“Let’s go out,” Annemarie stated matter-of-factly over the phone.
“We should. It’s just that I have been rather busy.”
“Aren’t you always? Well, you must feel better now, since you know what happened on the boat that day.”
“I do, but it doesn’t explain why I have been … why I am this way. I mean, other people experience traumatic events, but they rise above them. If I was damaged or influenced by what happened on the boat, how is it I was able to engage in sex with you way back then and with Faye for all of those years? Why wasn’t I unable to perform? Why wasn’t I sexually repressed?”
“But you were. The plumbing worked, but think about it: one sexual fling and one long-term relationship over the course of your lifetime, and what’s even more unusual is you don’t seem to have missed it—not having sex or romance or love during all of those other years.”
“Oh, are you hinting at something?”
“You’ll have to see me to know.”
Howard said he wanted to clean out the back room of his store on Sunday, and that he would take her out to dinner that night.
“Great. I have just the place in mind. Let’s celebrate, because you’ve had a big revelation. We’ll call it an Epiphany Party.”
On Sunday morning, the only day when Howard kept the store closed, he headed there. Although he was neat and organized, over the years he had allowed the back room to become cluttered with boxes, piles of books in need of repair, folders of business papers and bills, advertising signs, unused book displays, and a surprising amount of assorted junk. He always meant to clean up the mess, but just never seemed to have the time. Despite the fact that Howard had no plans to retire, he had begun to realize that now that he was deep into middle age he might become ill. If he could no longer work, that messy back room would be an embarrassment and an impediment to a sale.
After clearing off and wiping down the big table in the center of the room Howard examined the steel shelves that lined the walls. He climbed a stepladder and brought down and placed on the table each and every object that was on one top shelf, after which he opened and looked through each box and skimmed through all of the files and assorted papers, deciding which to dispose of and which to organize and retain. Then, once he had examined a number of damaged books, he placed them in a new box, reluctantly telling himself that they would have to be consigned to the dumpster out back.
Two hours later, after Howard had cleaned all of the shelves and returned the boxes of neatly organized files to them, he began picking up stray papers and other objects that had fallen to the floor. One of them was a plain manila envelope. He recognized it immediately as the one that, several months before, he had found on the floor, right behind the mail slot, shortly after he had visited the headquarters of the Infinite Levels of Existence Society. It had contained a copy of Infinite Journeys, Infinite Possibilities, the book by Antonin Renard. Even though he assumed the envelope was empty, he looked inside. There was a sheet of typing paper. He pulled it out, and read:
Dear Mr. Fox,
How shall I begin? I hope you find this little book useful in your life quest, although I do not hold out much hope. As you will read in its pages, we all journey over and over and over again to times and places in which we reside and are not able to stop that process so as to exclusively remain in one time and place. I know you do not want to hear that, but it is la vérité, the truth.
That brings me to the point of this note: I feel for you, not only because I care about all living things, but because I believe you and I are one. That is correct. When you look in a mirror, try to remember my face; other than the difference in skin tones, we look close to identical. Remember the electricity you felt when we spoke on the phone and when we were together in my office? I believe that was caused by a short circuit in our electrical systems, as if you were to the cross wires of a live circuit. Near the end of our conversation—you may remember I held my head in my hands—my brain had become overloaded, as if I was speaking to you and I was speaking to me at the same time. I do not know how this is possible—if it is possible—but that is what I believe occurred that day in my office.
How about this: Do you remember, many years ago, February 1995, to be exact, a very cold day, when you collided with a man on the sidewalk in Greenwich Village? You felt a shock. That man was me. Perhaps you had traveled to a time (You would say “back to a time”) when and where you would be able to be with your beloved. You had a box in your hands; it was pink. It looked like it contained invitations of some kind. When we bumped into each other the box fell into a puddle. You looked familiar to me, but that was 1995. You and I “met” only two days ago, in 2019, but, of course, time is fluid. Now is then and all times are now. I am writing to tell you that you and I should not see each other again in this time and place. I fear that one more meeting between us—that is me meeting me and you meeting you—might destroy you (who is me) and me (who is you). Do not return to the Society. I will not be there. I have moved, along with my family, to another time and place in this plane of existence. Of course, as we travel back and forth indefinitely, we may still meet again, but that could be catastrophic.
