The Making of The Atomic Bomb
Your whole life, you’ve only ever lied to one person.
After the Love of Your Life finishes slapping you in the chest and tearing at your shirt and clawing at your face and screaming that she wishes you were dead and unceremoniously gets into her Uber screaming one last parting “ASSHOLE!” at you out of the window before pulling away, you go back inside the bar and sit down and wait for your birthday party to start.
You’ve always been enthusiastic about birthdays. This year is no different.
In 1926, J. Robert Oppenheimer — then just a student, not yet the “Father of The Atomic Bomb” that he would later be immortalized as — transferred from Cambridge to Göttingen University to study for his doctorate in Theoretical Physics. Once there, he quickly made a reputation of becoming so enthusiastic during discussions with the other students that he would dominate and sometimes even completely take over seminars with his overzealous discourse. This became such a regular problem that his peers submitted a petition demanding their professor make Oppenheimer quiet down or they would boycott the class. He was something special, even then. Rather than confront Oppenheimer directly, his professor left the petition out on his desk, knowing that Oppenheimer would see it. He did. It worked. An elegant solution to a complicated problem.
You like hearing people use the phrase “love at first sight” because it’s bullshit. You’ve never believed in it. Still don’t. When the two of you first met, the only thing you thought was that her hand was much too sweaty to be touching other people. You still think that, by the way. It wasn’t until the second time that you met you realized you were in love with her.
You ran into each other at Target. She was buying patterned dish towels that matched the carpet in her kitchen and you were buying more socks because you were too lazy to do laundry. You asked her out to a picnic, mostly because you hated all the restaurants you knew. She agreed on the condition that the picnic be dinner and she got to pick the place — which is how your first date ended up being a moonlit picnic out in the desert at night. She was something special, even then.
She said she loved the desert; the heat during the day, the stark beauty at night. You’ll always remember how quiet it was out there. No crickets, no birds. Just the two of you and the whole rest of the world, bathed in cool clean white light. You asked her where she had gotten the scar on her neck and she said something about falling into a campfire when she was a kid, her finger absentmindedly running back and forth across the small rough patch near her throat as she told the story. You mumbled something stupid like fire is hot and went in to kiss her, the silence of the night making your heart beat impossibly loud in your ears. Later you both laid in the back of your Jeep because you were scared of rattlesnakes. She just laughed and said not to worry; coldblooded creatures don’t come out at night. Even snakes? You asked. Even snakes, she said.
But that wasn’t entirely true.
Shortly before he started his professorship in the United States, Oppenheimer came down with a slight case of tuberculosis. As a result, he rented a ranch deep in the desert of New Mexico, falling in love with the heat of the day and the stark beauty at night. He called his ranch Perro Caliente, or “Hot Dog”. When the Manhattan Project needed a secret location to create a most terrible bomb, Oppenheimer proposed a spot he knew well: the desert of New Mexico. The first pieces of the worst weapon the planet had ever known would be constructed in a surrounding most familiar: The stark beauty of the desert. Near the hot dog.
You can never remember which holiday has the skeletons and which doesn’t, which is why you end up at your neighbor Robotic Willy’s World Famous Semi-Annual Cinco de Mayo House Party all dressed up in a grinning skull like Death Incarnate — if Death Incarnate wore socks from Target, of course. She teases you for your mistake, which wouldn’t be so bad if you didn’t notice the hard edge under her words. The place is packed — your neighbor is careful to never invite more than a few people, because friends bring friends and the crowd always grows — but you take your girlfriend’s hand and wade into the chaos anyway, like some kind of drunk Charon on a nightmarish jaunt through a river Styx full of assholes dancing to Taylor Swift: A hell too awful for even the greatest of Greek poets to imagine.
Looking back, you suppose you shouldn’t have been surprised; when your girlfriend keeps distractedly looking around the party while dancing with you, that should tell you something. When your girlfriend keeps making excuses to go to the bathroom or get more drinks, that should tell you something. When your girlfriend keeps asking you when your other friend — “the one with the cute mustache, who plays in that band” — is gonna get to the party, that should tell you something. Cancelled plans. Weird texts. Odd looks.
