A DIFFERENT ME
By Donald McCarthy
I travel to parallel universes. It’s not a voluntary experience. I am living my life one second and living another the next. Weeks will go by without a trip to another life, but I live knowing it could happen at a moment’s notice. My first significant trip came a year ago, when it rained on a September afternoon. I knew the rain was coming, but thought I’d be able to get to the store and back beforehand. No such luck. I ran out of the store, plastic bag in each hand, towards my Buick. The temperature had turned the night before, cool and crisp, so the rain felt cold after months of summer warmth.
The windshield wipers worked hard on the drive home and I kept the mileage low, a couple of cars honking as they sped by me. I ignored it. Better alive and an irritant than dead. I parked in the lot behind my apartment building and took in a breath, ready for the run to the front door. I grabbed the bags and ran, the rain harder than before, soaking right through my clothes, my skin wet. Until it wasn’t. Until it was dry and I didn’t hold bags in my hands anymore.
I stood on the steps leading up to the front door, at least twenty feet from where I’d been only a second before. I wore a dress covered in daffodils. The sun shone overhead. A woman in her forties stood next to me, smiling. I didn’t recognize her.
“Forget your keys, Amy?” she said.
“What?” I said, not sure what else I could say in the situation. Could I ask her where the rain went? Where my bags had disappeared to? How I’d traveled two dozen feet in one step?
“You okay?” the woman asked. She didn’t stop smiling, but a hint of concern coated her voice.
“I’m not sure.” When I finished speaking, it rained again. I held my bags once more and the front of the building lingered ahead of me.
“Interesting experience,” said Doctor Tyrell Bands. “That was the first time you had one of these episodes?”
Amy sat across the room from him in a leather chair that squeaked whenever she shifted. Thirty-five, tired, and already graying, Amy wore black sweatpants and a blue sweatshirt, both too large for her skinny frame. She kept her hair in a tight ponytail that landed on her left shoulder. “Yes,” she said.
“Nothing special before. Even as a kid, I never thought I saw monsters or ghosts. Not a single imaginary friend, either.”
Bands, as thick as Amy was thin, leaned back in his chair. His dark skin had a few wrinkles, but his bright green eyes gave him youth. “When did you realize this experience was one of these visits to a parallel universe you’ve mentioned?”
“Not for a while. I didn’t know what to make of it so I put it out of my mind. What else could I do? But after a few more instances I couldn’t deny what was happening anymore. I realized that day in the rain was the first trip. Or, at least, the first one I noticed.”
Bands nodded for a little longer than Amy was comfortable with, as if he mocked her. “These experiences that you’re having, you said they are trips to alternate worlds. Are you convinced of this?”
She knew he’d doubt her. Sure, a little hope burned in her heart that he’d lean forward, tell her he knew exactly what she meant, but the odds of that? Not good. “Yes.”
Bands gave a glance out the window, looking at the cars stuck in the rush hour traffic. Amy wondered if he thought about committing her, thought her dangerous, or just thought her another boring crazy person. His opinion didn’t matter, just his eventual advice, but she grew irked by his nonchalance nonetheless. “How does it feel when the trips occur?”
“There’s no weird feelings beforehand and there’s not even a sensation when it happens. The world is just suddenly different. Sometimes subtly and sometimes significantly.”
“Have you read about parallel universes?” Bands asked, his voice steady, always steady.
“Yes, of course,” said Amy. “When I realized what was going on, I did as much research as possible. I read books, watched documentaries, and read all sorts of crazy theories on the internet.” She immediately regretted using the word crazy.
“Have you told anyone else about this?”
“No. I’m aware of how I’d come across. Look, I know what you’re thinking.” She gripped the arms of the chair. “But, for a second, think about this circumstance: there’s a time traveler. The first one and he’s at the head of history, the future still unraveling before him. He goes back in time to now and tells everyone, ‘Hey, I’m from the future.’ No one would believe him even though there are scientists who say that time travel may one day be possible.”
Bands nodded. “An interesting scenario.”
“See!” she blurted. She pulled back, lowering her voice. “See, you said scenario, as if it’s not something that could happen. But it could. Maybe it already has. And maybe I’m the pioneer of this other type of travel.”
