Across a Fold in Space

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Literary Fiction  |  House: Booksie Classic
A story of love across parallel universes.

Submitted: March 29, 2008

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Submitted: March 29, 2008

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ACROSS A FOLD IN SPACE
12/18/99

Part I :  The Note


Chapter 1


“…he caught himself thinking of the elastic nature of time, warped by invisible and wholly arbitrary boundaries capable of thrusting you magically into the future
 or dragging you back into the past.”--Adam Barrow



I walked outside just after dark last night, taking the Saturday paper to the trash can out by the street.  Snow was falling lightly in the glow of the porch light, slowly covering the patches of week-old snow and ice left over from the last storm.  Feeling vaguely guilty about not recycling, I crunched through the accumulation on the driveway and tossed the orange plastic-coated bundle into the trash.  As I headed back to the house, I almost didn’t notice the plastic bag slowly collecting a layer of snowflakes next to my car, but the color caught my eye.  Having just thrown away today’s paper, and since I only get the weekend papers, I scratched my head and wondered if it was possible that this had been sitting here in plain view all week without my tripping over it.  Or whether somehow the paperboy had tossed two bags out this morning on his way by.  Not thinking too much about it, I scooped it up and brought it into the warmth of the house, nudging the cats back from escaping with one foot as the screen door slammed shut.  Humming Christmas carols to myself, I absentmindedly dumped the contents of the bag out onto the table.  Glancing at the front page, all the other things that my mind had been processing in the background came to an abrupt halt.  I looked again.  Yes, I had read it correctly.  Sitting on my kitchen table was the Denver paper for Sunday, December 19, 1999.  Tomorrow’s paper.

Have you ever wondered whether the way we perceive the whole space-time continuum thing is really the way things are?  If you’re like me, time travel and its related theories are a fascinating though usually ignored mental puzzle, a mind game.  I mean, I’ve watched “Quantum Leap” and “Back to the Future.”  I’ve debated with friends, taking turns playing devil’s advocate, about parallel universes, about whether time travel is a theoretical possibility, about the ripple effect and butterflies in the Amazon and what happens if you go back and kill your own grandfather.  If I remember correctly, in college we determined that it was feasible to travel forward in time, but not into the past.  Don’t ask me to dredge up our reasoning, but it made perfect sense at the time, sitting cross-legged on the apartment floor at three o’clock in the morning.  I simply never expected to come face to face with any of this in my very ordinary life.  Think about it--who do you tell?  It’s not like I’ve found some fascinating specimen of the distant past.  This thing on my table will cease to be an object of even the remotest interest in less than twelve hours.  It's even too late to win any money on the college football games.  

I live alone, just me and the cats, and I can’t for the life of me think of anyone to call.  My family is already reasonably certain that I’m borderline certifiable, moving out here to the middle of nowhere, giving up a stable, somewhat lucrative career to virtually become a hermit in the mountains.  Joshua Christopher Connelly, temporarily (they hope) insane.  This will only serve to confirm their worst fears.  I pulled out my digital camera and took a picture of the front page, and it obligingly added the little time stamp in the bottom right-hand corner.  For what it was worth.  Then I watched the end of the football game and went to bed, hoping that the world would still be as I knew it when I woke up again.  I dreamed about the movie “Groundhog Day.”  I’m not sure exactly what the connection was, but I do know that some basic assumptions about my world had been challenged; I could only hope that time would continue to flow in an orderly fashion after a good night’s sleep.

I woke the next morning to four inches of snow and an otherwise ordinary Sunday in my little town.  I put the whole incident out of my mind.  In fact, it wasn’t until the week after Christmas, when I went to download the pictures from my camera into my computer, that it even crossed my consciousness again.  I shrugged it off.  Who would believe it?  I barely believed it myself, and I certainly couldn’t begin to explain it.  

New Year’s Eve.  Everyone is making such a production out of it this year.  The way I see it, even if this were the beginning of the new millenium (which it’s not; that would be next year), what’s the big deal?  The only way the world is going to end is if the crazy terrorists blow us, and themselves, up.  I figure I’m pretty safe, out here in the back of beyond.  But anyway, here we were, December 31, and I was trying my best to avoid the big festivities and have a peaceful little gathering with friends up at the Hot Springs.  Just hanging out, soaking in the tub next to the creek that fed down into the Arkansas.  The creek was running pretty fast this time of year, even with the crust of ice around the edges, and I was dangling my fingers in the frigid water, enjoying the contrast between hot and cold and letting my mind wander.  When I started to sweat, I decided to play polar bear and go wade in the stream for a second, just because I could.  I was balancing on a rock, and, predictably, slipped and ended up virtually face down in the streambed, catching my weight on my hands.  Trying to summon up what little dignity I had left (although my friends were pretty much ignoring me), I raised my head and found myself staring at a bottle, half-buried under the rocks and mud.  The cold was starting to register in spite of my elevated body temperature, so I unearthed it and leapt back into the hot water where intelligent hairless mammals belong.  

As my body recovered from the shock, and I rinsed the surface gunk off my new-found treasure, I found a lovely blue glass bottle, carefully corked, empty except for what appeared to be a rolled-up piece of manuscript paper.  Figuring some local kid had rented “Message in a Bottle” one too many times, and not wanting to put my soggy fingers all over its contents, I decidedly to stick it in my backpack and save it for midnight.  In the absence of someone to kiss, I thought it might provide a mild source of entertainment.




Chapter 2


"There is a theory which states that if ever anybody discovers exactly  what the Universe is for and why it is here, it will instantly disappear and be replaced by something
even more bizarre and inexplicable.
There is another theory which states that this has already happened."
-- Douglas Adams


Midnight on the last night of the year.  Sort of like watching your car’s odometer turn over to 100,000 miles.  As with much of my life in recent years, I was experiencing the festivities vicariously via satellite.  Sitting on the couch with the token glass of champagne on the floor next to me in preparation for the big moment, I absentmindedly turned the bottle I had found around and around in my hands as I watched the ball drop.  The moment came and went, I drank the champagne, kissed the cats (much to their chagrin), and went to pull the cork out of the mystery bottle.  I guess the time in the water or exposure to the elements had caused it to swell, so I had to resort to the corkscrew.  After some minor dismemberment, I managed to drag the stubborn thing out of there.  I soon wished I had taken longer—if only to prolong my boring yet quite manageable comprehension of the world as I had always known it.