Pieces constructed in a surrounding most familiar.
Like any person of such great historical importance, Oppenheimer enjoyed his dalliances. Whether the result of a restless mind, overclocked ambition, or something deeper and more insecure, his affairs were varied and wide ranging. In one particular instance — perhaps his most brazen, although with the numbers involved it might have taken a mind equal to Oppenheimer’s to prove it — he once dropped by the house of a close colleague while the man was at work and proceeded to openly suggest to the man’s wife that they should sneak away to Mexico for a torrid affair. She refused.
If you believe Life has some sort of poetic meaning, then perhaps it was cosmic justice that convinced the same organ responsible for whispering all those lies of lust and love into the ears of all those women to kill Oppenheimer: Throat cancer took his life at 62.
There is a secret we all share, you’ll think later in the backyard. A piece we have inside of us. A jagged shard shoved deep underneath the fingernails of our feelings. It is a cold certainty we know but fear to speak aloud: that every crime committed against us in the name of love is one in which we signed the order. That it is us who is responsible for pressing that warm blade into the anxious hand of our heart’s assassin. In the end it was you, you’ll think, who gave life to this soulless sewn together beast that has hunted you here to trap you on the ice. It was you who pushed her away. It was you who complicated things that were once so simple. Hey, even Oppenheimer couldn’t do it alone.
Your whole life you’ve only ever lied to one person: Yourself.
After she’s been gone to the bathroom for an hour, you decide to go looking for pain. Out there in the garage, you find it. They see you, fully expecting anger or violence — but all you feel is tired. Later, you find yourself outside in the fire lit backyard; Death Incarnate in his Target socks, standing out there in the dark among the shadows and apart from them; a singular point in space and time. The night has finally ripened and split open: A muffled thumping bass line pulses from inside the house, a few couples have begun making out here and there. Pushing a heavy breath out of your lungs, you stand up straight, cherishing the feel of gravity holding your feet to the earth. Your useless drink hangs heavy from the spiderweb of your fingers, laying at your hip in a wet plastic cup. You stare up at the stars and your thoughts spiral out and away from this place, this backyard, these people. Out there in that vast moonlit desert, did Oppenheimer stop to look up at these same stars? Was he jealous to see the fires burning out there in the black of the heavens so effortlessly while he struggled to unlock those same secrets here on earth? Did he truly understand what his actions would create in the end?
You’ve always been enthusiastic about birthdays, and this year is no different. You are careful to never invite that many people — because friends bring friends and the crowd always grows — but as your tongue runs across the inside of your cheek where she slapped you across the face, the door to the bar opens and you manage a smile as your old college roommate walks in, right on cue. He’s always the first one to arrive at every party you throw. He wishes you a happy birthday, calls you a few choice names from the old days, and gives you a hug.
Then he sees the banner. His eyes widen.
“Is that true?” he asks, still staring. You turn to look at it with him, finishing your drink before nodding over at the bartender for a refill. Two down and the party hasn’t even started.
“That it is.” You say.
You loved her. You loved her, and she loved you. For a while, anyway. And shouldn’t that be enough? Oppenheimer did a lot of great and amazing things for Humanity — everything from predicting the existence of positrons and black holes to founding The World Academy of Art and Science — but in the end, and perhaps sadly, the thing Oppenheimer will always be known for is the creation of the most destructive force Mankind has ever loosed upon the world: The Atomic Bomb.
Your friend Ernie walks into the bar, sees the banner, and exclaims “holy shit!”. You laugh — you can’t help it — but the laughter sounds more bitter than you expected. Ernie orders three shots, shaking his head and smiling as the bartender pours the tequila. Handing over the drinks, he holds his up; a quick toast before everyone else arrives. The two of you join in, your three glasses making a trinity of crystal that sparkles above you in the dim red light. Up above, the banner ripples slowly from some unseen breeze: An elegant solution to a complicated problem.
Ernie reads the words aloud as a toast:
“MY GIRLFRIEND FUCKED A GUY AT A PARTY AND ALL I GOT WAS THIS STUPID BANNER.”
I am become death, the destroyer of girls.