My editor walks over on a Friday afternoon carrying a contraption that looks like you’d torture a spy with it. He clunks the thing down on my desk one-handedly by its metal neck.
“Project for you,” he says. “Need a quick review.”
I write tech and gadget news for a dying print newspaper in a medium-sized city.
“What the hell is it?” I ask.
“This,” he says, “is the Belton Multiverse Spectrometer,” craning his head to read the stamp on the side. Of course that doesn’t tell me much. It has oculars like a two-socket microscope, but the body resembles an ammo box, with curly wires coming off like you’d expect to find on a moonshine still, and a few round dials on the front of it, and a couple of rectangular controllers with thin cords connected to the sides. It’s like a mess of different machines soldered together in a vague turkey shape.
“It looks like junk,” I say.
“It’s ugly, for sure,” he says, shrugging. “Yeah, you’ll probably have to mention that in your review. Maybe find a euphemism—retro-style, or something—though the company swears it’ll be sleeker and newer-looking when 2.0 hits the market.”
“Okay,” I say. “But what the hell is a Multiverse Spectrometer?”
“It sees multiverses,” my editor says, as if this should have been obvious. “You know. Like in the DC comic books.”
That’s all he had to say; I understood him then. It’s the theory that there’s not just one universe but many, all coexisting at once, and that in these other universes, events unfold in slightly or drastically different ways than in ours. In fact, if I understand the theory right, and take it to its logical conclusion, it means that everyone is everything and everyone else. We all go through every possible permutation of life throughout the Multiverse. There are universes, in other words, where I am a murderer, and others where I am the murdered, others where I’m a famous rock star or can move objects with my mind, and many others where I’m just sitting in a room somewhere wasting my life, like I’m doing right now.
“Just to be clear,” I confirm, “you mean it looks into alternate universes?”
“Retails for $699, MSRP,” he says. He wipes his machine-hand on his pants. “It sure is ugly, though. You’re right about that.”
“I didn’t realize that the Multiverse theory had been proven.”
“That’s why you’re the gadget guy,” my editor says, “and not the science guy. The technology was invented by Belton back in the fifties, intended for military use—that’s why it looks like it does, I guess, meant to help blow shit up, not look good on a coffee table—but the army couldn’t use it. They wanted to show possible outcomes of a potential action or whatever, to see if their plan would work, so they’d look into the Multiverse and find a universe where they took the same action and then they’d watch how it played out. But it was useless, since instead of showing them one outcome, it showed every outcome. Some universes where the action succeeded and a bunch more where it was bullshit, and others where everyone in the room spontaneously combusted. It’s pretty cool, but I can see how it’d be plain useless in that regard.”
“Am I supposed to like this new product, or not?”
This is a standard question.
“Belton’s letting us keep it,” my editor says, “so like it about seven stars out of ten. I want it back when you’re done. You’ve got to admit, it’s an amazing concept. Should change the way we look at the world, right?”
“But what will people use it for?” I pick it up by the neck. It’s heavy as a dumbbell.
“Oh, I don’t know,” he says honestly. “People’ll probably use it to stream porn. But you watch it like TV. Look through the little eyeholes there, or you can hook it up to a monitor or TV set. It’s got RCA and HDMI outputs in the back, and it’s Bluetooth ready, which is a nice touch. I had it running through my Xbox for a while last night and tried to play multiplayer across the Multiverse, which would’ve been awesome. Play against myself from some other universe and rocket-propel-grenade myself to hell. But I couldn’t get it to work. It’s not much of a gaming system. Anyway, I need eight hundred words by Monday, and about seven and a half stars. I don’t know if I mentioned it, but they’re paying us for a decent review. So there’s that.”
“So it’s an advertisement,” I say.
“It’s a reviewvertisement,” he says.
“What if I have plans this weekend? You didn’t even bother to ask. It’s kind of late on a Friday to be bringing me something like this, isn’t it?”
“Ahh,” he says, crossing his arms and smiling. “So it’s Secret Girlfriend Weekend, huh?”
Secret girlfriend is what he calls my ex-wife Marlene. Every couple of weeks, Marlene comes over and watches an old movie with me on a Friday night. Her husband travels a lot, so it’s just her and their two kids most of the time. Her old girlfriends have all moved off to other places, so it’s me she turns to. She hires a sitter and comes over, and we watch black-and-white movies we never got to watch when we were married, because of all the drama. Good company, that’s all it is. But as soon as my editor learned about it, he started calling her my secret girlfriend, as if we were up to something that her husband doesn’t know about. Which is completely untrue: nothing is up between us, so there’s really no need for her husband to know anything.
