Talking to Myself
‘In the next lifetime, please find me sooner.’
Her words, steamy and loaded with promise, burrowed into my brain, insidious as they nestled within each and every thought I would have for some time to come. Later, I would find myself in line at the grocery store, or perhaps caught at an unusually long red light, and the words — or rather, the sentiment behind them — would come rushing back, consuming me, devouring me. The words weren’t finished with their complete and utter destruction of my being, however; oh, no, they had something far more sinister in mind. Past my brain, past the lump in my throat, even past my fluttering heart beat, which was currently racing from a brutal combination of danger and desire, all the way to the pit of my stomach, where the words morphed into an anchor.
I pulled away from Stephanie, her words still warm in my ear as I brushed her strawberry blond bangs, notorious for masking her gaze, to one side. Our eyes locked, and in that moment I thought that nothing could go back to the way it was before. What Stephanie and I had shared to this point had been carnal, sure, but that cheapens it. More than anything, our relationship had been fun, which is a ridiculously trite word when you consider it. Fun. Like a child’s birthday party or a trip to an amusement park, delightful, even magical at times, but never heavy. We kept the real world at arm’s length, denying the heft of emotion, denying the consequences of what might be dismissively described as our budding romance. We had kept things fun over the past three months and that had been enough for me.
‘I love you, too,’ I admitted. ‘I will find you sooner next time, I promise, I really do. We would have been — ‘
‘We would have made a great couple,’ she finished my proclamation, no smile on her face. She reached up, grasping at my hand which was still stroking her locks, and pressed my palm against her cheek. Eyes closed, she relished that moment, and I struggled to speak.
‘What if we gave it a shot? I mean, you’re right; we’re pretty damned great together. I think we could make it work.’
‘Paul,’ she began, hesitating briefly. ‘What about your wife?’
And there it was: the elephant in the room, the shadow lurking behind every dinner date, the Sword of Damocles over our lovers’ bed. I’m a married man, which I know full well makes me a shitty person. I remember my father cheating on my mother when I was little, the strife that it caused my family, and I vowed to never be that guy. That guy is a monster. I don’t think anyone ever truly wants to be a cheater. How could they? Who could intentionally want to cause that kind of pain to another person, ostensibly someone they once cared for?
Yet, here I am. holding my mistress in my arms, caressing her face, deciding whether to leave my wife for her.
‘Actually,’ she continued, not allowing me to answer. ‘No hasty decisions. I couldn’t… I couldn’t bear to have you break someone else’s heart on my account without you first being one hundred percent, absolutely sure. No bullshit, Paul. I don’t want you to say you love me, and then crawl back to her. I need you to think on it, really think on it, and as soon as you’ve come to a decision, call me. Let me know. One way or the other, we have to figure this out tonight.’
It was probably unfair that she immediately followed that line with a kiss, delicate and sweet, Stephanie-sweet. The kiss lingered and upon its completion, without another word, I exited her apartment.
If this were a movie, you would have next seen me walking across a bridge, a slight breeze forcing me to withdraw into my jacket. I would have stopped at the crest of the bridge as a wistful adult contemporary song rose to a crescendo, matching my inner turmoil. Reality was much less dramatic; Stephanie lived in a gated apartment complex, one of those tiny maze-like structures where the building numbers don’t always flow in numerical order. Instead of heading directly to my car, I walked the small path past building 7, took a turn near building 3, and ended up at the community pool for the complex. It wasn’t a bridge overlooking a tranquil stream, but it would have to do.
I found myself laying in a sun-worn and slightly mildewing chaise lounge the color of split pea soup, hands arched over my eyes as I weighed my options. Emma, my loving wife of five years, or Stephanie, my gorgeous mistress?