He lifted his hands. “I apologize. It’s not my intention to invalidate your life. How about this? Tell me the first time you realized for sure, in the moment, that you were in a parallel universe. What did that look like?”
I woke up and the sheet on top of me felt softer and thinner than it should have. The middle of winter meant I took out the comforter and the flannel sheets, not the light, summer ones I could easily discard should too much humidity creep in. The bed had lost its firmness and the pillows felt strange against my head. I thought I might’ve been confused, that time slipped away from me, like when you wake up on a Monday and think it’s a Saturday.
I remembered it’d just snowed, though. I remembered looking out my apartment window and seeing the snowflakes turn brown as they hit the soil. It’d been winter when I went to sleep.
My reality had changed.
I flashed back to the day in the rain, to the day when I opened the fridge and didn’t recognize half the food in there, to when I arrived at my apartment only to find my key didn’t work and a wreath I’d never bought hung on the door. All those events, ones that I kept trying to brush aside, came to me. My life had veered in a different direction, an unexpected one, maybe even an impossible one. I didn’t know what it meant yet.
“You’re awake,” a man said to me. I recognized the voice, but I couldn’t place it.
I turned over and saw Max, an old boyfriend of mine, one who’d dumped me for not being “interesting enough” for his tastes. He smiled at me, standing above the bed, buttoning his shirt. I didn’t panic, although I probably should have. I just stared at him, my mind trying to make sense of events. Was I dreaming? Or was I still with him and everything else had been a dream? Or would this be my future, one where reality slid back and forth, keeping me on my toes?
Max’s hair had thinned over the years and he’d gained a few pounds, but his warm smile remained. “Your stomach feeling better?”
“A little,” I said, not sure what to say.
“We should hit the beach this evening, before the party. And, yes, I know you hate parties, but you have to branch out. If you want me to get promoted you’ll have to put up with them from time to time.” He walked away from the bed and to what I assumed was the bathroom.
I took a look around the room and realized I’d woken up in a hotel. I recognized the stale, imageless wallpaper as the one you find in hotels. On the table beside me lay a black phone, the design that seems to be in every hotel no matter where you go. I opened the table drawer and saw the Gideon Bible.
I rose from the bed and my head rebelled, my vision clouding for a second; my stomach followed by cramping. I reached for my belly and felt a bump. Pregnant. I felt it, the alien within me, taking life from me. I didn’t want to look down at my belly, sick at the thought.
This isn’t me, I thought. This isn’t my world. I’d never be this pregnant with a kid, never.
I wanted to leave, to forget having been here with a man I’d pushed to the back of my mind, to forget the fetus that rolled around inside of me. I worried I’d fall thanks to the anxiety filling me, but I staggered forward and put my hand against the window for balance. In an effort to distract, I looked down below. Beach for miles, with thousands of sunbathers out on the sand, all looking the same from so high up. Clear blue water massaged the end of the beach, gently bringing sand in and out.
That explained the light sheets. Was this California? Miami? Another country?
A sliver of light hit my right eye. The sun reflected off the engagement ring on my finger. I touched the diamond, larger than it had any right to be. Yes, I thought to myself. This is another world. It’ll end soon. It’ll be fine. It’ll be fine.
“You look gorgeous,” said Max. He stood in the doorway to the bathroom, leaning against the frame. He worse a suit and tie.
I took a couple of steps backwards, feeling too exposed in only my underwear and t-shirt. This version of Max was a stranger. But maybe I was, too. This belly, the being inside of me, the ring, none of it was me. I lived in a different body now, a different world, if only for a time. Did that make me free of the decisions I made here? Did this alternate life count? Would the heavens hold what I did here against me?
“Thank you,” I said.
He walked over and wrapped his arms around my shoulders. He brought his lips to mine, his tongue slipping into my mouth, swirling it around mine. I returned the kiss, but I could not muster any passion.
Max pulled back. “Anything wrong?”
I wiggled my right hand. “Nothing. Just still feel a little off. I’ll be okay soon.” It sounded convincing without having any meaning.
He placed his hand on my belly. His touch felt cold even through the shirt. “Are you sure?”
“Absolutely. Completely normal.” I smiled. “Go get breakfast.”
“You want anything?”
“I’m fine,” I said.
