P.J. Underwood


Higher math­e­mat­ics sug­gests that in any num­ber of uni­vers­es where I exist, I am any num­ber of peo­ple. I may be a barista or bal­let dancer; a cop, clown, writer, or come­di­an; a hard­ened crim­i­nal, or even a woman. Here — right now — I watch my girl­friend light a match and drop it on a pile of my comics she’s just soaked in lighter flu­id. The match goes out on the way down, trails a thin phos­pho­rous seam. When it hits, it smol­ders and dies.

Alice looks at the books, at me. “Nothing,” she says, then lights the whole card­board match­book and drops that.  When the accel­er­ant takes, eat­ing up oxy­gen in a greedy orange flare, she jerks back a half step.

I watch the loose pile burn, car­bonize and curl around the edges, wrin­kle, flake and float up. Ashes swirl like Bakelite in a snow globe.

She stares at me and breathes hard through her nose. Her fore­head creas­es deep, right between her eye­brows. She throws her hands up, rolls her eyes and her head fol­lows. “Still noth­ing.” She picks up the back­pack at her feet.

Don’t leave,” I say.

Fuck you, James.”

She bumps my shoul­der with hers, sharp, when she pass­es. I twist a lit­tle with the col­li­sion. Her foot­steps fade and her car cranks, dri­ves off.

The flames creep inward, go blue, then green, die down to noth­ing. When I’m sure even the embers are dead, I go inside, push her chair to the din­ing room table, and sit back down. I fin­ish my din­ner and go to bed ear­ly, sleep on my side, clos­est to the window.


The next morn­ing, Tuesday, I wake up a 5:30, when the radio alarm goes off. The song reminds me of Alice. She loved music, danced bare­foot around the liv­ing room every Saturday for at least an hour. It’s good for the soul, she’d say, breath­less between songs, then some­thing mid-tem­po might start and she’d be off spin­ning again.

For a moment, I lie in bed and stare at the ceil­ing, imag­ine uni­vers­es like bub­bles expand­ing on a foam­ing bath. Any infi­nite num­ber of things might have hap­pened dif­fer­ent, and she’d still be here. In an equal num­ber of pos­si­ble real­i­ties, I stare at the ceil­ing like I do in this one, only a lit­tle to the left, maybe, or a lit­tle to the right, but alone anyway.

I roll through Alice’s spot and go take a show­er. Afterwards, I stand in front of the fogged mir­ror with a tow­el wrapped around my waist, wipe an arc of glass clean. When I real­ize she’s tak­en her elec­tric tooth­brush and tooth­paste, this organ­ic brown stuff that looks like caramel pud­ding but tastes like cin­na­mon, I con­sid­er fore­go­ing clean­ing my teeth, but end up wast­ing anoth­er quar­ter hour try­ing to find an extra tube some­where. I find a trav­el tube of Crest Whitening inside a shav­ing bag under the sink and use that, but it tastes off and feels like sand in my gums, froths all wrong in my mouth. When I pull the brush out of my mouth, I press Captain America’s smil­ing plas­tic face and the brush goes off. I stare at its head and click it on, off, and on again. Flecks of tooth­paste arc off the spin­ning bris­tles like excit­ed particles.

For break­fast, I make one serv­ing of oat­meal instead of two, top it with eight ounces of milk and sliced banana. I think about throw­ing away the peach­es in the fruit bowl. I nev­er liked them, but Alice always had them with her break­fast. Of all the pos­si­ble wave func­tions that might col­lapse into this world, her com­ing back is one, so I leave the peach­es. They have a few days before they’re overripe.

Tuesdays and Thursdays, I teach at eight and nine-thir­ty. After that, I keep my office hours and work on my doc­tor­al the­sis. The University of Mississippi’s physics grad­u­ate pro­gram shares office space with the astron­o­my and engi­neer­ing grad­u­ate stu­dents. Four of us share an office, two to a desk, like detec­tives in a TV show, with half-height cubi­cle dividers cor­don­ing our indi­vid­ual space. Most every­one tacks pic­tures, hob­by cal­en­dars, notes from stu­dents, spous­es, friends and fam­i­ly to the uphol­stered walls, until they’re crowd­ed, lay­ered like scales with bits and pieces of improb­a­ble lives.