My first instinct was to write it off as a practical joke.  If it hadn’t been for the whole newspaper thing a couple weeks ago, I probably could have.The note in itself wasn’t so terribly strange; like the newspaper, it might almost have belonged in the world I lived in.  Except there were some pieces that didn’t fit.

For starters, it was dated January 4, 2000, and it would be my guess that it had been in the creek for a while before my accidental discovery.  That could be explained away; people postdate checks, why not personal correspondence?  There are more illogical things in the world.  The body of the note was much what one would expect from a missive enclosed in a bottle (if such a thing there be); lost love, a desperate attempt to reclaim what had been carelessly tossed aside.  With minor discrepancies—the letter dealt at length with the catastrophes that had beset our country with the onset of the dreaded Y2K, and how those events had helped the author put his priorities back to what they should have been all along.  In the absence of conventional mass communication (all the phone lines and satellites still down from the crash), he had resorted to this most time-honored and romantic of approaches, ye olde note in a bottle.  

But the most disturbing detail of all was the least easily discounted of the bunch:  the letter had been signed by me.
Chapter 3


“Do a million lives run parallel or are each two singled out to meet?”  --Niall Williams


Happy New Year.

As I sit here at my computer, catching up on email at the start of this new year (at the dawn of which absolutely nothing of import occurred, Y2K hype notwithstanding), I alternate trying to put the mystery letter out of my head entirely, and racking my brain trying to make it fit into the scheme of what I know, what I have always known, to be real and true.

How can I relate this to anyone and be believed?  I have no proof, no evidence that anything out of the ordinary has happened.  It is my handwriting, after all.  I wish now that I had read that newspaper more carefully.  I had assumed (as any rational person would) that it would be exactly the same as the “real” paper that was buried under the new snowfall when I woke up that Sunday morning.  Now I’m not so sure, but the evidence is long gone.  

One of the particulars of the fateful note that I had not yet dealt with was its intended recipient.  To my knowledge, I wasn’t suffering from lost love, unrequited or otherwise.  Yet somewhere, someone very much like me was having a romantic crisis of epic proportions.  I was making no progress whatsoever attacking this as a left-brain dilemma, and although I have always considered myself to be right-brain challenged, I decided to try and run with it.  A little stream of consciousness never hurt anybody.  Here goes:

Imagine if you will that there truly are parallel universes, even an infinite number of them, just beyond our grasp.  They would most likely be arranged in an orderly fashion, those most closely corresponding to our reality in closest proximity, and marching outward in a logical progression of ever-diverging systems, with those universes on the fringes bearing little or no resemblance to the world that I know.  If I suspend disbelief for just a moment and take that as gospel, then is it feasible for those most closely parallel universes, those “touching” our reality, as it were, to leak things from one to the next?  Are the edges of my world truly solid, or could it be more like surface tension on a body of water—cohesive enough if you lay your hand flat on it, but easily passed through to whatever lies in wait on the other side?

This is your basic exercise in frustration.  My mother always said I thought too much—I could think myself into believing almost anything, given the time.But since, conveniently enough, I do have a lot of time on my hands at this particular juncture in my life (and since I find myself most illogically jealous of this other me who has at least found something resembling true love, even if this erstwhile alter ego has managed to squander it somewhere along the line), I’ve decided to assume my above theorems to be true, and allow my mind to enter the labyrinthine possibilities of this “multiverse” (to borrow Michael Crichton's  esoteric term for the infinite progression of parallel universes I am positing as reality) hypothesis of life as we know it.

I have often wondered about all those crossroads in life—the myriad decisions, gargantuan and miniscule, that have determined the direction of my life.  Everyone has crucial moments, snapshots in time, that they wish they could go back and change.  If not to fundamentally alter events, at least to have a chance to see where the other road would have led.  What if  I had chosen that basketball scholarship over my theatre major?  What if I had accepted this job offer over that one, or settled in Montana rather than the suburbs after college?  Now, if I follow my new theory to its logical first conclusion, then perhaps I have done all those things—just not in this particular chunk of space-time.  Maybe time travel, the whole forward and backward focus, isn’t the crux at all; maybe the way to travel to alternate realities is to move sideways, as it were—to find a way to squeeze through those leaks within the multiverse.  Suddenly your options multiply exponentially.  Time travel is very constricting—two possible directions along a fixed line.  But this, like moving across a fold in space or stumbling into a wormhole, can drop you into places you have never dared to dream.  The mythical fifth dimension.  


Chapter 4

“People with a high tolerance for boredom can get a lot of thinking done.”
--Stephen King


I really hate thinking about this stuff.  Like your brain is running on a hamster wheel, convinced with rodent-like logic that if you just keep pushing with all your might, progress in a forward direction will be made.  After all, it's THE PAST.  Over and done with.  Why must I continue to beat it with a stick?  

Because there is something about that note.  As if I have been waiting all my life, never quite able to take a complete breath, anticipating this moment from which the remainder of my life will emerge, if not victorious, at least with a glimmer of, well, magic.  I have been trapped in this self-imposed shell for far too long.  Building walls to protect yourself from the harsh realities of the outside world has one major drawback—after a while you can't quite remember how to get out.  Walls work both ways.  Which hasn't been a problem until now; I was pretty comfortable in here, all safe and cozy.  Now suddenly 'safe' feels curiously like 'trapped.'I want nothing more than to run out and rediscover the lost love of my life.  But how does one begin such a journey?  How do you rekindle a love that you never knew?  Tracking down this one potential divergent track in the maelstrom of choices I have made in my life is quite the daunting project.