I wish you well. After all, you are me and I am you.
Antonin Leopold Renard
As Howard read the letter he began feeling weak; he sat down, closed his eyes, and worked to calm himself. He hoped that when he opened his eyes the letter would not be there or it would simply be a note from Renard introducing the book. This was too much to believe, especially since, during the past few months, he had been attempting to delete from his mind all of the information he had gleaned from Infinite Journeys, Infinite Possibilities and The Errors of Bobo Ashanti. He had decided that it was important for his mental health and his chances of living the rest of his years in peace to convince himself that people are unable to travel back and forth between different planes of existence. If he was unable to live in different variations of his existence, then he would never be able to be with Faye again. Although he still hoped that he would be back with her, he told himself he had to believe that was not possible. People do not exist on different planes of existence. We’re born, we live, we suffer, we ponder the pointlessness of it all, and we die.
This letter brought him back to where he had been, down to the lower depths of his life and to his abysmal, futile efforts to be with Faye. He dropped the letter to the table and held his head in his hands.
A while later, he walked out the door and slowly made his way home.
His cell phone was ringing. Forcing himself awake, he answered it.
“Hi. Where are you?”
“I’m home. I was sleeping. Oh, I was supposed to meet you tonight. I ... I fell asleep.”
“That makes me feel good,” she teased. “Well, it’s only 7:15. Wake yourself up and get your ass over here.”
“I really don’t feel like going out tonight.”
“Are you sick?”
“No, not sick, just ... something happened.”
“What? Did something bad happen? Are you okay, Howard?”
“Nothing bad, at least not too bad; it’s difficult to explain.”
“Come on over, please. We’ll go out and have a good time.”
“I don’t know.”
“I do know. I’m your only friend. You don’t want to piss me off.”
“No. I don’t.”
“Then, hop to it.”
When Howard arrived at Annemarie’s apartment she told him that he looked like hell. She ushered him into the kitchen, made a pot of tea, and said he should talk about what was bothering him. He handed the letter to her. She read it twice. Then she asked, “Do you believe him?”
In answer, Howard referred to the shocks he had felt and about how Renard was there one day and gone the next. “You know,” Annemarie replied, “there are lots of explanations for the shocks. The first one that comes to mind is static electricity. That happens, right?”
“Yes, but usually on dry days and indoors. Once was on the phone. It never happened to me on the phone before my call to Renard and never again after that. The second time was in his office. The third—I thought this was a fantasy—was a time a few months ago when I was with Faye back in that time. I know it was back in that time, a second chance in that time, because I had picked up our wedding invitations. That never happened in my first life with Faye because we never planned ... I never planned on marrying her or anyone. In any case, in that second version of my life in 1995, I bumped into Renard. It was February, a very cold, very damp day. We both felt shocks. Static electricity does not happen on cold, wet days. The wedding invitations fell into a puddle. I left them there, in the puddle in the street. It happened. I was there and then.”
“In 1995, even though it was actually a few months ago?”
“I believed it then. Recently, I’ve stopped believing it. I thought it was a fantasy, a psychotic image, but now I ... I mean, look at the letter. How would he know about our meeting in 1995?”
“Maybe you did bump into him in 1995, the real 1995.”
“That didn’t happen. In what you call ‘the real 1995,’ Faye and I were not engaged. I told that to you. I didn’t have enough of a human heart to love someone, let alone marry her. I collided with Renard there, in 1995, the second 1995, when I went back in time to be with Faye.”
Annemarie stopped talking. Then she smiled, but Howard could not help noticing that her eyes were teary. Why does she care about me? Then he felt a warm flutter in his chest and his heart thumped quickly and so loudly that he was sure she heard it. He reached for her and took one of her hands. It was cold. He looked at it and held it tightly. “Let’s go out to eat. I’ll think about this later. Perhaps there’s some other explanation. Even if there isn’t, I know I have to abandon what Dr. LeMane refers to as my ‘obsessive ideation.’ I have to, because, if I don’t, I will never be able to function as a complete person.”
