“Space and Time” was named a Notable Essay in The Best American Essays 2015
SPACE AND TIME
by Amelia Fowler
Since very early childhood, I have had a recurring dream of a white room so bright it is dimensionless, boundaries of wall and ceiling bleached invisible. It is a nightmare, a preoccupation that bleeds into waking. I think it could be real, hidden under the opacity of matter. Awake, I imagine tearing away the black paper of the night sky; a wall of cold starlight stretches immense and glaring—at my feet, scraps of night. Or, I scratch at the dark paint, freeing shreds of light; outer space gathers under my fingernails like ink from a pen or blood from a scab. I feel I could even peel my body back, starting at the fingers of my right hand. What is left: white absence, a perfect silhouette cut out of my bed or bathtub, the patch of grass outside my apartment. No body, no crime. I prefer dreams of family death, faceless chasing men, crimes committed and forgotten, suicide—the white room is too stark, too static. Almost violent in its silent bright thrust.
Immensity startles me: oceans, miles of flat ice or prairie, a clear night, the size of creation. I read Philip Larkin: One shivers slightly, looking up there. It is the shiver of nakedness. No walls or ceiling to limit, to secure.
In graduate school, I learn the way I see time is called spatial sequence synesthesia. I try explaining to friends, Time is space, and all spacetime exists at once, visibly, here, I say, waving my hand in the air near my forehead. I draw diagrams. This, only much, much longer, I say, referencing my Post-It note sketches. A lover, an astrophysics major, is unimpressed. All spacetime does exist at once, he says. He has a point. From my vantage on Earth, I see stars now dead. But it is impossible to see the universe at once, in one present—the cosmos is much too large.
For me, time exists level with my head, hovering not-quite invisibly. Centuries stretch back even and solid till my birth in 1990, each year a thick tally mark against an unfurled roll of adding machine paper. Father Time could be an accountant, beard bent over calculator, punching numbers slowly and carefully with the tip of his scythe, counting the expenses of time. Before I start kindergarten, my mother begins a job as a secretary. I spend most days at her office, drawing landscapes on long sheets of adding machine paper. Endless fields of little girls and cats.
Three years old. We live in a two-story house repurposed as two apartments at the top of a hill in poor, suburban, West Side Charleston. My mother, not yet thirty, does not allow me to take apples from the next-door neighbor, who offers them, rough and green, from his tree. My father inspects fire extinguishers. During the day, I am left at home with my mother and our white tomcat; she will not return to work till I am close to four years old.
I bang pots with wooden spoons, beg my mother to let me wash my dolls’ clothes in a bucket of soapy water. My favorite doll is Penny Pop, named by my father. She is missing one button-eye—the loose thread hangs like an optic nerve. She came that way, found in a basket of stuffed animals at the Union Mission. The white cat likes me only at mealtimes; if my mother is in the next room, I let him jump on the table to nose my food. Rooms brighten and dim as clouds pass over the sun; during afternoon naps, I do not sleep, but watch the changing light of my bedroom. Up and behind our apartment, the hill plateaus into a field overgrown with weeds, teeming with black snakes.
In high school, a friend and I drive to the homes we lived in as children, the schools we once attended. I want to show her the rooms I have lived in. I am nervous; this is intimacy.
I lead her by intuition through the maze of houses, beginning at the now-closed gas station at the bottom of the hill. We find the apartment has been demolished and replaced by a large, white house with a wrap-around porch. I consider writing a letter to the family who lives there. My senior year of college, I will draft a fictional correspondence. They do not know how my past and their present converge.
I know little about my parents’ lives before my birth. I imagine my mother’s childhood as a small kitchen, my father’s as a dirt yard—images drawn from water-stained photographs kept in a box in my mother’s closet.
I look like my father: unhappy lips, fat nose, skin that does not burn, weight held in the belly. I am named for his mother. As a young child, he lived in the West Side of Charleston. Once, he fell playing on train tracks and dislodged his eyeball; he held it in his palm and ran home, where his mother, he said, Popped it back in.
I know less about my mother. She has always been beautiful, but I inherited only her neuroses. In photographs of her teenage years, she is slim and bored—long, white limbs and dark hair. Her doctor prescribes anxiety medication; the bottles sit untouched in the medicine cabinet.