In my mind’s eye, I saw both of them standing before me, almost as though I was a judge on a terrible reality show. Emma in her wedding gown, the one she made me store at my mother’s house when we ran out of room in our closet. I argued that we didn’t need to keep the dress, that we could possibly sell it online for a few bucks, maybe put it towards a vacation fund. Practical Paul was never a match for Sentimental Emma, and the dress remains to this day.
Stephanie was an equal sight to behold, a vision of casual beauty in a simple black tank top, fitted jeans, and stylish black boots. It was the same purposefully nonchalant outfit she was wearing when I first ran into her at our monthly writer’s group meeting. Ironically enough, it was Emma that had suggested I join the group; she had noticed that I was in a rut, and figured an hour one Thursday evening a month would be good for me. It was. Stephanie challenged my thoughts and my views, never putting up with my bullshit, and — I’m a bit embarrassed to say — she was a helluva lay, too.
Which girl gets the rose? Which girl gets the boot?
Before I could decide, something peculiar happened. The air around me felt electric, as though I was holding a live wire. Or, rather, how I imagine it would feel to hold a live wire; I’m not much of a handyman, and have had little exposure to electrocution in my days. Bad analogy aside, the tingling sensation around me made the hairs on my arms stand on end, an irritating buzzing noise raising in pitch and intensity all around me. I sat up swiftly, unable to determine the source of the buzzing or the possibly-like-a-live-wire sensation. Then, a loud cracking noise echoed, and everything stopped as suddenly as it had begun.
Only, now, there was a man standing in front of me.
He was wearing a crisp blue polo shirt tucked into a pair of neatly pressed khaki-colored slacks. Short cropped black hair topped his head, his hairline making a tentative retreat from the forehead it had obviously cherished in his youth. I had seen this man before.
He was me.
‘Stop!’ My doppelgänger came rushing over to me, hand extended, as I sprang to my feet. ‘You’re about to make a terrible mistake!’
Mouth agape, I could only stare at my clone. He was a near identical match to me. Trust me; I would know my face anywhere. Sure, the clothes were different, but otherwise? This man was me.
‘Who the fuck are you?’ I eloquently asked.
‘I don’t have time to explain,’ he countered. ‘Or, I mean, it’s not that I don’t have time. It’s more that it is confusing.’
‘Listen, Paul,’ he continued. ‘I’m you from the future. Two years in the future, to be exact. I came to make sure that in this moment, this pivotal moment, you choose Emma. Your happiness — and mine — depends on it.’
I swept the area with my eyes, and after I was certain a hidden camera crew wasn’t going to come bursting out of the bushes, surprising me with an appearance on a prank television show, I turned my attention back towards myself. Or, my other me. If this is confusing for you, you can only imagine how I felt.
‘So, you’re me. From the future. And you’re positive this isn’t a hoax?’ I knew it wasn’t. Nobody knew about Stephanie and me except for, well, Stephanie and me.
‘Of course it isn’t, why would I prank myself, dumb-ass?’
‘Hey!’ I exclaimed, surprised to find that future-me is apparently a bit of a dick.
‘Sorry,’ he quickly added, shoving his hands into his pockets. ‘I know this is a lot to take in. Just… bear with me, okay? I come from a future where you chose Emma. We said goodbye to Stephanie on this very night, never looking back, and continued a life with Emma. And it is a good life, you should know that. I’m happy; I know you’re out of work right now, but I found a job, not long after tonight, actually. I’m — we’re — sorry, the pronouns are confusing me.’
‘Me too,’ I agreed. ‘Let’s use ‘we,’ since it sounds like we’re in this together.’
‘Good call.’ Second Paul sat down on an adjacent chaise lounge, resting his hands on his knees. ‘We’re working for an insurance company. Well, we’re working customer service for an insurance company, not actually making sales — okay, we work in a call center. But it’s good, it’s really good. We have evenings off, plenty of time to spend with Emma and…’
He paused, a smile playing on his lips. My guts tightened. I knew what was going to come next.
