Sometimes I can hear my bones straining under the weight of all the lives I’m not living.
– Jonathan Safran Foer, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close
I read mindlessly and voraciously as a child, so any story that stuck with me longer than a week or two had to be a good one. A Crack in the Line was one such book. It was about a boy named Alaric who one day fell through a wall in an old house and ended up in an alternate version of his life. He met a girl who looked just like him, had the same interests, the same pets, the same family, same everything. Except, when his mother got in a train crash, she died. When this girl’s mother got in a train crash, she lived. They jumped back and forth between universes, making little changes and exploring differences. Thus was my introduction to the idea of a parallel universe. I became fascinated with the idea that there might be another version of my life existing somewhere in time or space. How many were there? How did they start? Would I ever discover one?
I wouldn’t say I liked fantasy as a child. What I liked were stories that started out in real life, then took a turn for the magical. Fantasy wasn’t real. I wanted a story that I could insert myself into, one that I could daydream about in dull moments of my real life. Not rags to riches, but everyday to enchanted.
It was completely plausible that Mrs. Whatsit would rouse me from bed to go defeat IT and save my little brother. A letter addressed in purple ink, wrote Ms. Rowling, could very well fall down the chimney. There just might be an exact version of my house existing a hop-skip-jump sideways in time where everything was normal, but the wallpaper was fruit flavored (thanks, Mr. Dahl). Phillip Pullman told me that all I had to do was find a special knife (the SUB-tell knife, as I pronounced it in my head) and swish—I could cut a window in the middle of any old Oxford street and climb through it to another dimension, a world just like ours but a little peculiar. I didn’t like fantasy; I liked the prospect of our world with improvements.
These days, I love these stories in a different way. Or maybe love isn’t quite the right word anymore. I’m still drawn to them. Billy Collins writes a poem in which one day he runs back into his house to grab a book to read in the waiting room. He imagines a version of himself who doesn’t go back, who proceeds through the day and the rest of his life just three minutes ahead, “another knot in the string of time.” A parallel, alternate universe draws me in these days because I’m anxious to know which choices I make actually affect the rest of my life. Do the clothes I choose each morning really butterfly effect into major life moments? Does taking 28th Street to work to avoid construction matter? Does skipping church? Does being single? Today’s ubiquitous “fear of missing out” makes me wonder what possibilities I’m ruling out each time I make a decision.
And in a next-door universe, how would people be different? I just watched The One I Love on Netflix last week. No spoilers because I want you to go watch it, too, and the less you know about it, the better. But the premise is that a couple embarks on a romantic weekend away to rekindle their marriage, and they stumble upon a very odd house. Inside, if they enter one at a time, they meet new, better versions of themselves. When they leave the house, they’re back with their “real” spouse. It’s a parallel universe, and the couple struggles to remedy their relationship in the presence of these alter-egos. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind explores the possibility of a world just like ours where memory-erasing, people-erasing technology exists. These lovers get to choose which version of events they like best. In that world just like ours but improved, they never get their hearts broken.
In all of these films and books, people make decisions that rule out so many potential lives. Their worlds are like ours with improvements, but even they can only take one path. I’m encouraged, though, by the way their lives turn out. Erasing someone else, it turns out, also changes you. Meeting a better version of someone you love can actually make you miss the real, imperfect thing. Imperfect people can teach us just as much as ideal ones. Our choices do change the future. Magic doesn’t solve everything, but taking decisive action, no matter how intimidating, nor no matter how many possibilities it excludes, is more rewarding than a spell could ever be. That’s my reality.
Abby Zwart (’13) teaches high school English in Grand Rapids, Michigan. She spends her free time making lists of books she should read, cooking, and managing the post calvin.