The Frictionless Plane

Derek Russell
B.Arch Architecture 2022

At 1 AM, from the fifteenth floor, city lights flicker with dysfunction. From here, I can see Rhode Island’s capitol, and across the way, that brash building of columns and marble where the flashes come around at an almost constant interval. A heartbeat for the city: palpitations of unrest that match the thrum of his body pressed against mine. I can count the beats.

The kind of guy who radiates heat, who opens my pores in the most unpleasant of ways, a hand that slowly slips around my waist. Should I tell him I am thinking of someone else? His hands grope my ass and my waning hard-on, a symptom of lost love that never quite resolved. For all his persistence and all my disinterest, I couldn’t bring myself to pull them off. I let my body become his. I give it to the world, as penance or out of a lack of self regard. I’m not entirely sure which. My body is the object of desire, I know, so I give myself over to the void.

Woven between the buildings, flashing sirens light the way. Manmade canyons are lit by the tectonics of emergency. This pandemic may be concluding but the hesitancy still remains. Providence outstretches, reaching its arms into the New England countryside, diffuse edges indistinguishable as town fades into town. There is no reprieve. All I see is red and blue.

Take my flesh, you can have it. I don’t want it, I don’t need it. I’ll keep something else for myself instead.

What is the measure of a day? A single rotation in an indecipherable space perhaps, but what is the significance? Days come and days go: everything stays the same, everything changes. Days extrapolated turn into weeks
and years, undone they become hours

and minutes. To be considered a planetary body, an object must be the largest entity in its orbit path. Now I wish you hadn’t crossed mine, subsumed my orbit.

Stalled outside Philly we wait for deliver-ance from gods or police, whichever myth you subscribe to. The conductor announces that there has been a strike. Seconds turn to minutes turn to hours while we wait for vital signs. The coroner appears on wings like the angel of death. Time stretches on while the fallible passengers reside in their lounge chairs, unconsenting and unconcerned. I trace the tracks with my fingers on Google Earth, finding the places where the metal leads—places I could go in an alternate world. False starts and false stops litter the path. Perhaps they are places I could never access in all my permutations. Tracing over the New York subway, I remember the place where rats nest within the slats to make homes inside transitways. Henri’s hands still flooded the gaps as they flowed through gutters to the Hudson.

A sudden shudder brings me back to this place, to this time. As the Amtrak moves again, my body passes over the body of the trespasser on the tracks.

My mom and I took a trip out west for Christmas. The last two homebodies with nothing left to bind us to our property. Grief had rendered us nomads in search of joy beyond our home cast in gray. Soon, we watched bitter snow flutter through endless rock faces, those stratified orange and red walls that drew the gaze of so many others each year. When the eyes of extraterrestrial beings gaze upon the land, perhaps they can observe the geologic upheaval: Earth’s unrest. But for us mortals, we see the earth as a place outside the realm of time. Shifting fossils frozen in plain sight, life contained in a single instance.

In Flagstaff, an International Dark Sky City where every lantern is turned towards Terra, you might stumble upon Lowell Observatory, a quaint place founded by researchers escaping the noise of eastern city life. Was it Manifest Destiny that drew them to this place, that urge to claim what was seen as unclaimed? The western vistas had been seen by settlers as untamed and exotic, a place for new life to begin again; a tabula rasa. If only they understood that wilderness is not wild, that desert sandscapes were not uninhabited. Land is often seen as something to be owned, not a close peer in a cosmic realm of distant planets and stars.

Looking out across a lightless city, there is something quite strange to be interpreted from the concept of the International Dark Sky. In one way, it acknowledges one of the many side effects of human sprawl that degradates nature; in another, it objectifies the sky as an object of human fascination. I often feel that preservation is a slippery slope, as it demands a solidity from all that is liquid or gaseous. To a certain extent, all that is ephemeral cannot be bound.