I have two mag­a­zine fold­out posters, one a high res­o­lu­tion shot of the Crab Nebula glow­ing with incan­des­cent nurs­ery stars, the oth­er is an over-sized reprint of a Superman com­ic book cov­er. The demigod sits on a cloud, knees tucked to his chest. He peeks back over his shoul­der, eyes nar­rowed, lips curled a lit­tle at one cor­ner of his mouth like he knows a secret. Through the scat­tered clouds below him, Metropolis sits, small and qui­et, glint­ing in the sun. I like them both because I look at them and I hear qui­et, feel still in my chest. Ghost creas­es gate­fold-line the page. When I took it out of the pin­up mag­a­zine, I held it over a steam­ing pot of water and sat it flat under a heavy book, but the folds nev­er went away.

I sus­pect Pete Elk, who I’ve known since grade school and sits at the desk fac­ing mine, gave me the oth­er pic­ture. He stud­ies astronomy.

We grew up in Enid, but only knew of each oth­er, were nev­er friends, went off to dif­fer­ent uni­ver­si­ties when we grad­u­at­ed high school. He stayed in Oklahoma and I moved to Oregon. A few months into our doc­tor­al pro­grams, we ran across each oth­er at a show for some band he and Alice liked, and start­ed hang­ing out. I won­der some­times if we only became friends out of neces­si­ty. He seems lonely.

When I get to our office, Pete’s desk is emp­ty and neat. His neigh­bor, Daniel, an Italian exper­i­men­tal physics stu­dent who I’m cer­tain none of has heard speak, sits at his desk, head down, scrib­bling equa­tions on a smart tablet with his fin­ger and mut­ter­ing a susurrus to him­self. Tariq, my neigh­bor, isn’t at his desk, either. I sit and take a legal pad-sized dry erase board and ziplock bag of mark­ers out of the top draw­er and get to work.

A few min­utes plug­ging num­bers into Schrödinger, Pete shows. The neck of his t‑shirt stretch­es low on his chest, and looks rum­pled, like he slept in it. He car­ries a back­pack over one shoul­der, holds the strap with one hand up near his ear, walks with his head down, and goes around to his side of the desk. I hear him breathe out heavy, blow through his lips. He goes qui­et. His chair squelch­es and creaks out slow, dopplers qui­et. I go back to bal­anc­ing my equa­tion. When I’m done, Pete’s still qui­et. “Pete?” I say. I roll my eyes to the ceil­ing, raise my eye­brows, wait and lis­ten. The flu­o­res­cent light over­head flick­ers and hums, threat­ens to blow, flares back steady. “Peter?”

Over there, some­thing hits the desk, plas­tic, skit­ters, hits muf­fled on the floor; prob­a­bly one of his action figures.

Pete groans. “What?” He talks low.

I take my feet off the desk. “Are you okay?” In his cor­ner, Daniel’s mut­ter­ing pitch­es high, falls. .

I feel like shit,” Pete says. His chair moves again, squeals met­al on plas­tic. He breathes in sharp through his teeth.

You’re sick?”

For a moment, he’s qui­et. “Hungover is a kind of sick.”

At his desk, Daniel snorts.

It’s Tuesday,” I say. “Why are you hungover?”

His fin­gers wrap over the top of the divider, and the whole cubi­cle warps when he pulls him­self up. He wears cheap avi­a­tor sun­glass­es that cost less than the deep fried egg rolls he bought them with at the gas station.

Pete has blue eyes and curly blonde hair, despite Cherokee par­ents, and as a result suf­fered every pet­ty grief imag­in­able from mail­man and milk­man jokes, to hav­ing to pro­duce paper­work prov­ing his trib­al sta­tus when he went to col­lege, and when he came here.

Sometimes, usu­al­ly when he’s drunk, he’ll ask “What are the chances?”

I offer to do the math, every time.

He blows a rasp­ber­ry with wet lips. “Not like­ly,” he says. “That’s good enough for me.”

