Eric SchlichFiction / Number 92
In the Marriott ballroom a hundred of me have gathered. I thought it was going to feel like a funhouse—you know, with the mirrors—but it’s nothing like a funhouse. It’s more like a family reunion, except you don’t know anyone and it’s all cousins.
Fat Me is in the corner with a plate of kale chips. Every so often he shoots a glance at the spread of doughnuts, bagels, and cheese cubes. Across from him sits Mustache Me. (I’m tempted to say Pedophile Me. Jane’s right. I can’t pull off facial hair without looking like a creep.) Goatee Me—better, not great—is chatting with Fashion Disaster Me, who wears a neon orange jumpsuit. He’s not the only one in an outfit. There’s Prom Date Me in a tux, Hobo Me in a gray toboggan, and Drag Queen Me in a blonde wig.
“Hey! Sad Eyes!”
It takes a second to realize he means me. It’s Mullet Me, waving me over to a table filled with more of me.
I say, “Hi. I’m Colin,” and they all bust a gut. “Oh. Right. I guess you knew that.”
“Hi, Colin. I’m Colin,” says Suit Me.
“Oh! Wow. I’m Colin, too,” says Aftershave Me.
“Guys, this is uncanny,” says Sarcastic Me. “We really should get nametags.”
“First time?” says Suit.
“Didn’t mean to give myself away.”
“We can always tell,” says Mullet.
Then comes the expected opener: What do you do?
I think about bending the truth, saying I teach at a liberal arts college instead of a public high school, but I’ve never been a good liar. Maybe there’s a me—Con Man Me?—who could give me a few pointers. I wait for the inevitable Those who can’t joke, but it doesn’t come. I guess I hate that joke in every uni.
“No shit,” says Aftershave. “Me too. What subject?”
“Ouch,” he says. “All those essays. Should have switched to math. Numbers, man. Practically teaches itself.”
“Funny. That’s what Mr. Farquad used to say.”
“Hey!” the table cheers. “Fork point!”
A fork point, Mullet explains, is the moment one self splits into two. You know, like two roads diverge in the woods and all that. One self walks down one road, one walks the other. Except it’s more like two roads and then two more roads and then two more… until you have an infinite number of selves, only some of whom attend Quantum.
“You remember that day, in the hall?” Aftershave says.
Weird. I do remember. One day, when I was student teaching, I was walking down the hall with three folders of essays on Lord of the Flies. I turned a corner and ran smack into Mr. Farquad. Calculus quizzes and book reports went flying. As we picked them up, Farquad told me he didn’t envy my grading.
He had a point. Both my parents were high school teachers—my mother English, my father History. They used to come home with stacks of student essays. Sometimes they’d take sick days just to catch up on the grading. I used to swear I’d never turn into them.
But math? Math seemed so sterile. There was no magic in it. You couldn’t cut the head off a Beanie Baby named Squealer, stick it on the end of a broomstick, and bring it into your class as a prop. Or pose important unanswerable questions, such as Is Man Good or Evil?, after Roger smashes Piggy’s head in with a rock.
The rest of the table shares what they do. Mullet runs a dog kennel. Suit’s a writer. Sarcasm a college adjunct. When Sarcasm talks about his job—contract exploitation, no benefits, food stamps—I consider changing his name to Bitter Me. He’s the grad school version of myself. So glad I didn’t get stuck there.
I could see myself in Suit, Aftershave, or Sarcasm, but Mullet? I remember joking once to Jane about quitting my job and doing something that required zero mental energy, like opening a dog kennel, but I wasn’t serious.
Suit’s the one I’m most interested in. The better version of me. I’ve written three screenplays, drawered in my desk at home. One about a sensitive white middle-class man stuck in a loveless marriage. One about a sensitive white middle-class man stuck in a dead-end career. And one about zombies.
“What do you write?” I ask.
“I’m a ghost writer,” Suit says. “I just wrote Justin Bieber’s memoir.”
Suit shrugs. “That shit sells.”
“Yeah, but are you fulfilled?”
Everyone at the table looks at me. A beat. It’s awkward.
Then they all crack up. Aftershave laughs so hard he spills his beer. Mullet slaps me on the back. I don’t see what’s so funny.
The reason I came to Quantum is simple: I want to find Perfect Me. Jane is skeptical about Perfect Me. She thinks he’s like Bigfoot, a myth. I mostly agree with her. Except, when you think about it, there are an infinite number of unis in the multiverse, which means an infinite
number of me. And somewhere in that infinity there’s a me who made a right choice and then another. . .
and another. . . .