In South Africa, a land beyond the North Star, you follow the Southern Cross instead—at least that’s what Vaughan told us amidst a fruitless chase to spot a leopard hunting in the night. I always felt a comfortable familiarity in the stars, but here that same sense alluded me. Polar opposites and hemispheres unconnected reminded me that the universe is quite larger than what I so often see. Other paradigms lay dormant within the cracks that only proper spectacles could discern. Despite living at the edge of human existence in near-rural Colorado, I had never seen the sky like this. In the absence of the moon, the lights, sent across millions of years, flickered in a chorus of silent voices.

The king of France, Louis XVI, admin-istered specific instructions to La Pérouse for his famed eighteenth-century exped-ition of discovery. On ships adorned with cutting-edge scientific instruments—vehicles anthropologist Julie Cruik-shank likened to space shuttles (one appropriately named Discovery)—the explorer set out on his fatal conquest for knowledge. By decree of the king, upon reaching port, La Pérouse and his crew were instructed to offload their precious cargo and to construct a portable observ-atory. Measurements could then be conducted, deducing particulars such as air pressure, temperature, the magnetic field, and eventually the constellations. Objective means of data collection reified land as a territory to be claimed, something that would eventually haunt the crew after contact with many of the locals along their journey.

I told you once about that feeling I get standing at the edge of the earth, standing 14,000 feet up and looking down. From this height, all the buildings look like ant hills; at nights the plains shine like glitter. You can see the depth of the earth at night on College Hill, how the streetlights disappear beneath the folds and tell me you are scared. Tartarus, you call it. From this height I feel no fear, my feet and earth are one. In these moments, when the gleam of human habitation meets the stars, I see ocean liners in the plains; ships in the night like rockets passing Jupiter. I smell the ponderosa and I feel the rush of snowmelt as it leaves the continental divide. Inside this planetarium, where the edges between nature and myself unravel, I can feel you. Every rustle in the pine needles is your heart funneled through that stethoscope, every breath of the wind sweeps directly from your mouth. I keep looking back, worried headlights will unexpectedly flood the road and we might be crushed. You tell me to stop fearing what could be. If one had stood and analyzed our footsteps, they might be puzzled by the jagged path that takes us home. They would see the moments we slide, or where you grab a hold of my jacket for stability, so as not to slip into the depths below.

At Lowell, they let us gawk through old telescopes. Wood beams formed patterns in domes that spun on old Ford tires, small holes where insects had made their presence known dotted the ceilings. Even in daylight, the universe was visible. We learned about the young uneducated intern, who, day in and day out, stared at photo reproductions as seen through the misshapen lenses, searching for abnormalities. One day, by sheer millimeters, he noticed a dot (one of thousands) had been dislocated. This dot would eventually be named Pluto.

Astronomy implies a certain kind of fascination, the aesthetics of its research invoking images of space-age utopianism, the epitome of human progress and ingenuity. To this day, millions of dollars are funneled into research and development concerning the stars seen from Arizona. Here, people spend their entire lives behind screens, searching endlessly for answers to some of humanity’s deepest questions amidst the cosmos; questions on the origins of space and time. Here in this infinite sea, beyond dust, beyond Oort, a great omniscient eye scans the light of lightyears, unimaginably distant, in search for signs of life. For every integral or derivative, comes the human behind the logic, doing and undoing for the sake of problem-solving. Do we seek enlightenment in our conquest for knowledge that might not even exist? But truly how many of these languages that humans invent have the answers to the existential question of who we are? For me, it all defies rationality. If heaven has a body, no mathematics can describe the shape.

There is a fruitless arbitrariness in the stubborn quantification of such systems. Time is a human construct, a way to read our changing world. The Earth tilts slowly, rotating around the sun. Two bodies in space pull upon each other like two dancers bound together. They say that every planetary body in the universe pulls upon every other body. A gravitational familiarity binds all things seen and unseen. Two bodies in space, two thousand, two million; it’s all more of the same.

What happens when I fall from your orbit?
Image by the author.