You know,” I say, “The math sug­gests that, some­where out there, you’re Spiderman.”

Yeah,” he says. “That’d happen.”

Pete waves in front of my face. “Jim?” he says. He does it again. “James? Hey!” He snaps his fingers.

I shake my head and look up, and we’re back in the office.

He stands, look­ing down at me over the divider. “You okay?” He says.

I put the smeared board on the desk and cap the mark­er next to it. “I’m good,” I say. “Didn’t sleep well.”

You want to get some waf­fles?” He jerks his thumb over his shoul­der. “I’m not get­ting shit done today.”

Let’s go.”

Instead of going to get waf­fles, we go to the Union. He gets cof­fee, I get a soda, and we go out and sit at one of the met­al lawn tables in front of the squat brown­stone and glass build­ing. Pete rea­sons that, if we say we’re get­ting waf­fles – which refers, appar­ent­ly, to the way the met­al chairs make our ass­es look after sit­ting there too long – it’s some­how bet­ter than say­ing we’re going to sit on our ass­es so he can ogle women. It’s all about con­ci­sion, he says.

Pete blows on the lit­tle hole in the cof­fee lid, slurps, blows some more. “I tried call­ing y’all last night,” he says. “There was music at pen­ny pitch­ers at the Gin.”

Sorry,” I say.

It end­ed up suck­ing.” He puts his cof­fee on the table and the card­board heat sleeve slides down, ticks on the met­al. “But pen­ny pitch­ers. And I did meet this girl there.” He throws his cig­a­rettes on the table, roots in his pock­ets with both hands for a lighter. “Petite girl, kind of a squeaky voice.” He lights a smoke, rolls his tongue out on his low­er lip to get a stray fleck of tobac­co, spits. “I couldn’t hear her all night at the bar, so I just end up smil­ing and nod­ding a lot. I get her back home and we’re in the mid­dle of it and she starts wail­ing like a har­pooned wal­rus.” He shrugs and throws up his hands. Ash falls off the cig­a­rette, swirls away in a gust. “What is that? Seriously, I didn’t think I was going to be able to finish.”

Alice dumped me.” I nod at his cig­a­rette. “Can you put that out?”

Y’all broke up?”

I don’t want to talk about it,” I say.

Okay.” He’s qui­et for minute, keeps smok­ing his cig­a­rette, but switch­es it to the hand away from me.

Classes let out and stu­dents scat­ter into the Grove, between wide-spaced trees, over side­walks and grass, join the few already milling out­side the Union. A girl wear­ing a soror­i­ty tank top, short shorts and fur-lined suede boots comes our way and Pete sits up straight.

Look at this,” he says. He slaps my shoul­der. She goes by, straight brown hair gone back in the breeze. She smiles, waves low at her hip. He smiles back, raised eye­brows and top teeth, and nods. She pass­es and he watch­es her go, until she dis­ap­pears inside.

She burnt my comics,” I say.

Pete snaps back to me. “All of them?”

Two white oaks with pur­ple, yel­low, pink and white aza­leas and fat, smooth riv­er rocks all around their roots sit in poured-con­crete box­es in the ago­ra between the Union and Grove. When the met­al bench­es fill and peo­ple take all the oth­er tables, stu­dents sit all around the flower bed’s edges, eat lunch, talk and text on their phones. Fraternity broth­ers run into each oth­er, shake hands, and pull each oth­er in for a one-armed hug. Behind them, a solar-pow­ered light fix­ture that looks like a fly­ing saucer juts up out of pine straw and mulch, leans a lit­tle on its spike. I squint, stare at the sun glint­ing on it like lens flare. Thighs and back­packs and purs­es and legs pass in front of it and the light blinks gib­ber­ish Morse. A girl with a pink, leop­ard-spot­ted buzz cut and black lip­stick, neck craned down so she can look at her phone, stops and blocks my view.

No,” I say. “My long box­es are in stor­age.” I glance at him. “ ‘Took up too much room,’ she said.” The girl looks up from her phone and moves. I go back to watch­ing the fix­ture. “I’m glad she was right.”

