What my brain tumor taught me about dating and anxiety in an infinite multiverse
The simplest way to get to another universe is to boil spacetime. They used to think you’d need a particle accelerator ten light years long to do that, but then a team in Japan did it with the ILC, and then Israel did it with Sesame. Now it barely makes the news. I heard about a kid in India who did it in her backyard for extra credit.
Want to travel in style? Crank the heat. Boil away the spacetime and then just keep going. Get everything so hot that the laws of the universe turn soft and malleable, ooze together. Boil the math. Then you can start from scratch, with everything you need to build sleek, controllable doorways that make travelling to another plane with a supercollider look like rubbing sticks together.
But there’s another way, right here in your melon.
Everyone figures it out their own way, I guess. I once met a guy who said he wrote an equation proving that it was impossible to leave our universe. The next morning he woke up and wrote an equation proving it wasn’t. So what’s the difference, he said. He just slips past them as they argue.
My girlfriend-at-the-time could do it pretty well, too. Always said she could never figure out the math to leave, so she just figured out the math to stay and then worked backwards from there.
I figured it out at work. I was a programmer. I had a job coding for one of those hyper-real, all-senses, truly physics-based games. I also had a brain tumour. After two years of fourteen-hour days, I just couldn’t see our world any way but inside-out. Guts first. Rule-clusters dangling from the undercarriage. So I got drunk at the launch party, spotted a seam in reality, stuck my head through, and found myself in The Golden Jungle. That’s where we met, actually. She was photographing the local meta-flora, I was throwing up in it. What can I say? When you know, you know.
Within three months we were living together, splitting rent on an ugly 400-square-foot basement suite. It didn’t matter to us, we were hardly ever there. We were hardly ever here, is what I mean. We were in Prismatia, The Void Shores, Empyrean, and of course, The Golden Jungle. She’d bring her camera, and I’d lead us through the multiverse. I was better at that part than she was. I was better at that part than anyone. We knew a couple other people who could make it to Empyrean or, like, Vastiche for an hour or so, or maybe The Jungle for a few minutes. But we didn’t know anyone else who’d seen The Void Shores, and I could keep us from peeling back for days, even while I slept. Our first night together was under a planar eclipse on The Wanda Curve. We even thought we could get to Quallahia one day, despite the risks.
I don’t know, I could just see everything so clearly. As if I was standing on a chair, peeking over the top of our dimension. I could see inside objects and through walls like I was looking down at the blueprints, see time like it was an object in my hands. I could picture large numbers perfectly, could see the math, the symmetry in everything.
All this made the multiverse so easy, but it also made a lot of things here harder. Like chores. I could bring my girlfriend to Operaeblum like we were walking down to the corner store, but tying my shoes seemed impossible, like moving a star. I’m serious. Every morning I would wake up and know I had to move those goddamn stars. Bunny goes around the hole and all that. I thought folding a t-shirt was tough before. How the hell does anyone line those edges up? She would tease me like crazy about it. Yank the shirt from my hands and send me into the kitchen to wash dishes. I really liked washing dishes. The sink of hot water was a kind of gorgeous complexity, a puzzle I couldn’t solve. I’d stare down at the suds while my hands felt along the bottom of heaven for warm spoons.
People? People were boring. Especially at parties. Ugly, repetitive blocks of code, caught in a command loop, talking about their bosses, getting drunk and touching me without washing their fucking hands. I’d be lucky if I’d last twenty minutes before grabbing my girlfriend, hiding away from the crowd, and bringing us into another world. People probably thought we were having sex in the bathroom, but were actually in Desnine, having sex on the back of a giant turtle. Or, you know, whatever.
I don’t know how long it was before I realized things were getting worse with me, but I remember the morning that I couldn’t move the stars anymore. Remember just looking at my hands holding the laces, a thousand equations spiralling out in front of me, changing as I tried to focus on them. I don’t know how long I had been kneeling there, but I remember looking up when I heard my girlfriend crying. I don’t how long she had been crying. She tied my shoes and took me to the doctor.
So I had a physical. Filled out a questionnaire, and circled a lot of fives on it. My girlfriend explained my symptoms to the GP, the specialist, the MRI technician. She held my hand as we stared at the monitor, at the blackish area in the middle of my skull. The blackish area that had made me like this, that had opened up the multiverse to me, that had brought me to The Golden Jungle that night at the launch party, that had brought us together. The blackish area they wanted to cut out of my melon.
We decided no. Well, I decided no. Yelled at the doctor, stormed out and left my girlfriend to apologize for me. I don’t know. The thought of never going back, of being stuck here, with nothing but the chores and our crummy apartment and the boring people at the parties? It was hell. And hell isn’t so figurative to someone who’s seen The Waking Pits or the Plane of Fire.
We bussed home and she didn’t say a thing. She cried again that night, but the next morning she went to the mall and bought me a pair of slip-on sneakers. She told me she trusted my decision. I told her I was sorry. She told me to promise I would be careful. I promised. We went to The Void Shores and I watched her swim.
