Chapter One of Infinite Journeys, Infinite Possibilities by Antonin Leopold Renard begins as follows:
When I was nine years old, I told my parents that my earliest memory was of the limitless expanse of the shimmering blue blue sea. They laughed and said that our home, Mirebalais, Haiti, was very far from the sea and that they had never taken me to any other place to see it. Perhaps, my father said, I had dreamed of it. I knew that was not the case. I wondered: if my parents had never taken me to see the ocean, how was I able to picture it as clearly as I had? We did not own a television and there was no movie house in our little town. Of course, I had seen pictures of oceans and seas in books, but the image in my mind, my memory, was of an endless, living, gently moving, sun-dappled entity, something that even the finest photographs and drawings could not fully depict. When, years later, I flew over the sea in an airplane for the first time, I looked down and said to myself, “Yes. That is exactly what I have held in my memory for as long as I can remember.”
At that point in this version of my existence, as I flew over the sea to journey to America, I had begun to develop an understanding of the infinite number of planes of existence and possibilities that people commonly refer to as life.
When Howard walked into the bookstore two mornings after his visit to the headquarters of the Infinite Levels of Existence Society he saw a large manila envelope lying on the floor, along with bills and other correspondence that had been pushed through the mail slot in the door. Assuming it contained yet another book by a young author, of which he received three or four each week, he placed it on the table in the back room, planning on examining it later in the day. At noon, as he sat at the table eating his lunch, he picked up the envelope, ripped it open, pulled out the book that it contained, and tossed the envelope into a box on the floor. He held in his hands a copy of Infinite Journeys, Infinite Possibilities. This was amazing because he had wished he had kept the copy of the book that Renard had given to him. He liked the cover photograph of the blue blue sea and the clear, bold typeface used for the title, so he started to read. When a customer rang the bell on the sales counter, Howard was surprised to see that he had sat for a half hour, during which time he had read the first 42 pages of the book. He brought it with him to the counter so that he would be able to read it between sales; when he closed the store that night, he took the book with him to his apartment.
At a bit past midnight, when he finished the book, Howard sat back and read the last paragraph over and over again:
Life, like my juvenile remembered image of the sea, is endless, alive, ever changing, and astonishing. Just like that boundless accumulation of relentlessly moving, constantly transforming molecules composing the sea, we all travel to and through and live and remain present in an infinite number and variety of existences. For that very reason, dear reader, each and every instance of each and every nanosecond of each and every one of your planes of existence should be treasured. Remember: we are not prisoners of time and space, because we are all essential and indispensable components of the very fabric of existence.
As Howard, sitting up in bed, contemplated those words, he felt the same mild electric shock as the one that had coursed through him when he had spoken to Renard on the phone and when he had been in the man’s cramped office at the headquarters of the Infinite Levels of Existence Society. Never one to spend much time reflecting on transient feelings, Howard shrugged off the sensation and reflected on what he had read and how it applied to his situation. Even though he had not found a solution to the central problem of his life, the one that plagued him during each of his waking hours and burned his soul like a corrosive acid—that of coming up with a way to permanently reside in the past with Faye—he decided that he now understood his state of affairs.
According to Renard, everyone simultaneously resides in and has always dwelled in an infinite number of planes of existence; there is no one reality or absolute time or place, because all realities, times, and places are equally valid; one cannot deliberately travel from one rendition of his or her existence to another; the plane of existence in which one senses that he or she is living may be thought of as his or her primary plane in that instant, but the individual simultaneously exists in other equally authentic planes; and, most importantly, one cannot eliminate any plane or number of planes of existence so that he or she can permanently reside in only one.
But, Howard asked himself, How does Renard know this? Maybe he’s wrong. Maybe, with some help from a different cognizant, I will be able to do what I most desire: erase this present form of existence—that of living and working in New York City, alone, 56 years old, in the year 2019, so that I can live where and when I want and have a chance to be happy again.
Then Howard wondered whether he was a cognizant. Even though he believed—had been sure of for years—that he had traveled back, over and over again, to those three plus years, 1992 to 1995, when he was with Faye, Howard was not able to remember any other travel to and from another existence at any other time. Did that mean he was an incognizant? If so, what did that mean? How does one become a cognizant? Is this theory about different planes of existence, which I have wondered about over the years, even correct?
Howard closed the store early the next day and returned to the headquarters of the Infinite Levels of Existence Society. Renard was nowhere to be found. The door to his office, as with all of the other doors on the second floor, was locked. No one was around, so he walked down the stairs to the large area that was filled with beds, tables, and chairs.
“Do you need a place for the night, dear?” asked a cocoa-colored middle-aged woman with a West Indian accent.
“No. I want to talk to Renard, Mr. Renard,” Howard replied.
“I am sorry. I do not know who that is.”
“He runs this place. This organization. The Infinite Levels of Existence Society, up on the second floor.”
“I do not know about that. I am a volunteer for the West Village Shelter. I do not know of anybody upstairs. I have never been up there.”
