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Love Lost to the Ylem

Quantum love's a true bitch.

This was Valentine's day; on Valentine's Day, he took her to dinner, and told her what he'd learned about quantum theory.

"Some believe in parallel universes. A multiverse. I'm reading a book about this by a physicist at Oxford, and what it says is - this bores you."

"Fascinated."

"Scientists believe that there are trillions of universes that we can't see, and they are constantly branching off from this one. Or we're branching off from them, or we're all just continually branching. For instance, there's a universe where I'm not talking about quantum theory, because I'm listening to you, and you're still talking about your Mother."

"I can't see you doing all that listening."

He smiled, looking at his water glass. "But it might not be real; there's a Copenhagen theorem."

"Can we see these other universes? Can I call them?"

He paused, thought. "No. It's against the law. I die during that part of the book, but it can all be applied somehow to computers; somehow they can do enormous equations superfast if they spread the problem across different realities. And then I'm lost, it's all totally impermeable."

"I say screw the laws of physics."

"That's right."

Tess was a freelance illustrator for magazines and children's books, a curly, sonsie brunette with a crease of flesh where her arms came into her shoulders. Once or twice a week she left small sketches in his wallet; he'd find them during the day. Sometimes they were smutty; sometimes they were cartoons of something stupid he'd said the night before, with his nose drawn as a lemon.

This morning, as he'd bought a cup of coffee at the bodega, he'd pulled out a folded sketch of Tess holding up a small piece of cloth, her cartoon mouth frowning, nose wrinkling. The cloth was stained with a smudged, red magic-marker heart. Under it, in her large, angular handwriting, she'd written, "Happy Valentine's Day! I'm on the rag!" He'd put it back in his wallet.

Now, at the restaurant, across the table, she chewed for a minute, and said, "I have a new job from Jenny," her agent. "It's a spread for something called Upstate Life, they're launching a magazine for expatriate Manhattanites. They want me to do a collage about chickens. It's allowed to be goofy."

"E.B. White wrote essays about chickens."

"I don't know much about them. I spent the afternoon posing chickens from Web pictures. I can get the head but I don't like the little claws." She frowned at that word. "I make them too gnarled. There's one I want you to see, though, where the chicken has paws. It's half-dog, half-chicken. You'll like it."

He finished chewing. "Only if it mates with the dog-hydrangea." Which was another creature, half dog, half plant, imagined three nights before.

"It will, sure. Chicken-dogs are polymorphous polyamorous rapacious."

The waiter came with a false-leather fold that held the check. David paid and they took the train home.

In their small apartment they drank some wine. She showed him her pictures of chickens. They went to bed. He began to kiss her. "Valentine's Day," he said, giddy.

"Bloodhut."

"Where is it?"

"It's in the laundry basket, probably."

He went to get their sex towel, and she said, "Thank you for dinner." The apartment was small, and you could hear someone speaking in any room.

He told her she was welcome, and when he came into the bed nook she was already undressed. He took off his own clothes; she raised her pelvis up and he slid the towel beneath her, then fell besides her.

Until four or five months ago their intercourse had been noisy and strange; we rut as loud as hyena parrots, he'd said. They'd invented positions, rubbed in syrups and poultices, tied one another to the bedframe with neckties, and applied joyful slaps.

Jess's orgasms had been as loud as a hard-struck gong, as strangely lasting as its tone. In the morning they could measure how much the queen-size mattress had shifted over the box spring, sometimes a full foot. They each volunteered to sleep over the wet spot on the mattress, playing it as a comic-heroic sacrifice. They laughed in satisfaction at the filthy sheets.

But lately there was milk in the clear water of their connection. Tonight they screwed on cruise control. From above, David watched the bedside clock, counting minutes. Below the clock a drawer was filled with sex objects that buzzed and shivered when electrified, some pink and lifelike, some strange and abstract, some with elastic bands and steel clasps. The drawer had not been opened in months, and he imagined the fake penises and three-pronged strapon ass buckles as covered with dust, deteriorating, archeological artifacts. To open the drawer in these quieter days would admit that something was changed.

Now that they had begun to use the missionary position to the exclusion of everything else, he stared at the drawer every night.

Finally, at 29 minutes, she gave out a quick series of flushed gasps and released him of obligation. He remembered a woman on a beach in Mexico who had shown him her breasts and began his final approach. Jess, doing her part, grabbed his back; a minute later he gasped, landing at his own orgasm. He paused, breathed, and turned to rest at her side.

She asked, "When do you want to get up?"

"Not too early. I don't have any meetings," he said.

She set the alarm, the blue numbers blinking. She turned the volume up and pressed a button to test it, a quick blare of unintelligible music, then leaned back against her single pillow. "So, in those universes anything can happen."

"Yes," he said, his eyes pausing. "Anything. If it's true."

"So you just made love to me in the other universes?"

"Yes," he said, not thinking. "Of course."

"But you said that anything...you could have just slept with someone else."

He thought. "Sure, but so could you have."

"I'd never do that." She was offended, but laughing.

"Me neither."

"You're tired."

