Jack Joseph Cooper would never have known any different if he hadn’t spilled the balsamic vinegar that morning.
“Damn it!” he said as it spilled all over the cupboard and the worktop and down onto the floor.
Finding no sentient being to blame save himself, he cursed the balsamic vinegar.
“Stupid vinegar,” he mumbled.
He carried on mumbling minor expletives as he wiped up the mess. He started removing various dripping bottles and tins from the cupboard. A bottle of oyster sauce slipped through his fingers and smashed onto the floor.
“Damn!” he said again and glared at the vinegar.
He got the brush and swept up the glass and the sauce into the dustpan. He put a towel down. This was an activity now. This was a time-consuming chore he had to do now. Who put that vinegar so close to the cupboard door? He lived alone. He grumbled at the vinegar again.
One by one, the various bottles and tubs and packets came out of the cupboard. Jack wiped and rinsed and wiped.
The cupboard was empty. Jack rinsed his cloth and began cleaning the inside of the cupboard. He cleaned the sides. Then he cleaned the back.
He cleaned it right off. He stopped for a second.
It was a mirror.
He rinsed his cloth and cleaned some more.
And there, in the mirror, he saw himself cleaning the mirror.
Except it wasn’t himself cleaning the mirror. It was someone else. He stopped. His mouth dropped open. The other guy’s mouth didn’t drop open. This was not a reflection. But Jack couldn’t compute this.
The other person was Jack. It was him. But it wasn’t. What was going on?
He was looking at himself sure enough. But he was not doing the same things as himself, as is normal with mirrors. The other Jack was waving at him. He was motioning to knock on the mirror. What was this madness?
Jack stood in his kitchen, unable to act. The other Jack was becoming more and more animated. Knock on the mirror, the other Jack was miming.
Sometimes you just have to go with it. Jack knocked on the mirror. It shattered. There was no blaming the vinegar this time.
“Ha ha!” laughed the other Jack, “I didn’t think you’d do it! Thought you’d run away! Come on in!”
Jack peered into the cavity where the back of the cupboard had been. It led into a room with couches and chairs and a few plants.
“Come on!” cried the other Jack.
Jack could do nothing else but hop right in. He squirmed through the cupboard and popped out into the room on the other side.
“What’s going on?” he asked of this other him.
“Follow me!” the other Jack said and directed them both to a set of double doors in the far wall. Jack followed. He went through the doors.
The doors opened out into a beautiful garden. Confused trees and wayward climbing plants misdirected themselves into improbable locations. Fountains appeared from unplumbed hillocks. Sunshine mingled with overexcited flowers.
But hardly had Jack taken any of this in before a wave of shock boomed through him once again. Because as far as his eyes could see, he could see…… himself. Wall to wall Jack. Jacks of all ages and all sensibilities. Millions and millions of Jacks, all deep in conversation with each other. As if they were one Jack, they all turned to look at him at the same time. About a quarter of them had the same expression on their faces; it said ah, I remember that. Many of the Jacks were just as confused as Jack himself. Some of the Jacks were completely unfazed. One of the Jacks jumped up and said “Jack!” But the attention was over pretty quickly and the other Jacks turned back to their conversations.
Jack noticed that many of the other Jacks had formed clusters around one of several Jacks who were doing all the talking. There were many pairs and triplets outside of the clusters, but Jack decided that he’d squeeze into a cluster and see what was going on. He bumped into a few Jacks on his way to the centre of the nearest one, to mumbles of hey take it easy Jack, watch yourself there Jack and oh it’s just you, I mean, me.
He managed to get close enough to see what was going on. A Jack sat in the centre of a big ring of Jacks speaking calmly and smiling.
“Don’t worry everyone,” he was saying, “it all works out. It has to work out; otherwise you wouldn’t be here. None of it matters in the end.”
But the Jacks were confused. Jack was confused himself. What would work out?
“I know what you’re all thinking: what will work out? I mean everything. It’s not that there’s more good than bad. It’s that good and bad don’t matter. There’s just peace. And peace is better than good or bad. Peace resolves good and bad.”
“But I just want to be me and to be happy!” called out one Jack.
“You are you. You can’t be anything else. But what you don’t understand is what you are. The Jack that you know is just one aspect of Jack. Look how many there are! And they are all you as much as you think you are you! And it all resolves perfectly into peace. Don’t worry. Just live your life. It’s the same life we all have. Each of us just experiences it differently. But it’s all the same. And in the end it’s completely amazing.”
Jack squeezed back out again. This was weird. He made his way back away from the crowd and found a bench with the original other Jack on it, who was eating a ham and cheese sandwich with ketchup.
“Hey, Jack,” said Jack and sat down.
“Oh hey Jack,” said the other Jack, “Want a bite of my sandwich? It’s our favourite.”
Jack said that he would love a bite. The sandwich tasted delicious. It was his favourite sandwich right enough. Jack looked the other Jack closely in the face.
“You’re me, aren’t you? All these Jacks are me aren’t they?”
“Jack, do you know how many times everyone here has had that exact conversation?”
“Well, lots of times. Yes, of course, I’m you and you’re me. We are all us. Well, we are all me, Jack. Each one of us just has a slightly different take on it.” He said it like he had memorized it. “I take it this is your first time here?”
“I remember it. Well, kind of. Now that I’m sitting here talking to me, I never realized how weird it would be. But there you go. It must be way weirder for you!”
“It sure is. I have so many questions.”