Only fifteen minutes at Quantum and I’m beginning to suspect Perfect Me might be more difficult to find than I thought. I’d settle for Happy Me. So, yeah, fulfilled.
“How much they paying you?” Sarcasm says.
“The Multiverse Census.”
Mullet snorts beer through his nose. It’s like lunch duty in here.
“I don’t get you guys,” I say. “Isn’t this what Quantum’s all about? To get to know your alt selves and become better people?”
“Someone drank the Kool-Aid,” Sarcasm says.
“That’s how they sell it,” Aftershave says.
“You think if any of us were fulfilled we’d be at Quantum?” Suit says.
“What do you mean?”
“Look around, Sad Eyes. You see any well-adjusted selves at this table? Colin here is a serial cheater; he’s divorced four times. Then you got Colin, who won’t have his student loans paid off until he’s eighty. And behind door number three, there’s Colin, who literally picks up shit for a living.”
Jesus. This was not what I had in mind when I clicked that pop-up ad. This sad room full of me, nursing their drinks, trading miseries.
“Are any of you happy?” I ask.
Suit snorts. Sarcasm rolls his eyes. Aftershave chugs the rest of his beer.
Surprisingly, Mullet nods. “Mostly. Then again, it’s like Colin said. I spend most of my day picking up shit.”
“Then why do any of you come here?”
Suit shrugs. “To drink.”
“To keep our selves company,” says Sarcasm—the wit.
“To swap stories, measure dicks,” says Aftershave.
“Plus,” Mullet leans in, “there’s a raffle later on.”
• • •
God. Is that what my laugh sounds like? I can’t help wondering as their guffaws chase me out to the hall. I’m trying to find my way to the lobby, then back to my home uni, but somehow I get turned around. All the conference rooms look the same and I come around one corner too fast and slam right into a woman hurrying in the opposite direction. When I go to help her up I see that it’s my wife.
“Jane! What are you doing here?”
And it topples down on me: she must have known I lied and followed me.
“Oh, honey,” I say. “I’m sorry. I know you said this wasn’t a good idea—and you were right—but I was stubborn and stupid and I had to see for myself. Can we please just go home and pretend this never happened?”
Jane frowns and looks at me funny. Her hair is different. Jane is always changing her hair. When she’s stressed, she pops to her hairdresser and comes back with a different dye—Hot Toffee, Copper Shimmer, Sunflower Blonde. When she does something drastic, like a bob or a perm, I give her space. Now her hair is pulled back in a ponytail, only shorter—less pony, more rabbit. It’s darker, too. A deeper shade of brunette than I’m used to, near black, with a tinge of purple. Blowout Burgundy?
“Did you go to the salon?” I ask. “How much—” but I stop myself. Our last few arguments have all been about money. Jane says she’s beginning to feel like she lives in a Gestapo state run by our checkbook. And I don’t really have a leg to stand on with my most recent purchase. When I showed her the QC website she said it was too expensive. I’d already bought a ticket.
Jane shakes her head and makes a tsk tsk noise I’ve never heard before.
“I’m sorry,” she says. “Do I know you?”
I don’t know whether to laugh or not. I settle for a dry chuckle.
“Well, I’m only your husband.”
“I’ve never seen you before in my life. What did you say your name was?”
“What is this—role play? Is that what we’re doing?”
Jane and I tried role play once. We played Sexy Maid Fucked By Hot Plumber. It was a disaster. She kept breaking the fourth wall to get the story straight.
“So the Grishams are out strolling in the countryside when you come to fix the sink.”
“Yeah, they’re the family that owns Billings Manor.”
“Have you been binging Downton again?”
“No self-respecting woman would wear this in Present Day, Colin. Wait. Did they have plumbers back then? Maybe you could be an underbutler. Do you have any long underwear?”
“I thought you could just be dusting and I’d, you know, take you from behind.”
“Dusting?” Jane laughed. “Rosalie’s a lady’s maid, Colin. Not a kitchen wench.”
When Jane sets her mind on something, she goes all-in, which is why I’m not surprised she’d pretend to not know me to punish me for lying to her and attending Quantum. I don’t realize I’ve taken her arm until she snatches it away.
“Jane?” I reach for her and she says, “Touch me again and I’ll scream.” She turns and rushes back down the hotel hall. I follow and she breaks into a full sprint. I feel like Jimmy Stewart in It’s a Wonderful Life. The scene when George Bailey chases after his wife, Mary, a spinster librarian in the alt uni in which he was never born.