At least she didn’t do you like Dean Michaels’ ex-wife. She came into class and slapped him like a punk when she found out he was bang­ing a grad stu­dent.” He grits his teeth to one side, inhales sharp. “Still,” he says. “That’s a lit­tle unhinged.” He leans back, cross­es his legs, ankle at knee. “She didn’t like me much either.” He puts his hands behind his head.

I shrug.

You alright?” he says.

I’m fine.”

Yeah,” he says. “You seem a lit­tle too okay.” He arch­es back over the chair, stretch­ing. His back pops and he groans. “She burnt my comics, I’d still be bitch­ing. You don’t seem upset at all.”

You see that thing there?” I point at the light fix­ture. “What do you call that?”

He lifts his sun­glass­es from his eyes. “That’s a flower bed, James.” He drops the glass­es to the bridge of his nose and leans back.

The light thing. The fix­ture in the flower bed.” I keep point­ing. “Don’t be a jackass.”

He stubs his cig­a­rette out on the sole of his shoe and field strips it, flicks the twist­ed fil­ter towards a wrought-iron garbage can. The butt arcs, lazies up to its apex in the breeze, and bounces off of the lid. “Yeah. It’s a gar­den light,” he says. “So?”

Look at it,” I say.

He rais­es his eyebrows.

I’m seri­ous. Look at it.”

He push­es his sun­glass­es up on his head, widens his eyes, stares. “Okay.”

Every sec­ond I look at that thing is unique,” I say. “And it’s com­plete­ly mundane.”

How do you figure?”

Physics.” My cheek itch­es, just under my eye. I scratch with a fin­ger, and con­tin­ue to stare. “Same way I fig­ure everything.”

Pete watch­es me. The sun moves the entire time, even if noth­ing else seems to change.   He clears his throat. “You’ve lost me, buddy.”

I exhale deep, slow through my nose. “We make deci­sions all day every day,” I glance at him, back, blink and hold for a moment. An after­im­age floats in the dark, puls­es green around a burnt fuch­sia nucle­us. “Even when we don’t real­ize it. Every event is a new event, but out there,” I point at the sky. “Out there it hap­pens over and over and over again. Ad infini­tum. Forever,” I say. “We watch movies, or have sex, or have girl­friends or boyfriends, and because it hap­pens in an infi­nite mul­ti­verse, it hap­pens the same way an end­less num­ber of times.”

Pete’s mouth hangs open a lit­tle, like he wants to say something.

I hold up a hand to stop him. “Because we live in this unend­ing stack, or web, or quan­tum foam, or what­ev­er, every sin­gle event hap­pens the same way,” I say. “And with infi­nite vari­a­tion. Sometimes,” I keep look­ing at the lawn light. , “the event doesn’t hap­pen at all.”

And it doesn’t hap­pen at all an infi­nite num­ber of ways,” Pete says, nods deep a few times, slow. “What’s your point?”

You sound like Alice.” I look at him.

He cocks his head to one side a lit­tle, like a dog that’s heard a new sound.

She always said the same thing, that I nev­er got excit­ed about any­thing,” I say. “Or hap­py. Or sad. That’s what she said right before she took the lighter flu­id to my comics.” I point at the gar­den light. “I look at that fix­ture and all these peo­ple mov­ing past it and the angle of the sun chang­ing, and I have trou­ble get­ting worked up over some­thing so insignif­i­cant that hap­pens here, to me.”

He cuts his eyes at my point hand, back to me. “That’s a depress­ing way of look­ing at things.”

Alice and me,” I say. “That hap­pens every­where.” I pull my elbows back, rest them right where the chair’s iron arms curve up. “And it hap­pens nowhere at the same time.”

Pete clears his throat. “Alice was right.” He holds up a hand, fin­gers spread. “I’m not say­ing she should’ve set your shit on fire.” He hangs his head, licks his lips and looks up. “You don’t seem to care about much.”

You were right,” I say, look him in the eyes. “She didn’t like you.”

Doesn’t change she was right.”

I keep my voice even. “She thought you were a drunk,” I say. “You treat women like shit.”