“You know, Howard, you can hold onto those ideas and beliefs, if they satisfy a need and they don’t drive you crazy. You can retain them, and just not act on them. Look at it this way: You can have the best of both worlds—your happy past with Faye from time to time and your cheerful present with me, if you want it.”
“Thank you. You’re a good friend. I feel better now. I’m glad you got me out of the house.”
Annemarie had made reservations at a high-end vegetarian restaurant in Chelsea. She called to say that they would be late and then she told Howard they should take a taxi, saying, “Who wants to bother with parking?” She paid for the taxi and the meal and left a generous tip for the waiter. When Howard protested, she placed a finger on his lips. He gently plucked it from his mouth and held her hand to his cheek. Suddenly embarrassed, he apologized.
“You should apologize, because in all the time we’ve known each other and gone out places and had heart-to-heart talks, that’s the first time you’ve done that,” she said with an engaging smile.
Back in her apartment later that evening, Annemarie insisted that Howard have a glass of Champagne, saying, “This is the best. I’ve been waiting for an opportunity to crack it open.”
They sat on her sofa. He sipped, said he liked it, and put it down.
“I had been drinking Champagne right before Mark died. I was on a chair next to his bed. He was hooked up to tubes and wires. We had all that equipment in our house. Before he became unresponsive he insisted that he wanted to die at home. He lived on those machines for a long time. The doctors were astonished. In any case, I knew how to monitor all that stuff. It was sad—such a strong, intelligent man; he was gone, had been for a while. He was being kept alive, if you can call it that, by medical technology. I sure as hell don’t want that. It’s in my directive.”
“I should create one of those.”
“Yes. Never know what’s going to happen. One day, you’re living your life, such as it is, putting up with all the everyday shit—and then you’re hit by a bus and you’re paralyzed.”
“It all seems so pointless sometimes.”
Annemarie looked at Howard for a few seconds before she said, “Here’s another secret from my life. I hope you don’t hate me for it.”
“As long as it doesn’t involve damaging books, I won’t.”
They both smiled. Then Annemarie said, “He was not there; it was his organs being kept alive. For all I knew, he was in pain or his brain was working, and he was begging to die. And, besides—I feel bad saying this; in fact, you’re the only person I can ever tell—I wanted him to die. It was awful watching him. He wasn’t the man I loved. He wasn’t even the old man he became and who I had stopped loving, or stopped loving as a wife. I hated that house, hated that life, wished he would just die, but Roger and his two children from his first marriage wanted him alive. They wanted to be able to drop by for a day or two, look at him, talk to him, and then leave and go to work and on vacation and enjoy their lives, knowing I was there.”
Howard nodded. He understood. He wanted Faye to die, to disappear, to fade away; he wanted the ethereal image of her to melt away so that he could enjoy the tangible life around him.
Annemarie sipped her Champagne. Then she said, “I looked at this big, fat white plug running from the respirator to a special outlet. I put my fingers on it. It did not belong there, shoved into the outlet. I thought about the last few times we had sex—he would shove into me, and I didn’t want it, didn’t want him there, not anymore, but I couldn’t say no. That damned big plug, I didn’t want it there. I put my hand on it. Then I heard thunder and then rain. It began pounding on the windows, and the wind made the house shake. And then the lights went out. It took me a few seconds to realize what was happening. The back-up batteries in the machines began buzzing and beeping, and I sat there.”
“You were confused.”
