Door Number Eight
by Francis Rosenfeld
Shakespir Edition, License Notes
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Table of Contents
“Taylor? Taylor Bradford?” a voice called from behind the counter, with non-dissimulated boredom.
Taylor fumbled with the paperwork and rushed to the counter to finish registering for classes before the four o’clock deadline. The clerk handled the documents absentmindedly, while she watched the clock and switched to a more leisurely mindset in anticipation of the get together she had planned with her friends later at the bar on the campus corner.
Taylor walked out the door thirty seconds after four, trying to avoid the clerk’s resentful glare and careful not to slam the door behind her. She was a shy person and, even if she didn’t want to admit it, she found this whole situation of being on her own a little overwhelming.
As she stepped out of the building she couldn’t help a shiver, all those old halls were so cold and drafty, a far cry from the warm California climate she was used to. She’d never been out of state before, and felt a little unsure in her new surroundings, but since her mother thought her school choice, and in particular the choice of the school’s location all the way across the continent, was an act of rebellion, pure and simple, Taylor didn’t expect to get any sympathy for her plight. It was no use trying to explain to her mother, who, as usual, was in the midst of some extraordinary life drama, that being admitted to this school was something many of her friends and acquaintances couldn’t dream of, and being admitted on a full scholarship was nothing short of a miracle.
She ground her teeth and tried not to remember all the tears and the drama and the not so subtle guilt trips that accompanied her coming here. She felt a foot taller walking down the alleys of the old courtyard, and she asked herself how she got that lucky. All around her students hurried back and forth, going about their business, and Taylor instinctively looked down, trying not to attract too much attention.
She stopped to pick up the dorm room key, secretly wishing for a place with maybe not so much historical character but lots of creature comforts. She hadn’t gotten used to the eastern time, she was cold and tired, and that shiver she had caught in the hall of the administrative building had settled into her bones, determined to stay.
She turned the corner and breathed a sigh of relief to see the dorm was not one of the imposing buildings whose facades embellished the pages of the glossy college brochures, but a rather nondescript seventies’ style building which held the promise of proper insulation, modern plumbing and correctly balanced central air. The inside of it was exactly as she expected, vinyl tiles in a rather uninspiring shade of tan, two coats of white paint on the walls, plywood doors painted brown, and standard fluorescent fixtures.
She’d been assigned room number seven, and she had some trouble finding it, because not only was it on the second floor, which would have been strange enough, but the rooms were numbered backwards. Taylor didn’t think much of it, too tired from her trip and relieved to have found a place where she could finally lay down her backpack and kick off her shoes. She passed room number eight and couldn’t help but notice that some uninspired person had secured the number to the door through the middle instead of its top, and it had slipped sideways, looking like a lemniscate. Even though she was exhausted and she’d gotten in trouble over this type of obsessive behavior before, she spent some time straightening out the eight; she couldn’t stand things that were out of place, or in any way out of order; it was her way to establish some order in her environment, whose defining characteristic, she often thought, was being over the top and out of control.
She liked to keep her room in pristine shape, always, as a sanctuary against the arguments, and the mess, and the drama that had surrounded her family life after her father’s sudden passing, drama which functioned as a stand-in for the family time they used to have when he was alive. Her mother had never adjusted to widowhood, and Taylor kind of understood her constant, out of the blue tantrums, and why it was easier to throw fits over every hang nail than face the empty chair at the table.
Taylor had loved her father dearly and she changed after his passing, she became practical, scientific, exacting, focused, all great euphemisms for the more negative term, cynical, that she didn’t particularly enjoy.
Anyway, she insisted on straightening out the number eight, which didn’t want to stay put, and lingered by the wrong door until she managed to will the number into some precarious form of equilibrium, and only after she was satisfied she kept walking towards her room, thinking that if anybody saw that display of OCD, she’d get referred to a school counselor for sure, and since she’d seen more than her share or those, why, with the grief and all, she thought she’d rather pass on a new opportunity.
To her pleasant surprise her room only had one bed in it, an unexpected perk for a freshman, explained no doubt by the fact that the bathroom was down the hall, but the benefit of having a room all to herself certainly outweighed the inconvenience and made Taylor’s first triumphal day on campus complete.
Otherwise the room wasn’t much to look at, a bed, a nightstand, a closet, a desk, a chest of drawers, a mirror, a small window, but Taylor was too pleased with her fresh experience of living as a grown-up to mull over minor details. She forgot how tired she was and, energized by a fresh jolt of adrenaline, unpacked and set up her things just so, until she was pleased with the result.
When she was finished, she sat down on the bed, not knowing what to do next. She looked at the class roster, happy that she managed to get in all the pre-med classes she was planning to take that quarter, and therefore she wouldn’t need to adjust her schedule; she hated it when she had to change things she had planned in advance. She wrote down a list of books and supplies she had to buy before the classes started, and made a mental note to find a vegetarian food place and a coffee shop, and a place that served warm bagels. Since she hadn’t had anything to eat since ten in the morning, she figured there was no time like the present to explore her surroundings and went out for an early dinner.
She exited the campus through one of the old stone gates into a swarm of people eager to patronize the little shops on its perimeter, many of which served food. Taylor was confident that she would have no trouble finding a vegetarian restaurant, this being an Ivy League school and all, even if it was on the East Coast, and when she found one she ate a frugal meal at a small table by the window, taking in the street view with curiosity and anticipation. She didn’t know a lot of people and felt awkward about making new acquaintances, but at least she knew Christine, and they could stick together for a while, until they got their sea legs, so to speak.
Christine’s dorm was on the other side of the campus, in one of those old stone buildings Taylor just couldn’t get used to, and the chill down her spine returned when she entered the vast lobby, even though she was in much better shape after some rest and on a full stomach. Christine wasn’t in, but as she stood by the door, waiting for somebody to answer, Taylor couldn’t help notice the cute guy who was visiting the adjacent room. He looked a bit too much a jock for her taste, but had this warm and genuine smile that lit up his eyes, and she figured he was one of those happy, light hearted people whose lives always look easier, not because they are, of course, but because they have that gift that her father had always found fascinating, the lightness of being, he called it. That term had stuck with her, the lightness of being, the quintessence of happiness.
She didn’t want to admit to herself that she wouldn’t have minded running into him again around campus, wondered in which department he was taking classes and then resented herself for getting so easily distracted from her task; she made peace with the fact that Christine was not in her room and headed back to her dorm.
On the way back she pulled out her phone, only to learn that her mother hadn’t answered any of the messages she had left her, to set her mind at ease that she had arrived OK, that the room was nice, that she registered for all the classes and everything was peachy keen. It looked like another installment of the familiar tantrums, this time triggered by abandonment issues, or, in translation, the heartbreaking selfishness of her only child, and the fact that in complete disregard of the wonderful educational opportunities she had back home, her ungrateful daughter had decided to remove herself from her presence and pursue her studies elsewhere. Taylor got instantly enraged every time this issue came up, because she knew people who would have given an eyetooth for a chance like hers and she was certainly not going to miss out on it for a whim. Naturally, anger was an unwelcome emotion, and she didn’t like to feel it, so she labeled the feeling as irrelevant, shoved it in a drawer somewhere deep inside her mind, then locked the drawer and threw away the key.
She was already inside her dorm when she put the phone away, and as she passed door number lemniscate she straightened up the number again, without even thinking about it. Christine was waiting in her room, and Taylor worried that she forgot to lock the door before she left. Christine guessed her inner conversation and responded to it.
“Oh, I don’t think your door locks, see?”, she showed her friend the chip in the door frame where the locking hardware was supposed to go.
“Figures!” Taylor thought bitterly, and put finding a locksmith on her list of things to do.
“Where does that go?” Christine pointed to another door, and Taylor couldn’t believe she didn’t notice it before, tired, dazed and hungry as she was when she had entered her room for the first time. “‘It looks like it connects to room number eight,” Christine continued.
“Jeez, this ‘perk’ starts looking more and more like a pain the more I learn about it,” Taylor mumbled under her breath. “I hope at least this door locks.” She studied the door and tried to open it, but to no avail.
“You don’t have the key to this one, do you?” Christine asked.
Taylor shook her head.
“I’d push the chest of drawers against it, you know, for safety, at least until I was sure it stayed locked,” Christine advised wisely. ‘You don’t even know what kind of weirdo is going to move into that room.”
Together, they pushed the chest of drawers against the door, spent a couple of hours discussing first impressions about the campus and the people in it, during which they demolished a box of chocolates Christine had brought from home. She didn’t want to keep it around as a constant temptation, so they finished it and then called it a night.
The next morning Taylor woke up to bumping and shuffling sounds coming from the room next door, all of which sounded like somebody was moving in, and she figured that whoever it was, they must have brought a lot of furniture with them. The noise lasted for more than an hour, so, despite the fact that she didn’t have to go to any classes yet, she got up and walked to the bathroom down the hallway, somewhat uncomfortable that she was going to run into the movers while still donning her pajamas. She passed by door number eight, whose number had slid sideways again, and straightened it up, almost by reflex, before she continued walking.
To her relief, there didn’t seem to be any sign of activity outside the door or in the hallway, the noises came exclusively from inside, as if somebody kept rearranging the furniture. Taylor shrugged, and since this whole hullabaloo was none of her business, she got ready to go out and spent a few hours exploring the campus. She combed the library to find out what goodies she could find in it, searched far and wide until she found a locksmith and scheduled an appointment to fix the door. She was shocked to learn that his next available time slot was more than a month out.
“What am I supposed to do in the meantime?”, she asked, revolted, but the locksmith turned his back, indifferent, because he was way too familiar with young people’s door hardware mishaps and frankly, he didn’t care.
Taylor turned on her heels and went to meet Christine at the student cafeteria, a place most of the newcomers tended to gravitate to. She found her there indeed, sitting at a table in the sunken interior courtyard, basking in the mellow light of the autumnal sun and sipping her latte.
“Can you believe the locksmith won’t come fix my door for an entire month!?” she blurted out to her friend, still outraged, in search of comfort and solidarity.
“That’s awful!” Christine sympathized. “What are you gonna do?”
“I don’t know, get a surface bolt or something,” she said, and then she realized that wouldn’t help at all when she was not in the room and brushed the issue aside, really annoyed. She changed the subject. “Somebody moved into room number eight this morning, they were making a lot of noise.”
Christine’s curiosity was piqued.
“Did you see who?” she asked.
“Not yet,” Taylor replied, and then she didn’t know what else to say. She and Christine were casual acquaintances, they had gone to the same high school but hardly attended any classes together. It’s not that she didn’t like her conversation partner, she just didn’t know her all that well. The abrupt silence made Christine uncomfortable, so she took charge of the conversation.
“Did your mother call?” she asked innocently, sure that she had picked a safe subject and not realizing that she had inadvertently stepped on one of Taylor’s emotional land mines.
“No,” the latter responded, without any follow up, trying to signal through the morose briefness of her response that this subject was never to be opened again. Christine felt really bad about it, not knowing what exactly it was that she did wrong. She was a genuinely nice person, so she blamed herself for upsetting her new friend and tried to figure out the easiest way out of the sudden awkwardness, so she drew upon another safe subject, college courses, to dig herself out of it.
“So, what classes did you register for?” The subject fed about half an hour of conversation, during which, to Christine’s delight, her friend’s mood was restored. They noticed with excitement the overlaps in their schedules and promised to exchange impressions about the courses they took separately, got more coffee, munched on some bagels, and then Christine suddenly remembered she had an appointment with one of the student advisers and departed in a hurry.
Taylor finished her coffee, somewhat glad that classes were starting the following day. Trying to keep herself otherwise occupied was a bigger challenge than she had thought. She was so accustomed to grown-ups drafting her schedule for her she didn’t quite know how to fill her own time without it.
She remembered the shiny new student ID and made her way to the library, determined to find something good to read, and emerged from the imposing building, about an hour later, with a stack of books that was almost too heavy to carry. It became clear to her, as she was struggling under her bulky load, that she grossly overestimated the amount of time she was going to have available for leisurely reading after her classes started.
She hauled the big stack of books up the stairs and felt grateful that it blocked her field of vision enough not to notice whether the eight on the door was standing upright, because as she walked past the door with her hands full, the thought of going to her room, putting the books down and returning to the hallway to remedy the situation, especially since there was now somebody inside the room who could hear her, felt simply embarrassing.
Therefore she went past door number eight without looking and found the silver lining behind her door lock situation: she was able to open it with her elbow and didn’t have to lay the book bundle on the floor. At least the door closed, she thought. Having to prop closed a door left constantly ajar would have been much worse.
She spent the rest of the afternoon browsing through the books, picked one and started reading, and was startled when the noises in room number eight resumed. “What on earth was that person doing?” she wondered. “How much furniture rearranging does a person require?” Coming from someone who had spent more than an hour the previous day to figure out the best configuration for the sock drawer, that meant a lot. Besides, she was sure that all the vibrations from dragging furniture around had unsettled the number on the door, number which now weighed heavily on her obsessive brain, she could just picture it slowly drifting askew.
She got out into the corridor, sure to find out that more furniture was being brought in, but there was no sign of such activity, quite the opposite, the door looked like it had never been opened. She looked closer at the handle, still dusty after the summer break, and the dust had not been disturbed at all, proof that if anybody entered that room, it wasn’t through the front door. There was no light visible under the door either, and Taylor was sure the light was on in the room, because she could see it glow behind the door connecting it to hers.
“How on earth did they bring all that stuff in?” Curiosity got the better of her, and she leaned out of her window, to see if there was a pulley or something lifting up stuff to the window of the adjacent room, but there was no pulley, and in fact, to her total bewilderment, she saw that there was no window either. She figured the space must be used for some sort of storage or mechanical room, which took her ‘perk’ levels down another peg; if that was the case people were going to drag stuff in and out of it the whole year long. “But how were they bringing anything in?”, curiosity kept nudging her.
She got out again and walked back into the corridor, paying a lot more attention to her surroundings this time. It was one of those short corridor lengths, designed to avoid the requirement to install a sprinkler system, and for this reason there were only two rooms on it, room seven, the one she was in, and room eight, which shared one wall with her room, and the other one with the elevator shaft. Taylor dismissed the ridiculous idea of stuff being brought in by elevator, since this was a school dorm, not a luxury penthouse, but just to cross that t she took the elevator to the first floor and verified the fact that its only door opened into the corridor.
Since she was on the first floor already, she looked around. Beneath room number eight was a large open space, the kind university planners devised to house some sort of lounge for when students received visitors. Of course the students’ visitors always went to the students’ rooms, so that space, that felt kind of cold and impersonal, was always empty, except the rare occasion of the dorm party, when it served as an outlet for the overflow of people and their many kegs. The space had an open ceiling, compliments of value engineering and modern architectural standards, and upon a summary inspection Taylor noticed that the ribbed concrete floor slab had no openings, there was nothing there that would provide access, not through the mess of plumbing, cable trays and air conditioning ducts anyway. She went back to the elevator, double checked the side panel to make sure there was no mechanism behind it, and attempted to go to the third floor, but there was no third floor, she noticed. Pleased that she had solved the mystery, she took the roof access stairs all the way up, where the triumph of logic and reason got squashed by a gigantic air conditioning unit that occupied the entire expanse of that portion of the roof. She would have been able to notice it quite easily if she ever looked up when she approached the building, but sadly, she never did.
“This isn’t possible,” she thought, and her logical mind grabbed on to the only available possibility left, however unlikely. Somebody broke the lock on her door on purpose, so they could bring the furniture into room number eight through the door between their rooms. She got instantly infuriated about the intrusion upon her privacy, until she realized that whoever it was that was still dragging furniture around in room number eight would not be able to come out unless she moved the chest of drawers which was now blocking the door. She brooded, thinking that it served them right and that she wasn’t going to move anything until the perpetrator identified him or herself and asked very nicely to be let out.
She tried to quell her growing annoyance by concentrating on the book she had chosen to read first, although who could possibly concentrate with all that racket! She thought she heard muffled voices arguing, but she couldn’t make out what they were saying, and then there was more furniture dragging and knocking sounds, after which the noise suddenly subsided.
“Finally!”, she thought, happy to have her life, such as it was, go back to normal. She was pleased to have learned she didn’t live next to a utility room, and therefore whatever activity was happening at the time was temporary in nature, and in her deep desire to return life to its familiar grove she propped the room door closed with the back of a chair, turned the light off and went to sleep, completely forgetting she had an intruder trapped behind her sock drawers like the ghost in the wall.
She went to class the next day, and in her excitement of adjusting to all the new things around her, she completely forgot about room number eight and whoever was still in there. The day passed in a mix of trepidation and exhilaration, driven by the challenge of finding her way through the halls of so many unfamiliar buildings. When classes ended she was drained of energy and emotion, kind of hungry and looking forward to a little time alone to sit down and sift through the events of the day.
The single occupancy of her dorm room started looking appealing to her once more, despite all the flaws that tiny room had, because right at that very moment the thought of having to engage in light conversation with a complete stranger felt almost painful. As she passed by the elevator shaft on her way to the stairs she saw the lounge on the first floor and remembered the events of the previous evening; she cringed at the thought that she would have to handle a confrontation with the person in room number eight, if he or she didn’t take advantage of her absence to sneak out.
The chest of drawers was still pressed against the door, just the way she had left it, and there was no sound coming from the adjacent room. Taylor wasn’t a naturally patient person, and the thought of waiting out a sign of contrition from the trespassing noise maker rubbed her the wrong way. Even as tired as she was, and in search for peace and quiet, the thought of having whoever it was in there come out of the room at any time, unexpectedly, seemed unpalatable.
She decided to take a proactive approach, pushed the chest of drawers out of the way and spent a few moments studying the door, and upon noticing there was absolutely nothing special about it, on a whim, she decided to see if it was open this time. It was. The handle gave way and the door swung open before Taylor had time to stop it; the embarrassment of doing something socially awkward was replaced by surprise.
The room was practically empty, with the exception of a large swivel chair marking its center and another old fashioned wing back chair placed nearby, almost as an afterthought. The contrast between the two pieces, one made of red leather stretched tighter than a drum around severe modern contours and the other overstuffed, covered in chintz print and smothered under a sea of pillows, was so stunning that Taylor failed to notice the rest of the oddities in the room, more specifically the fact that it had an octagonal shape and in the middle of each wall there was a door.
She didn’t anticipate there would be a person sitting in the swivel chair, which had its back to the door at the time. She walked into the room, feeling almost as if somebody or something was pushing her from behind and gasped when the chair turned around; she found herself face to face with a young guy with glasses, rather long and unruly black hair and a wispy beard. He didn’t seem surprised to see her, which increased Taylor’s discomfort. Because she didn’t know how to extricate herself from the uncomfortable situation, she blurted the first thing that came to her mind, however illogical.
“What are you doing here?”
“I should ask you this question,” he replied poised. “You’re in my room.”
She wanted to turn around and run back, but then she remembered her broken lock and decided to ask him about it, just to clear the air.
“Of course I didn’t break your door,” he replied annoyed. “I wouldn’t worry about the lock anyway, it’s not a critical detail. Please, sit. I’ve been expecting you.”
Taylor sat in the chintz chair, which was a lot more comfortable than it looked. She settled herself in, grateful for its softness and suddenly remembering how tired she was, and was still adjusting the pillows when she met the young man’s gaze again. She felt absolutely ridiculous sitting there, buried in a mountain of pillows and floral motifs for no particular reason at all.
“I’m touched you found your way to comfort, that’s exactly why I teach this class, to encourage people to settle into their comfort zones.” The sarcasm wasn’t lost on Taylor, but since she had made the first socially unacceptable move by walking into another person’s room uninvited, she ground her teeth and didn’t retort. She regained her composure and asked the obvious question.
“Welcome to WAI 106.67 – Introduction to Wayfinding Systems. It’s an introductory class,” he pointed out the obvious, and Taylor wondered what remedial Wayfinding Systems class she had missed to justify the additional explanation.
“An introductory class in what?” she pushed back.
“Wayfinding,” he pointed out, looking at her as if to assess whether she had the required level of intelligence to attend the class. Taylor sat back in her cozy chair, still trying to figure out who was pulling a prank on her and why, and amazed by the lengths that someone went to in order to generate this level of detail. The doors alone, for one. So she decided to play along and asked.
“Where do the doors lead?” knowing full well after the exploration trip she had taken around the building the day before that they couldn’t possibly lead anywhere.
“We’ll get to each door when its turn comes, but I need to give you the disclaimer about door number eight, it’s university policy, safety training, release of liability, that sort of thing. You get the idea. In short, don’t go through door number eight.”
“Sure,” Taylor replied, with a hint of sarcasm that didn’t escape her conversation partner, “But all the other ones should be safe, right? Or do I have to review the door handle operation manuals before I go through?”
The young man rolled his eyes, clearly irritated, and scrunched his face a bit to adjust the glasses on the bridge of his nose. He spoke sharply.
“God, I hate freshman class, and for some evil reason I always get stuck with it, every single year, at least once! You all think you know everything, this gets so tedious after a couple of decades!”