He brings his hand up sharp, close to his face, points at me. “You’re always watch­ing things and get­ting every lit­tle detail and think­ing about how things might could go dif­fer­ent. You don’t real­ly give a shit about the outcome.”

I’m not wild about your smoking.”

Pete’s voice rais­es. “You’re a recorder,” he says. A few peo­ple look, stut­ter walk or pause, con­tin­ue walk­ing or talk­ing, or look­ing at their phones. You’re a,” he brings his hand up, chops down, “a,” he says, chops again. “a fuck­ing cam­era. Or a space probe. Even the Watcher broke the rule some­times of, you know, just watch­ing.” He real­izes he’s too loud and drops his voice. “He helped the Fantastic Four or the Avengers, or real­ly just any old lady that might need help cross­ing the street.”

Pete,” I say. “That’s comics.”

Listen to your­self,” he says, takes out anoth­er cig­a­rette and lights it, draws deep. He stares at me the whole time he exhales a slow, blue cloud. “Do some­thing. Be impulsive.”

I start to ask him what that even means.

He inter­rupts. “You’ve nev­er want­ed to do some­thing out of char­ac­ter just because it felt good to not feel like you?”

I can’t not be me,” I say. “That’s impossible.”

Jesus Christ,” he says.

We go qui­et, sit there until the lunch rush thins. The girl that waved at Pete ear­li­er comes out of the Union and goes off towards the Lyceum, and he gets up and jogs after her. He holds up a hand, but doesn’t look back. “I’ll call you,” he says.

I sit there until the sun moves off the gar­den light, then go inside and grab lunch, eat my sand­wich alone. I go back to my office and grade assign­ments, but Pete stays gone. At five, I go home.

When I get there, Alice has been there and left, tak­en her things and a few things I thought of as ours. I notice the miss­ing paint­ing first. A bright, emp­ty square against a fad­ed field shows where it used to hang on the wall. I go through the house, find­ing what’s missing.

There’re gaps in the book­shelves. Blu rays, video games, and books lean across emp­ty spaces. Coffee grounds scat­ter out from a smooth cres­cent across the kitchen counter where the French press sat. On the white formi­ca, the black and brown grit looks like a star field pho­to neg­a­tive. Some of the draw­ers there and in my bed­room sit open a lit­tle, rifled through or empty.

In the bath­room, her apart­ment key hangs, taped by its ring to the mir­ror next to a hand­writ­ten index card with my name in thin, black ink. I leave it all there and turn out the light, close the door behind me.

I go into the sec­ond bed­room. We used it as an office, and like most home offices, most of our junk migrat­ed into the room. Extra books, box­es of sea­son­al clothes, a pre­fab desk one of us bought at Walmart or some­where like that and dragged through col­lege, all the way to here; a roll­top desk my grand­fa­ther left me on one wall, four dim­ples in the car­pet on the oth­er where there was a futon up until this morn­ing. I keep an answer­ing machine and land­line in there, too, because cell phones dis­tract me when I’m try­ing to work.

The mes­sage wait­ing light blinks green in the gloam­ing room.

When I hit the play but­ton, a com­put­er­ized fem­i­nine voice tells me I have one mes­sage wait­ing, beeps short.

Alice clears her throat.

I stand in the dark, and listen.

It’s me,” she says. “I came by earlier.”

Someone mut­ters in the back­ground, and I strain to make out the voice.

She tells them she’s on the phone and they go qui­et. “I’m sor­ry about burn­ing your books.” I think she’s gone when she goes qui­et, then her cheek brush­es the phone. “It’s over, Jimmy. And I’m not com­ing back” Her voice cracks. “That’s this real­i­ty.” I hear the oth­er voice again, low in the back­ground. “I’m talk­ing to him now,” she tells them, comes back. “Please don’t call,” she says, qui­et, and hangs up.

The machine tells me that’s the end of my mes­sages, asks me if I’d like to lis­ten again, save or delete them. After a moment, it asks if I’d like it to repeat the options. I stand there until the room goes black and the machine gives up wait­ing, says it’s return­ing to the main menu. When it does, I go to my bed­room and take off my shoes. I lay across the bed, diag­o­nal from foot­board to head with the rest of my clothes on, and sleep.

