Living in Parallel

The options for the evening seemed simple: either I go to ballet class, despite one of those headaches that feel like someone is trying to enlarge my left eye-socket with a Phillips-head screwdriver, or I stay at home, take something for the pain, and go to bed. Simple. One of two.

 

The problem, however, was that I had been reading Dr. Brian Greene's book The Hidden Reality, wherein he explains that in an infinite universe, there are an infinite number of Jessa Crispins, living out an infinite variety of different lives. The idea of the parallel universe is a logical leap from what we know of our finite world and what we assume infinity to be. The theory is impossible to prove, and yet it is capable of ruining your evening nonetheless. I was a bit paralyzed by the mathematical implications. How many of the infinite Jessas sitting on the edge of their beds cradling the left side of their face would choose to suck it up and go to class? And if I stayed home, how would our paths diverge from this point forward?

 

I wrote out a list: The Possible Consequences of Going to/Skipping Ballet Class:

All that jumping around makes my headache worse and I have to spend the next day in bed.

I come across a 50-euro note lying on the street.

I pass someone on the pavement, our eyes meet, and my life turns into a John Cusack movie.

I land wrong from a jump or a turn, and I break an ankle.

Each of these possibilities splintered further.

With a broken ankle, I would have to cancel an upcoming trip, and then...

With a 50-euro note, I would buy tickets to operas, and there...

As I wrapped myself in a quilt and told myself staying in bed seemed safer, what with these infinite cause-and-effects to deal with, I couldn't stop thinking about those infinite Jessas. How many were rendered unrecognizable due to a lifetime of these tiny little decisions? How many of them were dead already? How many of them would I hate if I met them? How many of those traumas that in my past look so hulking and immovable—so fated—had been successfully skirted?

 

I better understand now why so many of the mathematicians who put their hands on theories of the infinite hanged themselves in hotel rooms or were carted off to the asylum. Faced with an infinite number of myselves, I did not feel expansive and infinite. I felt trapped in a tiny fragment, one that was perhaps getting everything wrong. It felt unfair that I couldn't check in with the others, do a little side-by-side comparison.

 

But then, the narrator of Dezső Kosztolányi's Kornél Esti spent most of his life not wanting to know. He grew up with all of those little alternatives personified in his identical counterpart, named Kornél—not a twin, at least not by blood, but a true lookalike. Perhaps just a citizen of a parallel universe, displaced in space and time. At first, in childhood, the contrast is invigorating. Kornél pushed the narrator out of his timidity and his respectability. But that other version began to get embarrassing once he reached adulthood. He found this other self distasteful, and couldn't stand to be near him anymore. The contrast was too striking.

 

We all carry around what the poet Eavan Boland calls our "anti-history," "a place where some turn was taken that seemed to put the future in doubt." If that turn was traveling beside you, in human form, chatting you up, living your unrealized potentialities, disabusing you of the self-delusion that helps us live life without regret constantly bursting through our membranes, you'd stop returning his calls, too.

 

But then. "I had passed the midpoint of my life, when one windy day in spring, I remembered Kornél Esti." Of course that happens at that midlife marker, traditionally celebrated with infidelity, cars without tops on them, and the burning down of your metaphorical or literal house. After years of closing yourself off to the alternatives, to prevent yourself from ending up a neurotic mess with one shoe on and one shoe off, the allure of the other life unlived is overwhelming. That's an excellent time to check in with your shadow, and see the results of all of those times you zigged and he zagged.

 

If one has to choose between believing in infinite choice and fate, fate seems like the sanest option. Apologies to Brian Greene and all of the scientists throughout time. Nick Dormer appeared to be faced with a choice in Henry James's novel The Tragic Muse: he could either continue his life as a politician, or he could throw it over for a life as a painter. The life of a politician would be comfortable financially; it would even have a fiancée in it. And when it's revealed he has real talent—talent that needed time and work to be nurtured—Nick's reaction is not a revitalized choice, but an exhausted resignation. It is a very tired god damn it. "I'm a freak of nature and a sport of the mocking Gods," he tells his friend, as he realizes what must be done. From then on, it's fate. He does not defend his decision to his detractors, his girlfriend, his family. They all fall away, despairing at what happened to their Nick, the one they knew and loved—but he does not question or regret. He steels himself against all of the other possibilities so that he can attend to his new life.

 

I think he, too, would refuse to call on his politician doppelganger. Because there are sacrifices, even if it looks like you're choosing the glamorous life of greatness and artistry over a quieter domestic scene. James makes that clear in The Tragic Muse, as Nick loses nearly everything familiar to him, including the woman he loves. She has a specific path she'd like to be on, and she has no interest in looking at the alternatives. In Kornél Esti, the narrator seems the dull one, the man with the shirt always tucked in. Kornél is boisterous and lively, and he leaps off the page. But eventually he is exhausting. For every adventure, you give up a molecule of stability. For every wild impulse followed, you sacrifice the possibility of discipline. There are compensations, for both paths.

 

Kornél reassures his staid opposite, as he stands there a little embarrassed of all the times he decided to stay home, rather than hop on a train to Bulgaria: "One must not be ashamed of anything. Our fate is stars and rubbish."

 

Fiction is all of the parallel universes I need (and apparently, all I can handle). Lives played out that aren't mine, except for tiny intersections and coincidences. An impassioned argument I had with a lover, only to read an account of it in my Henry James novel a month later. An emotion I didn't know had a name, defined for me by Elizabeth Bowen. The consequences of waiting for the next train, rather than dashing for the full one, written out in Kornél Esti.

 

I made a decision. When it came down to how to spend a 100-euro windfall, I chose reserving a train ticket to Switzerland over buying the pair of shoes I had been admiring through a window. I agonized over it, because that's who I am in this universe: someone who spins so quickly in different directions it becomes stasis. But finally, action, and I put my money down on a bed on the overnight train to Zurich. Perhaps if I had bought the shoes, I could have worn them to the opera, and there an important woman would have admired them, and as she came over to compliment me on them...

 

However that story ends, it's not mine; it belongs to the Jessas in universes #580,208,405,692 - #789,902,974,755. There's always the possibility that this train ride will end in a derailment, high in the mountains, and we passengers will be forced to cannibalize one another... but there are other possibilities, an infinite array of them. I just need to wait and see where things go from here.

July 25: On this day in 1834 Samuel Taylor Coleridge died of heart disease at the age of sixty-one.

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