“How old are you, exactly!?” she thought, shocked, and then remembered she was playing along in a prank, and decided to let go of the question, to see what tall tale he was going to make up next. He didn’t look more than twenty anyway; in fact, if she had to venture a guess he looked exactly her age, and she wouldn’t have been surprised to run into him in one of the courses she had enrolled in. She looked at him carefully, to figure out if she had seen him around campus. He looked very familiar, she didn’t know why, there was something about his facial expressions, his hand gestures, the way he sat in the chair, that she was certain she had seen before, although she simply couldn’t remember where. He was relatively tall, with an athletic, but slender build, dressed in a solid dark t-shirt and jeans. He could have been any of the hundreds of students she passed by as she walked across the courtyard to go from one class to the next. Finding no answer, she shook her head and gave up, and tried to wrap up this charming interlude to go veg out in her room.
“You do know this is a mandatory class for your study major, right?” he asked, even more displeased than before, and the furrow between his eyebrows deepened.
“Of course it is,” she said, and got up to leave. He didn’t try to stop her, so she headed, very sure of herself, in the direction from which she had come, only to notice, in disbelief, that there were only eight doors on the walls, none of which led back to her room.
“No doubt you counted the doors when you came in,” he commented on her bewildered expression. “How many were there?”
“Eight,” she mumbled, still in shock.
“And there you go. There are still eight doors.”
“But…” she protested, really terrified this time.
“Stop fretting, the door will be there when class ends. Sit down, you’re wasting instruction time, you’re not my only pupil, you know.”
She sat down, waiting for him to speak, but he didn’t, he just looked at her, expectantly. They sat in silence for a while, staring at each other, until eventually he looked at his watch and restarted the conversation.
“So, are there any questions you would like me to answer before we begin?”
“Where do I even start?” she thought, simultaneously wondering if the class they were talking about was still forty eight minutes long and glancing furtively at the wall to see if the door was back yet. Her instructor was staring her down, waiting for a question, so she wrecked her brains to come up with one that wouldn’t sound completely idiotic.
“Don’t worry, there is no such thing as a stupid question,” he encouraged, doing his best to contain a restless streak. She obliged.
“Why eight doors?” was the first thought that came to mind and straight out the mouth it went, unsifted.
“Because the curriculum didn’t allow enough time for nine, and seven would have been too few,” he shed light on the issue.
“What happened to room number eight?”, she blurted, almost against her will.
“Oh, now we really do have a good question here, but you need to pass this class to understand the explanation. The short answer is, room number eight is where it has always been.”
“Is the class about these doors?”
“Yes. When you’ve successfully walked through them, the class ends. We’ll meet every day for an hour, just like today,” he said in a voice that started to sound more amenable.
“So, this course is only eight days long?” she asked, still skeptic.
“First, what makes you think you’ll be able to successfully walk through the doors on the first try, and second, what did I say about door number eight?”
“Don’t go through it?”, she asked, tentatively.
“That’s right,” he responded. “We’re going through the doors in their order of difficulty, starting tomorrow with door number one.”
“You are coming too?”
“Oh, definitely. I’m responsible for your welfare for the duration of the class, I don’t even want to picture the bureaucratic nightmare that would ensue if you got lost!”
“Got lost where??!” she panicked.
“Don’t worry, as I said, I’m coming with.”
“What do you mean by ‘successfully go through them’. What’s so hard about walking through a door?”
“You can’t walk through it if it isn’t there,” he smiled, and from the corner of her eye she noticed the door leading back to her room, wide open as she had left it, staring her down from across the room as plain as the nose on her face. He turned his head.
“Well, it looks like the class just ended. See you tomorrow,” he dismissed her.
She hesitated, not knowing whether it was OK to leave and troubled by a thought.
“So,” she finally uttered, “what if I decide not to come back here?”
“It’s your education, not mine. If you do, however, decide to return, class starts promptly at four. Don’t be late, I loathe that.”
“What am I supposed to do in the meantime?” she mumbled confused.
“Go to your other classes, of course.”
Door Number One – Space
Taylor woke up and got ready for classes, as if nothing had happened the day before, trying to avoid looking at the door, somewhat uneasy with the thought that if she did, she might not see it there anymore. The first day was filled with the trepidation of adjusting to new settings and finding her way through the maze of buildings and hallways, and in all the excitement she almost forgot about the “class” that was supposed to start at four. She hadn’t had anything to eat the whole day and stopped almost without thinking at the cafeteria for a quick bite.
She thought she recognized the casual demeanor and the black hair, which she only saw from the back and didn’t remember where to place at first, and then, all of a sudden, it all came back to her, just as the clock struck four.
“So much for our ‘class’ and not being late,” she thought, somewhat annoyed that she even took the guy seriously; disappearing doors notwithstanding, there was no reason for her to listen to anything he had to say, and his self-appointment as an authority figure only served to remind her that she shared a door with a complete stranger.
“Somebody is pulling a prank on me,” her old thought resurfaced. But who, and for what reason, really? She was just a random person, as average as they came, one of the many anonymous faces populating the campus, and quite forgettable, if she were to judge by how many of her teachers found it difficult to remember her name.
She didn’t want to confront her uncomfortable neighbor and tried to squeeze by unnoticed and park herself at one of the tables in the back, eager for a warm cup of soup.
“Do you come here often?” a familiar voice whispered from behind. She could almost feel the ironic smile that accompanied the question. Her shoulders tensed and she turned around, reluctantly, trying to balance the exact blend of rejection and tact she deemed appropriate for the current situation. She didn’t find it, so she fell back on the learned patterns of socially acceptable behavior that seemed to have served her well in the past. Since her mother had the habit of taking everything personally, Taylor had developed much better diplomatic skills than one would have expected of somebody of such a young age, and those skills had spared her quite a few unpleasant scenes that she was very happy to live without.
“It’s only been a couple of days,” she replied, “I’m not sure that qualifies as often.”
“What are you having?”, he made herself at home at her table, and she thought: “Oh, great! Now he’s never going to leave!” She crushed a few choice words between her teeth and smiled out of habit, compelled to respond by the good breeding her mother had worked so hard on.
“Soup,” she answered, and then figured it would be impolite not to reciprocate, and despite her better judgment, continued the conversation.
“How about you?”
He didn’t answer, deep in thought, as if he was looking at pictures inside his mind, completely detached from the surroundings. Taylor cursed herself for being such a pushover, ordered her soup and decided to ignore the intruder as much as she could.
“I’m sorry, what did you say?” he suddenly came back to life, as if he hadn’t even been there for the last fifteen minutes. She did her best to make it evident, through nonverbal cues, that she found his behavior unacceptable, but he didn’t seem to get any of them. He ordered a coffee and went back to his mental imagery, as if she wasn’t there.
“Why did he bother to come to this table at all?” Taylor fumed internally. She was tired, the day had been a roller coaster of emotions and she really didn’t have the emotional resources necessary to put up with the whims of a stranger, and the fact that their room adjacency forced some basic form of interaction on them made the situation doubly unfortunate.
“So,” he said, unperturbed by the slightly hostile stance, “have you given any thought to our class project?”
“Listen!” she snapped. “I don’t mean to be rude, but it’s been a long day and I was hoping for a few minutes alone to rest and sort out my thoughts, so, if you don’t mind…” she suggested, mortified by being forced into a confrontation she had done everything she could to avoid.
“Care to share any of those thoughts?” he asked, as if the previous suggestion didn’t have anything to do with him.
“No!” she blurted, shuffling uncomfortably in the chair and wondering what could she possibly say to this person to make him leave.
“I think your soup is getting cold,” he pointed out. Taylor finished her soup, which was indeed no longer at its peak temperature, in a morose silence, peeved by the fact that this little comforting detail was spoiled for her too.
He sat in silence, waiting for her to finish eating while sipping on the coffee with a pleased grin. He then took out a notepad from his backpack and scribbled in it for a while, until she got up, ready to leave.
“Wait, wait for me, please,” he rushed to pack up his stuff as she walked away, and caught up with her just as she was passing through one of the stone gates leading out of the campus. “Oh, good! We’re here!”, he exclaimed. Taylor didn’t care what he meant by that, she just wanted to get back to her room and work through the mountain of assignments that were due that week. She didn’t even look at him, not a tad curious about what he had meant.
“Where are you going?” he asked.
“Well,” she started to give him a piece of her mind, but was stopped in the middle of the sentence by the unfamiliar scenery unfolding in front of her eyes. “What the…” she didn’t finish her sentence, too shocked to react.
“Welcome to Sydney!” he beamed, triumphant, and then waxed nostalgic. “I always liked this city!”
“But how…” Taylor tried to dig herself out of a mountain of confusion, and then suddenly remembered the previous day’s conversation and got instantly infuriated. “This has something to do with you, doesn’t it? How did we get here?” She tapped the power of her analytical brain and after running through the possibilities, she came up with the one that was most likely. “Oh, God, I’m still asleep. I got to wake up, or I’ll be late for class!”, she thought.
“I can assure you that you’re fully awake,” he clarified, as if he could read her thoughts, and pinched her arm really hard to draw the point across.
“Aww!” she protested, staring at the red marks left by his fingers. “This is going to leave a bruise, you jerk!” she thought again.
“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to hurt you,” he answered her silent remark, and then her next unspoken assumption. “And no, you’re not dead either.”
“How are we here?”, she stared in disbelief at the graceful roof of the Sydney’s Opera House, which unfolded like sails in the wind on the background of the cloudless sky, surrounded by trees in bloom.
“I think we can safely assume you found the door,” he smiled.
“But how?!”, she repeated her question.
“I took the liberty to jot down some notes, you should look them over after we return. Speaking of which,” he turned around to face the direction they were coming from, “you wouldn’t have happened to notice which door we came out of, would you?”
“What do you mean?” she panicked, realizing all of a sudden that they’d have to find their way back home eventually. “Please tell me we’re not stuck here! I only have a couple of dollars on me, I don’t have a passport, what am I going to tell my mom?” She started crying, to release her tension, and fear, and crushing feeling of helplessness.
“Well, I don’t think there is a need to bother your mom just yet, you know? We just got here. Isn’t Sydney beautiful in spring?”, he smiled, and inhaled the fresh scent of tree blossoms with focus and deliberation, like there was nothing more important in the world at the time.
All those years she had spent deadening her reactions to being dragged into outrageous circumstances against her will seemed to vanish in an instant, and she started to yell at her traveling companion.
“You kidnapped me! I want out of here immediately! Take me back home right now!”, she screamed, and then her logic and reason returned and she remembered that she had chosen that specific stone gate herself because it was the closest route to her dorm. “What have you done to me?”, she continued ranting. He didn’t answer, just waited for the dust to clear, and then continued where he had left off, unperturbed.
“As I said, do you think you could remember which one of these openings we came out of?”, he pointed to a busy avenue filled with shops, restaurants, apartment buildings and access to pedestrian alleys. “It doesn’t have to be a door, per se, just anything that can act as a passageway.”
“It can be any of these!”, she moaned, staring at the sea of doors, dejected, wide eyed and bursting in tears again.
“That’s exactly why we have to concentrate on backtracking our steps,” he said, with inhuman composure. “Could you please stop crying? It’s personally distracting and it dulls your focus. How long do you think we walked before you noticed you’re not home anymore?”
She looked at him, still bawling, and tried to assess the timing.
“I don’t know, five, ten minutes?”, she hesitated.
“I’m afraid you’re going to have to be more precise than that. You know, ten seconds can mean the difference between this block and the next.” She looked discouraged.
“What do you remember?”, he asked.
“Nothing, I remember nothing! One minute I was on campus, the next I was here!”
“No, think! What do you remember?”, he insisted.
“You came to my table?”, she offered tentatively.
“After I sat down,” she replied.
“What else do you remember about that? What were you thinking, what did you see, hear, smell, feel?”
“I remember thinking that you were pulling a prank on me, and if this weren’t a prank you should be waiting for me in Room Eight.”
“How did you figure that?”
“It was the clock!”, she exclaimed, excited by the revelation. “I heard it strike four!”
“That took you long enough,” he smiled. “Thank you for being on time, as I said, I abhor the lack of punctuality. What else?”
“You were waiting for me?!”, she raised her voice.
“Irrelevant. What else?”
“I ate soup,” she sniffled.
“Not a particularly helpful detail, time wise, people tend to grossly underestimate the time they spend engaged in an activity. Do you remember anything else?”
“You wrote some stuff down,” she whimpered.
“Again, not relevant to our task. Anything else?”
He didn’t seem agitated in the least, and his calm settled her nerves, so she stopped crying and tried to focus on the details of their previous activities.
“You had coffee,” she said, frowning uncertain. “The coffee shop opens at five! Did I spend a whole hour with a cup of soup?!” she couldn’t believe it.
“A little more then that, I’m afraid. The barista was late, he didn’t arrive until 5:15.”
“How could I spend an hour and fifteen minutes eating soup?”, she shook her head incredulous.
“You’re diverting your focus to irrelevant details again. So, at 5:15 I ordered coffee, drank it and wrote down three pages of notes. What else do you remember?”
“Watching the sun set over the park as I was walking towards the gate,” she said.
“That could be useful! Do you know the sunset time for today?”, he said, suddenly encouraged.
“Who knows the sunset time for the day?”, she retorted.
“Baby steps. I’ll just look it up.” He pulled out his phone and did a quick search. “It was 7:35. Are you sure you saw the sunset?”
Suddenly she didn’t feel so sure anymore.
“How is your phone even working here? You know what? Don’t tell me, I don’t wanna know!”
“Well, it’s 8:08 in the morning right now, so with the time difference, it would be 6:08 back home; you couldn’t have seen the sunset, it’s about an hour and a half too early.”
Taylor looked so confused he almost felt sorry for her.
“Don’t worry, people often see what they want to see. You felt it was late and I was taking up too much of your time, so you thought it must be close to sunset and that’s what you assumed you saw. Time is a very relative concept, we all perceive it at our own pace.”
“So what did I really see?”, she started sniffling again.
“I don’t know, maybe a reflection in one of the glass curtain walls, or the river,” he postulated. “It doesn’t matter. What else do you remember?”
“The last thing I saw before I walked through the gate was the clerk drawing down the shutters on the store across the street.”
“OK, so that’s six o’clock. Great work,” he encouraged, and then checked the six o’clock time on his notes.
“You already knew!” she exploded.
“Cross referencing is always helpful,” he countered. “It was 6:02, to be precise, you remember me telling you about the successful crossing? So, we have about six minutes between then and now. I didn’t time this conversation, so that puts us at a small disadvantage, but at least we refined the search to the openings between here and five minutes ago. Let’s see how far that takes us.”
They picked up the pace to match Taylor’s impatient stride from before, and arrived at what looked like the entrance to a parking garage.
“You don’t suppose…” Taylor asked, hopeful, and started running towards the entrance. He ran behind her and grabbed her arm before she reached the threshold.
“As I said, I hate freshmen class. You weren’t planning on crossing without me, where you?”
“Well, you would have caught up with me, this leads home, doesn’t it?”, she asked, suddenly realizing what she was about to do.
“What on earth made you think that? There are doors everywhere. This might have opened to the middle of the ocean, or a planet on the other side of the galaxy!” he frowned, irritated. “Judging by your luck, one without an atmosphere.”
“So, what if we both pass through the door and end up in deep space?”, she started reconsidering her options and quickly assessed how long it would take the embassy to verify her citizenship and help her with repatriation procedures.
“I’ve been teaching this class for decades, give me some credit, will you? Since I’m still here, I obviously did not expose myself to space!”, he mumbled in a really crabby mood, which made Taylor assume the class wasn’t exactly proceeding as planned. “And stop looking for a door, a passageway can be anything that connects two otherwise disjointed spaces – a bridge, a crosswalk, a teleconferencing session, a bus. Remember that the return portal always has some property that reminds you of the point of entry. Look around, what do you see that feels reminiscent of the stone gate, it does not have to be physically accurate, it is more of an emotional response. The garage door wasn’t a bad choice, but that’s not it.”
She looked around, but nothing looked familiar, nothing that would draw her attention enough, so she sighed and looked down, surprised by the fact that she’d been standing on top of a storm grille the entire time. “How strange,” she thought, “they make storm grilles out of perforated concrete here,” and then realized that her traveling companion had started laughing.
“Well, I’ve done worse,” he conceded.
“You don’t seriously consider going down this storm drain, do you?” she asked alarmed.
“Unless you want to stay here,” he replied, “that’s our ticket home.”
“And how are we going to go through it together?”, she asked, suddenly recovering her smart-alecness.
“Hold my hand and jump,” he said, and pushed her in first.
“Well, it looks like our class is over, I’ll see you tomorrow at four,” he told her, as if nothing had happened at all, and she realized she was in room number eight, sitting in her chintz chair and looking at the door that opened to her room.
“Don’t forget to read your notes, there will be a quiz later. And take some time to ground yourself and get reacquainted to your surroundings, as I said, time can be a pretty personal experience, you don’t want to look disoriented.”
Taylor went back to her room and took a few minutes to stop shaking, and then just sat on her bed with her arms wrapped around her knees for an indefinite amount of time, her mind voided of any thoughts. She was brought out of her trance-like state, which would have made her the envy of every lady in her mother’s yoga class, by a familiar knock on the door. It was Christine.
“Weren’t we supposed to meet at the cafeteria at four?”, she asked.
“I was there for an hour and a half,” Taylor replied, “I’m surprised you didn’t see me.”
“Well, you must have come in way early, ‘cause it’s only five past five now,” Christine looked at her watch. “And no, I didn’t see you. Where were you sitting?”
Taylor looked at her alarm clock to confirm the time differential.
“Doesn’t matter now,” she said.
“Hey, do you still want to go see a movie later?”, Christine asked.
“I’d love to, but I’ve got a mountain of homework I have to catch up on,” she said, at the same time observing, stunned, that all the assignments had been completed in her own handwriting, and were laying in the same spot where she remembered dropping the neighbor’s notes earlier.
“You don’t have to lie to me, girl,” Christine chided her, “if you don’t want to go, why don’t you just say so?”
“I’m sorry,” Taylor mumbled, confused. “I can’t believe I forgot about finishing these,” she said, staring at the completed assignments, “it’s been a long day. So, do you still want to see that movie?”, she asked her friend, who immediately forgot her grievance, happy to have company for the evening.
“Have you found out who moved in room number eight?”, Christine asked, and her innocent question took Taylor by surprise. She couldn’t figure out whether to tell her friend the truth, a portion of the truth, a vague interpretation of the truth or avoid the question altogether. She opted for the last choice.
“No, not yet. But the good news is they stopped with the noise, whoever they are. They must have finished moving in,” she smiled casually at her friend.
“I’d still go talk to them if I were you. Aren’t you a bit curious what all the fuss was about?” Christine insisted, eyes shining.
“Maybe, I’ve been busy, you know? I’ve got enough on my plate as it is,” Taylor dodged her question. Her friend didn’t really care all that much about the activities in room number eight, she was just trying to show interest in Taylor’s life and strike a conversation, so she deemed the subject exhausted and picked a different one.
“Did your mom call?” she asked, and Taylor realized that she hadn’t checked her phone for almost twelve hours.
“No,” she replied.
“Well, I wouldn’t fret about it, she’s probably busy,” Christine tried to comfort her.
“Yeah, that’s probably it,” Taylor replied, with full knowledge of the fact that the situation begged to differ.
“So, what do you think about school so far?” her friend tried to nudge some conversation out of her.
“What do I think?” Taylor asked herself. She was still doubting her sanity and whether any of the events in the last two days really happened, and she worried that stress must have finally gotten the better of her. Under normal circumstances she would have sought help for her emotional/cognitive dilemma, but she still had a little piece of the storm drain grate in her pocket, a little shard of concrete that had broken off when they strained to dislodge it, and her back still hurt from all the effort it took to do it. Of course a shard of concrete proves nothing to anybody, not even her, but she knew, deep inside her heart, despite reason and causality, that her experience, however unlikely, had been real. “What do I think?” she asked herself, and strained her mind to figure out an answer to the question, one that didn’t involve crumbs of concrete, temporal aberrations and Sydney’s skyline. “What do I think?”
“Oh, I’m sure things are going to settle soon,” she finally said. “It seems a little hectic now.”
“Tell me about it,” Christine picked up the conversation and rolled with it. “My dorm is a total zoo. There is this guy in the room at the end of the hall, I swear he had a party every night since school started, I can barely get any sleep. I just hope once classes pick up for real his coach will set him straight, he can’t do keggers and train for games at the same time, right? Right?” she asked her friend, hopeful for confirmation. “I think he has a football scholarship or something. Do you remember Jennifer?” Taylor didn’t. “Tall, blond, physics major, her brother was one year ahead of us in high school? She attended private school, her mom arranged it, or something. Well, anyway, she’s like totally taken with this guy’s friend, total jock, total douche. He and this guy are on the same team, I think, cause they’re always together and poor Jenny is following them around like a drunk puppy, sometimes I want to shake her and lock her up in her room until she comes to her senses.”
“What’s this other guy like?” Taylor asked, not because she really wanted to know, but any subject that diverted her attention from questioning her own sanity was at this point welcome.
“You know, average build, black hair, glasses. Nothing out of the ordinary.”
Taylor didn’t miss the similarities, but in light of her recent experiences she couldn’t, for the life of her, imagine that there could be any connection between her neighbor and this person, whoever he was, and at any rate it was none of her business.