I have definitely been hanging out with the cats for too long.  Even they aren’t buying this garbage.  But since I’ve started these mental gymnastics, and since the wind whipping around the corners of my little house leads me to infer that it’s basically inhospitable outside, I may as well play the mind games to the end.  I’ve been trying to flowchart my life, as it were—to pick out crucial moments of potential divergence, the old Robert Frost "Road Less Traveled" philosophy of life.  Lacking any scientific approach (or knowledge, for that matter), I have not the slightest clue how this exercise will put me one step closer to my theoretical lost love, but I figure pinpointing where to go is as important in the long run as knowing how to get there.  I've found a few.  The most apparent place to start would be the semester in college when my previously well-ordered life burst apart at the seams and was reassembled some time later in a fashion heretofore unrecognizable as my life.  Perhaps in that transitional phase between order and chaos after my emotional holocaust lies a crucial opportunity missed.

I led a pretty stable, mundane childhood.  Which is not to be confused with growing up in a stable, mundane family.  I was the mediator, the even keel in a sea of churning personality disorders.  I made the conscious decision way back in kindergarten, marching off to school in my parochial school uniform complete with saddle shoes that, while I was too small, both in stature and personality, to take an active role in redirecting the passions storming about in our house, I would do my part to add nothing to the madness.

I held to this creed all the way through adolescence.  Seen and not heard.  Preferably not even seen, if I could avoid it.  If there were an award for 'most likely to be entirely forgotten' in my graduating class, I would have had no competition.  Top of the class, MVP of the soccer team, and still no one would have had any memory of me at our class reunion, had I chosen to go.  (Quite the impressive feat, if you stop to think about it.)  Of course, by then my life had taken quite a different turn from what I had anticipated, which is how I got involved in this maudlin cycle of self-perusal in the first place.  

Enough mystery and intrigue.  Tragedy is really quite mundane, when you think about it.  Everyone gets a piece sooner or later.  Mine just happened to arrive in one big ugly clump, in and around the summer before my senior year of college.  I was hardly a raging vortex of ambition—in fact, I still had no earthly idea what I wanted to be when I grew up.  The communications major was only there because I had to declare something.  Rather ironic, with all the things that came easily to me,  that I chose one of the few things at which I innately sucked.  But there I was, working some inane campus job for minimum wage that summer as an excuse not to live at home (God forbid).  I was rooming with three friends in an apartment down by the reservoir, spending each evening walking along the water at sunset and drinking wine coolers at the park, sitting on the bridge dangling our feet over the edge of the lake.  Idyllic, I suppose, which when you're nineteen is just a euphemism for boring.  

People sometimes say without thinking how great it would be to be able to go back, to be nine, or fourteen, again.  I would never voluntarily choose to regress that far.  Childhood, as they say, is what you spend the rest of your life trying to overcome.  But those summer nights down by the lake, in the otherworldly light of dusk when the tangible world takes on a surreal glow as the lightning bugs emerge…that is where I would choose to be transported back to.  Innocence intact, friendships straightforward…before I knew too much.


Chapter 5
(new section begun November 4, 2000)


Part 2:  Josh

"Life is something that happens when you can't get to sleep."
n Fran Lebowitz

July, 1988


"Come on, loser, wake up!"  Josh burrowed deeper under the pile of pillows, blankets, and clothing that he called his bed, trying to convince himself that morning had not accosted him so soon.  But his human alarm clock would not be denied.  "We're on a schedule here!" Danny cried, tugging Josh's feet out from under the pile and dragging his lower body clear of the bed.  

"Holy cats, it's freezing out there!"  The air conditioning had been broken for days, perpetually set on "arctic", but not wanting the summer R.A. to witness the disaster that had once been a campus apartment, Josh and his roommates had declined to bring it to the attention of anyone who cared.  

"Yeah, well, it's a hundred degrees outside, wonderboy, and there's football to be played.  In about ten minutes.  So get your butt in gear; the desert calls."

Danny, Rick, and Josh had become inseparable way back during freshman orientation.  From wildly divergent backgrounds, somehow they had bonded and were rarely seen in the absence of one another's company.  Rick was an East Coast boy, born and bred in the shadow of Harvard and Yale (his mother's and father's alma maters, respectively).  When it came to applying for colleges, he couldn't get far enough away.  Tempe, Arizona seemed like a pretty awesome contrast to the stately trees and manicured lawns of the New England Ivy League.  Danny, a Kansas farm boy, was on a partial football scholarship—the NFL wasn't going to be beating down his door anytime soon, but for now Sundevil Stadium was the center of his universe.  Josh's family was still fighting the Civil War; both literally and figuratively, it seemed some days.  Raised well below the Mason Dixon line, Josh had both the soft-spoken accents and the Confederate stubborn streak that can be endearing and infuriating all at the same time.  They were all girlfriend-free, and happy to remain so at least for the time being.  They had decided back when they were sophomores and borderline omniscient that relationships were way too much like work.  Besides, it was summer, the summer before their senior year, and they had all managed to remain on campus doing remarkably little, earning enough among them for a fridge full of Coke Classic (and the occasional case of wine coolers from the Likker Barn over in Phoenix) and all the microwave popcorn you can eat.  The other roommate, Philip, the erstwhile fourth musketeer, was off playing law clerk for the summer in hopes of landing a 'real job' after graduation and stressing over the distant bar exam.  The other three scoffed at his penchant for responsible living—these were the best years of their lives, and nothing like reality was going to be permitted to infringe upon their glow.

"Man, you weren't kidding.  It's at least a hundred degrees out here."  Sweat poured down Josh's face as he and Danny arrived at the field.  "A hundred and fifteen, according to the board over there," Danny responded, as he stripped off his shirt and started warming up.  Josh took off down the field, and Danny led him with a long bomb.  "Touchdown!  And the crowd goes wild!"

"Hey, where's Ricky at?"  

Josh jogged back to Danny and tossed him the ball.  "Alright, two things—one, if you call him Ricky to his face, it won't much matter that you're a defensive tackle for one of the top college teams in the country and he's a comp sci major, he'll still beat your face in; and two, you've got to stop talking like you're from Kansas."

"But I am from Kansas, what's wrong with that?  Just 'cause I don’t speak in standard written English like some freakin' D.C. lobbyist--"

"Yeah, but if you ever want to be taken seriously in the real world…"

"Hey, you're breaking the unwritten law of the summer.  None of that 'real world' talk allowed, remember?  Besides, it's too hot for this crap.  And you never answered my question—where's our worthless roommate?  The one not spending his summer in a three-piece suit?"

