I was visiting a friend in St. Louis for the weekend. The bus left Chicago early enough to avoid the rush of humanity escaping on Friday.
Always a reader on longish trips, and having fallen into a science fiction phase, I gorged on Clarke’s tails of monoliths until I fell asleep, miraculously, in those in those straight chairs with plastic armrests. I didn’t come to until we abruptly stopped on the corners of Seedy and Seedier.
Thank God for phones and the Internet. No doubt Clarke was only a few years off, and we’d be planet hopping in no time. No cabs waited in the industrial park/bus station, so I set off walking, inspiring nostalgia and intrigue.
Nostalgia for the uneasy familiarity of home. Intrigue for the job I’d turned down from a small firm a few years back. I turned the job down for a handful of reasons, the biggest being the lure of Chicago with its promise of everything. It’d all been too much to ignore. St. Louis was a dying city, after all. Everybody knew that.
Broadway was immediately recognizable and alien. Boarded windows and shackled doors were a common site. The arch dazzled in the distance, but seemed small compared my adopted town’s skyscrapers. If this had once been the crossroads of America, it was now an industrial bus station, a weigh point of what might have been.
My potential firm was a block away when a group of people leaving the building caught my attention — one in particular. He stopped to tie a shoelace, giving me time to catch up. My skipping-walk alarmed him. He jolted up, hands raised, ready to block or strike. That’s when I saw his face and knew.
He was me.
Or some version of myself. How it was possible, I don’t know. I thought of my black holes and other dimensions. Had I stumbled across one during the course of a five-hour bus ride? Where had the leap been made? Outside of Springfield? Crossing the Mississippi?
Who was I kidding? I got a C in algebra and wasn’t about to discover the metaphysics of the universe now. I ruled out hallucinations, having never been a drug person or shown any hints of schizophrenia. The only sensible thing was rolling with it. The Other Version, OV for short I decided, seemed to agree.
He unzipped his coat for final proof. We wore the same green sweater I’d bought three years ago. I couldn’t help but notice that he wore it better. His version wasn’t so worn out. It looked ironed with no gut.
But, of course, he did. OV could probably afford a dry cleaners and a gym down here. Living expenses in St. Louis were far less. OV’s rent was probably half mine.
“Hello,” he said.
“This is odd.”
“That’s life,” I said to this intimate stranger.
OV’s work friends had scurried off. Now, it was just the two of us, going quite unnoticed. Just a couple old friends. If anyone really took a close look, they’d assume we were striking twins.
“Should we get drinks?” OV suggested.
My friend could wait. This detour into unknown, parallel universes could not be missed. We took off down the sidewalk as if it were the most natural thing in the world.
“So you took the job,” I said.
“I do. We just had a major deal go through. I should be getting a big bonus.”
“You get bonuses for deals?”
“Of course,” he said, amused. “How would you keep people motivated otherwise? How ‘bout here?”
He held out his hand to an average bar. It might have been any bar, anywhere. I nodded, not mentioning my lack of bonuses. A gum-chewing waitress didn’t give us a second look as she seated us, dropping our menus like rocks.
We both ordered the same beer without looking.
“Of course,” OV said, laughing. “So what do you do?”
I knew if I was truly talking to myself, diverged off at some point of time roughly three years ago, then I had all the advantages. I was the one who left. I could’ve said anything, given myself any job, awarded any salary.
But I stuck to the facts.
“I work for a similar firm. Similar pay. Similar work.”
“Of course,” OV said again.
Now, his revelations were beginning to get on my nerves. Did he need to vocalize his surprise that we shared similar lives? Even his mannerisms, like the way he touched his face stood out as annoying.
Do I do that?
If I did, I would stop tomorrow. Sooner if I could.
“Are you seeing anyone?” he asked.
Ah, now I had him. It’d been hard leaving Lauren for a weekend. I thought of her lying in bed, watching her dumb TV shows without me there to show her something better…
I pulled up a picture on my phone.
“This is Lauren.”
“She’s beautiful,” OV said. I smiled, even if I didn’t quite agree. He passed his phone to me. He had the 6.
I quickly hid my old 4S.
Kelly was beautiful. One of those sparkling blondes I always had a hard time talking to. Even in the little picture her face that broke through the boundaries of cold silicon, and her body made that easy to miss.
“She looks great,” I said like a bullshitting politician.
“She is. We went camping last weekend along the Missouri River. Made love on this cliff. Saw the whole Milky Way. Remember how we always wanted to do that?”
“I do,” I said, tipping beer into my mouth without picking the glass off the table. “You did it.”
“Do you get out much? Camping and things?”
“No, I don’t drive in the city. Parking is too damn expensive. I actually, uh… sold our car.”
OV’s eyes widened, horrified for a moment, but he recovered with a stupid grin.
Do I grin like that?
“I have good news for you,” OV said. “Look out the window.”
I already knew what I’d see, so I took a long sip of beer before turning. I felt drunk when I saw the 2005 bright red Monte Carlo I bought for my sixteenth birthday (and sold the week before) parked on the street just outside the bar.
“Gas is cheaper down here,” I said. “And parking must be… ”
“25 a month.”
“That’s theft! No wonder. Makes sense. I’m seeing a pattern. What else is there? Hmm… Do you see Mom and Dad much?”
“Yeah, get out there every Sunday. Big family meal with Grandma. What about you?”
“I try to call every other week. Visited last Christmas. Got Grandma a sweater.”
The waitress came asking if we’d like another. I declined, saying I’d go soon. OV agreed. We waited for the check in silence. Watching OV rub his face, I realized I was doing the same. I stopped, jabbing my hands into my pockets.
“You know…,” OV started to say.
I cut him off.
“Don’t. Just don’t. I’m really not interested. I…”
“You make me extremely envious.”
I scoffed, trying to choke back throat-clenching tears. I didn’t want his pity, but him being me, I could tell he was serious. He even said so.
“I’m serious. I always wanted to do what you did. Leave! See new places. Meet new people. Have the sorts of adventures we dreamed up all our lives. I can’t even imagine what it’s been like.”
I took a deep breath.
“It’s been ok. Lot’s of people. Lot’s of adventures.”
I noticed something coming out of OV’s bag. The corner of a book poked out of the flap. It looked very familiar.
“What’s that book?” I said.
“2001 A Space Odyssey by Arthur C. Clarke. I’ve been in a science fiction phase.”
“Have you finished it?”
“I thought the ending was very strange… until this afternoon. I’m afraid drinking with myself will haunt us for the rest of our lives.”
“Well, do me a favor. Never come to Chicago, and I’ll never come back here.”
“But then we’ll never know more about our other selves.”
OV agreed. As we left, OV held the door open. I wasn’t sure I would’ve done the same for myself. Goodbyes were always awkward. This was no exception. I managed a, “Welp,” and a shrug.
We turned our backs on ourselves. I went straight to the bus station, going over the story in my head, my pronouns feeling confused. I called my friend from the bus, making up an emergency at work. He understood.
For a long while I sat very still, just staring out the window. Tired of staring, I remembered my book, the bookmark sticking out of the middle. I began reading as a soft rain rapped against the windows.
I didn’t stop until I was done.