“Who are you?”
The question had been on his tongue before the door crossed the threshold. The light from the outer hallway grew from a thin sliver until it filled the room, absorbing the darkness like a cup being filled. The figure in the doorway hesitated slightly before entering and shutting the door again. He heard the sound of keys hitting the counter followed by the squishy sound of a handbag being set down next to them. There was an impatient sigh from the intruder and then the click of the light switch. He squinted at the pale ceiling lights that transformed the room into something far less familiar. He recognized the woman standing there with her hand still on the switch. Her expression hinted that she likewise knew his face but accepted that he was a stranger in her apartment.
Her chestnut hair tumbled just barely over her shoulders, tight curls glinting slightly perhaps from being in the rain. It could’ve been raining outside for all he knew. She was wearing a puffy winter coat that reminded him of an upholstered chair from the seventies. He had seen her wear a variation of it before but with a slightly different color. Sometimes there was faux fur sprouting from the sleeves and other times there were only cheap plastic buttons clasping it over her bony wrists. A cold gust from outside just now reached him causing the hairs on his arm to raise. Or perhaps it had been her arrival that created the chill. He did not bother to get out of his chair, instead opting to swirl the half melted cubes of ice in his glass and wait for his answer. Sometimes she gave her real name. Other times she lied. He guessed they were names that she gave to strangers who bought her drinks. Now that he considered it, it was possible that one of them was her real name and he had been the man buying her a drink all those years ago. They had met in a bar after all. It had been a smoke strangled place not much bigger than the room he was in now. He couldn’t remember the name but he oddly recalled the bartender’s face.
She chose not to answer this time. She instead proceeded to peel off her coat and hang it in the closet opposite the kitchen regarding him as if he were a messy plate left on the furniture in her rushed morning departure. He tried to not let it bother him except she had that look on her face that he saw every time he disappointed her. Even now it invoked a warmness in his gut that accompanied the little spritz of adrenaline he got when he knew he was about to participate in a confrontation. She closed the closet door with a curtness that confirmed his intuition. He was tempted to get up and pour himself another drink but he decided it would be better to wait a bit longer so he could get a feel for this one.
“Are you supposed to be my husband?” she asked with the coolness of a prospecting employer. She didn’t face him when she spoke. He was a little disappointed. He had been in the mood for something a little more lively tonight and her heated side could be as fun as it was trying. The way she had mouthed the word ‘husband’ hinted at her distaste of the idea. She had scoffed similarly the night he had first slept with her. A few drinks had warmed her up enough to give him the time of day and six more had afforded him the keys to the kingdom. He suppressed a smirk when an amusing thought bubbled out of the recesses of his diminished judgment. He had never considered that he might be overlooking an opportunity to repeat that challenge knowing it would be a fresh experience from her perspective. He scanned his memory for a list of nearby bars and then quickly let the thought fade. There had been something magical about that first bar. It had likely been the bartender.
“Hello dear,” he responded sardonically with a sharp clinking of his ice. “Don’t worry, I clean up after myself usually. Unless I’ve had too many of these.”
“Fabulous,” she said flatly. She began loosening the strings of her soft suede boots while still standing in front of the door. “Let me guess… Phil? No, it’s Stewart. Am I close?”
He set the scotch glass down on the end table and took a deep breath. It bought him a second or two to come up with something witty to say. Or just the boring truth. He could give her any name he wanted and she would accept it as fact. Or at least pretend to. He considered something unsubtle like Thor or Pedro but decided he wanted to leave the door open for his original idea that he had dismissed a moment before. There wasn’t much point in lying about his name so he let it spill off his tongue like a business card tossed onto a table.
“It’s Reese,” he answered. He watched her face for a reaction or maybe a glimmer of recognition. He had theories about the kinds of knowledge the brain might have access to under the curious conditions that now afflicted them. Occasionally, bouts of deja vu had given him cause to evaluate his surroundings and try to see beyond the periphery of his mind’s eye only to have it fade out of reach. He pictured another version of himself sitting in the exact same chair with a full glass of scotch shaking away the disorienting feeling that came with deja vu. He wondered if she might be experiencing it now as well. Instead her gaze dropped down and back up again as if she were internally judging his wardrobe choice.