We’ve rekindled a friendship in the past year or so. Coffee every couple of months, that was all at first. Then, for the last three months, we’ve been watching movies at my place without telling her traveling husband exactly where she is.
Good company, that’s all.
“That’s none of your business,” I tell him, a little too quickly.
“Touchy, touchy,” he says. “You’re carrying the torch, buddy. It’s kind of sad to see. Plenty of women out there. Anyway, don’t look so glum. There’s probably some universe where you’re the boss and I’m the lowly writer, and you’ve just come over and given me a crap assignment for the weekend. So it’s karma. It all comes out in the wash. What an elegant universe. As for your plans, just incorporate the machine into your date night. You can use it just like cable TV, only better. Hey, put that in the review! Find a universe of erotic pleasures or something, and you two can watch it together on your couch and pretend not to be turned on by it. Then she’ll leave, and you’ll be frustrated and confused, and it’ll be just like your usual Friday night.”
The pizza guy shows up while I’m still trying to hook the Multiverse Spectrometer to my TV. I pay him and put the pizza out on the kitchen table next to the bottle of wine. Then I go back to the living room to fiddle with the device some more. I’m getting nothing but gray-white fuzz, but according to the manual, that’s what I’m supposed to get. The manual explains that the fuzz between channels on a television is actually radiation left over from the Big Bang in a state of cooling, which I never knew, and it’s inside this cosmic fuzz that I’m going to view other universes. But even reading the manual, it’s not immediately clear how you’re supposed to operate the thing: There’s the Nintendo-looking controller, which I guess you can use to scroll universes or save the princess from the tower. The oversized dull chrome dials on front, which fine-tune the picture of the universes, and a small keypad no bigger than a cigarette pack attached by a cord the thickness of a whip of licorice.
I pick up the keypad and press the home button, just to see what happens.
A search box comes up, cursor blinking. It may be my imagination, but it seems like as soon as the box appears, the air in my living room gets ionized, charged up. The lint on my sweater stands up straight. I’ve got the box stretched from the television to my coffee table, the curled wires a dangerous obstruction, the whole thing uglying the place. I hear a faint hum and wonder how much radiation this thing puts out. I also wonder what’s going to happen when I enter a search term and open space-time in my living room. The wiring in my apartment isn’t ideal.
I could wait for Marlene to find out, but that blinking cursor has me intrigued. Everything in the Multiverse has already happened, if the machine does what it says—that means there’s a universe where all wars were won by the opposite side as in ours, or where Oswald saves JFK’s life using the Heimlich, or Abraham Lincoln becomes a high-seas pirate, or Napoleon could not be defeated because his skin was made of diamonds. I’m holding the little keypad—my thumb feels very fat across the letters, I note for the review—and I begin typing in not “Lincoln Pirate” or “Napoleon Diamond Skin” but my own name and a plus sign, and Marlene’s married name. I put in today’s date.
I’ve begun to realize that it’s only a matter of time before my ex-wife and I end up in bed together. It’s true that our coffees were purely platonic, and further true that nothing has happened between us since we’ve foregone the coffees to watch old movies in my apartment on Friday nights. We eat pizza. We drink wine. We enjoy Bogey and Bacall. We sit on the couch so close that it’s like our legs are touching, though they’re not, and there’s always a bunch of couch on either side of us that goes unused. We sit so close I can feel the energy of her thigh on mine. We have a certain electricity between us, as real as the radiation coming off this metal box, and maybe as dangerous. If we make popcorn instead of order pizza, our hands brush each other’s as we reach for a handful.
And there’s also the fact that she’s been telling me things here lately . . . mostly how she’s been unhappy with Brian since the arrival of their second child. How he’s never at home, and it’s like she’s raising the kids all by herself. She’s been opening up, I guess you’d say, telling me how she feels about her life and marriage, and I’ve been there for her.
I think we both know where this is headed.
We’re maybe three old movies away from crawling into bed and making a big mistake. One of those much-needed, both-feeling-vulnerable, pay-for-it-later-but-enjoy-it-right-now big mistakes.