Once he left, I returned to the window, wanting to be distracted by the outside world and not the one inside. The view of a beach bored me, however, and my mind wandered. What would happen if I jumped out the window? Would I die? Would this version of me die and I’d go back to my real life? And if that did happen, would I be a murderer since I’d killed an alternate version of myself?
I didn’t actually consider jumping, but the effects of such a decision fascinated me, even after I found myself in my own bed, under my heavy covers once more.
“So the first time you realized you were in a parallel universe involved you being married and pregnant,” said Bands, interlocking his finger in a way that annoyed Amy, as if it were a sign he planned to condescend to her.
“Don’t read too much into that,” Amy said. “I’m not dying to get married. I know what you’re thinking, okay?”
“I didn’t say that.”
“No, but I know you’re thinking it,” said Amy. “I wasn’t thrilled to be married to Max or anything. It was interesting, a look at a different life, but I’m not saying it’s one I want. He seemed too social for my tastes. Outgoing.”
“You don’t like being social?” Bands asked. Amy wondered if he feigned the surprise in his voice.
“I don’t know if that’s how I’d put it. I’m introverted, I guess.” She rolled her eyes, annoyed at having to explain herself to him. “I mean, sure, I don’t do well in social circumstances. But it’s more than that. There’s a wall. No, not a wall. A window. Because I can see everyone through it. I’m at a party. I watch everyone. They drink, they laugh, they flirt. But the party is inaccessible to me, because of the window between me and them. I think they know the window is there, too, and eventually they walk away from me, not wanting to deal with it. So I’m just an observer, nothing more than that. It’s not about being anti-social; it’s about being out of place. Out of phase.”
“Do you feel that way when you’re in one of these parallel universes?”
The doubt marinated his voice. “You’d think so, but no,” Amy said. “Maybe it’s because it doesn’t matter there. I don’t know. It’s part of what I wanted to talk to you about. Is it normal for a change of locale to warp people?”
He chuckled. “Well, I have to be honest, I’ve never had a patient pop into different versions of themselves.”
“Then to a lesser extent. Like if someone goes on vacation a thousand miles away. Are they still the same?”
“Mostly. But location does matter, of course. It sounds like it does in your case, certainly. Can you give me an example of this social confidence you had during one of your experiences, the type you don’t have at home?”
I play the guitar. Not in public, of course, but in my apartment. I took lessons for a couple of years and found I had at least a modicum of talent for it. My fingers dance across the strings with ease, reminding me of the way I wish I walk, with self-confidence, without worrying I’ll stumble.
A friend of mine, Patti, also plays the guitar. I went to one of her shows on a Friday in January. Frigid temperatures. A cold that burrows into your skin. The bar she played at cranked the heat up, but the cold still slivered in through every crack it could find. When the door opened, icy air stormed through the room and you quietly damned the person who’d come in.
I sat on a bar stool, my coat wrapped around me, waiting for Patti to take the stage after a mediocre boy band made up of three local frat boys. They slammed sticks on the drums and bashed their hands against the guitars without much elegance, but I gave them points for trying.
Once Patti reached the stage, I cheered for her, although perhaps not as loud as I should’ve, not wanting to call attention to myself. I often feel like everyone is watching me and no one is watching me. The thoughts in my mind that keep me trapped are a ball of yarn; I tug on one, hoping to rip it out, but it only forms a knot and I’m the same as always.
Patti began to sing a cover of Rihannia’s “Disturbia.” I’d known Patti since college, sophomore year Ethics in Business class. She didn’t look too different from how she did back then. A little overweight, red cheeks, and bright, near blinding, blue eyes.
The crowd clapped along a little. A couple of people up front mouthed the lyrics. Patti’s voice wasn’t ready for primetime, but she could certainly carry a tune. Her lack of anxiety made her rise above the others who performed that night; they could barely make it on stage, their legs shaking so much. Even the frat boys had looked nervous and they’d downed shots beforehand. It’s easy to picture yourself doing something, but the reality features a fear you didn’t factor in.