The next day, Wednesday, I wake up at 5:30 like usu­al, but decide to skip class­es to catch up on the­sis work. I email my stu­dents and Dean Michaels and tell them I’m sick, that I think it’s just a bug. I’ll be sur­prised if I don’t feel well soon. After that, I try to work, but have trou­ble con­cen­trat­ing. I look from the com­put­er to the phone so much, I make sim­ple math mis­takes, get frus­trat­ed and go to the kitchen to make cof­fee, and then remem­ber Alice took the French press.

I have to exca­vate the old cof­fee mak­er from behind the pots and pans below the counter, and notice while I’m look­ing that she took the wok. Once I get the four cup machine out and plugged in, I real­ize I need fil­ters. With the French press we nev­er need­ed them, so I take a paper tow­el and fold it over twice; stuff it down in the fil­ter well. When I go to the cab­i­net, the coffee’s gone, too.

I grunt when I notice she left the peach­es in the fruit bowl. I poke them with one fin­ger, each in turn. They yield a lit­tle; keep their fin­ger­tip-shaped dim­ples, not over­ripe yet. I take the fruit bowl and dump it in the trash, and go back to bed.

The rest of the day, I watch the Price is Right and Jeopardy, and reruns of Press Your Luck. When I’m tired of game shows, I flip through the chan­nels and set­tle on a show where this guy goes all over the world and eats weird local foods. When I stop the TV there, he slurps up a piece of ten­don like pas­ta, describes how the cook­ing process I missed him explain­ing imparts so much fla­vor on the gris­tle and breaks down all the tough con­nec­tive tis­sue. Beef col­la­gen gloss­es his lips.

I doze the rest of the day, until the phone wakes me up that evening. I think it might be Alice, so I go to answer it. By the time I get there, the machine picks up.

Hey, man,” Pete says, “It’s me. I didn’t see you today, so I just want­ed to call and see what’s up. I’m sor­ry about yes­ter­day. You were being a dick, but I under­stand why.” A lighter flicks, over and over, on his end. “But you were still being a dick. Call me.”

I go into the kitchen and stand, eat a bowl of cere­al over the sink, and go back to bed. I leave the TV on, low, so I can feel like someone’s there. I call in the next day, and the day after that, miss almost a week of class and work, and even­tu­al­ly quit the program.

The next day, I get up and try to work again, but only get so far as pulling my dry erase board out of my bag. When I real­ize I left my mark­ers at the office, I sit on the couch and stare at the blank tele­vi­sion. I think about turn­ing it on, but go to con­sol­i­dat­ing book­shelves. On the bot­tom shelf, I find a green ping pong pad­dle and an open plas­tic bag of balls.

The kitchen and den are one large room split by the kitchen counter. The bed­rooms are on the oth­er side of the apart­ment with the bath­room between them. My half of the duplex reminds me of the shot­gun hous­es my grand­fa­ther built cheap for friends and fam­i­ly on the reser­va­tion, with a straight line between the front and back doors.

I find out that if I stand in the mid­dle of the car­pet­ed den, but hit one of the ping pong balls against the refrig­er­a­tor, it has enough momen­tum off the sec­ond bounce from kitchen floor that I can keep it going. I end up doing this for most of the after­noon. Towards the end, the ball hits car­pet, bounces shal­low, rolls up to me, slows and stops.

I think of Alice and the voice behind her on the phone, won­der if it’s a man or a woman; a friend or some­one else. I pull my right foot back on its heel and move my foot over the ball, rest it there. I lean for­ward, heel to toe, and the ball cracks and flat­tens, folds in on itself in some places.

That night, I eat a cup of noo­dles for din­ner. The phone rings.

You should come out,” Pete says, loud, through the machine. I hear voic­es in the back­ground. A girl’s sharp laugh ends in a snort, drowns in clink­ing glass­es. “I just told this chick she was so hot, she could have babies with a one-eyed dwarf with a mashed up face and her kids would still be hot.” He blows smoke into the phone. I can always tell. “I’m on fire, and she has friends.”

