Analyzing the Onion Soup
When I walked into the restaurant at precisely seven that evening I felt uncomfortable. Although it was not as bright and noisy as the juice place where I had met Faye that afternoon, it was overly warm and crowded. There were tables with people throughout the place, and the conversations sounded like a storm of frantic insect buzzing. When Faye had not arrived by 7:05 I was sure she was not coming, so I turned to leave, but then a young woman wearing a white blouse, black vest, and black slacks asked whether I wanted to be seated. I told her that I was supposed to meet someone, but that she was probably not coming.
“What makes you say that?” the woman asked.
“She asked me to meet her here at 7:00. It’s 7:05 now.”
“Well, that’s not very late. I’m sure she’ll be here. Give her a few more minutes. I have a table right there. You’ll be able to see her from there,” the young woman said as she picked up two menus and began walking to the table to which she had pointed. I followed her.
At that point in my life I disliked being in restaurants—and theaters and museums and stores and most other places—because they are usually noisy and crowded. For obvious reasons, I have never minded when my store is filled with customers; besides, I can always stay behind the counter, where I feel safe. The other reason why I have never liked restaurants then—I’m more tolerant now—is that I can’t stand to see the weird kinds of foods that people eat: animal flesh, for instance. Most people don’t like to think about how steak or chicken breast is flesh that has been cut from a dead animal, an animal that somebody confined and fed and then murdered. Sure, I eat yogurt, and, maybe the cows whose milk is used to make it do not like being confined, but at least they are not executed so that people can consume their flesh.
But not just meat. In restaurants, people eat piles of lumpy bread and pasta and all sorts of foods in thick, ugly gravy, and unnamable things fried in saturated fat. They may as well drink motor oil. I’m sure they eat a lot of the same things at home. I know my mother used to cook roast beef and she would fry onions and potatoes and drown everything on her plate in sweet syrups and gravies and dressings. And desserts: frosted, sugary cakes; gooey, creamy pastries; and chocolate donuts. It’s no wonder she and my father looked like inflated helium balloons. I did not eat the food she cooked and I used to try to explain to her and my father what they were doing to themselves, but then I gave up. After all, I had my life and they had theirs. It’s not that I didn’t care about them; it’s just that I think there’s a limit to how far a person should go to control another person’s life.
In any case, when Faye finally walked into the restaurant she looked so beautiful that I didn’t care that she was fifteen minutes late. I mean, I cared because people should never be late, but I was not upset with her. How could I be? All I could think about when I looked at her was that she was perfect.
I decided to take a chance on the soup. Except for the bread and cheese, which I fished out and placed on a nearby plate, it was good, although I suspected there was beef or some other kind of animal flesh in the broth. The salad was good, but I had to argue with the waiter because he said it came with the “house dressing,” and all I wanted was lemon juice. However, I enjoyed talking to Faye about books. She did not know a lot about classic literature, but she understood what I had to say and she asked some very intelligent questions. She was also rather funny. I could not wait to go back to her place after dinner, but when we got there, she would not let me in. That’s when she said she wanted a serious relationship. I was so aroused that I told her I wanted the same thing. When I said that, I meant it. As I explained at the beginning of this story, I always mean what I say, at least I do when I say it.
I thought about what a relationship with Faye would be like. Of course, I would have to like her, but I already did. How could I not? She was so beautiful and smart and funny. Each time I thought about her I became excited and happy. I knew I would have to spend a lot of time with her, but that would be nice, especially in bed. She had talked about marriage and children. I had never thought about that, but … maybe.
I called Faye the next day from my store, but her phone rang and rang. The same thing on Sunday. Just before I left the store that night I called her again, and she answered. She said she had been at her parents’ house in Queens and had just gotten home. Then I remembered she had said it was her birthday, so I wished her happy birthday.
“Thanks, but I’m not celebrating. As I said, as of yesterday I’m 29. It’s official. I’m older than I want to be, so let’s not talk about it.”
