Drafting the Beast
In a backyard in Wheaton, Maryland, I thrust my hand into some sand. I lift out my hand, fingers-splayed. Delicate as powder. A silt of the imagination lingers on skin stretched over bone, a ramshackle draft of an X-ray machine: how bone appears. Late morning splinters all around this discovery.
Later, the sun moving its moist palm over town, the earth recoiling, I’ll draw an outline of my outstretched hand on loose leaf paper, draw with black ink in ice-conditioned air a slow line around thumb, index finger, middle finger, all the way around back to wrist.
Aren’t we always drafting the beast inside? I repeat this to myself that night in the darkness of my bedroom, my brother breathing the contours of his body out and breathing his body back next to me—while under cover of some sort of progress I grip my finger and press the tip of the nail down into flesh as the nail whitens, again, and once again the body’s secret is released as light.
When the Air and Space Museum opened on the Mall in Washington D.C., my excited dad—an IBM engineer who worked with NASA, a mathematics devotee—brought the family in from Wheaton to visit. The photos he or my mom snapped that day are oddly, brutally under-lit—the result of the dim interior lighting at the museum, possibly, or a camera snafu. The haze which permeates the photos feels retroactively appropriate decades later, not only as a visual equivalent to the gauzy curtain of memory and a vanished childhood but because I experienced something that afternoon that complicated things.
Among the exhibits at the museum was Ray and Charles Eames’ nine-minute documentary Powers of Ten, a film that explores the relative scale of the universe by journeying across it in powers of ten, moving outward from earth to the edges of the galaxy, and then back, into and through the human body. As I remember, the film ran on a loop at a small, wood-paneled kiosk outside one of the main exhibit halls on an upstairs floor. Wandering around, probably on my own, I came across the display and took note of a small, obviously interested crowd gathered; weaseling my way in among grown-ups, I started watching. What I saw captivated me immediately: the narrator’s voice was dry but friendly, not intimidating or pedantic, and at the point where I started watching the film we seemed to be out in the cosmos somewhere. Cool!—but soon vaguely unsettling, and then weird, and then amazing, and then scary. I stood for what felt like an hour watching, hooked on the trip from a Chicago couple dozing on the grass near Lake Michigan out to the infinite reaches of space. The video reversed back to earth, then into and under the surface of the man’s hand, probing relentlessly toward his basic cellular makeup, the randomness of protons madly humming and humping and colliding and reacting, an unreal but obvious universe inside my own body. Struck, I watched the loop again and again, quietly disappearing, a kind of cosmic journey that tattooed me.
There it was, proof that the inside of the human body was chaotic, patterned, and maybe endless. I stared down at my hand, imagining the dark inside. It was overwhelming to consider the molecular makeup of the body, that things I couldn’t see inside of me were reacting and going on all over the place, buzzing, storming, colliding. I entwined the parallel images of the dark of outer space and the dark inside my body without understanding the science. The film was mostly beyond me, though I don’t recall being bored. Something struck a chord in my imagination: the body is an imitation of the universe. It was heady stuff, half understood, shelved away once I reunited with my family and we departed, visiting other museums, and then left the city. I returned to nearby suburbia, to girls, to Saint Andrew the Apostle, bike-riding, and the Beatles, my backyard, all things infinitely small and infinitely large.
from This Must Be Where My Obsession With Infinity Began (Orphan Press, 2013)