Despite my wish that I be called Nathaniel, Stephanie has always insisted on calling me Nate. I don’t want to suggest that she is always so contrary, and I do find it endearing now, though it took time. She has a contrarian streak in her that shines through more often than I have been consistently comfortable with, yet I completed much of my PhD thanks to her performances at an indie café not far from my apartment downtown. Her singing has a quality of weightlessness and effortlessness to it. I imagine that her voice is much like what floating in space would feel like. I am naturally a nervous person and stress can amplify that facet of my personality, but the most consistent remedy I have found is Stephanie’s voice.
She doesn’t really practice mathematics anymore. As it turns out, music is much more her thing, which, they say, is a type of math anyway. I mentioned that she sings in a café and that I worked on much of my PhD while listening to her—I don’t still have the episodes I had as a child, but occasionally, under stress, I cannot concentrate on anything at all. Music helps, but it’s Stephanie that really allows me to go into the zone where I can do my best work.
It was perhaps fate that brought us together; the class room seating plan was arranged alphabetically and our last names begin with the same letter, close to the end of the alphabet. This positioned us in two seats at the back of the class. Another coincidence was that we were the two top math students in the school. Our teacher could barely find material enough to keep us occupied for a whole class sometimes, so we moved up to the ninth-grade curriculum and beyond, once in a while finding mischief when we were left with nothing else to work on.
We only pushed our desks together so we could collaborate more easily. It was convenient that I sat on the left and she on the right as I am left handed, so our elbows didn’t bump when we wrote our equations. Stephanie, to me, was unorthodox in her approach to problem solving and thinking in general. She often referred to our work as “algae-bra” and demonstrated this by colouring-in every single ‘8’ green and putting small black dots through it to give an aquatic scum sort of feel, but drawing in straps to make it obvious it was intended to cup breasts. For my chaste eighth-grade self, this was mostly an unwarranted delay.
Other children took notice of her quirks and my tolerance for them. On the bus, my friends Jason and Akil would ask me if I liked her in the way kids do when they want to know if someone is romantically inclined towards someone else. I informed them that I was not, but that did not stop them from asking me if I wanted to touch her algae-bra.
In an attempt to determine whether or not I had anything aside from platonic feeling for Stephanie, I created a list of signs for whether or not I was in love with someone and compared my experience to it. My pen crept down the list with great anticipation of the final verdict. Was my heart rate elevated around Stephanie? No. It was the opposite. This made the second on the list, “sweatiness in her presence,” far easier to cross off as well. Was I unable to stop thinking about her? I only half eliminated this sign because I thought about solving math problems all the time and Stephanie had made herself an integral part of that. The melodic quality of her voice helped me to concentrate. She also had a talent for looking at problems in an upside-down sort of way that led me to understand them on a level that I hadn’t before. This opened the door for me to delve into mathematical mysteries I had never before contemplated, which only brought me sheer joy. Technically, though, I could not attribute the feeling directly to Stephanie. Next on the list was “physically attractive.” While I found Stephanie to be pretty, I could not justify this one criterion trumping all the others, so I was forced to come to the conclusion that I was not in love with Stephanie, nor did I harbour any other romantic feelings for her. That stated, I found the whole business confusing and unsettling.
I have always preferred mathematics because it clicks into place for me, like finding two puzzle pieces that connect. Numbers are straight-forward and cannot be rearranged to say anything other than what they mean. They are either interpreted incorrectly or done wrong. It is when this happens that they become dangerous. Such an occurrence took place at the back of math class in the eighth grade when Stephanie’s desk was up against mine.
I consistently push too hard on my pencils and I was often unprepared for school when it came to supplies, so I never had a proper pencil sharpener. Stephanie, on the other hand, was the epitome of organization and preparedness. She had a pencil sharpener that left graphite tips spear-like in their acuteness. On the occasion of which I’m describing, I broke my pencil and she immediately opened her backpack to procure her pencil sharpener.
I happened to glance into her bag and notice a pamphlet with a diagram of what looked like a map of the Earth on a giant rock hurtling through space. I asked her what it was and she withdrew a pamphlet entitled “The Flat Earth: a guide”. Someone at the mall had handed it to her and begun preaching on how modern schools were a hoax.
