GRAINNE FLEW HOME on Saturday, but just for a night. Heather still wanted her company and Grainne found it hard to refuse. They’d been friends for so long. So she flew home just for the weekend, dropping off Zachery and giving me my anniversary present (a Paul Smith wallet I’d wanted for a long time). Her parents offered to fly up from Virginia to help care for Zachery and I was grateful for this since, after the events of the last week, I was tense and confused and knew that I needed help.
All of this activity—the arrival of my in-laws and the departure of my wife—provided a much-needed diversion from the fact that there were now three different versions of me running around the New York area. Between dinner, brunch, sorting out the guest room, trips to Whole Foods, helping Grainne pack, and taking care of Zachery, my mind was mostly occupied. When Monday morning finally came, I drove my wife out to Newark and then headed back to Montclair rather than park at the train station and commute into Manhattan and work. I made up an excuse for my in-laws—who were surprised to see me back so soon—telling them I was feeling a little under the weather and didn’t want to spread germs amongst my staff. I also told them there was a big project I’d been working on—a Powerpoint audit of our competitors’ websites—that I was only halfway through and thus needed serious attention. They were understanding and vowed to help keep Zachery out of my hair for the next couple of days.
While my sniffles may have been fake, the presentation, unfortunately, was real. The deadline was looming and I hadn’t made as much progress as I should have. On Monday I managed to get a decent amount of work done so, on Tuesday—per the arrangement last Friday with Dr. Schwartz and the other mes—I went into the office.
As I walked into the building, I felt like a teacher returning to his classroom after being out sick for a few days. Had the substitute followed my lesson plan? Had the students behaved while I was away? Supposedly the Jeff who filled in for me yesterday knew my job just as well as I did (considering it was also his job), but the whole thing was still so strange I didn’t know what I’d find when I sat down at my desk.
I was nervous as I got off the elevator at the second floor. I waved my building pass in front of the gray box that caused a little LED light to turn from red to green and, just as I was opening the door, it was opened by a woman who worked for me.
“Good morning, Jeff,” she said.
Out of reflex, I replied, “Good morning, Sarah.”
Sarah then walked down the hall, pressed the up button for the elevator (probably headed for the cafeteria on fifteen), and I headed for my desk. I walked down the hallway with a bit more confidence than before, nodding and saying “Good morning” to whomever I passed (whether I knew them or not). I then unlocked my office and went in, a bit sad that no one had yet asked about my long weekend, or inquired about my health. But then I remembered: those excuses were only for my wife and in-laws. According to my staff and co-workers—even though I’d spent yesterday at home in New Jersey—as far as they knew they’d seen me here, in my office in New York.
I woke up my computer, logged into my account, and opened up Entourage to see how many emails I had waiting for me. Usually after a three-day weekend I’d have over a hundred emails, a number of them marked urgent with a little red flag. That morning there were only the few that had come in before I got into the office (and those were mostly from the UK, where they were already halfway through their work day). Other than that, everything was taken care of. There weren’t even any messages waiting for me in my voicemail. The me who had been here yesterday was quite thorough. There wasn’t any mail, nor any interoffice envelopes, waiting on my desk. No invoices, no vacation forms, no nothing. I then opened up my calendar and discovered that, except for a few routine weekly meetings with people from my department, I didn’t have any big appointments over the next couple of days. All of this made me relieved, like coming home from a long vacation and realizing that your house is okay; you haven’t been robbed.
Since it was a slow morning and I had the time, plus I needed some answers—what Dr. Schwartz had told me last week was just not enough—I went back to the website I’d visited the week before, yourefamiliar.com. Remembering the layout of the home page from last time, I quickly clicked on an icon of an envelope in the upper corner. This opened up an email with the subject header of Information Wanted. I wrote a short message asking what the site was all about, feeling like an idiot but also feeling like I didn’t have much of a choice.
