By LaShawn M. Wanak
I saw you at a party once. You stood by the bookshelf, reading a tattered volume on Proust. You wore an orange and yellow XTC shirt beneath brown flannel. I bumped your elbow by accident and you looked up, your eyes startling green.
I smiled and said, “Hi. I’m Nina.”
I trailed behind you for the rest of the party. You introduced me to your friends and I laughed at their jokes. Twice, our sleeves brushed against each other.
Around two in the morning, you left with your friends. An hour later, I also left. I crossed the empty campus, humming under my breath, wondering if I’d ever see you again.
The watch on my arm beeped.
“This experiment will measure how small changes occurring before a certain event affect its outcome positively and negatively.”
The chair is her creation. She bought the frame on impulse at a medical supply shop. The conical helmet, perforated with slender tubes, fits on top. Whenever she maneuvers her head beneath it, she thinks of the hair dryers at her mother’s beauty salon. All those bulky astronaut bonnets lined in perfect rows, vibrating air molecules to a feverish pitch. She likes this scientific homage to her mother extracting time from thin air.
“Recording of the control event complete. Setting a change in a condition set slightly in the past. The goal of this first jump is to see if this will change the outcome of the event to a more positive circumstance.”
She types on the laptop built into the armrest, then glances at the elaborate flowchart tacked upon the far wall of the laboratory. Written in
her own hand, neat and precise, equations and sums branch and connect like a roadmap of a probability highway.
She wonders which formula will have his lips pressing against hers.
“Test #1. Begin.”
I saw you at a party once. You stood next to Muriel, hair rumpled, clothes wrinkled. I had my hair permed that morning so it hung straight over my eyes. I wore tight-fitting jeans and a blue top with spaghetti straps.
I didn’t speak to you, just hung out with a couple of my girlfriends. When “Atomic Dog” came on the stereo, I shimmied to the bookcase, shaking my hips and wiggling my butt. Only then I noticed you, you and your startling green eyes. You smiled and said, “Hi, there.” Muriel looked over and pulled you from the room.
Later, while getting punch, I looked out the window and saw you and Muriel standing on the sidewalk below. She cupped your face, pulling it down to meet hers. I thought, Shame. He had nice eyes.
Then someone stepped on my foot and I swore, loudly. As the guy next to me apologized, the watch on my arm beeped.
You went on to have three children with Muriel. It took several years until I said yes to Brenton.
She rises from the chair, pulling the sensors from her body. She takes a sip of lukewarm coffee and frowns at the chart on the wall.
The outcome remained the same, but that was to be expected. With so many variables, it will take time to narrow down the finite set of outcomes, both positive and negative. She isn’t worried; after all, only two possible outcomes can come from this event.
She picks up a black magic marker and crosses off a number with an ‘X’.
We came to the party together, your arm slung around my shoulders. You and I had met several weeks before. Within a week, we were dating. Within six weeks, we were an ‘item’.
Muriel was there as well, dancing alone by the bookshelves. Though my hand was buried in your back pocket, you couldn’t tear your eyes from her. I distracted you by pulling you over to introduce my friends. You nodded, laughed at someone’s joke and glanced towards the corner.
Brenton asked if the punchbowl needed to be filled. I went to check it out, but when I came back, you were gone. I looked around the room, but you had vanished along with Muriel. With a sinking feeling, I walked over to the window.
The two of you stood together on the sidewalk, she cupping your face to bring it down to hers. You didn’t hear me banging on the window or crying out your name. As I leaned my head against the glass, my watch beeped.
You broke up with me without saying goodbye. Three weeks after that, you left Muriel for someone else.
“Professor, look at this.”
She sets the petri dish under the microscope and observes the professor as he peers through the eyepiece. She already knows what he’s seeing: crystalline branches, splitting off in different directions, growing like a snowflake created in God’s palm.
“What is it, Nina?”
“It is a memory that I never had. A choice I’ve never taken.”
He looks up at her. “You’re using this to predict the future?”
“Not ‘the’ future. ‘A’ future.” She lays her hand on the helmet. “The chair allows me to see non-linear time. I can study the branches leading up to a single event and set variables accordingly. In a few brief moments, I can experience several different lifetimes based on that single change.”
