When the world crumbled last March, I hadn’t expected it to last so long that I would spin off course from my quotidian orbit around Earth, attracted by the unrelenting gravitational pull of Mars. I didn’t know it at the time, but the email correspondence with a sophomore in my Letter Writing J-term class would soon become something more, something indefinable, rooted in a mutual appreciation for the graphemic, morphological, and semantic elements of language.
Dear Phobos, he began. (For the sake of anonymity, I’ll use the moons of Mars as pseudonyms for us both). The timestamp on Gmail read 1:49 p.m. but he had written that he composed his letter at 1:40 a.m. and had waited to send it at a more reasonable hour. How strange, I thought, because the basic constructs of time were pulverized to nothingness in March. He was ruminating on a metaphor I had used in my J-term capstone project, a metaphor that highlighted a struggle in aligning myself with Earth’s magnetic poles. The magnetic poles of Earth wobble around, he wrote. And even weirder, they sometimes swap. North becomes South and South becomes North. And then after a couple million years or so they’ll swap back. Is it comforting that the world isn’t even aligned on its own compass? That with the flick of a strange unknown geologic switch something as eternal and steady as the ground under our feet can do a full 180 degree turn and reverse itself?
I wasn’t so sure I found it comforting. I found it rather eerie. His words reminded me of how the world had flipped upside down without transition, how human interaction had been reduced to low-resolution Zoom squares, how the steady ground that had once cemented humanity together became uneven and separated us all last March. I didn’t know it at the moment, but his words were also a testament to what would be: the imminent, electrifying threshold I would cross; rearranging my whole world into bytes, into pixels, into sans-serif symbols as I emptied my thoughts into this vast digital void that spewed back moonbeams of metaphors from my fellow lunar companion, Deimos.
We fell into a sort of rhythm, oscillating steadily within our respective elliptical paths, as I’d wait a few days before writing back and he’d do the same. We talked about the limitations of perception and the powers of enigma, throwing ourselves into metaphors that cosmically expanded beyond our screens with every missive, the medley of which reflected an attempt to translate our anxieties about the world on the cusp of adulthood.
The general aura of his presence was a complete mystery to me, having never met him in person, yet reading his glowing words allowed me to analyze him in a way that would be impossible otherwise. I started to picture his head as a book and how his ready absorption of my inundation of words was influencing the story, his story, our story, but I desperately wanted to know how the book would end. I had never heard of a story like this one before. What character was I supposed to play? Where was my script? And who was taking it more seriously? Did it have to be me, as the younger girl? I wobbled on my lunar axis, dizzy from the vertigo of the incrementally increasing intimacy. Paradoxically, the distance created by our synchronously disconnected computer screens dragged me closer to him through the digital void, and I became nervous that it was all a hoax, that he would break it off with a single keystroke, so I played off the thought of our inevitable end as destructive beauty in my trepidation of heartbreak.
Dear Deimos, I typed. What if the unidentifiable beauty of this exchange of meaning between you and I—this alignment of temporally disconnected incorporeal gazes that penetrate past our epithelium and stroma and into the synaptic activity of each other’s minds through blue light waves—is dependent on the perpetual sense of its precarity brought on by the intermittency of our responses, suggestive of the eventual obliteration of it all?
Time had become compressed in a high-pressure bottle. All of the orders of temporality were colliding, and I couldn’t tell past from present or present from future or future from past. He was present in the incandescent words he sent me but at the same time a distant, pixelated memory as a box on a Zoom screen, yet a flickering light out of reach due to the inscrutability of the future of this arrangement. I wrote to him of the irregularity that had suddenly overtaken my life, how everything I saw reminded me of the intersections of time and language, how, in a strange way, the blur of cars on Route 9 reflected the inner workings of my brain in the gloaming hour of inky blues. The traces of obscured faces encased in glass windows as they rushed past, the quotidian rhythms of the workday all pulverized into dust, replaced by a sort of arrhythmia as the cars intermittently appeared and disappeared, accompanied by the vibrancy of red streaks amidst a darkening sky; those streaks of red light were like the firing of neurons that spurred the uncontrollable firing of words shooting across my grey matter, but the combinations of these words were fleeting, reduced to powder by time, supplanted by new words and new permutations. What I didn’t tell him was that this arrhythmia also found itself within the palpitations pulsing from my chest whenever I read him, the book inside my head, within my mind, on my screen. I couldn’t make sense of any of it.
I became obsessed with the scintillating balls of light that studded the night sky. I was afraid they’d fall, disrupting the lines I had mentally drawn between disconnected star clusters. Were we cosmically connected even though we had never seen each other’s atomic presences up close? Could invisible lines be linking us together, unbeknownst to us both?