“Can you believe these guys? I wish I got a free ride all the way through med school for being able to kick a ball around.”
The conversation was interrupted by a text Taylor finally received from her mother, in which the latter described in more detail than usual the latest and greatest from the book club, how she had to change her yoga class because the instructor moved to LA and a new installment in the drama of her friends’ upsets and reconciliations. She didn’t inquire about Taylor’s classes, her accommodations or her new friends. In other words, life had gone back to normal.
“Well, at least some things don’t change,” Taylor thought, grateful to be able to recognize the patterns of her old life, such as they were, and breath a sigh of relief that she hadn’t gone completely off the rails just yet.
The next day, while she was at the library checking out some reference materials for her assignments, Taylor recognized the now familiar stance and ducked behind a stack of shelves to avoid what promised to be an awkward encounter.
“How did you do on your class assignments?” a dreaded voice whispered from behind her.
“Are you following me around or something?” Taylor protested, irritated that her avoidance scheme had backfired.
“You haven’t figured it out yet, have you?” he chuckled. “What time is it?”
“It’s four,” she said.
“Care to sit down? We need to go over your findings. Did you read the notes I assigned?” he asked.
“You mean the homework you did for me?”
“What homework?” he looked really surprised. “You didn’t even look at the notes, did you?” he frowned, displeased, and scrunched his face to bring the glasses back up on the bridge of his nose. “If you think this lackadaisical attitude will allow you to sail through this school you should seriously reconsider your options. For one, you’ll definitely not pass my class, I hate slackers. Here, a copy of the notes. Read them! We won’t advance to the next door until you do.”
He got up before she had a chance to answer, and left behind a stack of papers, both printed and handwritten, highlighted and underlined in several colors.
“’Cause I didn’t have enough reading assignments already, without this exercise in crazy,” Taylor thought. She glanced over the top paper, covered in a fine print that seemed to incorporate some vaguely mathematical formulas, and decided the guy was not all there, and maybe dangerously so, well with this stalking obsession of his, and decided that she should go to the student counsel at her earliest convenience and ask for a room change.
Days passed, and in the rush of classes, assignments and social activities, the doors, the notes and her potentially unstable neighbor fell to the wayside. She was kind of surprised when he didn’t show up at four to disturb whatever activity she happened to be engaged in at the time, and she was even more surprised to notice that the door in the wall between the rooms was gone. She thought she might have dreamed or hallucinated the whole thing, felt glad that the uncomfortable occurrences were a thing of the past and focused on her school work. After a while she found the notes which she had mixed up with those from one of her biology classes, thought they were part of that class syllabus and studied them in detail.
She was kind of surprised as of why she had to learn about the folding of hyperspace and wave harmonics in the middle of a course on phenotypic plasticity and polyphenism, but because she had taken the criticism about her lack of discipline to heart, she did her best to cover the material, even if she hardly understood any of it. She just hoped that whatever this was about would not show up on the midterm, filled in the questionnaire to the best of her abilities and called it done.
The following morning the first thing she saw when she opened her eyes was the damned door on the wall in front of her.
“Oh, God, please make it go away,” she closed her eyes really tight, in the hope that when she opened them again the cursed door will be gone. Fifteen minutes later, it was still there, so she avoided staring at it the best she could, got ready for school and spent every spare minute with her friend Christine and her latest gossip.
On her way back to the dorm she rolled her fingertips over the little shard of concrete in her pocket and wondered what if any of that experience had been real, and if any if it had been, what kind of fool finds herself in Sydney in the blink of an eye and spends her entire time there crying and panicking, instead of looking around and enjoying the view. She vowed that the next time she found herself accidentally stranded in Zanzibar, or Phuket, or some other equally exotic destination, she wasn’t going to repeat that mistake.
Door Number Two – Time
“I have to ponder this rationally,” Taylor thought and quickly put together a plan to address the current situation. Whether it was real or not, she figured all of this weird stuff kept happening to her around four o’clock, and if she managed to avoid her haunting ghost, hallucination, prankster or whatever he was around that time of day she should be fine. Since the thought of locking herself in the women’s restroom for an hour sounded a little bit like overkill, she moved to the next best option, which was spending every single second in Christine’s company.
First, she wanted to assess whether Christine could see her “ghost”, or if he was a hallucination of her stressed out mind, and second, she was kind of hoping that a public setting would deter future kidnapping attempts.
She decided to skip the cafeteria for the day and packed a sandwich to eat on the campus green, a place that always seemed to be very busy around four in the afternoon. So, between Christine’s company, being out in a very crowded space and having a method to verify whether or not she was seeing things, she felt better about herself and proceeded with her day.
Four o’clock came and went, exactly as planned, and despite some trepidation about being approached, which set her on edge and drew slight suspicion from her friend, nobody showed up to disturb their late lunch.
“Well,” she thought, “that’s one way to return to sanity. Nothing to see here, moving on,” she joked to herself, as she and Christine walked to the campus bookstore to pick up supplies for her biology class. It was still early, so Taylor figured maybe she and Christine could go for a pizza later on; the pizzeria was the unofficial hub of social activity on campus and she suddenly thought that maybe hanging out with some of the people in her class wasn’t such a bad idea. Christine replied, a little embarrassed.
“Sorry, Taylor, but I kind of…hhm…have plans for the evening,” she blushed to the root of her hair. Since Taylor looked at her, still confused, she felt obligated to clarify. “I have a date. He’s meeting me at eight, in fact I have to hurry, I’m already late.”
“What on earth do you mean? It can’t be more than five, you’ve got three hours!”
“No, it’s not,” Christine said, “it’s seven forty five, see?” She showed her friend the wall clock. “I’ve got to run! Sorry!” She turned around to exit the bookstore, almost knocking over a person in the process; she stumbled, confused, executed a left-right-left maneuver to go around him, said sorry again several times, blushing even more out of embarrassment, if that were possible, and then finally found a clear path and ran for the door. It was already dark outside, but that didn’t startle Taylor as much as one would have expected, because the person Christine had bumped into was her fateful neighbor.
“At least now I know I’m not imagining him,” she thought, and her brief feeling of relief was immediately replaced by dread when she realized that if this guy was real, then maybe her trip to the other side of the world was too and some new ordeal was sure to follow.
“Hi,” he said, with the conversation tone of an old acquaintance. If anybody in the store saw them talking, they would have assumed the two were good friends, or family, even.
She thought of protesting about their being in the bookstore together, and then she realized how absurd that would sound and reconsidered, while watching the door and thinking up a good parting phrase that would allow her to leave immediately. As always, he seemed to be unperturbed by her body language, which would have made it clear to anybody else that her demeanor was hostile.
“Do you always go out without a coat in the middle of winter? Lucky for you I grabbed one from your closet on the way here.” She handed her a heavy winter coat, which she ripped out of his hands, furious.
“You went through my closet?!” she raised her voice. “That’s outrageous!” She was so upset that she didn’t bother to question the winter comment.
“I realize this is a bit unorthodox, but it was a matter of health, safety and welfare. As I said, I’m responsible for your well-being, I don’t want you to catch pneumonia during my class.”
“There is no class, you lunatic! Leave me alone!” She turned around to leave and the young man followed her.
“Again, I apologize, but I think I made it clear during orientation that you can’t go through the doors alone, it’s school policy.”
“There are no doors!” she snapped.
“Sure there are,” he replied, calm. “There are doors everywhere, I told you already. For instance this one,” he said, just as they were exiting the bookstore.
A blast of icy wind drove freezing rain into her face, sharp and biting as pellets. She was ankle deep in slush, so she jumped instinctively to a spot where her sandals wouldn’t get soaked.
“I should have thought to bring boots too,” he mumbled to himself apologetically. “Well, a thought for next time.”
“There will be no next time!” she replied, putting her coat on and wrapping it around herself to compensate for the wet feet that had started to ache because of the cold.
“You are right about that. Not during this particular class, anyway. You know, we should start walking, it will get the blood flowing, avoid frostbite.”
“I want to go back to my room,” she demanded, upset that the situation was again outside of her control and wondering what tools, if any, she had at her disposal to prevent it from ever happening again.
“That’s a good idea, you can put on some socks and boots there. Let’s go,” he prodded, seeing how she had stopped, stubbornly, to pick up a fight in the middle of the street.
“You don’t expect me to go on some other goose chase after that, do you?” she confronted him.
“I thought you decided to take more chances, enjoy the surprises life has to offer.”
“How could you possibly know…” she thought, because she hadn’t told a soul about her recent reassessment of events.
“Are you coming? My feet are getting numb,” he continued, in a sour mood.
“You are going to tell me everything about this,” she walked ahead, her teeth chattering so hard they made her words rattle; the effect was comical, not exactly the serious rebuke she was going for.
“Of course,” he mimicked her chattering, “that’s why I’m here.”
“Obviously it’s not September anymore. When are we?”
“Care to venture a guess?” he asked. “Look around, what does it look like?”
“Winter,” she pointed out in a sarcastic tone.
“Yeah, but what year?” he replied.
“Holy ghost!” she was instantly filled with fear. A guy passed her by, donning a stuffy mustache and hefty sideburns that rubbed against the lapels of his shearling coat. The bottom of his pants was uncomfortably wide, and since they had already gotten wet and frozen, they whipped around his legs at every step in a manner that looked simply painful.
Taylor was so absorbed in the observation of fashions past that she almost bumped into a young woman with long flowy hair and long loose clothing that employed way more fabric than necessary; it almost floated around her, in the wind, and made her look like a ghost. She had the forlorn stare of a ghost, too, in Taylor’s opinion, even though she had to admit to herself that this was just a personal opinion, and not a fact, since she had never seen a ghost before, and therefore wasn’t an expert in the looks of the departed, or their distant gazes.
“Ready to guess yet?” he said, growing impatient. “It’s really cold, the sooner you get this, the sooner we get out of here.”
“I don’t know. 1968?” she said.
“What are we doing in 1970?” she asked, as if it was normal.
“Going through door number two,” he answered.
“And you couldn’t take us to Paris in spring, circa 1940?”
“Really? You thought landing in the middle of the Nazi occupation would have been the better option? Besides, the second door is about when, not where. You didn’t change location.”
“Why pick the dead of winter? I’m in sandals!” she protested.
“To shake you out of your complacency, for one. You’re arguing with me instead of learning everything you can about this experience. This is not your run of the mill campus walk, you know?” he counterpointed in a reproachful tone. “I wonder if there is anything in existence that would persuade you to notice the world you are part of, just once!”
“It hasn’t changed much,” she replied tentatively, looking around. “If these people weren’t here I wouldn’t even notice the…” She stopped in the middle of the sentence and her attitude turned bellicose. “You set this up, didn’t you? Are those two your weirdo friends dressed up in costume?!”
“Seriously?” he looked up at the snow fall that seemed to be picking up. “Exactly how wedded are you to the conviction that everything outside of what you know does not exist? I’ve met fanatics more inclined to keep an open mind!”
“But,” she tried to excuse her previous outburst, “everything looks almost exactly the same, the buildings, the bookstore, the campus!”
“It’s the historical character! It’s not supposed to change, right? Part of the prestige,” he smiled. “Things stay unchanged as long as there are enough people who don’t want them to change. Oh, I love those!” he said, pulling a quarter out of the front pocket of his jeans to pay for “Just like Dad” bubble gum cigarettes.
“Isn’t the clerk going to notice that you’re paying with the wrong money?” she asked.
“Money hasn’t changed that much either. Besides, who checks the coin for the year it was minted? Especially in the seventies,” he burst out laughing.
“Do you know?” she tried to catch him unprepared.
“Of course. 1970.” He drew closer to whisper in her ear. “I checked, just in case. As I said, I’ve been doing this for a very long time.”
They turned the corner and the dorm building was suddenly in view, the open structure of it, that is, wrapped in plastic to protect it from exposure to the elements.
“Why are you stopping?” he turned around, annoyed by the delay. The snow storm was growing heavy and as night advanced, a bitter cold had started settling in. “Come on, we have to go, can you still feel your feet?”
“Go where?” she started whimpering again. “There’s nothing there.”
“We don’t have time for this,” he grabbed her arm, pushing her forward.
“I’m not going in there, are you insane? It’s a vacant construction site at night, in the middle of winter!”
“So, you want to do what, stay in the seventies?”
“Better than falling to my death or getting my feet stuck in cement!”
“Well, I don’t. They had a draft in the seventies, I’m not sticking around to experience it.”
“Where is your spirit of discovery, your quest for the miracle of life?” she couldn’t help herself.
“Ah, sarcasm, so you are not frozen solid. Move faster!” he demanded.
“How do you even want to get to the second floor, there is no stair!” she protested, and she realized she was so cold she couldn’t feel her cheeks.
He didn’t answer, just pointed to the ladder in the elevator shaft, which was already in place because its anchors had to be embedded in concrete.
“And then what? Balance on the beam?” she retorted. “This looks like the kind of dump where they find bodies several months later! I’m not going in!”
“Hey! You! Stop right there!” a police officer on patrol pointed a flashlight at them, trying to distinguish movement through the thickening snow.
“We’re trespassing,” Taylor’s companion whispered. “It’s this or jail, what’s it going to be?” he pointed at a narrow concrete beam that connected the elevator shaft to the back wall.
“And then do what? There is no way out!”
“Do you think I’m going up there to perch on the beam like a snowy owl? Make up your mind one way or the other, I’ll say at this point the thought of a warm meal and a bed, even behind bars, is really appealing to me.”
“Looks like we made it back,” he said, “and just in time for class.” The campus tower clock struck four.
“You have to be kidding me! I’m sure I have frostbite, and I’m going to figure out where as soon as I can feel my body. No type of instruction will occur until I find out how many of my toes I get to keep!”
“I’m sure you’ll be fine, we haven’t been out that long,” he dismissed her. “So, the temporal door, my least favorite; it appears that you successfully made it through it.”
“Define successfully,” she retorted.
“Well, you’re back here, and you are the same age you were when you crossed over.”
“Could you please elaborate on the less successful crossings?”
“Well, it can take some people some time to find the portal back, it can be days, it can be years. Some never find it and have to wait for the time to actually pass, you would be an old lady by now.”
“And you are telling me this after the fact? Didn’t I have the right to know about these risks before and not after?”
“Why do you think I’m coming with you everywhere? If anything happens, it will happen to both of us, I’d say that’s motivation to keep you safe right there.”
“Quite frankly, sharing a horrible fate with you doesn’t give me much comfort.”
“As I previously mentioned, this is a comfort free zone. Remember how you wanted to stay in the seventies because the alternative seemed insane? Do you think you’re the first person who decided to make that choice?”
“Why didn’t you? It seemed like the sane thing to do,” she asked, rubbing her feet together under the chintz pillows to make blood circulation resume.
“Because I knew the door was there,” he replied. “It’s like refusing to get into a car to go somewhere just because you haven’t seen one before.”
“So, if you are going to grab me from wherever I happen to be at the time, why go through the trouble to build this absurd set, the room of doors,” she mocked, looking around.
“I wouldn’t have to chase you all over campus if you showed up for class on time, like we discussed. It’s much safer to go through these doors, which have one to one controlled access, than having to hack through whatever door in creation happens to lead back here.”
“What’s the next door?”
“And I’m going to assume that we’re going through it no matter where I try to hide tomorrow at four.”
“That is correct.”
“But why? I didn’t choose this, I just want my life back,” she whined.
“Somebody enrolled you in this class, which requires your consent. Do you remember filing the paperwork?”
“I don’t know, there were so many forms, maybe it was a clerical error?” she frowned, trying to remember if she, even accidentally, registered for a class with a name as ridiculous as Wayfinding Systems and in all honesty she didn’t think so.
“Well, it doesn’t matter, you are enrolled now, which means the doors will show up until you’re done with them. I don’t understand why you are so recalcitrant about learning, it’s knowledge, what’s it going to cost you to master it?”
“Oh, I don’t know, a few decades of my life, toes, maybe,” she checked on her frozen feet which had started regaining feeling and were now available for throbbing pain. “Losing my mind,” she continued enumerating. “Don’t tell me that never happened before.”
“Nothing in life is without risk. As I said, that’s why I’m here, to mitigate it.”
Her body had defrosted by now, and she felt very warm and kind of drowsy, to the displeasure of her guide.
“Don’t fall asleep in class, for God’s sake! This is unacceptable! We need to review our findings. What did you learn today?”
“I wasn’t as concerned with my education as I was with getting back alive and in one piece if possible,” she protested, suddenly alert.
“You are wrong about that. You were concerned with your safety the first time too, and still, you managed to learn something. Don’t rush it, it will come to you.” Since she was quiet and kind of drowsy again, he continued talking.
“You know, I hate the temporal door. You always have go to the past, which is kind of pointless, since you already know what happened, or at least can find out, and there is always somebody there who notices that you don’t belong and gets you in trouble. Every single time!”
“Why not go to the future?” she asked, suddenly curious.
“Some totally unreasonable rule, people got brainwashed with the concept of temporal paradoxes, it’s almost like a religion, there is no explanation or demonstration that will convince them. The second you mention traveling into the future they start looking at you like you want to bring about the end of the world.”
“But isn’t traveling into the past the type of time travel that has potential for temporal paradoxes?”
“Precisely!” he pointed out sharply.
“So, is there any chance that my being there might have altered something?” she started worrying.
“Don’t tell me you believe this hogwash,” he said, disappointed. “Maybe you bruised that nice lady you bumped into, what if her life was negatively impacted by that? You should look her up, make sure she’s OK.”
She started to protest, but the door opening to her room had come back and that signaled that the class was over.
“Could you please do me a personal favor and be here on time tomorrow so we don’t have to dig ourselves out of a trash compactor or some other awful setting?”
She nodded and left, happy to have regained feeling in all ten of her toes. Suddenly she remembered something and turned around.
“What about me being both with Christine on the campus green and with you here at four o’clock. Isn’t that impossible, like being in two places at once?”
“And what makes that impossible?” he laughed at her. “See, I told you it would come to you! You just have to give it a little time.”
“So, where was I at four, really?”
“Do you remember both experiences?”
“Then you were both here and there.”
“But…” she started protesting again.
“I swear, if you utter the word ‘impossible’ one more time I’m going to lose it!”
“That assumes you had it to begin with, and from where I’m standing, it doesn’t look that way,” she thought in complete silence.
“I would appreciate a more respectful demeanor!” he admonished. “You wouldn’t dream of displaying this flippant attitude in your Biology class. Why don’t you confirm with Christine that the two of you spent the afternoon together?”
“How do you know her name?” she asked, suspicious.
“Other than the fact that you mentioned it to me? I’m on the student advisory committee.”
The second she got back to her room she heard Christine knock on the door. She was so relieved to return to normality, even a small respite made her feel like a huge weight was lifted off her chest.
“Hey, girl! Are you done with your homework?”
Taylor didn’t want to repeat the absurd conversation from the previous day and checked before she answered. The assignments were finished and looked like they took hours to complete.
“How on earth did you finish these so fast, they took me hours!” Christine mirrored her thoughts, with a perplexed look in her eyes.
“Great! I’m sure it will serve me well in the future to have somebody else have learned all of this in my stead. I’ll have to talk to,” and here she remembered she hadn’t yet learned the young man’s name, “about it.”
What kind of irresponsible person risks her life in the company of somebody she just met and whose name she doesn’t even know? Certainly not Taylor, who, in response to the constant melodrama that had accompanied her growing up, had developed a level of practicality and level-headedness unusual for a person her age.
“Well, I guess I had some peace and quiet and a bit of time to really focus on the material,” she lied through her teeth, trying very hard to stifle a giggle.
“Say, did you get the stirrers for Bio? I thought maybe we could swing by the bookstore together a little later and get some. I saw they had them yesterday.”
“Sure,” Taylor said, fascinated by the flawlessly logical unfolding of her time loop, in awe at the perfection of existence. “I wonder what would happen if I decided not to go?”
“Great! I’ll go change and then I’ll come back to pick you up. Hey, I forgot to ask you earlier on campus, during lunch. Have you talked to your neighbor yet?”
Taylor had a fraction of a second to decide what to tell her friend, and in that fraction of the second she saw herself listening to her own story with an astonished look on her face. There wasn’t a person in the world who would accept her preposterous description of events without reaching for a straitjacket, so she decided to spare herself the discomfort of awkward conversations and pushed the subject to the back burner, right where it belonged. It wasn’t anybody’s business anyway, and at best Christine would think she was making fun of her, so she smiled and answered in the most natural tone she could muster.
“No, you know, I haven’t run into him yet. Maybe we’ll see him around campus, right? I hear he is a student adviser.”
“Oh, no! Please tell me he’s not the prick I was supposed to meet yesterday and who didn’t show up. His name isn’t Bradford too, by any chance? I thought that was a weird coincidence.”
“I wouldn’t know. Say, you want to go grab a pizza afterward?” Taylor tested her time loop theory to see if Christine was going to bring up her date. She didn’t, and she was happy to accompany her friend, since she had no plans for the evening.
Taylor watched her leave, suddenly curious about the alternate unfolding of events and waited anxiously for her friend’s return.
Christine showed up an hour and a half later, all dressed up and looking distracted, and was unusually quiet on the way to the bookstore. They got their supplies and were getting ready to leave, when Christine confessed, greatly embarrassed, that she just got asked on a date and she felt bad about leaving her friend stranded.
