Parallel Stories

Story One: Right Here and Now

The radio began its regular blaring at 7 in the morning. “It’s gonna be another hot one this morning, Tina. The high will be about 95 with 90 percent humidity.”

A hand reached over, fumbled a moment, found the button it was looking for, and hit it.

Nine minutes later, the radio blared again. The hand’s owner sighed, rolled over and sat up on the edge of the bed. He ran his hand over his face and up through his disheveled hair. After turning the alarm off, he sighed, stood up and went to the bathroom. Moments later, the toilet flushed and the shower turned on.

He emerged from his bedroom again, this time with his hair freshly wet and combed, wearing a suit and tie. After a quick breakfast of Kellogg’s Frosted Flakes, he grabbed his keys, walked outside, locked the back door and got in his Ford Focus. The drive to work was a quick one, as it always was.

He walked into the office, holding his briefcase. “Good morning, Stacy,” he said to the receptionist as he walked in.

“Good morning, Jeff. How are you?”

“Fine. Just another day.” He continued on to his office, where the latest round of contracts, deeds, client letters, trusts and other documents awaited his attention.

Jeff’s days had been blending together a lot over the past few months. Ever since he’d broken up with Laura. Each day was pretty much the same: wake up, work, lunch, work, dinner, television or reading, bed. Wash, rinse and repeat. He knew he couldn’t go on like this forever, but he was actually enjoying the numbness for a while after the emotional horror that had been his last few months with his now ex-fiancee. So, he kept going on in this in-between time, while he subconsciously healed.

As he logged into his computer, his friend and coworker Walter poked his head around the door. “Jeff, how ya doin’?”

“I’m good. How are you, Walt?”

“I’m alright, just exhausted. The baby just did not want to sleep last night. At about 1:30 in the morning, he started crying, so I went to get him. I calmed him down, but as soon as I tried to leave his room, he started up again. That happened two more times before I gave up and took him in the living room to watch TV for a while. I just wanted to shout at him, ‘Why are you doing this to me?!'” Walt’s story sounded bad, but Jeff knew that he’d never been happier in his life than when Walt was taking care of his son. Indeed, Walt had a smile the whole time he was telling this “woeful” story.

“That sounds awful, man,” Jeff said with a chuckle. “I’m kinda glad I don’t have to worry about that for a while.”

“Well, what can you do?”

Jeff heard a shout for Walt ring out across the office and Walt left to go see who was calling for him. Jeff turned back to his computer and continued with his morning routine.

Lunch time always seemed to sneak up on Jeff at the beginning of the week. The mornings would move so quickly, especially on Monday, that he would barely glance up from his work before he realized that the day was already half over.

He and Walter went to one of their mainstay restaurants for lunch, a coney island restaurant a few minutes away from the office.

“What are you and the missus up to this weekend?” Jeff asked.

“Birthday parties. Julie’s mom’s birthday is Saturday and then we’re celebrating my nephew’s birthday on Sunday at my brother’s. How about you?”

“Nothing yet. I’ll probably go get dinner with my parents one night and see if Steve is up to anything this weekend.” Steve was a good friend of Jeff’s from Boy Scouts whom he hung out with when he could. “But who knows.”

They both stopped as the waitress came to take their drink orders. Jeff and Walt were regulars, so they knew what they wanted to eat and ordered their lunches as well.

As the waitress left, Walt asked, “Did you see 30 Rock last night?”

“No, I DVR’ed it, though. I’ll watch it tonight. It’s so hard to watch everything on Thursday nights. There’s way too much TV.”

“It was a good one. You’ll like it.”

The door to the restaurant opened and Jeff looked up at who entered out of reflex. Two women in business suits walked in. A taller one and a shorter one. The shorter one had an adorable face with a short bob haircut for her brunette hair. She captivated Jeff. The hostess sat the newcomers down a few tables away from Jeff and Walt. Jeff silently cheered to himself that the taller blonde one sat with her back to Jeff and that he could see the brunette.

Walt stuck his head into Jeff’s view of the brunette with one eyebrow raised. Then Walt turned around and saw who Jeff was looking at. Walt turned back with a smile on his face. “Ah, I see now. I’m not pretty enough for you?”

“What can I say, I like what I see,” Jeff responded.

“I don’t blame you. Have you even been on a date since Laura?”

“No.”

“Well, maybe it’s time. I’m gonna go to the bathroom, be right back.” Walt stood up and walked toward the back of the restaurant.

The movement must have caught Brunette’s attention, because when Jeff looked back her way, she was looking right at him. He smiled and she smiled right back at him. And right at that moment, the waitress started setting their food down on the table. “Thank you,” Jeff said.

