Sincerely enough, I thanked Alex for lunch (the tuna casserole as delicious, the café just as charming as he had promised), and with an equal measure of hypocrisy told him the conversation had been fascinating. For the truth was, no matter how ingeniously he explained it, his talk of parallel realities and multiverses—citing the authority of Michio Kaku and some reputedly eminent Russian whose name I didn’t recognize—struck me as more than a little absurd, an impression only augmented by the enthusiasm with which my friend expounded it.
A virtuosic fantasy, I thought, an elaborate house of cards promising refuge and consolation. Thirty years ago, his professors had predicted great things for him; no doubt those other worlds he speculated about allowed him to envision a very different fate for himself than that of a city wastewater engineer.
For a while I tried to follow him through that maze of theoretical physics, politely attempting to visualize it, the way we do when someone raves about a hike through a beautiful forest or evokes the winding streets of a foreign city.
At first I half understood what he said. But it wasn’t long before he lost me amid a welter of collapsed dimensions, vibrating strings and membrane universes.
Although I continued to utter appropriate Ohs and Ahas, trying my best to find his passion infectious, some fusion of boredom and bewilderment gathered behind my eyes, one of those headaches that start as a kind of tingle that’s almost pleasant, yet before you know it has mounted into a dull assault. A little like sea-sickness, I suppose: I’ve heard that the symptoms of dizziness and nausea arise from a disjunction—while your body registers the surge and sway of the ship, your eyes insist that the space around you is stable.
In some analogous way, Alex provoked in me an irreconcilable tension between amazement and apathy, a dizzying compound of confusion and frustration.
The existence of other worlds was something like radio waves, he explained, raising his hand and letting it flutter downward, as if the clusters of imitation grapes hanging from the indoor pergola were transmitters.
“They’re here right now, being broadcast all the time, present even when we’re not aware of them . . . Yesterday’s news from Hong Kong, the first moon landing, bluegrass and jazz, the voice of Orson Welles, the face of Oprah Winfrey . . . all streaming through the room at this very instant. It’s just that we don’t receive them.”
But of course the quantum dimension was another level of complexity altogether—not mere radio waves, but rather wave functions that never collapsed. Instead, they ramified into other realms, so that in reality all past events, as well as possible worlds that had never manifested, were somehow connected to this moment, and though we don’t realize it, everything that happens there affects us here.
That would explain intuition, he claimed—glimpses of knowledge people haven’t acquired; the fact that places we’ve never visited can feel familiar. And it would account for the uncanny power of memory. “Because in the quantum world, you see,” he said, as if taking my hand to steady me over a leap, “we exist in all possible states. And so do Vikings and pterodactyls, Marie Antoinette and the basilisk, even now,” he said with a smile. “But as a result of what they call decoherence, we just don’t see all that, because we’re not attuned to the right frequency.”
And anyone given to cynical wit, I thought, might suggest that such a theory provided a justification for schizophrenia. He almost seemed to have sensed my thoughts, for with a wry glance he said, “Maybe those people we consider crazy—hearing voices and seeing things—are just tuned in to other stations . . .”
Ludicrous as I found it (surely he had conflated plausible theory with flagrant fiction) I must have been at least a little enchanted, because after about forty-five minutes he announced that he had to return to the treatment plant, and when we rose to leave I realized that more than two hours had actually passed.
By the time I returned to my desk, I was able to admit that at least one source of my scorn was resentment: his fervor had deprived me of the chance to boast about my successful investment in the wilderness resort in British Columbia—the returns from which would allow me to retire by the end of the year—let alone to lament my mother’s death in a rest home the year before, which had left me more devastated than her age and my alienation from her really merited. But since it was the first time I had spoken to him in years, that sort of thing was a bit too intimate to share.
Something that he’d said made me uncomfortable, however. It wasn’t until I got home that evening that I realized what it had been.
As I took the first sip of the pomegranate martini my wife brought me, I cast a casual glance at the mantle. There sat the special wooden box with gold flourishes that I had bought to harbor my mother’s ashes, and on top of it rested that photograph of her, radiant in a strapless dress at a ball in San Francisco, circa 1945.