“Hey,” Taylor thought, “if I left the park around five and while I was here the clock showed seven forty five, isn’t that going forward in time?” The thought of breaking one of the school rules, even unbeknownst to her, made her uncomfortable, and then she realized how absurd it was for her to feel guilty over a fresh squeezed rule she didn’t have a clue existed a few hours ago, and even more, might be but a figment of her overheated imagination. What kind of person just takes to every rule she’s given like a baby to the bottle, all of those sacred rules society seems so eager to dole out, without trying to at least understand why it exists or what it means for her? The world as she knew it seemed to be more or less the same, no sign of the impending Apocalypse that she could notice right off the bat, so maybe her guide was right, it was a pointless rule. She shuddered to think how many of those she had already bent her life around, but most importantly, how many of the ‘musts’ that defined her existence right now were obsolete, generic or simply wrong. A trip forward through the time portal meant that she could, at least in theory, skip over many decades of her life and emerge at some distant point in the future, maybe even a point far beyond her natural death. Surely, if this was the first thing that came to her mind, there must be people wandering all the way up and down the time line; who was to say that all of those who never found their way back from their trips to the past were really lost?
She still couldn’t make heads or tails of the fact that she got to live those critical six hours twice, shook her head to chase away the crazy and realized that Christine had been talking the entire time and she couldn’t remember a word she’d said.
Fortunately for her, Christine was just wrapping up her excuse, with profuse apologies and the looks of a guilty cat, and since she was already late she pointed out she had to run, bumped into somebody on her way to the door and to Taylor’s great disillusionment, that somebody was not her neighbor. He sort of looked like him, same black hair, beard, glasses, dark tshirt, but definitely a different person.
“So much for my theories,” her entire scaffolding of logic and sanity collapsed and she found herself back to square one, to her ‘is this real or imagined’ dilemma, like in a nightmare game of chutes and ladders.
Door Number Three – Alternate Realities
“Have the lessons from yesterday’s field trip reached you yet?” he asked, smiling politely.
“More than I care to process,” she thought, still upset about the musts and the have to’s, but she answered in the same good mannered vein. “A few, I’m still analyzing them.”
“Just remember, before we go through door number three, that not every rule is there to be broken, but it helps, every now and then, to question your assumptions. It seems fitting, since we are on this subject, and given that all of these doors look more or less the same, to remind you of a rule that you shouldn’t be breaking. Do you remember what I warned you about during our first encounter?”
“Don’t go through door number eight,” she recited, trying very hard to suppress an eye roll.
“You say that, but you don’t believe it, not in your heart, anyway,” he probed her with a sharp gaze, and then, not finding what he was looking for, continued, slightly disappointed. “Anyway, ready when you are,” he took a bow, pointing towards the door.
“What’s through there?”
They stepped through the door and found themselves back in her room and she didn’t feel any different at first, she just noticed some slight alterations in her clothing and hairstyle, alterations that suggested a substantially heftier monthly allowance.
“So, what now?” she asked.
“Nothing, let’s go out.”
“Where are you taking me?” she smiled.
“I wouldn’t want to spoil the surprise,” he smirked. They walked in silence towards the library, whose recently finished addition glistened in the afternoon sun.
“Welcome to the Bradford Science Wing,” he mock curtsied, very amused by her stunned expression.
“Any connection?” she asked him, remembering that among the plethora of weird that surrounded their interaction there was also the minor detail of their sharing a last name. She thought maybe he came from money.
“That’s not exactly right, it’s you who are an heiress, Miss Bradford.”
“Get out of here!”
“You should be able to remember all the details of your life here. In this alternate time line that’s who you’ve always been.”
She did remember, her entire life so far, in fact, the schools she had gone to, her home, her vacations with her parents, the fact that her father was alive, the admission process, the perfection standards she had always held herself to, her pets, her friends, her plans for the future.
“But how?” she asked.
“Oh, I don’t know, there are so many choices in our lives it’s almost impossible to figure out what precise collection thereof led to this specific outcome. Do you remember that technological process your father was working on but never managed to get off the ground? That’s Bradford Industries. Beyond that, I’m not sure. You would be surprised of the impact of even minor decisions. How do you feel?”
“I don’t know, I’m still trying to get used to it. The same, I guess.”
“You know, when I just started teaching this class I thought showing people idealized versions of their lives would be a mistake, that it would make them feel burdened by their current circumstances and disappointed with themselves. Imagine my surprise to learn that, even at their most privileged, in their heart they felt exactly the same. I heard it over and over again.” He glanced at her to see if he should continue. “Although I must say that some people did decide to stay in the ‘better’ version.”
Taylor kept ruminating as they walked around the library, to see the addition from all angles.
“The truth is I have to scour the alternate lives for hours, sometimes days, to find the particular stream where everything is as close to the standards of perfection people expect from existence as possible. More often than not lives are externally driven and random, and all of the things that can happen to somebody will happen in at least one of the streams.”
“You mean there are alternate lives where I’m already dead?” she asked.
“Absolutely,” he replied immediately. “About half of them. At every point in your life, being alive or dead is a binary choice, isn’t it? Hey, would you like to see your tombstone?”
“Pass. So, if everything here is as close to being perfect as possible, why not stay?” she uttered the question she was dying to ask. “Personal fortune not withstanding, my father is alive, for instance. That alone makes this life better.”
“And you figure this Taylor’s future will be better than the old one’s?”
“I don’t know, it just feels like starting out at an advantage will automatically make for a better life. I wouldn’t have to worry about money, like, ever,” she enumerated.
“Why are you so sure about that? There is no guarantee that if you stay here you’ll get to keep your fortune. It’s definitely possible,” he postulated. “You have to realize that all the choices you make, even the ones you consider inconsequential, change the trajectory of your life. Considering that we make hundreds of choices a day, imagine how difficult it would be to predict their combined outcome. Furthermore, you can only make choices about things if you know they exist.”
“Like the Wayfinding Systems class?” she mocked.
“How it is that you don’t see that as a privilege it’s beyond me,” he did not get upset.
“So, is there a room number eight in this life?” she asked.
“I honestly don’t know, I only have so much time to prepare for class. Do you want to go check it out?”
“But didn’t we just come out of it as a means to getting here?”
“Remind me to explain one way doors to you sometime.”
“So, what if I decide to stay here anyway?” she insisted.
“A percentage of the people who go through the doors decide to stay wherever they happened to lead, you have free choice, I can’t force you to go back.”
“What about the remaining five doors?”
“There are people who went through those other doors too and decided to stay there,” he answered. “And they are the remaining four doors. Don’t go through door number eight, remember?”
“That’s a bunch of crap, to tell you the truth. Why put a door there if you’re not supposed to go through it? This is a test, isn’t it?” she tried to get a reaction out of him.
“A test of what?”
“A choice between all this and the doors,” she blurted.
“First of all, it’s not an either or, there is no rule that you can’t have both, and second, if there was one, what would you choose?”
“This isn’t fair!” she protested.
“Of course it isn’t. Under normal circumstances you would be going to classes and not even dream of choosing between being an heiress and experiencing folded reality. Most people don’t. How is that fair?”
“So that’s what this is? Folded reality?”
“That’s one way to describe it,” he conceded.
“What else is there?”
“Why don’t you experience it and find out?” he smiled.
“This was a test, wasn’t it?” she started laughing. “And you already knew the outcome!”
“I like to believe that I’m a reasonably good judge of character, so, yes, I kind of did.”
“Can we head back now?”
“What’s the rush, Miss Bradford, don’t you want to see your library wing?”
“Technically it’s part of the school’s library, and it was my father who provided for its construction, so I don’t see how that makes it mine, but, by all means, lead the way, I wouldn’t want to miss it.”
“There is one thing that you definitely should get out of this experience. Remember how I asked you if you felt any differently about yourself now that you are born of privilege and you said no? That should be a reminder that regardless of your circumstances you never were and never will be anything other than an equal to your fellow men, regardless of their station in life. Circumstances are a lot more fickle and transient than people believe them to be, both the good ones and the bad ones, but no matter what goes or stays, you remain.”
They continued exploring the surroundings, noticing what was the same, what was different, and after about an hour they headed back to the dorm.
“It’s been my experience that this is a difficult choice for people to make, to walk through a door between the ‘perfect’ life and whatever wonders are still veiled by the great unknown, and no matter what they choose they always feel disempowered, like they have lost, not gained something. It’s a purely emotional reaction, but a very powerful one, so we decided after a few years to leave that door unlocked, so that people always have that option of the perfect life available to go back to, if they so choose. It makes it easier for them to take a chance on being open to new things if they don’t feel crushed by the bitterness of somehow having forfeited their one chance to happiness.”
“Why don’t we concentrate on your instruction for now?” he smiled enigmatically.
“Do people ever go back?” Taylor asked.
“Sometimes, but they never stay. In all the decades I have taught this class, none of those who originally decided to return go back through door number three in order to stay.”
“I guess people get used to considering their present activities a better use of their time.”
“You mean like realizing they are too old for the Merry-Go-Round?”
“Something like that.”
“What about my father?”
“You can go back and visit if you’d like, but don’t let too much time pass, you don’t know what is going to happen in either reality, the farther you are from this point in time, the wider the futures branch out and the lower the probability that what you’ll find upon walking through that door looks like it does now.”
“You do know what’s going to happen here, don’t you?”
“I took a peek,” he finally admitted.
“He’s not going to be here much longer, is he?”
“What makes you think this is about him?”
She didn’t expect to be presented with a version of events where her no longer being alive was an actual possibility. Like most young people, she had explored the concept of life and death only from a philosophical perspective, not a practical one.
“So, you purposefully took me to and were willing to leave me in a reality where I am supposed to check out early, and very soon no less? So much for the one to one controlled doors, I feel a lot safer now! Are you actively trying to extinguish me?”
“I never said that you were going to die, but hypothetically speaking, if that were the case I would have tried to convince you to reconsider, with all the persuasive means at my disposal, and they are not meager. Second, free will is free will, if you thought that was a choice worth making, even for a short time, it was your right to pursue it, since you are the one burdened with its consequences. Third, as I said, the futures are branching out even as we speak; who is to say that one of those choices wouldn’t have changed the outcome, and last, for the people who decide to stay there is no amount of explanation, demonstration or supplication that would convince them you don’t want to rip them off, or take away their chance, somehow, so I learned not to preach what I think is the better option.”
“Why didn’t you search until you found another life, where I could have had all of that without an untimely demise?”
“Because there is no such thing as the perfect life. Way too many choices to keep under control. For what it’s worth, the Taylor that you will become is going to be wealthier than the Taylor in that life.”
Taylor was eager to meet with Christine, she felt a little off and she was hoping for a kind word, or even mundane gossip, accompanied by revoltingly unhealthy comfort food. She went to Christine’s dorm right after class and passed by the guy with the smiling eyes and the lightness of being just as her friend was opening the door. The latter looked very upset, and to Taylor’s total shock, upset at her.
“What’s going on?” she asked her friend. It was definitely not what she was hoping to get out of this interaction.
“You can have that dog if you like him so much!” Christine snapped, furious.
“What did I do? I don’t understand! Christine?”
“Don’t tell me you didn’t just stare at him right now!”
“Oh, I so don’t need this crap right now,” Taylor thought, and got ready to turn around and go back to her room, or the library, or anywhere else where this revolting melodrama was not.
“So you just figured you’d walk away from me, didn’t you? You come back in here right now, you owe me that much! You know, Taylor, I never pegged you for a two-faced backstabber, but I guess I was wrong, wasn’t I?”
“Can you at least tell me what you are upset about?” Taylor decided, against every instinct in her body, to stick around and get to the bottom of this scene. The melodrama promised to turn a lot more familiar to her than she was willing to endure. “Any moment now she is going to call me a selfish and ungrateful brat who has no idea how hard life really is.”
“You want to tell me that you didn’t go out with Matt the other night?”
“Who is Matt?” Taylor asked, really surprised.
“Like you don’t know he’s my boyfriend! Or…was. I’m so done with that philandering slime! Men are pigs!” she declared, and the last of the comments seemed to have let out some of her rage. Unfortunately that also allowed enough rationality back into her psyche to turn back the battery on her friend again. “I know you two were out together, I saw you! How could you do this to me, Taylor?”
“How is he your boyfriend?” Taylor blurted out, confused over the term, not realizing she had unnecessarily painted herself into a little penalty corner of fiery disdain. “You went on your first date two days ago!”
“And that gives you license to steal him from me? Is this the kind of friend you are, Taylor?”
“It wasn’t me, I swear! Do you want me to swear to you? How can I make you believe me?” the latter interrupted, exasperated, trying to end this absurd conversation.
“Oh, yeah? OK.” Christine decided to fake prosecutorial calm. “What were you doing yesterday at four thirty?”
“Of course there were strings attached!” Taylor thought, instantly irritated. “How could I be so stupid to trust that miserable…If I don’t almost die of exposure or get picked up for illegal border crossing, there has to be some other unpalatable consequence, hasn’t it?” She quickly decided that two could play this game, and told her friend what she knew to be the truth, without any additional explanations.
“I was at the library to check out the plans for the new science wing.”
“With whom?” Christine continued, unrelenting.
“With my next door neighbor. We finally got acquainted.”
“And you just happened not to know that he’s Matt’s best friend?” Christine’s anger resumed. “They spend all their time together, there is no way Matt wasn’t there too!”
“Believe it,” Taylor started looking again for ways to wrap up this ridiculous circus performance, for which she had absolutely no taste.
“Swear to me that you aren’t hitting on him. Swear to me and I’ll believe you!” Christine attacked her, with a crazed look in her eyes.
“Christine, I don’t care about your boyfriend, or ex-boyfriend, or whatever he is at this time. I’m sorry I bothered you, I’m late for class now, I have to go.”
“You are lying! I saw your roster, you don’t have any classes right now, I know you are going to see him, do you think I’m stupid?”
Taylor knew from past experience that there was no rational explanation she could come up with to convince this person her friend had turned into that she wasn’t entitled to her righteous anger, so she just turned around and left, and as she did she heard the door slam noisily behind her.
“How lucky am I that they still make soup!” she thought, instantly comforted by the thought of something warm and savory to eat. “Food never lets you down,” she thought, “no matter how despicable people are, I can still enjoy soup.”
Fate works in mysterious ways, it seems, because the cafeteria was out of soup, and so was every single food establishment from one end of the campus to the other; all they had to offer were day old baked goods and soggy salad.
“Thanks, jerk!” she thought, and caught herself looking up to address the admonition as if her self-appointed guide was there; she got even more irritated that somehow in her mind the bane of her existence belonged upstairs and/or had anything to do with the absence of her favorite food. “Comfort free zone indeed!” she continued ranting inside her head. She missed the step off the curb and tore an essential strand of her sandal, accident which made said piece of footwear unusable. “This keeps getting better and better, doesn’t it?” her exasperation grew, and she walked funny all the way to the shoe store, which just happened to be at the opposite end of the campus, to buy new footwear; as she was paying for it, she noticed that the locksmith had already charged her for fixing the door lock, despite the fact that he wasn’t planning to show up for another couple of weeks.
“God, I hate people!” she thought, exasperated, and mused philosophically that it’s often the little things in life that build up to make it unbearable, and not the epic tragedies. Her mind got instantly flooded, in response to this ungrateful thought, with a never ending stream of maternal reproaches around the subject, phrases with which she was so well acquainted she could recite them in her sleep, and she feared she occasionally did. Strangely enough, today she was loathed to notice she agreed with one or two of her mother’s opinions, much as she was trying not to. Like, for instance, the fact that many people would be happy to have any food at all, even if it came in the guise of soggy bread and sour salad.
She tried to show some gratitude for the ability to procure herself some form of nourishment, even if spiritual enlightenment hadn’t hit her hard enough to make her actually eat the soggy salad sandwich, and she settled for a bag of chips and a cup of coffee instead. Her better spirits were finally returning and she had drunk about half of her delicious coffee, when a couple of roughhousing dudes knocked it out of her hand and continued their laughing and horseplay without even noticing their hapless victim.
“OK! That does it! I’ve had it with the stupid day, the nut job friend, the la-la land room and the human nightmare next door! Life is hard enough without other people messing it up!” While she was thinking this, a new and wondrous idea dawned on her: door number three was still open, what if she went in that other reality and availed herself of the opportunities her fortune provided to scour the land far and wide and find that cup of soup she really wanted? This thought seemed like the most brilliant and innovative idea she had ever had. “See?” she thought, “if you adapt a positive attitude towards life, the answers will come to you.”
She made an effort to ignore the fight with Christine and her friend’s ranting like a maniac over that eminently forgettable boyfriend of hers and walked faster towards the dorm, in anticipation of a luxurious and well deserved cup of soup from the other side of reality.
The street was crowded, much more than she remembered it being on other days, and from the shoe store to her dorm no less than seventeen people she barely knew stopped her to strike a conversation, and all the conversations dragged on and on, centered on those other people’s plans, upsets, indisputable righteousness and, God help her, hurt feelings, and she had to listen patiently to their complaints and rationalizations so they didn’t think she was raised by wolves. She could have, of course, interjected a mild complaint of her own, but the thought of whining over a torn sandal strand, soggy bread and spilled coffee felt kind of embarrassing. Maybe her mother was right and she never had any real problems after all. Christine, well, that was another story, and certainly not one meant for public debate, because even in ranting form Christine was her best friend and her romantic problems were none of these people’s business. She grew more and more impatient and irate the closer she got to the dorm, and her mood was now shot to such a degree that a cup of soup and pampered service weren’t going to restore it.
“Aahm, would you mind finding somewhere else to go for a couple of hours?” the maintenance guy stopped her on the stairs. “We bug bombed the building to get rid of the ants, and you can’t be in your room until then.”
“Of course I can’t! Why could I? Well, that makes all the sense in the world, doesn’t it?” she turned on her heels, not even angry anymore at the fact that God, the universe, her imaginary neighbor, or existence itself had simply decided to deny her a cup of soup that day. Taylor had never believed in coincidences, so the concept that this whole string of events simply happened didn’t sit well with her. She figured she’ll find out the answer eventually; strange as it may seem, life always provided her with explanations, even if much later, so she had learned to have patience and understand them when they finally arrived.
She shrugged off the upset that had been building throughout the day and went to the bookstore, then the library, where she found many items of interest, stopped to research some things she wanted to learn for some time now, finished her school assignments for the following day, checked out a traveling exhibit that was only there that evening, enjoyed a beautiful sunset and found her favorite jacket, which she had lost, in the library’s lost and found bin.
It was already dark when she headed back to the dorm, and as she walked up the stairs to her room the acrid smell of bug spray hit her nostrils in a nauseating combination of insecticide and flowers, hyacinths, she guessed, and she wished she could sleep somewhere else, at least for the night, until the air cleared; that made her remember the fight she had with Christine, who would have been the obvious choice for her rescue. She sighed, continued climbing and tried to get used to the smell.
People change over their lifetime, it’s all part of learning and growing, but there are a few core components of one’s personality that will survive just about anything. Those few traits are essential in defining you as a person, and as such, to use a computer term, are write protected, because their modification would be too damaging for the self to maintain structural integrity. Such traits are not always endearing, of course, and Taylor’s stubbornness was an example of such a trait. As those unfortunate enough to be on the receiving end of this quality of hers knew, once she had made up her mind about a specific plan not even the end times could move her from her purpose. It just so happened that at this point in her life Taylor’s purpose was to procure for herself and enjoy a cup of soup. When other people are exposed to the miracles of the universe beyond their understanding, they usually covet fame, fortune, beauty, or eternal youth. Taylor just wanted her cup of soup.
The first thing she did, therefore, upon waking up the next day, was to pretty herself up and walk through door number three to hunt the desired broth at the cafeteria inside ‘her’ library wing. Her attire didn’t change when she passed through the door this time, and she congratulated herself for wearing something new and pretty, and which made her feel good about herself.
On the way to the library she remembered that she was in fact meeting her best friend Jessica and her newest boyfriend, Matt. What surprised Taylor was the absolute consistency of this alternate universe; one would have thought, under the circumstances, that meeting with the person who had created such gratuitous drama in her other life the day before, to aid and abet in the behavior that ended up generating said drama would have engendered intolerable cognitive dissonance in Taylor’s mind, but this whole alternate scenario felt absolutely natural to her.
She had just walked through the door of the cafeteria when she noticed Jessica’s gaze assessing her countenance with the cold and impartial demeanor of a sixty four slice CAT scan machine. “She hates my outfit,” the thought immediately popped up in Taylor’s mind, she had known Jessica since kindergarten and she could read her unspoken signals like no other.
“Did the airport lose your luggage?” Jessica asked casually. The superior attitude would have annoyed Taylor under different circumstances, but she’d been known to throw a barb or two in her day, so she chose to retort instead.
“No. When did you start dyeing your own hair? It looks a bit frizzy.”
“As if!” Jessica tried to act unaffected by the comment, but surreptitiously checked the tips of her flawless hairstyle for any evidence of split ends and decided to start shopping around for a new hairstylist. Lucky for Taylor, she was not aware of having had negatively impacted the fate of a hardworking person she didn’t even know, so she was spared the guilt.