‘To spend with Emma and Java, our chocolate lab puppy!’ Second Paul made a silly noise that resembled a ‘squee’ as he fished his wallet out of his pocket. ‘See?’
Tiny photos of me and Emma holding an admittedly adorable puppy were thrust in my face, one after the other. Here was a picture of us at a picnic, me holding Java as he nipped at my nose. Next was a photo of Emma laying on the couch, Java sleeping on her chest. I had been bracing for news of some future child, a mini-Paul to carry on my legacy and my genes. Emma and I had broached the topic before, always deciding that ‘next month we’ll be ready.’ Next month always came and always went.
‘Yeah, Java is, um, really adorable.’ It was then that a thought occurred to me. ‘Hey, so, when you first appeared, you mentioned something about making a terrible mistake. But you also mentioned that I end up choosing Emma tonight, and that Emma makes us happy. What gives?’
Second Paul cast his eyes around the area quickly. ‘Oh, that. I was afraid that I was too late, that he had already arrived.’
‘Who is — ‘ I was cut off mid-question by the return of that electric air current, the incessant buzzing, the loud crack. Standing opposite us was a third Paul, this one wearing a faded orange t-shirt and a worn pair of blue jeans.
‘Stop!’ The third Paul came rushing over to me, hand extended, much as the second Paul had before. ‘You’re about to make a terrible — oh. Am I too late?’
‘Whatever you do, don’t listen to Paul, Paul’ the second Paul pleaded with me.
‘Wait!’ I was getting frustrated. ‘Why are there two of you?’
‘Really,’ Third Paul answered. ‘There are three of us now, not two. Don’t forget about yourself.’
‘I never noticed how obnoxious it is when I correct people,’ mumbled Second Paul.
‘Stop!’ I raised my voice again, louder than before. With one finger, I gestured back towards the chaise lounges. ‘Both of you, sit!’
To their credit, both of the Pauls listened to me and sat down. Second Paul looked perturbed, Third Paul still out of breath from the excitement of his arrival.
‘I think I have this figured out, but just to be sure.’ I pointed towards Second Paul. ‘If he’s from the future where I choose Emma, then you…’ I turned my finger towards Third Paul. ‘You must be from the future where I choose Stephanie, right?’
‘Totally, you’ve got that right, Paul,’ Third Paul continued. ‘I’m you from the future. Two years in the future, to be exact. I came to make sure that in this moment, this pivotal moment, you choose Stephanie.’
‘Right, I get it,’ I interrupted. ‘Your happiness — and mine — depends on it, yada, yada. We already covered that part. We also decided we’re going to use ‘we’ as the collective pronoun, just to bring you up to speed. ’
‘Makes sense,’ Third Paul agreed. ‘But seriously, you need to listen to me. Stephanie is the best thing that ever happened to we — us, sorry, to us. Tonight is the night you call your wife and you let her know that we are leaving her. And, I’m sorry to say, it is going to be hard. Really fucking hard. She’s going to cry, we’re going to cry. Lots of crying. And it is going to wreck us, it really is. But Stephanie… she’s awesome, Paul. She stands by us through the divorce, giving us space when we need it, provides a shoulder to lean on when the whole thing gets too exhausting. Stephanie is the love of our life, man. She challenges us to pursue our writing, and within two years, you’ve got a freelance gig for an online publication. The hours suck, the pay is sporadic, but it makes me… it makes us… it will make you incredibly happy. Please, Paul, please choose Stephanie.’
Third Paul’s case had been compelling. I found a seat myself, resting my elbow on a knee, my forehead buried in my palm as I stared at the ground. Once again to their credit, the Pauls allowed me the moment to collect my thoughts, to gather my bearings. It’s nice to have a conversation with people who know you as well as you know yourself.