“I’ll be 29 in a few months.”
“When’s your birthday?” she asked.
“Oh. That was the day—.”
“Yes. I was born within a minute of when he was killed.”
“My mom still talks about it like it was yesterday.”
We talked a bit more. Then Faye said she had to get to sleep. When I said I wanted to see her again, she told me to call her the next day, and she gave me her work number, saying she was usually at her desk.
I called the next day. Although the bookstore was busy—Mondays usually are—I was able to talk on the phone and ring up sales at the same time. Faye said that throughout most of her day she does paperwork, so she can stay on the phone as long as she wants. After I asked her twice, she agreed to meet me at seven, saying we could eat at a local vegan restaurant. “I’ve never eaten there, but you’ll be able to find something to eat. I’m pretty sure you’ll like the place.” When I told her that I don’t close the store until much later than seven, usually not until about nine, she asked how I had been able to be at the juice place during the middle of the day the previous week. I explained about the fight and the damage and how upset I had been and how I had to get away. “Well, how do you expect us to be able to go out and how could we ever have a relationship? Not that I’m expecting that to happen.”
“I thought we could eat here, in the store.”
“The name of the place is Honey Blossom. Look up the number and order food to be delivered for seven. Okay?”
When Faye walked into the store I got up from my stool behind the counter and led her to the back room, where I had set up the food.
“That looks very nice,” she said as she looked around.
We ate foods that I had ordered, although I had never heard of any of them: Spicy Vegan Peanut Butter Tofu With Sriracha, Vegan Southwestern Stuffed Butternut Squash, and Vegan Pad Thai. It was all good. I had to leave Faye to go to the counter only a few times during the meal. After we ate I gave her a tour of the store.
“I think it’s wonderful how much you love this place. I mean it’s very nice and you seem to be doing well. You’re lucky. Most people hate their jobs.”
“I think about books and fictional characters all day.”
She smiled and kissed my cheek, but when I tried to kiss her lips, she said, “No. Not now. Not here.” Then she asked me what time I planned on closing for the night. When I told her about nine, she said, “Too late. I like to be in bed by ten-thirty. If you close early, you can drop by my apartment for a while.”
I told her I would be there at eight.
“Good. I like talking with you. You’re sweet and smart and funny in an innocent kind of way, but we’re just going to talk. We’re still getting to know each other. You still have a long way to go.” She smiled sweetly as she said that.
At seven-thirty, I told the few people in the store that I was closing and they had to leave.
“So, Howard, I think you can see that you were ready, from the start of your relationship with Faye, to make accommodations—modifications to your very rigid lifestyle so as to suit her needs. You do see that, don’t you?”
Howard thought for a moment before he shrugged.
“Howard, do you remember what we agreed on—that you would provide verbal answers to my questions? Just nodding your head is not an act of affirmation. For this process to work, you must talk, and not merely gesture.”
“I do not think what you said is correct.”
“Of course, I closed my store early on the day I met Faye, as I do now for my sessions with you, and I agreed to meet her in a restaurant, but those things had to happen because of circumstances.”
“Go on. Explain what you mean.”
Howard explained that he had closed early that day years before because he had been upset; he said that agreeing to meet Faye in a restaurant had been a means to an end. It was what he had to do to achieve his objective, to get what he wanted, which was to be with her.
“By ‘be with,’ you mean what?”
“All I could think about was what she would look like naked and how it would feel to be in physical contact with her and to ... but it was more than that. Even though I did not really understand it at the time, I felt a deep kind of affection for her. I can’t say I loved her, because I didn’t. I still don’t understand what it means to love someone, but I wanted to talk with her and be with her in every possible way.”
“You mean you wanted her sexually.”
“I’ve already said that, but I did also want to talk with her.”
“Did you think that, one day, you would live with or marry her?”
“I did not feel grown up enough at that time.”
“You were 28 years old. That’s an adult.”
