7.06 / June 2012

A Taxonomy of the Space Between Us

listen to this essay


                                                                                     The space between me and my brother
has always varied in size and volume (1):
                                                                                     its dimensions
                                                                      are ever-changing (2),
          have bent and expanded,
                                                            transcended literal confines (6),
                                                                                                                   opened new spaces (3),
          abstract spaces (4),
                                                       have functioned
                                                                                                                   as a membrane (5)
          that wraps itself around our bodies
                                                                                                    like the well-tailored clothing
          worn in the 1950’s (7)
                                                                                     without ever actually touching us (8),
                    connecting us without being (9),
                                                                                                         its existence
               predicated upon the fact that we still are (10),
and will remain being
                                                            as long as one of us
                                                                                                         is still alive.

(0) This is an essay about me and my brother; about how the space between us is neither division nor connection. This is an essay about how time moves faster than our ability to perceive of it, and also, other abstract concepts that describe the space between two or more people as being both unknowable and exceedingly relevant. This is an essay about how memories are disorganized, about the longing I have for my brother and my sister and my sister who is dead.

(1) Shortly after he moved from our hometown in Champaign, Illinois to his new home in Salt Lake City, Utah, I travelled out to visit my wife’s parents in Pennsylvania where I tried to write about a memory I have of watching the film Robocop (the mid-80s future-noir about a vigilante cyborg who violently exacts revenge upon a multinational conglomerate responsible for destroying the person he once was) with my brother (a). We were at a friend’s house, and it was very late at night. My brother was no older than 6 and it was the first time he’d witnessed the wanton destruction of human life on a television screen, and so he was petrified, but would not stop watching, would not stop uncovering his eyes. It was not the furthest apart we’d ever been from one another.

(a) I have searched my hard drive extensively for remnants of this writing but it’s gone like the snippets of photographs my mother cropped away with craft scissors to focus on whatever object she wished to focus on: a house, a tree, a face, a body…

i. I have come across these pictures here and there over the years. Oftentimes, all she’s cut away is just a stack of magazines, or a table full of dirty dishes, a hand sitting on an arm rest: negative space deemed unworthy, discarded, or mistakenly left behind in a pile of photos like a glimpse into the future.

(2) It is hard to know for sure if I was closer to my brother when holding his infant body down and punching him in his stomach, or when gliding a pair of clippers over his scalp when he was in the 7th grade, making him the first kid in middle school with a Mohawk.

(3) When I was 13 my brother found me next to my bedroom window smoking a Camel Straight I’d bummed off of a man at an AA meeting I’d attended with the intent purpose of finding someone who’d bum me a cigarette (a). My brother promised he wouldn’t tell our parents and he did not and he has not. My brother promised me that he would never start smoking and then he started a few months later when his friend stole a pack of Marlboro Reds from his dad. He still smokes to this day even though I quit 7 years ago.

(a) It is true, various media sources have told us, that children who are raised by smokers are more likely to start smoking themselves. When I started I was 11 years old. When my brother started, he was 12. Neither of our parents smoke and so when they found out about our habit, they did not understand how it fit into God’s plan and so they prayed over us in tongues, letting phoneme after phoneme overlap with one another until they washed over us in an ever-familiar haze.

(4) Shortly after my sister died, my brother got a speeding ticket and so I got drunk and I called him and I told him about how his choice had disappointed me. He was living in Springfield, Illinois at the time and I was still in Champaign (I am still in Champaign). It was not the furthest apart we’d ever been from one another.

(5) My brother was talking about String Theory (a) before high school. About the multiverse: how the many universes that make up all of existence do not come into contact with one another just as the molecular vibrations that enshroud every object we touch in fact keep us from touching it, how our outsides coil around each other, affect each other without ever making contact, like the air that becomes entwined inside two separate balloon animals (b).

(a) According to my father, at some very elaborate point, any scientific theory can become so complex it can only be understood through metaphor and abstract association. This, of course, leads to a very strange ontology, as the referents for these metaphors themselves become more and more abstract so that, in the end, a perfectly rational person can find himself arguing for the necessity of faith, the existence of God and the presence of some unknowable reality governed by forces that transcend our understanding of time, space, and the nature of existence…

(b) There are numerous instances wherein both Art and Science agree that two objects can press up against one another without ever touching. Think Michelangelo: how Adam’s outstretched hand nearly meets that of his maker. Think of Michelangelos’s fingerprints: thousands of them embedded in that ceiling, as if you could actually touch what he touched.

(6) I have dreamt that my brother is the one who dies, leaving me and my two sisters (one older, one younger) to mourn him for the rest of our lives. It is a strange relief to fall into. Stranger still to wake up in.

(7) I have the cashmere coat that my great grandfather, Charles Dwight Curtiss I (a) (b) wore when he worked in Washington D.C. designing the interstate system that my brother and I once used to drive across country. It was the first time we’d spent that much time together after our older sister died on a country road when she missed a stop sign in what I sometimes imagine was a successful suicide attempt and other times imagine was a mistake. The coat is too big for me and too small for my brother. I keep it in my closet where it’s slowly consumed by moths, a fact I pretend not to know.

(a) (who begat Proctor & Gamble executive, Charles Dwight Curtiss II, who begat Water Chemist, Charles Dwight Curtiss III, who begat my brother and my sisters and me)
(b) Shortly after I was born, my great-grandfather visited me in the hospital. At that point, my brain was a mass of unpaved passageways, my body a collection of cells which have all since been replaced with new cells. A few months later, he died, and his body didn’t matter anymore.

(8) Both my brother and I have spent our fair share of time shaking on church carpets, convinced of our bodies’ inability to function as a conduit for God’s everlasting love. I do not fully understand how this has affected him, nor do I know if he is an atheist like me. It has been some time since we’ve discussed spirituality, a fact attributable to our need to prioritize in all of the space that now separates us.

(9) The first time our younger sister tried to talk to me about how our older sister was gone and was never coming back because she was dead, I referred her to my brother and went back to carving out a hole in time which has, over the years, become both a bivouac and an alter to what does and does not exist between me and my siblings. I have since become much better at leaving that space when the occasion calls for it, at visiting them for longer and longer periods of time. I have since become increasingly aware of what it means to be close to someone, to be far far away from someone.

Caleb Curtiss teaches high school English in Champaign, IL. His poetry has appeared in Weave, Redivider, and The Literary Review and is forthcoming from New England Review and Hayden's Ferry Review. He is a proud participant in the University of Illinois Writing Project and, in a round about way, wrote about it for Passages North (Link: http://passagesnorth.com/2011/12/writers-on-writing-11-caleb-curtiss/).
7.06 / June 2012