I ordered a drink, vodka with a splash of strawberry; I’ve never cared for the taste of alcohol, but I thought it might take the edge off. Plus, you always fit in more when you have a drink in your hand. The bartender passed my drink to me with a nod. I took the cold glass and it turned into a guitar. I sat on stage, on the same stool Patti had sat on only seconds before. The crowd looked small from the stage, eyes glazed over from alcohol. By this point, the shift in my life didn’t throw me. I’d grown accustomed to the interruptions, welcoming them, in a way. The expected fear came once I realized this crowd expected me to play. But the fear was only a light tap on the shoulder, and I noticed how everyone appeared disinterested, like corpses lounging around. Besides, what were they other than ghosts? I’d never see them again; I’d never exist in the same reality as them again.
I started up a cover of Chris Isaak’s “Wicked Game,” my go to song in my apartment, keeping an eye on the audience. Like with Patti, some nodded along while others chatted, letting my music act as a background touch.
My voice grew in strength as I went along. The melody comforted me, relaxing my muscles. My fingers tapped the guitar strings, natural. I closed my eyes, felt warmth in my chest, like a feeling of love, when you first meet someone and you know you want them in your life.
Confidence came stronger and stronger the further I went into the song. I lost my virginity in a car while “Wicked Game” played, back in my freshman year of college. The guy in the car with me didn’t matter, he and I went nowhere, but the confidence, the idea that I could accomplish what others bragged about filled me with pride. In the end, the event marked no change in my life, but in the moment, I floated above the world. The pain, the pleasure, the awkward kisses, none of it mattered. I existed elsewhere then, in a world where I’d be more, just like this one.
My throat began to ache a little as I reached the end of the song, but a good ache, the one you get after a strenuous workout. Applause came as I wrapped up. A woman from the crowd joined me on stage and gave me a hug. “You did it!” she said. I assumed she was a friend of mine in this universe. Tall, thin, with black hair, she reminded me a little of how my mother looked at a younger age.
“I did,” I said.
“Let’s buy you three drinks,” she said, guiding me off the stage and towards the bar. The possibility of making a fool out of myself existed should I have to talk with her for a while, but what did it matter? I might as well have worried about embarrassing myself in a dream.
The bartender handed me a martini and I recognized him immediately: the same one from my universe. He cocked his head and looked at me, as if he saw something. He’d been right in front of me when I jumped universes and I wondered if the effect reverberated through all the versions of him, if he felt a change in the air.
The cold glass felt heavier in my hand and I looked down. Vodka with a splash of strawberry. Patti sang behind me. I put my glass down and applauded as she wrapped up her song. I gave a yell of encouragement, but a number of people looked my way. I sat down on the bar stool and stared at my drink.
“That sounds like a very fulfilling experience,” said Bands.
Bands’ stubborn, monotone voice irked Amy and she held back a sharp retort, not wanting him to start psychoanalyzing why she was becoming impatient. “Yes, it was,” said Amy. “But the point isn’t that it’s a fulfilling experience. It’s that I’m a different me. Not necessarily a better one, but different. Yet when I’m back in my own reality, the woman I was briefly allowed to be vanishes. It’s the most frustrating feeling in the world, like I’m being granted superpowers only to have them whisked away. I’ve begun yearning for these trips. Living for them even.”
“So these feelings aren’t growing you as a person?”
Amy snapped her fingers. “Exactly! I go through these, I don’t know, various lives and I still come back to nothing. I see what I could be, I live it, but when I’m in my own body, my own world, I’m the same, always. Without exception.”
“Sometimes, we box memories in our head,” said Bands. “They can be extreme in either good or bad ways. Consider this: a woman gives birth and goes through tremendous pain. Tremendous. A couple of years go by and she decides to have another child. She remembers that the pain was excruciating, but on an intellectual level. Emotionally, she has convinced herself it couldn’t have been that bad and she therefore goes through the process again. You might have a similar reaction to these trips you’re taking. Your mind recognizes them as on the extreme end of life’s experiences so it doesn’t allow them to affect you.”
“I know what you mean,” said Amy. “In a way it goes back to the vacations I mentioned. When people go away they can let themselves go wild, but revert back to normalcy as soon as they arrive back home. It’s like the vacation was nothing. I’d like to rise about that.”
“Perhaps your mind is reluctant to allow you to. Maybe it knows, or thinks it knows, better. Maybe it’s worried about the person you could turn into. Have any of your trips been negative? Shown a harsher side of you?”
Night. Not my apartment, not even an apartment, but a house. I stood in a darkened living room, the front window offering a view of a suburban street lit by streetlamps, quiet and eerie. My arm was stretched out, weighed down by an object I held in my hand. Across the room, I spotted the outline of a body on the floor.
