The day we walked home from high school and my twin brother Tom announced he was teaching himself to speak Esperanto, the illusion broke for good. We were not the same.
At one point, we almost had been—or considered ourselves to be. Our mother describes how, when I was hospitalized for kidney inflammation at the age of four, my fussing did not abate until Tom developed the same thing and was admitted to the same room. It was another year before we slept more than five feet apart. According to my father, we would rock our cribs until they were next to each other. He maintains we held hands through the bars—and he’s not that sentimental a man.
So the Esperanto was perplexing. But it was another step in Tom’s accelerating cultivation of oddity. As we were fraternal twins, there were already differences: He was tall, bony, and thick lipped. His hair was ash blond and, in those days, oily; he combed it until it lay subdued and shining like the golden dome of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church on a winter afternoon. From long practice at seeking not to be noticed, he slouched. By thirteen, he had already read the sci-fi canons of Robert A. Heinlein, Isaac Asimov, and Arthur C. Clarke. We did the same homework together, and, when explaining Euclidean geometry, he would continue on far past the homework assignments—into evolutionary theory or the differences between heavy-water and light-water reactors. It seems implausible to me now that he could describe these topics in such depth. Nevertheless, late into the night, from the top bunk bed, I would listen to him talk about how, for example, stellar nuclear fusion leads to a supernova. When I’d become confused, he’d know right away and would more slowly explain how the fusion process that creates iron consumes rather than produces energy—making it different from every preceding step in a star’s life.
We were boys growing up on the Prairie, and I cannot recall his even once lacing up a pair of skates. Synthetic-fabric sweaters, mall haircuts, and haphazard grooming habits coalesced into a protuberant five-foot-eleven mass of jutting-eared awkwardness. Where his limbs ended, exactly, seemed a mystery to him; he moved like a marionette still learning the lengths of its strings. His gaze was usually inward, which was for the best. He was so messy. His room, his clothes, his everything. There were never fewer than three books in his jacket pockets: science fiction, calculus, political theory. He walked down sidewalks reading, colliding with mailboxes.
In a place smarter than Selkirk, Manitoba, he might have been seen simply as a clever guy with some extra time on his hands. But Selkirk was the Catfish Capital of Canada, home of Chuck the Channel Catfish. Until the early ’80s, far from the fancy places, the social condemnation faced by deviants of any sort remained ferocious. The most contemptible thing someone could be in that place and at that time was a gay man. There were brutes we knew who bragged of fag bashing. In high school, one of our teachers spoke breezily about how gay men mustn’t be allowed access to children, because of their—this was his word; I remember looking it up—“predilections.”
It probably isn’t fair to beat up on Selkirk. It was no more conformist than any of the other towns of the Great Plains. The people were who they were. The men and women who grew up there were stamped in a pattern of incurious conformity. Hardly anyone escaped that stamp. For as long as anyone could seem to remember, there had been handsome hockey players and their girlfriends—and the people who wanted to be them.
And then the hinterland changed: nerd culture arrived. At first it was subtle. There had long been science-fiction fans in the little towns: the unmarried math teachers, the particularly not-sexually-active boys and girls. But the unconventional didn’t declare their differences; when they saw the denouncers approach, they usually hid.
Nerd culture, on the other hand, was all about the declaration. Even from a distance of thirty years, it looks courageous. The Society of Creative Anachronism (SCA), a group dedicated to pre-seventeenth-century dress-up, was part of the opening movement. My brother and his friend invented characters, cadged regalia, made burlap clothing, and, in awful, contrived English accents, uttered what they imagined were feudal-era phrases. I recall that Tom was some sort of adventurer; I do not recall his SCA name. But for a time, one of his friends, Mark, adopted his own character’s name, Hywl—as, one supposes, an expression of proud Welsh heritage. They had all read Terry Pratchett, and Tolkien’s Middle-earth corpus was their Holy Writ. When these squeaky-voiced boys pretended to be Boromir and Gimli—son of Glóin—it would have taken a mother’s love not to be embarrassed for them. God, they were gorgeous.
Dungeons & Dragons reached Selkirk in the late ’70s, at about the same time as the Society for Creative Anachronism. Any idea that the SCA was a singular oddness was crushed under the weight of the bushel bags of Cheez Doodles and propane tank–sized bottles of cola that arrived in our living room on Friday nights, along with bags of twelve- and twenty-sided dice, books of spells, and rules and tables of experience points. Conventional thinking about games was turned on its head by D&D. There was a Dungeon Master who laid out a fantasized reality, and there were characters who chose to fight or hide from that dragon, to open the door or crawl under the portcullis. Magical objects—flaming axes, enchanted armour—were sought and used, and foul-smelling orcs were slain as the questers sat around my parents’ colonial pine table filling their boyhood bodies with maximally refined carbohydrates until there was not an unobstructed facial pore among them. These were the maximally Not Sexually Active.