A few min­utes lat­er, when I’m drink­ing the dregs of instant soup at the bot­tom of the sty­ro­foam cup, he calls back. “I for­got to tell you,” he says. “We’re at City Grocery. Dollar pints!” The machine beeps when he hangs up.

By Saturday, I’ve giv­en up the pre­tense of work. I skip break­fast and go to the gas sta­tion just down the road, buy beer, think about it for a sec­ond and buy a pack of light blue American Spirits, like the ones Pete smokes. When I get home, I put a few of the twelve pack in the freez­er and the rest on the shelf in the fridge where Alice kept her almond milk and Oreos, and all the beets and chard and oth­er green shit she used to make smoothies.

While the beer cools, I get online and make a new World of Warcraft char­ac­ter. I end up play­ing my way through the beer and smokes, and wake up hun­gover Sunday, in front of the com­put­er, when Pete calls again. I rub the sore spot on my fore­head and stretch, wince while he talks.

Haven’t heard from you.” He sounds irri­tat­ed. “I’m wor­ried,” he says. “I know foot­ball isn’t your thing, and you usu­al­ly work Sundays, but I thought you might want to come over and hang out. Give me a call.” He coughs. “Or just come on over. Either way.”

I stare at the blank screen­saver, hit the mouse with the back of my hand and the com­put­er flares, defines to a screen of my cre­at­ed char­ac­ter, a blonde-haired, blue-eyed knight with a Lemmy Kilmister mous­tache and a giant axe strapped to his back. The word “idle” floats over his head like a for­est green halo while he stares, placid like a cow, at a wall.

I close the game and end up surf­ing the inter­net, watch­ing weepy home­made music videos on YouTube. I click on a thumb­nail of a girl, pale in a white dress.

The video starts on sta­t­ic shot. An emp­ty slate slab over­hangs an ink ocean tossed to white­cap under a storm cloud sky, stays there for a few heart­beats, then smash cuts to a brick-chim­neyed plan­ta­tion house with pot­ted bon­sai all along its white-pil­lared porch.

The video cuts to the ocean again, and a girl wear­ing a red baby doll dress walks into the frame. She has her curly brown hair up in a knot at the crown of her head, away from her tan shoul­ders, and keeps her back to the cam­era. She sits, hangs her feet over the edge of the rock cliff, props back on spread hands.

An acoustic gui­tar arpeg­gios over the sound of waves, back and forth through its first chord a few times, pitch­es up, con­tin­ues. On the third chord change, the cam­era cuts back to the house. The same girl walks up its long, white-grav­el dri­ve­way. Rocks runch and grind under her feet, beneath the sound of the keen­ing, sin­gu­lar gui­tar. She wears her hair the same, and an ivory baby doll dress, rum­pled fashionable.

The whole thing switch­es to a pas­sen­ger jet cross­ing the sky, puff­ing a con­trail. That shot fades slow back to the storm-teased sea with her still sit­ting there, small and brown in front of the bruised sky. The shot goes sil­ver-neg­a­tive then black.

Next, she’s inside the plan­ta­tion, sit­ting at lone table in an oth­er­wise emp­ty ball­room. She wears thick-framed black glass­es that look too big for her face. Her eyes close. She tilts her head. A sin­gle curl wisps out of her pony­tail hold­er, falls right behind her ear, dark on her curved neck.

On the sec­ond verse, soft drums come into the song. Her cuts quick­en, mix in new scenes: She’s at a beach in anoth­er white dress, ankle deep in black sand. Fabric flow­ers sewn at her shoul­ders toss in the wind. Individual petals stand and twitch, fold over against each oth­er. Water comes up and pools around her shins when she shifts her weight from one leg to the oth­er, drains. She steps up and out of the hole and turns, traces kan­ji script in the sand with danc­ing feet.

The next scene, she’s in the red dress again, but fac­ing the cam­era with­out her glass­es. Her eyes are grey, and she holds a sea shell no big­ger than my thumb to her ear and lis­tens, poker-faced.