Before I could even click over to the Times for the latest headlines, my computer’s email program chimed, telling me I had a new email. It was from the same email address I had just written to, firstname.lastname@example.org. At first I thought it was an error message, that my email had bounced back because the link on the website was improperly programmed or maybe my network was momentarily down and so none of my emails were making it in or out. But instead of an error message, the email was indeed from yourefamiliar.com. The subject line read, Have a feeling there’s more than one of you? As I clicked on it, I could tell it was just an automatic response, a form letter their website spit out to anyone who sent them an email. It read:
Have you recently had a profound experience you just can’t explain? Do you think you’ve seen someone who looks just like you? Does the world you presently find yourself in seem alien and strange, and not like the world you know or used to know? Have there been lots of little coincidences lately that you just can’t explain? Have you been recently gripped by déjà vu so real and pronounced that it almost knocked you off your feet? If so, we’d like to talk to you. We are a team of dedicated professionals who know what you’re going through and can help. To begin the process, visit the Personality Quiz page at the link below and take the test. If your results warrant a response, someone from our organization will get back to you in 2-4 business days. Please know that your answers, along with your identities, will be kept strictly confidential. We’re ready to believe all of you.
At first I thought that the plural of “identity” was a typo, but I then reconsidered. This was the place I was looking for. The link took me back to the website, to a page from the home page I hadn’t noticed before. The page contained a quiz, along with a header that showed a smaller version of a photo from the home page: two people who looked exactly alike with their arms around each other. Next to this were the words You’re Familiar in a modern script.
The personality test was twenty multiple choice questions, asking strange things like, “At times I feel lost and disconnected for no real reason” and “I absolutely should not have made certain obvious mistakes in my life.” Each question was graded on the following scale: Strongly Agree, Agree, Neither Agree Nor Disagree, Disagree, Strongly Disagree. If this was a practical joke, it was a pretty elaborate one.
I briefly considered filling out the test. My finger hovered over the mouse in order to answer the first question (“I have recently had an experience that caused me to become disoriented in time”), but I finally decided not to. I’d wasted most of my morning and should be getting down to work. Besides, I still thought that the whole situation was somehow a joke or a con. The website and those other two imposters out there were only pretending to be me. None of it could be real; how could it? Scrolling down to the bottom of the Web page, to see if there was any additional contact info, I noticed a module that said, Are you in real pain and need immediate HELP? If so, enter your phone number and zip code and a local representative will call you.
Figuring I had nothing to lose, I entered the number to my iPhone, along with the zip code for my Soho office. I hit SUBMIT and then went back to Entourage, plowing through all of the emails that had piled up as I’d been goofing off. Fifteen minutes later, my iPhone rang. The sound was muffled since it was tucked away in my messenger bag sitting beside my desk. I had to scramble to fish it out before the call went to voicemail. I first took a quick glance at the screen as I pulled out the phone, to see who was calling; it said YR FAMILIAR, INC.
“Hi there,” it was a woman’s voice. “I’m calling from You’re Familiar. How can we help all of you today?”
“What? Oh, yes, sorry—I forgot.” I got up and closed my door. “Yeah,” I said, shielding the phone with my hands in an effort to contain my voice. “I guess I’m having a problem.”
“Okay, sir, first let me ask you, did you fill out the online survey?”
The voice was pleasant; she sounded young. I listened for extra noises in the background, but there was only silence. It didn’t sound like she was in a huge room surrounded by dozens of other workers, each with a headset strapped to their heads and fielding similar calls: the handling of multiple personalities by multiple people.
“The survey? No, I’m sorry, I didn’t. I wasn’t really sure any of this was legitimate. Or just a scam or something like that.”
“Sir,” she began, sounding very sincere, “we don’t want your bank account info or to put you on TV. You’re Familiar has no financial stake in anything that you do. We just want to help. That’s all.” Her voice was pleasant and reassuring. “So why don’t you tell me what happened?”
Through the glass wall of my office that borders a hallway leading from art to production, I watched as a young guy with red hair whose named I’d never learned pushed a silver cart overloaded with boxes and interoffice envelopes down the hallway. He glanced my way but then pushed past my office with a shrug; nothing today for me. After he turned the corner, there was just the dim hum from the fluorescent lighting above my head. I figured I didn’t have anything to lose.
“Well, okay.” I gulped. “Here goes.”
The whole story only took a handful minutes. It seemed a woefully short period for the amount of confusion and questions it had caused within me. At the end, after I was done telling her everything I knew, she was just as calm as before. All she said was, “Is that it?”
“What do you mean, is that it? Should there be more? I mean, frankly, I don’t even believe any of this is real.”