Walt got back as the waitress was setting the plates down. After she moved away, he sat back down and they both started eating.

“So, Chippewa, huh?” Walt asked.

“What?”

“We might be getting the City of Chippewa. You hadn’t heard?”

“No. That’s awesome. When did that happen?”

“A couple days ago. Stu called me to see if we’d be interested and I talked with him and a couple other people this morning.”

“How’d that go?”

“I think it went well. We’ll see what they want to do. They asked me about a small issue to sort of feel me out and I gave them my recommendation right on the spot. And you know we are definitely the cheapest out there, so at least we’ve got that going for us.”

“How is Chippewa doing?”

“Pretty decent. Looks like their budget is in good shape. Their previous attorneys seemed to just screw one thing up after another, though. So we might have a few messes to clean up there.”

“That’s great, man. I guess we’ll see if they hire us.” Jeff forked the last bite of his food and sat back against his seat. He looked over to Brunette’s table again and saw he eating her salad. She glanced back at him and smiled again. He smiled back.

In the wake of their lunch, Walt and Jeff talked a bit more about work. The waitress brought their check, which Walt picked up. “I got this one, you get the next time.” The waitress took the check and Walt’s credit card.

As they waited for the receipt, Brunette stood up from her table and walked toward the back of the restaurant. She favored Jeff with a big smile as she walked by. Jeff smiled back.

The waitress brought the receipt for Walt to sign. After he signed, he said, “Well, you ready?”

Jeff knew he should say No, I’m not. Give me a second to get this girl’s number. But he didn’t. Instead, he said, “Yeah, let’s go.” And they did.

They went back to the office. Jeff worked away the afternoon. Every time he took a quick five minute break, he would think of Brunette and silently curse himself for being a fucking idiot. It’s not that big a deal to ask, Jeff, he thought. Introduce yourself, say you were wondering if she’d like to get coffee sometime and ask for her number. All you gotta do is ask. But he hadn’t. Meeting women had never been Jeff’s strong suit, but he at least had the presence of mind to know that the only thing really holding him back was himself.

He finished up his work day and started packing up for the evening. Oh, crap, I haven’t got anything to eat. I should stop at the store on the way home. Maybe I’ll grab some chicken or something. Jeff grabbed his bag, said goodbye to everyone who was still at the office and walked out the door.

Jeff walked into the Kroger near his house. It was full of the after-work crowd who, like him, had to pick something up for dinner. Jeff walked through produce to the meat department to grab some chicken. As he walked up to the cooler, a short woman did the same thing. He looked at her to apologize for getting in her way and stopped. It was Brunette from lunch.

He stared at her for a moment. She had barely noticed him, she was focused on the spread of packaged chicken before them. If he thought about what he was going to say, he probably would have frozen up and end up either saying something really stupid or just walked away. Instead, he didn’t even think about what he was going to say. He just said, “Um, hello.”

She turned and looked at him and her eyes widened in surprise. “Oh! It’s you! From lunch!”

“Yeah, it’s me,” Jeff said and laughed. “Fancy running into you here.”

“Yeah, what a crazy coincidence,” she said and smiled. Her smile made Jeff feel all melty inside.

He stuck his hand out. “I’m Jeff.”

She shook his offered hand. “Megan. Nice to meet you.”

“You work around here?”

“Yeah, I’m an accountant at Fern & Denby. Do you work around here?”

“Yup. I’m a lawyer at a small firm nearby.”

“What firm?”

“Freiman & Samuelson. You probably haven’t heard of us.”

“And you’re right, I haven’t,” she laughed.

Jeff hesitated for a moment and then finally asked the question he was dying to ask, but almost to afraid to ask. “Listen, I was wondering: would you like to get coffee sometime?”

“Yes, I’d love to. I’m free this weekend.”

“Me, too. Can I get your number so we can figure something out?”

“Yeah, definitely.” She recited her digits and Jeff programmed them into his phone. “Well, I have to get going, I’m meeting my mom so I can cook her dinner.”

“Oh, for sure. I’ll call you.”

“I look forward to it.” She smiled.

Jeff turned and walked away, through the produce section, out the door and to his car. He was on such a high that he didn’t realize that he hadn’t bought anything at the store until he was in his house and discovered that he still had no food.

Story 2: Untold Light-years Away

Jeff lay in bed, pretending to be asleep, but really just listening to the sound of his wife in the shower. He continued to do so while she blow-dried her hair. She came back into the bedroom and her heard her rummaging around in the closet. Eventually, she came to his side, kissed him on the cheek, said “I love you,” and left. He mumbled, “Love you, too,” as she walked away. He didn’t get up until he heard the back door close.