“Well, that’s why we’re here. That’s why those other yous are listening so closely to those yous in the middle of the circles. See, for a lot of them, I mean us, this kind of thing is normal, and we meet ourselves all the time and swap experiences. To help ourselves. What questions can I answer for you Jack?”
Jack liked himself. It was a pleasant revelation. But he was mightily perturbed. What questions did he have? What questions did he not have, was more to the point. One minute he was dropping condiments on his kitchen floor, the next he was in some kind of intensely personal alternative reality. It was too much. There must have been something in that vinegar, he thought.
“You remember this?” he asked the other Jack, “I mean you are me and you remember being me while I am sitting talking to you right now, because, obviously, if you are me then it happened to you, right?”
“Well, kinda. It’s not really a time thing. This is perfectly normal. You’re first instinct is to try to disprove the whole thing. Disbelief is the default position. I get it.”
“Well why don’t you try and not do it like you remember it to see if you can. That’s what I’d do if I were you, as it appears I am.”
“Well remember is the wrong word. Sure, if I was remembering it all that’s definitely what I’d do, but that shouldn’t come as any surprise as you thought of it too. But it’s not the right word. We’re not time travelling. It’s more like a kind of déjà vu – I’m remembering as it happens. Or kinda like I know that it happened cos I am you. You can’t remember it cos you’re a different me who doesn’t remember it. Like, there are some of us who go beyond this whole thing. To them, we are just acting out trivialities – we’re just building sandcastles while they shift the tides. We can’t even conceive of what they are experiencing, even though they’re every bit as much us as I am you and you are me.”
“Punch me in the face.”
“Go on. If I’m you, what harm?”
“But why would I want to punch myself in the face?”
“To prove to yourself that you are who you say you are.”
“But that wouldn’t prove anything.’
“Just do it.”
“You won’t do it?”
“Damn it. I knew you wouldn’t.”
“What’s the point?”
“The point is that I wouldn’t want to punch myself in the face either.”
“No, of course not. Who would?”
“Well then, what’s the point of all this? What does it mean? How do I know I am not just hallucinating?”
“Well, to answer your last point first, you just know whether you are hallucinating or not. You just know it. Do you think you are? Does it feel like a hallucination?”
“No, Jack, to be honest, it feels real.”
“There you go. And the point? Nirvana, Jack. We meet to improve. Each of us learns from ourselves. As the learning progresses, we become less disconnected, more me. The barriers break down and we become more and more perfect. Eventually, we meet others, and the process begins in another place, where we merge with people who are not Jack. But that’s the next level. That becomes clear enough after this place.”
“I think I get you, I mean me. I think.”
“Let me try to put it another way. In this place, all these Jacks are separate from one another. Like to you, even though you accept the fact that I’m you, I’m still separate from you. We are not sharing thoughts and feelings directly. It is like we are two different people. But the more we do this, the fewer of us there are, until eventually, hopefully, there’s only one. Then that one Jack, that one whole person, can go on to repeat the process with other people who are not Jack. When that process ends, there is no more individual Jack. We will become a small part of something even more whole. And when that is complete…….”
“Nirvana. But will I disappear?”
“Hopefully we will, Jack. There are Jacks here who are almost ready to disappear right now, but not quite. And some who pop right out of here. See, on one level we have parts of ourself like me and you, on another level we have those guru dudes in the circle. Then, look over there at that Jack by the tree. Look at him."
Jack looked at a Jack by a tree. The guy was entranced. He was sitting at the bottom of the tree, tucked into the trunk as if he were a gnome. His eyes were rolled back in his head and he had an insane smile on his face.
“That might be the last of us in this place,” said the other Jack, “he could be gone soon.”
“What do you mean he could be gone soon?”
“He’ll go beyond us. Or maybe he won’t. Maybe he will be the one who doesn’t quite go beyond but stays here almost, nearly, so close to it, but not doing it. But somewhere here is the Jack who is the end product of this experience.”
“You mean we’ve done it already? Then why are we still doing it?”
“We’ve only done it or not done it if you are thinking in terms of time. We’ve done it because we are doing it and we are doing it because we can’t have done it if we don’t.”
“I need a drink,” said Jack.
Just then, a Jack came strolling out from behind a blackthorn tree, smiling to himself and eating an apple. He had the calm confidence of an experienced professional in a room full of amateurs. He gently placed his hand on the shoulder of a Jack who was deep in thought and sitting on an old stone wall. The Jack on the wall looked up. An extremely curious thing then occurred. The Jack who had been sitting on the wall rose up and walked into the confident Jack. He walked into him and just disappeared.
“It’s happening!” shouted a nearby Jack to anyone who could hear him.
“What’s happening?” asked our Jack of the Jack beside him.
“Party’s over man. We’re done for this one,” answered the other Jack.
Jack watched as, from every direction, the Jacks converged on this confident Jack. One by one, he touched them and they went into him. The Jack at one stage paused this stream of mergers and the Jacks who were gathering around him built up in concentric circles. They all started putting their hands on the shoulders of the Jacks in front of them.
“What’s going on?” said Jack.
“Don’t worry man,” replied Jack, “we’re just wrapping up. Just put your hand on my shoulder here and we’ll be grand in a minute or two.”
What could he do? Jack put his hand on the shoulder in front of him. Someone put their hand on his shoulder.
As soon as he so did, he simultaneously realized three extremely strange things. Firstly, he was alone. Secondly, he was in his kitchen. And lastly, he could still feel something on his shoulder.