I brought my hand to my face and looked at a handgun, my finger wrapped around the trigger. The gun warmed my hand. I walked to an end table beside a loveseat and turned on the lamp atop it. My eyes took a moment to grow accustomed to the brightness.
I looked at the body, first. How could I not?
To call it a body is misleading, though. It implies it was dead. On the contrary, the man on the floor still breathed. The breath came labored, though, and more time went by between each exhale. The man bled from a wound just below his neck, probably four inches above his right nipple. The blood pumped out with speed, soaking his shirt and the carpet. I never before realized how much blood the human body held.
I assumed I’d shot him, the me in this alternate world. Did I have a good reason? Did it matter?
I came closer to him. I did not recognize him, brown hair, a close cropped beard, green eyes, eyes that met mine for a moment before seeming to look through me, towards whatever future death held for him.
He started to moan then. Soft, but rising, before all I could hear was his moan, filled with pain and fear, nonstop, as if whatever energy remained in his body went towards the goal of emitting the sound.
I flinched as he moaned, backing away, but it didn’t help. I couldn’t escape his dying sounds. He had to be in pain, I reasoned. The only explanation. It’d be a crime to leave him like this. I had to take action; it’d be immoral not to. No matter what the man had done to the alternate me, no one deserved to suffer like this. I aimed the gun at his head. It took no effort to squeeze the trigger, just a tiny motion of my index finger. You could have no strength left in your body and still do it.
The gunshot slammed into my ears and I gave a cry. The moaning stopped, though, immediately. I dropped the gun to the floor and sat down on the love seat. I didn’t feel guilt, it hadn’t been me who’d shot him the first time, but the whole event felt more sensory than the others. Those other trips looked mundane compared to this. How could anything in life compare to killing someone?
I still thought this when I sat in my apartment again.
Bands remained silent. Amy crossed her legs and waited. She considered that he might call the police, thinking she’d murdered someone and now tried to justify her actions.
“I’m processing,” said Bands.
“Process away,” said Amy.
He shifted in his seat, looking uncomfortable for the first time. “So you’re saying, in this alternate universe, you killed a man?”
“Yes. I mean, he was dying anyway, but I sped the process up.”
“Does it bother you?”
“I’m going to ask you a question you’re not going to like,” said Bands. “Have you considered these might be hallucinations or, at least, very vivid fantasies? It’s possible you’re exploring other versions of yourself, trying to find one that meets your standards. You flash to somewhere else, but when you return you’re right back in the moment you left.”
“I’ve considered it,” said Amy. “Of course I have. Don’t talk down to me to me.”
“I want to point out, and I don’t mean this as an accusation, that for someone who paints herself as not at all social or exciting in her normal life, you’ve been remarkably assertive during our session.”
Amy nodded. “Absolutely. I guess I should’ve been more upfront. You see, I’m in a parallel world right now.”
“This isn’t your real world?” Bands said.
“You must imagine how that sounds.”
Amy shrugged. “Well, yeah. So what? It doesn’t make a difference to me if you think I’m crazy or not.” She laughed. “Y’know, I have to be honest. This whole thing? It’s freeing, in its way.”
“Freeing?” said Bands. “How so?”
I did not intend to go to a therapy session. I just entered a parallel universe where another Amy happened to be in the waiting room and I took her place. I don’t know what’s wrong with her life or what brought her here. I doubt I’ll ever know. You’ll never see me, this me, again. There seems to be infinite versions of me out there and I’ve never repeated a life. I wouldn’t want to. That’s what makes all of this work so well.
Recalling my trips has given me a different outlook. I came into the session positive that I’m going nowhere yet now that I see my experiences in reflection, my mind is shifting, just like my body has been. My life, my real life, is the one that I’ve been hoping to change. But why? I already am a different person. No, not a different person. Many. Unlimited.
My real life, whatever that means for someone like me, is as meaningless as a dream. Nothing exciting happens there so why even spend time thinking about it? I don’t inhabit it anymore, not really. I live elsewhere now, somewhere in between the layers of the universe, a place where I can be all people, where morality has no hold, where there’s nothing to dictate how I live. I can be anything now. Real life is just a waiting room before I come into being again.