The Chain Outside of Time
Aaron D. Proctor
The condition of my existence clarified one night toward the end of college--not in a class, but during a campus visit by the famous physicist, Tobin Marks. You've probably heard of him. Marks was all the rage those days with his bestseller on Dark Energy. I'd heard that on his promotional tour he was arguing that we knew far more about the universe than the other famous physicists would venture to assert. He'd stirred up controversy calling Michio Kaku and Kip Thorne cowards in a Rolling Stone interview. Something about that attitude appealed to me, so I just had to go see Marks' talk--"The Universe, Beginning with the End"... but I knew I'd go because the déjà vu told me so. But I get ahead of myself...
That evening began auspiciously enough. The air buzzed with anticipation, and when the curtain lifted Tobin Marks walked into the limelight like a spirit out of nowhere. A hush fell over the crowd. "The End," he said. "What do we know about the End? What if I told you that everything we think we know about the End is a lie? What if I told you the End wasn't even the End?" He stalked the stage and the spotlight followed. "Time runs forward, true. But physicists have always assumed that it can't run backward. And I say that assumption is holding us back from understanding the fundamental laws of the universe just as the assumptions about lightspeed held back the great physicists of the nineteenth century.
An interesting premise. Marks asserted that his understanding of Dark Matter and Dark Energy suggested that the expansion of the universe would slow to a stop, and then would commence the Big Crunch. And during that Big Crunch, time would run the other way, not like a cassette in reverse but a whole different history running on the B-side of time, an alien specter beside our notion of time, an unimaginable realm. And when space drew to a point, another Big Bang would birth another "expression of the universe," belying the notion of our unique history.
"The universe is an expressive machine," he explained. "It expresses everything that is possible. Not everything can happen," he admitted, "but everything that can happen does indeed happen. As the universe proceeds through its infinite iterations, it explores every potential alternative. And not trillions of years from now, but in parallel time. Imagine that." He looked up as if to the stars. "All possibilities of you and I exist, side by side."
I wasn't buying it. It all seemed too... New Age. Something was missing. What was it? I grew rather unnerved. Eventually, my déjà vu would reveal not only what Marks had left unsaid, but also what he'd yet to consider and the personal nightmare his theories invited...
So I'm like you--but I'm not just like you. I've always been plagued by déjà vu. A plague--that's the word I use whenever I talk about it, which isn't all that often.
"What do you mean 'plagued,' Charles?" people ask, looking at me like I'm nuts.
"I have déjà vu all of the time," I explain.
"Like, literally all of the time?" they ask. "Or just often?"
Well that changed over the years--when I was a kid, it was less frequent. And I don't remember exactly when it began. I have a vague memory of saying to my mother, "This feels like it's already happened." And of course she then explained it as a normal type of thing. That's what mothers do. It even had a name. Déjà vu. Most everybody had it. But how often do normal people have it? Once a year? Twice?
When I was a kid, I'd say I had déjà vu about once or twice a week. And sometimes it went on for minutes. At first, I kept telling my mother about it. I was looking for reassurances, naturally. But soon I noticed that her brow would furrow. She even told the pediatrician about it. He laughed it off, of course. "Charles is just having some déjà vu, Mrs. Logan," he said. But mother seemed ill at ease, and from then on I kept it to myself for the most part. So I went through my childhood haunted by the lonely feeling that all of it had already happened to me. And I guess I got used to it, as frustrating and unnerving as frequent déjà vu becomes. The experience reminds you of another time which you cannot grasp. That other time lies just out of reach, just on the tip of your tongue. And at the very moment when you think you have it, it's gone, vanished like an uncanny face into a crowd...
Other than that, I guess my childhood was pretty normal--suburbs, parents, siblings, pets, modern appliances, sack lunches, soccer practice. Middle school was awful for most of us, I guess--but a little more so for me. You see, I experienced a retarded adolescence. I didn't hit puberty at twelve or thirteen or fourteen. It just wasn't happening. I became the shortest boy in my class. The school kids called me "runt" and mocked my high-pitched voice. My mother, already predisposed to excessive concern regarding yours truly, became morbidly preoccupied with my failing maturation. Our sanguine pediatrician counseled patience. "These things happen, Mrs. Logan," he said. Since hormone therapy could prevent my body from ever producing my own adult hormones, we'd have to wait for now. My biggest concern was that I'd be stuck as a shorty. Screw facial hair and wet dreams--at five feet two, most all the girls were taller than me. And what guy wants to live like that?
