“Is this seat taken?” He asks, hand on the sliding door.
Her eyes, framed by long eyelashes, raised, and inquisitive gaze lands on the boy. She shakes her head, auburn tendrils bouncing, as if excited to show off their newfound colors crowned by the slanted sun, penetrating the train windowpanes.
The torturous gold on her hair transfixes the boy; his mind is momentarily overwhelmed by imagined memories, imbued with nameless nostalgia—more than a déjà vu.
He stumbles forward. The seats’ moquette upholstery groans upon contact with the boy’s weight—a failed attempt in suppressing their laughter at his nervousness. His hand fusses with the top button of his shirt, a habitual gesture that squirms its way into his hand when he feels exposed, insecure, or simply, shy. His eyes roam the fields awash in the final minutes of the sun, amber sweeping past usual green. The girl has resumed reading, eyes half-concealed by the bold font—Other Tales—on the cover. In reluctant self-persuasion to occupy himself with his own book, he convinces himself that she has raised her book, just a little bit, as if showing him the title: don’t ask, just look at the cover.
Her crossed leg bounces with synchronicity to her right hand rummaging in a pocket, as if groping for a coin in a gleaming fountain floor—and upon touching something solid, a finger swipes the coarse surface to determine whether it’s head or tails, whether good things await in the place to which she is heading, whether she’s heading for cul-de-sacs or possibilities. He’s hoping this is also a habitual gesture that manifests when she is provoked to think, or simply enjoying a book.
“What are you reading?” He asks.
Enamored with parallel universes and ever-multiplying timelines, the world finds itself an agonizingly slow-paced sci-fi; turns out, those things exist, exactly as addressed but only partly as depicted in well-known time travel stories. If Dr. Kali, the neuroscientist behind all this, is correct in his theories, one’s strenuous efforts in finding a multiverse, in turn, creates a gaping potentiality in their mind. The experience would be made up of thoughts, urges, feelings and inklings, given that they are powerful enough, which engender diverging fabrics of memories and conflicting logics. Kali had been haunted by a shrill nagging voice of “what if,” and who, with a mixture of contempt for life’s regret and good old curiosity, tapped into the potentiality of projectile consciousness. Travel back in time, Kali detests to see these words attached to his theory in journals and papers; he thinks it an exploitation of one of life’s most overbearing and cherished emotions: regret.
On the lecterns of universities that insisted to give him spotlight that first month after the news had exploded in the scientific community—sporadic students amongst a sea of dozing ones sticking up their neck to look at him, all dressed up, nervous and stuttering—he explained his method: it stimulates the neurons connecting memories and emotions while dulling sensory information, thus causing the subject’s subconscious to overpower the body’s temporal and spatial sense, dislocating the mind to where it wishes to be most; it allows the subject to experience the “what-ifs,” powered by the brain’s long-stored and replayed scenarios that construct a form of reality, where people can deal with unfinished business, unfreed shackles of the mind, dangling like a soaked sock on a clothespin. If it’s any consolation, Kali is glad the method would be of some use to clinical therapy.
When he disproves heresies-like theories against his own, he does so out of a courtesy to the PR manager his lab assistant hired him, who insinuated that the best thing would be to highlight the impeccability of his method. In actuality, Dr. Kali does not think his breakthrough subverts the theory of parallel universes. The human brain is too sly to conceal only one secret, and the universe is hardly done messing up our mundane trivial lives, he thinks, sitting in his office and staring at his walls, certificates hanging on them. When pondering on duality, which has so many forms and shapes these days, he finds himself contemptuous towards rigid divisions, and people who are bound up by harsh definitions, window dressed as principles. One thing is not just one thing, sometimes it can be two things. He laughs, when friends gawk at this irrational, baseless talk coming out of the scientist.
“I think ‘consciousness’ is too elusive. It can’t ever be reliable.” He says, terrified of what the girl would say next, and terrified of her; so far in their half-banter half-discussion, she’d been charmingly judgmental; and so beautiful, in a sense that he wishes she would unpack all her ugly and unthinkable thoughts on the ground between them, so he’d know just how much she reflects everything that is in him.
“Well, maybe if we don’t know waking from sleeping, then yes; but we still have to live, and we still have to believe,” she taps the side of her head, “this is real.”
Her book—a fiction about the protagonist’s change of heart, he learns, as she animatedly narrates while the train rumbles off to Catalonia—splayed in her lap, and every time he sees her hand waving around it after she has finished speaking, his heart lurches in an anxious knowing that she’s done paying attention to him. But she never returns to her book.
“True.” He nods in rapid succession, “What if there is a way to know for certain we are the ones controlling our mind?”
“I think especially now, you know, when fake news inundates our lives and whatnot, we all need to rely on ourselves, instead of believing in a reality that is handed to us.” Her head tilts in comprehension.
“So you’re saying we make up our reality.”
“Yep. Though it’s so pretentious to say it like this.” Corners of her lips rise in teasing.
In the silence of the car, the dying sun fills their mind.
“Can I ask you something?” He takes his eyes off the radiance—the sun's final show-off before he retires and offers the stage to the moon—and looks at the girl.
“Sure.” She is still looking at the waning sunbeams, slipping, like air, behind jagged lines of mountaintops.
“Would you change your reality, if you could?”