“I know, but I always felt I wasn’t. Sometimes I still do not—even now, at the age of 56—feel like I am an adult. I mean, I’m smarter than most people, but I really don’t understand people or how the world works or how to handle situations or how to care about or commit to a person. Back then, I didn’t spend any time thinking about it.”
“That does not make you less of an adult, but, as long as you’ve said it, let’s talk for a minute about your alienation from people.”
“Is that what it is? I’m alienated?”
“Aren’t you? Do you feel connected to other people? Do you care about the needs and wants of others? Do you care about their opinions?”
“No. You know I don’t. I’ve said that over and over.”
“How about Faye. Were you less alienated from her?”
“I’ve never thought about that.”
“Think now, please.”
“I guess, after a while, perhaps I loved her or was in love with her in my way, which is like loving air or enjoying a warm bath or how you feel when you take a long drink of cold water on a hot day. It was for me; it was all for me. I loved her for what she did for me and how she made me feel and how she nourished me inside, where my soul should be. I never tried to even think about her feelings or attempt to ... to do what she wanted. I wanted her the way I want other things in my life. I guess I just consumed her. I never thought about what she wanted. That’s why all this tragic stuff happened to her and to me.”
“Why do you think it was like that, Howard?”
“It was, it is because I have a void where my feelings should be.”
“You have feelings. You feel things in reference to yourself, no?”
“Yes, but even a snail feels for itself. I don’t feel for others.”
“So, is that something on which you would like to work, Howard?”
“Yes, but only if I can go back to then and stay there. Those kinds of feelings are of no use to me now, here, at this point in time, in this phony life.”
“We’ve talked about this. You cannot go back in time, if that is what you are saying. All we can do is help you to live your real life.”
“This is not my real life! My real life ended long ago. I have to go back, stay in my real life so I can live it the way I should have lived it.”
After writing in his notebook, Dr. LeMane asked, “How is that done? How does one go back? Of course, one can go back by thinking, but that is not really going back. It can’t be done. Can it?”
“I’ve told you. I do go back, but then I’m pulled. I fall back to here and now, again and again, where I don’t belong. There must be some medication, some therapy, some device to get me unstuck from this erroneous plane of existence. This is the twenty-first century. I shouldn’t be stuck like this. If I had cancer or if I were suffering from schizophrenia, I would be able to have medication. Right? Why can’t I have it for my situation?”
“I know of no such medication to remedy your situation. Sorry. You must attempt to come to terms with this obsessive ideation. You must understand that it is not based on reality.”
“Let me explain.” Howard closed his eyes and thought for a moment, and then he said, “I already live in two planes of existence. There’s this crappy, phony life now, this one, where I’m 56 years old, alone, broken, and sad, and there’s my real life, where I’m a young man with Faye. When I’m there with her I know that I already had one shot at that life and I understand what I did wrong and I know what to do this time around. I want to be able to stay there and do it right, live a long, happy life with her.”
“You’re talking about memories or dreams or daydreams?”
“No. I do go back to that time.”
“And what happens when you go back?”
“It feels right. I have my present memories, and I try to do what I should have done the first time. Then I get pulled back to here and now.”
“Maybe that’s all there is, Howard. Perhaps you should revel in those moments in the past and accept this life too. Why ask for more?”
“Because I’m there with her for only a few minutes at a time, and I always fall back to this purgatory. I want to be able to stay there.”
“I’m a trained therapist, Howard, and I can help you, but I cannot do that; I cannot help you return to or remain permanently in another plane of existence or another time period. If you do some research on the subject you will see that what you are talking about is, at best, fantasy and, at worst, psychotic behavior of a type that is referred to as counterfactual thinking.”
“This life is counterfactual. This is not my real life. It’s a shadow cast on the wall of a cave, a facade, a mistake, a cosmic joke.”
“What you are saying worries me, Howard. Please understand: if you persist in delving too deeply into the kind of behavior to which you are referring, if you attempt to find ways of intervening in time and space, you may irreparably damage the fabric of your real existence.”