Suddenly the little shrine made me squirm; surely almost a year was sufficient time, I concluded, to observe a grief. Some day, after I had settled into retirement, I could carry out my intentions, taking the train to Wyoming, where I would spread the ashes on the slope of her favorite mountain. For now they needed to be out of sight. Besides, I thought, perhaps Alex was right, and in some dimension or other, I had already fulfilled my promise to her.
Some days later I was standing at the register, removing the cucumbers and feta cheese from my shopping basket when I turned and saw her. My throat constricted, stifling something between a cry of joy and a sob of terror.
The last time I had seen her alive, those eyes were fixed in a sightless stare, that hair a sepulchral white, hanging limply about a forehead whose skin, drawn eerily taut, had a waxen sheen, while her cheeks were flabby and sunken. I had fought to dispel the repulsive thought that I was in the presence of a zombie. Within a week, the hand I pressed one final time was still cold from the freezer.
And now, incredibly, here she was, looking fit and fifty again, her hair a gleaming natural blond, her blue eyes vibrant, brighter than the scarf gathered about her neck in graceful folds that were held in place by that signature golden clasp in the shape of a lion’s head.
“My God,” I nearly shouted, “where have you been? Surely you were—”
“Not dead,” she laughed. “I’ve been recovering . . . That walnut oil they started giving me worked wonders.”
I wanted to embrace her but found I couldn’t budge; it was the old familiar paralysis that had rendered me unable to visit her in that home as frequently as I intended, unable to face the decay and despair that invaded me every time I did.
“How sad to see you now,” she smiled wistfully, and gave a little moan. “Guilt has certainly taken its toll.”
The girl at the register nodded grimly, no longer her flirtatious self. “Every time he comes in now he’s one step closer to the grave. Some days he looks like he’s just been exhumed . . . It makes me sorry for him, but I suppose he deserves it.”
“Oh, don’t say that,” my mother gently chided, “even though he neglected me, and tried to convince everyone I was senile.”
“It wasn’t my decision,” I protested. “You know very well the doctors—”
She turned to the girl at the register, murmuring confidentially, “I suppose we all put our faith in whatever serves our interests . . . ”
Not so long ago, as I left the store, the girl had winked at me and blown me a kiss. Now she regarded me with contempt, her nostrils flaring as though assailed by a revolting stench. Turning to my mother, her face expressed a glow of rapture one might witness only in a person who had gazed upon an angel.
I woke up, of course, conscious of a whimper that must have been my own. My wife stirred in her sleep, but didn’t awaken; it was still an hour or so before dawn. Suddenly I became aware of a terrible pain and weakness throughout my body. Nothing I had done could account for such an ache, or the oppressive torpor gripping me. Shaken by the dream, suspended between languor and anxiety, I forced myself to roll out of bed, unable to suppress a groan. Shuffling down the hall, I staggered into the kitchen, somehow managing to make myself a cup of coffee.
I didn’t need to look in the mirror to know my face was ashen, my hair gone gray, my leaden eyes revealing a spirit vanquished by corrosive guilt, belated remorse.
I nearly collapsed onto the couch, closing my eyes for a spell. Dim light filtered through the room when I opened them again. The house in which I found myself seemed unfamiliar; beside an empty space on the mantle, there were books whose titles I had never seen, the photograph of a grown child whose name I didn’t know.
A cup of dark liquid sat on the table before me; I reached for it and took a sip. Lukewarm and bitter: I had to spit it out. At some point a woman emerged from the bedroom; I felt certain I had seen her somewhere before. Quite attractive, hair streaked with silver threads—a fact secreted by the dark I think I left her sleeping in a moment or an age ago. Yet when she looked at me she screamed and turned away. There was a clicking sound accompanied by feeble tones, and then her voice entreating someone else to come at once.
That wife seemed to think she was alone, trembling when she crouched beside me, staring down with fear and pity. But I didn’t need some scientist’s elaborate theories to discern the one who had revived, still there, just out of sight, buoyant and smiling despite her sorrow at witnessing her son precede her this time, wasted away with shame from what he had inflicted on her in some other plane than the one she now inhabited, from within that other life he had so foolishly assumed was solid, failing to realize his world was every bit as fragile as she, his vivid then already now, subordinate to that other side where she had never disappeared, losing only him this time and not her mind, continuing to waltz through life even after touching his cold hand, her own no longer ashes, lamenting him now and then as in a radiant gown whirling forever again.