“Hi, Matt,” Taylor acknowledged the presence of the second person at the table. The latter barely looked at her and continued checking his phone; whatever it was that he was following on it was obviously more important than displaying good manners.
“Oh, ignore him, he’s in the dog house,” Jessica dismissed the behavior of her boyfriend with the same detachment one would use to watch a cat cross the street. She continued talking about him in the third person, as if he wasn’t there. “Can you believe he’s trying to sweet talk that pathetic little thing, what’s her name, Christine, is it?” she suddenly turned to Matt for confirmation. Matt ignored her.
Taylor started feeling very uncomfortable about being set up as the default arbiter in this quasi-domestic spat. Jessica had an almost acquisitive approach to relationships, and her current fondness for Matt, if one wanted to call it that, was no different in many ways from the attachment she had for her terrier, and demanded the same qualities in return: good looks, perfect grooming and absolute obedience. Taylor didn’t know whether to feel sorry for Matt or be annoyed at him for souring what she was hoping would be a good day, and then figured that this second episode in the Matt melodrama really didn’t concern her and let Jessica go on with her description of the situation while she browsed the menu for the coveted food item. She found soup on the list and her face lit up for a second with the ineffable joy only the simple pleasures of life can bring.
“Apparently they belong to the same study group,” Jessica explained. “Isn’t that how we met, sweetheart?” she asked Matt, who ignored her again.
“OK,” Taylor thought. “The price of this cup of soup is getting ridiculously high, maybe I should just give up and spare myself the view from the other side of this unholy love triangle.” She was thinking up an excuse, not an easy feat, mind you, since she and Jessica, as previously mentioned, had known each other since kindergarten.
“Christine!!” Jessica continued mercilessly. “Can you believe it?” she said, and upon noticing that Taylor was still looking at the menu, she changed her tone. “I’m sorry, dear, am I boring you? It seems you found yourself a new hobby,” she smiled bitterly. “You should really watch that comfort eating, the pounds tend to sneak up on you.” She bent sideways to observe the seat of Taylor’s chair. “Oops, it looks like it’s already too late.”
“What’s wrong with Christine?” Taylor decided to throw a sharp little knife in response. “She looks like a very nice girl.”
“Well, at least that part is true,” she thought. The waiter was there, smiling and waiting for them to order.
“Can I have a cup of soup, please?” she smiled back at him. “Thank you.”
“OK, that’s it!” Jessica snapped, exasperated, grabbing the menu out of her hands. “What’s wrong with you?”
“What do you mean?”
“Since when do you eat soup? Oh, my God! Is your family going though financial trouble? You are always welcome to stay in one of my apartments, you know that, right?”
“As appealing as this sounds,” Taylor thought, and replied out loud. “What makes you think we’re having financial difficulty?”
“Why else would you consider eating soup for lunch?” Jessica answered, as if it was totally obvious to anybody with the proper pedigree, while the waiter was still standing behind them, smiling and waiting patiently for a decision to be made. Taylor noticed him and nodded to confirm that she indeed wanted soup, mortified by the awkwardness of the situation and hoping he didn’t hold it against her. The guy jotted down the order and left; he didn’t seem to care much, they probably weren’t the first group of unpleasant people he had to deal with that day.
“You need an intervention,” Jessica said decisively. Taylor anticipated the tinge of misguided self-righteousness that she knew so well, and instantly decided to lean on Matt’s side of the argument. There was no way she was going to have Jessica dictate her food, no matter how well intentioned the latter believed herself to be in her efforts to fix her looks, weight, social acceptability and attire, so she thought she would eat her soup, which for some reason had suddenly lost all of its appeal, and run, not walk, to the door back into her normal reality, whatever normal meant.
“First that embarrassing outfit, and now this? No wonder you can’t see what’s wrong with that mousy little thing, you’re starting to turn into her!”
“Seriously, Jessica. Could you dial down the drama just a little bit so I can enjoy one measly cup of soup in peace?” Taylor sighed, hopeless. She knew Jessica was going to blow up this argument into one of her now notorious public scenes, performances to which she felt entitled because nobody in her pampered life had ever told her otherwise.
“I can’t believe I’m even talking to you right now, it would kill me if somebody saw me in your company while you’re wearing that outfit; you’re not eating your stupid soup while we’re sitting at this table together, that’s for sure!”
“Well, I see that you’re in a bad mood, we’ll just get together some other time then,” Taylor smiled politely and excused herself. “That will be the day!” she thought as she walked away, vowing to never, ever, for any reason, ever come back to this reality again.
“Come back here immediately! I’m not done talking to you! Nobody walks out on me, nobody! What, you think you’re so smart!? How pathetic is it that your daddy had to buy the college a library wing so you can get accepted!?” Jessica was considering other insults she could throw at her friend as Taylor walked out of the cafeteria.
The latter recalled acing her SAT’s, as well as every other school assignment; this was an issue that had dogged her her entire life, this unspoken assumption that all of her achievements were purchased and somehow she had no merit in her own accomplishments. The thought of being born of privilege as an oppressive burden felt insulting to the people who had not been blessed with her opportunities, so she automatically repressed it over the background of Jessica’s last rant, uttered very loudly to make it more poignant. “Worthless half-breed!”
Walking back to the dorm room Taylor pondered whether she should have asked for the soup in a to go cup. Strange as it may seem, despite the unpleasantness of the encounter, that special core component of her personality didn’t let her forget the reason that had brought her to a universe where Jessica was her best friend, so she returned to the carry-out counter to find out if she could still get her soup after all.
“Sorry,” the clerk said, smiling apologetically. “I just learned that we have run out of soup. Could I interest you in something else? Our cherry pie is delicious! Fresh out of the oven!”
“No, thank you,” Taylor flashed her a bright smile that masked her disappointment.
“Well,” she thought, dragging her feet out the door to get back to room number eight, “there’s something I should keep in my lessons learned folder. If life says ‘no soup for you’ it does so consistently throughout all the alternate realities.” She wondered if existence had made an effort to remove soup from the half of the universes where she was already dead, and thought that would have been an interesting answer to get, but sadly the option of going to one of those alternate realities was no longer available to her. She’d certainly been offered it, she remembered, and she laughed out loud at the richness of choices wasted on those who receive them unaware.
In the same thought, almost, she remembered that her teacher wasn’t sure whether the doors on the other side would lead her back to her old life, and his insistence that she mustn’t go through the doors alone, and realized she had just risked losing existence as she knew it in her stubborn quest for a cup of soup.
Door Number Four – Shared Consciousness
Taylor woke up to a timid knock on the door, followed by a soft fumbling with the door handle. It was Christine, who was trying to balance a large box of jelly donuts and two cups of coffee. She entered, sheepishly, waiting for Taylor’s reaction.
“Peace offering?” she said, from behind the donut box.
“What gives?” Taylor asked, more curious than upset.
“I”m so sorry, Taylor! I realized yesterday afternoon it wasn’t you, it was that girl, Jessica, I told you she’s following Matt and his friend around like a shadow. Turns out I was wrong about which one of them she was after. Sowwy?” she took a comical Tweety bird pose to lighten the mood.
“Exactly how nuts are you? And how can you mistake me for Jessica?”
“What do you mean?” Christine said innocently.
“Well, for one, she’s a foot taller,” Taylor pointed out.
“I just saw them from a distance,” Christine explained.
“She’s blond! Like really Nordic!” Taylor pointed at her own skin and hair.
“People make mistakes,” Christine looked down. “Friends?” she asked.
“Sure,” her friend shrugged off the logical inconsistencies. In light of her recent experiences this was the last thing she wanted to get hung up about.
“What’s that smell?” Christine frowned about the acrid smell of the bug spray.
“Oh, God, I’m so late, where is my assignment folder?” Taylor ran in circles around the room, trying to find her homework and textbooks while cleaning up at the same time, since she couldn’t tolerate things out of place. She eventually found the folder, showered and got dressed, while Christine waited for her, sampling the coffee and donuts, just to make sure they were fine. They were.
“Have some,” she nudged her friend, who took a donut and her coffee to go, planning to eat and drink them on the way to school. When they passed by door number eight in the hallway, Taylor noticed the number was hanging sideways again and instinctively straightened it.
“Are you fixing somebody else’s door number?” Christine asked, appalled.
“Sorry, I couldn’t help myself! That number is a major source of stress for me, I can’t understand why nobody cares enough to fix it,” Taylor mumbled excitedly with food in her mouth to a puzzled Christine who couldn’t understand her problem.
“Freshman year is stressful, I’m going crazy right now with all the assignments too, there is just too much to do…” Christine stopped talking for a second and tried to catch up with Taylor, who was charging ahead. “You know what I was thinking? There is this new yoga class on campus, we could really use something like that, release some of the tension.”
Taylor thought, walking very fast to avoid being late for class again, that this wasn’t a bad idea at all, going to yoga class with Christine to spend an hour meditating to soothing music and forget about having to maintain a B+ average while keeping her alternate realities straight.
“I’d love to come, I could use a break. What time is it at?” she asked her friend.
“Four,” Christine replied.
A little warning light came on in Taylor’s head, but she dismissed it thinking that even in the craziness that her life had become, there was not much of a chance for that particular time of day to be meaningful in any way.
“Do I need to bring anything? Mat?” she hesitated.
“No, they’ve got all we need, just wear comfortable clothing.”
The school day was a whirlwind of activity; at the end of it Taylor grabbed a quick bite on the way to the yoga studio and rushed inside, still in the grip of the day’s hassle. It took her a few minutes to settle down, and then she started worrying about Christine, who wasn’t there yet, though it was almost four.
“Oh, please don’t do this to me,” Taylor thought, totally surrounded by people she had never seen before in her life and wondering if her friend had bailed out on her.
“Well, if everybody is here I think we can get started,” a familiar voice announced.
“That can’t be!” Taylor thought, resigned to her fate, as she looked at the yoga instructor. He scrunched his face a bit to adjust the glasses on the bridge of his nose. “What’s he gonna do?” Taylor thought, more curious than alarmed. “Grab me in the middle of yoga class and force me to walk out the door?”
“I see some new faces in the studio today, let’s take a moment to welcome them here,” he smiled encouragingly and the other students obliged. To her great emotional discomfort Taylor found herself the center of attention, with at least ten pairs of eyes staring at her expectantly, like she was supposed to do something.
“Please make it stop, I feel like crawling under a rock,” she thought, mortified, and then she remembered. “Comfort free zone, of course! What was I thinking!”
“Tell me about it! I wouldn’t worry, though, he does that with all the new people, just to break the ice,” a voice inside her head commented.
“I wish he didn’t do that,” another voice replied, “I feel very tense when people stare at me, wasn’t this class supposed to be for stress relief?”
“I knew those pants were going to make me look fat, I should never have listened to Jenna, she doesn’t understand my body,” a third voice joined in.
“Can you please be quiet? I find it difficult to focus with all this noise,” a fourth voice interjected, irate.
“Who the heck is this?” a fifth voice joined the chorus, and Taylor was surprised to realize that it was hers. She was sure she didn’t have the thought about the pants, but now that the subject had been brought up, her mind got dragged into a series of pros and cons regarding yoga attire, with way too many points of view for the caliber of the subject, series that ended in a ‘who cares what you look like, everybody is meditating with their eyes closed anyway’ and a second admonition from voice number four about the noise levels.
“It’s official, I lost my mind!” Taylor thought, terrified, and a guy from the first row turned around and frowned at her, displeased.
“That must be voice number four,” Taylor thought, without realizing that she was doubling down on the offending activity.
“Indeed. A very annoyed voice number four,” the latter retorted silently.
“Could we all remember what we discussed, about respecting personal boundaries?” a sixth voice reminded him. Taylor assumed it was the instructor’s. The raucous jumble of unspoken thoughts intensified instead of dying down, to almost unbearable levels.
“What happened?” Taylor asked herself.
“Nothing,” another voice answered. “Somebody is late.”
Taylor opened her eyes and saw Christine, who tried to sneak in unnoticed and was looking for a spot to settle down with as little noise as possible.
“Oh, God, Taylor is going to kill me! Is she here yet? Oh, yes, there she is!” Christine’s voice joined in, still frazzled with embarrassment for being late, and was instantly met by an exasperated sigh.
“Now that we’re all here, let’s make an attempt to void our minds of any thought, it would be a lot more comfortable for everyone involved,” the instructor pondered, and, in order to provide an example for the class, he made himself at home in an easy pose and thought of absolutely nothing.
“That’s not possible!” Taylor thought in disbelief, because she had never considered the concept of thinking of nothing and now that she was trying it she realized how difficult it was. The soup incident returned to the forefront and she tried to avoid it as best she could, but was unsuccessful, so much so that the guy in the front row, who apparently had had enough, got up and left, irritated.
“What happened with the soup?” Christine commented. “Is that you, Taylor? What are you doing in my head?” she asked.
“Actually, nobody is in anybody’s head,” the instructor broke his mental pause. “We’re all together up in the field.”
“The field of what?” Christine asked, innocently looking up.
“Shared consciousness,” he replied. “But for now our goal is to empty our minds and try to focus on our breath.”
“How do you focus on breath, it’s an automatic function regulated by the brain stem?” Christine put her recent physiology classes to good use.
“Conscious breathing, Christine, conscious,” Taylor thought-whispered, trying to help her out.
“You just notice how your breath goes in and out of your body,” somebody else interjected.
“Why on earth would I want to mess with my breathing? I’m going to start hyperventilating, I just know it,” Christine started panicking.
“That’s why I’m doing the counting, you could try and follow that,” the instructor suggested. Christine calmed down and her breathing returned to normal.
“I can’t think of nothing,” Taylor blurted out against her will. “I’m thinking of thinking of nothing, that’s thinking!”
“We know!” the chorus replied, annoyed.
“At least it’s not about soup anymore, thank God! How obsessive are you?” another voice intervened, and then stumbled upon Taylor’s OCD and retreated, embarrassed.
“Let’s try to refrain from judgment,” the yoga instructor called for peace and harmony, “we’re all here to learn.”
“I’m so hungry,” a voice sounded from the back.
“Great, now I’m hungry too, and I just ate!” another voice replied.
“Five more minutes,” a third one echoed from the back.
“Oh, for shame! Can’t you stop thinking about food for an hour? You should have eaten before you came.”
“Actually, I don’t think that is a good idea, you shouldn’t have a full stomach before yoga class, should you?”
The remaining five minutes were all spent on thinking about food.
“I don’t know about you, but I’m starving. Is yoga supposed to make you ravenous? I can’t shake this obsession with soup, I have no idea what that’s all about, I don’t even like it,” Christine chirped cheerfully while they walked together towards the cafeteria.
“You mean you don’t remember?” Taylor asked tentatively.
“Remember what?” Christine stared back at her.
“I just hope they have soup today,” Taylor responded, completely out of the blue, faithful to her late obsession.
“What did you think about the yoga class?” Christine asked, just to make conversation, inadvertently sending her friend’s mind into a tailspin in the process. Taylor didn’t know how to respond.
“I don’t know. Thinking of nothing seems kind of hard,” she gave her friend a half answer.
“Yeah, I heard they try to do that. Taylor, I’m sorry about being late, I got stuck on a report and wanted to finish it before class. Say, did the teacher give you guys any instructions before I got in? I tried to follow up on what everybody else was doing, but you were all so quiet! It felt kind of creepy actually. So, you think you’ll be coming back?” she said, still excited about the new activity, and then continued without waiting for an answer. “I think I’ll stick with it, if nothing else to get some peace and quiet, it’s so refreshing to be in a room with fifteen people who are able to just sit silently for an hour.”
“Congratulations,” he said. “Four doors down, three more to go.”
“But,” Taylor said confused, “I don’t remember going through the fourth door.”
They were sitting in their respective chairs in room number eight, and for once Taylor skipped over the familiar and automatic thought process that instantly evaluates you in comparison with another person, and mulls judgments about whose chair is better and the probable reasons why that occurred.
“I’m sorry, the term I used for describing the passageways was probably not the most appropriate. You are expecting all the transitions to happen as you pass through actual doors, but as I mentioned previously they can be anything that connects two otherwise disjoint states. In our case, meditation facilitated the transition from your brain’s beta state, the one you normally experience, to the theta state, the brain wave frequency that connects the conscious part of your mind with the subconscious one, where your feelings, emotions, inspiration and inner knowing dwell. Can you give me other examples of such passageways?”
“Do you mean to tell me that I actually heard those people’s thoughts?” she gasped, incredulous.
“Exhausting, isn’t it?” he yawned. “Well, two things you should learn from that, and for the sake of efficiency I’ll just tell you them: inner conversations tend to be mundane and repetitive, and they can inflict real damage through endless iterations, and having them publicly displayed will teach you self-control faster than any other method I know.”
“But how?!” Taylor blurted.
“Were you just about to tell me that’s impossible?” he said with an eye roll. She remembered the previous time she had said that, and the time before that, and reconsidered. “I’m not really sure there aren’t things that are impossible, but this is not one of them. We’re all particles and frequencies, my dear, it’s just a matter of proper tuning, that’s all. Your body is another tool, an instrument, nothing more.”
“But why doesn’t Christine remember? She would have told me, I’m pretty sure of that.”
“It takes a lot of practice to refine the brain frequency to the range that would carry your actual thoughts, most people are only aware on some unconscious level of the feelings, emotions and autonomous responses associated with them.”
“Like my obsession with soup,” she reflected.
“That’s awful! She hates soup!”
“Which brings us to the next lesson. Evaluate your thoughts as they pass through your head. You don’t want to be the mental equivalent of a junk bin. You know, the place where you shove whatever you don’t want to see laying around and forget about it two seconds later? Years pass before you clean it up and when you finally get to it you are flabbergasted by all the useless crap you have squirreled away.”
“But nobody can control what goes through their head,” she protested.
“Of course they can. It’s called mental discipline, and like anything else it’s an acquired habit. You know, this argument is very interesting coming from you, who can’t tolerate a pencil to be placed on the table at an odd angle. I hope one day you manage to find a permanent solution for fixing my door number.”
“I didn’t mean…” she blushed, instantly embarrassed.
“Of course you didn’t. The same way you don’t mean to think of things you wouldn’t say out loud. It takes some time, but it can be learned. Anything can be learned, remember that. So, back to my question: what other passageways can you think of?”
“Very good! Keep going.”
“Falling asleep.” He nodded in agreement.
“Great! The transition between a solid and a liquid space. Can you think of more of these? Liquid to gas?”
“Gas to solid?”
“That’s one way to put it. Sky to earth?”
“Falling,” she realized.
“What about plasma?”
“Plasma is a bit of a tall order,” he smiled. “Let’s stick to non flesh melting states for now. More.”
“I don’t know, walking?”
“So, what you are telling me is that at any point in time, while being engaged in the most common of activities, I could inadvertently walk through a door and find myself in another state of being?” she asked in a panic.
“Of course you could, and you do, all the time, what do you think generates the outcomes of our choices? We travel between alternate possibilities for our lives from birth to death. ‘Your reality’ as you like to call it, is not one reality at all, but a constant meandering through all the experiences that could have been; the fact that we’re blissfully unaware of that doesn’t change the matter in the least. All that could have been is woven together a lot tighter than you imagine. And yes, there was no soup in any of the possible versions of yesterday, not because the universe decided to punish you, even in death, but because there are convergences of events that are more or less consistent throughout realities and bind them together. They are nodes, hubs, if you will. Strange as you may think it is, the soup shortage was part of one; existence doesn’t care about our need to assign more importance to an event than to another, in the larger scheme of things they’re all just events.”
“So, hypothetically speaking, when the door to my room appears, it is possible that it doesn’t lead to my room?”
“All the possible rooms are your room. Now, can you please settle down and stop thinking? You are making me anxious. Just sit and listen to your heart. I’m not speaking metaphorically. Listen to your heartbeat.”
“But I can’t…”
She sat in silence and for a while heard nothing, and then the rhythmic swoosh of her heartbeat reached her eardrums with the soft sounds of waves lapping on the beach, and she listened to it without thinking for a while, until she was startled from her dreamlike state by the realization that she could in fact hear two hearts beating, not one, and she listened to the two heartbeats and the pauses between them until there were no more pauses, just two heart rhythms perfectly synchronized, and then she started hearing more heartbeats, one by one slowly adjusting their rhythms until they beat in unison, until they all merged into a single sound, the composite heart of humanity beating inside her chest.
She gulped really hard, hugging the chintz pillow that was mercifully allowed her, and tried to gather all the scattered pieces of being that apparently had been sleepwalking through versions of reality up until this time. She thought how lucky Christine was to be able to go to classes, and dates, and social gatherings, without the fear of getting lost in the maze of possibilities and taking a wrong turn at the least convenient moment. Made living a lot easier.
“Of course it does, if you don’t mind actually taking that wrong turn. Sleepwalking is intrinsically fraught with danger.”
“But you can’t think through all the possible things that can happen!”
“You sure can think through quite a few of them. You’d be surprised how much your life improves in the absence of the mistakes you are able to anticipate.”
Since the class had ended and the door had appeared, Taylor tried to put the unsettling conversation behind her and walk through the doorway, secure in the knowledge that she was going back to her room. Five minutes later Christine showed up with plans for the evening.
