Math was always a problem. Fear of things, of tools meant to help. Fear of the protractor, the calculator, the quadratic equation. Fear of the x and of the y. The points on a graph seemed random, even if they were actually mapping times, speeds, distances. I suppose what I really wanted was something to make me whole, to root me; not to halve me, to square root me, to spin my brain.
They said the world was made up of numbers, if you looked at it the right way; but I’ll tell you this: when I stood at the crest of the tallest hill in the canyon and looked towards the horizon, there was no way it was made of numbers, no way it was made of anything but plain earth. Height gave me false perspective; I thought I could see the curve of the earth. The oil rigs like stationary pirate ships, the blue outline of an island against a blue sea and a blue sky. The grass beneath my feet; yellowing perhaps, if the season was nearing summer, starting to turn to gold dust. Did equations dictate that shift in colour?
(I read, today, that while taking his first hot-air balloon ride, the mathematician Carl Gauss realized that all parallel lines meet and that space is curved. Gauss: known as the Princeps mathematicorum, the prince of mathematics. Presiding from a hot-air balloon, loving what he called the queen of the sciences. Space is curved.)
The space in my room curved at night when I didn’t want it to. My father told me that when he was a little boy, lying in the dark, the corners of his bedroom used to recede before his eyes. What did you do? I asked him. It went away, he said. I listened to the radio and it went away. I thought I could feel space swallowing me. Is it the same? I asked. I don’t know, he said. So for years I lay half-asleep hoping the space wouldn’t swallow me, some nights, like the ones spent splayed beneath the milky way, tracing the trail of the stars across the sky, easier than others. This is how math makes me feel.
It was really the hunger for human contact, but I didn’t know it yet. Do you know how it is to go to sleep with wildfires raging? Ash in your eyes, the sky heavy with fine debris, and you think, what if they creep too close, who will know, who will help me? And you realize you will just have to be ready to drive away as fast as you can, and the next day, under the red sky, you drive to town and while you are there the fires do creep too close and they won’t let you back home. Yes, that was the night, the night I called a friend and said I’m coming over, even though the highways were closed and it would take me over an hour to crawl through late night traffic. The night I tried to take a shortcut and found myself climbing a hill in my little car, the atmosphere so clouded by fog and ash that I could scarcely see a foot in front of myself. To one side was a drop. The gas meter flickering low, my phone long out of range. The road too narrow to turn around. Hungry for human contact I had literally driven myself into the heart of nowhere. I was not so much panicked, though I might have been, as fascinated, horrified. How I could through I don’t know. When I saw the lights of other cars skimming the midnight air I cried. Then, later, at the gas station finally, in an Edward Hopper painting, a woman in heels came out of a red sportscar, asked me questions about the town, the road closures. Human contact.
But space is curved and then there you are back again, in that horrible isolation, that wonderful isolation. What good is math when your day looks like this: you wake, you walk, you eat, you walk again, you eat again, you read until the darkness closes in on you and to leave the house is suddenly an exercise in courage. All the night sounds, the coyotes close, the owls, once the squeals of a wildcat. Cattle braying on hillsides. The opposite of city sounds. I thought the fear that ate me was self-induced, but then, anyone who has had to speak to their dog just to remember the sound of their own voice can be forgiven a certain hunger, a certain uneasiness.
How do you hate something and love it so much all at the same time? How do you yearn for it, dream of it, and yet know, when, this week, an inkling of that old fear, that old craziness, spills into your heart, that it’s isolation that’s made you (at elast in part) what you are? Is there an equation for this, a graph, a theorem?
All parallel lines meet.