Orcas in Space
by Sarah Kasbeer
If you were to ask my husband about my sleep habits, he would tell you how I kick and punch, how I speak in tongues — how I even try to shove him out of our double bed. “You slept like a total maniac last night,” he’ll say nearly every weekend, coffee mug in hand, as he tries to hide his smile. I usually protest, though I know it happens far too often to be mere hyperbole.
I’ve always been afraid of the dark, including the one brought on by the back of my eyelids. Even as a child, I recognized it as the harbinger of nightmares. But like my own unconscious mind, it was never really the darkness I feared so much as what I imagined might be hiding in it. My parents, tired of me running into their bedroom in the middle of the night, complaining of monsters in my closet or imaginary spiders crawling across my feet, relocated me semi-permanently into a second twin bed in my older sister’s room.
She slept like a log while I stared at the ceiling.
Every night, my father would come upstairs to put us to bed, but we didn’t go quietly. Instead, we played twenty questions — or as many as we could squeeze in before he noticed we were flattering his intelligence and enforced our bedtime. Sometimes we’d ask questions we thought were silly just to waste time, like, “If a tree falls in the woods, does it still make a sound?” Other times, we’d ask harder ones, along the lines of, “How do I know what you see as the color green is the same thing I see as the color green?”
The line of enquiry that unsettled me most was always existential in nature. I wanted to know, even at a young age, what we were all doing here anyway.
“What is outer space made of?” I asked.
“Nothing,” my father said.
“You mean, like air?”
“No,” he explained, “Air is made of molecules.”
My father, being a science geek, took the time to break down the down carbon dioxide and oxygen content of the earth’s atmosphere — vs. the nonexistent content of empty space. I stared out the window at the black sky between the stars, my hands searching underneath the sheets as I tried to grasp this newfound concept. My tiny twin bed hosted an army of stuffed animal friends, but when I looked at them for comfort, they just stared back at me blankly.
By that time, I had come to understand that my place in the universe was not unlike the Whos of Whoville who lived on a tiny speck of dust in the clover field of the Dr. Seuss story. My scientific discovery—what I began to think of simply as “nothingness”—made the idea that a benevolent character like Horton would be listening for our voices and looking out for our wellbeing seem even less likely than it had before.
Once I got to high school, I learned in physics class that sound requires the presence of molecules to travel, and therefore pockets of deep space would remain silent as long as they remained empty. But what of the absence of sound, then—did it make a noise? I supposed not, unless someone were there to actually listen for it.
At sixteen, I fell for a dense boyfriend. He “understood” me in the sense that he provided the weed I needed to stop thinking about eternal nothingness. At some point, he must have learned to fill the void in his brain with alcohol and fighting. He was like a black hole — a vacuum that destroyed whatever got close enough to be sucked in. He hadn’t hidden the fact that he’d been violent with other men, nor had he flaunted it.
In the beginning, he was nice to me. And then suddenly, he wasn’t.
My ex-boyfriend, this chunk of the universe that ended up at my front door, eventually became the object of my adult nightmares. In them, he boasted some major advantage other than just his sheer size. He’d be driving a truck and I’d be traveling by roller-skates. He’d be chasing me through the woods with a gun, and I’d be hiding in them naked. He’d have regular ground to traverse — and I’d be stuck in quicksand, my chances of escape sinking with every step.
Eventually, after putting enough time and space between us, the nightmares eased, but never stopped all together. Perhaps this is because this concept of space-time forms a giant inescapable net. In order to rid myself of him entirely, I’d have to travel back in time. According to the theory of relativity, in order to move backwards on the space-time continuum, one must be moving faster than the speed of light. That is to say, one must move forward into the dark — in order to move backward into the light.
I essentially did this in trauma therapy.
After a couple years of exploring dark, uncharted corners of my mind, the nightmares morphed slowly into dreams. In one of the later versions, I found myself exploring the rooms of an unfamiliar house only to turn and find my ex-boyfriend on a leash beside me — well, the essence of him anyway: his upper-torso had been replaced by the front half of a porpoise. As a half-man, half-dolphin, he was less threatening in that he couldn’t talk with his beak or punch anyone with his fins. He didn’t make any of those weird clicking noises. Instead, he followed me around like silent baggage — a fear I could never quite untether myself from.