She chuckled mildly. She’d heard all this before.
“I mean, how can it be true?” I was breathing a little fast after telling her the circumstances of the last couple of days. “It can’t be, right? So I think it’s just a vision, or a dream or, somehow, both.”
“Listen, you said you’re in New York, right? Well, we’re based there, so why don’t you go and meet our founder and CEO. His name is Luther Blissett. I think he’ll be able to help you. What do you think? Maybe for lunch or a drink? Any time today is good. I think he can put all this into some perspective for you. For all of you.”
“Wait, what? Luther who? A drink? I don’t need a drink I need—and wait a second, all of us?”
“Mr. Gomez, go. Meet him. Talk.” Her voice had finally turned serious. “Trust me.”
I didn’t know who this woman was, but Grainne was still out of town and the in-laws were in Montclair with Zachery, so I figured I had nothing to lose. Plus, I needed a drink.
“Great,” she said, the lightness suddenly back in her voice. “Meet Luther at six o’clock tonight at Treble. Downstairs, in the lounge. It’s in Soho.”
“I know where it is. I work in Soho. I’ve been there before. But I don’t think there’s a—”
But she’d already hung up.
As I made my way east—first along Spring and then Prince—heading for Treble which was on Mercer a block shy of Broadway, I tried to think back to the last time I was there. It was almost a decade ago, 1999. I was working in the Flatiron at the time and was meeting a friend for drinks before we headed to a party at the loft headquarters of Pseudo.com, which was located a few blocks away.
It was an amazing time to be in New York. The city was flush with dotcom dollars and everyone, it seemed, was on their way to becoming an Internet millionaire. New companies were being started every other day and a whole new area of Manhattan—christened Silicon Alley—sprouted to opulent life. Manhattan felt very much like it must have in the ‘20s when life was fast and good and no one could ever see that lucky streak ending. Things were good, and they were going to stay good. Around the turn of the century the bubble finally burst, taking a huge chunk of the economy with it. Most New Yorkers were unrepentant. The prevailing attitude seemed to be, “It was fun while it lasted.”
When I finally got to Treble—it was hot out and I walked slowly in order to not break into a sweat—I paused for a second at the bar right inside the double doors. Beyond the bar I could see the dining room. There didn’t seem to be much else to the place.
The last time I was here you could still smoke in New York, and as I’d waited for my friend that night I’d ordered a vodka and lit a cigarette. Back then we were both single; I hadn’t even yet turned thirty. Meeting Grainne was still four years away. On nights like that it seemed as if anything were possible. Choices were everywhere.
I walked past the bar, which was sparsely populated, and into the dining room where a few couples were having an early meal. But other than a pair of restrooms in between a glowing computer monitor onto which a waiter tapped an order, I couldn’t see anything else. No stairs, no lounge. I figured that this meant there was also no Luther Blissett. I turned and was about to leave when a blond hostess caught my eye and said, “Looking for someone…” She then paused for dramatic effect; it worked. She had my attention. She finally added, “Familiar?”
“Y-yes,” I stammered. “Luther Bliss—”
Before I could get out his entire name, she waved me toward a door that said EMPLOYEES ONLY. I choked out the word “Thanks” and then nudged the door open with a shove. On the other side was a steep staircase. The sound of conversations and a different kind of electronic music than was playing upstairs filled the space. I slowly walked down the staircase.
The room was large and, while it may not have been crowded upstairs—too early for either dinner or drinks—the lounge downstairs was packed. Out of the eight round tables all but a few were occupied. As I began to enter the room, my eyes adjusting to the light, I noticed that many of the people sitting at the tables looked alike. In fact, they all did. Every table but one was filled with either two, three, or even—in one corner—four people who looked like exact copies of each other. In the center of the room, sitting alone, was a guy who looked to be about my age wearing a grey suit, white shirt, and a grin. As I saw him I noticed that he was watching me intently. I figured, That must be Luther. I approached his table and, as I sat down, I finally recognized the music: Boards of Canada; Twoism.
“Call me Luke,” he said, taking a business card from his blazer and offering it along with his hand. “And you’re Jeff?”
“Yes,” I replied, taking the card. When we shook hands, his grip was firm. “Thanks for seeing me on such short notice.”