Rick showed up just as the game was breaking up.At a dead sprint, without a hair out of place or a bead of sweat to be seen.  He tried to be a slob, to flout convention and shock his parents and be a rebel, but somehow his preppie upbringing just couldn't be shaken.  Even in scruffy old t-shirt and cut-off sweats, he still managed to look like he had just stepped off the cover of GQ.  If he hadn't been Josh's best friend, he would have been an easy person to hate.  "Mornin', boys.  Sorry I'm late—many morons in the computer lab this fine weekend.  But hey, it's a living.  That $4.10 an hour makes all the difference in my life."  

"Beats the two of us scraping dishes in the cafeteria all afternoon.  What's the plan for tonight? And by the way, what were we thinking, spending the summer in Arizona, for God's sake?"

"Oh, stop whining.  Think of the alternative.  We'd all have clawed our own eyes out by now, living with our parents.  How quickly you forget.  Must I dredge up some of your personal horror stories from last summer, working at your dad's store?"

"Please, God, no.  Anything but that.  Besides, it's probably just as hot out in Charleston.  There's just an ocean nearby to escape to—if I could have wrestled my neurotic siblings out of the keys to the car.  I'll take the desert over that disaster any day."

So went the days of summer, with very little work, nothing constructive accomplished, much midnight volleyball, and a disastrous apartment filled with friendship and potato chip crumbs.  Stress-free, and not to be taken for granted.  Philip returned from his respectable summer job the third week of August, and the gang was together once again.  Danny spent every waking hour either at training camp or working out with that in mind, Rick was busily loading the new word processing software onto all the old Commodores in the lab (grumbling all the way about the horrors of DOS), and Josh was burrowing his way to the bottom of the dirty laundry in a last ditch attempt to unearth the lost textbooks of last year to sell to unsuspecting juniors.  Senior year was right around the corner.


Chapter 6

"...when you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however
improbable, must be the truth."
n Sherlock Holmes


It wasn’t a big deal, really.  Nothing anyone would have noticed.  It might even be a good thing, I thought.  Rick needed a girlfriend; it was sort of inevitable, with the way he was.  Naturally we were a little on the jealous side, but only because it meant we lost a part of him, no longer had our friend's undivided attention.  I mean, you can't very well sit around in your underwear and throw popcorn at the Cowboys on TV like the total idiots we were used to being in the privacy of our own home when there's a girl around.  It was (understandably) awkward, and Rick started spending more and more time over at her place.  Danny had a couple of cheerleaders following him around, now that he was a starter on the defensive line, but didn't quite know what to do with them, which made us smile.  It seems that girls find bewilderment unaccountably attractive, for his apparent confusion and lack of grace just extended the entourage.  Philip and I found ourselves more and more often alone in the Swamp (yes, we shamelessly stole it from M*A*S*H, but it seemed to fit; all we needed was the homemade still), but he was always face down in his law books.  I was bored, I guess, but not really unhappy.  I just assumed the idyllic existence we had captured for a while couldn't go on forever, and resigned myself to letting it slip away without comment.  

I was feeling particularly insular that day in early October, scuffing home from intramural soccer wishing there was such a thing as autumn in Arizona and thinking about the evening we had planned—just the four of us, Monday Night Football, no textbooks allowed.  The first time we had all been deliberately together in weeks.  Amazing how four people can live in the same four hundred square foot space and never quite manage to cross paths.  Suddenly, there was this girl.  It looked like she had been crying, but it was hard to tell for sure, since she was sitting next to a sprinkler head that turned on just as I was walking up.  In the mood I was in, in full-on tunnel vision mode, I considered just ambling right on by.  I don't know if it was my Southern upbringing or her total lack of reaction to the water cascading around her that forced me out of my reverie, but I tossed my duffel bag in the direction of one of the few remaining dry spots and sat down next to her in the heart of the downpour.  Now, I'm a devoted introvert.  Except when I'm with the guys, words don't come easily to me, and that's an understatement.  So I just sat there with her.  I expected it to be awkward.  Most people don't know what to do with silence, although it's a specialty of mine.  But it just felt right somehow.  Like we were childhood friends who had sat like this watching countless sunsets every year of our lives, and would continue to do so for the foreseeable future.  

After almost ten minutes (and much water) she put her head on my shoulder, and resting there, just said "Thanks".  She turned and looked at me, and there was this…connection.  Like one of those Hollywood moments complete with stringed instruments and shafts of directional sunlight.  And then it was gone.  She wiped the water from her face and walked away.  I just sat there like an idiot, watching her go, expecting something momentous to happen that would commemorate this moment as some sort of milestone, one that required no initiative on my part.  Shooting stars in the middle of the afternoon, or earth tremors or something.  Once she was out of sight, I stood up, wrung out my sweatshirt, pushed my dripping hair out of my eyes, and squished my way to the Swamp.  

I should have kissed her.

There was a message on my door.  I never thought of the girl again.







Chapter 7

"The day will happen whether or not you get up."—John Ciardi



My father was dead.  He was a bastard, which I never had the guts to tell him, but I loved him fiercely, which I also never had the guts to tell him.He and my mom should have split up years ago.  They were terrible for each other and it would have saved us all inestimable grief, but for reasons that remain unclear to me they had stuck it out, even after we all left home.  But that doesn't mean I wished him dead, not by a long shot.  Even parents who mess their kids up in impressive fashion can do so with the best of intentions, and in our case the tribulations of covert familial warfare had forged bonds complex and ironclad.  We were all tangled up in one another's history.  When you have lived through that much together, a connection is created that somehow draws you closer rather than sending you running screaming from the madness.  I called mom.  He died on the golf course.  Not that it matters.

