In physics, a vacuum exists when a given space has fewer particles inside it than the surrounding space such that outside particles, if allowed, would flow in. This relative presence or absence of particles is, to some extent, affected by elevation. At sea level, on average, there is one atmosphere of pressure, created by molecules moving around and bouncing into each other. One atmosphere is equal to seven hundred and sixty torr. Laboratories will remove enough molecules from an area to reduce atmospheric pressure to five millitorr, which is one two-hundredth of a torr, or one hundred fifty-two thousandth of normal atmospheric pressure. Scientists have not yet figured out how to create a pure vacuum, an area completely devoid of particles, but in theory this is possible. Such a container would literally be filled with nothing, empty.
The second time I went to my grandfather’s house to pick him up off his kitchen floor, he was slumped against the island, walker near his feet, button-down shirt hanging off his ninety-four-year-old frame. He wore a white undershirt, and he looked like a movie version of someone dying in a desert. My father took one shoulder, my brother the other, and I wrapped my arms around his chest. I was afraid of cracking ribs. When we lifted him, he groaned, just like he had the first time, and we placed him down on a kitchen chair. This time, his fall involved the whole family—mother, father, sister, brother, and me. An event. Thanksgiving was supposed to be the following day, and my parents had to decide whether to cancel. Arrangements were made for my father to spend the night at my grandfather’s, and my father and sister set out on the twenty-minute drive to get an air mattress and toiletries. My mother sat on the far side of the kitchen table, and my brother and I sat side by side in kitchen chairs facing my grandfather, who looked not at us but down at his legs. He hadn’t hurt himself, hadn’t even lost his balance. He’d just slid down to the floor, having lost the strength, finally, to stay upright.
My college friends have long since scattered across the country and in some cases across the world, but back at school we used to talk about “the hole,” the part of us that always seemed to be missing. We couldn’t find a term that adequately described it, though it is a cousin to loneliness. There was some debate about the ubiquity of the hole, and in the end the consensus was that everyone has it, but some don’t recognize it. This absence inside us, we decided, is not permanently fillable, but that has not stopped people from trying. Some jump off cliffs in squirrel suits, chasing an adrenaline high. Others collect things, like jewelry or baseball cards or boats or friends. I can’t help but do my own kind of seeking, misguided as it may be. Instead of filling the hole, I want to define it, to trace its perimeter, to know exactly where it begins and ends and so remain at a safe distance. I want to keep myself from falling in.
There is more than one way to fill a vacuum. The most literal, and the easiest, is to allow the molecules in our atmosphere to naturally correct pressure differentials. This explains the phenomenon we experience as wind. The air around us is made up of about 78 percent nitrogen, 20 percent oxygen, and 1 percent argon—a little-known noble gas that, when excited by electrical current, glows sky blue. Warmer temperatures cause these molecules to speed up and rise, which creates pockets of low pressure, and the air we feel rushing past us is the nitrogen and oxygen and argon flooding back into these pockets, achieving equilibrium. In this way, the atmosphere is never empty and also never full. Instead, it acts as the staging area for a perpetual tug of war, an infinite middle ground.
When I was ten, at the family Seder, I watched my father pour wine into a glass for Elijah the prophet. Later, at the appropriate time, he would send all the children to the door, which we opened to invite the prophet to the table. By the time we got back, the glass of wine would be empty. I was a skeptic, even then, and this time when my father wasn’t looking, I took a piece of apple from the charoset and I placed it on the base of Elijah’s wine glass. I suspected my father of drinking the wine, and I wanted proof. The moment came, and I dutifully walked to the door, peered outside, looked up and down the street as if Elijah might be leaning against my neighbor’s fence, waiting for an invitation. When I got back to the table, the wine was gone, and the piece of apple was still on the base of the glass. Faced with the clearest sign in my young life of divine intervention, I looked my father in the eye and asked him how he did it.
The mixing of inks and dyes, a traditional process in painting, is subtractive. The various colors absorb certain wavelengths and reflect others. It is the absence of the absorbed wavelengths that allows for previously invisible shades to come to the surface. Pointillism, a painting technique developed by Georges Seurat and Paul Signac, reaches the same end through a different process. It involves the use of tiny dots of distinct color on a white canvas and is meant to be viewed from a distance. With the appropriate separation, the human eye doesn’t see dots at all but rather a grassy hill, or a skull, or an apartment lit by the morning sun. Colors in pointillist paintings are often described as more vibrant than those achieved by subtractive mixing, and this increased intensity may be attributable to the empty space between the dots, and to the ability of the mind to mix the hues. The brain becomes part of the art, the organizer, the general, though it is not fully in control. It is the artist, absent from the final product, who composed the arrangement of dots, who allowed for the act of creation.
I have a recurring dream in which airplanes crash. The type of plane and the location vary, but the script is always the same. I’m never on it, and I watch from a distance and do nothing to help. The easy conclusion is that I want to help others and that I fear being helpless in their time of need. Sometimes, though, as I watch the plane from afar, I don’t feel any emotion other than a separateness, distance.