“Not a problem.” He waved down a waitress. He asked her for another of what he’d been drinking and I ordered a beer. In the silence after the waitress left, I was the first to speak.
“So, what is this, an identical twin convention?”
Luther forced himself to laugh.
“Come on, Jeff, don’t be like that. You know what’s going on down here.”
“Actually, I don’t. That’s why I came.”
Luther turned and looked at me hard, maybe to see if I was just faking it to gain entry to his secret club. After holding me in his gaze for an uncomfortable set of seconds, he drained the last of his drink and then spoke.
“Something has happened to you recently, right? Something you just can’t explain, no matter how hard you try?”
“You’ve seen something, but you don’t really know what it was you saw, am I correct? Something that, by all rights, should be physically impossible. And this has got you questioning, well, everything. Life, the nature of existence, reality.”
I nodded again.
“That’s what I thought. And,” he paused to place a hand on his chest, “that’s where I come in.”
“Okay, I’m ready,” I said. “Hit me.”
Luther was about to speak when the waitress returned with our drinks. She gave him a wink when she dropped his off; it looked like a gin and tonic. Either that or a vodka and tonic. I could smell the lime from across the table.
“Thanks, Janice,” he said.
I took a quick swig of my beer; it was smooth and cold.
“Okay,” he began. “How much do you know about quantum physics?”
“A bit, I guess. I just read a book about the big bang.”
“Well,” he laughed, “this—in its own way—is bigger even than that.”
“Why? Does physics have something to do with all this?”
Luther took a sip of his drink and continued to grin.
“Depends on who you ask. But, suffice it to say, we don’t live in just a universe, meaning one chunk of space, albeit huge and infinite. Instead, we exist in a multiverse. This means there’s not just one universe, but billions of them.”
I nodded, trying to concentrate. I was following him so far.
“And a huge number of these other universes are copies of our own. This means that there are countless versions of you on planets almost exactly the same as the one you now know. The only difference between you and some of these other versions of you are the decisions you’ve made throughout your life. In fact, that’s what caused the universe to split in the first place.”
I nervously grabbed at my beer, but couldn’t decide if I wanted a sip or not.
“What you’re saying is if I have a choice between going out to dinner at a Chinese restaurant or an Italian restaurant, as I make the decision of which one to go to I split into two copies of me and actually go to both? One version of me in one universe goes to have Chinese and, in the other, the version of me has Italian?”
Luther grabbed a handful of nuts from a silver dish sitting on the table and popped a few into his mouth. Behind us a set of three women, all speaking in English accents and with reddish hair, got up to leave.
Chewing, Luther said, almost bored, “Yup, every time you make a choice the universe splits. You split.”
“That seems a bit of a waste, don’t you think? A whole universe just for a meal?”
“Depends on the meal.” He laughed but then got serious when he could see I was having a hard time understanding. “Look, don’t get bogged down in the details. And don’t dwell on the small choices like that. Obviously what you have for dinner’s not such a great difference, and it’s not such a huge choice. Most of the yous that are out there, even with the small differences, are fairly synchronized. You wouldn’t really notice the differences.”
Luther then leaned in and touched my shoulder, pulling me close to him.
“Jeff, listen to me.” He was almost whispering. “Right now, in another universe, you and I are having this exact same conversation. Well, maybe not the exact conversation, which is why they’re where they are and why we’re where we are. Maybe they’re sitting at a different table, or wearing different clothes, but it’s happening. It’s us.”
A waitress, one of the four identical looking Janices roaming the room, bumped up against my chair as she passed.
“Okay,” I said. “Even if there were multiple universes somewhere, and there’s a world where I had pizza for lunch today instead of a turkey sandwich, and this has always been the case since the beginning of time, then why am I—all of the sudden—running into these other versions of me? Why doesn’t turkey sandwich-me stay in his own turkey sandwich world and pizza-me stay in his own pizza world?”
“Usually, they do. But every once in a while, well, something happens. The technical term for it is a global causality violation, but we like to call it a punch.”
“Like, a drink?”
“No,” Luther said, shaking his head. He then made a fist out of his left hand, which he quickly raised and used to stab at the air. “Like this. A punch. A breakthrough. Like, a tear. We can occasionally punch through our world to another, and this allows us to visit a parallel universe where we also exist.”