It could be tonight.
I glance up at the clock—she’ll probably be ringing the bell in five or six minutes. Hardly enough time to do a search for us, to see what might happen when she comes over, but I’ve got us typed into the machine already and think I can do this quickly. Just take a peek. It doesn’t occur to me that there might be no way to clear the search history until I’ve already hit enter, but by then it’s too late.
I hit enter.
An icon flashes on the screen and spins, sending the air into more invisible crackles. Then, I’m not sure how else to say this, I feel myself breach the unseen membrane of the universe. Nothing visible or obvious, no streaming special effects like in 2001, but it feels like the floor is sliding away from me, and my feet are pincushioning, and I think I’m going to be sick. Then the fuzz on the screen changes into ghosts, and the ghosts become forms, my equilibrium rights itself, and there I am on my television set, sitting on my couch with the Nintendo controller in my hand, staring back at myself dumbly. Wearing the same clothes I am now (sweater and slacks, which I wore to work). It looks like a mirror image of me, same expression and everything, and for a moment I think that I’ve dialed up the very universe I’m in. I knit my brow, and so does he; I wave, and so does he. We’re a Marx Brothers routine.
But then the apartment buzzer rings in the universe on the television, and this mirror image forgets all about me. He puts the controller down, rubs his sweaty hands on his slacks, adjusts his belt, and goes to answer the door. Nothing but couch on the screen for a few seconds, though I keep watching, and then two pairs of legs come into view, facing each other. Very close, not only in an embrace but, I can tell from the wobble of the legs, in the midst of a passionate, face-sucking kiss. Their hands start sliding all over each other, down thighs, reaching around to cup each other’s behinds.
I am watching myself and my ex-wife make out in another universe.
They lower onto the couch, with me stretched out on my back and Marlene climbing on top, really going at it. And while this should make me feel funny, watching them like this, perhaps even envious at how boldly they’re making their mistake, I am instead filled with a kind of wonderful anticipation and fear that makes my stomach float.
There’s nothing to say I’m not looking at the path my own night could take.
Right on cue, my own apartment’s buzzer goes off. Marlene.
I scramble for the controller, my first impulse being to hide what I’m watching . . . but then it occurs to me I could just let it play. I could always act embarrassed when Marlene comes in, if she’s offended by it, but then what if she’s not? What if she looks at us making out in another universe, then looks over at me and says, This is what I’ve been hoping for.
Yes, I know.
I’ve mistaken this marvelous machine for Cinemax.
Meanwhile on my television, Marlene and I are fumbling with our buttons. No talking, no overthinking. I can hear their breaths getting more rapid. It’s almost embarrassing. Maybe it’ll be good for a laugh between us, me and my Marlene, if it doesn’t lead to anything else.
So I risk it and leave it running. I go hit the buzzer to let Marlene past the security door, then I do one last check of my hair, teeth, and breath.
I look at myself in the bathroom mirror and say, What are you doing, dummy? Then I go let her in, to find out.
Only it is not Marlene at my front door.
It’s Brian. Marlene’s husband.
He’s standing there in a raincoat with light snowflakes on the shoulders, and he has what might be described as an unpleasant, murderous look on his face.
“Mind if I come in?” he tells me.
I step back and he comes inside, brushes a bit of snow onto my floor. Then he kind of walks through the foyer and into my dining room, peers into the kitchen. I see him take note of the table, the pizza box, the wine, and the two wineglasses. He turns back to look at me.
“What’s going on between you and Marlene?” he asks.
I have a couple of ways to play this: I can act dumb and say, What do you mean? Or, I can answer honestly and say, Brian, I have no idea.
“What do you mean?” I say.
“She came clean with me about you and her,” he says. “She told me everything.”
Of course there’s not much to tell. We haven’t crossed a line, at least not physically. Emotionally, perhaps, and I wonder if Marlene has told him that these Friday nights are important to her in some way. That she needs them. That would be nice to hear. But I don’t know what she’s told him. Whatever it is, it’s lead Brian to drive all the way across town to kill me. Maybe he doesn’t know anything and he’s just fishing for information. He thinks he’s got his hook in me.
Still, it doesn’t take a genius to know that this has the potential to get out of hand.