‘Paul,’ Second Paul slowly began after a few silent moments had passed. ‘I know the idea of Stephanie is compelling. She’s cool, I know. I was sitting exactly where you were once. But she’s also a distraction. We already have something amazing with Emma, something that we’ve built over several years. Remember the time we had the flu for like, two weeks? We were laid up in bed, drifting in and out of consciousness, unseemly fluids coming out of — ‘
‘I remember it,’ I interject. ‘I remember Emma took time off of work to tend to me while I was sick. She remembered stories I told her about how my mother would buy me a toy surprise when I wasn’t feeling well as a child, and of course, Emma sets an Optimus Prime Transformer on my tray next to my soup. Sentimental Emma. She’s pretty good like that.’
‘Emma is amazing, yes,’ Third Paul said. ‘But so is Stephanie. In the next lifetime, please find me sooner. That line, man, that fucking line. Stephanie knows us so well, so intimately, that she can drop the perfect line into our psyche, that perfect line to set our heart ablaze.’
‘That fucking line,’ Second Paul and I said in unison.
‘I think the important thing,’ Third Paul continued. ‘Is that you listen to your heart. Think about it: in the next lifetime, find her sooner? Why wait for the next lifetime? You can have her right now, and I promise you, it will be amazing. The two of you will connect on a deeper level than you and Emma ever did. Please, Paul. Just think about it.’
And I did. I thought about it for a long time, my face buried in my hands, eyes closed. I know that I am an asshole for putting myself in this situation. You can’t be the man stuck between two women without bearing the bulk of the burden. In the movies, these types of decisions are much more black-and-white, the outcome obvious from the first line of dialogue. If Emma was a raving shrew, the audience would cheer as I escaped into Stephanie’s waiting arms. If, on the other hand, Stephanie was a money-grubbing seductress, the curtain would fall on me returning to Emma’s embrace, lesson learned, our relationship stronger than ever.
Emma isn’t a shrew. Stephanie isn’t a seductress. Real life doesn’t work out that neatly most of the time. I had put myself in this position, caught between the affections of two genuinely good-hearted women, women whom I loved deeply.
‘I don’t know if I can do this…’ I finally said aloud, opening my eyes.
The Pauls were gone. Or, rather, they were never there to begin with. I think. It is possible they snuck off into the bushes or ducked behind an industrial-sized trash can while I had my eyes closed. For all I know, they boarded a jet for Vegas, where they currently run a stage show five nights a week, try the veal, tip your wait staff, that sort of thing. More likely, though, the whole thing was just a way for me to talk to the person who I needed advice from the most: myself.
I wish I could talk to a future version of myself, to assure me that the difficult decisions I make will turn out just fine, to eliminate the risk and accentuate the rewards. Real life doesn’t work that way, either.
I stood slowly, pulling my cell phone from my pocket. To choose Emma would be to choose familiarity, warmth, consistency. What I had with Emma was an established life, one that was tried and true. Choosing Emma, dear Sentimental Emma, would be choosing stability. Stephanie, on the other hand, represented possibility and excitement. If I left my wife for her, perhaps we would flame out in a month. Or, perhaps, the spark we shared would ignite into an blaze, inspirational, challenging, and rewarding. Choosing Stephanie would be stepping into the darkness, towards uncertainty.
To call Emma, to confess my sins, and to renew my pledge to her? Or to call Stephanie and let her know that I had chosen her, that we could finally be together?
I can’t say how long it took me to make up my mind. It felt like I was beside that community pool, surrounded by the overwhelming scent of chlorine, for hours. It might have been only minutes. But, after making my decision, I dialed her number with steely determination.
‘Hello?’ She said.
And in that moment, I knew I had made the right decision.
Author’s Note: Thank you for sticking with me through the first short story that I’ve completed in years. I hope you enjoyed it; I enjoyed writing it. I’ve been reading a lot of Gillian Flynn lately, and have been impressed by her ability to write about characters who live in the grey space between the black-and-white, characters defined by moral ambiguity. I think that inspired this story, or at least, the subject. My next story will have less romantic melodrama, I promise. How about a story set in space?