“Jane! It’s me—Colin! Come on. We’ve been married for ten years!”
She slips into a conference room. I go in after her and suddenly I’ve stumbled into not one alt uni, but a roomful of them. A hundred Janes look up from their punch glasses, pause on the dance floor, break conversation to gape at me.
“Get away from me!” Rabbit Tail Jane shouts. She falls back dramatically in a faint. Two other Janes catch her.
I survey the room. A kaleidoscope of my wife’s face on woman after woman.
“You need to leave,” says Bodybuilder Jane.
“This is a safe space,” says Cowgirl Jane. “No men.”
“I’m sorry. It’s just. . . is my wife here?”
Several other Janes come forward.
“Colin, darling,” says Stepford Jane, touching her pearls. “What are you doing here? You’re embarrassing me in front of my friends.”
“Who’s watching the kids?” says Mom Jane in her Mom Jeans and her Mom Cardigan, which is disturbing because we don’t have any children.
“What the heck, Colin?” My Jane—or one who looks suspiciously like her—comes barrelling through the crowd. “I’m sorry,” she says to the other Janes, looping her arm through mine. “I’ll deal with him.”
• • •
Out in the hall, she drops my arm and digs around in her purse.
“Thank God,” she says. “It’s snoozeville in there.”
“Jane?” I examine her. The hair’s close enough. Same fashion sense, same smile.
“Yeah?” she says.
“No, I mean, are you My Jane?”
“You tell me.” She surfaces from her purse with a pack of Nicorette gum.
“My Jane doesn’t smoke.”
She holds up the gum. “Neither do I.”
I ask her if she knows the way back to the lobby and she leads me down the hall to an elevator. “Coming?” She holds the door for me.
“I, uh, think it’s on this floor.”
She smacks her gum furiously. I step in.
It opens on a hotel bar and restaurant.
Alt Jane sallies out. “The least you can do is buy me a drink.”
• • •
“I know,” she sips her cocktail, “ask me something only she’d know the answer to.”
“I don’t think that works here,” I say.
“Well,” I set down my beer. “When you think about it, there could be a Jane here who’s exactly like my wife, only. . . I don’t know, she didn’t brush her teeth this morning.”
“If that’s all that separates me from your wife, we’re practically the same person.”
“Practically, not actually.”
Alt Jane laughs and it’s like time slips. “She has better oral hygeine.”
“You laugh like her. My wife. Or how she used to.”
“How does she laugh now?”
“I don’t know. Less. . . full? She used to throw her head back like you do.”
“Wow. You are just like My Colin.”
She shrugs. “Devil’s in the details.”
So we sit and drink. I’m about ready to take the elevator down, find the lobby, and go home to My Jane, when Alt Jane says, “I know! Let’s play a game.”
“I’m not in the mood for games.”
“Oh, come on. It’ll be fun. It’s called Never Ever. I’ll be Your Jane and you’ll be My Colin. We have to tell each other something we’d never ever tell our spouses.”
“I don’t know.”
“I’ll go first.” She twirls the miniature umbrella in her drink. “Hmm. . . Okay. Colin, my sweet Colin. Never ever have I told you that I wish I’d married a man with a real job. You know, a career. A doctor or lawyer. A businessman—a guy in a suit! Not a wannabe artist, who basically babysits other people’s kids and makes no money.”
She chortles and claps. “Boy, that felt good. I’ve been holding onto that for a while. Okay. Your turn.”
“I don’t like this game.” I move to get out of the booth.
“Oh, come on. I did it.”
“I’m sorry. I don’t know what to say.”
“Look at me,” she says. So I do. Her cheeks are flushed pink from the alcohol. She has on a bright turquoise necklace like the one My Jane wears. “Don’t I look like her?”
“Okay, then tell me. You have carte blanche here. Say what you’ve always wanted to say to her. I won’t get mad.”
I try to think of something harmless, a throw-away. “Sometimes I look at other women.”
“That’s it? Everyone does it. I bet you’d even tell her that. Come on, Colin. Don’t you have something you’d like to get off your chest?”
“I’ve never cheated on her, if that’s what you’re getting at.”
“Oh, Colin. I’m disappointed. I thought you’d have something better than that.”
“Okay. How’s this? Hi Jane. Guess what? I used the money you were saving for our second round of IVF to pay for this.”
“This stupid doppelgänger convention!”
