[Original Novella] The Last Dance, Part 1


“You know, there were rumors that Skinner raised his own kid in an operant conditioning chamber.” Leslie was always full of trivia like this. In fairness, the topic is legitimately interesting. But of all the narrow interests to have, 1960s behaviorism makes for some truly weird conversations.

“Not true of course. He built what amounted to a fancy crib that would automate certain childcare tasks. But his work was controversial, and his detractors weren’t above slander.” I thought it was going to be a date. That’s egg on my face. Unless Leslie’s idea of a date is touring the dusty abandoned behaviorism lab of her university.

I wouldn’t put it past her. She really lives for her work. Although postgrads are more like indentured servants than conventional paid employees. “The experiments he was best known for involved the operant conditioning of pigeons. If you were ever shown any short films about B.F. Skinner in school, that’s probably what you saw. Row after row of little transparent plastic cages like these with pigeons in them, hopping, twirling, and eating food pellets out of a little dispenser.”

In fact I did vaguely recall something like that. It failed to capture my attention at the time but I now found myself scouring my memory for any details that I did retain, for the purpose of impressing Leslie. “Oh uh, yeah!” I blurted out. “Training the birds to perform specific tricks by giving them food every time they do it over and over. To create an association for them.”

She beamed at me and I experienced one of those rare epiphenal moments when I realize my education actually benefits me from time to time. Other than the basic math involved in calculating change for people buying coffee. Look at that degree pay for itself, huh? She took the moment of silence as an invitation to continue.

“The really interesting part was when he set the dispenser to give them food pellets at random intervals. If the pigeon happened to be doing some action when food came out like bobbing its head, it would mistakenly infer a causal association, and begin to repeatedly perform that action hoping for more food pellets.

Of course another eventually came, reinforcing the association. But if by chance it was doing something else, like spinning, it would add that to its ever-growing routine. Better safe than sorry! And because pellets always came eventually, it continued to develop a more and more complex ritual that it believed was causing the pellets to be released.”

“Like a rain dance.” I muttered, staring contemplatively at the empty wall of cages. “Exactly!” she replied, “or like prayer.” I furrowed my brow. “Hey now, that’s going a bit far.” She giggled and brushed it off. It was one of her few qualities I didn’t like. Unless you really got in her face about it, she usually couldn’t tell if she’d offended you and would carry on like it was no big deal. Like you were silly to feel anything.

Since I’m a sucker for a pretty face and a high IQ, I let her get away with it. I’m no doormat, but my “lower brain” does have significant veto power over the upper one. The hall of cages creeped me out, and I said so. She shrugged, having shown me what she wanted to, and we headed for the parking lot.

“How does dim sum sound?” Unfamiliar, I thought. But probably tasty, so soon we were barreling down the freeway towards whatever sort of restaurant serves it. Leslie drives like a maniac. She shuts down any complaints about it by pointing out that she’s never been in an accident. “Statistically, that means you’re due”. She wasn’t amused.

I remembered what dim sum is shortly after we were inside. In fact I’d had it before and at the time thought it was less of a meal and more of an extended snacking session. Over the various edible odds and ends, we discussed probability. She’d taken exception to my little barb in the car and, as is her tendency, begun overthinking it to absurd extremes.

“You know I was just teasing” I interjected. A flash of recognition. But she pretended that she knew. “Of course, I just think that’s a good jumping off point for some stimulating discussion. Now, do the odds of a collision really increase over time?

If you consider my history of driving as one long event, certainly. But aren’t the odds the same each time I drive to campus in the morning? Then there’s the question of whether or not I’m simply living in the continuity without any crashes.”

I vaguely recalled some TV show from the 90s about a bunch of college students jumping through wormholes to parallel Earths. I judiciously decided to keep it to myself as she’d never reacted well to pop culture references in the past.

Still, the way her eyes sparkled as she animatedly described the ‘many worlds interpretation’ to me was releasing all kinds of endorphins in my brain. I saw no reason to interrupt, even though she had a sizable chunk of fried shrimp stuck to her chin.

“So it may well be that every time I make some uncharacteristic decision while driving, it causes my continuity to diverge from the rest. Just because quantum uncertainty in my brain made me do something none of the other Leslies did.”

I mulled that one over. Everything I knew about the subject came from stoned viewings of Michio Kaku’s TV show. It took some work to formulate a question that wouldn’t betray my ignorance of the subject, while also challenging her somewhat.

“Is there anything you could do that would cause your continuity to re-converge?” She stared. It turned out to be one of those questions that was smarter than I realized. Not sure whether to be proud of that, to be honest.

But I was on a roll, so I pressed my luck. “For that matter, if you were to deliberately create conditions in a limited area identical to what’s happening there in a different continuity, would that cause the two continuities to converge only at that point?”

I wanted to impress her. Not render her mute. She spent the rest of the date doing napkin math. I’d sold her on our first date by singing Sam Cooke’s “Wonderful World” from the lawn outside her sorority house as she looked on from the second story window.

Corny to the point of fructose toxicity, but it did the trick. She goes in for that stuff even more than I do. It’s really hit and miss though. I never know what I’ll do or say that will delight her. It’s like Narnia, you can’t find it by trying to, you gotta stumble across it.

“You know, this is why I go out with you. You always ask the most interesting questions. I guess I don’t have an answer for you. I’m not even sure how anybody could properly devise an experiment to test that idea. I might steal it from you and write up a grant proposal.” I was all for it until she clarified that she was joking. Just about the grant proposal, I think.

I didn’t get into her pants but nonetheless considered it a successful evening. My feelings were definitely growing stronger but at the same time more confusing. It wasn’t yet clear to me how we fit together. What kind of dynamic we could build.

I’m no caveman, I’m perfectly comfortable with a girlfriend substantially smarter than me. But sometimes it left me wondering if she couldn’t do better, and if in some ways I wasn’t wasting her time.

I brought up Youtube when I got home and started binge watching stuff related to 1960s behaviorism. If I could see in it what Leslie saw I figured we might mesh better. When I next looked at the time, it was 3:49AM. Leslie would make some cute remark about the passage of time being relative to the observer. I filed that one away to use next time we got dinner.

If I hadn’t glanced back at the screen as I reached with the cursor to click the little X that closes the browser, I would’ve missed it. I nearly did anyway because it didn’t really register until I was halfway to my bed.

Subconscious confusion boiled over into the conscious. Wait a fucking second. Did I really see that? No, I’m just tired. Right? I deliberated whether it was worth the time and effort to watch the last few seconds of the video.

Curiosity won that battle. I plunked my boxer clad buns down on the cold metal folding chair I’d been using ever since a hefty friend managed to collapse my nice leather office chair to bits on a recent visit.

The remains still sat out by the dumpster, awaiting somebody who could find a use for such a thing. It was a hassle to find the exact video until I remembered the browser kept track of my recently visited URLs.

The footage played back more or less as I remembered. I expected to discover I’d imagined the anomaly. But no, there it was again. I blinked, rewound the video by a few seconds and watched again. The pigeon in the last cage in the row hopped, twirled, bobbed its head, hopped, scratched the ground, hopped, twirled….then vanished.

There was no hiccup in the video to suggest a cut. Skinner kept talking in the foreground without any discernible jump or interruption. The pigeon just disappeared. Over and over I rewound the video to watch the last few seconds. Then I scoured the comments for any mention of it. I was evidently the only person to notice.

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