I didn't know what to do.  There was no one home yet, although it was almost time for the game, and I was at a loss.I needed to walk, to get my brain functioning again, so I headed across campus to Rick's girlfriend's place to track him down.  I could hear the yelling a block away.  I entered a scene of full-scale warfare.  Apparently Rick had walked into his girlfriend's apartment only to discover Philip and said girlfriend on the couch in compromising circumstances.  All computer science-major stereotypes to the contrary, Rick was beating the crap out of his best friend, and if I hadn't walked in just then, there might have been yet another death that afternoon.  I still ended up with a black eye out of the deal. Danny showed up about the same time as the cops and paramedics.  I told him about my dad, and he asked why I wasn't on my way to the airport.
Philip was the only one of us with a currently functioning car, I said, and he was unconscious on his way to the emergency room, while Rick was en route to the local police station for questioning.

Danny took me to the infirmary, got me cleaned up, but neither of us could conjure airline tickets from the collection of loose change in the Swamp.  We did, however, excavate the keys to Philip's Volvo, and while 'reliable' is not a word to enthrall most teenagers when given their first car, it suddenly seemed like a great thing.  Danny left notes for our respective advisors and one for Philip, if and when he slunk home--we figured he would forgive us, given the unusual situation--and we undertook the 2,000 mile trek to the current Connelly homestead on James Island, South Carolina.





 Chapter 8

Part III:Kayle

(December 22, 2000)


"What if this weren't a hypothetical question?”-- Unknown



I'm the lowest maintenance person I know.  Undemanding to a fault.  All he had to do was smile in my general direction from time to time and my life would have been complete.  Apparently I wasn't worth his time.  In fact, I didn't even merit breaking up with.  The implication being that we were never truly together to begin with.

I spend most of my life in a baseball cap.  Would be perfectly content to live out the remainder of my life in overalls and scuffed Reeboks.  Preferably with a set of perpetually skinned elbows and knees from an overabundance of tree climbing.  I'm also a loner; or was, until I foolishly decided to break my self-imposed romantic drought and fell for  the campus ladies man.  What could I possibly have been thinking?  

I suppose I'm pretty, but I'm not the kind of girl guys stop to think twice about.  Maybe because I don't really think about it myself.  All that stuff  that goes along with being a girl, all the giggly high school foolishness that morphs into a lifetime of waxing and makeup and plastic surgery just aren't a priority for me.  And although I have been known to make the occasional surreptitious visit to Victoria's Secret, I don't get it.  So I decided a couple years ago that I would be content just to be me.  The romantic side of me (which is epic, don't get me wrong) would like to believe that there is truly a perfect someone for everyone, but going out hunting for 'the one' with a proverbial butterfly net has always seemed to me like cheating.  If it's meant to be, shouldn't it just happen?  Without all the mating dances and games and messiness  we insist upon imposing on the process?  Which is why I find myself rather stunned that I fell into the perennial trap.  I'm supposed to be above this cliché.  See what happens?  You beat a guy on the court, get his attention, and before you know it, he's attracted to you and you're lost.  All my carefully laid defenses crumbled like the walls of Jericho just because his eyes matched his sweater.  I'm so disappointed in me.  

But the weirdest thing happened this afternoon.  I had succumbed to a moment of emotional wallowing, blatantly feeling sorry for myself on a central campus thoroughfare.  Even the sprinklers weren't enough to dredge me out of my pathetic reverie.  Don't let my self-deprecatory tone fool you; I truly was a mess.  It comes in waves.  So there I was, crying like an idiot in a public place, and there was this guy.  Like Clark Gable or something, materializing from the mist.  He sat with me in the rain, held my hand, and for just a moment filled that gaping void in my soul.  And then he was gone.  I have no idea who he was (assuming he wasn’t a figment of my overwrought imagination), but the mystery makes him just that much more intriguing.  A perfect moment in time about which I will always wonder.




Part IV:  The Note

Chapter 9

Bizarre.  That whole week of my life, the week my father died, I had pretty much blocked out of my psyche.  Hazy, disconnected moments of sadness which bordered the two halves of my life.  But now that I remember the girl, the memory is so startlingly clear that it seems incomprehensible that I have not thought about her every day of my life since that moment.  That's it, then; she's the one.  Now what the hell am I supposed to do about it?  It's ever so comforting to know that I screwed it up not once but at least twice, and perhaps an infinite number of times, in this mind-bending macramé of space-time.  Does wonders for the self-confidence.  I can see it now:  rifling through old yearbooks, tracking this woman down over the internet, calling her and saying…what?  That we, in some ill-fated cosmic chess match, are meant to be together?  I can almost visualize the restraining order.I feel my eyes inexorably drifting toward the attic and the dusty old boxes of memorabilia entombed within.  I won't even recognize her.  It's not as if some halo of light will appear over her head in a decades-old photograph most likely snapped in a rush between gen-ed classes.  I can't help myself.  Besides, the cats love to play in the attic.  It's a selfless decision, really.

I know her instantly.  No question.  Her name is Kayle.  Kayle Ann Shea.  And I still have no clue what to do about it.  Time to get on the phone and wish a Happy New Year to my long-neglected roommates, a gesture of renewed friendship for the new millenium with a few casually dropped questions on the side.  

Truth is, most of my college friends gave up on me.  There's a certain unspoken grace period after a death in the family, a lag time in which one is permitted a degree of neuroses and being generally miserable to have around.  Then it's over.  The brutal truth is that college kids, for the most part,  have a marginal conception of death; they don't have much of a frame of reference in which to put it, and therefore are uncomfortable (to put it mildly) with facing the idea of mortality.  I stopped talking; they stopped asking.  I tried to finish out the year, but the diploma just didn't seem like the be-all and end-all of existence anymore.  In fact, I couldn't quite remember why I had ever cared.  I got a job back in the lowcountry at some up and coming internet company, selling a lot of nothingness to a bunch of folks making a ludicrous quantity of money from thin air.  Finding this less than entirely fulfilling, after a couple years of numbness, I pulled a John Denver and headed for the mountains.  It didn't solve my problems…but it sure made them seem far away.  Perspective is a tricky business; you can only get it from a distance, but it's hard to live that way, without getting your hands dirty in the everyday-ness of humanity.  And here I am, ten years removed from that college guy I once thought of as me, alone, and with every indication of remaining so.  Ironically, I thought until a week ago that I was even happy.  Happiness is another slippery abstraction:  we forget what it really feels like until it is either there in its purest form, or conspicuously absent in every way.  Contentment is not the same thing.  To be happy is an active  verb, your fourth grade grammar text notwithstanding; none of this passive, transitive, subjunctive garbage.  And when I stop to consider it, and am perfectly honest with myself, I ain't got it.  