It was the night of your friend’s funeral. You cooked chicken marsala in front of your classmate’s homophobic sisters and we got wine drunk on the only Cabernet Sauvignon you drink. We had never touched, really, but the magnetism was strong between us. We had spent so long denying it—a silent connection lurking in the darkness, held in fear of what could be. You almost used sugar to coat the chicken on account of a friend’s neglectful eye, and we all laughed at the thought of sweet, powdery breading. When at last the ghosts had dissipated, and just the two of us remained, a couple of glasses in, a hand slowly slipped around my waist. It was the first acknowledgment: a touch that symbolized the beginning of an everlasting affection. My waist became the small of my back, as I was slowly taken into the folds; a slow-dance to some pop song, neck engrossed within neck. We swayed to the steady beat, the world fell away. A moment shared between us felt like lifetimes in those seconds. Although we were alone, the room was not empty, instead filled with gravity. I miss it, the moment when it all fell into place. I grieve the loss of what was, but more importantly, I grieve the loss of what could’ve been. I’ll always remember that kitchen, prefabricated and translocated to Attleboro. The most mundane of places hold the memories I could never let go of. Walls built from the joy I once felt can never be demolished. In my angst, I can only hope, naively, to burn them. One day I’ll accept that I cannot.

In 2002, a woman high up in the Colorado Rockies burned a love letter. As the remnants of love and loss disintegrated into ashes, so too went 138,114 acres of forest land. The Hayman Fire, as it was called, impacted northern Colorado Springs, eventually becoming the largest fire in the state’s recorded history. For eighteen years, its victory was left unchallenged. On July 31, 2020, lightning struck. A quick gesture ignited 139,007 acres of unmanaged forest in Pine Gulch, surpassing Hayman. Seven weeks later, Cameron Peak, west of Fort Collins, bowed down to flame, unseating Pine Gulch after mere weeks as the largest fire in Colorado history. It burned 208,913 acres. They say the fires could burn so hot that the sand within the soil turned to glass.

Aerosolized carbon dioxide rendered the world crimson. The lands I once knew as a child became the matchbox for devastation, our homes becoming kindling.

The sun in South Africa is painted by the red of Namibian sands. The Namib, one of the oldest deserts in the world, derives its name from the Khoekhoegowab language, meaning "vast place." Staring west from Timbavati from the land where all wildlife is behind a fence, I can’t picture the vastness, only smoke. After moving from Colorado to Providence, I remember my newfound friends pointing out the red Rhode Island sunsets, how beautiful, they exclaimed. I had seen the sun this way before, but in a context far less beautiful.

Dragging me to ramen when you know I don’t even like it. It's a month past the fracture, still pretending like wounds are distal. All your freedoms in the separation sputter wordlessly from your lips, devoid of meaning subsumed within the broth. I don’t need your justifications. We talk around what’s on our minds, attempting to construct a normalcy that falls flat. The facade only perturbed in the incidental meeting of our legs, a touch so electric that the jolt leaves a burn scar, a forceful reminder of intimacy intentionally erased. “I just thought this would be fine, I thought lunch would be nice …”

In a free body diagram, one object is pulled down a ramp under its own weight. The sum of forces measured in this space, devoid of resistance, that Galileo theorized can only be calculated when the diagram exists within what is called the frictionless plane. In this realm beyond geography, when two objects meet, all that remains is gravity. Reminiscing on the memories, thinking about what was and what could have been, you remind me of this dream.

I hear about your frictionless plane, a land beyond all ties to the earth where we’ve nested. A distant universe. A vision. Those moments, where for only an instant, the clarity of the cosmos comes into focus. The fog dissipates through crystal glasses, and for a second, I look around the room only to see the mundanely beautiful things: cracks in the wall, a terrible color of paint slowly peeling, the way the light flows into the windows, and in that clarity I see you. Contours of your face in the dawning light when the fog is fleeting.

But I know that there is friction, I know that there is place. I know that I am not your frictionless plane, my glasses but a lens in which to view you through.