"Yes."

"I forget. I get so awake." She put her hand on his stomach. "I'm going to go read."

"Oh," he said, putting his hand on her stomach, which was soft. "You're nice, though."

"I'm wide awake."

"Okay," he said, letting her go. "Come back."

There were two quiet days. She sketched chickens, faxed, phoned the editor of the magazine, went in for a meeting, complained about the editor to David. He did his job at the consulting firm with quiet detachment, contemplating quitting, contemplating staying. He would sneak to the bathroom and read books on physics, and modern novels, and take long lunches.

There was no drama in his life. There was only a steady hum, a regular oscillation, his own cycle matched somehow to Tess's, and matched again to the cycles of the office, to the ingress and egress of the subway, everything roughly in sync. Some days were bright and entertaining; some were dry and bland, but each morning he woke up in his queen-sized bed, which they'd bought at Ikea in New Jersey. He flipped out of the bed, shaved in the shower. He kissed his girlfriend, opened the door, went down the dark hall under a flickering fluorescent tube light, walked down four stories, went left, walked three blocks, went underground, waited for a train, crowded on, waited for the doors to open, walked through a small tunnel, took the left set of stairs, took another left, through a revolving door, up twenty floors, and went to work.

He reversed the process going home. Sometimes he read on the train, sometimes he looked at the advertisements. He tried to eat healthy but didn't always succeed, but he looked all right, a regular 28-year old in a stable career making fine money, with an attractive lover and friends who enjoyed basketball and alcohol. He thought this over, surveying himself, drinking coffee at his desk, between writing emails.

On the evening of the third day the editor called Tess and said that he was happy with the chicken illustrations. She called him on his cell phone to tell him, and to talk about going out to dinner. He took her out to a mock-luncheonette where the hamburgers were served with mayonnaise and the salad based on arugula. They went home and sat up in bed, both reading. She said:

"I've been checking up on the multiverse on the Web."

He paused.

"There really are multiple universes," she said.

"Maybe. But we can't perceive them, so they can't be there."

"I thought you were throwing me some Dancing Wu Li Masters bullshit."

"No, not at all."

"So you really are fucking someone else," she said with a laugh. "Right now."

"Listen, you're sleeping with Ethan Hawke in another universe."

"And he manages a car dealership."

"At least he stopped writing."

Ethan Hawke had written a terrible book with Tess liked.

"It bugs me, you know."

"What?"

"All the cheating you're doing. You're cheating on me trillions of times, right now. You're having sex with my best friends, all of them, in a hotel in the Poconos."

"With a revolving bed and leopard-skin bath fixtures."

"Yes."

"Probably. But I pity that man. He missed a fine dinner."

"It's tough, though. The laws of physics say I can't trust you."

"What?" The logic was slipping.

"It's possible that you can leave me at any minute, no matter how often you promise otherwise. In fact, it's inevitable. Somewhere you are leaving me. Somewhere you've left me. Somewhere you're with someone else, like that woman at work."

She was describing Josie, a drinking friend of David's, thin and straight-black-haired and dressed in dark expensive fabrics, an attractiveness the opposite of Tess's; Josie smoked cigarettes and sneered, her humor cold where Tess was warm and clever. He'd introduced them only once, and they didn't like each other, squaring off around him; he'd liked that, listening to Tess dissect Josie afterwards, using words like "icy," "blade," and "rail," and listening to Josie's vague kindnesses about Tess. "She's very full of life," said Josie. "Robust." Which meant fat.

"Josie has seduced me in another universe."

"Yes. Doesn't that bother you?"

"This is a plague of stupidness, you know? You are a fool." He was joking, but he watched her withdraw; she had been serious somewhere and now was hurt. He reached out his hand, but she turned her back to him, dramatically. When he said anything about her intelligence she nearly always froze up.

"Hey, hey," he said, surprised.

"I know it's stupid. I get concerned," she said into the mattress, her voice low. She didn't turn back, but curled herself away from him. He rubbed her bare back - she only wore a bra in bed - for a few moments, murmuring to here. She sighed, turned around, and kissed his shoulder, and pressed her body against his. She fell asleep before he did, snoring. He listened to her, listened to her breath, wondered what her fears were, thinking of the unopened drawer.

He continued through the steady hum, until the next Sunday morning, when they sat sharing the Times and drinking coffee. "I can't get it out of my head, you're cheating."

"I'm not cheating."

"Not here, possibly. But out there."

"Don't borrow trouble. I'm telling you I won't."

"There's a universe where you just said that, and now you're going out to cheat on me, saying you're going out for a walk, but you're really going to screw someone. There's a universe where you're lying and I can't tell."

Suddenly the playfulness vanished, sucked away into the air, and he felt his mouth turn into a sharp, stabbing point. He pulled his nose up, and said loudly, "Who? Who am I screwing? Someone who will fuck off their back, right? Outside of the missionary position? Show me that universe."

She had round, green eyes; she stared at him.

Within a week, beginning there, the originality of their relationship - the animals, the humor - faded into the standard quiet and pressure. He didn't apologize and she didn't ask him to; he felt bottled and worked longer hours.