“But,” I said, “the Earth is round.”
“No,” Stephanie replied, opening the pamphlet, “look at this diagram. It’s clearly flat.” I could not tell if I detected irony in her voice or not. That was disconcerting to me because I knew Stephanie to be an intelligent person and she was not expressing an intelligent point of view.
“Anyone can draw a diagram,” I said. “The Earth is round. It’s a scientific fact.”
“That’s what they want you to think. However, there is way more evidence for it being flat than round. For example, go outside. Flat.”
I found her logic flawed, so I asked her if people who live in the mountains believe the world is mountain-shaped. She dismissed my snide remark and explained that gravity could not be proven by anyone. Any theories anyone gave for people standing upside down in Australia and not falling off the planet were absolutely incoherent. To demonstrate this, she put one of her penguin shaped erasers underneath her desk and told it to stand there. Predictably, it fell to the floor. At this point in my life, I was not yet familiar with Einstein’s theory of General relativity, so I was embarrassed to find myself without a counter-argument.
I could barely muster, “The Earth pulls us down,” knowing how ridiculous that sounded even as I said it, before Stephanie said that the Earth was accelerating up through space and we were just on top of it. That explained gravity better than anything.
I knew that the Earth was round. Columbus had tried to sail to China and he very well would have succeeded had a continent not been in the way. Was that not the proof? Couldn’t you just sail around it? Or fly around it? Not according to Stephanie. If you flew around the Earth, you were just going in a circle. She pointed at a map in the pamphlet that looked like the United Nations symbol. Columbus had just made a very wide right turn. This newly proposed fact made me uncomfortable. I knew it to be wrong, but I did not have the knowledge or resources to prove it. If I couldn’t prove it, was I still right? It was necessary for me to prove my case for my own sake, and, I realized, for science’s. I could feel a stinging shadow creeping up behind me, raising the hair on the back of my neck. In a final act of resistance, I let my mind wander and came up with—
“Ships!” I nearly shouted.
A few students in the rows ahead of us turned to see what I was so excited about.
“Ships,” I said again, quieter. “You can see a ship’s mast and sails before you see the rest of it when it comes over the horizon. It’s the curvature of the Earth in the way.”
“Uh, de-bunked,” she said coyly. “Haven’t you heard of the Bedford Canal Experiment?”
A heading of the same title was on the last page of the pamphlet. Below, it laid out how a clear photograph can be taken of images over six miles away and the curvature of the Earth does not interrupt or block the view even though mathematics says that it should. Therefore: flat. I was at a loss for words. I knew very well that the world was round, but the data being presented to me could not be refuted. The urge to swear at Stephanie crept up in me, but the illogic and futility of that struck me just as soon, so I held my tongue. I felt my body begin to tremble and I longed to be hiding in my bedroom with a book under a blanket like a child. In an ultimate attempt to set myself right, I said there were equations that could be done to prove the Earth was round. Stephanie said they only proved what its circumference or radius would be if it were round, but were largely irrelevant. Her voice was usually so calming for me. When I read my class notes or the text books at home, I heard her reading. I had associated a sort of happiness with her voice and the confusion of hearing her say something so distressing in that uncontrollably beautiful way of hers made everything she was saying worse.
The shaking in the core of my body overtook me. I had never had an attack like this at school before, so Stephanie immediately became frightened and I remember hearing her as if from outside a dream,shouting that the world was in fact round and she had been kidding the whole time. “I just thought it was a funny pamphlet, it’s not real!”
Even in the midst of wherever it is that I go, even with the panic in her voice, hearing her still brought some relief. Usually these incidents of mine could last for minutes, but this one was only seconds.
As I came out of it, as my mind surfaced, the feeling of weightlessness that always accompanied the few minutes after a spell settled into me. I longed for gravity and the stability that it brought.
“I’m sorry, Nathaniel,” Stephanie said. “I didn’t know that would happen.”
“It’s ok,” I told her.
At the end of class, as we were packing up our books, Stephanie repeated, “I am sorry. It was just a joke. I know the world’s round.”