Others in the restaurant glance our way. I sink down in the booth. Alt Jane leans forward over the candle on the table. Shadows dance across her face.
“Oh, that’s good,” she says. “That’s really good. Won’t she find out?”
“I told her it was for car repairs. Parked the car at the mall for a few days. Took an Uber to work.”
“That’s so messed up. That’s some serious deceit. I wonder if I can top it.”
She mulls it over, signaling for the waiter to bring us another round.
“Okay. I got it.” She reaches forward and takes my hand. “Colin, love. Never ever have I told you that I fantasize about Coach Farley when we’re in the sack.”
“Ugh,” I take my hand back. “Are you serious? Matt Farley? That Neanderthal?”
“I bet he has back hair.” My Jane thinks back hair is about the grossest thing a man can have. She told me this in bed, trailing her hand down my spine, after I’d said I wished I had more chest hair.
“Sometimes it’s a turn on,” Alt Jane says.
“And no one says in the sack any more.”
“I say in the sack.”
“My Jane would never say in the sack.”
“Well, I’m not Your Jane.”
Our drinks come. A welcome distraction.
I take a swig; after this one, I’m out of here. “Matt Farley.” I still can’t believe it. “What a tool.”
“It’s your turn,” she reminds me.
I don’t know if it’s the eight dollar beer or the idea of my sad schlockered selves getting more and more shitfaced together floors below us, or if I really want to shock her or if suddenly I’ve lost my grip and she is My Jane, but I finally come right out with it.
“All right. Here it is, Jane. How’s it go? Oh, right. Never ever have I told you I don’t want kids. Not through all the sperm tests and needle sticks. Not once did I bring it up. How after every pregnancy test, I prayed it would come back negative. How when you cried and I held you, all I felt was relief. Thank God, I thought. Another day for my life to be my own. But what life is that? Every day I drive to school I think of getting on the expressway and driving west and west and west until there’s no more west. There’s just water. I’d move to California. Work on my screenplays. Peddle them on the street. Bartend or wait tables to make rent. You think I don’t know I’d be miserable? That a week in that life and I’d miss you terribly? Then why can’t I stop thinking about it? While you’re sobbing over a pair of Baby Reeboks in Shoe Carnival, I’m blocking the goddamn scene in my head for a black comedy on suburban discontent! Every day I resent you for wanting more than me, even while I’m wanting more than you, too. How sick is that! You’re the only goddamn thing I did right in my life. You. So if I can’t figure out how to be happy with you, and I can’t be happy on my own, how the fuck am I supposed to do it with a child?”
Alt Jane’s eyes widen. I know I’m making a spectacle of myself, but I can’t stop. The other conference-goers shift their attention toward us and when I stand to leave I see that they’re all Janes and Colins, each couple at a table with a little candle, a cocktail, and a beer.
Maybe they’re married, attending Quantum together. But I doubt it. I bet each are from different unis, mixed and matched, all of them having conversations like Alt Jane’s and mine—comparing relationships, taking notes.
You’re not a special little snowflake. There are billions of snowflakes out there that are just like you. You couldn’t be more insignificant.
Maybe later they’ll end up in hotel rooms together. Maybe they’ll recognize their spouses in the familiar way they are touched. Or maybe there will be just enough variation for it to be new, like when you and your wife come back to each other after so long apart, and you think, who are you? Where have you been all my life? Here, she tells you. Right here, all your life beside you. And you sigh in her arms. Oh, how I’ve missed you.
• • •
I take the elevator down and wander the halls until I find the lobby. When I check out, the concierge gives me a complimentary swag bag with the QC logo.
I tell him I don’t want it.
“But it’s free!” He slides my black key card across the counter.
I take the card and leave the bag. I swipe the key in the EXIT door and step through from the Marriott lobby to the Days Inn lobby in my home uni. I head out through the sliding doors to the parking lot. Before I can get to my car, my phone alerts me with a chain of texts and voicemails, all from Jane.
I rush home, knowing, but not knowing, and when I walk in she’s in the kitchen and the way she rests her palm flat on her stomach, I know; I know and when she asks me where the hell I’ve been, before she can even give me the news, I tell her how happy I am.
Eric Schlich’s stories have appeared or are forthcoming in Fairy Tale Review, Mississippi Review, Hayden’s Ferry Review, Electric Literature, Redivider, River Styx, Nimrod, New South, and others. He lives in Dunkirk, New York and teaches at SUNY Fredonia.Image by Christian Fregnan