The professor frowns at her, then at the chart on the wall, speckled here and there with tiny ‘X’ pinpricks. “So you can watch the outcomes of a choice without suffering the consequences.”
“I wouldn’t necessarily call it that.” She runs her hand fondly along plastic and chrome. “It simply turns wishful thinking into reality.”
I’ve known you all my life.
We grew up in the same neighborhood. Our mothers put us in the same playgroup. We went to the same public school. You had a hard time with math, so I tutored you. At first, you didn’t like it; you thought it was stupid for a girl to tutor you. I said for each answer right, you got a kiss. After that, you showed up every week.
We hung out a lot in high school. By then, I was tutoring other guys. You played our kissing game with other girls, but you still considered me your best friend.
In college, I fell in love with a guy named Brenton. Our mutual friend, Muriel, wouldn’t give you the time of day.
One night, you called me from a party, your words emotional, slurred. Muriel had left with some other guy. I was in a middle of an argument with Brenton. I walked out on him and went to join you at the party. We laughed and danced with each other by the bookshelves.
Later, we stumbled out into the cool night air and collapsed against a wall. Your fingers fumbled on my blouse; your breath hot upon my neck, smelling of punch and beer. I dug my fingers in your silken hair, gasping, glancing up at the silent moon. As I fumbled with your zipper, the watch on my arm beeped.
Afterwards, you walked me home, both of us suddenly sober and quiet. Brenton and I made up, but I never told him what we’d done. You and I drifted apart, too embarrassed to remain in contact. Years later, I got a letter from you. I ripped it up without opening it.
The professor turns from the chart. “But what about ego preservation?”
“What do you mean?”
“If the essence of who you are is based on your own experiences and memories, wouldn’t viewing these alternate choices also alter you?”
She laughs. “That won’t happen.”
“How do you know?”
She raises her arm, the one with the watch, “This keeps me grounded. It pulls me back before anything permanent-”
A soft crack makes them both turn. The petri dish has burst, spreading a lattice-work of thin frostlike threads down the microscope base and across the table. Grabbing a spray bottle, she quickly spritzes a solution over the engulfing crystal. The fragile structure dissipates into an alcohol-laced mist.
The professor flaps his hand in front of his face. “And what, Nina, do you call that?”
She turns her head, hiding her grimace. “It only shows that I need a stronger dish.”
We went to separate grammar schools, but attended the same high school. At college, we shared one class: Economics. I sat in the front, you in the back. You dropped out after three weeks.
We saw each other at a party; you showed up with a red-head, I was on the way out with Brenton. Our arms brushed as we passed each other. You turned to say hello, but Brenton pulled me away before I could say anything back.
I graduated with honors with a Ph.D. in Mathematics. I didn’t know what happened to you.
One day, I went with a group of physicists to a lecture. We were discussing the butterfly effect when I looked out the car window and saw you-in a wheelchair, clothes filthy, beard and hair matted. On top of your amputated legs, you held a cardboard sign: “HELP THE HOMELESS”. You stared at me with those startling green eyes.
“Stop,” I said, “Stop the car.” My watch beeped as I reached for the door. The car moved on and soon you were lost.
Five years later, I accepted the Nobel Prize for my contributions to Quantum Physics. I used my knowledge to search for you in timelines, but I never, ever found you again.
Using the party as a control event isn’t working.
She stares at her chart, tapping the magic marker against her lips. She thought that by now she would have seen two realities-one negative, one positive-branch from the single event. A couple of times, it comes close, very close, but each time reverts to a negative outcome.
That last one was interesting. She takes out a highlighter, traces the formula in fluorescent yellow. She’ll have to come back to that possibility.
But then, she thinks of his eyes, piercing through her other personas, pinning her true self upon the chair.
“Perhaps I’m going about this the wrong way.”
She rips off another large sheet of paper and tacks it up on the remaining empty space in her lab. She scribbles her formulas, several loosely-scrawled numbers escaping onto the bumpy surface of the wall. Satisfied, she doffs her lab coat and applies the sensors to her naked body: head, neck, shoulders, underarms, between her breasts, right hip, around her left toe. She types in the modified conditions, then makes adjustments to her watch.