But it came on like gangbusters, finally. I'll spare you the gory details. My voice dropped after sophomore year, and by next spring I'd grown ten inches. I swear I could hear my bones growing at night. As you'd imagine, I was relieved by the advent of my manhood, but I did not find every implication of my puberty desirable. For starters, I had been the slick-fielding second baseman of our varsity baseball team. I took a lot of pride in that accomplishment. As the most diminutive of sophomores, I--through grit and determination--had beaten out boys the size of men.
But when I went out as a junior, nothing fit anymore. I was like a baby giraffe trying to field grounders. My increased size didn't help at the plate either. My longer arms left a big hole in my swing. On account of my gangly legs, I'd gone from the fastest player on the team to the slowest. Not only was I demoted, but I had to change positions. I was now the back-up first baseman on the JV squad. Honestly, I wasn't even better than some of the guys they cut. The coaches just held out hope that I'd learn how to use my new body.
That said, my lanky awkwardness was far from the worst symptom of my overnight maturation. It was the déjà vu. It had gone from an unnerving nuisance to a near-constant state. For hours throughout each day I lived as if life were a rerun. And occasionally, maybe a couple times a week, the déjà vu ... deepened. I don't know what other word to use for it. It nagged at me. I could never grasp when it had all happened before, but I began to anticipate some of what was to follow. I'd be playing cards with friends and know--just beforehand--the next card dealt. I'd know my brother was about to walk in the door with scraped knees, and I'd know my sister was going to announce she'd gotten into college. Sometimes even talking to strangers, I'd know what they were about to say before they ever said it. Not all the time, but maybe once a week I'd be certain something was going to happen ... and then it would.
And it kept getting worse.
Just before the state tournament, our varsity first baseman took a fastball in the jaw. It was a pretty ugly injury. By then, I had grown into my body a bit and was now playing regularly down at JV. Still, I was pretty surprised when the coaches decided to call me up. I guess they figured that another version of myself had done okay in last year's tourney and that I was unlikely to get the yips.
On the morning of the first day of the state championships, I experienced the onset of the most profound form of déjà vu to date. We were at the hotel taking the team breakfast, and I knew what everyone was going to say and do. This wasn't like before where I knew something--usually just one thing--before it happened. This was everything. Every next word. Every next act. Every next song on the radio. Everything around every corner. Everything. I wanted to scream out. I want to prove that I wasn't crazy ... mostly to myself. But I didn't utter a word. I just went on watching myself, watching life like a movie up on a screen, one I'd seen many times before, and I was the star performing lines written for me by an author I'd surely never met.
When we got to the field, I knew I'd start at first and bat ninth. I expected to have butterflies ... but I was oddly calmed by seeing everything before it was going to happen. Most times, living in stereo put me on edge, but I could rely on that leading indicator in this instance. Lang was going to lay down a bunt. Thompson was going to pop-up. And so on. Out in the field, I knew that ball wasn't coming my way. And I knew this one was, but I saw myself pick it up and feed the pitcher covering first before it happened. All I had to do was sit back and enjoy the ride.
I came up in the top of the second with two on and two out. I dug in. I saw the first pitch. Fastball, above the letters. I saw myself swing and miss ... but I didn't. I laid off. Ahead in the count, I puzzled over what had just happened. I dug in and saw a hanger, thigh high. I saw myself out front and top the ball weakly to short. But, no. I hung back and ripped the ball in the opposite gap. I stood on second base attempting to process what had just occurred. Had I changed the outcome of events? My team was celebrating in the dugout. My coach was pointing at me and clapping his hands, no doubt congratulating himself on the wisdom of calling me up. I guess it was a good call. We won state, and with three homers, six doubles, and a .585 batting average I was named tourney MVP. That was all fine and good, but the best part of the weekend for me was on the bus back home when the déjà vu receded and things began to surprise me once again.