Howard nodded and then he walked out to the sidewalk. After standing in place for a moment, he crossed the street and entered a luncheonette, where he ordered a cup of tea. He sat by the large front window, where he was able to see the front of the old church. Is Renard in another plane of existence now? he wondered. That doesn’t matter. In that book, he writes that when one is in another plane he or she is simultaneously in other ones.
When Howard finished his tea, he paid the cashier and crossed the street back to the church. The woman to whom he had spoken earlier was wiping down tables as she talked on her cell phone. Howard walked up the stairs again. No one was around. He left, figuring he would return at another time.
Each time he visited the old church after that day he found that all of the second floor offices were locked. Each time he called the phone number for the Infinite Levels of Existence Society he left a voicemail message, but no one returned his calls.
“Have you attempted to spend time focusing on enjoyable interests or pursuits or, perhaps, endeavor to establish new relationships with women?” Howard sat back with his eyes tightly closed. After an extended period of silence, Dr. LeMane cleared his throat and looked at Howard, whose face slowly transformed from tense and troubled to serene and blissful. “Why don’t we talk about something else? I know you are a reader, Howard. What have you read recently?”
Still reclining, Howard opened his eyes, blinked, and focused on Dr. LeMane. He rubbed his face with his large hands. Then he yawned.
“Does talking about books bother you, Howard? If so, we can discuss any other subject. You decide on our topic of conversation.”
“Interesting that you asked me about books. Do you know, out of all the themes in all of the world’s great literature, which two dominate?”
“I don’t know, Howard. Why don’t you tell me.”
“No. Guess. I want you to guess.”
“I would imagine love and loss and, perhaps, violence.”
“You’re right; love and loss and violence are in most of them, but those are incidental. Think about Hamlet, Macbeth, The Fall, Heart of Darkness, The Trial. Surely, you are familiar with them.”
“I am, but my opinion does not matter. Tell me what the two main themes are.”
“Guilt and retribution.” Dr. LeMane waited for Howard to continue. “Every book that I have read, every worthwhile book I have ever read is about that: guilt and retribution.”
“Oh? How about A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Jane Eyre? Surely, many fine pieces of literature are not about guilt and retribution.”
“Is that what you think? Hah! Good literature is about guilt, corruption, and stains on the soul. Do you know why?” When Dr. LeMane remained silent, Howard said, “Because that is the pitiful nature of people. Always has been.”
“Howard, it is clear that you are very unhappy. Perhaps that is why you interpret all of the fine literature of the world in that way. Let us attempt to delve more deeply into what is bothering you.”
“You’re no help at all. I shouldn’t have bothered to call you.”
“Why did you call me, Howard?”
“I called you because ... because I don’t know where else to turn. I’m so tired. I don’t eat. I feel confused. I have a very hard time getting through my days. I get mixed up all the time. My head feels like it weighs a ton.”
“Are you sleeping, Howard? If you need a prescription, I can write one for you. Sleep is important.”
“That’s your solution? Sleeping pills? Hah!”
I had not wanted to turn to Dr. LeMane again. It was just that, after reading about the planes of existence and then not being able to locate Antonin Renard to ask him a few of my most urgent questions, I had to talk to someone. Pretty sad, huh? I had no one else to talk to in my time of need. My parents were long gone, not that I had ever felt comfortable discussing anything with them, and ... that’s it. I had no one else.
Of course, there was Freud. After having read most of his work and several biographies of him, I believed I understood his theories, but they did not apply to my problem, my agony. Of course, there was Pip and Emma and Madame Bovary and Daniel Deronda and Humbert Humbert. What about Michael Henchard? I could talk to him. He was sitting on a chair next to my bed.
“We have a lot in common, don’t we, Michael?” I asked.
“I do not know you. How do you know about me?”
“Well, at the beginning of The Mayor of Casterbridge, which is how I know about your life, you have too much to drink and you make a terrible decision, one that haunts you for the rest of your life.”
“Ah, yes. The fermity.”
“What is fermity anyway?”
“Oh. It is English peasant food, a kind of gruel made from corn, flour, milk, raisins, currants and other ingredients.”
“But that’s not all, is it?”
“No. Unfortunately, the old lady who sold bowl after bowl of it to me that day put a dab of rum into it. Back then, I had a weakness.”
“So, that’s all it was? An alcoholic blunder?”
Henchard began to speak. Then he stopped and put the long, thin fingers of one hand to his lips. I waited. I knew he would continue if I waited long enough. In that way, he is—or was or is—different from me. For all of my life, through that period of time several months ago, except during my sessions with Dr. LeMane, I had never needed to reach out and unburden myself to others, which is why, after all is said and done, I always kept my problems and pain locked up inside. I waited. Then I cleared my throat and stared at him. I have found that—clearing my throat and staring—to be an effective way of encouraging people to speak and reveal themselves.
“No. It was more than the drink. I had a soul sickness.”
