"Paradox" by Bradley Warshauer

“Paradox” by Bradley Warshauer

Starlike pinpoints of white light like constellations glow through the ceiling above us in her room while we lay under them together on her bed. Her head is on my shoulder.

I say, “I never noticed that before. They’re actually the constellations, right?”

“It’s a glowing star chart, and yes, they’re a representation of the actual constellations.”

“You made it?”

“It’s been there since I’ve known you.”

“But I never noticed it before.”

“It’s been there since I was eight. Well, not that one specifically, obviously, because I don’t live in the same house anymore, but I’ve used the same technique since then. It’s more accurate now, for reasons that should be pretty clear.”

“Because you know more about the stars now.”

“Yes. Do you know about the Fermi Paradox?”

“Something something aliens.”

She bites my shoulder. She says, “It is a question posed by Enrico Fermi that basically asks, ‘Where is everybody?’ That if there was intelligent life elsewhere in the universe, we should have found it by now. Given the age of the universe there should be many advanced civilizations; even if, failing to develop interstellar travel capable of moving between habitable star systems in what we’d call a lifetime, it takes such a civilization human eons for said, there’s been plenty enough time for at least one to enter within our range of detection and/or detect us.”

“But if there’s an infinitely-large universe,” I say, slowly extending my arm and opening my hand to her artificial sky. “Isn’t that, like, the paradox? That an infinitely-large and impossibly old universe would, you know, produce millions of intelligent civilizations that are so far apart they can never interact?” My voice is flighty and she doesn’t like when I talk like this because I sound high, and she hates when I mock her, even though I mean it with love and only do it because my understanding of astronomy is the same as a precocious third grader’s, one who watched the Discovery Channel back when the Discovery Channel was still the Discovery Channel.

She says, “That’s the easy way out: an appeal to infinity.”

“You made that up.”

“Only the semantics. The point is you can’t simply use the most convenient excuse to deny the necessity of—”

“But if it’s the truth.”

“—performing the research, and it’s not an issue of truth, it’s an issue of fact—”

“But Occam’s Razor.”

“—and the simplest explanation is the correct one all things being equal but what’s the simpler explanation, that of the untold many potential technologically-advanced civilizations in what from all our observations since the initial discovery of extra-solar planetary systems appears to be a particularly ripe part of the universe, if anything a bit crowded, we are somehow in a random blind spot oblivious to all and as detectable as God—”

“Your atheist is showing.”

“—or we simply haven’t yet found the intelligence out there that does exist and which is within detectable range.”

“That isn’t a clear dichotomy.”

She pulls herself up so that she’s sitting and all I can see is her dark hair and her naked back.

I say, “I didn’t mean anything by that.”

She loops around to face me and spreads her legs out behind her and holds her upper body up by balancing on her elbows so that I can see her bare breasts for a moment until she lowers her chest to the bed and lays her chin on her entwined knuckles. She is looking at me with the expression, one eye open wide while the other is half-closed, that she gives me when she’s thinking about how stupid I am while simultaneously trying to convince herself that my stupidity is incidental and not indicative of my intelligence quotient and that I am, in fact, a very smart and pretty talented writer of fiction. When her eyes return to their normal shapes it means she’s fought herself to a draw and has decided that it doesn’t really matter anyway.

She says, “Okay. If I wasn’t clear the point was to make you understand something, and that’s that the Fermi Paradox is not a valid guiding principle with which to decide the focus and/or limits of our scientific inquiry.”

“Because lack of evidence is not necessarily evidence against.”

“No. No. Lack of evidence is not evidence of anything in any one way or any other way.”

“Not quite how that saying goes.”

“It’s that at the time the tools to acquire the observable evidence simply did not exist and since that time those tools have been invented, have been used, and have produced a body of evidence that allows us to make certain determinations.”

“Since what time?”

“Mid twentieth century. When Fermi made the statement about which we’re talking.”

“Right. But you’re still talking about a lack of observable—”

“I’m talking about extra-solar earthlike systems being discovered at a rate unprecedented even ten years ago, and relatively nearby. In an infinite or near-infinite universe capable of supporting life in conditions not unlike those found here that also contains multitudinous examples of said, and at not particularly distant intervals, well, you’ll have to forgive me if I don’t buy the ideas that certain individuals attempt to give me—”

“Not how that one goes either.”