“So do I,” I said, perhaps a bit shorter than I should have.
“I know,” she grinned. “But for a second there, you believed it wasn’t.”
Of course, I went home and obsessively researched every proof I possibly could for the world being round and I can report that it was foolish for me to have ever doubted. The incident with Stephanie disappeared with little consequence. Since then, it has come up from time to time, but only when I mention the attacks that I suffered as a child, not in the context of a lapse in my unshakable faith in the infallibility of the scientific method.
There’s still a fire between Stephanie and me that was sparked in the back of math class, but it’s a light blue that is far too intense to use for anything but experiments on a Bunsen burner or welding steel. From time to time I go with her and her boyfriend to a party. Afterwards, when they are both gleefully intoxicated in the back seat discussing the gossip of the night, the politics of the day, or how we as a species are trying to get to Mars and whether or not they would want to be one of the first colonists, my mind wanders back to the end of that eighth-grade year.
That year, Stephanie and I finished our final math exams before anyone else. Since classes were over, we were permitted to leave school and the rest of the day, the rest of the summer, for that matter, was ours. We strolled into the June heat with the sun directly above us and discussed the particulars of the exam. Both of us were confident that we had achieved a perfect grade. For the sake of posterity, I should add that we were both correct.
As we made our way from the school, I expected that we would go our separate ways and I might bump into Stephanie at a friend’s party during the summer, but we would probably not meet again until September. I was not looking forward to our parting and, though I would not have admitted it to anyone at the time, I was going to miss her for the two months we were not in school.
As we got to the corner where I knew our paths would diverge, she turned and asked, “Do you want to go to the park?”
I do not spend time in parks. At home, my bedroom is my refuge, and when I’m out, I like cafes and restaurants. The only parks I have ever had much interest in are ball parks, and that’s only if I’m with Jason. I was enjoying discussing the exam with Stephanie, however, and I had nowhere else to be for the next two months. The idea that I could perhaps prolong my time away from home also gave me a bit of hope, so I agreed and instead of diverging, we went to the park.
We found two swings side by side and sat on them without actually swinging. As the rest of our classmates began to trickle out of the building, shouting and cheering in the heat, the two of us went over the parts of the exam that had given us the most trouble or surprised us. Stephanie had not right away understood where the hypotenuse was on a question concerning locks on a canal, though I had immediately intuited what was being asked for. That I could see the answer so plainly, yet she could not, surprised me. I had always assumed she saw mathematics as easily as I did and that her odd way of looking at things was only a part of an analytical process.
As the sun took a less intense position in the sky and our peers began to scatter into the alleyways and basement living rooms of the neighbourhood, our conversation moved on as well. Pleasantly, I found that Stephanie had other interests aside from mathematics and I shared many of them. Neither Akil nor Jason knew how to play bridge, so I was most impressed with Stephanie’s knowledge of the game. To my amazement, she also liked video games, The Sims being one that we could both talk about as being a favourite.
“Hey,” she said, when the conversation came to a natural lull, “want to go to the ravine?”
The ravine is exactly what it sounds like. It is wooded with a bike or walking trail through the bottom. I had not spent much time in the ravine, but Akil mentioned having had a tree fort in it and Jason used the trail to bike to school in the mornings. The ravine did not seem like a place that would bolster our conversation or enlighten it in any way, but I had come to trust Stephanie’s judgement, so I agreed.
We had not been in the ravine for long when Stephanie told me about a spot she knew. She described a fallen tree half way up the ravine slope and in the woods. It had fallen against a boulder and created a sheltered area. I could not quite picture what it was she meant and said as much.
“I can show you,” she said. “Come on!”
There was a split second of hesitation in her before she grabbed my hand and nearly dragged me up the wall of the ravine into the evergreens and poplars. We were quite close to her spot and found it right away. There was, in fact, a large boulder and the tree down the slope from it had, through some miracle of physics, somehow fallen up the hill, so it leaned against the rock and created a space underneath that was sheltered from every direction.
We crawled under the branches and sat together on the soft forest floor, backs against the rock. It was comfortable and calming. Through the roof of our small dwelling I could see the sky and the wisps of cloud gliding over. Their images barely made it down into our hiding spot, mere suggestions that the world was going on without us.