At the song’s bridge, it cuts back to her in the white dress. She twirls diag­o­nal through the frame, goes translu­cent. Her ghost repeats its steps while she appears in anoth­er cor­ner, twirls to the mid­dle of the room again, goes spir­it dim while her dress lifts up and away from smooth thighs.

The process repeats until the shot fills with super­po­si­tioned phan­tasms, an over­lapped chaos of prob­a­bil­i­ty that dances into itself while the song crescen­dos and ends, and the scene fades to white.

The last notes of the song strike and die, goes back to the sound of crash­ing waves. A final shot slow fades in. She stands fac­ing the cam­era again, bends down clos­er, and stares right in the lens.

She nev­er smiles, not even there at the end. Her mouth curves up slight at its cor­ners, and she reach­es out, turns off the camera.

She’s beau­ti­ful, I think, seems sad. When the video shrinks to thumb­nail, I lis­ten to the apart­ment, all the ticks and creaks and set­tles all around the house. I hear qui­et, feel still in my chest.

I scroll down and read the video descrip­tion. “Matsuyama, filmed a few months ago. Lonely,” it says.

I find out from her pro­file that she, Kayla, teach­es English in Japan, in Okayama. She lists video edit­ing, trav­el, and trav­el writ­ing as her hob­bies. Despite lov­ing Japan, she says, she hates “Hello, Kitty.”

I watch the video nine more times that evening, notice she has a con­stel­la­tion of brown freck­les on one shoul­der. I won­der why she’s lone­ly, if she still is since it’s been a few months, if she feels that way because she’s far away from home, or there’s some­one in par­tic­u­lar she misses.

I real­ize I for­got to call in Monday morn­ing when I’m watch­ing video again, just before lunch, and the phone rings. Onscreen, Kayla picks her way down cyclo­pean rock to the edge of the ocean, trails the tips of her fin­gers, light, just along the sur­face of a tidal pool. I mouth along to the cho­rus while the answer­ing machine does its job.

Pete talks quick, just above a whis­per. “People are ask­ing about you,” he says. “Even Daniel. Students are com­ing by. Michaels came around, but I cov­ered for you. Because fuck that guy.” His stub­ble brush­es the phone. “Call,” he says. “Worried.” He hangs up.

I think about call­ing into the depart­ment, but the phone rings again. I wish I had caller id when the mes­sage starts record­ing, and there’s a moment of silence, then who­ev­er it was hangs up. I won­der if it’s Pete.

He does this some­times when he keeps miss­ing some­one on the phone. He calls, leaves mes­sages, ends car­pet-bomb­ing their phone until they answer. Michaels looks for rea­sons to dis­like me, so it could be him, call­ing to fire me or expel me, or what­ev­er you do to a grad stu­dent. I think for an instant it could be Alice.

It rings, paus­es, rings a sec­ond time. Before the third, I pick up the receiv­er, reset it soft. I’m halfway to the door when it starts again. I stand there, between the phone and the open door.


I’ve always been fru­gal, so I fig­ure I have enough mon­ey to buy clothes when I get where I’m going. I grab my wal­let and keys, and leave. I don’t real­ize I’m still wear­ing my bathrobe until I see my reflec­tion in the glass doors at the Tupelo air­port, forty-five min­utes away from my apart­ment. I take off the blue and green flan­nel coat and wad it up. I’m Cherokee, but I’m still a brown per­son stuff­ing an odd bun­dle in a garbage can out­side an air­port, so when an old lady and her grand­kids pass, they notice me. I smile and nod, and they walk quicker.

Inside, I book a tick­et to Memphis. From there, I imag­ine I’ll book a tick­et to Tokyo, or Kyoto. I’m unsure whether Okoyama has an air­port. I sup­pose I could ask. Most flights that length usu­al­ly have a cou­ple lay­overs. Between Tennessee and Chugoku, I could land in any city west of Toronto, and from each of those hubs, to any oth­er num­ber of air­ports and then – from there – final­ly, to Tokyo. There’s a huge uncer­tain knot between here and there, and even after that; a bound­less fog of deco­her­ent pos­si­ble realities.

The plane lifts up and away, leaves my stom­ach behind.

I only think about this world, and hope.