Nothing stares us in the face as we take our places at the table. It is a menacing sight, nothing. With its cavernous hunger, without even the promise of a black hole, into which one might metaphysically fall and contract, and become a dense world among worlds, it seeks us from across the table. The waiter brings bread. We are avoiding fear.
"What do you most fear," I had asked him, not ten minutes before, while the phones rang in his office, and a secretary bobbed in an out on a wave of words like an errant buoy.
"Let's get out of here," he had said.
Walking to lunch, he answers the question. "Nothing," he says.
And now, in the Commissary at Paramount Pictures, Inc, we sit thoughtfully, crumbling bits of bread. Nothing grins maliciously. Self revelation is near. "Fear," Gene says, in a neutral tone. "I wonder what else you're going to ask me." I hand him my list of questions. He looks them over and decides to be recalcitrant.
"I think your questions are a lot more intelligent than my answers are going to be. I don't know if I can answer them."
Whoopi Goldberg, dressed as Guinan, walks by.
"I don't see that 'what do you most fear' is a particularly brilliant question. And anyway, I'm not here to make you look bad…Do you want to avoid this question?"
"Yes, I do,” he says. "But, now that it's been asked, I don't think I can. It's sitting here between us. The uninvited guest."
"Oh we invited him," I say.
A waiter comes to take our order. He is deferential, beyond the job requirement of serving egos and appetites. It is clear that he is liked. Little things begin to appear on the table - unasked for, and far more welcome than the unanswered question between us. Lemons and sugar, ice cubes in a silver dish, cream, extra cream, new flowers, wine. Gene orders two salads, and looks at me through narrowed eyes. He is not sure how I will take being ordered for.
"It's a good salad," he says as though it were a challenge." It's the best."
I thank him. Ted Danson and Kirstie Alley walk by.
Someone stops at the table. He introduces me. "This is my mistress," he says pleasantly. He lets the joke stand for a few minutes, waiting to see if I will correct it. I out wait him. He reintroduces me properly, and we chat for a few minutes. I see the possibility of discussing nothing fade.
Later I find out that we have been speaking with a producer whose movies are household names [and who, five years later, when I meet and marry Gene Roddenberry’s boss], I will inherit as a beloved family friend. I will also inherit a legacy. When a second person drops by the table, Gene introduces me to him as his mother. Nothing disappears.
"Humor as defense," I think, as I fly back to San Francisco that afternoon with the question still unanswered.
At 11:00 p.m. the telephone rings.
"This is Gene Roddenberry," a now familiar voice announces. "I would like to answer that question."
I get my notebook, which proves to be unnecessary. The answer is "Humanity."
I write in my notebook anyway, what he says next: "I have a great fear that our human leaders will fail to understand that a world such as Star Trek is possible - that all the glorious things - not that Star Trek represents, but that the human being represents, will fall on deaf ears. That frightens me.”
It sounds like a prepared statement - sincere, motivated, but prepared all the same. I thank him for answering the question. He asks when I can come down next, reminds me that I will be staying at his house. We make a tentative arrangement.
Just before we hang up, he asks, "What are you afraid of?"
I say I will write it down and give it to him when I get there.
"Oh good," he says. "I wrote mine down." .....................................................................................................................
Fear follows us into his office, one peculiarly clear morning. He wants to hear what I have written. I read it aloud:
"'I am afraid that evil will win out over good. I am afraid that there is no real wonder left in the world - which is why we as a species frantically try to create it - hence, movies, television, Hollywood. I am afraid that I won't learn what I am supposed to learn before I die, and that it will somehow be my fault for not having tried hard enough. I am afraid that I will never touch the true human condition, because I've been too happy, and too fulfilled, and that consequently, I am less human than I should be. I'm afraid of madness - not mine - but the fact that it exists - that so much can go wrong with the human brain.
I'm not afraid to make the mistakes we all make (although I don't like to of course), but rather, I am afraid that I might make the larger cosmic mistakes of missed destiny and dimensions unperceived. I'm afraid that I won't be able to do enough in my allotted span.
And, I am afraid of surrender - not human connection, not intimacy - but surrender. Afraid of the power I have, because it is so difficult to translate into action accurately. I am afraid of pain for my children, my family. I'm not personally afraid of emotional pain - I don't seem to be vulnerable to that on the deepest level, but even that raises the question about whether or not that's a good thing. It may mean that I am not human enough.
Afraid that the great cosmic truth, whatever it is, may be beyond my capacity to understand, if ever the time comes for me to understand it, and therefore, I will be disqualified from vowing allegiance to it.'"
"Read it again," is all he says when I have finished.
I do. I add that I do not necessarily believe these things - such as the fact that there may be no wonder in the world. I believe there is. But when worries do arise, they wear the garments of these concerns.
"I could have written that," he says. "Much of it. In fact, I'm not sure I didn't, somewhere in my mind." He frowns. "So - we share certain fears...who would have thought it?"
"Do you want to add anything? Delete anything?"
"No. Nor do I want to discuss anything. Let it stand for the purposes of this book. It's enough for folks to think about without getting into detail."
He looks at me keenly. We have suddenly leapt light years closer.
"What about nothing?" I ask him.
"You know - when I asked you last week what you were afraid of and you said nothing. Was it a literal answer? Are you afraid of there being nothing out there, in the universe - that we may discover nothing? No creator? No cosmic consciousness? Nothingness?"
"I don't know," he replies, making circles on his finger with his thumb. "What would you say, if I asked you the same question?"
"I would say no. No, that's one thing I am definitely not afraid of."
"May I share that answer with you, until one of us knows for certain?"
"You don't want to discuss it."
He is afraid of that, of course. His particular mark of uncertainty being the examination of all possibilities, he won't have missed that one. But being afraid of a possibility does not mean that one believes the possibility is probable. Or the reverse. He just doesn't want to talk about it.
Causes Harrison Solow Supports
Lupus Foundation of America
Museum of Tolerance