by James Browning

Here, Scott Browning visits the North Pole with his mother. And here, four years earlier, his brother, James, visits the South Pole with his mother. Both read a lot of books, and feel a little melancholy.

My mother and I would share a cabin in Antarctica but we appeared separately on the ship’s manifest because we did not want people to get the wrong idea. I first read this list of our fellow passengers from the comfort of my futon, none of their names saying, “I am the love of your life.” My futon was my only piece of furniture besides a desk, a chair, and a rowing machine on which I’d logged some four thousand miles, or roughly two-thirds the distance from my futon in Baltimore to our point of departure at the tip of South America.

No one liked my apartment or my daily schedule: get up at six and drink a pot of strong coffee, sit in my chair or pace until the fog in my head cleared and I could write a few hundred words, then go for a row, then try to kill the time till bed without drinking alcohol or reading the newspaper or talking about writing with my students or my fellow teachers in the writing seminars at Johns Hopkins University—activities that made the next day’s fog especially thick. Sometimes from despair or just sheer boredom I would row a second time. Rowing was itself very boring but I would play little games like trying to make the whole machine slide toward the bathroom, shortening my trip to a long hot shower. Why row? Why not jog around the ghost town of Baltimore with its abandoned factories and blocks and blocks of empty, boarded-up row houses? Perversely, rowing made me glad that I was no longer a member of a crew team and would never again have to feel my hair freeze to my head as I jerked back and forth with seven other gangly guys in a scull, its oarlocks hung with icicles.

My family worried for my health and sanity. My few friends from high school could not believe that I did not have email. They believed I had email but kept it a secret so I would not hear from them. The Macintosh Classic II on which I had been writing since the early ’90s would soon be featured at an exhibit of old and obsolete computers at the Smithsonian. I didn’t like my life either but it was the only way for me to get writing done. After several years of this I had almost finished a novel about a doomed love affair between two Scrabble prodigies when my mother called and asked what I was doing for the holidays. I had planned to spend them holed up in my apartment, cooking pasta twice, on Christmas and New Year’s Day, because my favorite restaurants would be closed. She invited me to go to Antarctica with her. The ship had a library and a little gym, she said, as if I’d need to hew to my daily schedule. This touched me and made me feel that the trip would be OK. She knew I might prefer the gym and a book or Scrabble game to the penguins or the whales or the sight of our ship crashing through solid ice.

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James Browning lives in Silver Spring, Maryland. After a humiliating defeat in his campaign for the Maryland House of Delegates, he is writing a tell-all book about his sex life.

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