I hate phones.  Email is so much more predictable and compliant.  But for once in my life I'm just going to be impulsive and wing it.  If I overthink this one, I'll wimp out.  Two rings in, Danny picks up.  My faithful bulldog of an ex-roomie, now an insurance salesman in his beloved Kansas.  No wife, but a committed girlfriend of eight years and three big huge sheepdogs that might as well have been their children.  I identify myself, and after a brief awkward pause, it's like we never left the dorm.  "Josh!  Where the hell have you been?  The guys are all here—it's the New Years party that just won't quit!  We called your mom to try and find you, but she never called back."

"Hey, Dan.  Long time no…anything.  Sorry I'm such a loser.  Who all's there?"

"Rick and his wife and perfect kids, Phil and his gorgeous model girlfriend du jour, and of course me and Beth and the three hairy monsters…You still in Colorado?  Seems to me Kansas is just the next state over—get in the car.  Bring whoever you want.  It's been years, man!"

"It's tempting.  The novelty of life as a hermit has started to wear off.  Glad to know the wonderboys are on speaking terms again.  Listen, the reason I called… well, it's a little off the wall…"

"Yeah, whatever, we're used to you by now.  Shoot."

"Do you remember a girl from school named Kayle?  This would have been our senior year, right around the time all hell broke loose."

"Doesn't sound familiar.  But you know me, too many direct blows to the head. Was she on a team?  Hang on, let me pass you around."

My worst nightmare.  Idle pleasantries are not my strong suit.  But I've started this thing, and I'd like to see it to its conclusion, wherever that might lead.  A little harmless back-slapping camaraderie through the phone lines seems a small price to pay for uncovering my own destiny.  

"Well, if it isn't the long lost J.C. Connelly.  How goes it, my illusive friend?"

"Happy New Year, Phil.  How's life in the courtroom? "

"Mostly it's life up to my elbows in tax forms.  Very glamorous.  But the secretaries are a nice bonus."

"Forever the ladies man."

"Yeah, somebody has to do it, and it sure as hell doesn't sound like it's you.  To what do we owe the honor?  Who's this girl you're trying to track down?"  

"You wouldn't believe me if I told you.  Did you know her?  Kayle Shea?"

"Sounds vaguely familiar.  But I was a little preoccupied with that whole 'passing the bar' thing at the time.  Tunnel vision and all.  And alienating my best friends.  Busy, busy, busy.  So, are you coming or what?  We'll all be here til the end of the week before reality kicks in and we head back to our respective cubicles.  Wait, here's Rick."

"Yo, Josh.  Listen to me, I'm starting to sound like my kids.  Yeah, I knew Kayle.  She was on Michelle's floor; nice girl.  What I really remember is she was smart as hell.  I was in an all-out wrestling match with my calculus assignment in their lounge one night and she came up out of nowhere and made all the gibberish make sense.  Quite the impressive feat.  Why the manhunt?"

My palms are sweating.  "Before I answer that, do you know anything else?  Where she went, what she might be doing now?"

"What are you, nuts?  A random acquaintance from a dorm  lounge a decade ago?  In short, no, my friend.  But Debbie was a year behind me, so maybe you'll luck out.  Honey, c'mere.  Did you know a Kayle Shea at school in Arizona?"

I'm only hearing every third syllable now, as they hold their casual conversation that has a potential to profoundly impact my life.  "Yeah, Debbie remembers her.  In fact, they crossed paths at their ten-year reunion just a couple weeks ago."

"Excellent!  Put your lovely wife on the phone."

"Sorry, she's off to the other room to keep our darling offspring from killing one another.  So, what are you up to these days?  Still hanging out with the elk?"

"Yeah, me and the cats, watching the sun rise and set over the mountains.  It was cool for a while, but I'm starting to climb the walls.  Listen, this is pretty important, can you and Debbie trade off?"

"I haven't heard you this edgy since you fell for that cheerleader our freshman year, when your voice was still changing.  What is it, man?  My curiosity's killing me."

I can't do this on the phone.  It's only eight hours to Wichita.  "Tell Danny to pull out another couch, I'll be there by the time the sun comes up.  Save me a margarita."

About the time I hit Dodge City, I wonder what in God's name I could have been thinking.  These are people from another lifetime, and my quest is more quixotic and self-destructive than that of, well, Don Quixote himself.  Quixote in a Subaru hatchback.  What an image.  By the time I'm pulling into Danny's driveway, I'm pretty sure I've lost what's left of my mind.  What do I expect to accomplish, other than affirming my friends' supposition that I have entirely melted down?  But having wasted yet another night of my life driving through Kansas, all I want to do is stop.  The front door is, as I expected from my one previous visit, unlocked.  I tiptoe gingerly into the living room, hearing nothing but the snores of sleeping bodies scattered about.  I step over two kids curled up in sleeping bags, when without warning I'm assaulted from behind by no less than three mountains of fur, who unceremoniously take me down with the friendliest of intentions.  This serves as a general wakeup call for the entire house—so much for sneaking in unobtrusively.Did I mention that I'm not good at this?

"Josh!  Welcome to the zoo!  Have you been driving all night?  Here, let me make you some coffee."  Welcomes assault me from all directions, including the dogs, who will not be denied from licking every exposed inch of skin on my body.  At least the kids have the decency to be shy and quiet (or perhaps merely sleepy—I'll bide my time on that one).  

"So, what's the urgency?  What motivates this uncharacteristic lapse in flowcharting every step of your life?"

"Hey, I left that behind when I ditched the computer geek persona."

"Don't give me that, pal.  You're an incurable left-brainer.  You kept a flowchart on all your graduation requirements.  You mocked up a palm pilot before there was such a thing.  That doesn't just go away because you run off to the Continental Divide.  And you continue to gracefully sidestep the question.  You've been blowing off our invitations for years.  Suddenly you're on my doorstep at dawn.  What gives?"