Jeff sat up and grabbed his phone off of the nightstand. The calendar on the home screen told him his schedule for the day: the interview with Dr. Stephens was at 10, a lunch date with Walt, and the afternoon set aside to work on his article. Jeff got up and hit the shower to start his day.

* * *

He backed his new Pontiac Bonneville out of the garage and on to the street. The radio news host droned on about the latest crisis in North Africa: the death of Muammar Gaddafi a couple days before on October 20th. Despite his death, the fighting in Libya continued, with the UN intervening only half-heartedly. Jeff tended to think that they were only making things worse, but the people in charge weren’t likely to listen to him even if he wrote a Pulitzer Prize-winning article about it.

Traffic on the freeway downtown was still thick, despite rush hour ending a couple hours before. Why did this guy insist on having this interview downtown? Jeff grumbled internally. Getting down to MIT was such a bitch, no matter what time of day you went.  Oh well, at least the magazine is covering the parking fees and tolls, he thought.

The Green Center at MIT
The Green Center at MIT

* * *

Doctor John Stephens was a tall, gangly man.  In jeans and a polo with the sleeves rolled up, he looked more like he was about to hit a casual bar for a couple drinks rather than whatever it was that theoretical physics researchers do on a daily basis. Stephens welcomed Jeff into his disheveled office with a smile and a firm hand shake. “It’s good to finally meet you in person,” he said. He cleared off one of the chairs for Jeff to sit down in.

“You, too. Thanks for taking the time to talk with me.” Jeff’s original impression from talking to Stephens on the phone was confirmed: he liked the guy.

“Well, if people don’t know what we’re working on, they’re not very likely to support us. I like to get the word out when I can.”

“So what exactly is it that you are doing here? I get the basic idea is that you research other dimensions, but not much more than that.”

“Well, my bailiwick is more on the equation side of things. I work with the math and try to see if we can create an equation that describes the world as we know it. At least, that’s the end goal. We’re a long way off, if it’s something we can even do.” Stephens picked up a pen and began fiddling with it.

Jeff opened up his bag and pulled out his dictaphone. “Before I forget, I’d better get this thing going. You ok with me recording our talk? It’s a lot easier to replay than to scribble notes furiously while you talk.”

“Oh, sure, go ahead,” Stephens responded.

Jeff started the recording. “This is Jeff, it is Tuesday, October 23, 2011, and I’m with Dr. John Stephens of MIT, who is researching extra or parallel dimensions. So, Doctor, why don’t you tell me why science thinks there may be extra dimensions?”

“Well, there’s actually a few different sources for that idea. The idea of extra dimensions has been around a while, but most of the people who espoused it were kind of considered crackpots until relatively recently.”

“Why’d that change?”

“String theory. String theory is an attempt to create the so-called ‘theory of everything.’ One of the big problems in physics right now is that we have two very successful theories: Einstein’s relativity and quantum mechanics. And they don’t mesh at all. So how do we resolve that?  Clearly we’re missing some sort of unifying theory. And there’s a lot of theoretical physicists like me working on several different ideas. We’re still in the early stages of the search, though.”

“So what does string theory have to do with multiple dimensions?”

“The idea driving string theory is that all matter, when you get down to the smallest possible size, is made of tiny strings that vibrate at different frequencies. So, smaller than atoms, smaller than electrons, smaller than photons, smaller than quarks, just infinitesimally small. But they had a problem when they worked on the math: the system just collapsed if they only used the standard four dimensions: the three directions plus time. So they had to start putting in extra dimensions to make the equations work. Depending on the particular approach to string theory, you can have from 6 to 26 extra dimensions.”

Jeff’s eyes widened. “Wow.”

“Yeah, it can seem like a lot.”

“Where are these extra dimensions?” Jeff asked.

“There are a couple ideas on that. One possibility is that they are folded up very tinily and we can’t detect them. Another is that our universe is part of a larger multi-verse and that we only have a few of the dimensions in our universe.”

“So there could be other universes out there like ours?”

“Yes, if string theory is right.”

“Would they be anything like ours?”

“Some might be near-exact copies. Others might have entirely different laws of physics.  It’s hard to say because at this point we’re getting into pure speculation. We just honestly have no idea. Which is why I have a job,” he grinned.

“Like, there could be other versions of me out there in a parallel universe?”

“Yes, that is possible.” Stephens’ eyes sparkled and he smirked, “But there may be other versions of you in this universe, too.”

“What? How is that possible?”