Discovering him next to me was like swimming somewhere off the coast of Florida and catching the silhouette of a manatee out of the corner of your eye. In an instant, your heart would stop, your life would flash before your eyes, and you would accept your bones were about to be pulverized by a monster’s teeth. Only after recognizing some humanity in the face of the swimming mammal would your heart rate slow. The words “sea cow” would settle into your head like sediment into a riverbed, and eventually, silt into the sea.
According to the Scientific American, the same mirror neurons responsible for coding and imitating violent behavior also engender empathy—through recognition of facial expressions and other nonverbal gestures. Oddly, the mechanism that makes us biologically suitable for civilization also threatens our individual survival. How is it that violent and empathic impulses are so entwined? And why do we go to such lengths to shield ourselves from the truth about what it means to be human?
Growing up, my family went to church every week. Sunday mornings, I’d be forced into a black velvet dress and itchy white tights so that the four of us could get into our blue Chevy Suburban and make the eight-minute drive to Second Presbyterian Church. I’d go straight to a room upstairs to attend something called “Sunday School” where children received short lessons about Christ and then made crafts using glue sticks, glitter, and paper plates that said things like, “Jesus loves us.”
I thought I might get more information on the Jesus stuff by going to the adult sermons, but I never did. Instead, I’d sit in the middle of my parents and alternate between staring blankly at my patent leather Mary Janes and flipping through the Hymnal in search of an interesting song to read. In elementary school, I noticed that my father had stopped going all together. When I asked my mother why I still had to, she said, “He’s an adult and you’re a child.”
In fifth grade, when I went through Confirmation, the official rite of passage to becoming a member of the church, I took the opportunity to question whether my religious beliefs were indeed mine. The idea of committing to a god who may or may not exist and having faith he’ll take care of you in the afterlife seemed like putting a lot of eggs in one basket, even to a ten-year-old. I didn’t understand why I needed some fuddy-duddy scripture, a man with grey hair in a robe, and a lot of burgundy carpet just to tell me not to be a jerk.
In the end, it was the church’s refusal to acknowledge science — a marker for the progress of humanity — that tipped me over the edge.
By middle school, I started staying home with my father every Sunday. Eventually, I asked him about the one piece that’s missing from the atheist package.
“What happens when we die?”
“Nothing,” he said. “You’re dead.”
Theoretically, it made sense, but I couldn’t imagine it in practice, so instead I imagined the closest thing I could think of — that moment when you’re about to fall asleep and you see another realm of darkness approaching beyond the inside of your eyelids. What scared me most abut his answer was that I agreed it was probably true. Christian theology offers an out: if you live by the teachings of Jesus and have faith in God, your soul will be resurrected after death. But it seemed too easy.
Buddhism, on the other hand, says that there is no soul — only a stream of consciousness that carries from one life to the next. It’s an unsatisfying cycle in which liberation can only be achieved through enlightenment. When I studied the philosophy in college, I found it comforting somehow. If you could truly come to accept that “life is suffering”, the idea of nothing might start to seem almost like a relief.
If death were the endless darkness of outer space — a place only a handful of people have seen for what doesn’t even amount to a mere blip in the lifetime of the universe, then sleep would be like the ocean: a miniature version of an alien world that we explore in small dives, imaginary bouts of wakefulness we call dreams.
Not long ago, I dreamt I was swimming in the ocean and everything was pitch black, but I wasn’t lost, nor was I afraid. I thought I had achieved some higher plane of consciousness — or even a kind of clairvoyance. When I awoke, I realized I had dreamt of being an orca, which meant I was using sonar to “see” without sight.
Being an apex predator would have its upsides. For one, you wouldn’t have to live in fear, at least not of anything other than humans. Because the Buddhist mind stream is said to move between the spirit, animal, and human realms, I even wondered if I’d been an orca in a past life. I’d also recently watched The Whale, a documentary about an orca named Luna who became separated from his family as a baby and trapped in the Nootka Sound off of Vancouver Island. Animal rights activists had attempted free him, but were in conflict with a native tribe who believed that his presence signified the return of a chief who had recently died.