The first time I went to my grandfather’s house to pick him up off his kitchen floor was earlier that same November day. His whole life he’d been proud of his ability to operate independently. He worked his first job when he was ten, and he didn’t retire until he was almost ninety. He’s been living in the same house on Cape Cod since 1972.
When we arrived, Lou was already there. My grandfather had managed, from his position on the floor, to reach his hand up to the kitchen table and grab his portable house phone, and he chose to call his ninety-three-year-old friend. Lou was sitting in a chair, hands folded.
This first time it was just my father, my mother, and myself who picked him up. Once we got him seated, I finished stirring the pumpkin pie mix that he’d been working on when he’d gone down, and eventually I poured it into two pie dishes and put them in the oven. I burned my hand on the top shelf of the oven when I went to pull them out, and the mark has since faded but is still there.
Aristotle said that nature abhors a vacuum, horror vacui. This, like most truths, is dependent upon one’s perspective. He spoke of the impossibility of the void, pointed to the slowing of things, to rising and falling as evidence of an ever-present something. Later, Evangelista Torricelli made the first barometer, an upturned tube of mercury that left a space at the top, what came to be known as a Torricelli vacuum. We know now, of course, that he wasn’t completely right, that what he was describing was a relative vacuum instead of a pure one. More than one mathematical constant has been derived from the idea of a pure vacuum, from complete nothingness, but such conditions have neither been observed in nature nor successfully created in a laboratory, matter always finding a way to collapse the absence.
When I was a child, I used to stand out in the yard in front of the house and throw rocks against larger rocks for hours. I did this so often that my parents bought me goggles, afraid I would get a shard in my eye. When the rocks finally splintered into pieces, I would squat in the grass, hold a piece in my hand, squint through my goggles. I was looking for flecks of color, for the odd crystal, so that I could make a determination—rhodonite, pyrite, quartz—and add it to my collection. In my room, I had stacks of baseball cards, coins from twenty-six countries, and little pieces of rock commonly found in yards across the state of Massachusetts.
I would throw the same stone again and again, with no discernable progress, somehow understanding that most of the damage happens before the breaking point, determined to see what was inside.
Scientists used to believe, as far back as Aristotle and as recently as the nineteenth century, that the space between particles was an as-yet-unidentified substance that came to be known as aether. Aether moved locally and in circular motion, which for Aristotle explained the movement of stars and planets. This view eventually fell out of favor, though recent research has suggested that empty space may in fact be populated by tiny hidden particles that can only be detected when there is some disruption to their structure. It seems as though the unknown is its own kind of vacuum, and science moves constantly to fill it. The converse may be true as well. Every time knowledge spreads too far, becomes all-encompassing, uncertainty creeps back in, finds an equilibrium. Science is not the only way to fill the void. Some people fill it with God, or rather, they believe that God is the void, the space between particles, the aether through which we all move. He is the explanation for the ineffable, or at least a justification. For such people, true absence does not exist, and a vacuum is as full as an atmosphere, or perhaps fuller still.
I lived with my grandfather for three summers when I was in high school. He was old back then too, but still strong. My memories of that time include him fixing my old bike, which had brakes that didn’t work, and telling me, after I finished breakfast, that the loaf of bread had mold on it. The first summer we watched my grandmother suffer through the latter stages of Alzheimer’s. The three of us would have dinner together, my grandfather and I eating our corned beef hash, my grandmother humming along to the classical music playing softly in the background. She forgot who I was, and maybe who he was. She forgot his stubbornness and the fights they’d had over the past fifty years.
I can remember him crying only once, and his expression didn’t change even a little. It was as if his eye had started leaking. Of all the people in my immediate and extended family, my grandfather and I are the least likely to cry. In that way, I suppose we are a good fit for each other.
A black hole is, in a sense, the opposite of a vacuum. One is a spaceless infinity of weight and the other an infinite empty space. Around a black hole is something called the event horizon, which is the boundary inside of which all matter must move toward the center of the black hole, and nothing can escape, not even light. Any event that occurs inside this horizon is necessarily hypothetical, since there is no way to observe it. To the human eye, a black hole is not visible, an absence among absence, detectable only by the effects that it has on the objects around it, the way that it warps and destroys and includes. A black hole, theoretically, could contain everything, a vacuum nothing, and the two would be indistinguishable.
My brother has said to me that he cannot imagine a version of his life that doesn’t end in suicide. It’s not clear whether he always believes this to be true, or only in moments of particular pain and depression. He, as well as others in my life, has struggled greatly with mental illness, has been in so much pain that he longs for nothingness, the absence of all life being preferable to the horror that he is experiencing. I have had more than one person ask me whether life is worth living, more than one person tell me they don’t know why they are still alive. I am tempted to tell them about Aristotle, that nature abhors a vacuum, but this is not helpful. There is no philosophy that can put out a fire. There is no life that can exist without air, no such thing as a vacuum in the world as it exists. I have tried to become a hydrant, a hose, a lake, but have settled for being a presence on the other end of phone calls that stretch deep into the night, words and sometimes silence marking the passage of minutes.