“Yes. But then I realized that the standby generator had not turned on. I hadn’t turned on for routine tests, as I was supposed to, in months. I knew that unless I switched it on, Mark would die—would really die. I sat there for a few seconds. I didn’t want to keep him alive. That phony existence was a horror for him and for me, but I knew I had to do it. I didn’t want to be weighed down with guilt. I had enough of that already, so I felt my way out of the room and to the back door. I couldn’t see a thing. I didn’t remember where the flashlights were. I went out; I was crouching in front of the generator and the rain was pouring down and lightning was striking and the thunder was scaring the shit out of me. I was so cold. I wanted to go back in. I wanted to die. I fumbled with the switch for the generator. I finally got it going—it was connected only to the medical devices and a few other things in the house. Then I ran up the stairs to the bedroom. The machines had not restarted! I hesitated again, thinking it was finally over, hoping it was over, but he was breathing on his own—not much, not enough to keep him alive for long, but he was breathing. Then I remembered I had to manually turn on the ventilator and the other machines, so I did that.”
“You did all the right things.”
“Maybe. A few minutes later, the readings on the monitor showed his heart rate and brain activity slowing. Then, a short while later, he was dead. Dead. It was such a quiet ending. Silent. In fact, no gasping or whimpering. But I killed him. I waited too long. On purpose.”
“You didn’t. As you said, he was dead already.”
“Yeah, but not really. I don’t know if he understood what was going on around him, or if his brain was blank, but I should’ve acted sooner. I mean, he depended on me.”
“Oh, don’t cry. I don’t want you to cry.” He moved closer on the sofa and gently touched her shoulders. She rested her head on his chest and held him tightly. The heat from his chest warmed her and she breathed in his scent.
“Don’t be afraid to hug me. I don’t break.” Howard wrapped his arms around her and pulled her closer. He rested his cheek against the top of her head. Her hair was still thick, although no longer blonde; she had let it go gray, a lovely, shimmering pearl gray. He sniffed. They sat that way for a long time. Finally, without letting go, Annemarie said, “Some celebration. Some happy couple we are.”
In a husky voice, Howard said, “Maybe this is as happy as we get. We’re both damaged, but surviving. After all, there are no guarantees about happiness or anything else.”
“That’s a pretty gloomy commentary.”
They eventually fell asleep on the sofa. Hours later, in the warm, soft darkness of the night, she awakened and looked at her watch. Then she looked at Howard, smiled at his snoring, and gently roused him. She led him to her bedroom, where he removed his shoes, collapsed on her bed, and immediately began snoring. The next morning, he was showered and dressed as she was awakening.
“Well, I finally got you to sleep with me again. I guess I can check that off my bucket list.”
“It’s good that I stayed. I needed to talk, and I’m glad you told me what you told me last night.”
“I was able to tell you—no one else.”
“I want you to know, Annemarie, that I—”
“You don’t have to say anything.”
“I care for you, more than just as a friend, but I’m not ready to move forward with my feelings yet—that is, if you want me to do that.”
“You know I do.”
“I just need to figure out what I am and where I am and—”
“Okay; just don’t take too long. We’re not getting any younger.”
Later, while Howard was sitting in a jolting subway car downtown to the bookstore, he wrestled with his conflicting emotions and the dizzying array of images flashing and whizzing and crackling across his synapses. He believed that each of his ideas and understandings was valid and worthwhile. He knew that he existed in the here and now, but he still thought that some of what he had read in Infinite Journeys, Infinite Possibilities might be correct, thinking, people can believe in Genesis and evolution, in non-violence and the need to defend oneself, in science and fantasy. Life isn’t bound by unyielding rules. It’s a jumble.
He listed the opposing ideas that were running through his consciousness into his pocket notebook:
Life is a straight-arrow journey from birth to death, or it’s an infinite number and variety of simultaneous, never-ending planes of existence.
I have not been with Faye since the last time I saw her in the real 1995, or I have returned to her on numerous occasions.
I have spoken to characters from literature, or I imagined that I spoke to those fictional renderings.
I am a deeply damaged being who will never know how to live as other people do, or I am evolving and becoming better.
I am still inextricably bound to Faye, because even though I was unable to express my feelings at the time, I did love her, or I am free to care about others now, namely Annemarie.
Because of my callous treatment of Peter and my lack of attention to Faye, which caused so much misery, I do not deserve happiness, or people do terrible things and they all deserve forgiveness and opportunities to experience joy.
As he walked into the bookstore, reading and rereading the list of opposing understandings, he knew which ones he wanted to embrace.