1990 to 1995 graphs as a downward slope—the timeline paper accommodates the topographic shift. I see the front lawn of the apartment I live in till the summer of 1996: a sharp hill, treacherous on a tricycle. My picture of time is based in physical reality: the roll of paper, the slope. I do not know if this is common in spatial sequence synesthetes; in my research, I see diagrams of people surrounded by multicolor blocks of months. Maybe I am not describing synesthesia; perhaps I only have a need to visualize the abstract, to see years spread out before me, tangible as a deck of cards. Time is space; time takes up space. Years are small, long and wide as a thumb.
1996 begins a flatline of years, uniformity broken by extra space between elementary and middle school, middle and high, high school and college. It is not the grade level that is important, but the buildings, the spaces that contain memory.
Eight years old. Second grade, the Sunrise Museum. The planetarium is cool and gray-dim. At the center of the room, a man prepares to present the night sky. The loudest second graders sit trapped between the teacher and the sign-language interpreter; the rest of us whisper—the lighting inspires hush, and we have been directed by our teacher not to scream when the room fades to black. I wear a dress sewn by my mother on her Kenmore; I watched her pin the tissue-paper McCall pattern to the fabric, then guide the hem under the needle.
In 1905, West Virginia’s ninth governor built the Georgian mansion housing the museum and planetarium. In a few years, it will be turned into law offices, the museum relocated to an expensive, new-smelling building on the East End, but now, as the room darkens, artificial stars blink on, not one-by-one but in clusters. I see constellations invisible in the light-polluted suburbs of Charleston.
As an adult, I still associate gray coolness with planetary. If I could touch a planet, I imagine it would feel like placing my hand in front of an industrial air conditioner. When I smoke pot with the astrophysics major, I am certain I can feel that cool humidity. It’s like rain evaporating from a meadow, I tell him.
A shorter-term view of time, at a higher magnification: kindergarten through fifth grade is a blueprint of my small, one-story elementary school, each grade enclosed in its rectangular classroom. Hallways, library, nurse and principal’s offices, cafeteria. If I draw back further, I see the playground, the parking lot. Inside the box of first grade: my mother’s miscarriage, Little House in the Big Woods. Third grade: a classmate smashes locusts inside a history textbook. I can see the layout of desks in my fifth-grade classroom, the bookshelf, the mounted television, the red beta fish in his bowl, the intercom.
Twenty-two, senior year of college. I live alone in a basement apartment. Through fall and winter, I spend nights in the bathtub, the shower curtain stained green with turquoise hair dye. As the weather chills, my sadness waxes, now looming full in the December night sky. The bathtub is a watery asylum from the insomnia of my bed, the missed phone calls I should have returned by day and feel guilty about at night. My mother calls every day, but my erratic sleeping means I often do not answer. Prescription pill bottles line the floor beside the tub, all orange, filled at the same pharmacy.
A silverfish lies dead behind the base of the sink, visible only from the bathtub. It could be faking. Silverfish began to swarm the apartment for warmth when the weather turned cold. They eat starches: dust and old carpeting. I see them often. Primitive insects—scaled, armored body like a trilobite. Last month, I read Breece Pancake’s “Trilobites” for a fiction workshop and imagined silverfish. Pancake was born in South Charleston, raised in nearby Milton, and shot himself at twenty-six. While studying writing at the University of Virginia, he wrote to his mother, I’m going to come back to West Virginia when this is over… I like to think that I have left my ghost up one of those hollows…
A silverfish died inside the kitchen’s fluorescent light. It will not decompose; I can still make out the legs, the feelers. My skin dries and cracks, and I imagine myself metamorphosing into a scaled creature capable of surviving millions of years of evolution, asteroids, climate change—a point of reference in the flux of time.
The past sits to my left, the future to my right, climbing at age twenty-five and plateauing again at thirty. Thirty years old until death looks like high flatland—what I conceive of as adulthood, perhaps, or a time I cannot fathom inhabiting. My life till thirty is symmetrical, I tell a therapist. Two slopes, a valley. After that, time is a tacked-on afterthought, a tail of years. I could draw you a picture, but I cannot explain why.
The present: constant and center, certain.
This view of time must have evolved, changed over the course of my life, but I cannot separate time from the topography of West Virginia, from rooms and valleys.
Amelia Fowler is an MFA candidate in creative nonfiction at West Virginia University, where she writes essays about outer space and mental illness. Her favorite Galilean moon is Europa, for its subglacial ocean and terraforming promise. This is her first publication.
Image credit: Seda Arslan