Howard smiled grimly. Then he closed his eyes for a few seconds. When he opened them, he said, “That’s what I hope to do. It’s what I need to do. I won’t be back, Dr. LeMane. I’m going to find someone who can help me to be where I should be so I don’t have to dwell in this horrifying, false rendering of my life anymore.”
When I walked out of Dr. LeMane’s office that day a year ago I felt empowered because I knew I had made an affirmative decision, the one that would help me to resolve the excruciating problem of my erroneous existence. That afternoon, when I entered the store, I did not put up the Open sign, as I always did when I returned from my therapy sessions. Instead, I pulled out from my briefcase that list of alternative therapists, my Pacha list, and, starting from the top, began calling. The first two people on the list did not answer their phones, so I left voicemail messages, but since they were clinical psychologists I did not think they would be able to help me. Two others, after I had explained my problem, sounded less than sure of themselves, so I just hung up on them. Then I came to the Infinite Levels of Existence Society. Yes, I also thought the name was a bit over the top, but I was desperate and open to every possibility, so I dialed the number and waited. A recorded message indicated that I had reached Antonin Renard and that he would return my call as soon as possible. I hung up, checked the number, and dialed again. This time, a man with what I assumed was a French accent answered the phone and said hello. I felt a minor electrical shock, as if the telephone line had short-circuited.
“Is this the Infinite Levels of Existence Society?”
“Yes. Antonin Renard speaking. How may I help you?”
Again, I experienced a brief, unpleasant electrical charge. Trying to ignore it, I said, “I have a problem; I’m stuck in the wrong place and time and I need help. Do you deal with those issues?”
He did not reply. Instead, I heard background sounds and muffled voices and a dog barking, followed by a clunking sound. Then the man came back on the line. “Oh, you must excuse me. Mirabella was excited by something, a mouse perhaps, so I had to calm her. But, to answer your question, yes, I help people with challenges of all sorts. How did you hear about our institute?”
“I Googled it.”
“Excellent. That is excellent. Did you read the material on our Website?”
“Yes. I did. That is why I called, although your site does not mention anything about my kind of situation.”
“Yes. Of course, you must understand that there are infinite levels of existence and each of them contains an infinite number of joys and sorrows. Would you please give me your name?”
After I had provided my name and the address of the store, Mr. Renard asked when I wanted to come in for a free consultation and tour of the institute, which was on Christopher Street in the Village.
“As soon as possible. Now, if that’s possible.”
“Let me see. I will be free in an hour. Would that work for you?”
I wanted it to work, but I began to believe that the man was a charlatan, so I asked, “How many with my condition have you helped?”
“I do not know. We will have to talk at length before I fully understand your specific state of affairs and how we can help you. After all, for every problem and puzzle there is a solution, perhaps many solutions. In any case, it never hurts to talk. Is that not true?”
“And, is this a free consultation?”
“Of course. I will not ask you for any money until and unless I actually help you, and you may pay me after I have brought you relief. If I cannot do that or if you are dissatisfied in any way, then you will owe nothing. And, even if I am not able to help, you may want to attend our sessions and, perhaps, become a member of our fraternity. There is no charge for any of that; we are all in search of understanding, which we hope to obtain by listening to each other in a mutually beneficial manner. Some people who attended the sessions and became members have been with us for years.”
When I arrived at the address for The Infinite Levels of Existence Society I was surprised to see that it was a church or what had once been a church, situated between the New Age Tattoo Parlor and Hindu Kush Restaurant. There was no sign or nameplate indicating that it was the headquarters of an organization. The front doors were open. I walked into a large airy space which had been the nave of the church. There were no pews and no religious objects; instead, the area was filled with beds, chairs, and tables. No one was around. I turned back and walked up a narrow, cluttered staircase near the front door which led to a dimly lit hallway. Walking past three closed doors, I stopped in front of one that was open.