Tess decided he was sleeping with Josie, became convinced of it, ashamed of herself, humiliated when he came home. She went over to him and sniffed him, quietly, to see if she could detect sex or perfume. She wouldn't wear perfume, she thought. She was sure they laughed at her, that they made love in Josie's spare, cool, open loft and mocked Tess sitting at home alone with her sketchbook and artist's crayons. The image - Josie's mouth, David undressing before a white-sheeted bed - never left her; it was as if she'd looked at the sun too long and the burning, hovering image of adultery was now part of her vision.

I need a job with people, she thought. I'm too tied up in him, here, alone all day.

"I can't get over it," said Tess, again, a few days later. "I can't help myself."

"I can't do this discussion again."

David understood jealousy; 18 months ago his last lover had been kissing his chest, heading for his crotch, when he said her name, loudly. Her cockatoo heard him and shouted out, "Do my balls! Do my balls!" There was an absolutely frozen second while everyone figured out what was going on, and all erotic contact stopped entirely. When he asked her the third time, this past lover, whose face had turned solid gray, admitted that, yes, her last boyfriend had often said the bird's words, shouting out her name while she was down; the bird had learned them through repetition. It had never shouted them before. It had not been an easy vision to forget.

So he and Tess tried to talk it through, but it fell apart in the bedroom: he pushed her to make love to him from above, to go down on him, to let him go down on her, but she froze when he said anything, and he let it go. He told her he hated the missionary position, which was true, but she ignored him, insisted it was the only way she wanted things anymore, and he noticed he'd begun to hate her, hate the fact that she wouldn't do anything except lie there and be bored into orgasm, a huge boiling hatred at her selfishness that made him bite his tongue in shame.

Tess didn't know why; she just knew she couldn't do anything outside of the one position. She froze at the thought, froze in a kind of terror thinking of the unopened door, and turned away in silence when he asked her for anything different, the ghost image still in her eyes.

He was late at work with Josie; she told him he looked like utter shit. He described the long, building tension, the fear of aloneness conflicting with a need to leave, the empty sex, the strange permeating quality of quantum physics. "I don't know if I want this. I miss the chicken-dogs and the horse-stoats. It's no fun, it's not a challenge. It's just death." He put his head down on the desk, then lifted it to look at his coworker. "She thinks it's you, that you're stealing me away. She's decided you've got your claws in me."

"It'll be okay," she said, and then she put her mouth against his and kissed him for ten minutes, his hand on her breast. Reluctantly, he pulled away.

"Not," he said, conscious of his tightened slacks. "No."

"Let's just go home, then. We won't be able to work."

"You're right."

"Yes," she said.

Tess asked, "Why are you late?" Heart jumping.

"I'm working on a presentation for next week for a plastics company--"

"With who."

"Oh, Christ, please, with her."

"Look." Tess sat down on the couch. They only had room for the couch, so he sat beside her. "This is not enough," she said. "I need someone I can believe in."

"You're saying I'm unbelievable?" He laughed, shifted, thinking, Thank God, thank God.

She smiled, looked down at the floorboards. "Yes, you are. You're a good friend to me, or you try to be, but I'm in a mess, and I'm miserable. All the possibilities. I can't stand it, not trusting, being afraid. I want something steady."

For a moment he felt elated, free, thinking of the kiss in the office, riding on its confidence, but then he saw the last months disappearing, pouring away, everything in the apartment shifting. "The physics," he said. "It's not religion. You can't count on it for answers that make sense."

"It's not that. It's not the multiverse, but I do need some logic. I'm not finding it here."

"I've been feeling this too," he said, bravely, trying to remedy, trying to patch this up, not lose her. "I'm not getting what I want."

"God, yes," she said. "I don't know why I can't do anything but..." She trailed off, "Look, maybe we--"

"Yeah," he said. "I know."

"I want to sleep on it but...."

"It might be right. Yes."

"Yes," she echoed, weeping.

He went across the couch, suddenly feeling far away, remote, and held her. They began to kiss. "I'm going to go tomorrow, I think, I can stay at my old place." Her roommate had never found a replacement, and in their last few fights she had threatened to go there.

"I understand," he said, thinking about the travels of his mouth, seeing his lips and tongue as disembodied, a Cheshire entity moving between two women, moving down elevators and through lobbies, underground on trains. He became sad at the sobbing women, her thick hips and full breasts shaking on the soft old couch, and said, "we're the first couple in the world to be broken up by quantum physics." He put his hand between her legs, against a smooth pair of synthetic underwear, pressing his index and middle finger into her through the cloth.

She snorted. "No, there are millions, there are trillions of people all across the universes that have had this happen to them. There have to be."


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About the author: I've been running this website from 1997. For a living I write stories and essays, program computers, edit things, and help people launch online publications. (LinkedIn). I wrote a novel. I was an editor at Harper's Magazine for five years; then I was a Contributing Editor; now I am a free agent. I was also on NPR's All Things Considered for a while. I still write for The Morning News, and some other places.

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