“Look, I don’t know what Marlene has told you . . . ”
“She told me she’s been over here when I’m out of town.” He’s looking around the place, fists on his sides like a father in a 50s TV show. “She said you two’ve been snuggling up on the couch, sitting close, getting cozy. She said you have a certain electricity—”
“Really? She said that?”
“—and that’s all she’ll own up to,” he says. “But I know that’s not all. She’s at home right now, crying her eyes out. That’s a sign. You can’t tell me it’s not. People don’t cry for no reason.”
I want to tell him that’s not true. Especially not for Marlene. He ought to know that by now.
“Shouldn’t you be out of town?” I ask, not meaning for this to come out as high-pitched and spineless as it does.
He turns his whole torso around, elbows in Vs, surveying the dining room. There’s that paternal air about him that makes me feel guilty as hell. He looks at the floors, in the corners of the room, at my bookshelf, and finally back to me.
“Am I going to find condoms here?” he asks.
I say, “Are you going to look?”
I’ve always kind of liked Brian, the few times I’ve met him. He seems like a generally kindhearted man, like he loves Marlene. I’d actually done a pretty good job of not thinking much about him, and I’d certainly never asked her what she tells him when she comes over. To bring it up would’ve been to bring it out in the open, then to have a serious talk, with the end result that our Friday nights together would go away. I sure didn’t want that.
“Look, Brian,” I say, “I realize this looks funny, but there’s nothing going on. I can promise you that. Nothing but good company, that’s all. With you out of town all the time, Marlene just needs to get out of the house . . . I don’t know why she’s so upset, really, or what she’s crying about. We haven’t done anything for her to be ashamed of.”
Thank God this is true, not so much as an open-mouthed kiss between us. And thank God I didn’t add yet to the end of that, like I almost did.
“She’s done something enough to cry about,” he says to me. “She was so bad off I cancelled my flight to Boston. She’s sorry for something, but when I press her for specifics, she won’t say anything.”
“Because there are none to tell,” I say. “So maybe she should’ve told you where she was, sure, and honestly, I don’t know why she didn’t”—and I feel immediately bad for implicating Marlene a little here—“but I promise you, on my word, that there is nothing untoward, nothing more than just good friendship, going on between me and her. I can promise you that.”
Then, Brian and I hear Marlene moan loudly from the direction of my living room.
His eyebrows clench down into little eyebrow fists.
“What was that?” he says.
“What was what?”
“Ohhhhh yesssssss,” Marlene calls out.
“Oh,” I say. “Do you mean that?”
Before I can think of an excuse for what that could possibly be—alarm clock?—Brian’s stomping back toward the living room, and I’m following behind slowly. By the time I’m in there with him, he’s standing in front of the set, back to me, and doesn’t appear to be moving at all. Just standing there, fists on his hips, shoulders up and tense, watching. This is the moment, I realize, where this particular universe is about to take a turn. Where Brian pulls a gun out of his overcoat and shoots me dead, or turns around and lunges toward me and chokes me. Where we end up on the eleven o’clock news, and they’ll probably interview my editor at the paper, and he’ll look into the camera with that told-you-so smile I hate, and he’ll say, “Dude had a secret girlfriend, and it was his ex-frikkin-wife. How’d he think this was gonna turn out?”
“So I can explain this,” I say weakly, though I’m not sure that’s true. “There’s this theory, see—well, I guess it’s not a theory anymore—there’s this thing where . . . see, there are these parallel universes . . . ”
But Brian doesn’t appear to be listening to me. Nor, to my surprise, does he whip around to get his hands on my neck. Instead he puts his arms down and lets his shoulders drop, then he turns to face me, his whole body suddenly slack and deflated, as if the pressure of having to puff himself up for a fight, grind his jaw at me, has exhausted him.
His voice is very timid when he speaks.
“You had your chance,” he says, measuring his words. No rage in his voice, but loss and hurt. “You had Marlene for five years,” he says, “and had your life with her, and you blew it. Now she’s got a family, children . . . and I’m not always there for her, I realize that . . . ”
“You’re gone way too much,” I agree, hoping to put some of this back on him, as a way of saving my cowardly hide.
But Brian actually nods when I say it.
“I know that,” he says. “I haven’t been the best husband, I know.”
“You really haven’t,” I say.