“But how is the punching so specific? Why didn’t one of the other Jeffs punch through and land on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, or else end up in the middle of the ocean? Why are they each going to the same therapist that I go to?”
“Because it’s not like hitting hyperspace on a video game. When you punch through, you’re not randomly sent flying through space and time. It’s like you’re going through your own private door. A secret passageway that’s all yours. Only you can go through it because only you created it.”
“Yeah, but I didn’t create any—”
“Not you, literally. Like with a hammer and nails. But with every decision you make in your life, you leave the possibility open of slipping from one world to the next, from one set of decisions to another.” Luther paused for a second. The music in the room seemed to die down, the clinking of the glasses stopped, the conversation dimmed. “Everything that could ever happen already has. Every decision you didn’t make was made. Every life you didn’t live is being led, somewhere. There are an infinite number of Jeffs out there, the same as there are an infinite number of Lukes. The same as there are an infinite number of everyone in this room.”
Luther could tell he lost me.
“Look, do you ever have vivid dreams? Like, really vivid dreams?”
I nodded. “Sure, everyone does.”
“Well, that’s spillage from those other worlds. It’s your memory seeping over from one mind to another. What’s that thing that people always say about a dream? ‘I was in my house, but it wasn’t my house?’ Well, it was. It just wasn’t the house they have in their world. That house wasn’t where they were living, and yet they could feel it was theirs. It was just in a different world, one where they’d made different choices and different decisions.”
“Luke, hang on a second. This is Alice in Wonderland type stuff. This is insane.”
“Yes and no. Yes, it’s like Alice in Wonderland. No, it’s not insane. Meaning, insane in the sense that’s hallucinatory. It’s not. It’s real.”
I didn’t react to this. What could I say? In the silence, Luther took another long sip of his drink. Not knowing what else to do, I took another swig of mine and discovered most of the beer was still in the bottle and had turned warm.
“Okay,” he said, “let’s try this from another direction. You know that book, Bright Lights, Big City?”
“Sure, Jay McInerney. I’ve read it a few times.”
“Remember that first line? ‘You are not the kind of guy who would be in a place like this?’”
“Well, there’s a universe where, in fact, he is the kind of guy who would be in a place like that.”
Luther laughed; he was having fun again.
“How about Less Than Zero?”’
“Sure, why?” I answered, somewhat defensively.
“Do you remember the opening of it?”
“Of course. ‘People are afraid to merge on the freeways in Los Angeles.’”
“Yeah, well,” Luther paused to take another quick swig. “In some universes, they absolutely love it. Just can’t get enough. Merge, merge, merge. That’s all that they do.”
“Okay, great, I get it. The Effects of Quantum Physics on Twentieth Century Literature. Sounds like a great course at NYU. And now I suppose you’re going to tell me that there’s a universe where The Great Gatsby’s not so great?”
“No, but there’s a universe where World War I didn’t end until 1922 and Fitzgerald’s unit was in fact shipped out. He went to the front line rather than to New York. He died in the trenches of Thionville in 1919, just outside of Luxembourg, with mustard gas in his lungs. He never published a word.”
Luther pulled out a package of cigarettes and started to smoke. Out of reflex I said, “You can’t smoke in here, not anymore.”
“You can, here.”
Luther said this in a way that implied he meant something other than just the basement at Treble. I looked at my watch; it was flashing twelve.
“Look, I’m sorry.” I tried to inject a laugh into my voice so that Luther wouldn’t think that I thought he was crazy, even though I did. “But I just don’t buy any of this. It’s just some crazy theory. It’s just all a bunch of words. You don’t have any proof.”
He grinned, took a deep drag off his cigarette. After exhaling he said, “I knew you were going to say that.”
“Really?” I asked, sarcastically. “And why’s that?’
“Because you said the exact same thing this morning.”
He reached into his grey blazer and pulled out an iPhone. He unlocked the screen and tapped it a couple of times. He then placed the iPhone on the table, in between our two drinks.
“How’s this for proof?”