“You know, I was thinking, since Matt and I are back together and you and I are best friends and he and your neighbor are best friends, wouldn’t it be a great idea to go on a double date this evening? You know, relax, hang out, spend some time together, no big deal.”
“But we’re not dating,” Taylor mumbled, confused.
“I’m sorry, I didn’t realize…” Christine hesitated, still incredulous. She decided to keep out of it, but curiosity got the better of her.
“So, then, why are you guys spending so much time together?”
“We’re working on a project,” Taylor grabbed the first option that sounded believable.
“Really? What project?”
“It’s some sort of survey for the university, we’re helping chart the campus pathways to improve way finding. You know, alleys, corridors, vertical circulation, that sort of thing,” Taylor explained. Christine stifled a gargantuan yawn.
“That sounds exciting. Well, then. Maybe some other time,” she rushed out the door, eager to meet with her boyfriend.
After Christine left Taylor started thinking that this is what she should be doing at her age, this was what normal people did, get a boyfriend, go out with friends, grab a beer, not contemplate the multi layered versions of existence to God knows what end.
She checked her phone to see if her mother had left her any messages, and as expected the latter did not, and then she got restless in her room and decided to go out and socialize, but she didn’t really know any of her other classmates well enough to call.
“This is what happens when you don’t make having a personal life a priority,” Taylor admonished herself, and devised a plan that starting the very next day that she was going to actively pursue social activities and, under the right circumstances, find a boyfriend.
And that she did. The next day after class she went clothes shopping where she ran into a classmate who invited her to the party she was having that afternoon. Taylor accepted and headed back to the dorm, pleased with her spirit of initiative and eager to try on the new top she had bought. It wasn’t the kind of blouse she would normally pick, but since she was on a roll with respect to being more open to new things, she figured a new wardrobe for her new self was definitely in order.
“See?” she told herself as she turned the corner of her street with a pep in her step. “If you welcome things into your life, they will show up, all you need is a friendly demeanor and a positive attitude. People like people who like themselves,” she thought, and the thought felt weird, fake, like it came from someone else’s mind. “I’m spending way too much time in room number eight,” she blamed herself. “What kind of nut questions whose thoughts go through her head?” She heard the clock strike four and flinched against her will, mad at herself for even thinking about it, especially now, when she had decided to start a new life filled with social activities, romance and cultural interests.
“So,” she heard a familiar voice behind her, so close it felt as if it was speaking from the back of her own head. “You decided to meet new people, attend social events, act convivial,” he smiled. “Nothing wrong with that.”
“Oh, please, God, this can’t be real! Why can’t I have a normal life, just like everybody else!” she fumed inside her head.
“How is this not normal?” he asked, indifferent. “As a matter of fact I’ve been invited to that kegger too, I’m surprised you’re going, those people don’t seem like your kind of crowd.”
“Who made you my babysitter?” Taylor thought, but said nothing. “Maybe I can’t have a normal life,” she pondered philosophically. “Some people never marry, others never find their vocation, maybe normal is like that too, some people just aren’t meant to have it.”
She asked out loud.
“Who told you about the party?”
“Your friend, Christine, actually. You know she’s dating Matt, right? Or at least she was, as of yesterday.”
“I’m going to kill her!” Taylor got instantly furious at Christine and her match making obsession. “Of all the guys on campus she just had to set me up with the one who skips a century when he crosses the street!”
“She seems nice,” he smiled, “I’m sure she meant well.”
“That’s just the problem, everybody means well when they make decisions for others without asking their hapless victims!” Taylor thought.
“I wouldn’t worry about it, I had to come even if she didn’t invite me. University policy.”
“Don’t tell me I’m going to la-la land instead of the party that I was looking forward to!” she protested, real loud, and several passers by stared at the argument, wondering if they should intervene.
“Do you remember when the wayfinding class starts?”
“Four,” she looked around in a panic, concerned that she had left reality behind already. “Did we just go through another door?”
“I sure hope so,” he said, looking around unsure. “I can’t tell yet.”
“But what about the party?” she protested, really disappointed.
“It’s not that kind of door,” he reassured her as they entered the dorm. “I’ll see you there.”
Taylor found Christine in her room, all giggles and grins and really pleased with herself. The latter couldn’t stop talking and making plans for, you know, later on when she, Taylor and Matt managed to get better acquainted; she laughed at her friend’s sorry excuse about the campus wayfinding survey, and then, because Taylor didn’t contribute much in the way of response, she got to her own interests and pursuits and talked about Matt while her friend dressed up for the party.
“So, how do you know these people?” Taylor remembered the comment she’d heard earlier on.
“They’re Matt’s friends,” Christine explained.
“Of course they are,” Taylor thought, a little annoyed by the sudden glut of Matt’s interests and social activities that was interfering with her life. “That means I won’t know anybody there.”
Her new found enthusiasm for human connection faltered and she suddenly realized she would rather stay home and reorganize her linen closet by color and thread count, but Christine looked so excited about showing off her boyfriend that Taylor didn’t want to disappoint her.
“I won’t spoil the surprise, but you would never guess who else is going to be there!” Christine couldn’t help herself, beaming from ear to ear, and then, when she encountered the lack of enthusiasm in Taylor’s eyes she decided to let it all out. “A certain next door neighbor that you’re spending way too much time with. You know, if you guys want to keep it quiet that’s fine with me, I won’t make a big deal out of it.”
“Christine, we’re not dating, he’s some sort of student adviser,” Taylor made one last attempt to explain herself.
“Campus wayfinding survey, right, you told me,” Christine winked all knowingly, in an assured tone which clarified that no explanation in the world would change her conviction. Taylor gave up.
The party was at one of the large and heavily decorated wedding cake style sorority houses that marked the top of a gentle hill like bunches of colorful garlands. By the time they got there it was already dark outside and all the lights in the house were on and the windows open, and through them the two could see a large number of people. Taylor easily confirmed that she didn’t know any of them.
“This is going to be so awkward,” she mumbled, not realizing that Christine could hear her.
“Awkward is not the way I’d put it,” the latter replied in a very sharp tone, clearly not justified by anything her friend had said or done. Taylor lifted her eyes to find herself almost face to face with Jessica, who didn’t seem to recognize her. In all fairness, other than her excursions into alternate realities, the two of them were barely acquainted, and only saw each other in class every other week. “What is she doing here?” Christine cringed.
“It’s a big party, I’m sure that doesn’t mean anything,” Taylor tried to appease her, but her friend’s mood seemed to have been ruined for the evening and she was already looking for an excuse to leave the party early. Taylor begrudgingly remembered that she may already not be in the ‘real’ world, and the simple fact that she couldn’t even tell for sure whether it was so was worse than suddenly finding herself on a different continent. Everything looked so normal she hoped that maybe she didn’t go anywhere after all, but either way the evening already promised to be uncomfortable and she thought she should thank Jessica for giving her an excuse to get out of there early.
Unfortunately for her Matt showed up making Christine suddenly forget her discontent and she dragged her friend inside the house with renewed enthusiasm. The place was packed and steamy and all the lights were on, and the roar of the conversations overlapping the loud music, the laughter and the clinking of bottles and glasses made Taylor a little dizzy. There didn’t seem to be a ban on smoking indoors and the combined cigarette puffs accumulated into strands of wispy fog that got pulled in the air currents and billowed eerily out of the open doors and windows.
“What are you having?” Matt yelled in her ear, trying to compete with the deafening sounds of a guitar riff that burst unexpectedly from an amp behind them.
“I don’t know, lemon seltzer?” Taylor suggested.
“Beer it is,” Matt declared, and made his way to the kitchen to fetch one. Taylor took the opportunity to scan the room for her guide and finally saw him next to one of the windows, having a very animated conversation with a group of guys; he looked so normal and at ease among them that Taylor questioned her own sanity for a second, wondering if she didn’t hallucinate her trip to the seventies, even as the last remnants of her brush with frostbite were still healing on her feet.
“You know what you need?” Taylor told herself. “Some sort of proof whether this is real or imagined, there is got to be a way to know for sure.”
“Real?” she heard the familiar voice behind her. “What is that?”
“How did you get here so fast?” she wanted to ask, but was interrupted half-way through the thought by the return of Matt bearing a beer bottle. The noise in the room amplified, making the surroundings feel almost surreal. Christine was engaged in an animated conversation with Matt and her neighbor, going over the circumstances that allowed the two to meet and ending up with way too many details about sport teams.
“Well, so much for my attempt to have a richer social life: I came to a hundred person party to spend the evening with my best friend, whose boyfriend I barely know, and the guardian of the four o’clock hour who will show up no matter what. I could have done this at my dorm and saved myself the half hour walk up the hill and the damage to my eardrums.”
“Didn’t you say you wanted to be more sociable? Why are you propping up the walls? Go, mingle, get some snacks, it’s not good to drink on an empty stomach,” her neighbor said. Taylor took a plate and carefully perused the bags of snacks to figure out which, if any, did not contain animal products. She had become a vegetarian at the age of fourteen and since then she had followed a simple, healthful diet of grains, nuts, berries and vegetables. She couldn’t understand why anybody would choose to abuse their bodies with highly processed starches, fats, alcohol, cigarettes, and other unhealthy items, an exhaustive list from which the donuts were conveniently exempt.
She put a few chips on the plate and was trying to figure out how to lose the second half of her beer since the first one was already making her sweaty and clumsy, but she didn’t seem to be able to find the kitchen, which by any rational standards should have been there, on the first floor, right next to the living room.
“Maybe they converted it for some other function,” she thought unconvinced, instantly regretting the first half of her beer and sweating profusely. The combined heat and breathing of so many people had risen the temperature of the room to almost intolerable levels, and even with the doors and windows wide open the atmosphere was stifling, so Taylor got out on the porch to watch the lights of the city tremble in the humid night air.
Door Number Five – Splintered Self
When she came back inside, through the kitchen, no less, she got this weird feeling that she couldn’t pinpoint, that she had gone off the edge of reality altogether, and it took her a while to realize why. It was as if she had walked inside a hall of mirrors: there were multiple hers, everywhere, wearing different outfits, sporting different attitudes, discussing different topics, flirting, brooding, nursing their drinks, dancing, hiding, being the life of the party, displaying sparkling wit.
The thing about the human mind is that it trains itself to be very efficient, so it automatically eliminates the events that have an extremely low probability of happening so that the brain doesn’t get burdened with useless information to the detriment of day to day activity. When these very rare events happen, the mind gets confused and resentful, trying in vain to reconcile what it thought it knew about the world with the new image that simply doesn’t fit into that knowledge. Stepping into the hall of doppelgängers without warning definitely fit into this category for Taylor, so she wrapped her arms around the first reasonable justification that came to her mind in order to discount whatever it was that she was seeing with her own eyes.
“I must be drunk, I never should have had that beer,” she closed her eyes to make the image go away.
“Oh, don’t worry, they don’t really look like you, I just altered your perception of them to make it easier for you to notice,” her neighbor whispered behind her.
“Notice what? And how did you alter my perception?” she asked, worried.
“That is a subject for another course,” he answered the second question, and then directed her attention back to the crowd. “Just observe them for a while, or should I say observe yourself. Walk around the room, you can’t really see much from here,” he pushed her forward towards a version of herself who had an animated conversation with another version of herself, dressed as a man.
“Well,” Taylor thought. “I lost my marbles for sure, but at least I lost them in an interesting place. How many people get a chance to see themselves from an external point of view? That outfit is definitely not flattering,” she thought about one of her selves, who seemed tense and held an artificial pose. The attitude of that self screamed discomfort as she tried to listen to an intellectually stimulating version of herself debate a popular subject with enviable eloquence.
“Oh, how I wish I were that smart,” she smiled at the image, surprised that the person in question still felt like her and wondering why she never managed to see herself that way. Unfortunately, the next self she stumbled upon was an obviously inebriated version of herself, wobbling on her way to the bathroom.
“Not even in my worst nightmare!” Taylor thought, revolted. “I would never! How can that be? I would never do that, that can’t possibly be me!” she turned around to her guide for an explanation.
“Oh, but it is, you see? All of these people are you: your aspirations, your judgments, your fears, your disappointments, your passions, it’s all you, everywhere, reflected in the people you see, like in a hall of mirrors. See that friendly you who apologizes a lot? That’s Christine.”
“But Christine and I are not alike at all,” Taylor argued. She loved her friend, but their personalities were very different; the thought of Christine as a reflection of herself simply didn’t make sense to her.
“Why? Because you like to hide the part of you that wants to please everybody under that aloof exterior you so carefully crafted for yourself?” he smiled.
“Are you trying to tell me that I’m a fake?” she said, offended.
“No. I’m trying to tell you that all the aspects of you leave traces upon the world, not just the ones that you like and approve of. For instance drunk you reflects your fear of making a fool of yourself in public, and the crass one over there, who is picking a fight over a tacky subject is the result of your conflict avoidance complex.”
“Are there any ‘me’s that I would actually enjoy being?” she scanned the room for some version of herself she could be proud of.
“Actually,” he started laughing, “you would need a true mirror for that one. No, don’t cringe, that’s not a back handed compliment. We all select to present the version of our selves we’re most comfortable with and do our best to hide all the other ones. Unfortunately we just think we hide them, when in fact we cast them upon others.”
“But I wish I were as brilliant and eloquent as that girl over there,” Taylor pointed to the one who had just finished her splendid argument over social issues.
“Of course you do, but you don’t believe you could ever be like that, so you cast that unfulfilled wish onto another person. If I were to guess, there must be a few other buried desires of yours walking around this room, let’s see: the spoiled child who only has to ask in order to get anything she wants over here, the girl who gets all the attention right there by the window, the polished intellectual by the table, the life of the party who’s friends with everybody in the middle of the room.” He seemed really excited to pick out the hidden components of her personality out of the crowded room. “Oh, dear! Do you really wish you felt confident enough to wear that revolting outfit?”
“Of course not!” she snapped. “She looks embarrassing!”
“Oh, OK, it’s disdain then. You know, you really should learn to make peace with your emotions, there are way too many yous walking around, you’re spreading yourself too thin.”
“But I’m not any of these people,” she protested.
“I’m afraid you are all of them,” he said, with a degree of sincerity in his voice that didn’t leave room for doubt. “It’s not that you are too many people, it’s that your reflections have almost nothing in common. You can’t pursue a goal when you’re this conflicted. Maybe we can try to clear this room a little bit, say good bye to some of the selves that don’t do anything for you. Let’s start with the judgments, you have plenty of things to ponder without burdening your mind with what other people should do. Agree?”
Taylor nodded and watched, to her surprise, as the crass girl, the one in the provocative outfit and the one who was stumbling towards the bathroom picked up and left. A lot of other people left with them, and the noise in the room subsided to more tolerable levels.
“Much better, at least now we’re dealing only with your opinions about yourself. Notice anything?”
“Not really, I still can’t find anything at all that these alter egos have to do with me and with each other.”
“There is something, a very subtle trait that underlies all of these different personas, one that you learn to recognize in time. That’s who you are.”
“But what if I learn that I don’t like who I am?” she replied.
“Ah, avoidance, a very common self-defense mechanism. You figure that if you never take charge of your own personality the parts you don’t like about yourself will simply disappear?”
“Yeah, I was kind of thinking that, what’s wrong with it? It’s called social polish.”
“I see you learned nothing from crass and petty you. She’s still there, I see,” he commented rather indifferent, and Taylor had to acknowledge, to her displeasure, that the loud mouth had returned and was causing a scene over an issue that for any normal person would have been too embarrassing to hash out in public. “Until you understand that the dark sides of you also have a right to exist you’re going to be challenged by them constantly. Ready to do this without the training wheels?”
“What do you mean?” she didn’t understand, but the meaning of the words was revealed when the people around her regained their original countenance. She could still see in them her own attitudes, aspirations and insecurities walk across the room and live lives of their own, independent of her person.
“So, you are trying to tell me that we spend our lives basically talking to ourselves?”
“Not exactly, it’s more like leaving emotional fingerprints on everything that surrounds us. What you feel about life reverberates in your being and gets reflected back at you, amplified.”
“I can’t possibly be responsible for what all of these people do! What about personal accountability?” she protested.
“Oh, not for everything they do, just for the splinters of your self that you unconsciously throw at people. They are not accountable for your concealed emotions, you are.”
“But how would I know whose self splinters those are? They could belong to anybody, from what you are saying,” she asked, confused.
“It’s quite easy, really. If you have a feeling or an opinion about the subject, it’s yours.”
“But what about the negative thoughts?” she said.
“Nobody said that you’re going to whip your soul into perfection, sometimes just being able to notice that you leave fingerprints upon the world is good enough.”
“It’s getting late,” Taylor thought, and started looking for Christine so they could leave. The latter was engaged in a pleasant conversation with Matt and Jessica, as if the three of them had always been the best of friends. “I’ll say, wonders never cease!”
“And to think that you didn’t want to stay,” he replied.
“Don’t tell me I had something to do with that!”
“Not directly. Christine did. But you did touch Christine’s heart, it’s a little bit like a wave propagating through various media, it behaves differently in each one, but the intent behind the emotion always shines through.”
“Huh?” Taylor decided to abandon her quest for sophistication.
“You know, if you want to experience peace, be the peace,” he said seriously.
“That must be the largest steaming pile I’ve heard in a while,” Taylor decided she had had enough of the emotional fingerprints and the unconsciously distributed self and the soul waves propagating through social circles. “I think I’m going to collect myself now from whatever poor souls I’m currently haunting and go back to my dorm. If you don’t mind, I have actual things to do tomorrow.”
“Wait a minute! Aren’t you the Taylor who drank her beer despite the fact that she doesn’t like it? Shouldn’t you agonize over whether it is socially acceptable to leave right now?” he teased. “I see that at least some of your selves have started cooperating with each other. Before you know it you’ll be able to congeal some real purpose.”
“Since we’re nurturing all of my feelings, good or bad, I don’t mind telling you that I find your relentless and completely unjustified meddling into my life quite bothersome.”
“While I appreciate your attempt to embrace your negative emotions, in this case I simply know that what you said isn’t true.”
“How do you figure?”
“Because if it were true I wouldn’t have showed up as your teacher.”
“We don’t have a lot of time, we need to prepare for the next door, it’s a tricky one,” he explained, barely lifting his eyes from the notes he was shuffling through.
“You mean to tell me that the one I just went through was easy?” Taylor protested.
“It depends on the person, it’s easy for some, difficult for others,” he continued perusing his notes, trying to extricate himself from the line of questioning.
“It didn’t seem easy to me,” she hung on to the subject, stubbornly.
“Oh, very well,” he conceded. “Let’s go over things quickly. What do you want to know?”
“Nothing that I can think of off the top of my head,” she said.
“And that’s why I didn’t want to waste time with this analysis. If you don’t have any questions to ask, what is the point?” He went back to his notes and made some corrections on one of the pages, with nervous strikes of the pen. “These people!” he complained, exasperated. “You wouldn’t believe!”
“That doesn’t give me comfort,” she looked at the notes with trepidation, wondering what mistake inside them could send her spinning eternally in deep space. “Comfort,” she thought, “that’s funny!” and started giggling against her will.
“OK, here goes. I can’t stand spoon feeding people what they’re supposed to be thinking, so I always strive to answer the questions they do have, but maybe in this case we can try some guidance, considering how many facets of your personality you thrust upon your unsuspecting world. The basic rules are: judge not, fear not, covet not, take nothing personally, listen when spoken to, assume nothing, worry about nothing, wish for nothing.”
“But that’s almost everything there is for a person to care about? What’s left?”
“Other than peace, love and happiness? You.”
“But you just said that I should embrace all my emotions.”
“I said do not hide your emotions. Remember how you told me that it is impossible not to think?”
“So,” she said, pondering on how to formulate the question, “you know how you said that some people who go through the doors decide to stay? In this case, what would that mean?”
“Some people just decide to permanently assume the persona they find more desirable and live the rest of their lives wearing it like a costume, while others lose themselves, unfortunately, by casting all that they are on other people through their wants and fears and they become hollow vessels that collect everything everybody throws their way.”
“Why would anyone want to do that?”
“Most people are unaware of it happening, but for the few who do it with full knowledge, you have to understand that want is a very powerful driver, almost more powerful than fear. There is always something you want, sometimes bad enough to give up everything for it. It differs from person to person, but it’s always there; this is human nature and it’s not in itself good or bad, but your desire will become your master if you do not exercise restraint. Any desire,” he looked at her sharply, and she was taken aback for a second, wondering what she’d done wrong. “Even a noble and selfless one.”
“Why not pursue that want, then, if it is the most important thing for you?”
“By all means pursue it, but don’t get trapped by it, because then it becomes your whole world and you won’t be able to see anything outside of it anymore. Nothing is that important, especially after you traveled a bit and learned how big, strange and awesome existence really is.”
“So, can I ever go back?” she asked.
“To being a hundred people? Sure. We do that every day, sometimes unconsciously, sometimes against our will, but I strongly recommend reducing the number drastically if you want to be able to focus on anything.”
“What if I want to do it intentionally?”
He paused for a second, trying to find the best way to respond.