I didn't know what that experience had meant, and after the season I eagerly wanted to put it all behind me. I didn't even go to the team banquet. Was I some sort of mutant? What did it mean for reality if I had altered reality? These were questions too large to wrap a teenaged mind around. And, oddly, the déjà vu didn't return. So I stepped into life rather than witnessing it, feeling truly centered in my existence for the first time. Before, I had felt like a puppet on a string but also somehow the puppeteer. My life had been a cleft between Will and Action that only healed when the déjà vu vanished. At the time I didn't know why, but I tried not to question it. I explained it as a phase I had transcended, and now I would finally truly live like everyone else.
I'd decided to quit baseball my senior year, but my coach somehow got to my parents. He told them there'd be scouts at the games. "Pro scouts, Mrs. Logan. And even if the pro scouts don't like Charles, he'll surely get a scholarship, a full ride."
And that was that. I objected of course, but mother kept using the phrase "once-in-a-lifetime opportunity" and my father "didn't want to hear any more about it." So I relented.
The season was an utter fiasco. Without my second sight, I had no idea what was coming. And while I had grown into my body, I still wasn't particularly athletic. I was bad at the plate, but I was a disaster in the field. I averaged an error a game at first base, which is quite an accomplishment. Within a month, even the most desperate pro scouts didn't bother with our games. And, no, there weren't any scholarship offers either. If anyone were going to pay me, it would've been to not play ball. I was that bad.
Still, I was happy for the first time. I was a part of life. I made a few friends. Went on a few dates even. And of course, I finally felt able to open up to my family now that I no longer hid a deep, dark secret of mental torment. Things were looking up, and I even earned a partial academic scholarship to Madison where I was going to study history.
I soon found that freshman year would be difficult to enjoy. Sure, we're partying and making new friends, having new experiences, enjoying growing up. But we're also a little homesick, maybe even mourning that our childhood is truly over, wondering if we can meet the demands of the world. I could have handled that okay, but the return of the déjà vu cast a pall over my existence. I had one little bout right after graduation, and it shook me to my core. I tried to tell myself that everything was okay. Everybody had déjà vu. I mean, just because my chronic version was gone didn't mean that I would never have it again, right?
Within two weeks I suffered a persistent state of déjà vu. But what could I do? I admit, I seriously considered ending it all, but that seemed a rather drastic option. And truly, I was a person who wanted to live, who wanted to enjoy life like everyone else. I had been happy for a time, and I was willing to trudge on in the blind hope that one day I would be happy again.
But it was pretty rough. I became a regular at Mental Health Services. The psychiatrist prescribed anti-depressants, which I took for a while even though I knew something else was wrong with me. I mean, I was depressed, but it wasn't chemical or organic. I was depressed for a reason. The deepened and extended episodes of second sight became increasingly frequent, and now I seemed powerless to act. I'd be walking to an exam and see a question. "Identify the key legislators involved in the Tax Reform Act of 1986 and explain their role." I'd think of that sleaze Packwood and Rostenkowski and realize I didn't have much to say about them or anyone else in congress way back then. I'd think, I should have studied that better. I'd think, the book is in my bag and I have twenty minutes to read up. But I wouldn't do that. I'd just continue on, playing my part in that old film, allowing my limbs to march to the puppeteer's gestures. And over time, that shadow life, the one I saw before it happened, seemed to concretize its hold.
Things went on this way for years, and I accepted these conditions. I learned to live askew. The truly deep moments of second sight--and the frustrating paralysis that came with them--only dominated my life for a few days each month. Hell, I had a friend who suffered migraines that stole more of her life from her. So, I quit bothering with mental health professionals entirely and settled into the Uncanny. If I were to be a houseguest in my own life, I determined to make myself right at home. Still, in dark hours I doubted whether I was truly alive or merely experiencing life's echoing memory.