The surface of the iPhone was filled with a photograph. It was of Luther sitting in the same exact spot as he was at that moment. Behind him the same waitress, Janice, was walking by carrying a tray filled with coffee cups; the center of her eye that showed had a red pupil. Sitting next to Luther, smiling, was me.
“When was this taken?”
“Today. Around one.”
“But I was at my desk at one. I’ve been at work all day. I didn’t even leave for lunch.”
Luther just shook his head.
“Jeff, it was you. Another you. He came in to talk about the same thing you wanted to talk about. We had pretty much the same conversation.” When I didn’t respond, Luther kept going. “He wanted to know what was going on, so I told him. Same as I just told you.”
“And then what happened?”
“He said it was bullshit, that it was just a bunch of words. Got up to leave. Said he needed proof.”
“I suggested we take a picture.”
This caused me to look down again at the iPhone. There it was, staring right at me: the same smile I’d seen in photographs my entire life.
“But that’s hardly proof. It’s just a picture you took with him.”
“Yes,” Luther said, picking up the phone. He flagged down one of the Janices and handed the iPhone to her. “And now we’re going to take a picture. You and me. His picture was your proof. Now, as soon as I email it to him, your photo will be his proof.”
He moved toward me, so close I could smell his aftershave. He put his arm over my shoulder. A few feet away Janice snapped the picture and said “Got it” just as the iPhone made an electronic clicking sound. She handed it back to Luther, looking bored. Behind her, another version of her holding a tray of empty glasses inched past in the small space between the two tables.
That night I was remote at dinner with my in-laws, exchanging only the smallest amount of small talk. I asked what Zachery had done that day (not much; sleep, play, eat) and we then chatted about the weather. Since I didn’t get home until after he went to bed, I went into Zachery’s room for a bit and just sat there, listening to him breathe. Grainne managed to call me from Heather’s and she could tell there was something wrong, even over the bad cell phone connection and the loud voices in the hotel bar where she was calling from. I blamed the haze in my voice on work, saying that I was slammed with meetings and that one of my longstanding projects had suddenly stalled. She was soothing and reassuring, telling me everything was going to be all right (her voice when she lulls Zachery to sleep sounds much the same). After we hung up I considered going back into Zachery’s room for another bout of calming, but instead I watched the late news and then tried to go to bed.
I tossed and turned for most of the night. When I couldn’t sleep I stared at the ceiling, trying to find shapes in the swirls of plaster. When I periodically dozed off I had bad dreams, nightmarish visions of a sea of mes, stacked and writhing like a ball of ants.
The next day I was tired and distracted. My morning meetings went by in a daze. Somebody asked me a question and I answered in shrugs and grunts, my voice—when I finally spoke—a monotone. By late morning I was back at my desk. I tried to do work but couldn’t concentrate. So instead I wasted time on the Web, trying to find out more about my condition, trying to figure out if anything Luther had told me the day before could possibly be true.
During a Google search on parallel universes, I found a discussion page called Reading Matter on a British website about books for teenagers. The topic was a series of Philip Pullman novels I’d heard of but never read called His Dark Materials. Apparently the books—one of which was made into a movie with either Nicole Kidman or a lion that talks or both—involve parallel universes where characters slip in and out of other worlds. There were only a handful of comments from various kids, most of whom seemed to be in the UK, but one of the comments was really insightful. Steph, a fifteen-year-old from Nevada, posted the following on July 15, 2005:
I really like reading books with parallel universes and consequently have a few ideas of my own. 🙂 When I was little, I used to play a game called ‘Ghost.’ Here is an example: I had a choice between going to the kitchen for a snack and going into my bedroom to get my book. I chose to go to my bedroom, and did. While doing this, I pictured a ‘ghost’ of myself going to the kitchen. I tried to keep the picture in my mind as long as I could. For example, the second I picked up my book, my ‘ghost’ was opening the fridge door. As I looked for my place, the ‘ghost’ looked for something to eat. I wrote a story built around this concept and while it didn’t turn out so great, this is my favorite way to look at parallel universes: the same people in the same situation making different choices. Picture it like a series of lines (like the staff in written music) all moving at the same pace. As they move, they fluctuate differently. Sometimes the lines cross, sometimes they move parallel to each other. Those are the different worlds. That’s the best I can put it into words so I hope it makes sense… 🙂
It struck me that maybe Ghost is what had got me and the other two Jeffs into all this trouble and confusion in the first place. Maybe, in order to make up our minds on a big decision—like whether or not to have a family—we’d so thoroughly, so minutely, thought out the consequences and envisioned every eventuality that we’d somehow birthed those ideas into being. It seemed unlikely and far-fetched, but so did an appointment with my therapist where I was joined by two exact duplicates of myself. I was certainly willing to admit that my twins were real—they didn’t dissolve into smoke when they touched something—but that didn’t mean they hadn’t begun their lives as something ethereal or imagined. No, we’re not ghosts now, but maybe that’s how we got our start.
