The woman sitting opposite me on the subway was reading a book – Tangential
Relationships of Parallel Universes. The title unnerved me. Not only was I not sure what ‘tangential’ meant but I had never spent any time contemplating parallel universes. In the pedestrian world of the underground transit system – where the Harlequins and Barbara Cartlands ruled – it seemed distinctly uncommon.
Beset with curiousity, I sidled into the empty seat next to her and surreptitiously glanced at the book. What I saw were two circles that intersected in the middle, much like the kind of stuff I once disdained in Grade 9 geometry.
The woman smiled. Interested in parallel universes? she asked.
No, just circles, I blurted.
Embarrassed by my answer, I exited at the next subway station and waited for another train car in order to resume my journey.
That night, as had been my habit of late, I woke at the most ungodly hour of 3 am and made my way to the washroom. Weak bladder. This time though, I was infused with a sense of dread. Why that should have been I did not know. I mean, my life was pretty good. I had a stable, decent-paying job as an insurance underwriter and was married to a caring, wonderful woman with whom I had two terrific kids. Just to ensure that all was copasetic, I detoured from the washroom and peeked into my son’s room. Then my daughter’s. They were both fast asleep.
I returned to the washroom and breathed deeply as urine splashed into the toilet bowl.
Once again, I was filled with that same sense of dread.
As the last drips of urine fell languidly, for some inexplicable reason I suddenly had visions of a childhood memory. When I was a kid, I liked to play at murder mysteries, ‘whodunits.’ Now I saw myself with a Sherlock Holmes cap on and a tartan cape wrapped around my small shoulders, standing before my battalion of childhood friends – I was trying to unravel a murder. There were many suspects to choose from and a multitude of clues from which to draw a conclusion. Everyone had fake blood on their hands, everyone wore a sneer that suggested that they were infinitely smarter than me and would get away with the crime. But it didn’t matter; I knew that as Holmes I would always get my man. It was all about options and they were many and wonderful.
Why those childhood images suddenly bubbled into my mind I could not say. But while they perhaps should have assuaged my anxiety – since in fact it was a joyful time – they didn’t. They did the exact opposite and made me more agitated. I returned to bed and lay next to my wife but did not sleep for the rest of the night.
In the morning, I made coffee and toast. The toast burnt but I ate it anyway. I drove from my suburban house to the subway station and hopped on the 6:45 AM train, the same one I took every day. As usual, it was standing room only. I looked around – many people were sleeping, others reading newspapers and still others bopping their heads and silently mouthing words that emanated from headphones. The train screeched, stopping for inordinately long periods of time at certain stations, and then continued on.
At the office, I passed the empty cubicle of one of the underwriting assistants. Her nameplate said: Nancy Brown. I lingered for a brief time. There were various tea boxes – Lavender, Blackberry & Clove, Jasmine – none of which I was familiar with. There were family pictures, a clock radio that spouted hard rock, a calendar with various dates circled, reading light, air filter, ozone-filled water bottle, hand cleanser, and of course, the standard piles of work-related papers and folders. The funny thing about Nancy, the reason I felt inclined to sneak a look into the confines of her private world, was that I would often see her gazing at her nose in a hand-held mirror.
Without asking her directly, I couldn’t really be sure of anything of course. But my suspicions were that her obsessive behaviour was some sort of nervous habit. In any case, I could never really figure out how Nancy got away with doing so little work. I suppose she did do some but I never did see it, instead only seeing her incessant gazing.
There was a book at the corner of her desk that did not look work-related. I made sure no one was around and then picked it up. What was this? A book on plastic surgery, a bookmark clearly lodged in the middle of a chapter on rhinoplasty.
Now that I thought of it, Nancy had what some might say was a beak-like nose, similar to a hawk. So that was it, the mystery solved – she had been contemplating the rather large bump that protruded from the middle of her nose. I suppose I should have seen the reality of Nancy’s situation before but, I hadn’t. That was probably because I was too busy within my own smallish cubicle. The one that housed pictures of my wife and kids, where I kept a box of green tea, a clock radio attuned to an easy-listening station, a calendar with my own dates circled. There were no bottles of water as I considered them to be a waste of money – I just drank tap.
I put the book back in its place and then quickly proceeded to my desk, looking over my shoulder as I went. I tried to work but found the going difficult, especially when I saw Nancy finally arrive and pull out her mirror. All I could think of at that moment was I should talk to her and maybe even say a few kind words, like, ‘Don’t worry Nancy, you look great’ or ‘Nobody notices anything..’ But I didn’t, it was too hard. Instead, I walked absently to the coffee room and poured myself a strong cup of Columbian, trying to jack myself up to do some work.
That night, I searched through boxes in the basement of my house, looking for old university texts. Interestingly, while I always found the sciences and maths difficult throughout school, I had a certain fluency with the more aesthetic courses. Things like history and literature.
I found one book – ‘English Romantic Poets of the 18th Century.’ I flipped through the pages and came across a poem by William Blake entitled ‘London,’ one in which I had scribbled tiny notes in the margins. I tried to read what I had written nearly twenty-five years earlier but couldn’t, it was indecipherable. But then a strange thing happened. The more I read through the poem, the more I started remembering. This is Blake’s protest poem to social conditions, I thought, grateful that I hadn’t completely forgotten. I had once recited the entire poem by rote. Now, as I read about “the youthful harlot’s curse,” and “the mind-forged manacles,” I was overtaken with waves of sheer joy. I couldn’t really explain it. I also started to recognize some of my scribbling: ‘Blake marks and hears human suffering…’ I could not make out the rest.
Later that same evening, as 3 am called out to me, I remained in the washroom and wrote on a pad:
Declared dead at 3 in the morning
I bury you
By the seaside
A flock of gulls
Whiff of abandon
In the current
It wasn’t great poetry, I was aware. But it was perfectly ok. I was just so glad to get something out, it was like a small miracle after all these years. So I wondered whether on a parallel universe – if there really were such a thing – I might actually be a half-decent poet and whether Nancy Brown might have a very straight nose.
Jerry resides in Toronto, Canada. His short stories have appeared in many literary magazines and anthologies, such as The Nashwaak Review, Ten Stories High, All Rights Reserved, Pilot Pocket Book VII, Steel Bananas (Gulch) Anthology, Acta Victoriana, The Flaneur, and others. He is currently seeking a publisher for a collection. http://www.facebook.com/jerry.levy99