“—about—I’m sorry. How does it go?”

“It’s ‘Buy what they’re selling.’”

“‘Buy what they’re selling.’”

“There you go.”

“About how Fermi was right and there is no observable evidence, because there absolutely is, and it takes a deplorable lack of imagination to not see this evidence and—What’s a good one for this?”


“A good saying to illustrate my point.”

“Say again.”

“A good—”

“No, say what you want to illustrate.”

“A deplorable lack of imagination to not see the evidence and.”

“Connect the dots.”

“Yes, connect the dots.” She slides up closer to me so that her lips brush my cheek and her fingers play on my inner thigh. She says, “We need more time.”


“My boyfriend will be here by midnight.”

“Why’s he coming?”

“Because I asked him to.”

“Why would you do that?”

“Because I need him to go with me to the university science banquet tomorrow.”


“Also I love him and miss him.”


Hands appear on my chest and press hard against me and her eyes, widening, tell me she is suddenly and very sorry for mentioning him. She says, “But I love you too.”

“Yeah, I know.”

“You can love more than one person.”


“And each love can be a different but still wonderful kind of love, and we have a form of that, you and I.”

“We shouldn’t.”

“What do you mean?”

“We should have all of it. You should be all in. You lay down all the cards, bet all the chips.”

“I don’t understand what you’re saying.”

“You should risk everything on love.”

“It’s eleven-thirty. He could get here early.”

“What would happen if he did?”

“I know you would get angry and you might even fight him, but he would hurt you.”

“He—I would—he would too, wouldn’t—and he wouldn’t hurt me.”

“He is so strong and stereotypically manly compared to you.”

“You’re making it worse.”

“He might become emotional based on some hormonal instinct but he understands love and that in love it isn’t who you’re with but how you feel.”

“What the hell does that mean?”

“It means what happens with one person does not necessarily impact how I feel about another, and that based on long history I think that’s a sensible and healthy way to approach love.”

“That doesn’t even make sense.”

She pulls her silky body away from mine and swings her thighs around so that her legs dangle over the side of the bed while I, not wanting to look at her but looking at her anyway, linger on her breasts and long naked neck and shoulders and between her legs where her thighs never seem to meet. This is how I end up in these situations.

Standing and tiptoeing into her panties, which are on the floor where she dropped them, and pulling them up and sliding them into place, she says, “I should get dressed, but we can still talk.” She bends and finds her bra and I keep watching even though I know her boyfriend will see exactly these things later tonight, which makes watching her simultaneously sickening and exhilarating. She puts her bra on backwards at first so that she can see the clip as she connects it at her chest below her breasts, which are pressed together by the action of her hands, and then she slides the bra around so that it’s now frontwards and slips the straps up onto her shoulders, and now her breasts are no longer naked. This doesn’t make me any less unable to look away.

She says, while pulling a t-shirt over her head, “The real problem with Fermi’s Paradox and assorted other similar ways of thinking—”

“We’re really talking about—”

“—is that, wait, what—”

“—this again after you—”

“—are you interrupting for, these are the things I know and—”

“—hit me with the bit about homeboy?”

“—we should talk about the things that we know. What?”

“Never mind. Go ahead.”

“Are you using code?”

“No, I’m not being sarcastic.” I yawn to show her I’m not being emotional and that I am being sincere.

“So if I continue will you be listening and interested?”

“Yes. I mean I’m always interested in the things you say.” I can say this and mean it, but I’m not sure if the things she says are interesting to me because they are inherently interesting or if they are interesting to me because she says them.

Her legs are pale because they are usually hidden by her clothes and because she does her most interesting work at night, and they are very thin because she so often forgets to eat. She pulls on pink flannel pajama pants and says, “The philosophical problem with the Fermi Paradox is that it intentionally contracts rather than seeks to expand the scope of human knowledge or, at least, puts an ultimate limit on the potential of said.”

“Police line: do not cross.”

“Huh? Yes, exactly right. It is a logical limitation designed to make the universe fit human vision rather than expand human vision to the scale of the universe.”

“As opposed to what you believe.”

“Well yes, but that wasn’t what I was going to say because I’ve told you what I believe before.”