Danny, Rick and I pull up chairs in the mud room while the coffee brews.  The spotlight is most definitely on me, no matter how I might try to dodge.  I may as well get the worst of it over with.  I start with the fateful newspaper, rolling right on through the bottle, the note, and my questionable inferences.  They're staring at me.  I may have grown two heads, or perhaps my brain is leaking out my ears.  "C'mon, somebody say something.  I know it's crazy.  I just need to find this girl so I can prove to myself how insane it all is and get on with my life."







Chapter 10:  Kayle

Here we are again.  Or rather here I am, still alone at the age of thirty-two.  The baseball caps and overalls hang in the closet, a little ragged around the edges, but I still exercise them from time to time as some small defiance against the tailored suits in which I am currently forced to spend the preponderance of my waking hours.  Cubicles should be illegal.  The whole concept of corporate America is unnatural; it's no small wonder we have unibombers and rampant postal workers and quiet yet dangerous nutcases open-firing automatic weapons in the workplace.  I have my days when I'm tempted to join their ranks, and my job isn't even as repressive as some.  I answer phones for a small pharmaceutical company, fielding everything from real people's silly questions about their insurance coverage to multinational conglomerate weenies trying to save their company a hundred bucks by spending ten thousand in  litigation.  This is not my life; not the one I daydreamed about at my bedroom window throughout my childhood.  I was going to be somebody.  I was going to change the world—weren't we all?  But failing that, I at the very least anticipated having a family picture to send out on my Christmas cards by this point in my life.  I used to always see thirty as this major milestone—a marker by which time I would have made definitive steps toward whatever the rest of my life might hold.  Somehow this hurdle came and went and I barely noticed, and I'm not making any forward progress.  I'm stuck here, and I know I'm meant for so much more, but I don't know where to go from here, or how to gather the momentum to get there.

My first leaps into adulthood seemed to go well—survived my first shattered heart, got my degree, held a handful of unrelated odd jobs with no relation whatsoever to my major, ranging from Albuquerque to Ogunquit (that's in Maine)…I was a full five years out of college before it crossed my mind that my first serious relationship had also been my last, but I was never in one place for long enough to put down roots and develop a core of friends I could really hang out with.  Barring blind dates and one night stands, which for the painfully introverted among us are simply not an option regardless of the whole ethical angle, my options had been limited.  Then I got this job offer from MedTech in Fort Collins, Colorado, and things started to fall into place.  Not a dream job by any stretch of the imagination, but I got my own little apartment, with an actual lease, and a great view of the sun setting over the mountains from my Salvation Army couch.  Just a studio, really, but it's a groovy little college town, and I was working with people close to my own age, even hanging out at the corner pub drinking pitchers of Fat Tire with the girls on the occasional Saturday night.  

There are a couple of folks from college I keep in touch with—just an email here and there, but it makes me feel like I have a history.  I just don't have much in common with them anymore.  They've all got two and a half kids and a two-car garage.  Like aliens from another planet from my point of view, and I'm certain I look the same from their perspective.  Every once in a long while I think about that guy from the sprinklers.  And then I realize how pathetic it is that that is the most romantic thing that has ever happened to me, and I bury the thought safely away for another year.  Will there ever be anyone who will send me flowers, just for the hell of it?  I'm beginning to lose hope.  Maybe these are just things that happen to other people.  




Chapter 11:  Josh

Perspective, I soon realized, was a fine commodity, but
 utterly useless when I was in the thick of things."
--Ingrid Bengis

"I'm pretty sure she's in Colorado."

Debbie had spoken the words hours before, but I could still see them in the air over our heads.  By this late in the afternoon we were all pretty well toasted—someone cranked up the blender around noon and it was all downhill from there—and it was just like old times in spite of my long self-imposed absence from the gang.  Now they were all, with the friendliest of motives, running me through the gauntlet for my head-in-the-clouds romantic notions.  I was never going to live this down.  

As luck would have it, Debbie was one of those enigmatic characters who remain at the center of the gossip chain with no apparent effort.  She somehow kept track, at least loosely, of where everyone was and what they were doing with their lives.  I knew someone must read those alumni newsletters.  So while the boys and I were getting slowly and comfortably drunk and stupid, she put the wheels in motion, opened up a chat room on the internet, and by sundown had enough hits to fabricate a plausible life story for this somewhat illusive girl.  Enough people had run into her in passing over the past decade to extrapolate the rest.  

I woke up the next morning with an epic hangover and a new mission.  I would drive back to Colorado and, just ninety short miles over the mountain pass from my own home, track down and introduce myself to the love of my life.

Yet another day of my life wasted on the plains of Kansas.  And way too much time for my overzealous brain to agonize over the next phase of this crazy quest.  Early on in my musing I rejected the idea of telling her what forces drew me over the mountain.  I didn't want to send her running screaming in the other direction before we were even on a first name basis.  But I couldn't visualize myself traipsing into her office and sweeping her off her feet through sheer charisma.  I think this might be your basic cop-out, but by the time I made it to I-70 I had decided to sidestep the whole issue with the old standard of sending flowers.  A secret admirer of a most unusual sort.  Do people still do this?  It sounds an awful lot like something I saw on AMC, or like every black and white film romance ever contrived.  But if I screwed it up here, I suppose some other me in another dimension might stumble on the proper solution one of these eons…which would do me not the slightest bit of good.  Let's do this thing.  The worst that can happen is total and complete rejection, which would be a more interesting turn than my staid life has had in a while, anyway.  Bonzai.




Chapter 12:  Kayle


"And it is easy to slip into a parallel universe…most people pass over incrementally, making a series of perforations in the membrane between here and there until an opening exists.  And who can resist an opening?"
--Susanna Kaysen


The most amazing thing happened to me today.  By sheer force of will I seem to have conjured up flowers to be delivered to the cubicle that defines my life.  Wasn't I just daydreaming about this?  I must have let something slip at the bar the other night, and the girls are messing with me.  If so, their acting skills qualify them for pursuits much loftier than those we achieve here—their fascination with my lilies seems entirely sincere, approaching envious.  Carrie, the girl in the next slot over, is convinced that I have this whole exotic alternate existence when I leave this room.  She seems genuinely annoyed that I've been holding out on her about my wildly romantic lifestyle.  If only.  

