“Give me one second!” Helen was already out of the camera’s range. She reappeared on the video feed, now at the back of the room where an excited toddler was discovering gravity by throwing things onto the floor. Alice held back a smile watching her friend try to reason with an obstinate two-year-old.
The amusement gave way to a prick of familiar sadness when she saw Helen's husband intervene to take their child outside. She pushed it away, to unpack later, and smiled as Helen slumped with relief in front of the camera.
The sadness reared its head again that night when Netflix recommended three reality shows about people finding love in adventurous, albeit ridiculous, ways. Alice hit “play” and half-heartedly watched couples agree to marry each other based only on text message conversations.
“You know, I look around at everyone in my life and they’re happily married or have partners who love them and I think, why not me? What’s wrong with me?” The voice of the reality show dater cut into Alice's reverie, eerily echoing her own thoughts.
It didn’t even matter that “Tara from L.A.”—saying those words directly to a camera—was a 25 year-old model-slash-actor. Sure Alice was a good ten years older, and had a freelance career where she wore pajamas and a greasy ponytail most days. But the questions "Tara from L.A." was asking were ones Alice had asked herself often.
“Okay, that’s it.” Alice said to no one in particular. “I’m finding a boyfriend this summer, so help me God.” With a few jabs at her phone, she downloaded the Bumble app.
“Alice!” The barista’s face lit up with pleasure. Alice smiled back warmly. “Sabrina, you are just who I needed to see this morning!”
Sabrina looked around at the thinning morning crowd at the coffee shop and said, “I’ll go on break in a few. Let’s chat then!”
Alice nodded, paid for the dark roast that Sabrina handed her, and headed over to her usual booth to set up her laptop. She was halfway through her coffee, when Sabrina slid into the seat opposite her.
“Your resolution made me get back to online dating too," Sabrina said with a laugh. "And on goes the cycle of hope and despair that we single folk go through every few months.”
Maybe it was that she was a graduate student in clinical psychology, but Sabrina seemed to take most of life's ups and downs with equanimity.
"Don't know about a few months. I only installed Bumble two weeks ago and I’m already at despair."
“Ugh. Anything specific?”
“Just the usual. Flaking, ghosting, general creepiness, outright dishonesty.” Alice paused, frustration overwhelming her.
“Sabrina, I’ve spent most of 15 years single and now I’m 35 and have to subject myself to this if I ever want to not be alone. How easy life must be for those people who find their person in college or high school. They never have to feel the stress of online dating. Not to mention they'd have a partner’s support their whole adult lives!”
Alice threw her hands up in the air with a growl, and then collapsed face-first onto the table. Sabrina stroked her arm sympathetically.
“I know how you feel, sweety. It seems unfair that it came so easily to other people. But every situation has a silver lining, I think? As unlikely as it seems, maybe there is one to us being perpetually single!”
Sabrina was the eternal optimist. Now sheepish at her outburst, Alice considered Sabrina's words. Sitting up, she said, “You know, maybe you and I would never have met if we weren’t single? You would be married to some investment banker who could pay for your masters, and you'd never have worked here during school.” Sabrina made a face and mock shuddered at the words “investment banker.”
“And I," Alice continued, "would never have ventured into this coffee shop because I would be in some faraway suburb with my three kids. Spending all my free time tending to my vegetable garden.”
Both Alice and Sabrina laughed at the image.
“Vegetable garden huh? Didn’t you kill that succulent your mom got you for your birthday last year?”
“Kill is a strong word Sabrina...I forgot about it due to completely not my fault circumstances.” Sabrina didn't look convinced.
“Anyway, hope your Bumble adventures have been better than mine.”
“Just started really, but there are some fun-seeming people.” Sabrina pulled out her phone and started scrolling through profiles as Alice idly looked on.
“It's frustrating but remember, all it takes is one—”
Sabrina jumped as Alice grabbed her hand to stop her scrolling. Alice was staring at the image on Sabrina’s phone, her eyes wide.
“Oh my god, Sabrina! That is Brandon Walker. My high-school boyfriend!”
Multiverse 2: Alice Walker
“Alright, that’s it,” she said to no one in particular. “This place is too cluttered.” A cleaning break would fix everything.
She walked through the house, picking things up, and putting them away. The trappings of her suburban life lay all around. A stack of Brandon’s shirts on the ironing board, electronics strewn about, the blanket in disarray on the couch from a tennis documentary they'd watched the night before.
She straightened a picture of her and Brandon from their wedding day. A smile tugged at her lips as she remembered how excited she had been that day, fresh-faced and right out of college.