Knowing I was Tom’s brother, one of my teachers asked me what I knew about Dungeons & Dragons. I told him there was no game board, there seemed to be no winning, and the casual eavesdropper really had no way of knowing exactly what the players were doing—except that they would all sit there staring blankly into the middle distance while one of them prepared to cast a level-twelve enchantment spell on some troublesome bandit. If the spell didn’t work, there was always the bad-ass Berserking Sword just itching to be unsheathed. Or, failing that, the Phylactery of Faithfulness—whatever the hell that was.
My teacher shook his head. He had heard about it. Were there Satanic undertones? Anti-Christian themes? It sounded like some sort of cult. He didn’t approve.
One day in grade eleven, I was in the basement, planning my next move against my father on the enormous Blitzkrieg game board—we’d play matches that stretched for days at a time—when my mother called me to the phone. The unfamiliar voice on the other end asked me if I was Kevin. I said I was. He said he guessed I knew why he was calling. I said I didn’t. He said he’d seen what I’d written on the washroom wall at the Hudson’s Bay store in Winnipeg. I told him I didn’t know what he was talking about.
“So you’re not looking to meet someone?” he asked.
“Um, not particularly,” I responded.
“Well, you can see why I phoned,” he said.
“Why?” I asked.
“Well, because of what you wrote.”
“I think someone’s playing a joke on you,” I said.
“Who?” he asked.
“Maybe Bobby Smith,” I suggested.
“Who’s that?” he asked.
“A friend of mine,” I said.
“Are you sure you didn’t just get shy?”
“About what?” I asked.
And then he hung up.
“Who were you talking to?” my mother asked.
“Some stranger. It sounds like someone wrote my name and phone number in the bathroom of the Bay,” I said.
“What did he say to you?” she looked up from her crossword puzzle.
“Not much. I told him it wasn’t me that wrote whatever he read.”
“Somebody from school has a strange sense of humour, I think,” she said, chewing on the eraser side of her pencil, her feet tapping on the harvest-gold linoleum.
“That’s what I told him.”
Tom was sitting in the easy chair in the living room, reading something weighty. I looked at him, was going to ask what he thought, but he would not lift his eyes from his book.
In the 1980s, nerd culture continued to spread through the provinces, through all the Selkirks of our civilization. RadioShack released the TRS-80 Model II in 1980, and then Apple launched the IIE in 1983—the earliest personal computers. It isn’t as if tech alone brought a tolerant intellectualism and individuality to the Prairies. What it did do, though, was allow certain smart people to earn permission to become individuals. It was understood that tech was going to change the world: the people who could drive it would be aristocrats.
There was a computer lab at Lord Selkirk Regional Comprehensive Secondary School, and Tom and the other Dungeons & Dragons aficionados chose it as their command centre. Everyone was learning Basic and Fortran, computer languages that allowed enthusiasts to write their own programs and bend these new tools to their will. The most gifted of the programmers were already trying their hands at creating crude fantasy role-playing games that would adapt Dungeons & Dragons for the screen—and in so doing, destroy its central miracle by making it something other than purely imaginary.
Tech was a momentous transition for Tom—he finally concluded that not everyone had to pretend to be identical. Pioneers have to contend with frontiers, and his frontier was the lingering parochial insularity that could accept the Village People—but only so long as they remained in Manhattan and no one had to consider exactly why any young man would be so pleased to stay at the YMCA.
At this point, the only person Tom had come out to was his friend Simon, who played the tuba in the school band and loved the twin sister of the girl I loved. (Neither of us ever had a chance.) He’d drive Tom and me around in his mother’s car—I’d sit in the front seat, and Tom in the back. It was the winter of grade twelve. Tom was seventeen. It was on one such drive that he told me he was gay. I didn’t know what I was supposed to say. Of course I had known. We drove about a mile on the squeaking snow until Simon finally asked whether anyone felt like A&W.
He came out publicly at our high-school graduation dance. He drank too much Seagram’s Five Star and danced manically with our tuxedoed and gowned friends. He draped his arms around the shoulders of people he barely knew and told them. There was bewilderment, and then there was talking and pointing, and the hockey players began to snort and stamp. Simon and I got him out of there, got him outside. He was not bothered that night. But it marked his divorce from that town.
Within a month, he had an apartment in Winnipeg and was getting ready for university. He never went back home for any longer than he had to.
AIDS spread throughout the world in the ’80s. Even well on into that decade, it remained possible to muse in polite company—even among liberals—that the gay lifestyle had somehow made the disease inevitable. That it made a kind of sense. Biology was, after all, biology. The acrid hatefulness was right there on the surface.
It was then that Tom, in the company of millions of other gay men who did not live in tolerant coastal cities, began to stand up. He marched in demonstrations in Winnipeg demanding equal rights for gays. One was broadcast on the local news, and the whole town of Selkirk inhaled as it watched. Bruce Willows, who helped run the gas station we worked at—fiftyish, grey-haired, and stolid—told me he had seen the clip. “That was your brother on the news, wasn’t it?” He knew it was.
“I dunno,” I said. I did.