“Oh, I see you have found us. Bien. Come in, come in.” The accented voice came from a tall, elegantly dressed very dark-skinned man sitting behind a large desk. He looked familiar, but I could not imagine why. As I walked into the small office the man stood up, hesitated, and stared at me. Then he smiled, walked around his desk, and held my outstretched hand in both of his for a second. Again, I felt a slight electrical impulse.
“Are you Mr. Renard?”
“Mais oui. Did I shock you? I felt a shock. Static electricity, I assume. Please sit. I will return to my chair and we will talk.”
“I did feel a shock. More important, can you help me?”
“I will try. You look familiar. Surely, we have met before today.”
“I don’t know. That doesn’t matter. I need your help.”
“Well, let me say you have the look of a traveler about you.”
“No. I don’t travel. I don’t like to be away from the city.”
“No. I am referring to ethereal travel, voyages through the multiverse, which all of us take, although not all people understand this.”
“I don’t know what you mean. Are you saying everybody travels through time?”
“Of course, everyone journeys infinitely. Now, in your case, you believe you’re trapped in the wrong plane of existence. Is that not true?”
“Yes, and you were talking about traveling through the multiverse. What does that mean?”
Renard explained that all people travel through and are present in infinite planes of existence all of the time, although, he explained, “the concepts of time and space are not easy to comprehend.” He added that most people never realize that they exist on multiple planes simultaneously, saying, “That is the goal of our little organization: to understand our perpetual journeys, and I do mean perpetual, for we continue to journey after each of our earthly mortal encasements, that is, our bodies, our shells, dies. However, we may not have ever come across anyone with your particular issue, the one to which you have alluded, that of being caught in the wrong place and time. That is what you said, am I not correct?”
“Yes. I want to be back to the time and place when and where I was happy, and I do go there, but I keep falling back to here.”
“You seem to believe there are only two planes of existence, the past and the present, and two places, there and here, and that we exist in one time and place on a permanent basis.”
“Yes. That’s my case.”
“No. That is not how it is. We must educate you. Here: read this book. It presents our thoughts and our understanding of the infinite number of places and times and planes of existence. After you have read the book, please come back, and then we will talk more.”
I looked at the thick paperback that Renard had handed to me, the title of which was Infinite Journeys, Infinite Possibilities.
“No. I want help now. I don’t want to read this book and then come back to you. Now. Do you understand me? Now.”
“There is no now, my fellow traveler. You, I, all of humanity, all matter, are continuously traveling.” He stood up. His large, glistening eyes seemed to bore into my brain. Then he fell back into his chair, closed his eyes, and held his large hands with their thick fingers over his face. He seemed to be grimacing in pain. After silently watching him for a full minute, which I used my wristwatch to time, I felt the beginning of a headache coming on, so I stood up and walked out the door. I left Infinite Journeys, Infinite Possibilities on my chair.
The next morning, when I looked in a mirror I recalled Antonin Renard. It’s his eyes, I thought. They’re like mine. His forehead too and his cheeks. Except for the difference in skin color, a lot of similarity.
Later in the day I called the rest of the numbers on my list. None of the people to whom I spoke sounded promising. The two for whom I had left voicemail messages the day before called me. After listening to a few seconds of their blathering, I hung up on each of them. I doubted that anyone would be able to help me to solve the puzzle of my life.
Although Renard had not provided me with even a hint of a solution to my problem I found what he had told me interesting. I understood what he had said about there being infinite levels of reality and an infinite number of existences for each and every human being, but I doubted that knowledge would help me to return to Faye and our happy time together.
I wondered whether I should have taken Infinite Journeys, Infinite Possibilities with me when I walked out of Renard’s office, thinking that it would not hurt to read it. He seemed to be a very intelligent man. I thought that his book might just contain a grain of information that would lead me in the right direction. Even if it did not, I thought, perhaps, just like the onion soup, I might enjoy it.