The card reveals nothing.  But it certainly has my undivided attention.  It says only, "have dinner with me."  With who, for God's sake?  The anticipation of things to come is driving me nuts, yet unexpectedly also making my day.  I can't seem to concentrate—not that I have to engage a myriad of brain cells to accomplish the mundane tasks this job pays me for.  I'll never sleep tonight.  It seems awfully trite and archetypal, yet I can't help but smile as I think it:  I have a secret admirer!

Okay, I have now run the gamut of emotions.  From euphoric all the way down to just essentially annoyed, in the time span of only twenty-four hours.  I saw this one-man show a few months back, very funny hour long monologue, and to  paraphrase one of his basic male mindsets: When a woman says she'll call, she means when she gets home.  When a guy says he'll call, he means before he dies.  So when am I to expect this mysterious stranger?  The suspense was fun—for about an hour and a half.  Now I want the fulfillment of promises made.  Is that so unreasonable?  Well, I've been waiting my whole life for this.  I guess another day or two won't kill me.  But whoever this guy is, why doesn't he identify himself?  Men are cowards.  No exceptions.  It may be a gross overgeneralization, but until someone shows me an example to contradict this basic supposition, I'm sticking by it.  Chiseled in stone a la the Ten Commandments.  Cowards all.  

Dammit, this is crazy!  I'm a reasonably stable individual.  Not one of these goofy giggling girls who act as if life is merely an extension of junior high.  I don't fall for this stuff.  I haven't gotten all gooey since that ever-so-brief college aberration in which I temporarily lost my mind and was buried in my own hormones.  When I finally meet this guy, I'm gonna smack him upside the head.  We'll see where it goes from there.  Probably won't reflect so well on me, but sometimes gut instinct is the only way to go.  




Chapter 13:  Josh

"Life seems to be a never-ending series of survivals, doesn't it?"
--Carroll Baker


I'm such a coward.  The ersatz cool and collected mysterious stranger—what a crock.  I got as far as sending the flowers (very brave, that—standing up to the teenager manning the FTD phone lines), and then entirely wimped out.  What in God's name do I say to this girl? This is not my game.  I have no clue what the rules are.  Who are we kidding?  I'm writing the book on this one.  I think the proper analogy is that of getting into a cold ocean:  you can do it the painful way, one toe at a time, or you can throw caution to the waves and hit the water at a dead sprint, hurling yourself headlong into the first breaker you can find.  And hope it doesn't suck you under.  Quite the optimist, Josh.  Why don't we throw in some piranha, just for good measure.  The only way to do this is to show up.  I'll most likely embarrass her, I'll most assuredly make an ass of myself, but chances are that even profound humiliation won't prove fatal to either of us.  The cats will take me back, one way or the other.  Very reassuring.  This is me going.  Once more into the breach.  Never say die.  Isn't this supposed to be the fun part?  All I can feel is the cold sweat creeping down my back.  I have nothing to fear but fear itself.  Here goes nothing.  What the hell.

As I stand in the elevator feeling like an inmate on his way to the chair, trying to pretend I have my act together, I ruminate once more on why we humans put ourselves through these contortions.  I recall as a kid, playing 'family' with my best friends on the block.  Mom, dad, two kids, a dog (everyone fighting over who got to be the dog)—we all just assumed that was what it meant to be a grownup.  Watching the polls in the USA Today, you'd think the fundamental demographics had changed—with all the divorce and gay marriage and overseas adoption and genetic engineering and working moms and, well, everything, yet it still seems that all those folks I grew up with still managed to  capture the expected familial scenario.  Except me.  There must be others out there who aren't fitting the mold.  There must be some small chance that Kayle (I love saying her name in my head…Kayle…) is one of them.  That's what I told myself, mantra-like, throughout my sleepless night last night, working up to this moment.As the elevator doors slide open and my travelling companions file out without once having made eye contact with anyone inside this three-by-four box for our sixty-eight floor journey, my heart stops.  Everyone's looking at me.  Of course it's not true, but it sure as hell feels true.  There are moments in life when time really does stop.  I'm trying to reassure myself that I've done this before.  Another me in another dimension perhaps, but it must be in me to face this situation, because I have.  It's just not recorded in these particular brain cells.  It's not helping.

All work in the office has come to a dead halt.  I've always hated being the center of attention, and this is no exception.  This may be the hardest thing I have ever done.  Suddenly the hermetic life doesn't seem so bad.  But weeks of agonizing and mental acrobatics have dragged me here, and only by pressing on can I get past this endless moment.  The crux of my life.  I can almost feel my alternate personas cheering me on through the intangible boundaries separating my reality from theirs.  

I have rehearsed endless permutations of how to begin this conversation, from esoteric ramblings on the time-space continuum to diatribes about my collegiate obtuseness.  There's no doubt which cubicle is hers—the lilies, a little brown around the edges, sit there taunting me.  All my Clint Eastwood cliches have fled.  It's just me and her, for whatever it's worth, which may be everything.  Another crossroads reached.  Even if I fail here, is it not possible that I may succeed in varying degrees in parallel universes from here ad infinitum?  For some bizarre reason, all I can think about is Plato and his Cave.  Some dim college reminiscence of the Ideal Self and nothing in this version of life really being reality, anyway.  Which brings me back to that day at the fountain, the heretofore most memorable moment of my eminently forgettable existence.  Our eyes meet.  She's thinking of it, too.  At least I hope to God that's what I'm seeing in her face.

"I don't know if you would remember me…,"  I stumble.

"Hi."

Silence.  Most people can't handle silence.  As I've said, it's a specialty of mine.  I figure the least I can do is give her a moment to determine whether I'm criminally insane or not.  I don't think I look like a stalker, but this is the new millenium.  Who can tell?

"You're the guy who sent the flowers."

"Yes."

"The guy from the fountain."

She does remember.  Not my overwrought imagination after all.

"Yes."

"Talk much?"  A tiny smile slips through the cracks in her defenses.  She's trying not to be amused, but my discomfiture must be pretty damn


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