So we were careful. I didn’t drive anymore, didn’t use the stove, stopped drinking coffee and tried to get more exercise. As problems came, we’d find solutions. Snaps instead of buttons, elastic waist pants, an electric razor. And no matter how hard things here became, out there I was free. And I was out there almost all the time, even when she wasn’t. Sometimes she’d get tired and want to work on something at the apartment, so I would just stay a little longer. An hour or two, or maybe an afternoon while she edited her photos. And some nights I couldn’t sleep, so I’d peel back and poke around by a demiplane or two. It was either that or just lie there, right?
Then one night she put a tie around my neck, put real shoes on my feet and dragged me out to a bar where she and some other photographers were showing some of their work. I stood by the wall, trying not to touch anything, trying to hum quietly enough for no one to ask me about it, but loud enough to drown out the sound of these morons talking. Gushing over photos of places I went every day, impressing each other with garbage insights and facts they had learned from some podcast, or just made up on the spot and didn’t even realize it. I only lasted about five minutes. I pulled my girlfriend away from a group of people talking to her, brought her into the bathroom, and tried to convince her to go to Quallahia right there. She said no, said this was important. I said it was stupid. She left. I went to Quallahia by myself, lost control, and got lost in the planar basement of nowhere.
When I found my way back, it had been over a month, and she had moved out. Taken a magazine job out of town. When I called her she yelled and swore and broke down crying. She had thought I was dead. I felt like I was.
She told me I needed to get better. But I just got worse. A sink of hot water was chaos. A puzzle I couldn’t solve. I’d stare down at the dirty water. I couldn’t even put my hands in. Dishes piled up.
I hated the apartment, but I couldn’t even step outside anymore. I didn’t even like going to The Golden Jungle anymore. Or The Wandering Skies. I liked going to Exemplum, a completely uniform universe. I’d go for hours and float in the quiet, trying not to look down at the chaos of my own body. When I couldn’t stay any longer, and was peeled back, I’d just lie in bed. I had moved it into the centre of the room so I could look at the corner perfectly. I would stare at that corner and just try to find something stable inside me.
One day she called. She was in town. Wanted to visit me, see how I was doing. I knew I couldn’t let her see the apartment, and I was so eager to convince her I was fine that I actually agreed to go with her to the beach. Can you believe I had never seen any of our oceans before? On the drive I did everything I could to relax, and found just being near her helped. When the chaos crowded my vision I would focus on the spot of sun moving across her arm, catching free strands of hair on fire.
We went in the water, swam out and floated there, talking for over an hour about her new job, old times, and finally, me. I tried not to lie, but I didn’t tell the truth. I don’t think I knew what it was. She could tell. My reality like a blueprint, our future like an object in her hands. She became very quiet, and I noticed. I desperately filled the silence with more assurances, promises, more bullshit nostalgic rekindlings. My mind raced to find the words. I talked faster and faster, the chaos rushing all around me, panic reducing my dog paddles to flailing. I lost control, and went under.
I tried to grab onto her, tried to reach for her distorted image, slashed to ribbons by the twisting surface of water, but couldn’t move my arm up, didn’t even know what up was anymore. Length and width and depth dissolved completely, replaced by a single infinite dimension of cold, malevolent ocean. It was all there was. I could feel the miles of water around me, beneath me, sucking me down towards its dark centre. I saw all the spider crabs and giant squid and terrible ancient horrors it contained, and I counted them, scooped them together in my mind and piled them all up into a swarming, sprouting mountain of spines and tentacles. My foot touched something smooth and hard and my mouth opened to scream but instead was invaded by green water teeming with billions of microscopic animals, beaded and jewelled with hooks and flagella, tubular mouths lined with translucent teeth and wide-open eyes like God’s.
So, they call it Firming. Like, Cognitive Firming, I guess. After the surgery, once the blackish-grey was all out, they sent me for about twenty sessions at this treatment centre. It looked like the kind of place you would get laser hair removal or acupuncture or something. Lots of plants. A Buddha head. Fountain sounds coming from a hidden speaker. You know. Basically they would make me play with coloured blocks and push oversized buttons through oversized button holes. Kindergarten for burnouts. What better place to learn how to tie your shoes, right?
Things worked out with me and my girlfriend-at-the-time. We actually got married. What can I say? When you know, you know. The wedding was here, but it did have a Golden-Jungle theme. We went to Maui for our honeymoon and I swam in the ocean without dying or anything.
We moved closer to her job at the magazine. I do freelance coding stuff from home. People always ask me if I go crazy being trapped inside the apartment all day, but I don’t feel trapped at all. My wife teases me about it, calls me her house-husband, thinks it’s weird that I like doing the dishes. But I do. I could stand there with my hands in warm water for hours, staring down at the suds, the gorgeous simplicity. But when I feel along the bottom, all I find is a drain.
This story was originally published in 2016 at Aescifi.ca under the title “To Move Those Goddamn Stars.”