“Our universe is big. Bigger than you can possibly imagine. The human brain is just not built to comprehend things at the scale of the universe. And we can only see a fraction of it. What we can actually see is called the ‘observable universe.’ It’s a sphere with a radius of about 50 billion lightyears. It contains everything we can see in the universe.  But that doesn’t mean it is everything in universe. Only the stuff we can see.”

“So there’s more galaxies out there than we can even see?”

“Most likely. One theory has it that the total universe is actually about 10^23 times the volume of the observable universe. That’s a 1 with 23 zeroes after it. It’s an absolutely gigantically enormously massive amount of space.”

“How does that lead to more versions of me in this universe?”

“There are only so many arrangements of matter possible. Eventually, if the universe is big enough, there will be another world just like ours, with another version of you.”

Jeff just stared at Stephens.

“I can tell you are enjoying this,” he laughed.

* * *

While sitting in traffic on the way home, Jeff couldn’t help but think about those other possible universes. Did they have other versions of him? What were their lives like? Some were probably better, but others would probably be worse.

He couldn’t wait to start writing his article. He was already composing the rough outline in his mind. He couldn’t wait to tell his wife about it. He remembered later that he completely forgot his lunch with Walt.

Story 3: Millimeters Away in an Unseen Direction

The radio began its regular blaring at 7 in the morning.  “It’s gonna be another hot one this morning, Ti-“ A hand reached over, fumbled a moment, found the button it was looking for, and hit it. Jeff didn’t want the alarm to wake up Laura. She was irritable when she woke up earlier than nine. And an irritable Laura meant the inevitable fight about something was just around the corner. So he did what he always did: accommodated her.

He tiptoed into the bathroom, where the night before he had neatly laid out his clothes for the day so he wouldn’t have to open the noisy closet door and wake Laura. He showered and dressed. He ate his cereal, careful not to clink the spoon against the bowl or set his glass of orange juice down loudly.

He left the house, locking the door behind him and sighed.

——

He walked into the office, holding his briefcase.  “Hey, Stacy,” he said to the receptionist as he walked in.

“Good morning, Jeff.  How are you?”

“Alright.”  He continued on to his office, where the latest round of contracts, deeds, client letters, trusts and other documents awaited his attention.

Jeff’s days had been blending together a lot over the past few months.  Ever since he and Laura had gotten married.  The ceremony itself had gone fine, but not even the happiness of the occasion could dull the tension that had been brewing between Laura and his family. There had been many hushed arguments between Jeff and Laura, between Jeff and his mom. There had been loud arguments between Laura and his mom, who now only spoke to each other when necessary.

And then, on top of that, Jeff had seen more and more mood swings in Laura. She would get wildly upset over minor issues. What the fuck is wrong with you and your family, she would shout. Your mother and sister have it out for us. They don’t want us together. And always, in the back of his mind, was the day she hit him. It hadn’t hurt and he’d been able to stop her after getting the one slap in. But her strength in her uncontrollable state had shocked him. He wondered how it would turn out the next time she tried to hit him.

And so each day, he looked forward to getting to the office, where problems were solvable and his work was appreciated. He spent longer and longer hours at the office to avoid going home.

As he logged into his computer, his friend and coworker Walter poked his head around the door. “Jeff, how ya doin’?”

“I’m good. How are you, Walt?”

“I’m alright, just exhausted. The baby just did not want to sleep last night. At about 1:30 in the morning, he started crying, so I went to get him. I calmed him down, but as soon as I tried to leave his room, he started up again. That happened two more times before I gave up and took him in the living room to watch TV for a while. I just wanted to shout at him, ‘Why are you doing this to me?!'” Walt’s story sounded bad, but Jeff knew that Walt had never been happier in his life than when he was taking care of his son. Indeed, Walt had a smile the whole time he was telling this “woeful” story.

“That sounds awful, man,” Jeff said with a chuckle. “I’m kinda glad I don’t have to worry about that for a while.”

“Well, what can you do?”

Jeff heard a shout for Walt ring out across the office and Walt left to go see who was calling for him. Jeff turned back to his computer and continued with his morning routine.

Lunch time always seemed to sneak up on Jeff at the beginning of the week. The mornings would move so quickly, especially on Monday, that he would barely glance up from his work before he realized that the day was already half over.

He and Walter went to one of their mainstay restaurants for lunch, a coney island restaurant a few minutes away from the office.

“What are you and the Mrs. up to this weekend?” Jeff asked.

“Birthday parties. Julie’s mom’s birthday is Saturday and then we’re celebrating my nephew’s birthday on Sunday at my brother’s. How about you two newlyweds?”