When they first chatted on the Internet, their harbored feelings for each other encapsulated in the crude speech bubbles, and in the very first of those he threw an Elizabeth Bishop line at her, her recitement of the next lines of the poem came so quickly he stared at the screen with eyes ablaze, fascinated. He knew they were the only ones who truly enjoyed Miss Nicholson’s English class. And he has kept this name all these years, the customized nickname in the chat box—“Eliz.” He thought of her as something poetic, someone intimately distant and forever unknowable. Missing her all these years has only made her more poetic, but maybe only the idea of her.
Brandon Kali and Emma Halliday were school acquaintances. There was nothing between them—the script they offered to their respective nosy friends, possibly playing matchmaker—only “nothing” was longing stares in the library, in the cafeteria, in the hallway; the two developed a virtual ping-pong game, the coy teens that they were. After school one day, he searched for her online, inputting variations of her names into the engine to look for personal blogs—those were the days—then a message came through a less than popular chatting app.
“Here’s a secret. Your name is entirely too uncommon.” She wrote.
The summer before the two went away for college was filled with more online chats, which were barely maintained through freshmen year, with Brandon getting distracted by college initiation and his own blooming curiosity. Eventually, with Brandon drinking his nights away with his medical science buds and Emma going to poetry readings—after which he couldn't ever make his eyes stay open long enough for the lines Emma wrote about poetry, dancing and swimming in the chat box, to make sense—the correspondences dwindled; then they came to a halt as Brandon busied himself with writing for medical journals, and Emma with her semester away in Spain.
Then, one day, as Brandon stumbled, half-asleep, to his laptop’s dimming screen, he saw a red number “1” was attached to the icon of the chatting app; it was a message from Emma—Eliz.
“Let’s meet,” she wrote.
She chuckles, “Well, maybe we’re always changing our mind, going back in time.” Her eyes ablaze, darting between him and the sun, “I mean, we think about why didn’t we just punch that kid when she slandered our family; we want to resign from that awful job but never do it because we’re too cowardly to too tired to ask for something better for ourselves. We regret until we die.” She shrugs, the hollows in her collar bone made more sunken by the residue of dusk.
“And we are foolish enough to think regret is worse than contentment.” He says.
The train car sways with a knowing rhythm, self-conscious of its responsibility, that in its belly inhabit trivial people holding life-altering conversations. Listening in, the train rattles on.
She exhales. “Well, what do you expect, we’re humans.”
His eyes squinting, making her a haze of outlines, colors and shapes, “I feel like you’re a memory etched onto my brain.”
“Wow.” Her brows shoot up, two mountaintops unbudging, daring people to climb them. And the two of them burst into resonant laughter, like they have laughed together once, in another time and place.
“My turn.” A ghost of a smile appears around her straining lips, determined to outwit this stranger whom she finds fascinating and oddly ethereal. “I feel like you slipped through a plane of existence that is detached from my own."
“Poetic.” He says; he notices the book, still sitting on her lap, is closed.
Kali wonders if anything would be different if he had got on the train that day, if he had stepped onto the automatic staircase, walked down to car 6 like they had promised, and he’d find her reading, silently like a scholar absorbed in her philosophized, metaphysical world. As the train’s rumbling gnawed at the nervous air around him, amplifying the voice from the more romantic side of him: She’ll be there, she has to, and she’s waiting. Yet, in a second, those blaring whistles seemed to be chasing him away, making him think of the implications of its arrival. In his mind, he was already running away, clutched in his hand his selfishness, his unwillingness to disrupt anything in his mundanity, fear of her power, love with his own inconsequential existence, and the possibility of how it all would change, with her. With simply seeing her. Each frame enlarges with the imminent train, holding within it the power to destroy him. It was longing and anxiety and fear and pleading the world would stop to let him think, but the life he was living was fast, the scientific world didn’t wait, and he gave up on the moment.
He gave her up.
He thought he could relive this—this again, and he and she and they—would feel exactly the same; he’d only have to go back to his dorm, turn on his laptop and type into the chat box. He’d forever be typing into that chat box.
Kali wonders if anything would have been different if he hadn’t walked away.
The train eases into a platform in a small town to where the girl is heading. “This is me,” her finger pointing to the slowing landscape outside.
“I wish you every luck, in life.”
“It was lovely. Talking to you.” He says.
“You, too.” She smiles, and the overhead lights cast a shadow across her nose, dangling, swaying.
She turns, never once has she looked back.
Perhaps real things are happening in real time, in another, equally, real world. As Kali stares at his walls and the adorning certificates that don't seem to be addressed to him; but they must be, his name is printed on the recipient's blank. He crosses his spacious office and starts to take them down.
Afterwards, he slumps into his chair, his knees, veterans, aching to support his weight. The walls are free. They were previously getting into fits of protestations with molds developing underneath the frames, forced to don responsibilities of bragging for their Kali, of encapsulating his life’s accomplishment, bearing every sliver of doubt and shame, and enduring with years of action in the world and inaction in his heart.
He finds that one’s youth has the most formative impact; the first of everything exerts the most long-lasting of influence, sparks the most enduring of questions. This is due to one’s low expectations and naïve assumptions, and most of all, a merciful, dangerously unassuming outlook on life’s possibilities—everything will turn out okay, perfect, even.
In this second, he allows himself to dream.
In another timeline, he has already perfected the method’s serum and injected himself with it, sending him into the voluntary in-between state; in another he’s already on the train; in another, he and she would be sitting in the living room of their suburbia house, her reading with her foot bouncing, him grading papers from drunk college kids, and every now and then they would look up to meet each other’s eyes, the ghost smiles would be imprinted in their mind as they return to their work; in another, the girl doesn’t exist in his world at all; in yet another, he and she are meeting as strangers.
His mind is walking down forked roads.