They had met in high school and dated all through college before tying the proverbial knot. They had applied to all the same colleges so that they could be together. Well, she had applied to the same colleges that Brandon was applying to. At the time, she hadn't cared which college she went to, so it just made sense to apply to the ones he wanted. If she could go back now, she wasn't sure she would do it that way again.
A buzzing interrupted her train of thought. Helen was video calling. Talking about Helen's perfect life sometimes made Alice feel much worse about her own. But right now, it seemed like a better idea than reminiscing about her wedding.
“Hey!” Alice waved at the toddler in Helen’s arms. “So glad you called—I definitely needed the distraction!”
When she got back to her desk, there was an email from Brandon: He had forgotten his phone and would come home during lunch to get it. That was so like him—addicted to his electronics. Alice, on the other hand, often went a whole day without checking her phone.
Feeling generous, she wrote back offering to drop it off at his office. Things had been distant between them for a while, and an article she had read online suggested turning up the acts of kindness toward each other to rekindle the connection.
I can only do that if he lets me though, she thought as his reply flashed up on her screen: "No, that’s okay! I got some time between meetings.”
Alice remembered seeing the phone on Brandon's nightstand and decided to bring it downstairs so he could grab and go. As she was walking down the stairs, the phone in her hand lit up silently with a text message. It was from Swati Patel, and it said "Room 334. See you soon babe."
Multiverse 1: Alice Charles
“Oh my god. Brandon! You look great!”
Alice stopped, not sure how to greet the man she had spent so much of her high school junior year with. Before she could offer an awkward handshake, Brandon enveloped her in a hug. “So good to see you Alice!”
"Shall we?" Alice said pointing to the path that ran along the Charles River. They had decided a walk would be the least awkward way to catch up after so many years. Brandon nodded.
“So, LinkedIn tells me you ended up a freelance web developer. Should’ve guessed with how much time you spent creating that 'My Favorite Books' website in high school!” Brandon laughed.
“Oh man, do you remember how terrible that was? As soon as you clicked into it, it started playing Backstreet Boys in the background.”
“That's right, it did! And there was some kind of dancing hamster in the top corner?”
They were both giggling now, remembering the early days of website design. Eventually, Brandon grew serious and said, “You know, that was one of the only things you seemed to truly enjoy back then.”
“What do you mean? We did so much fun stuff together! Didn't we watch a lot of tennis? And hiking. Also, as I recall, we spent a lot of time at Best Buy looking at gadgets!” Alice laughed, but Brandon’s face was still thoughtful.
“Hmm, to be honest, it felt like you only did those things because I wanted to. You might have convinced yourself you liked them too, but I always got the sense that you weren’t all that engaged?”
Alice was quiet for a moment as she considered his words. She had thought back on her life before, but seeing her younger self from Brandon’s perspective was eye-opening.
“I never really watched tennis or went hiking much after we broke up. And actually, I am a bit of a Luddite when it comes to electronics and gadgets. I think I enjoy the web design more for the creativity than the techy-ness.”
She nodded as the realization expanded in her brain. “I think you’re right. I...just wanted to be with you. And you were so sure of yourself and interested in so many things. I—I thought you were amazing. But I wasn’t...so I just did whatever you did?”
Silence hung for a moment. Then Alice said, “Is that why you broke up with me?”
Brandon let out a breath. “Well, we were just stupid kids so who knows what was in my head. But I think that was a part of it. You seemed to have no interest in discovering yourself or what you liked. I loved those few weeks when you were obsessed with that website coding."
He smiled at the memory.
“But it just never really happened again while we were together. I felt like I was leading you through life, rather than us...being equals, you know?”
Alice nodded. “I know. You’re right about that.”
Another pause hung in the air, and then Alice said, “It’s funny. My friend Sabrina, who we met through, said that there are silver linings to everything, including me having been single most of my adult life. I think this may be one of them—I was forced to figure out who and what I was.”
Alice felt the familiar sadness dissipate inside her and a lightness begin to take hold.
“Your friend Sabrina is wise!”
“You certainly seemed a fan when you swiped right on her on Bumble!” Alice teased.
Brandon laughed, blushing. “That’s a bit of an awkward business, I’ll admit.”
He directed them to the railing overlooking the river and leaned on it, looking out over the city.
“I always remembered you fondly you know. Even after I started dating Swati, and you and I stopped talking, I thought of you and hoped you were happy.” He looked at her now. “And it seems like you are.”
Alice smiled. “Well, life has its ups and downs, but I think I am. My main problem may be the easily-fixable one of just appreciating all the reasons I have for being happy!”
Pausing briefly, she continued, “I remember being so confused when you started dating Swati. Mainly because she was so different from me—so full of herself and selfish—and it felt like such a rejection of who I was.”