“I would be very careful with that, because projecting yourself in someone else’s mind is like entering their home: if you are invited, your presence there is welcomed and eagerly anticipated, but if you are not, you’re like a thug breaking an entering, you do damage to the other and bring hatred upon yourself. Now, since many people do this completely unaware, they are exempt from these rules of conduct. You are going to tell me that this isn’t fair to you, but I’ll remind you that life itself isn’t always fair. If you know the law, you’re held to uphold it. At any rate, if you choose to, shall we say, visit, provided you’re welcome, remember not to leave your trash behind.”
The silence returned and he went back to redlining his notes and getting more and more aggravated by the grievous mistakes found inside them. Her curiosity got the better of her and she tried to stretch out her neck and see what it was that was causing him so much righteous outrage, but she was sitting too far to be able to read anything.
“Why is door number five here if we weren’t supposed to go through it?” she asked, just to break the silence.
“Oh, we could have gone through it both ways, but a little exercise wasn’t going to kill you either. Good for the body, good for the soul.”
“Really? We could have gone there the easy way but we chose to walk half an hour up the hill?”
“Which brings me back to my previous observation, that when you really want something you tend to become oblivious of the other options.”
“But I didn’t even know this was an option.”
“Hence the expression ‘being oblivious of it’,” he clarified. “Have we exhausted the subject?”
“I guess,” she said, tentatively.
“See? I told you there wasn’t that much to talk about.”
Christine was very enthusiastic about her relationship with Matt, which was unfolding splendidly, according to her expectations. She was the kind of person who felt happier as a part of a couple than alone, and she could barely contain her excitement about becoming a “we”, so she needed an audience for the verbal downpour, and Taylor was the perfect subject.
Taylor never thought she’d feel so relieved to listen to the normal day to day details of life, and even if she didn’t know Matt all that well, he seemed to make her friend happy, and for that she was grateful. She decided she owed Matt one for occupying Christine’s mind to such a degree that the latter didn’t have time to notice exactly how strange her own behavior had become, thus maintaining a small cocoon of normality and comfort in the middle of the wild shifts reality was playing around her.
To this end she listened to a forty five minute painstakingly detailed description of Christine’s and Matt’s exploits around town, the plans for their next five dates, the party they were throwing together, the matching knitted hats they found, to wear on their next hiking trip, Matt’s future plans, his favorite bands, foods, colors, sportive events, his religious beliefs and/or lack thereof, his pet peeves, his fondest childhood memories. By the end of the presentation, Taylor almost felt like she and Matt had grown up together. She was a little distracted by the thought of what Matt would think if he knew he had become such a familiar presence in her life, so she failed to anticipate the examination mirror being turned on her, for a reciprocating confession.
“So, what’s he like?” Christine asked. “What’s his name, anyway?”
“I don’t know,” Taylor answered both questions simultaneously. “Christine, I told you, we’re not dating.”
“You know, if you don’t want to talk about it, I understand,” the latter pretended to be the greater person about this issue, and then her gregarious personality revolted against what she saw as a breech of trust. “You know what? No, I don’t! I’m your best friend, Taylor, how can you keep this from me?” She then quickly analyzed the possible causes for Taylor’s reluctance to talk about her new boyfriend, stumbled upon the first one that came to her mind and gasped protectively.
“Is he controlling?” Christine grabbed her hand in a show of solidarity. “You know, I used to have this jerk of a boyfriend in high school, don’t encourage it, Taylor, it’s not worth it! Let me talk to him, OK?” she offered, in a tone that really wasn’t asking for permission.
“NO!” Taylor blurted out before she had a chance to get her emotional control back. “There is no need, Christine, I told you, we’re not dating, we’re working together on a school project.”
“Did I mention he made me wait for him in his office for two whole hours and never showed up? What kind of student counselor does that!?”
Taylor could think of a couple of reasons that would have made her neighbor unavailable at the time, none of which would have fared sane during this particular argument, so she nodded ambiguously and tried very hard to find another topic of conversation. Unfortunately, Christine was on a roll.
“You know what scares me, Taylor? You don’t even know this guy’s first name. How do you not know a person’s first name, it’s the first thing people volunteer about themselves. What if he’s a serial killer or something? I’m really worried about you!” Christine remembered she was talking about her boyfriend’s best friend and regretted the last statement. She had asked Matt about the guy and had gotten only vague answers too, first name included. The fact that Taylor shrugged off her question only served to amplify her curiosity. It was like this individual was mesmerizing Taylor and Matt somehow. She decided to take the matter in her own hands and find out for herself what she wanted to know when given the opportunity, and then she continued her rebuke of Taylor’s behavior.
“How can you, of all people, act so recklessly? That’s not the Taylor I know, the Taylor I know needs to have everything wrapped up and under control!”
“Ain’t that the truth!” Taylor’s self-deprecating thought rose to the surface.
“Please promise me something, Taylor!” Christine grabbed both of her hands in an imploring gesture. “Next time you see this guy, ask him for his name, OK? For me?” she pleaded. Taylor struggled a bit, to release the grip on her hands, and then reconsidered her approach.
“OK,” she said.
“You promise? You’re not just saying that so I leave you alone, are you?” Christine asked, probing her gaze for attempts to deceive.
“No, I’m not. Can we please talk about something else?” Taylor asked, eager to change the subject. The conversation returned to the details of Matt and Christine’s party next weekend and the her concerns involving Taylor’s safety and wellbeing were drowned by her own interests, plans and emotions.
They left the room together, even though they had different schedules for the afternoon: Christine was going to meet Matt at the cafeteria and Taylor had to do some research for her homework and was planning to hit the library and spend the rest of the day there. That way, in case fate decided to strike again at four o’clock, she would at least have an alibi if asked where she’d been.
“We may stop by the library later,” Christine crushed her nascent hopes, as if she’d read her mind. “We need to check out some books too,” she smiled apologetically, because she instinctively felt that she was coming on too strong.
“Great! That means I’ll have some ‘splainin’ to do if I happen to be unavailable at the time,” Taylor crushed a few choice words between her teeth, cursing the unfairness of fate.
“I wouldn’t worry about that,” a familiar voice whispered from behind her.
“You’ve got to be kidding me!” Taylor mumbled to herself. “What a spectacular sense of timing this guy has!”
“Oh, look at that! What a coincidence!” Christine took the initiative. “I heard so much about you, I was looking forward to getting to know you better. Matt, why don’t you introduce us? Hi, I’m Matt’s girlfriend,” she volunteered eagerly.
“Nice to meet you,” Taylor’s neighbor replied, shaking her hand.
“And what do we call you?” Christine didn’t relent.
“You may call me Mr. Bradford,” he smiled politely. “Most people do.”
“That’ll be the day,” Taylor cringed, preparing herself for the inevitable conflict.
“Matt,” Christine commented sarcastically, looking at her boyfriend. “I didn’t know that your friend came all the way from the nineteenth century!”
“Wouldn’t you be surprised to learn you might actually be right about that? Who’s to know, really?” Taylor’s mind retorted.
“Listen,” Christine said, obviously upset, “we don’t want to hold you guys up, you must be busy. Matt and I made plans for the afternoon and we don’t want to be late, do we, honey?” She snuggled against Matt, who didn’t mind it in the least. For a second, the two of them completely forgot about Taylor and Mr. Bradford’s existence and eloped to a world of their own, where love was king.
“Does that mean they’re not going to check up on me later?” Taylor asked herself.
“Maybe we’ll get the books some other day,” Christine smiled at Matt, in a daze, completely blinded to everything else around her.
“Ain’t love grand?” Taylor’s neighbor commented, watching them leave. “The sky could turn bright purple and they wouldn’t even notice.”
“Are we going anywhere today?” she tried to get ahead of the daily challenge.
“No, I told you, the next door is a little more difficult, it requires proper preparation and an unencumbered mind. You are conflicted right now, not a good starting place.”
“Why are you coming with me, then?”
“To point you to the appropriate reading material.”
The library was quiet, almost empty, and the warm glow of the sunset coming from the large skylight above the reading room filled the hall with rosy-orange light. The tables were covered with stacks of books the library attendant hadn’t had the chance to reshelve yet. They browsed through the piles together and Taylor’s neighbor started pulling books aside, photography tomes mostly: marine life catalogs, sailing, seascapes, harbors in winter, islands.
“Why are we looking at this?” Taylor asked. She felt uneasy when she was too close to water, the simple and direct explanation for this being that she had almost drowned as a child, following an overoptimistic assessment of her swimming skills. Underneath this straightforward explanation was a deeper, subtler fear, one that she couldn’t put into words but which made her pull back involuntarily as if she had touched a hot stove. She wouldn’t admit she was afraid of water, because that went against her commitment to being in control of herself and her immediate environment, so she just argued that she wasn’t much of a beach person, a statement that sounded odd coming from a California girl.
“Because that’s what was here,” he replied, expecting this explanation to suffice.
“So,” she attempted a smart Alec comment, “if this table happened to be covered with baby books, we’d be studying them?”
“Are you afraid of babies?” he asked.
“How did you…Oh, never mind!” she gave up, resigning herself to stop questioning the reason behind his actions, and delved into the pile of books he had pulled aside. The first book she opened was the marine life photography catalog. Extraordinary close up pictures of large fish and sea mammals looked back at her with the low level curiosity with which us humans watch the wildlife in our back yards, aware that it’s there but not involved with its existence at all. A giant sea lion stared her down from behind the glossy page and increased her discomfort. As far as Taylor was concerned, the underwater environment was as virtual as the picture the shiny creature belonged to: a world that you can know about, but never enter, a place forbidden. The sea lion looked very comfortable in its skin and this irritated her; between the broken lock on her door, the uncontrollable intrusions on her life and the cold, drafty halls of her brand new school, her current life afforded her no comfort, and she resented any being, human or otherwise, who had the gumption to be so at ease in its habitat. Why was he happy, anyway, it’s not like there was any shelter in the middle of the godforsaken ocean, you’re always out in the open, exposed to what dangers may come, having to swim all the time, which was no doubt exhausting, what was there to be happy about? As the sun set, the large skylight above the reading room turned lavender, then deep purple, then jet black. The airy space below it, nestled in the atrium at the heart of the edifice, turned cold and drafty. A sudden chill went through her bones and she shuddered, as if touched by a ghost.
“You never know,” her neighbor commented, “many souls have loved this place, it is not inconceivable that some decided to make themselves at home here.” She looked at him to see if he expected her to respond, only to realize that he hadn’t said a word.
“That’s it! I’m going nuts,” Taylor thought, and then rationalized that nobody could remain sane after all of the things that happened, but had to admit that sane, normal, felt confining to her now. It reminded her of how shocked she was, when she revisited the village where she used to spend her summers as a child, to notice that the place had retained its charm, but seemed to have shrunk to the scale of a toy.
Her eyes returned to the picture, from which the sea lion was smiling at her. She shook off her upset. Being unsettled by the photo of an animal took the cake as far as irrationality goes, what was she going to fume over next, the potted plant in the lobby? She closed the catalog and tried to pay attention to the other books, but the sail boats and the fishing stories didn’t really resonate with her.
That night, when she went to sleep, she dreamed that the sea lion had decided to pay her a visit and was anxiously circling her room in search of a place to make itself comfortable but was unable to find it.
Door Number Six – Soul Journeying
”Are you sure you are ready for this? It may be a little unsettling,” he asked.
“As sure as I’ll ever be,” Taylor answered, doubtful. She hadn’t slept well the night before, well, with the sea lion visiting and whatnot, and was a little concerned about the extra preparation required for this door. “What is it this time?” she tried to anticipate her challenge.
“Just remember, whatever you see or feel, it’s all in your mind. You are perfectly safe and you can leave anytime if it gets to be too much. That being said, here goes,” he said, and got up to open the door. A wall of water flooded the room, so fast that Taylor didn’t even have a chance to react to the prospect of imminent drowning. They both got swept by it, despite their best efforts, and carried away in a white water stream that rushed violently between large boulders, where they struggled to keep from getting pulled under, grasping at anything they could get their hands on.
Taylor wanted to speak, but her voice didn’t carry over the deafening roar of the stream. For a second she felt suspended into a quasi-imponderable state, where all of her being was freed from any pulls or pressures, and then tumbled into the void at great speed, almost gliding over the surface of a tall waterfall whose bottom got lost in the mist.
She wanted to be scared, every rational thought told her she should be scared, but she couldn’t feel fear at all; as it turns out it is the emotion itself, and not the thought behind it, that really matters. She kept falling, dazzled by the surreal beauty of her surroundings, melting into a million drops of water, becoming the stream itself, its wild rush, its jump over the rocky edge, and the mist at its bottom.
“Are you ok?” her guide asked, reminding her that she was not alone, and, since there was nothing to contradict that, he must have been part of the stream, the rapids, and the jump over the rocky edge too. She didn’t how to feel about sharing what seemed to be her very essence with another person, other than to be intensely uncomfortable.
“I’ll have to say,” her guide commented on her misgivings, trying to stay afloat, “that under the circumstances, the two of us being cut from the same fabric, so to speak, should be the last thing for you to worry about!” She didn’t have a chance to reply because her liquid self got engulfed by the mist and splattered with great noise in the pool at the bottom of the waterfall.
“What is happening?” she gaped in disbelief at the sun rays that were casting rainbows in her mist. Discrete bits of light refracted in her water droplets.
“You are water,” he commented on Taylor’s latest new normal. There really was no point in trying to find continuity in this pulp fiction of a life, she found herself feeling really grateful that the sun was still coming up each morning.
“Why?” she asked anyway, and was startled to hear the sound of her own voice echoed by the waterfall. The question reverberated for a while, bouncing off the rocky cliffs that surrounded the lake, and was replicated by the tiny water droplets of the mist before it subsided.
“I don’t know, it’s your journey, it must mean something to you,” he replied, preoccupied.
She looked around at the pieces of herself, now fluid; she could feel all of them, wherever they were, in the mist, in the tranquil pool at the bottom of the waterfall, in the rush of the white water stream, in the distant shape of the clouds.
“Can I move any of this?” she asked, captivated by the swirling of the mist, not knowing how to react to the fact that she seemed to exist now in a different state of being, no longer human, no longer a living thing even, just water.
“I would assume so, it is your body after all,” he postulated, with no proof.
The thicket of the mist which had formed at the bottom of the waterfall dissipated and condensed a few feet away into a soft rain.
“I can’t believe this!” she gasped, in awe at her willful manipulation of matter.
“Remember, whatever you see here is no more than a message for your journey, you have to understand what it’s trying to tell you,” he reminded her.
“But this is the journey,” she protested.
“No. This is an exploration of your consciousness. Your life is the journey,” he corrected her.
“So, what does it mean? That I’m going to endlessly recycle myself?” she tried to grasp the metaphor.
“And yield to the circumstances you find yourself in and be all over the place, if we were to approach this in a critical way. But this is not what I see,” he commented.
“What do you see?”
“Transformation, intent, maybe,” he hesitated. “What do you see?”
“I can will fog! So very cool!” Taylor blabbed, overexcited.
“Ugh!” he protested the entertainment value of the experience, which was definitely not the point of their visit. “Cool is so uninspired! Keep looking for why you are here, you’ll know it when you find it. It’s not supposed to be cool. It just is.”
“Is what?” Taylor asked, distracted by a series of waves she was making, which she tried to keep as even as possible.
“Would you stop that?” he snapped, irritated. “I swear you guys are getting younger and younger each semester! I’ll be teaching this class to kindergartners soon. If this water were your body, which it is, at this point in time, would you flop your arms uncontrollably like that? Stop fidgeting!”
“I never thought of it that way,” she settled down, and the water of her lake turned perfectly still.
“Maybe that’s why you are here, to learn to be still,” he suggested.
Taylor remembered the sea lion’s perfect comfort with its environment, and the way it seemed to be smiling at her from behind the flat boundary of the image it was inhabiting. Her day to day activities around campus suddenly stopped enjoying their privileged status associated with being ‘real’. After they had moved out of the present, out of the world of the senses, and into the realm of memories, all her experiences, real or imagined, were nothing more than thoughts in her head, and as such, equal from a cognitive perspective. None of them were truly ‘real’.
“Oh, you’re wrong about that, your thoughts are very real. We are here, aren’t we?” her guide replied.
“Here? There is no ‘here’!” she retorted, only to regret her comment a moment later, out of fear that whatever this was that surrounded her was going to disappear and leave nothing in its place. The lake shimmered gently in the sunlight and then its surface regained its mirror gloss.
“Still here,” he commented. “A very stable environment. You must have given this a lot of thought.”
“I haven’t given it any thought at all! What sane person fantasizes about being a lake? This is the first time I’m seeing this in my life!”
“That you remember.” He paused to give her a second to ponder the possibility.
“What do you suggest, that I had my memory erased, or something?” It was really hard to be argumentative while her essence was dispersed all over creation in fluid form.
“Oh, that is an absolute certainty. All of our memories get constantly overwritten. Try to pay attention to the details around you.”
The night had fallen, with clear and starry skies, very bright in the light of a giant moon, which looked almost too large to maintain the illusion of reality. Flocks of large white birds flew overhead, seagulls, or storks, or cranes, maybe, and Taylor’s rational mind flagged them as unrealistic, because none of those birds flew at night, while simultaneously trying to assess what species they belonged to. She didn’t notice that an eddy was forming at the center of the lake; the whirlpool grew larger and faster as it accumulated more water.
“Never mind, I think it’s time to leave,” her guide said, a fraction of a second before the now giant vortex pulled her down with great force and dropped her in her chintz chair. She was almost surprised to see that the door room was dry. He wasn’t there, but the door back to her room was open. For a moment she worried that he maybe drowned in the whirlpool, or got lost during transport. She then dismissed the thought as idiotic, only to immediately reassess the possibility that her mind could, in fact, be a giant death trap; after all, nothing was impossible, right?
She got up cautiously, making sure the floor was solid, careful not to seep through it on whoever happened to be in the room below at the time, and went back to her room, where a mountain of homework was waiting.
“Oh, thank God! I was really worried that you might be dead!” Taylor breathed a deep sigh of relief at the sight of her neighbor. He was sitting at the large table in the middle of the reading room, half-buried in a book.
“Why would I be dead?” he asked, genuinely surprised.
Taylor shook her head to chase away the silliness of the comment.
“It has been known to happen,” he commented, reverting the conversation back to worry. “Hence the preparation.”
“I thought the preparation was for me!” Taylor blurted, shocked.
“The preparation was also for you,” he replied. The laconic conversation had started to irritate Taylor, especially since the experiment seemed to have entailed a lot more risk than she was comfortable taking. His eyes met her belligerent gaze and he felt compelled to explain.
“You know? Sometimes an experienced swimmer rushes to the rescue of a person who has ventured out in deep waters without knowing how to swim. The experienced swimmer is so confident in his abilities that he underestimates the strength with which a person who believes they’re drowning will hold on to him, as their last hope. The drowning person often struggles, doing the exact opposite of what will keep them afloat, and can drag the experienced swimmer under. It turns out instinctive reactions are not always your best hope for survival, huh?” he turned towards her to see if the drowning person analogy had fallen a bit harsh. “The sad part is that it would be almost effortless for the experienced swimmer to pull the drowning person to safety, if they calmed down enough to keep their heads above water. Bodies naturally float, and all it takes is for the person to do nothing, but it never happens, because everyone believes acting out is the only way out of a crisis.” He looked at Taylor, whose eyes had started to be overshadowed by concern, an answered quickly, to nip any potential guilt in the bud. “We undergo extensive training for situations just like this, they are to be expected. The problem is, you never know what you’re going to encounter, hell or high water, so to speak. Nobody can anticipate every possibility. I once traveled with a girl whose hidden emotions were trapped by the lava flows of an active volcano, with no way out.”
“What happened to her?” Taylor asked, worried.
“That is not your life,” he retorted, surprisingly stern. “You don’t have the rights to its details!”
“Then don’t give them to me, Jeez!” Taylor thought, trying to think up a change of subject.
“The point of this experience, fraught with risk as it may have been,” he gave her a morose stare, “was to realize that whether you acknowledge your emotions or not, they’re still a part of you and they will mold your life. The emotions that stay hidden, by their very nature, usually create chaos and damage. It isn’t that difficult to understand why that would happen; people don’t normally lock up and throw away the key to a place where they keep things they are proud of. That’s why I’m still a little puzzled by that beautiful world of yours. I’m trying to figure out why you would bury a place like that. Sure, the white waters are a bit out of control, but what we found there was a treasure, not a dump heap. Care to explain?”
“As I mentioned before, I have never seen that place in my life, in my mind or otherwise,” Taylor frowned, embarrassed to have her mind turned inside out for public viewing.
“You don’t have any thoughts or feelings about it?” he probed.
“I don’t know, it’s nice, I guess,” she conceded.
“Then why do you keep it hidden?” he pressed on.
“Not everything that’s hidden is bad,” she tried to circumvent the question, managing only to incite more curiosity. “You know, this is an outrageous invasion of privacy! So much for having the rights to one’s life details! Apparently that only applies to other people!”
“Please don’t be upset, I don’t mean to pry. I just find it disconcerting, that’s all.”