“Is that it?”
“No. That is not it. I was dissatisfied with my lot in life and with my limited choices. I had a good wife, Susan, and a sweet baby, Elizabeth-Jane, but I had no job. As you know, I was a hay trusser by trade. We were traveling to a little village called Weydon-Priors, where I had hoped to find a position, but I was told there were none.”
“As you consumed more and more of the spiked fermity you began to reveal your true feelings. Right?” After a few seconds, Henchard nodded his head. “You said that if you were a free man, you. ... Your exact words were that you would ‘be worth a thousand pound.’ Isn’t that what you said?”
Henchard looked down. Then, turning to me, he said, “Yes. Those were my words, and you know what I did.”
“You sold your wife and child to a sailor for five guineas.” Henchard nodded in agreement. Then he looked down again. “How much is five guineas? I don’t know English money.”
“Ah. In my day, at that time in England, it was twenty shillings, which was a pound and four shillings.”
“And, so, for that paltry sum, you gave away your wife and child, and spent years trying to find them again. Then, after a while, you achieved financial success and became a man of prestige, but in the end, because of your earlier corruption and guilt, you lost everything. That was your reward, your fate.”
“I did not cause that to happen. After all, I am just a character in a novel, a fictional figure. Mr. Thomas Hardy is the one who put me and everything else in motion. What choice did I have?”
“Oh, so you are saying you did not have choices. I guess you are not a religious person. I thought all people supposedly have free will.”
Henchard looked at me with glistening eyes. Then he stood up and walked out the door. I was too tired to tell him that I too had driven away a woman who loved me, although alcohol and dissatisfaction with life had nothing to do with it, so I shut the light, placed the book on my nightstand, and made myself comfortable. Then I got out of bed to make sure Henchard had closed my apartment door when he left. He had.
A few days later, Howard was in the back room of his store, once again trying to will himself to the time between1992 and 1995. He was relying on a method he had used many times before: he was looking, in an unfocused way, at the television section of The New York Times in an attempt to find a film that was to be televised that night, one that had originally been released during the period of time when he had been with Faye. If he saw a listing for a film that he thought had been in theaters back then, he made sure he did not look at the date in the parentheses, and then he said, “Yes. I want to be there then,” after which he checked the date to see whether or not it had actually been in theaters during those good years. Sometimes it worked. If he had chosen the right movie he would be transported to his time with Faye. He remembered an afternoon a few weeks before, when he had scanned the TV section, stopping when he saw that Interview with the Vampire was being broadcast that night. He had seen few movies during the course of his life, but he had read the book and remembered that he had received a publicity poster for the film when it came out, so he said, “Yes. I want to be there then,” after which he checked the date. The listing showed 1994. Shortly after that, he spent a few rapturous weeks with Faye.
The bell on the sales counter rang. When Howard looked up he saw that a slim, attractive, familiar-looking woman wearing a full-length fur coat was standing at the counter. He stood up and walked out to the store. He silently scanned the books that she had placed on the counter and rang up the sale, after which he ran the woman’s charge card through the reader, placed her purchases and receipt in a plastic bag, and handed her card back to her. She picked up the bag, but did not step away. Instead, she looked at Howard. As he looked at the woman he smelled lemon drops, but he did not quite remember.
“Yes. Is there a problem? I didn’t make a mistake on your sale.”
“You don’t recognize me, do you?”
Howard looked. Then he said, “I’m not sure—”
“Did you look at the name on the charge card?”
“No. I did not.”
“Here. Look,” she said, handing the card back to him.
“Annemarie Morris. Do I know you?”
“You do. You did. Quite a few years ago.”
“Oh. I know who you are.”
“I still have that copy of Les Miserables you let me keep.”
“Yes ... and we ... we. ...”
“You don’t remember what else happened?”
“I do. We had sex.”
Neither one spoke. Then Annemarie walked out of the store.
That night, Howard thought about Jean Valjean.
“Life was never fair to you. Was it?” Howard asked.
“Life is merde. It always has been and it always will be.”
“So, what’s the point?”
“Is there one?”
“Do you believe there are other planes of existence?”
“I do not understand the meaning of that phrase, monsieur.”
“It has to do with life. Is this existence—New York in 2019, where and when we are right now—all there is, or do people exist in other places and times simultaneously?”
“New York? This is New York? No. I live in France. The last year I remember is 1832. No. You must be mistaken.”
“Forget the year and date. Do you think life exists in more than one place and time, or are we stuck in a particular plane of existence?”
“I still do not understand that phrase. I have never heard of such a thing, but I will ask you this: if I died at the end of that book, in 1832, how could I be alive and able to talk to you?”
As Valjean walked from Howard’s apartment, he turned his head and murmured, “C’est la vie.”
Howard lay in bed for a long time, wondering about the boundary between reality and fantasy, sanity and madness, finally deciding that it was a matter of perspective. No matter how I perceive it, my life is a prison cell and my sentence is infinite.