By junior year I began to have visions of a very limited sort. Two distinct sensory experiences really. In the first, I saw a redheaded woman, late twenties. She wore a sad look on her face and said the words "in another life" as she turned away. A feeling of despondency accompanied the image. The second vision, which I more felt than saw, involved cold pavement and crushing pain, and yet the emotion was of ... I didn't quite have the word for it. Absurdity? As unpleasant as it was, it was somehow almost funny, the blackest of humors, a grave form of absurdity beyond laughter. I was at a loss to explain either, but each time I experienced the deeper manifestations of my déjà vu, these visions communicated to me quite powerfully. Was I seeing something from a more distant future? It seemed so, but I couldn't be certain.
It was about that time that I saw the flyers advertising Tobin Marks' campus visit. To be quite honest, something in the talk struck me as ... tormented. Besides, it all seemed so ... tawdry. Marks wore a Bluetooth headset and had his hair drawn back in a samurai-style ponytail. Clichéd images of the cosmos faded in and out on screens behind him. Hell, he was wearing a damn turtleneck. Who did this guy think he was? Some prophet?
When the whole thing was over, I bolted out. I pretended it was in disgust, but, honestly, I bolted in panic. It tried to frame it as simple disappointment. All the fuss was about the Big Crunch? It wasn't only a well-known theory; it was an old theory. I laughed. Thanks, Tobin Marks, for wasting a perfectly good evening. But I was just whistling in the dark...
It was late April, but the night was dark and cold. I made my way quickly back to town where I had a flat. I just wanted to get home and into my warm bed, but the déjà vu, which had been at bay all day, swallowed me whole. I heard the clap of my steps on the pavement before my feet landed. Fellow pedestrians trailed their shadows down the street. Cars made infinite headlamps. My mind began to ache with growing terror.
In my mind's eye, the redhead, now wearing a striped sweater, turned away ...
At the same time I laughed cynically into the cold pavement.
In another life, she said. The pain.
I felt something like a seizure coming on and I stumbled, collapsing against a brick wall. A vision unlike any other unfolded in my brain.
I was born, I lived, and I died.
My consciousness extended beyond time. And the human race thrived for a time and died out. And the sun swelled an angry red, finally collapsing under its own weight and becoming something else. And the sun's pulsar spun around the center of the Milky Way. And our galaxy cluster circled something else yet, and so on unto the very center of the Universe. And all of it--Everything--spiraled outward, slowing, pursuing freedom each and every moment.
But at the moment just prior to freedom and death begins the grand collapse, a running back unto itself. And time itself runs backward. And the stars and planets do not reform. And Decay will not be undone. And Entropy will not stand on its head. And Gravity rules the day, accumulating. All is energy and speed upon speed until the End when all is One again. But not the End, for nothing despises Unity like Solitude.
Bang. The rebirth of Spacetime. The spinning clouds of gas. The primordial systems. The planets and moons in formation. The cooling. The ooze whence we spring, all of us. And we are born, we live, and we die. And with our death, it all begins again, each time unique for us, but in reality a single pearl in an infinite string along some chain outside the realm of Time, each iteration a wheel in a machine, in truth, a facet of one whole, a duplicate askew... For each time, something is different.
This time, something very important has changed for me alone. This time, I know all of this, not just in theory--I know it.
I don't know how I managed to get home, but when I did I stayed in bed for a week. In my vision, the human race had been a grain of sand in the desert outside Time. I didn't amount to a microbe on that grain of sand. But how did I truly know the truth of my vision? Was I insane? I could be insane.
Yet the accuracy of my more immediate second sight suggested the truth of my vision. And finally I understood my déjà vu as something more entirely--a cosmic awareness.
And maybe that's true for us all, but mine I regarded as a progressive fatalism. The more I learned, the more difficult it became to go on.
But something in me refused to relent surrender might be a better word, or give up, maybe because Fate demanded that I go on. So after a few weeks of moping about, I pulled myself together and managed to pass my classes. It helped that the déjà vu took pity on me during that time, relenting for almost a month. And, that's right, I said Fate. For I believed that Tobin Marks was wrong in one key respect. Sure, all things that can happen will happen, but those things that must happen always do. Take, for instance, my relationship with Eileen...
