What Is and Isn’t There
This project started as a splinter inserted gently into the part of my brain that gets louder when everything else goes quiet. I got the splinter in the fall of 2016 as the autumn sun slowly bled into the Nevada desert. My partner, Jordan, and I had been driving all day, heading east from Yosemite where we had been camping for a few days. The sun had darkened the exposed parts of my left forearm and neck.
We’d passed through a couple of towns on the day’s drive but most of our journey was set against long stretches of desert and distant peaks. We saw SUVs. We saw pickup trucks. We saw long black curls on the highway. I imagined they were snakes absorbing the heat on the asphalt. In reality, most were shredded strands of rubber from big-rig tires; one was roadkill.
My knowledge of Nevada was limited. I knew it was home to Las Vegas and Reno. I thought the rest of the state was sparsely populated but wasn’t sure. I knew the Mojave Desert stretched through part of the state but I didn’t know the names of the other deserts that made up much of the terrain.
We passed through a town called Rachel and I thought of all the Rachels I’d gone to school with. Rachel P. Rachel L. Rachel R.
Rachel is famous for its proximity to Area 51. The sign as you enter the town reads:
Welcome to Rachel
Population: Human Yes Alien ?
The flying saucer over the word Rachel leads you to believe the sign is referencing beings from another planet.
A few hours later, we neared the motel we’d booked a few days earlier. It was most noteworthy for its location, conveniently situated about halfway between point A and point B.
As I put the car in park and prepared to go check us in, I turned to Jordan and said, “Why don’t you stay in the car.” I thought it would simply be easier if I went in alone. He responded with a nod or a, “Sure.” I can’t remember which. As I moved to get out of the car, I paused again and said to him, “If anyone asks, let’s just say we are friends on a road trip.” I remember being surprised when he agreed again. It’s a kind of retreat we’d never vocalized before. We didn’t define the thing we were avoiding, though. It was just understood.
The woman working the desk at the motel was nice and helpful. She gave me our key and directed me to our room that was around the corner, out of view from the office. I suddenly felt like I’d been silly.
Our room was long with one heavily-draped window beside the door. Two tandem queen-sized beds faced a large flat television and a mini fridge. The bathroom sink was at the far end next to a door that separated the toilet and shower from the rest of the room. It was the kind of motel room that reliably housed a lightly-used bible in the bedside drawer; one with soft pages, translucent to the touch, that would politely stay silent during transient bouts of pay-per-view pornography.
We unloaded our bags and showered. After we were dry, Jordan lay on one of the two beds and I lay on the other. He started searching the internet for restaurant options. I stared at his still-naked body. From across the burgundy carpet that separated us, I reached for my camera and took a photograph.
The distance between two people can narrow to the point that it can be defined as intimate. In some cases, this describes actual touch: two bodies pressing together. In others, it refers to forms that are not touching but are close enough that they could: two bodies separated by the potential for contact.
In our Nevada motel room, the space between our two beds was just beyond intimate. Not close enough to touch. Not close enough to smell. But close enough to photograph.
A couple of hours after we checked into our room, Jordan and I were leaving a pizza place a few blocks away. As we started walking down the street—an intimate distance between our shoulders—we heard yelling and turned to notice a drunk man, white, probably about forty-five years old, stumbling angrily across the road. He was yelling but I’m not sure what about. From what I could infer from his drunken trajectory, he would intersect our side of the street a few meters behind us and would be heading in the opposite direction. He moved closer and then away and our tension rose and fell with his passing, like a doppler shift somewhere behind the belly button. Anger and alcohol and soft shells of skin. Close, but not intimately close.
The next day, we packed up and uneventfully carried on.
I have a memory that, in hindsight, seems as inappropriate as it does unusual. I was sitting in the basement with my younger brother and our babysitter, a girl who lived around the corner from us. I was young enough to need a babysitter but old enough to know a (very) little about sex. We were having a conversation about sex that somehow started to involve AIDS (it was the late 80s). With an air of confidence that was completely unfounded, I said to my babysitter that I always planned to use condoms once I started having sex, even to have babies. She laughed at me. “You can’t have babies if you use condoms,” she said. I was embarrassed at my ignorance but somehow also anxious. I wouldn’t have sex for years but it suddenly felt unsafe.
There is so much about that story that is bizarre to me now. Why were we talking about sex with our babysitter? Why did I know about condoms but, at the same time, not understand them? Where did my awareness of AIDS come from? Why, at that age, was I so afraid of it? Why did I think I was going to have kids and presumably a wife? Why did I think my wife might have AIDS?