“I was planning on preparing some pasta for myself,” she announced as she moved behind the island counter and began collecting utensils from the drawers. She knelt briefly and knew exactly which cupboard contained the large dingy pot. She glanced back at over at him as she began to fill the pot with water from the sink faucet. “I suppose I should double the serving. It would be rude otherwise.”
Some things were constant despite the variations. She would sooner slice off her own foot than be improper and that had always created an interesting dynamic between them. He had never considered himself above a crass joke or a McDonald’s cheeseburger and somehow he had married this woman who still called the bathroom a powder room. Not this woman exactly, but a version of her. She lifted the now filled pot with a slight grunt and moved it to the gas range which flared up after a few persistent clicks. He wanted to say her name to see how she would react. He could say it sensually and plant the seed that their marriage had been passion filled and perhaps undermine all of the assumptions she had likely already made about him. He had seen enough possibilities of how his life might have been that he wondered if he could simply cease to be himself and instead be another version of himself. It seemed unfair to him otherwise.
He wondered how many times she had walked through that door and found an empty chair. Perhaps she had encountered a man with a personality more to her liking. Had she found him drinking a full bodied red instead of scotch? Perhaps dinner had been ready when she arrived. He imagined it now, a four course meal. A delicate salad of baby greens with a fine vinaigrette followed by light pasta. The entrée course would be duck confit because that’s what she would order at restaurants when she was feeling romantic. Dessert would be a decadent crème brulet. He would have matched a wine for each course and by the end her head would be floating and she would inevitably be open to suggestion. His suggestion. He glanced at his empty glass and found himself wishing he liked wine. What had that bartender said that had made her laugh that first night? You can’t breed the dog out of the man. That had been after drink number five. He considered offering to make the pasta for her. He knew exactly how she liked it after all.
“Why were you just sitting in the dark like that?”
The question took him by surprise. There would be no denying that this woman saw him as a complete stranger. Preparing a meal for him would be an act of magnanimity. Something about that realization pierced his heart just the same as if she had told him that she hated him. That would’ve been preferable to the utter lack of emotion this person before him now expressed. His habit of sitting in a dark room and drinking his 12 year scotch had been a hallmark of their relationship. Hours burned away waiting for her to return from… where had she been for all that time? Drinks with friends had been the most common excuse but late nights at the office had also become synonymous with date night with the bottle. She had told him to stop waiting up for her after the first few times she had found him reeking of alcohol in the dark. His wandering hands had been deflected and eventually she ceased to even turn the light on when she returned. Without even so much as a how was your evening hon’, she would scurry to the master bedroom and lock the bathroom door. After the accident he saw little reason to stop waiting up even if she would would not be walking through the door ever again. It mattered little that what he was waiting for had changed.
“I… uh…,” his mind scrambled for a response. He realized he that he did not want this woman to be aware of the hell he had endured at her hands. There was no awareness in her face that indicated that she sensed any of the emotional turmoil roiling within him. He looked down at his hand which gripped the scotch glass nearly tight enough to shatter it and saw that the ice was now half melted. He relaxed his grip and gave her a befuddled look. “I… I had a headache earlier. Turning off the lights helps it go away.”
Satisfied with his answer, she pulled a small bamboo cutting board out of a drawer along with a large metal handled knife. Next she collected a clove of garlic from a small ceramic bowl next to the sink and began to finely mince it. As she did so she lifted her eyes and glanced at him as he watched her hands nimbly work the knife. Her eyebrows arched over her round eyes like small crescents the way they always did when she was curious. There was a tingling sensation in his chest as a result. Was she oblivious of the power in such an innocuous expression or had it been a conscious attempt to gain the upper hand? Whatever her intention had been the effect had been the same and all notions of how this evening would play out became murky.
“I hope you like garlic,” she remarked in a suddenly innocent tone. As if on cue she grabbed another clove and continued mincing after shooting another brief glance over at him. His mouth went dry forcing him to wet his lips before he could respond.
“Um.. yes,” he replied nervously. “It’s delightful. Perhaps I can help chop?”