When our conversation again reached a lull, I did not find myself in the regular awkward awareness that I was struggling to find something to say. I was instead content to sit in social limbo. It was Stephanie who broke the silence.
“Nate,” she said, turning directly to me, “I have to tell you something.”
Again, she hesitated like she had earlier before grasping my hand, but then said, “I like you. Like, like-like you.”
I didn’t know what to say. I was immediately aware that I did not want to hurt her and I knew that any answer aside from a reciprocal one would do just that.
I left an eternity for her in my pause between her question and my response. During that time, I noticed that the sun had begun to go down, but our side of the planet had not yet fully turned away from it. Although invisible to me in our shady lean-to, it hovered just above the horizon.
What was strange about the experience is that I did not feel stressed, but desperate for an answer. Calm, but all of me pulsating. I could only go to what I knew best and racked my brain for an equation that I could plug in to this problem and satisfy it.
I said, “Do you want me to kiss you?”
Some equations only satisfy for a short time, until you dig deeper and gather more information. I have been told, by more than one person, that I am not “relationship material.” I’m not sure what this means or even if it is true. All the same, it is not something I dwell on or that bothers me constantly.
“Ok,” Stephanie replied.
“Lay down,” I said. When she had, I asked, “Where?”
“My cheek?” she said.
After I did, I looked at her expectantly, like there might be more instructions for this activity. She smiled and asked me to do it again. I repeated the motion and this time she said, “My collar bone.” I complied. “My shoulder.” And her voice set me at ease like the gentle sway of a ship turning starboard and gliding over the edge of the waves.
“My collar bone.”
With a lift of her tank top, “My stomach.”
“My collar bone.”
And we stayed that way as the sun disappeared over the ridge and over the horizon, casting violet streaks of light through the sky straight above us. Her voice pulled me in and would not let go and I sank into a trance. One that was both pleasurable and terrifying, my only consistent thought among the placid parade of feelings being: why and how, for an instant, had I believed that the world was flat?
Interview with Brendan Thompson
Border Crossing: What compelled you to write about Nathaniel particularly—a character so detached from his emotions?
Brendan Thompson: Nathaniel’s voice came naturally as I started writing, so I decided to go with it. Since he seemed detached from his emotions, I leaned into it and he came out the way he is. Emotions are tricky. It was fun to play with Nathaniel’s interpretation of them. Even if he knew that he was feeling something, he could be wrong about what that was.
I also wanted to see how someone as logical and methodical as Nathaniel could fall into a trap where they believe something that is obviously incorrect. How do our emotions and our interpretation of them lead to us misunderstanding the world?
BC: During the editing process, you mentioned that you didn’t want the piece to read as a love story. Why do you think it’s so important for the reader not to think of this as a love story?
BT: It’s hard to say. Love certainly plays a role in the story, but I didn’t write the story about love. Ultimately, I guess, if someone reads it and walks away thinking about love – cool. What I wanted though, was to provide love as an example of something subjective that is just as complicated as something that can be proven objectively, like, say, the shape of the Earth.
BC: What was the hardest part about writing this story? As you wrote, did the story or the characters take any unexpected turns or surprise you in some way?
BT: I had to realize that this story was one I was able to tell and that I should tell it. I started writing it some years ago and abandoned it because I thought that there wasn’t anything clicking. After forgetting I’d even started it, I came back to the piece months later and was surprised by what was working. I’d been struggling to figure out how to put together other stories and none of them were going the way I wanted. The hardest part, at times, was just allowing myself to write the story and to let it go where it had to.
Once I did that, there were definitely some unexpected turns. The biggest one being the last half of the story, I suppose. Originally, I just had it end with Stephanie telling Nathaniel that of course the Earth was round and that was it. It came off like a hokey end to a teen sitcom. I’m really glad the characters kept me going after that.
Brendan Thompson is a writer based in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. His writing has appeared in Burning Water Magazine and the Edmonton City as a Museum Project. His plays have been performed at the University of Alberta’s New Works Festival and at Edmonton’s Fringe Festival.