Pythagorean Identity - Alisha Karabinus


In our slanted downtown apartment, Boyfriend and I sit crooked in bed, calculus book open in my lap, and x slicing between us. His voice flows endless down the slope of a curve. This is the arbitrary point, he says, and I answer: they all areListen, he tells me,you need this to pass. But despite the charge that comes with fear of failure, it is the concepts that pass me. I remind him: in high school, I almost failed trig. I remember: I ignored triangles, drew poems, translated T. S. Eliot into teenage angst. My So-Called Wasteland. I only remember sine and cosine, that tan is tangent.

Tangent: like mentioning poetry during a math lesson.

I tell him, I only know words, not lettersWe’ll switch gears, he says. A new chapter, The Pythagorean Identity. He tells me: an identity is a mathematical factLook at the equations. He says: They’re synonyms. I understand sameness, but I want to say: nothing is identical, though oneness is the root of identity. One is the same, a linguistic fact. The book says: Verify the identity. Like it’s all so simple. Like it’s just that easy.

He explains variables, sketching, patient, and my mind wanders. We have been at this before, in a classroom, before he was Boyfriend, when he was just a boy, his face thinner, his lean arms strings of muscle. I remember his hands, oddly fat and pink. I remember graph paper, the mothball smell of books. The strand of hair I braided and re-braided after I stopped listening. The way later we stopped speaking altogether. The way we spent two years fumbling back toward one another. In some ways, we are the same now as we were then. In others, not. We have become something new here, together, where he is me and I am him. I want to tell him, but I don’t think he’ll hear.

Listen, he says again, and I tell him: I am. For the first time, I am. But what I hear is not what he says. Words fail. We don’t always speak the same language. He speaks math and I hear words. Everything is translated. But this time I want to tell him I understand. Calculus is the study of change and I know identity shifts. He tells me: this is the line between trig and calculusIt’s all derivative, and I think of cells dividing, of the new skin we have grown since yesterday, and say: so are we. I touch his arm, the smooth plane of his cheek. It’s all new, and not. It’s all him. I see it, I tell him. We are the domain of a variable.



I wrote “Pythagorean Identity” when my husband gave me an impromptu calculus lesson one night as we sat in the bedroom. I couldn’t follow more than the most basic concepts, but enjoyed the language, the music of it, the way a word means one thing in math and one thing elsewhere, like derivative and especially identity. The question of identity  is such a big thing. Can we answer it with math? With language? With introspection? I don’t know. All I can do is try to write my way deeper and deeper into questions.

Just as the language of mathematics is layered with words that have so many connections, this piece, for me, is striated with the deeply personal. Though my husband and I have only been married three years, our relationship spirals back almost two decades, and so much of it has been anchored in language, in the exchange of words. So much of that has fed into the forging of my own identity, and after our lesson, I felt compelled to pour as much of that as I could into this little story, where I could roll back time and and write younger, slanted versions of us, a story that might nudge me ever closer to answers.


Alisha Karabinus is co-founder and executive editor of Revolution House magazine and an MFA candidate in fiction at Purdue University, where she is also the managing editor of Sycamore Review. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in such publications as Baltimore ReviewSoutheast ReviewPassages North and PANK. She lives in Lafayette, Indiana with her husband and children.

“Pythagorean Identity” appeared in the Fall 2014 issue of The Pinch.