After graduating I decided (as much as any guy who obeys the tug of the future decides anything) to study International Politics at Pepperdine.
It wasn't long before I met Eileen. Oh, Eileen. The beautiful Eileen, of course. She led me through all those rituals of love. We made memories, as lovers do. I cooked for her, but we had more fun shopping for the ingredients. We made love in a thunderstorm. And there was the trip to Big Bear and a hot tub in the snow. And so we had a grand romance, but none of that is what made her special. I'd had romances before, and so had she. And we'll have them again, I hope. What made Eileen so special was that she had red hair and that I knew the last three words she'd ever say to me.
And maybe because I knew the last words she'd say, I could relax. No, it was more than that, much more. I met her at a welcome party for the new graduate students. As I struggled to mingle, she struck up a conversation with me about--what else?--international politics, specifically the role of trade in conflict resolution. So, there I was blathering on about China when some math department folks joined in. Sure enough, the conversation turned to math, and I was soon listening to a conversation in a foreign language. But there was Eileen, happily chatting about calculus or whatever.
"You're studying mathematics?" I asked.
"What gave you that idea?" She laughed.
"Oh, so then you are in poli-sci with me after all?"
"Wrong again, Charles." I still remember her sipping through a stir stick, smiling at me, wielding my faulty assumptions against me. I gave up. "Philosophy," she said with faux gravity. "German Idealism from Kant to Marx."
And that's what it was about Eileen. With other women, really with all other people, my stereoscopic existence formed a barrier between us, and it all seemed pantomime anyhow. But Eileen could discuss politics or math or history or science or literature, and all of it with the passion and knowledge of an expert. Eileen was the most profound person I've ever known, and as we lay awake talking into the night she could always take me someplace new, someplace I'd never imagined. So while that shadow life taunted me throughout my day, when I finally found myself alone with Eileen, her brilliance chased those shadows away. I can't imagine a more true experience of intimacy. Eileen's vastness beguiled the cosmos itself. In Eileen, I glimpsed more than Tobin Marks imagined for his whole universe.
And she accepted me. I guess that's what love really is. Sometimes we divine our lover's fantasy, and that's who we pretend to be. But it's a fool's errand. The person we are always gets the better of us. Sometimes we accept the neuroses and obsessions, but more often we move on.
And I was a fatalist estranged from my own being. How long could I really convince any woman I was anything else? And so I never expected anyone to accept me for what I was. But I told Eileen exactly what I was. And she stuck around ... for a time.
She didn't really believe I could see the future. That was crazy talk. But I think she believed that I believed it, and she was okay with that. That was good enough for me. I had no idea how long this would all last. In my vision she looked about the age she was when we met, but she could've been years older. I wanted to make the most of things, so after we'd dated for maybe six months, she moved in. Not long after, I was searching through the closet and I saw this sweater. It was cream with burgundy and forest-green stripes. I recognized it. She would wear it when she said good-bye.
So, what went wrong? I hear that people fall out of love, but I think we still loved each other.
It was me. Morbid, dour me. Inhabiting a cosmic rut, how could I match her seeming infinitude? The worst was when we fought, and I'd hear the stupid shit coming out of my predictable mouth before I said it, powerless to be a better man. My resultant cynicism in these moments only added to the vitriol. And we'd go out with her friends, and I'd drink too much. Of course. I always drank too much. It seemed the only thing that reliably quieted the déjà vu, and maybe that was because I only drank heavily in this strange version of the universe in which I was aware of my shadow lives.
And so it ended the following winter after fifteen months. For whatever reason, at no time in the relationship could I bring myself to tell her that I'd foreseen how it would end. She wore the cream sweater with the stripes and kissed me on the cheek. "In another life, Charles," she said as she closed the door behind her.
"In another life," I said. But there was no other life for us. In our infinite shadow lives, she'd always turn away. So I went down to the bar on the corner and drank myself sick.
After Eileen, I really spiraled. I'd grown used to new lows resulting from my condition, but Eileen was the only person I'd ever allowed in. I held my own mother at arm's length. In Eileen, I finally had someone I could allow to know all of me, and now she was gone.