I closed my eyes and decided to try an experiment. Using the girl’s example, I came up with two scenarios for myself. The real me would get up, walk to the break room, get a cup of water, and then come back to my office. Meanwhile, I’d imagine my ghost taking the elevator to the lobby, exiting the building, and then walking north up Varick. Once the imaginary me was outside the building and on the sidewalk (it shouldn’t take more than a minute), I would go to the window and see if I could spot my double down on the street.
I got up out of the chair and approached my office door. The break room was to the left and the short hallway leading to the elevator was on the right. The door would be the splitting point. I paused for a couple of seconds before exiting, taking a number of deep breaths. Finally, I began to walk slowly through the door, trying to measure any sort of tingling or lightness as I crossed the threshold.
Turning left, I walked slowly toward the break room while also trying to guide my other self—the ghost—to the elevator. This was difficult to do and required more concentration than I would have thought (forget walking and chewing gum; this felt like walking and chewing someone else’s gum for them by opening and closing their jaw by remote control).
I made it to the break room without running into any co-workers. This was good since, by then, my ghost was at the elevator bank pressing the down button. In the break room I grabbed a paper cup from the dispenser. In the corridor the elevator arrived and I got on. I filled up the cup and began to head back to my office. The coast was clear—the hallway was empty—so in the elevator I got a little cocky and began to chat with a young publicist I knew from a former company. Nothing too strenuous, just “Did you have a nice weekend? That’s nice. Me, too.”
I sat down in my office just as the elevator arrived in the lobby. I closed my eyes and concentrated on guiding the ghost out of the elevator and through the cavernous lobby. I found that my body, even as it was sitting in the chair, twitched and rocked as I walked my ghost through the revolving doors. It felt like pulling the strings of a marionette.
Now that he was on the street, I concentrated even harder than before. I tried to sense the breeze on his cheeks and the warmth on his face. I listened for the traffic. I twitched a bit more, my rhythmically rocking shoulders hopefully corresponding to the left-right-left movement of my ghost’s legs. Here’s Varick, be careful. Watch for traffic.
I got up quickly, to go to the window to check on my experiment: was I on the street while simultaneously standing on the second floor of my office building? Had I split, as Luther said the world did every time an option presented itself and you took one path instead of the other?
Right outside of my office, as I tried desperately to keep control of my ghost the same way you try and keep in your memory a phone number someone has told you, I ran into John, one of my programmers.
“Jeff, I’ve got to go to a meeting up on five about privacy policies for the website, so could you cover the weekly conference call with operations?”
“Wait, what?” Contact with my ghost, like a wireless signal extinguished, went dead. “John, no, I can’t. Sorry, but I’m busy.”
“Well, I’d like to go to both,” John said as I started to brush past him, “but I can’t be in two places at once.”
Just as he said this there was a ghastly sound outside on the street. First there were car horns and then screeching tires, followed by a sickening thump and metal on metal. After that, for a split second, there was eerie silence followed by screams.
Two temps, sitting near the window, said in unison, “Holy shit.”
Before I could get to the window, there was already a crowd obscuring the view. Running for the elevator, I fished Luther Blissett’s card out of my wallet, where I’d stashed it the day before.
Luther got there in no time. He’d been hanging out at Treble, which I guess was his informal office. As soon as he got my text which I’d sent from the lobby (JST SAW ME GET HIT BY CAR THNK IM DEAD COME QK), he called and told me to stay calm and that he was jumping into a cab. By the time he arrived, five minutes later, an ambulance had pulled up along with two NYPD police cruisers. I hung back about thirty feet, which was far enough away so that people couldn’t see my face but I could see through the crowd whether or not the Jeff who’d been hit by the car was up and moving. He wasn’t.