“I can see that. Maybe I was drawn in by how confident she was. How well she knew herself. It didn’t work out, but at the time I just wanted a relationship where I didn’t have to prop someone else up. Does that make sense?”
“It does, Brandon. It really does.”
Multiverse 2: Alice Walker
The confrontation with Brandon was a series of fragments in Alice's head, and life felt surreal. The thrum of the car under her was soothing though, and she tried to relax into the monotony of speeding down a highway. She didn’t really know where she was going, just that she needed to be far away—to escape her life.
Finally, she realized she was in the city. Spotting a rare unoccupied parking space, she pulled into it. Noticing a coffee shop several yards away, she walked over.
“Hi there! What can I get for you?” The barista—her name tag said “Sabrina”—was smiling kindly.
“Uh...” Alice blinked, trying to think. The chalkboard menu had started to swim before her eyes and she grasped for the counter to steady herself.
Amidst the haze, she heard Sabrina say, “Damon, could you take over for a sec?” and then felt the barista’s arms around her shoulder leading her to one of the nearby booths.
Once she was seated and sipping the cold water Sabrina had put in front of her, Alice’s world began to steady. She found Sabrina’s concerned eyes looking at her.
“Are you okay, sweety?”
“I...I don’t know.” Alice glanced down at the table. “I think the only life I’ve ever known is over.”
Sabrina nodded with empathy. “Did you like the only life you’ve ever known?”
Alice blinked in surprise at the question. In the past 36 hours that she had known about Brandon’s affair, she had never asked herself that question.
“I thought I did for a while,” she ventured tentatively. The wedding picture she’d smiled at the day before flashed in her mind. “But I...don’t think I have for a long while. It’s felt just okay. Familiar. Tolerable.”
Sabrina nodded. “I gotta get back to work unfortunately, but I’ve learned that every situation has a silver lining.”
Multiverse 1: Alice Charles
“I’m going uptown so I’ll hop in here.” Alice indicated the subway entrance ta few feet from where they stood.
“Well, I'm really glad we ran into each other again, even if it did involve me messaging your friend on a dating app.” Brandon was teasing.
“I’m glad too. Although, how come you never swiped right on me on Bumble?” Alice's tone was playful but also curious.
“I never came across your profile!”
He held her gaze for a moment and then said, “I don’t know how you’re feeling or where you stand, but if I’d known you were still single. And especially if I'd known what a different person you are now, I don’t think I would’ve downloaded any dating apps until I figured out if there was something here."
Alice looked at his earnest face, considering for a moment. Then she pulled out her phone, and holding the screen up so Brandon could see it, she deleted the Bumble app.
“Let’s figure out if there is something here.”
Multiverse 2: Alice Walker
Brandon stood up as Alice opened the front door and stepped into the house. She could see that he had been crying.
“I’m so sorry Alice,” he said quietly. Those were the only words he’d been saying since she had confronted him about Swati's text message. It wasn’t his fault—she hadn’t wanted to hear any explanations.
“I know Brandon. I know you are.” She walked into the living area. “I want to understand why you did this.”
Sitting down at the far end of the couch, she turned toward him. He sighed and sat down at the other end, turning toward her. After the distance of the last several years, they were finally at least turning toward each other.
“I don’t know Alice. I...Swati texted me out of the blue when she moved back to town last year. I never told you because you’ve always disliked her.”
Alice looked down and said nothing. She had hated Swati back in high school and through college when Brandon had kept in touch with her. But it wasn’t for the reasons she had told Brandon.
She did think Swati was full of herself and selfish, but really it was because Swati had always been unapologetically herself. Swati had always known who this “self” was, which was more than Alice could say back then. Or even now.
As Brandon explained how he had been unhappy for a long time, Alice thought about how her entire adulthood had been about trying to make Brandon happy. As if reading her mind, Brandon continued, “You have done everything for me for years, Alice. Everything I ever wanted, you gave it to me. But I think that was the problem.”
He paused, studying her face. She nodded at him to keep going.
“Swati is a selfish person as you’ve always known. But when she came back into my life, it felt like a breath of fresh air. She didn’t give me everything I ever wanted, but she knew herself, and she took care of herself. I—I felt free with her. Free to never worry about her or what she needed.”
Alice nodded again. Silence stretched for a few minutes as they both got lost in thought. A strange calmness was rising up inside Alice, and things felt clearer than they had in years.
She looked up at Brandon and as their eyes met, the silent question hung in the air between them: “Where do we go from here?” For the first time, Alice didn’t think about what Brandon wanted or needed. She thought about what Alice wanted or needed.
“I love you Brandon, and I always will. But...”