Orcas are social animals, so Luna tried making friends with humans. He would approach boats and pop his glossy black head out of the water to say hello. He seemed almost otherworldly — this alien just trying to make contact with life on land. In the process, he did a fair amount of damage around the local marinas by ripping the rudders off of boats. He also liked to swim alongside them and rub his body against their hulls, a substitute for the contact he would have had with his pod, had he not been orphaned.
Eventually, he was sucked in by a boat propeller and died from his injuries.
One man interviewed in the documentary who had made eye contact with Luna after he popped his head up out of the water said he could tell there was “somebody home” in there. I knew what he meant; I could see it through the screen. Inside of Luna was something that went beyond molecules and buoyancy and the acceleration that he’d need in order to hit an ice sheet from below and knock his next meal into the water.
In trauma therapy, when I didn’t have the right words, my therapist would ask me to describe how my emotions felt physically. Recognizing Luna’s—I’ll call it “personhood”—landed like a warm pang in the right side of my chest, just above my diaphragm. This ray of hope I felt reaching into me must have been the opposite of the pool of shame one feels after committing an act of violence. It seemed like an SOS from another spaceship, signaling that I’m not alone in this vast, empty universe after all.
Before a tornado hits, the pressure drops and the sky turns green. If you’re in its path, you’ll hear it roaring like a freight train. In Illinois, when the sirens went off at night, my whole family would go downstairs to huddle together in the crawl space with an AM radio and a flashlight, doing our best to avoid the many daddy long-legs who’d taken up residence there. It was a ritual we practiced more religiously than actual religion.
But hurricanes were unfamiliar territory.
When super-storm Sandy pummeled the Eastern Seaboard, I lived with my husband in a ground floor apartment near the water. He slept peacefully while I lay in bed, my eyes wide-open, listening to the wind—waiting for something to happen. Overnight, the water crept up, flooding homes, restaurants, and even the subway stations. Our apartment was high enough up be spared, but by the next morning, broken wood planks, tree branches, and even dead rats had washed up onto our block.
It was a reminder that eventually, we’ll all be returned, piece by piece, to the swirling matter of the universe from which we sprung.
The day after the storm, I watched a golden retriever digging through the debris. He lifted his shiny head to reveal a prize—in the form of a dead rat. The woman at the other end of the leash began shrieking.
In the weeks that followed, I couldn’t get this image out of my head. I would be lying in bed and suddenly wonder what it would feel like to have a wet dead rat in my mouth. As soon as the thought came into my mind, I’d squint, stick my tongue out, and make the kind of “pleh” noise you do when you’re standing over the sink trying to get the taste of sour milk out of your mouth.
It bothered me so much that I went to a psychiatrist, who gave me medication that helped, but it also gave me double vision and “brain zaps,” which feel just like they sound. It’s difficult to know if the rat obsession, which eventually passed, was indeed pathology—or just part of the collateral damage of owning a brain. Within the mental tornado of ideas and images, some are bound to be disturbing enough to stick, given the kind of world that created them.
The first time I ever meditated was in a chair in front of my bedroom window overlooking the East River. I sat down, closed my eyes, and found myself floating in what seemed like empty space. The only thing grounding my mind to my physical body was the rhythm of my breath—inhales and exhales advancing and receding like the tide.
It was terrifying.
In the beginning, I could barely hold off my thought storm for thirty seconds. After a few months, I gained the ability to handle five minutes, then ten, then fifteen. The point of my meditation practice was to acknowledge the content of my thoughts without identifying with it. Instead, I would imagine every notion, however strange or mundane, as if it were just floating by on an asteroid. As a therapeutic tool, this proved valuable. But it also seemed to be leading me back to where I started.
If our thoughts are not representative of who we are—then who are we?
“Collections of atoms,” I can imagine my father saying, without even looking up from his breakfast. There is something comforting about certainty, even when the object of it is so unsatisfying. Still, I have a lot of questions.
Sarah Kasbeer‘s essays appear or are forthcoming in Elle, Midwestern Gothic, The Normal School, The Rumpus, Salon, The Smart Set, Vice, and elsewhere. She lives in New York City.
Image source: H. Zell via Creative Commons