“All right, then. Test #353. Begin.”
We never met in college. We met at Mr. Gee’s Grocery Store. You were in Aisle 6, looking for Pampers. I told you that the store brand was much cheaper. We laughed for a little bit, then you asked me out for coffee. You were a father working part-time from home. I was a stay-at-home mother.
Neither of our spouses knew about us.
One warm spring day, while our children played outside, you and I twisted on bedsheets: your mouth moist and hot upon my neck, shoulders, underarms, between my breasts, right hip. You sucked on my left toe as David pulled into the driveway. We didn’t hear him open the front door, nor did we hear him mount the staircase. As my watch beeped on my nightstand, he pulled the gun from his holster.
In court, he swore that the safety was on. I divorced him and endured a nasty custody battle. You remained in a coma for six months. I couldn’t visit you due to the restraining order from your wife.
“Are you all right?”
His name is Gary. He’s good looking, in that young, fresh-from-the-dormitory sort of way. He’s supposed to be her intern, but nowadays she doesn’t want anyone in the lab with her. She looks up from her hands and says, “What makes you ask that?”
“It’s just that you don’t look so good.”
“I’m fine.” She goes back to staring at her hands spread upon the cafeteria table. He sighs and takes the seat across from her, spreading out several sheets of paper.
“I’m having a hard time with these calculations you’ve given me. I don’t know why, but each time I check the results, the equations seem different. It’s like they’re mutating.”
“That’s impossible. They should stay the same.” She lightly traces the raised blood vessels running beneath the brown skin of her right hand,
imagines them bursting out from her fingertips, lines of red and blue capillaries branching out in all directions.
“I know. I’ve checked and rechecked. It’s weird.” He looks at her carefully. “Are you sure you don’t wanna go out and get some coffee or something? Go get some fresh air?”
She’s faintly amused that he’s trying to ask her out. But those wide, earnest eyes are baby blues, cheerful as a sunny sky. Innocent. Unappealing.
I never went to college. Ran away from home at twelve. Got pregnant at fourteen. Had an abortion. Pregnant again at seventeen. Got another abortion.
You saw me on the corner at 16th and Park, hiking my miniskirt up. I peered at you through the car window, “Hey, wanna have some fun tonight?”
You stepped out of the car, flashing a cop’s badge. Our arms brushed briefly as you handcuffed me.
You pulled into the headquarters’ parking lot. I tried to act nonchalant, holding your gaze in the rearview mirror. Minutes later, my watch beeped, but I couldn’t silence it. My hands were still locked behind my back as my head bobbed between your legs.
I was back on the streets by Sunday. Dead from crack overdose on Monday. Weeks later, you started a different beat, having already forgotten me.
The entire lab is wallpapered with formulas: on paper, on the walls, the linoleum floor, the ceiling. There are calculations drawn on top of calculations, Magic Eye illusions only she can decode. The one formula she highlighted, the timeline with the Nobel Prize, has already been written over six times, hints of yellow showing through black scribble.
She has given up on using paper. It’s too limiting, too confining for her work.
For every ten formulas, there’s a thick, black ‘X’ through them, solid, forbidding, accusing. She uses white chalk to write over the ‘X’s, expanding her writing space one a layer at a time.
She stands in front of the latest calculation, the magic marker twitching in her hand. Just one positive result. That’s all she is looking for. She watches the calculations spread, mutating right before her eyes. Every choice, another branch. She turns her head, another world forms. All she can do is change the variables, trying to get to the outcome she wants, continue the process of elimination.
She viciously slashes the wall with the marker.
I saw you at a concert. Either Pearl Jam or Oasis-I don’t know. All I remember is moving close to you, brushing my arm lightly against yours. You smiled down at me, draped your arm across my shoulders.
“What’s your name?” you shouted above the music.
“Nina,” I shouted back.
You held me close for several more numbers, then began kissing me on my neck, my lips, my shoulders. You steered me out of the crowd and towards the parking lot, towards your van. My heart thumped in excitement, until two other men pulled open the door. As you pushed me inside, my watch beeped frantically.