“But make no mistake I love her . . . ” and then his voice trails off, like he’s going to get emotional. I see it threatening to cloud his face, and I feel embarrassed for him. For us both. Then he says, composing himself, “And I’m not going to lose her. Not to anyone, and certainly, certainly not to you. I’m going to do better. I guess it took something like this to finally . . . but, back to you. You had your chance with her already. That’s over and done with. She told me how you were in the marriage, by the way. You weren’t exactly Mr. Attentive. I’m not going to have you coming around now, confusing her. Taking advantage of our problems. From this moment on, I don’t want you anywhere near her or my family. Got it?”
There’s really not much I can do, except for agree. And of course I’ve known this moment was coming. I just didn’t figure on it so soon, and especially not like this. An affair that ended before it ever began.
“Okay,” I say. My throat is so dry, the word comes out in a little scratch. “I understand.”
“Good,” he says, then he pauses a moment and adds, which seems strange to me, “Thank you.”
And just like that, Brian and I have run out of things to talk about. He tightens his coat and pulls his collar up, then walks back through my apartment and lets himself out. It feels weird to have someone leave without a goodbye, to simply stop talking and exit, but that’s what he does. And it’s what I’ve done, too. Not so much as a goodbye to my ex-wife, after all we’ve been through. But I suppose one could argue that we’ve had our fair share of goodbyes already. Maybe more than our fair share.
Though there is another universe, just a dial-switch away, where Marlene and I maintain a lifelong love affair behind her callous husband’s back, with an intensity never achieved by married couples. That forbidden angle, like in The Thorn Birds. Another flip of the dial finds us in a trailer park in Alabama, Marlene in perpetual curlers and me on the perpetual couch, and in another, we are in feudal Japan, samurai, and have been hired by third parties to bring them the severed head of one another. These third parties, it seems, could both be Brian.
In others, Marlene and I simply lose touch along the way, too distracted by the people and problems in our lives to think much about what we once had.
Then there are a multitude of universes—like the stars—where my ex-wife and I hold a completely average and insecure love affair, careless in what we’re doing, sometimes hurtful to each other by accident, or on purpose. Where we don’t always seem to be having a whole lot of fun. These bear a resemblance to the universe we live in now, though I keep this observation to myself.
But it’s the universe of the almost-affair that really gets to her. Especially Brian’s monologue in my living room, where he professes his love for her while standing in front of what he believes to be our recorded lovemaking, and where I back down, agree to get out of the way. As soon as he begins his speech, Marlene starts to sniff, dab her eyes with a Kleenex. We watch the whole thing about three times, at her request.
“I’m sorry,” she says, fixing her mascara with her fingertip. Then she laughs. “I must be vulnerable tonight. It’s just so beautiful. It bowls me over to hear that coming out of Brian’s mouth.”
“Hey,” I say. “You want to go home? Are you feeling bad?”
“Oh, no,” she says, wiping her nose with the tissue. “That Brian’s not my Brian. Not by a long shot. But it’s still lovely.”
“Did you see us on that television?” I say, hoping to lighten the mood. “We looked pretty good naked together, huh?”
“Keep dreaming, buddy,” she sniffles, and laughs again. “That’s never going to happen.”
But then she nudges her leg a bit closer to mine.
“Well, look,” I say, “we can always go back to the goofy stuff, if you like.”
By which I mean the universes we were watching before we started searching for ourselves—a universe where Alexander the Great has heat vision, or Neil Armstrong steps out of Apollo and gets beaten senseless by tiny moon people, or where Jesus and Moses fistfight. Like a giant Mad Lib made by God. Everything is possible and everything has happened, and it’s only a matter of thinking of it and tuning it in. What an elegant universe.
But Marlene says no, she wants to keep watching the two of us on this contraption. And though neither of us says it, I think I understand why: It’s because we don’t know what we’re doing here on these Friday nights when Brian’s out of town. Or, we know certain things—that we enjoy one another’s company, for example—but neither of us can say for sure why we’re here. Maybe one of these flips of the dial will help us figure that out, will show us a version of ourselves that scares us into calling the whole thing off (and the one where Brian shows up at my apartment, I admit, has me thinking a little more soberly). Or we’ll find one where the right thing to do is clear, and we do it, and everything about the way those lives play out seems so true and right, it allows us to know ourselves a little better, and to see ourselves out here, in this universe, more clearly. To know for certain what we do, and do not, want to happen, as if that universe and its stories had been written just for us.