Around the same time, on the playground at school, I was learning the word fag. Not what it meant, just its power. It was a word thrown around the playground by young boys. Like a paint ball, it marked you as a target. I first heard it used to describe a long thin strand of hair that extended down the back of a boy’s neck. Another boy in my class called it a “fag tag.” I misheard him and thought he said “thag tag” and so when I first chose to use the word, I misspoke. Such an odd thing, being corrected on the pronunciation of a word like that. A shift of the teeth from tongue to lower lip that can turn a sound into something weighted.
Years later, when I was in grade eleven, a boy that was one year older than me came to school with scabs and bruises. His lip was swollen. So was one of his eyes. He had been beaten up a few nights earlier. I heard that it happened because he was gay. “Gay bashed” was what people said. The word bash, in this case, was intended as the verb meaning to strike violently, not as the noun meaning a festive social gathering. I’m not sure if this boy was openly gay. I only knew that everyone thought he was.
A year after that, Matthew Shepard was riding in a truck with two men, Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson, that he had met at a bar in Wyoming. The two men said they had intended to rob Matthew and lured him out of the bar where they met by pretending to be gay. At some point during their drive, McKinney and Henderson became violent. In some early articles about the murder, McKinney is reported to have said he became violent when Matthew put his hand on McKinney’s knee. The two men beat Matthew, tied him to a fence, and left him to die.
Shortly after Matthew Shepard was killed, I found myself in my first sexual relationship with a man, a friend I went to school with. It was filled with the same excitement, confusion, and emotion that most early relationships are, only I couldn’t talk to anyone about it. I wasn’t open about my sexuality. Neither was he. He made that clear. Then one night, in front of one of our mutual friends, he punched me across the cheek and knocked me to the ground. It was unprovoked and afterwards he acted like nothing had happened. My face hurt for a few days.
As I grew up, I recognized my desire for other bodies and how it felt inexplicably linked to things I should be afraid or ashamed of. The remedy that I was offered was space: between me and the bodies I desired, between me and my own body, between the desire I felt and the world I lived in. I came to understand that there was safety in distance. A distance that was beyond intimate. Not close enough to touch.
A few months ago I was listening to a conversation between Dr. Lisa Feldman Barrett and Ezra Klein on Klein’s podcast. The conversation centred on the subject of Dr. Feldman Barrett’s book, How Emotions Are Made. In the process of unpacking her research, Dr. Feldman Barrett explains that the brain’s primary task is to keep the body alive and in order to do that, it makes thousands of predictions in any given moment in order to make life-preserving decisions. She has found that the brain uses as much as eighty percent of its energy predicting what is going to happen from moment to moment, and the predictions that typically win are those that are reinforced by past experiences. What these findings reveal is that our perceptions of the present are shaped by what has happened to us in the past, since past experiences determine how our brain predicts the present.
After Jordan and I left Nevada, we slowly worked our way North through Utah, Montana, Idaho, and Wyoming before crossing back into Alberta. It was a few weeks later that I started to look at the photographs I had taken on our trip. As I came to the images from our motel room in Nevada, I struggled to recreate the feelings I’d had that night. Instead, I started to question what had shaped my decisions and my emotions.
Some time later, in the privacy of our kitchen, I started to pick at my cerebral sliver. Jordan was putting away dishes and I was sitting at the counter trying to read. My eyes were scanning the page but I wasn’t absorbing anything. I looked up from my book to find Jordan half hidden behind an open cupboard door.
“You remember that motel in Nevada?” I asked. He said that he did.
“Why did you agree with me when I said we should just tell people we were friends on a road trip?”
He closed the cupboard and looked at me. “I think I thought it would just be easier. I didn’t want to worry about someone vandalizing our car or about our safety.”
Two years later we’d finally vocalized the thing that we’d agreed on in the desert. I wasn’t satisfied though. The sliver was still there. I realized that what I really wanted to know was Why there? Why that motel in that town? What did we perceive that led us to put distance between each other and the people we met? And was there truth to it? I think the answers to these questions would leave me unsatisfied too. They all point to the intangible things that shape how we engage with other people and how we engage with space. They suggest a perception of the world that is simultaneously real and not real. The distance between two points is space that the brain can fill. What ideas filled the space between Jordan and me; between us and the people we encountered; between us and our surroundings; between us and our memories? How did these things obscure what we saw and what we revealed? How do they still?