Wm. Anthony Connolly
Me. Kilometer. Hectometer. Dekameter. Meter. Decimeter. Centimeter. Millimeter.
We are talking about distance. From Dante’s portal, or dark forest, to center of the earth; from fingertips to eyelashes; Inferno to Paradiso. It comes in casual conversation one night in a dance club, with some vibe shaking our bones from the dance floor. We are sitting down, exhausted. We have to shout, lean into one another, get closer, and cup our ears to understand our words over the jungle of sound.
It’s a boy’s night out for the four of us. There’s Pete, soon off to attend Emory University in Atlanta; Davis an artist; Mike a newspaper publisher and myself, a writer.
There has been much hatred in the world. We are discussing how it can happen; how the young can butcher the young; how gay men are beheaded, pistol-whipped, or set on fire; how wives are beaten to keep households in their proper order; how civilians become the unfortunate victims of misguided war missiles.
Distance creates an environment of ignorance, which begets fear, the parent of hatred. At a distance, things are out of focus, uncertain; from a great distance, we cannot feel the heat coming off another's body. There is no propinquity.
Since that evening, I have come to realize that there is a distance between all things, both wide and narrow. We are capable of such greatness when the gap, big or small, is bridged. At the very least, when the distance between the unknown and the known is lessened, understanding is the result.
It takes focus. When we look out upon our lives we tend to see randomness, but by inching closer, we see a design that smoothes out the rough edges of mystery and brings clarity.
Orion’s parts are not close together at all. We see what we have conformed. One shoulder Bellatrix is estimated to be roughly 350 light-years from the earth. Another shoulder, Betelgeuse, is in roughly 420 light-years away. The knees are 1,000 light-years from us. Yet, we see a body. And the farther we look the more in the past we see.
She is well into her eighties now. She probably never thought it could happen, it was so long ago and so far away. It is 1912 and he is a young soldier on a ship bound for the battlefields of France. At the English Channel he writes a note to his wife and scrolls it inside a green ginger beer bottle with a screw-on rubber stopper. He throws it in the water. Just his past spring, some 85 years later, English fisherman, Steve Gowan found that bottle containing Private Thomas Hughes’ letter. This week, he delivered it to 87-year-old Emily Crowhurst, the daughter of the private, who two days after writing the letter, and dropping it in the water, perished in battle.
It is believed the farthest we can possibly see in the nightsky is 20 billion light-years in every direction. But that doesn’t mean that there is nothing beyond that. What is beyond just hasn’t had time to bridge the distance between us.
Over 29,000-feet in the air, at the top of the world, they are digging through snow, rooting around for clues. They found George Mallory, British mountain climber on a windswept ledge where he had died trying to scale Mount Everest in 1924. The bitter cold temperatures at that altitude preserve his body. A team of eight modern-day climbers are trying to find out if Mallory, and his partner Andrew Irvine reached the summit 29 years before Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay accomplished the feat in 1954. The climbers are looking for a camera, and film, that when developed could confirm Mallory’s time atop the world.
The film speed needed for very dim light is 1600, especially in museums where no flash is allowed.
In the sea, and three miles down a perfectly preserved piece of American space history rests on the bottom. Explorers have found the Liberty Bell 7, the 1961 NASA space capsule, which sank in the Atlantic after splashing down. Once on the surface, the capsule can be examined to determine exactly what went wrong. Did Astronaut Virgil "Gus" Grissom panic or did the hatch to the capsule malfunction?
Calipers. Chalk lines. Compass. Gauge. Level. Plumb bob. Rule. Square. Straight edge.
Not far from where we are, ten thugs beat to death a young, gay man with boards with nails sticking out of them. The club the young man had been at was called Heaven. It is now closed. If I were to stand as close as I could to my companions, tonight, and come to meet ten thugs, they could not pick out the homosexual from the heterosexual. There would not be enough room. I would die miles away from the women I love.
A TV plays Columbine.
Over the next few months, maybe years, we will all become closer to finding out how the young can don trenchcoats, march into a high school and spray their classmates with bullet-fire. Maybe one day we will come to understand one another better and no longer need to apply labels to bring everything into focus.
Maybe we will simply lean in closer, cup our ears, feel the heat of another’s body. Invite propinquity.
This is what we talk about when we talk about distance.
There’s an odd feeling to the boy’s night out, because two of the men touring the gay watering holes and dance clubs are straight—yours truly being one of them. I say, odd, because there’s an invisible—and I would hazard to say, inevitable—demarcation between the straights and the gay men. Mike and Davis have been here before, whereas Pete and I had not. We are serfs; our guides are landed gentry in these quarters. Or perhaps, Mike is sherpa, Tanzing Norgay and I, New Zealand mountain-conqueror, Sir Edmund Hillary.
Over time, drinks, and laughs the space between us begins to dissolve. Admittedly this is the way of one and all who come to form new relationships, new associations. There is a bowing of knowing, a parabola where as understanding comes, and ignorance diminishes, people, undoubtedly, thankfully, bridge distance over time.
Thirty days hath September…
There is the message source, transmitter, coder, and modulator. There is the transmission medium, the receiver, the demodulator, and the decoder.
All in one long-distance telephone call.
We are talking about distance here. Because it is, out there in a visible and invisible array of potholes.
It a distance that allows the "us" and "them" sink hole to deepen. It becomes this black hole to which nothing can escape. Out goes light, out goes our sense of right and wrong; out goes our ability to bridge its gaping maw.
It is scientific fact that astrologists are puzzled at the origin of black holes because a black hole will never give out clues as to its genesis. It covets its secrecy. Yet, we all know how distance grows between two people, between two groups, between nations. Distance festers with ignorance.
We should no longer feel the other knows the exact route to the top of the world. It is a wish scrolled into a bottle and dropped into water. It is hoped it will be found, years later, three miles down, or 29,000 feet high, and understood.
The night is over and it is time to go home. As we walk to the car, we find ourselves behind a man and woman, enjoying themselves. There’s laughter and the tango of two people in the midst of flirtation. I don’t recall how it happened, exactly, but as we were walking up from behind, the woman lifts up her dress and playfully flashes her thonged-rear at Davis and me. It happened so fast, in an instant. A femtosecond.
It was a good cap to an evening for two straight guys and two gay men, who danced, laughed and share a few drinks.
We talked about distance; we leaned into one another, so we could hear our words of inclusion, over the din of the jungle. We became closer. We had gone to distance.
In the car, we all agreed she did not have a nice ass.
It takes five years on earth for a dying star’s demise to reach…
(Things happen between you and me when there is distance.)
About the Author: Wm. Anthony Connolly is the author of three novels The Jenny Muck, Get Back, and The Obituaries, which was a Canadian bestseller in 2005. His work has appeared in The Rumpus, Intellectual Refuge, and Elephant Journal to name a few. He is on the faculty of the MFA in Writing at Lindenwood University. He is a contributing editor with Talking Writing. He earned a PhD in English and Creative Writing from the University of Missouri and also holds an MFA in Writing from Goddard College. He lives in the Midwest with his wife, Dyan, and their two dogs, Hemingway Short Story and Professor Leo Tolstoy.