He was out of his seat and in the kitchen before he even decided what he was going to do. His body had simply taken control and pulled him closer to her, willing or not. For a brief second his mind screamed at how irrational this was and what a dangerous game he was playing but he quickly silenced the thought. He was being offered a second chance. Someone or something was finally throwing him a bone and he wasn’t going to stick his nose up at it. Her eyes widened momentarily at his sudden transition into motion but then softened at his offer. He thought he might have seen the corners of her mouth quiver as if she was suppressing the urge to smile. After a brief hesitant contemplation she set the knife down and slid the board over towards him. She then turned to open the refrigerator from which she produced a chilled bottle of pinot grigio.
“Do we often cook together?” she asked as she poured the wine into two long stem glasses sourced from another cupboard. He slowed his mincing for a moment as he considered his response.
“I always wanted to,” he replied. It was an honest answer even if the opportunity had never presented itself. He wondered why that had been the case. Had it never occurred to him before? The kitchen had been her domain and she had coveted it as such. He could recall being chased out on numerous occasions the way a dog looking for scraps would be shooed away. Eventually he had stopped trying and learned to stay in another room until she called him to the table. By then he would be three sheets to the wind and wouldn’t be able to recall what the meal even tasted like. He couldn’t even remember if she had joined him at the table. Now she set the filled wine glass next to him as she took a sip from her own. He nearly missed his thumb with the knife when her proximity brought a subtle whiff of her perfume. How long had it been since she had worn that?
“Goodness, be careful,” she warned him. She had been watching him work the knife closer than he had. His cheeks heated slightly. His mincing had been sloppy and uneven. He waited for her to dismiss him from his task but she simply took another sip of wine and allowed him to proceed. The wine went down easy and before long they were trading stories of their childhood. Some were familiar to him and others were subtly different. On more than one occasion she giggled at anecdotes that had failed to tickle her before. He took advantage of the novelty and retold the stories he knew would thrill her and in return he was rewarded with her wide smile that always brought sparkles to her eyes. The brightness of her face and the faint berry-like scent of the soap she had used that morning culminated into a euphoric swirl that detached him from everything else in his life. He was meeting her for the first time again and all the regret that had filled him with his earlier apprehension was washed away by wine and laughter.
The pasta came together quicker than he wanted and the weightless feeling in his stomach distracted him from his hunger. He could have foregone the meal for the chance to keep talking with her over the steaming pot and the scents of the garlic and basil on the counter that awaited their final fate. Combined with olive oil and grated Parmesan cheese the plated meals were picturesque. The obsessive attention to detail he had once found insufferable was now inspiring. She set two places at the hexagonal table and brought another freshly opened bottle of the pinot which she placed at the center. He watched discretely the way she moved across the kitchen noting a subtle bounce in her step that contrasted sharply with the short prohibitive steps she would typically take around him. During their time together in the kitchen tonight he had accomplished something that he never could after years of marriage. He replayed their moments together in his head as he sat across from her at the table trying to figure out what had gone right this time. A thought came to his mind and fast tracked its way to his lips.
“Just in case I don’t get another chance,” he began, his tone heavy with sincerity. She stopped just behind her seat with her uplifted crescent eyebrows. “I love you. I have always loved you.”
She beamed in response, turning her eyes down towards the chair. Her lips pressed together as she smiled and dimples formed on her cheeks. When he saw them he wanted to propose to her all over again. More importantly, he wanted to make her happy, the way he had failed to do before. He had been blind to his mistakes before, up until the very day he received the call from the state patrol. The Dodge ram that had struck her BMW in the intersection had left little behind in the wake of its pointless destruction. It had been a savage end to a frozen existence and it had been only then that he had awoken to the real tragedy. She had been gone long before the accident that took her life and he had done nothing to stop her. He didn’t deserve to mourn her death. His life had ended that day as well despite the stubborn beating of his heart which served only to dilute his alcohol from then on.