Tom had known the disdain of that little town since he was old enough to recognize a curled lip. We resembled one another superficially, but when it came to courage—well, I was playing house-league hockey with the other loafers.
My brother’s enthusiasm for languages—both real and invented—did not stop with Esperanto. He learned Klingon, too, as well as Portuguese and German and Spanish. His enthusiasms were at the core of who he was. And once he got out of that town, he dived into them with everything he had. Nerditry taught him how to shed his self-consciousness. How not to be embarrassed by the fact that he didn’t skate. How not to hate himself for loving men.
The Village People and Frankie Goes to Hollywood made it look easy, but it wasn’t. Not for them—not for anyone, probably—and certainly not for Tom. But they did it. They lived their lives completely in the open, some of the first men ever to have done so. Even only a couple of decades later, we often take that freedom for granted. But it was the groundbreakers—in the conservative Prairie cities and elsewhere—who made such self-presentations possible, and they did so using only their force of will and self-respect.
Nerditry is joyous and obsessive and celebratory. In its pure state, it is the desexualized and admittedly less elegant version of gay culture—consider Comic-con as one big pride parade—but it contains similar strains of defiance and exuberant self-definition. It show us one way to push back against social censure in our lives. And because of this, nerditry helped liberate the world.
We went in wildly different directions during those years. He went to war, fighting battles for social justice and tolerance and civil rights—I later went to war myself in Afghanistan, working as an internist-intensivist for the Canadian Combat Surgical Hospital in Kandahar. Though he and his comrades would achieve something with their battles, certain aspects of his life and his decisions seemed absurd to me: he abandoned university to pursue political activism; he lived communally and belonged to a seemingly endless array of committees. I conformed, as loners generally do. And I was rewarded by the system for that conformity.
Tom may have disapproved of my decisions, but he was remarkably subdued in his criticism of them. Of me. He didn’t like the army business much. But still he held my hand through the grown-up crib bars of geographic distance and differing philosophies. He worried more about me than I did about him.
When Tom became sick in the winter of 2003, we revisited the subject of quantum entanglement. It was early winter, and we sat in his small, comically messy apartment in Toronto, surrounded by jagged lightning-bolt towers of piled books. Dead insects and tendrils of cobweb and cat dander were heaped up in giant fuzzy swaths along the baseboards; the carpet erupted with geysers of dust at the slightest touch. The windows admitted only a diffused glow even at midday.
He wanted me to understand the concept of entanglement—how, once two subatomic particles have been part of the same nucleus, even if they’re subsequently separated by an enormous distance, they remain in a kind of sympathy with each another. A change in one produces an instantaneous change in the other. The notion captures the attention of quantum-physics enthusiasts because it suggests a kind of indivisibility of matter. It also seems to contradict Einstein’s insistence that nothing, not even information, can travel faster than the speed of light.
Tom: No, you’re getting it wrong already. To understand entanglement, you have to know about Heisenberg’s work on uncertainty. In the subatomic realm, particles have attributes that may seem to be definite, like charge or spin. But in quantum reasoning, these attributes aren’t just unknown but indeterminate until they’re defined—and in an unmeasured state, they exist along a spectrum of likelihood. The position of an electron, for instance, is famously understood as a cloud of probabilities rather than a discrete location. Einstein hated this idea, and everyone who writes about it acknowledges that there is something preposterous about it. But the math behind it works. It predicts the results of experiments—Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle is not a philosophical position.
Entanglement refers to the idea that, when a particle that once existed in a nucleus alongside other particles is measured and defined, that range of possibilities shrinks to a certainty. Then, sometimes, something more precise can be said of its former companions, however distant they may now be.
Me: Science-fiction writers just love this entanglement idea. They hang all their hopes for faster-than-light communication on the concept. Is it all just fantasy? You’re saying that actually there is no way to transmit new information with this idea. Part of me finds this heartbreaking.
Tom: Science fiction writers’ preoccupation with faster-than-light communication—and, for that matter, travel—arises from a thirst for possibility, for a frontier to be known and visited. It’s what draws readers to science fiction, too. But interstellar distances are just so vast. All those novels about hyperdrives and instantaneous communication are wish-fulfillment fantasies and grief for the vanished blank spots that used to be on maps. We think, how can it possibly be that our species will live and die out, confined to this solar system—for the most part, to this overcrowded planet? The evidence is that we probably will.
I nodded. We stood up and walked down to Church Street. That afternoon, we ate at the Rivoli, on Queen Street West. He had pasta. When we were done eating, we paid and walked outside. My flight was leaving that night, and I had to check out of my hotel room. We embraced and said goodbye. I walked west for a time, and then I remembered an errand I had forgotten about and turned around. When I was outside Pages bookstore, I saw him inside, standing in one of the aisles, reading. I considered going in, but didn’t. We had just said goodbye, after all. It was the last time I saw him alive.
Tom died of AIDS-related complications in St. Michael’s Hospital, Toronto, on March 30, 2005.
This appeared in the December 2016 issue.