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.
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.”
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.
“You alright?” he says.
“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.