Light is able to move through a vacuum because it does not require a medium, a something to traverse. It is the something. Sound, on the other hand, is simply an agitation of existing particles, a secondary phenomenon. We cannot zero in on the thing that sound is, because it does not exist.
I wish I could say I cannot imagine my brother dying, being dead, but I can and I do. I have, since maybe twelve years old, conceived of life as something without inherent meaning, an emptiness into which we can project our own. I don’t want my brother to be gone. We call each other every couple days to talk about baseball, or playwriting, or sadness, and these phone calls feel like a communication with a part of myself rather than with another person. At the end of each call, I am left with the echo of his voice, and it is nothing I can wrap my arms around. We end every call by saying that we love the other, as though love, which has always seemed to me more like light than like sound, might not make it between us without this medium.
While my brother and I sat in chairs across from my grandfather, he started to tell us stories. I, having lived with him, had heard many of them before, but my brother had not. He told us about living in the Jewish section of Dorchester, about delivering fruit in a car that could only make right turns, about his angry father who didn’t believe in education, about his mother who squirreled away money for college. He told us about commuting to school until his father kicked him out of the house and he had to join the military, how he wasn’t supposed to go to the war, but his orders got lost and they sent him anyway. It was as though he were giving us the pieces of his life, and it was our job to stitch them together.
It’s possible that all matter is pointillism. Researchers recently used an atomic force microscope to capture the first image of a molecule. In order to do this, they created a vacuum, ridding the space of all but a few precious molecules. They reduced the temperature to five Kelvin, approximately negative four hundred and fifty degrees Fahrenheit, and scanned for twenty hours, zero point five nanometers from their subject. If one were able to see the objects around them with such depth, such specificity, one would cease to see objects at all. A wall would be nothing more than a seemingly infinite number of molecules, bouncing around. It is only from a distance that it forms recognizable shapes, gains coherence.
I care for a lot of people but don’t miss most of them when they’re gone, perhaps because I’ve always felt more internal than external, someone who never puts down roots, a being who could exist in any environment. My brother, on the other hand, does not feel external to me, is not a condition to be noted and experienced and eventually left. People in my life who suffer from depression often worry about being a burden, that the heaviness they experience will tip out of them and into their loved ones. This may be true to some extent, though it is invariably more complicated than that. With my brother, it is an incoherent proposition. It is like asking whether my back is burdening my knees. That may be true, in some strictly physical sense, but it’s hardly relevant. To say that I love my brother feels less accurate than to say that in some way I am my brother, that his atoms and mine are so integrally tied that one body’s absence would cause the other to collapse.
When my grandfather finally stood up again to get ready for bed, he leaned heavily on his walker, and I followed behind like a spotter at the gym. There was a slight step down into his bedroom, and I watched as he tried to maneuver the walker so as not to lose his balance. I felt afraid that he would fall and that I’d have to try to catch him, to avoid both the wooden floor and my own power to break such frail bones. It took a while, but he didn’t fall, and finally we had to try to get him into his bed. He was too weak to hoist himself up and so he leaned against the edge of the bed, and my brother and father and I tried to lift him. I was responsible for one of his legs and my brother the other, and the first time we pulled too hard and he made a horrible groaning sound, so we put him down again. The thing about the groan was that it didn’t seem like part of him, like any sound I knew him to make. The second time, I scooped up both legs and he pushed with his hands on the mattress and we laid him down. My mother and sister were in the other room, and once he was on the bed we stood there, my father and my brother and me, as if there were still something left to do.
My father, in his free time, likes to make art. He takes pictures of the people he loves and reproduces them using small colored beads. It’s important that the subject in the picture is half in light and half in shadow. The last one he made is of my grandfather, and it’s nearly done. He’s hoping to finish it before my grandfather dies.
For some time, my father has been wanting to do one of me, and he’s asked me to send him a picture. For some reason, no picture ever seems right, my face always too dark or else too bathed in light.
One way that a vacuum could be distinguished from a black hole is by having someone or something positioned directly across from the viewer. With a black hole between, it would not be possible to see who was there. With a vacuum, through which light can flow, we would be able to discern our opposite. Of course, if we saw nothing, it is possible that instead of someone hidden, there is no one there at all. Presence and absence, two opposite states, would be indistinguishable.
We often liken pursuing a useless endeavor to shouting into the void. The underlying assumption is that such shouting is futile because the sound echoes out into nothing, that there is no ear to make sense of it. A void, however, is not a cavern or an earthly expanse, but rather a vacuum, inside of which one cannot make any sound at all. Shouting into the void is useless not due to the lack of a listener, but because it is unsuitable for the medium. The reverberation is internal, iterative, a self-communication. We are left, perhaps, with the only other option, which is to strain our eyes, peering into the blackness looking for a presence on the other side—a mirror, a paradise, an infinity of dots, some shred of light that could wind its way through all that empty space and back to us again, an entity unto itself, a promise.
Evan Senie has an MFA in fiction and nonfiction from Colorado State University. His work has been published by or is forthcoming from Hobart, Atticus Review, Blue Earth Review, and X-R-A-Y. Find him online at evansenie.com or on Twitter @senieevan.