While Akash went through his pre-bed routine, Jennifer turned off her phone for the first time in months. She was tired of silence. Maybe she should have insisted on that walk. Perhaps it was time to try. Their counselor would be proud if she knew. But the blanket they shared lay flat on the bed between them, a barrier neither of them were ready to cross.
There was even a line up for tickets at the butterfly conservatory, surprising Jennifer but not Akash, who didn’t have any expectations about the crowd. They hung up their winter coats in the cloakroom and went through the two sets of doors (“It’s like an airlock!” said Akash) into the conservatory.
The room was warm. The air was soft and smelled both green and slightly floral, like a small tropical paradise. Like the honeymoon they didn’t take. Despite the patches of snow, sunlight streamed in the glass ceiling, lighting up the foliage. The butterflies winked by, flitting and dancing from one leaf to the next. “It’s beautiful,” she said.
Akash was not watching the butterflies, but was instead studying the side of Jennifer’s face. Her hair was pulled back and the line of her chin—something of the smooth perfection of that line reminded him a trigonometric curve. She turned to him, and he reached out one slim finger, and ran it along the edge of her face, like she was delicate china. “You’re so lovely,” he said. For him, there was no reason not to forgive.
She smiled slightly. When he was present, Akash had always treated her like she was precious. Even when he’d found out, he’d been sad instead of angry, which had puzzled their marriage counselor. He’d explained that it was just logical. She’d found something she needed but he didn’t have. He’d leaned forward, explaining biological co-evolution to the counselor while the tears leaked hotly down Jennifer’s face.
They walked along the pebbled path, watching the butterflies, stopping often to look up close. There were dozens of them everywhere they looked: on the green plants, on slices of cut oranges in blue plastic feeders, in the air. They didn’t speak, except to point out new varieties to each other, and slowly wound their way through the conservatory.
Jennifer leaned in close, watching one rub its thread-like legs together craftily. Its eyes were huge and watchful; its wings, held up and together, were white with black, like the sliced chocolate drizzle on a napoleon. “It’s so beautiful.”
Akash stepped a little closer to her, leaning in to watch the same butterfly. He pointed gently to its wings. “Do you see? They are transparent.”
She smiled slightly, noticing that she could see through the white of the wings to the lines of black on the other side.
“Such lovely wings.” He tilted his head to admire it from a different angle. “That’s how you know they’re poisonous.”
Wondering at his meaning, she caught her breath. He was mesmerized by the butterfly, studying it. She realized he’d meant exactly what he said, a scientific fact with no hidden barb behind it. No anger. All this time and still no anger.
She stepped away from him and walked fast along the path. Akash began to follow her, but froze when she started digging in her purse for her phone.
He thought often about searching her phone. She was careful with it, but not so careful that he couldn’t look without her knowing. Her password was her mother’s birthday. He saw her checking from time to time, though he hadn’t seen her writing any texts. And yet she had done so much without him seeing anything. How could he decide for certain that it was over unless he proved it? But the had told him not to check up on her in secret, that to rebuild trust, he had to trust.
Jennifer started the phone and waited for it come back to life, then held it and scrolled through her old messages while it connected to the network. She still hadn’t deleted any of them, the hundreds of texts full of passion and longing. Surely, she couldn’t have been so completely forgotten. Sometimes she would get a dozen texts in less than five minutes, and she would reply right in front of Akash without him even noticing. Perhaps he was relieved that she was busy texting, so he could go off into the wonders of his mind. She didn’t know.
As she looked around, she saw a side window tucked among the plants. There were butterflies massed against it, sitting on the sill, fluttering wings, looking at the deadly cold freedom outside the window.
No new messages.
She longed to throw the phone into the koi pond, to throw it on the ground and watch pieces of it break away. But instead she put it into her purse. From afar, Akash took this as a sign and approached. “Are you okay?” he asked.
He didn’t move and neither did she. Butterflies circled around them, one landing on Jennifer’s purse. Akash leaned forward to look at it, and she slapped at it. She could feel the merest brush of wings against her fingers as it flitted away.
“Jennifer!” Akash grabbed her arm. “You could have hurt it!”
“This is a conservatory. You can’t do that.”
She waited for an onslaught. It didn’t come.
Instead he gently patted her arm and let go. “You should be more careful.”
She pushed him, hard, and went through one door of the conservatory and stood in the no-man’s land between the inside and outside. He never reacted the way anyone else did. This had once been his appeal, that he was not like other men. He would keep trying to solve this, she knew, but she didn’t know if he would ever find the answer. She didn’t even know if the answer existed.
Photos by Flickr user Jim Munson