To make matters worse, I became rather disturbed by my second vision. I'd long suspected it was a vision of my death. I had no sense when it would occur, but I knew it would happen in some unnatural way. I had previously considered the more distant vision of the two curiously, but now I regarded it with abject horror. The periods of second sight became eras of absolute torment. Every month or two I would spend days fixated upon the circumstances of my death, as if I died over and over only to be tossed back into my meaningless existence.
Telling my parents I just needed to figure some things out, I dropped out of graduate school to work in a coffee shop. Weeks turned into months, and months into years. I worked, I ate, I drank heavily. At least the déjà vu lightened up; this utter nihilism seemed a deviation from my shadow lives. Yet, from time to time even the loser I was lined up with the other Charles Logans, reminding me that all my paths led to the same end. And when every action marches inexorably toward horror, it doesn't matter if that end is to come next week or in fifty years.
But I didn't have to wait long.
Last month, on a day like any other, I made a run to the store. I was in a hurry, rushing for no good reason. This sense of urgency, which had nothing to do with pressing demands, resulted solely from a profound mood of angst.
Even before I left my shithole apartment, the déjà vu was kicking hard. I saw myself pick up my keys. I picked up my keys. I trailed my shadow down the stairwell and my vehicle down the road. I looked for a spot even though I knew exactly where I'd end up parking, because that's what had to happen. The chains of Fate dragged me onward. This was it, the moment of my death, and that irrational urgency fueled my obedience. The moment struck me as both odd and routine, both horrifying and mundane. I eased out of first and pulled into a spot at the slightly sloped end of the lot.
Somehow, I observed myself forget to apply the parking brake. It defies logic, but I actually wondered why I didn't think to place the transmission in gear.
Exiting the vehicle, I knew closing the door would give the car enough momentum to set it rolling backward. I knew that I'd open the door and try to get back in.
The loneliest corner of my brain screamed to let it go, but I grasped the handle nevertheless.
The vehicle accrued speed faster than anticipated, as I somehow knew it would. The door took me down, and there I was on the cold pavement. The front wheel would catch my pant-leg and travel up my body, crushing me inch by inch. This was it. I was going to die. And not only that, I was going to die like this again and again. I always had, and I always would in the infinite expressions of a cosmos where everything that can happen will... but everything that must happen does. And for some reason this was how I must die. For what? I nearly laughed at the pointlessness of my whole life. I would have laughed had it not been so pathetic. And this death--to be run down by my own car--seemed an insult no one should endure.
I felt the fabric tighten on my leg. Most of my mind, occupied by the ludicrous circumstances, seemed resigned to death.
But something in me fought, some residue of my mind... pushed. Fuck this. Fuck everyone and everything. Fuck this passive foreknowledge. Fuck my fragile parents. Fuck you, Eileen--I always knew you would leave me. Fuck me and my morbid self-absorbed fatalism. Fuck you, Charles Logan, you moody fuck. Fucking push. Push back for once!
And I pushed.
In wonder, I watched the car roll away. It made a benign half-circle, backing perfectly into a spot a few spaces down.
A collection of fellow shoppers gawked slack-jawed from the car back to yours truly.
"Well," I laughed, "I just about died."
Before long, a new truth became clear. I hadn't gone more than a day or two without déjà vu since high school. It seemed natural that it would recede at the hospital since I'd never survived the incident. But I must have been really stunned, because the logical consequences of never having survived should have been obvious.
After my harrowing experience, I took a few days off from the coffee shop. Stress has a way of sapping all of our strength--physical, mental, emotional. So I slept a lot and watched reruns and tried not to think about it all. The way I figured, I'd thought about that moment quite enough for a lifetime. But just a few days later I took a walk, and it hit me all at once. The déjà vu was gone for good.
None of this was supposed to happen, likely had never happened in this universe or any other. There is no shadow over this new life I lead--that is all in the past. And I might not do much with my life, but what I would do would be mine and mine alone.
As possibly the first and only free man to ever live, I'd somehow broken the chains of fate. And this singular life of mine would forge a path, a light shadowing forth a new possibility for all those other Charles Logans as yet bound to that chain outside of time.