Dear Deimos, I began. I was meditating on Stephen Hawking’s Singularity Theorem, which proposed that the cosmos was born from a point of zero size—a singularity—that was so infinitely dense and compact until everything blew up. If this singularity theorem is correct, then there was a point in space where everything was so compact and dense and everything that we know was interconnected in this tiny dot. And if this interconnectivity is certain, then that must mean that all atoms still retain the origins of their interconnectivity despite the outward expansion of matter. But this makes me wonder what happens to abstract concepts like language and love that can’t be reduced to atoms. I continued recklessly: If intimacy and words are inextricable due to some theory on cosmological interconnectivity—and, even if I can’t visualize the beautiful, electrified atoms that vibrate with the hum of literary promise inside the person behind all the metaphors— does this mean I’m falling in love with the person writing them instead of the words themselves?
I desperately sought a way to transliterate my inexplicable feelings into the symbols of the English language, but everything sounded wrong and took the form of hieroglyphics. I was overtaken with physical pain at the thought that he wouldn’t write back, that this literary relationship could quickly smash to atoms. I kept waking up at strange hours to refresh my inbox even though I knew he would take a while. I would die if it wasn’t him, I thought as I checked my email with bleary eyes at 3 a.m. on a Monday. I was greeted by the daily student health survey instead.
I read through his letter several times and I still couldn’t fully grasp the implications of what he had written. Something was thrilling, though, about tripping and stumbling over his words, about this unfathomability. It added to the captivation of his enigma. He described the soul as an intangible magnetic field that rises out of the interconnectivity of the atoms that make up the body. Language, then, is also an emergent property that arises from these atoms but is not reducible to the atoms themselves, and intimacy can emerge from language as another intangible layer. Maybe most of the time we fall in love with the language, but sometimes, when we’re lucky enough to find it, we fall in love with the intimacy, he wrote. Either way, in some sense we’re falling in love with the magnets.
I was trying to incorporate his idea of the emergent soul with a previous metaphor that saw stained-glass windows as a representation of the derivativeness of art. The individual glass fragments are really pieces of influential inspiration from past artists that collectively result in the formation of an original, final product: an image that is projected onto the floor when sunlight passes through the stained-glass window. I indirectly described him as an interpretive observer of my stained-glass window. He steps forward into the projection and observes the faded reflections of red and blue and green now speckled on his skin, and he looks back at the stained glass in front of him, I typed. The intensity of the art, in all its effulgence, matches the intensity of his pointed gaze, which penetrates through invisible particles in the air, sharp with a desire to understand, and he does. He understands. The projections of color begin to seep into his skin and he internalizes the significance of the lead strips holding the pieces of glass together. His entire being, body and soul, resounds with the lineage of the art recorded in the individual fragments of glass and he becomes Time, but not ordinary time—he becomes Time as it is arranged by way of the artist, Time in its most unchronological but artistic form—and he is transported into a creatively constructed past that intermixes with bits of the present in the most original of ways.
As I typed, the accumulation of everything was starting to make sense—my distorted perception of time, the connection between us, the cosmic pulses, webs, and clouds that emanate from my art and seep into him in an impalpable overlapping of emergent artistic souls.
I started that sentence a while ago, Deimos wrote. I don’t think I can finish it.
Nothing had ever struck me as more fitting. The blank space succeeding those two fateful words was mystifying and invited speculation, just as good art does. Art is, art is, art is. The words lapped and hurtled through my consciousness.
Art is he and I, I mused. I place the fragments of my soul under his interpretative, metaphysical gaze through the black monochromatic symbols I release into the digital void; and in return, he sends me his own fragments. We’re both opening ourselves up to interpretation, building off of the other to form a concatenation of images that conflate all orders of temporality at once: our shared past, our distanced presents, and the cautious anticipation of a shared future. And this mutual unraveling is shrouded with an element of mystification that so often permeates artwork, stemming from our unfamiliarity with the corporeal existence of the other.
It feels so unreal, so impossible, that we’ve fallen into similar elliptical orbits around Mars. Similar, due to the gravitational pull of a common interest in writing, but also distanced as we continue traveling along the invisible trajectory of our dissociated, respective presents. Yet, in this alternate dimension we both find ourselves in, I’d also like to believe that our orbital paths cross in ways that cannot be visualized, intersecting at incommensurable points in space, making the impossible a possibility: the lunar collision of Phobos and Deimos. It seems that we were brought into existence as a product of our time. Apart from being the two sole moons of Mars, Phobos and Deimos are the Greek gods of fear and panic. As the world continued to collapse around us in January, gravitation towards an expansive cosmic web of need was inevitable, a lifeline vital to balancing the frightful cacophony of the entropic world with a desire for convergence in literary harmony. I’m well aware that we will splinter off our orbital paths someday; Phobos is due to crash into Mars in 50 million years, while Deimos will eventually be cast off into space and leave the lonely red planet behind. But for now, I’ll relish in meeting the demands of this new chaotic universe, a world where connection depends on a different form of intimacy, a different form of nebulous love.
Jackeline Fernandes ’24 is a staff writer
Tina Zhang ’24 is a staff artist