“Laura wants to go furniture shopping. I don’t know, though. I’d rather wait; we’ve already spent so much money on redecorating the house.” And she just seems to think there’s an endless supply of money, even though she doesn’t work, he thought.

They both stopped as the waitress came to take their drink orders. Jeff and Walt were regulars, so they knew what they wanted to eat and ordered their lunches as well.

As the waitress left, Walt asked, “Did you see 30 Rock last night?”

“No, I DVR’ed it, though. I’ll watch it tonight. It’s so hard to watch everything on Thursday nights. There’s way too much TV.”

“It was a good one. You’ll like it.”

The door to the restaurant opened and Jeff looked up at who entered out of reflex. Two women in business suits walked in. A taller one and a shorter one. The shorter one had an adorable face with a short bob haircut for her brunette hair. She captivated Jeff. The hostess sat the newcomers down a few tables away from Jeff and Walt. Jeff silently cheered to himself that the taller blonde one sat with her back to Jeff and that he could see the brunette.

“I’m gonna go to the bathroom, be right back.” Walt stood up and walked toward the back of the restaurant.

The movement must have caught Brunette’s attention, because when Jeff looked back her way, she was looking right at him. He quickly looked away and hoped she didn’t think he was being creepy. He was married, after all. Right then, the waitress started setting their food down on the table. “Thank you,” Jeff said.

Walt got back as the waitress was setting the plates down.  After she moved away, he sat back down and they both started eating.

“So, Chippewa, huh?” Walt asked.

“What?”

“We might be getting the City of Chippewa. You hadn’t heard?”

“No. That’s awesome. When did that happen?”

“A couple days ago. Stu called me to see if we’d be interested and I talked with him and a couple other people this morning.”

“How’d that go?”

“I think it went well. We’ll see what they want to do. They asked me about a small issue to sort of feel me out and I gave them my recommendation right on the spot. And you know we are definitely the cheapest out there, so at least we’ve got that going for us.”

“How is Chippewa doing?”

“Pretty decent. Looks like their budget is in good shape. Their previous attorneys seemed to just screw one thing up after another, though. So we might have a few messes to clean up there.”

“That’s great, man. I guess we’ll see if they hire us.” Jeff forked the last bite of his food and sat back against his seat. He looked over to Brunette’s table again and saw he eating her salad.  She glanced back at him and smiled. He quickly looked at his empty plate.

In the wake of their lunch, Walt and Jeff talked a bit more about work. The waitress brought their check, which Walt picked up. “I got this one, you get the next time.” The waitress took the check and Walt’s credit card.

As they waited for the receipt, Brunette stood up from her table and walked toward the back of the restaurant. Jeff tried to ignore her, but he noticed that she smiled at him as she walked past.

The waitress brought the receipt for Walt to sign.  After he signed, he said, “Well, you ready?”

“Yeah, let’s go.”  And they did.

They went back to the office.  Jeff worked away the afternoon. He tried not think about going home.

A few minutes past three, Laura texted him and asked him to pick up some chicken on the way home from work. He almost texted back, “You’re not working, why don’t you run to the store?” But he didn’t, not wanting to deal with the shitstorm that would cause. So he texted, “Ok.”

He finished up his work day and started packing up for the evening. Jeff grabbed his bag, said goodbye to everyone who was still at the office and walked out the door.

Jeff walked into the Kroger near his house. It was full of the after-work crowd who, like him, had to pick something up for dinner. Jeff walked through produce to the meat department to grab some chicken. As he walked up to the cooler, a short woman did the same thing. He looked at her to apologize for getting in her way and stopped. It was Brunette from lunch.

He stared at her for a moment. She had barely noticed him, she was focused on the spread of packaged chicken before them. He turned back to the chicken and hoped she wouldn’t notice him.

“Um, hello.”

Damn, he thought. She saw me.

He turned and looked at her. “Oh!  It’s you!  From lunch!” Then he smiled, trying not to smile too much.

“Yeah, it’s me,” Brunette said and smiled. Her smile made Jeff feel all melty inside.

“Yeah, what a crazy coincidence,” he said.

They stared at a each other moment longer. Jeff said, “Well, I should get back home.” He turned and walked away without another word.

Five minutes later, he was parked in the garage with the car off. He didn’t want to open the door. He didn’t know whether this would be a good night or a bad night. They’d been bad more and more frequently.

He thought about Brunette. He wondered if she were single. What would he have said to her if he hadn’t been married? Would she have even been interested?

Finally, he got out of the car, walked to the door and turned the handle to face another night with his wife. And right then, he remembered that he forgot the chicken.

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