“Okay, what happened?” Luther’s demeanor was a total reversal from yesterday. Last night he was cool and laidback, detached and ironic. But at that moment, in the heat of a crisis, he was calm but focused. Somewhat in shock, I managed to blurt out what I thought had happened.
“I—I was in my office, upstairs.” I pointed to the glass and silver building we were standing in front of. A huge American flag leaning from a post waved back and forth. “And I was picturing myself splitting, like—like you said. Like, one of me was going to stay sitting there, in the office, and the other me was going to walk up the block.”
“Yes,” calm; all business, “and?”
“And then someone spoke to me, a guy I work with. He kind of broke my train of thought, and that’s—that’s when I heard the accident.”
“Okay, okay,” Luther said quickly. By that time he was looking at the ground and not at me. “That doesn’t make any sense in terms of a split. You can’t just close your eyes and, poof, you have a twin.” Luther then paused and glanced over his shoulder to the growing crowd. “But let me go check it out. You stay here. You got that? Don’t move.”
I nodded as Luther walked slowly, approaching the growing crowd. I could see people covering their mouths in horror. One woman was crying. I could now see that, between the body lying inertly on the ground, two cars had smashed into each other. Steam was pouring out of one and Gatorade-green fluid was leaking out of the other. Luther walked around the scene twice. He was shaking his head, although I couldn’t tell if he was doing that because he was really shocked or else was doing it merely for camouflage. He came back to where I was standing.
“Is it me?”
“Yes, it’s you,” Luther said quickly. He followed this with a fuck that was exhaled more than spoken. “Let’s get in a cab. You need to get out of here.”
Luther stepped onto Varick, raising his arm for a cab. He then split his fingers on his right hand and placed them in his mouth, whistling in that way I’d never been able to do. A taxi quickly pulled up and I numbly followed Luther, getting into the backseat as he held the door open. As we were pulling away, I saw a woman I worked with who had just passed the accident. Ours eyes met and hers turned from sad to confused. She’d seen me die, but had just seen me alive.
In a few minutes we were in front of Treble. Luther paid the driver and didn’t wait for change. He hustled me into the lounge downstairs, sat us both at his usual table, and snapped his finger at Janice for a pair of drinks.
“Listen, Jeff,” Luther began, his voice calm again. Soothing. “That was indeed you back there. And he’s dead. But he’s nothing that you created. At least, not today.”
“What do you mean? Then who was he?”
“The ambulance guys went through his wallet and I could see that it was a New York license. The address said West Ninety-sixth Street. When did you live there?”
“What? Ninety-sixth?” Our drinks arrived and I took a big gulp. It was a gin and tonic but all I could taste was the gin. “Years ago. Before I moved in with my wife.”
“Let me think. That would have been from about ‘97 to 2003.”
Luther thought about this for a second.
“Okay, then. It’s simple. He’s just another one of you who has punched through to this world.” Luther took a sip, and then shrugged, reconsidering. “Or else you’ve punched through to his.”
“How would you be able to tell?”
“Are you wearing your watch?”
“What? No, I left it at home today. It’s broken…or something. All it does is flash twelve o’clock.”
“Then go to Ninety-sixth Street. See if you’re still living there. If so, he’s a version of you who never met your wife, who never got married and—apparently—wasn’t very good at crossing the street.”
“Okay, that explains that, sort of, but what was he doing there? If I didn’t create him and get him killed, what happened?”
Luther took another big sip of his drink. I wondered how much of his day was spent fielding questions like this.
“Maybe he was meeting someone for lunch in the area. Or he had a doctor’s appointment or something like that. I can’t really know for sure without knowing more about his life. But in terms of his getting hit by a car, well, this is New York. It happens all the time.”
“Yeah, but…” I started to speak but then stopped. What I was going to say sounded so crazy I almost couldn’t say it. “Most people in New York don’t get to see themselves get hit by a car. Usually it’s someone else.”
“Jeff, of course it happens,” Luther said, getting back to the boisterous mood he was in yesterday. “Hasn’t this little exercise taught you yet that everything happens?”
He patted me on the back and then ordered us another round. This time, doubles.