“And you don’t like to repeat yourself. I know.”

“I understand that sometimes you forget things, though.”

“I didn’t forget.”


“That’s the one thing you do repeat.”


“That you don’t like to repeat yourself.”

“Is that some form of irony?”

“I don’t know.”

“Isn’t that your business?”

“I’m pretty straightforward.”

“What do you mean?”

“I mean my thesis advisor tells me I’m sincere to the point of sentimentality.”

Bending over and standing on one foot, she puts on a sock and looks across the room to me. Her hair falls on either side of her face. She says, “Why would he say that? It isn’t true.”

By now I have managed to sit up in bed so that I’m covered by her sheets only from the waist down. I say, “I guess it’s just a matter of opinion. He doesn’t like sentiment and he does like irony.”

“I read your writing and I like it. The emotion you write about is all real. Why is that bad?”

“Like I said, it’s a matter of opinion.”

“But it’s not. The sentiments are reality. You’re creating them on paper and you do it well. You are a good writer and your advisor should appreciate that.”

“I’m glad you’re a fan.”

She comes across the room to me, now fully dressed in her pink pajamas and little white socks that show her pale ankles and a headband that sweeps her hair away from her forehead and ears. With an arm on either side of my upper body she leans down and kisses me and says, “I would touch you inappropriately now but I think enough time has passed that doing so would make it significantly harder for you to leave.”

“You’re the best flirt I’ve ever been with.”

“Is that sarcasm?”

“Yes. It’s sarcasm.”

She hands me the crumpled gray ball that is my t-shirt. “He’ll be here soon. You should leave now.”

She’ll never understand how that sounds.

Outside the sky is a darker crisper version of the ceiling in her bedroom, the stars sharper brighter versions of her lights. They twinkle at me in a way the lights in her room do not (note to self: tell her this so she will become obsessed with making her lights twinkle), in a way that announces they are alive and burning.

A low grass rise hangs over the driveway, which loops from the road into the central parking lot of her apartment complex. I’m laying there now in grass cooled by midnight dew, looking at the stars until car headlights cut their brilliance and so I turn my head to watch while a little hatchback rolls into the lot. It pulls into a parking spot and its lights go dark and a door swings open and a man gets out. He is tall and muscular and he’s wearing flipflops that smack against the pavement as he walks from parking spot to front door. He’s carrying a Happy Meal box. He has brought this because his girlfriend constantly forgets to eat and because she likes chicken nuggets. I don’t know if maybe she also likes small plastic toys, but this is possible, and maybe she’s just never shown me what I now imagine to be her large and carefully-organized collection of small plastic toys. She’s shown her boyfriend, though, and so when he reaches the door and sends her a text message to tell her he’s arrived (the phone glows in his left hand as he types it) I look away starward.

The night is intensely clear. For the first time I notice the sky is not a black curtain over the world but is instead an infinite number of color shades from black to purple to blue. There are wispy purple streaks like clouds, nebulae inside which orange and red and cobalt stars burn. As I stare high into the deep the stars seem to grow and become brighter, and the blue and purple wisps turn bright like neon. Flaming meteors, thin green and red and yellow burn across the sky. I know, because she has told me, that the relative speed of a falling star is potentially higher than its own orbital velocity because of the added speed of Earth moving on its own trajectory around the sun, some incredibly high number she’s mentioned but which I have since forgotten, which is not the only such incredibly high number that exists because as we move around the sun we are also moving with the sun around some distant galactic center, far off in the Milky Way; but we are also moving with the rest of our galaxy across open space away from some primordial beginning and towards some universal ending. All these simultaneous speeds together are, for me, incomprehensible.

I am laying on my back against the cold wet surface of an object hurtling through what I now see is a kaleidoscope of melting colors washing past me, smearing across the sky in a cascade of light. The sensation of motion makes my stomach flip and so I hang on tighter, grasping fistfuls of grass until I’m tearing it from the soil, because I figure: in life, all you can do is enjoy the ride.


Bradley Warshauer is a writer from New Orleans and South Mississippi and also New York, where he did that whole MFA thing. His novel 11th Hour was published by Pinnacle in 2003, before his 18th birthday. He’s won awards for fiction, playwriting, and journalism. He thinks 95 degrees with humidity is better than anything below 40.