The police found my corpse in a cornfield. By then, you were long gone.
“I have reviewed your research and feel that extensive revision is required.”
“May I ask why?”
“You are straying from your original thesis. Before, you were just observing different possibilities, but looking at your latest research, it seems that you are trying to force a specific result-”
“All I need is a little more time, please-”
“Nina, you told me that these jumps aren’t affecting you, but they are. You’re losing your scientific objectivity; you’re growing obsessed-Nina, are you even listening?”
You and I dated briefly in college. We hooked up again a year later. You proposed to me on a Sunday morning. I accepted, and we eloped that night.
The first two years were absolute bliss.
Then, when I became pregnant with twins, you wanted me to stay at home. I tried to study for my Master’s online, but I couldn’t handle the pressure and had to drop the courses.
My life became filled with diapers and drool.
I began to resent you, the freedom to move about, holding adult conversations on business trips that took you across the globe. I drank in the afternoons so I could cope with the nonchanging days. I also begin to watch you closely. You seemed too happy, too cheerful in your job.
One night, going through your Caller ID, I ran across several numbers from a woman named Muriel. You told me I was seeing things-maybe I needed to see a doctor. I threw your phone out the window.
You rushed out of the house. I flung through the window everything I could lay my hands on. Shoes. Plants. Books. My beeping watch. You yelled at me to stop, bent over to pick up the watch. The square glass candleholder-the one with the buttercream vanilla candle inside-smashed on top of your head.
I got convicted of voluntary manslaughter. Days later, I committed suicide in my cell.
In this world, she only saw him once, at a party, years ago. She always thought she would never see him again.
Passing a restaurant, she glances inside and there he is, sitting at a booth. It catches her off guard; his hair is thinner, he’s put on a little weight. But without a doubt, it’s him.
He sits across from another woman; their fingers intertwined on the table. They wear matching gold bands upon their fingers. The woman’s hair is short, just like how she used to wear her hair. She appears to have the same build, the wide hips, the full lips. Even the woman’s coffee skin is the same shade as hers.
Outside, she lifts a finger, gently taps on the glass. She uses two fingers. Three fingers. Slaps at the window with the palm of her hand. Everyone in the restaurant looks up, including the man and the woman. She can’t stop herself, her curled fist making the window shiver with her blows.
“What’s wrong with me?!” She screams, tears running down her cheeks. “Why not me? Why can’t we be happy together? Why? Why?!”
The restaurant staff rushes out to pull her away. She howls, struggling to keep sight of him, watching him frown, those startling green eyes turning towards his wife, his mouth shaping the words, “Do I know her?”
I suffocate you while you lie in a drunken sleep.
You die in a car accident a week before our wedding.
I cheat on you with your brother’s wife.
You steal my identity after a one-night stand.
Everywhere I look, our relationship ends in disaster.
My entire laboratory is coated in black.
“As of today, your dissertation is terminated. You are no longer permitted on these premises. You will need to meet with your advisor.”
She sets down the notice, rattles the knob to her lab one more time. Already they have changed the locks. Turning, she slides down, pulls her legs up, rocks herself gently, head tapping lightly against the door.
They think they can stop the experiment by locking up her equipment. Bastards. Taking away the chair and laboratory won’t hinder her at all. They don’t know that all her calculations, all her formulas, had been fixed into her mind. She can just close her eyes and they spring up before her, stretching out in all directions.
Let them keep the chair. She doesn’t need it anymore.
The sudden freedom of it bubbles in her chest, rises up in her throat, escapes in a laugh. She pushes herself to her feet, already planning the next jump.
Then she hears a tiny beep. She looks at her watch.
It’s a graduation gift from her mother, a Precision Quartz timepiece, accurate down to the nearest millisecond. She stares at it, then unhooks it, letting it drop to the floor. She brings her foot down on it, hard, feeling the crystal faceplate crack, then shatter beneath her shoe.
In some alternate universe, you and I are happy.
Somewhere, you and I are married, having children, raising a family. Somewhere, we are laughing together, holding hands, growing older, deep in love.
I just have to keep looking until I find it.