My body is a geography, strata scried into the skin. So I listen to all the stories you created in your head as a way to cope with loss, let you tell me about your quality of care or my pedantic convolutions. Love is a process of dis-covery, but you didn’t like what was uncovered. I’m tired of the stargazing. I call out your destructive patterns, let gravity do the work. When two objects are destined for collision, who am I to stop the inertia? An object in motion remains in motion, a spark ignites in a second, fields of futures held in flame.

“I want you to genuinely care about my life.”
“How can I care if I don’t care about anything?”
Two bowls of noodles, one empty and one full.

Touch me, if only for a minute. Let me feel my skin against yours. We can pretend to be lovers and pass the time. Tease me and tell me we belong together. We can fantasize about lost worlds that house our futures together. Suspend me mid-air, let the clouds envelop me as if the condensation extends from my pores. My cells unbind, return to earth, and float back to me, recycling the pieces as they break. Heartbeats echo through canyons and reverberate in the space between. I am air, breathe me in. Give me this moment and I’ll give you one too. Let this moment be a moment, nothing more, nothing less.

I wrote it down because you asked me to, scribbles of incoherent writings on sticky notes fall from the deepest recesses of my bedroom. Something strange happens when you write: all the pieces that float at the front of your consciousness are suddenly concretized. The fluidity of our nature is etched in stone, maybe as a way to systematize chaos. Definitions are easy to understand when they are simple, at some point we will be forced to embrace the sheer fact that there is never an easy answer. Words aggregate and separate, yet we look for meaning between the lines, as if lines hold meaning. But meaning is not defined by collectivity, instead it is defined by perception. A billion constellations light the room, a billion galaxies threatening to collide. None to blame, simply a matter of trajectory. It just is. My words were never mine to begin with. I always told you I was no good with words.

There is a kind of porosity in cement where it all filters through; the rain, the dust of newly constructed condominiums, and the evergreen scents that reminds me of home. When you change the aggregate, or, the stone base in which concrete is blended, you change the space between particles.

Sebastiao Salgado stated after seeing Brazil’s Serra Pelada goldmine, “When I reached the edge of the enormous hole, in a split second, I saw unfolding before me the history of mankind.” Discussing the nature of photography, Salgado mentions how the photographer writes and rewrites history through the manipulation of light and shadow. Between every light in the sky exists that distance between, a vast emptiness that gives meaning to the somethingness.

An unseasonable storm catches wind. Ice freezes over the lake and all that is beneath is trapped within an impenetrable fortress. No Polar Vortex could be as cold. When the ice freezes over, will you remember me? What am I still holding on to? Your touch is so distant that I don’t even know the texture. Distant memories become further distanced; trees become phantoms. I’ll walk until my white chucks are steeped with blood if it helps me to forget about you and unlearn the things you taught me. You could point me to where the sidewalk ends, but in Providence the pavement has none. I’ll trade coffee for teeth whitener, bleach my hair until it all falls out. My lame body, barren in the cradle on fevered nights, adrift when all I ever wanted was the razor. I’ll replace every piece of myself until nothing of you is left. Displaced and unrecognizable, perhaps I will begin anew.

And in the end, experience subsides to fable. Some days I can hardly remember. Past lives become distant imaginings, indistinguishable. Dreams of times come and gone fade into oblivion; fleeting and intangible. Even veins filled with gold subside for the heaven’s particulate matter. A portal, for today, opens. I’ll step through it.

Then all at once, months beyond the silence, a garbled transmission is detected from the cosmic edge of the observable universe: first contact made with signs of alien life. To hear your voice when you call, hand broken leaving your incarcerated night, I can barely recognize it. You must imagine the discontent I felt when, after months amidst the wreckage, you asked for my support. Antarctic caps melt, once again, revealing the fossilized ferns from a jungle once lush. Despite all my efforts, I don’t remember the garden. Forgetting the history, knowing full well that he claimed your body, a pained indifference settles over me, far beyond your gravity.

Derek Russell spends much of his time asleep, dreaming beneath Sandía sands. At that place where the plains meet the mountains, you will reach him.