Hecky and Shark are two handsome mid-30-ish bachelors in the film business in L.A. They know all the bartenders on the Sunset Strip, and with a single touch of the speed dials on their cell phones can always, even at the last minute, snag a lunch reservation at Patina on Melrose, where they often dine only three tables or so from Jack Nicholson. Shark dated Helen Hunt once, although that was a while ago. They get word of every after-after-opening party, where they meet young women in tomboy pony tails and funky glasses who seem — sweet Jesus — to be impossible admixtures of youth, innocence and sin. The girls they meet are like a drug that God might secretly procure from Satan. Still, both men have serious girlfriends, whom they suspect sort of know about their flings, yet who repeatedly profess their willingness to marry them, which Hecky and Shark casually attribute to the scarcity of decent men in Hollywood.

Hecky beats out Shark for the last spot on a rocket ship set to travel at near light speed. As the ship accelerates, time slows down, so that relative to Heck the trip only lasts one month. But when Heck returns to L.A., where time has not slowed, it is twenty years later. Hecky cruises Sunset Strip, but all of his old haunts have closed, and he doesn’t recognize anyone at the new places he visits. He can tell that everyone stepping out is dressed up, but they don’t seem stylish in quite the right way. Something about them is a little wrong. The whole experience is kind of creepy. The next morning Hecky calls Patina, but the maitre d’ doesn’t recognize him, and only laughs when Hecky presses for a table “not too far from Nicholson.” Hecky drops by anyway, but discovers that the restaurant has become a gaudy tourist trap. The wall by the register features a faded photograph of Jack Nicholson posed awkwardly with a smug-looking man in a dinner jacket. It is apparent that the photograph has not been cleaned in some time, and its frame is cracked.

But the biggest blow of all comes that afternoon, when Hecky tracks down Shark, and discovers that his friend has aged twenty years, lives in a secluded house high in the hills, and has married a woman who strikes Hecky as surprisingly matronly and earnest (Shark’s old girlfriend left him years ago). Hecky, standing in the marble foyer of Shark’s mansion, asks timidly if they can hang out sometime. Shark’s two small kids are hanging on his pant legs, and when Shark looks helplessly to his wife, she flashes a cold and tiresome stare that plainly communicates her desire for Hecky to leave. Hecky feels like an unwanted guest or, worse, a cold-call salesman.

QUESTION: So, who seems like the smart guy now, Mr. “Please, please, let me be the one to travel in a rocket ship at the speed of light”?

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Norm is driving from Rome to Florence in late summer. He stops just outside of Florence in the late afternoon to admire the rolling hills of Tuscany, and their lush carpet of vineyards dotted with rustic churches and quaint farm houses. He turns to watch a train approach from around the bend. There is a woman traveling on the train. Her name is Nora.

Nora, it turns out, is Norm’s soul-mate. They share exactly the same tastes in literature, wine, and German philosophy. Although they have both traveled the world, they would discover, if they ever met, that they grew up not ten miles apart in neighboring small towns in central Ohio. Nora is also beautiful. She has cascading blonde hair and a trim and muscular physique. As Nora’s train passes, Norm glimpses her through the train window (she is on her way to the snack car, walking in the same direction as the train). Norm could, if he were so inclined, meet Nora’s train at the Stazione Centrale in downtown Florence. From there it would be only a short walk to a fine restaurant near the Santa Maria Novella. It would all be so easy and perfect.

Now imagine that Nora’s train is approaching light speed. Because mass increases in density as it accelerates, to Norm the train does not look sleek, but scrunched up and compressed. Thus from the vineyard in which Norm stands, Nora looks as if she’s been distorted by a fun-house mirror — tall and bone-thin, with droopy cheeks and freakish oval eyes. Norm appears equally hideous to Nora. Horrified by Nora’s appearance, Norm avoids the train station in Florence and goes out of his way to have dinner in the distant Santa Croce neighborhood. Nora, similarly appalled, hides in her compartment until asked to leave by the conductor, and then hurriedly dines at the McDonald’s across from the station entrance. Thus the fated lovers never meet.

QUESTIONS: How likely is it, really, that Norm and Nora would both be from Ohio? Also, do you really believe that part about the train traveling at light speed? Doesn’t that seem unlikely, especially in Italy, where the story is set?

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String theory holds that the smallest particles in the universe are actually tiny strings vibrating with energy, and that these energetic strings animate the unique and sometimes unpredictable behavior of matter and energy.

But imagine, now, that each string is inhabited by people who think of the string as their “planet,” and think of nearby protons and electrons as distant and mysterious “worlds.”

QUESTION: Wouldn’t that be weird?