Some people said that the world had ended the day the scientists in Europe created the tear inside their giant collider. Months of controversy had preceded the experiment with physicists and laymen alike decrying its potential to bring about calamity. The news networks spewed out reports and interviews with the scientists who scoffed at the warnings of danger and gave their assurances that it was perfectly safe to create a black hole on Earth. He had laughed to himself as he drank himself stupid watching the images and words scroll across the screen before his half aware eyes. He had welcomed oblivion. A black hole was just what the doctor ordered, an infinitely dense point to swallow his sorrow and his worthless existence and thoes of everyone else around him. His life started anew in the wake of their little experiment. Or at least things hadn’t been the same. Whatever it was they had created or opened or whatever…. it had given him another chance. He hadn’t fully grasped it initially as he looked out the tall glass windows of his apartment. He had watched the buildings move. He never saw it first hand but he would feel the flutter in his brain and there would be a skyscraper where there hadn’t been before. He thought it peculiar that he could remember the differences or he at least he thought he could. His laughter would echo throughout the empty apartment as he shouted at the scientists as if they could hear him all the way from Switzerland. You crazy assholes! You broke the universe! He had laughed until she walked through the door with the same scowl she had worn the day she had left for good.
The first time had been horrifying. She hadn’t recognized him then either and her hair had been different. She had threatened to call the police if he didn’t leave and no amount of pleading had prevented her from expelling him from his apartment. She was gone when he had returned the next day and like her predecessor she never returned again. After a flurry of demanding phone calls to his in-laws he reaped only hurtful comments about his drinking problem and a suggestion that he seek professional psychiatric help. He had considered it especially after running into her several more times on the street and at his office. He nearly cracked until news reports began to air about other similar paradoxes happening throughout world. He might have been relieved if he had been able to prove that the television had not been incorporated into his psychosis. Ultimately, it didn’t matter. His conversations with his dead wife were enlightening regardless of their basis in reality.
She sat across from him now, sipping her wine casually, her napkin placed neatly in her lap. The reasons for it were unimportant and he doubted he would have understood them any way had they been available. What he wanted now was time. His encounters with her so far had rarely lasted longer than hours but who was to say he could not have days or even a lifetime?
“You are as charming as you are handsome,” she stated warmly. “I wish I could remember our life together. I’m certain that you have made me very happy.”
Her words left him with a heavy pit in his stomach. He wanted her to believe that so he let the words hang in the air. He worked to erase the other memories from his mind, desperate to convince himself that this new reality was the correct one. There was no crime in it even it involved lying to himself and to her. And yet… where was the lie if his memories were of another person who had made different choices. He deserved the same clean slate. He wanted this second chance. He would not screw it up this time. He would never let her believe that he did not love her. He grinned widely and reached for his own wine glass. There was a peculiar fluttering sensation in his brain. It felt like deja vu.
His hand grasped the half full glass of scotch sitting on the table before him. The room was dark and the only sound was the ticking of the clock on the wall. The fluttering in his mind began to subside as he shook it from side to side. What had he just been saying? There was a strange ringing in his ear like the trailing of an echo after having just spoken to someone. His muscles were tense and his pulse was elevated. Some faint emotional state was dissipating the way a dream fades upon waking. Whatever the sensation had been it felt unfamiliar and yet familiar at the same time. Had he been living another life again? Any memory of it was beyond his reach now. He looked across the table and found the chair opposite from where he sat empty just as it had been a moment before. Why am I sitting at the table? He wondered briefly. A stack of unopened mail lay piled across the surface of the table leaving it inaccessible for any other practical use. He felt a sudden sharp disdain for his own existence which he quickly extinguished by pouring the remains of his drink down his throat.
He pushed himself up from his seat and was forced to brace himself against the table until a bout of dizziness ran its course. He had lost track of the time- not that it had any particular meaning for him. His stomach rumbled distantly reminding him that he had not eaten today. He wanted to eat but was discouraged by the effort of preparing himself something. Instead he stumbled into the next room where his chair waited with its constant promise to keep his ass off the floor. Had he not been a drunk he might have appreciated the consistency of it but for now it was just a place to sit just like the scotch was just something to drink and the news was just something to watch. After planting himself down into the familiar embrace of the chair he groped around the dark for the remote and turned on the television. Bathed by the cold light of the screen he slumped and let his eyes droop. At what point had it all gone wrong? As consciousness slowly began to fade away he thought idly to himself, I wonder what happened with that crazy science experiment in Switzerland…