Taylor didn’t want to tell him that, much like with her obsessive need to have everything in her environment just so, she needed to have a place inside her head that was all her own, where nobody else could make decisions for her or judge her, a place where she could just be, unconstrained. She had built this imaginary place inside her mind, a shelter against the whims of the world, at the age of thirteen. She never knew what it looked like, but it was home, and having it broken into and exposed to the world felt like a slow death. She was saddened by its loss and needed to mourn it, even though it felt weird to cry because an imaginary world no longer existed. Despite the common sense she prided herself having in crisis situations, and her ‘just the facts’ approach to life in general, and after all the things that had happened to her in this multi-doored adventure, it was this breach of boundaries that hit her the worst, and marked a critical point she was certain she wasn’t going to return from, not the way she was before, anyway. Her old life was gone.
“I’m really sorry!” he started to panic, suddenly aware of her shock at the unraveling of this place in her mind that had been a part of her for so long. “I just never met a person who lived an entire life inside her head, I didn’t even know it was even possible!”
“That’s a good thing to add to your instructors’ training manual, then,” Taylor thought, too distraught to reply.
“You know, you can make yourself another inner world, and I won’t know anything about that one,” he lied, trying to figure out if there was any way to salvage this wreck.
“Thanks. Pass.” She replied inside her head, not seeing a reason to make the effort to speak out loud. From this moment forward she knew she was never going to be able to have a single thought all to herself again.
“I feel terrible, like I kicked you out of your home, or something,” he mumbled, in a way so awkward it showed complete lack of familiarity with apologizing.
“You didn’t kick me out of my home, you kicked me out of my world!” Taylor thought. She got up to leave, trying to put together an action plan for how to move forward now that her inner shelter was no more.
“I was just trying to give you a mirror, so you can see yourself. None of us can see what is so obvious to the people around us, we keep our selves in the blind spot. Don’t you want to know?” he insisted, trying to make her see the possibilities that were opened to her now that she knew she was water.
Taylor didn’t think her inner shelter could be further broken down from its scrambled atomic state, but it continued getting disassembled into subatomic particles, a fact made possible by the time based demolition of said shelter throughout all instances of its past, all the way back to its origins.
“I guess that’s what it must feel like when you’re being erased,” she thought, suddenly calm. “That which supports the structure of your life does not and has never existed.”
“Where are you going?” her guide asked, concerned by her dispirited stare. She looked poised and situation appropriate, but there was no light behind her eyes, as if she wasn’t there anymore.
“To finish my homework assignments. I assume those are still pertinent to my life,” she replied, emotionless.
“You really shouldn’t be alone right now. Can’t you work on them here for a while? Or maybe call Christine, ask her to spend the evening together?”
“What a lovely thought!” Taylor brooded sarcastically. “I can’t wait to be the third wheel on Christine and Matt’s date, that would certainly make me feel better!”
“Or call your mother, maybe? Talk to her?” he suggested, grasping at straws. The last comment finally got Taylor to snap. She was outraged. What was the benefit of conversing with somebody who could read minds if they didn’t even bother to retrieve the basic details of her history? She wasn’t in the mood for hollow talk and didn’t need another sanctimonious stranger to make half-baked assumptions about her life.
“You know, since you spend most of your time poking around in people’s heads, I expect you to pay the modicum of attention which would have informed you about my mother’s limited availability. She will not answer her phone unless something about the current situation meets the description of life threatening emergency. Being admitted to the ER might do the deed, but I trust we’re not going to do that?“ She pinned him down with a grizzly stare, trying to confirm the validity of her last statement. He nodded, just to maintain whatever emotional stability was still there.
After that, Taylor turned around and left, trying to calm herself down by wandering around the library for a while, surprised to find nooks and crannies she’d never paid attention to before, and intent on bouncing back any passing thought or emotion that tried to approach her mind. She didn’t want to have them anymore, knowing they would be floating out there for the world to see, like underwear hung out to dry in public.
As it turns out the yoga novices were right. Not thinking was hard. Especially when one was upset, like she was now.
“There is no place for me to be at peace anymore,” she realized. “This is my world now, a rickety box with a broken lock in the middle of the square.”
On her way back to the dorm she ran into Christine and Matt, who were so involved in their own lives they wouldn’t have noticed a change if she died her hair green and started wearing a clown costume. Christine chirped excitedly as she gave Taylor the latest news of her life, in painstaking detail, despite Matt’s obvious embarrassment. The latter was trying to hide it by scrubbing his shoe to remove an inexistent water spot.
“I’m an idiot!” Taylor’s breakthrough dropped inside her mind like the proverbial coin. “Nobody really cares what I think! Even if I wanted to share my thoughts with my friend, she wouldn’t remember what I said by the end of the phrase; it’s all Christine and Matt’s show now, everything else is decor!”
The thought provided her with the surprise breeze of comfort she thought she was never going to feel again, so she smiled as she said goodbye to her friends and walked back to the dorm to finish her homework in the room with the broken lock. It seemed that the time Taylor had spent at the locksmith’s shop to find her invoice for the repair hadn’t made any difference in the waiting time.
“I really hope you’re feeling better,” a familiar voice spoke tentatively.
“Of course! Why not?” Taylor turned around from her desk. “I’m fine. I didn’t know you were enrolled in Human Evolutionary Biology.”
“I’m not. I thought I heard the bell, the class isn’t over?” he asked, pointing back to a generic region of space from which the bell sound supposedly originated. “No, I just stopped by to make sure you’re back to your old self again, we’ve got one more door to go through.”
“You can’t seriously expect me to go through another door again!” Taylor protested.
“Remember Sydney? It’s either a controlled jump or we take our chances on a random portal.”
“What is it with everybody that they show such dedication to meddling into my life. How about no, I don’t want to go?!”
“Random jump it is, then,” he sighed, anticipating hassle. “Not that I don’t celebrate the assertiveness involved in saying no to things you don’t want in your life, but this is really not the time.”
“I wonder when I ever heard that?” she mocked. “Oh, yes. Every day!”
“Well, you should have tried it on one of those other days, ‘cause this particular circumstance doesn’t give you that option,” he replied.
“You know what? I’ll make my own options from now on! How about that?” she said, very sure of herself, as she walked towards the door.
“That is really great news, I’m thrilled that you finally arrived to this conclusion, which is very healthy, emotionally speaking, however, door number seven is a non-negotiable.”
“There is no such thing! Everything is negotiable!” she reveled in her new found individuality.
“Not door number seven,” he insisted.
“I don’t understand! What have I done to you to deserve to have my life turned upside down like this?” she deplored theatrically. Since she’d lost her inner shelter, she rejected any sense of obligation to keep unpleasant emotions to herself, not only that, but she exaggerated them, just to see the reaction they got. Her guide didn’t blink, he just leaned back a little, to get some perspective on the performance.
“Upside down depends on your system of reference. If there is nothing else in your world but one object, in our case, your life, how would you know which way was up? You’d have nothing to compare it to. I was, in fact, turning your life up side up.”
“And I must believe what you say because?” she continued sassing.
“This day gets better every minute! That’s great! Do challenge assumptions! You really don’t have to believe anything I or anybody else says. I have no way of proving it to you, I just hope you’ll get to know it for yourself one day, and then maybe you’ll be ok with being a lake again.”
“Oh, good grief, not that one!” Taylor thought, mortified with embarrassment. “I can almost hear the harpsichord and see white doves circling my head.”
“I do believe they were pelicans, judging by their size,” he corrected her.
“Nothing escapes you,” Taylor couldn’t help her trademark sarcasm.
“So, when do you think you’ll be up to going through door number seven?” he returned to the purpose of his visit.
“Later,” Taylor replied.
“Well, it’s next week, actually, I just wanted to give you the heads up.”
“Why do you even bother to ask? If there is no real choice, why pretend there is?” she blew her top.
“For morale,” he replied, very seriously.
She walked quietly for a while.
“So, is there any preparation involved this time?” Taylor’s practical nature tried to anticipate any potential drama associated with whatever la-la land door number seven opened to.
“Oh, no. There’s no need,” he dismissed the question. “If you’re not ready by the time you get to it, there wouldn’t be any point anyway. Why don’t you focus on your studies, pass all your midterms, return your library books, that sort of thing, so you’re not distracted.”
“You just stopped short of telling me to get my affairs in order. I’m not dying, am I?” she worried.
“Why would you say something like that?” he retorted.
“Every time I go through one of these doors…” she started, and then changed her mind. “It doesn’t matter.”
“How is Christine? You guys are still friends?” he asked.
“Of course we are, why are you asking?” Taylor got suspicious about his sudden interest in her social life.
“No reason, you don’t seem to hang out together as much lately. She seemed to be such a good friend to you.”
“It’s not that we don’t get along, she spends almost all of her time with Matt these days, I barely see her anymore,” Taylor answered. “We’re enrolled in different classes too, she decided to change her major, she has a very busy life now.” Taylor said, not without a tinge of bitterness that while everybody else was living their lives, she was waiting for doors to open into goodness knows where.
“You can live whatever life you choose, you know. If you want your life to be more like Christine’s, the only thing you need to do is live it that way.”
“Like that’s going to work, after taking a trip back in time, circa 1970.” Normal had given up the ghost a long time ago and Willy Wonka himself couldn’t bring it back.
“Lake it is, then,” her guide summed up the conversation, excused himself and left. He had other engagements.
Taylor walked past the library, where she could almost see the Bradford wing in her mind’s eye; this reminded her she had an additional option available. She could go there, she thought. The door was still open to her alternate life, and she had plausible motivation to consider the option, but not the slightest desire to do so. She didn’t know what it was about that life that put her off so, maybe the social expectation to become a Jessica, or maybe it was the thought that she would be settling for less, that she would be exchanging her dream for slightly more expensive pair of shoes. The funny detail about her alternate life of privilege was that it was only made possible by the existence of a door inside her current reality, and it was arrived at by means that voided all of its perks of their meaning. There was nothing in that life that she couldn’t envision in less than five minutes, and none of it sounded exciting.
So, door number three out of the picture, she concentrated on the schedule for the following week.
Door Number Seven – The Afterlife
“Where are we?” Taylor looked around, trying to recognize her surroundings. There was something very familiar about the place, it felt as if she had spent a lot of time there, but so long ago, maybe in a dream.
“For lack of a better word, dead,” he clarified, too calm for comfort. “Not dead-dead, just on the other side of the river Styx, visiting, sort of. Don’t worry, we’re going back.”
“I didn’t know one could visit,” she thought, “without being, you know…”
“Sure you can,” he reassured her. “Well, I can, some people can, that’s beside the point. Welcome to the great beyond!” he smiled and raised his hands to present the environment, in an attempt to be a gracious host. “To give a more specific answer to your original question, we aren’t anywhere, at least not anywhere that can be pointed on a map in normal reality. We’re in the world inside your mind,” he suggested, “you can make it look any way you wish.”
“Then why does it look like this? I’m sure I’ve never been to this place, nor did I imagine it. Why does it feel so familiar?” she kept looking around.
“Of course it feels familiar, it is your mind, you just didn’t know what it looked like before. It feels a little bit like seeing your own face for the first time. Without a reflective surface you have now way of knowing what you look like, but you can sort of recognize yourself, even if you don’t understand why. Cozy,” he commented upon looking around. “What’s that smell?”
“Sugar plums. They’re over there,” she pointed to the corner of the table from which the scents of vanilla, cinnamon and orange wafted. “So, we’re in Heaven?”
“That depends. Do you like sugar plums?” he asked, very serious.
“Quite frankly, I have no idea. We’re just not in life anymore.”
“What makes you think we’re dead? There could be many other explanations…”
He didn’t answer, just pointed to a door that opened into the garden and as she walked through it she recognized the family plot she used to visit as a child, with the old grave stones, much older now, and new ones that she had never seen before. She found her own.
“The years don’t match,” she said, looking at the dates which read 1997-2014.”
“Oh, no, I’m pretty sure they’re accurate,” he checked.
“But it’s 2016,” she protested.
“So, I’m still alive,” she insisted, starting to panic.
“Alive is such a relative concept, don’t you think? I thought we already established that in about half of the possible realities you are most likely dead.”
“So, this is one of them?” she asked.
“No, I told you. This is the world inside your mind, a world of your own making.”
“So, am I alive or dead?” she insisted.
“Right now you are dead, I think… At least if somebody were to walk into the room, they would find you quite dead.” He turned towards her just in time to restrain the jolt of her shock. “Don’t worry, the door is locked. I didn’t want to risk an accidental autopsy before we return. According to the principles of physics, as long as you are inside that locked room, you are both alive and dead.”
“Impossible, right? Isn’t science great?” he burst out laughing.
“I don’t feel dead,” she checked herself. “I don’t feel different at all!”
“Yeah, that’s a common problem, most people don’t, that’s why it is so hard to convince the ones who don’t know it yet. Whatever you are is the same whether you’re in a body or not, and since this world is your own creation you can manipulate everything in it just as you used to in life. I’m glad your mind didn’t recreate your dorm room, it would have been extremely challenging to persuade you that you are not actually there.”
“But it feels so real!” Taylor couldn’t recover from the shock. She touched the surface of the table and felt the fine wood grain under her fingers. “This can’t be right, I don’t believe you!”
“Care to look at those tombstones again?” he asked, and Taylor realized that she’d been transported between the cemetery and the room twice and didn’t even notice it.
“As I said, very hard to become aware of your state, the mind just ignores the inconsistencies it can’t process.”
She looked at the newer tombstones in the back.
“I don’t know a Caelin Bradford,” she hesitated before she had the chance to read the years.
“I didn’t expect you would, she was born forty years after your passing, probably a great-niece,” he commented.
“A great niece from whom? I don’t have any siblings.”
“Apparently in this life you did.”
She read the tombstone again:
Caelin Jane Bradford 2057- 2149.
“Yep, I must surely be dead by now in any reality,” she muttered to herself and then it occurred to her to ask out loud. “What year is it?”
“Twenty one ninety something, I’m not entirely sure. Why are you smiling?”
“Just waiting for you to bring up the Ghost of Christmas Future,” she said. “No moralizing story? No suggestions for bettering myself?”
“What would be the point of that? You’ve been dead for almost eighty years.”
“But we just…” she mumbled, more and more confused as time passed.
“Oh, time is a human construct. There is no time here.”
“So, you can’t explain to me where ‘here’ is, exactly?” she tried to get some clarification again.
“The simplest description of this place is that you are ‘here’ when you are no longer anywhere else.”
“Who else is ‘here’?”
“Whoever you want it to be. It is your world. I see that for the time being it seems to be empty, campus life a little stressful, is it?”
“I can’t remember dying.”
“Nobody does, why would we want to carry that burden? As I said, many people simply continue living their lives right from where they left off, surroundings, occupation, family, friends and all, and it is absolutely impossible to convince them that they are dead. There is no reason for them to believe you. Nothing really changed. The mind is a powerful creative tool, it can generate anything you want it to. Recreating things that already existed is the easiest thing for it to do.”
“What happened to Christine? And Matt?”
“Funny you should ask that, since you only had the chance to meet Christine. The thing is, over here, whatever you think happened in her life, happened, since this ‘reality’ is of your own making. It might look like one of her possible lives, or a blend of several of them, who knows? You could go into one of them and find out for sure.”
“So, when I’m dead-dead,” she emphasized, “for real dead, I cannot go back?”
“You can do whatever you want,” he said.
“But I would be going to a different, a future life,” she tried to clarify.
“There is no different future life. There are infinite alternatives of the life you have.”
“Details. If you cross into life, then you’re alive. If you cross out of life, then you’re not alive. You’re just on opposite banks of the silver stream, that’s all, but you’re always you.”
“But wait, if I cross back into life, how would I know it is real, and not some ‘reality’ my mind constructed, just like the one here?”
“Aah, you finally got Maya!”
“You mean nothing is real??” Taylor whimpered, on the verge of tears. If it weren’t for the inexplicable back and forth teleportation, the lump in her throat and the knot in her stomach would have assured her that she was very much alive. What would be the benefit of feeling pain when you don’t have a body? A body with sensory perception. A physical body. A body made of matter. Since her current situation checked all the boxes, she gave up trying to figure it out.
“Quite the opposite! Everything is, you just have to choose which ‘real’ you want to look at at the time, ‘everything’ gets to be a bit overwhelming.”
“So, right now am I dead or alive?” she tried again to figure out the nature of her current state.
“Technically, you’re both. Not a common situation, grant you, but statistically possible.” He stopped to evaluate the stupefied look on her face. “A lot more things are possible than you know.”
“But if I died at seventeen, then who traveled with you from college in 2016 and how are we almost two hundred years later?”
“You are trying to apply the solution of a particular problem to the general case, and for this purpose you introduce two variables which do not pertain to existence as a whole: time and a unique location. You are all of those you’s during all of those times, both alive and dead.”
“But why am I here?” she asked, hoping for a more general answer to the question, something relating to the meaning of existence, the nature of God, the shape of the Universe, but instead she got the answer she expected, which comes to prove that, even in death, the law of causality is implacable. That gave her comfort, believe it or not, because the mind needs rules, a structure to bend itself around, a repeatable experience to engender the feeling of being in control, a realm to contain it.
“You are here because you went through door number seven,” her guide obliged. “Sugar plum?”
She absentmindedly picked a plum from the plate and as she bit into it she noticed that she was back in room number eight, curled up in her chintz chair with a blanket around her knees. It took her a second to adjust to being back, not sure why she was still chewing on an imaginary sugar confection, but more importantly, why she was still holding in her hand.
“Aren’t you going to finish it?” her teacher asked, in a light conversational tone. “I thought you said you liked them.” Since she didn’t answer, he grabbed his notebook and started reviewing the class notes and jotted down a few words here and there, nodding occasionally when he found something of particular interest. He raised his eyes from the papers, eventually, scrunched up his nose to adjust his glasses and coughed, a little awkward.
“Well, it seems that you have finished all the required class work, I’m going to give you a passing grade, congratulations for completing the Wayfinding Systems course and I wish you all the best in your future studies,” he got up, signaling that it was time to go.
“Wait,” she dragged her feet to the door. “What if I have questions? Was any of this real?”
“Real?” he laughed. “What is that?” He was standing in the doorway leading to the corridor, inside the door that never opened, the one with the number eight fastened through the middle, and even under the circumstances Taylor couldn’t help but notice that the number was askew again; she subconsciously decided to straighten it when the first opportunity presented itself. “Enjoy your sugar plum.”
For the next few days Taylor kept staring at the door between rooms, just to make sure whether it was still there, because it was becoming increasingly clear to her that this whole door situation looked a lot more like her mind was taking a break from reality than that something out of the natural order of things had actually happened. She kicked herself for not attempting to get solid proof of any of the events, and she couldn’t figure out what, if anything, would constitute proof.
She decided to document at least what was there, even if it didn’t mean much, before she woke up one day to notice there was no door, or room number eight. Any rational being would have done that, all things considered. She felt really stupid taking pictures of the empty room with the doors, because they looked like average doors, no more, no less, and she didn’t even get to walk through more than one of them anyway. What was that going to prove?
Despite her misgivings, she sent the pictures to Christine, who answered her with a series of perplexed emoticons and the ultimate laconic comment: ?
“Why would you send me pictures of doors, Taylor? I’ve seen doors before, they looked pretty much like that,” she asked a few hours later when she came to visit. Taylor had struggled to find a rational motive for sending her friend the pictures, but couldn’t come up with one.
“It’s just the doors in room number eight, I wanted to know your opinion,” she made up an absurd explanation on the spot, explanation which only served to confirm to her friend that she was going off the rails.
“You took pictures of this guy’s room? You worry me a little, girl! I thought he was creepy, but you take the cake! Stalkerish much?” Christine couldn’t believe what she was hearing and seeing, especially since this kind of behavior was so unlike anything her friend would consider doing under normal circumstances.
“No! No! It’s not what you think!” Taylor tried to explain her logic to Christine, managing only to dig herself deeper. “No, you see, I just wanted you to have them, in case I need to retrieve them later.”
“Retrieve them? They’re pictures of doors. Need them for what?” Christine asked, really concerned.
“You know, just in case,” Taylor didn’t know how to justify sending a packet of door pictures to Christine’s phone without looking completely insane.
“I wasn’t going to say anything, but there comes a point… Taylor? You are not ok. You spend all of your time in this room, stalking this guy, who I didn’t think was good for you to begin with, doing God knows what, gone for days on end without a word, it’s a miracle that your grades haven’t started sliding down the hill,” she said, holding her friend’s hand in both of hers, in an imploring gesture. “What are you doing with your life? Did he get you into drugs or something? I don’t know what you’re doing, but I’m sure it’s not ok, so I’ll be the friend I’d like to have myself and will drag you out of this room if I have to. You are nineteen, you need to get out more, meet new people, see new places, live your life, you’re only young once!” Taylor made a brief mental note that this wasn’t necessarily the case, but had the presence of spirit to shut up. “Who is this guy, anyway? I bet you didn’t even ask him about his first name, like I begged you! You’re going to end up in a cult or something, or worse, dead before your time, and I will never be able to forgive myself if that happened. Get dressed, we’re going out now!”
“Where?” Taylor asked.
“Doesn’t matter. Anywhere that’s not here is good. Did that locksmith ever come to fix your lock?” Christine asked, and then thought that if her friend was into some dangerous substances, it was better if the door didn’t lock, just in case she had to bust it in in an emergency.
“And where is Mr. Bradford right now?” Christine asked with a hint of sarcasm.
“Aahm, I don’t know. We finished the project, Christine, I told you it was only work.”
“Of course it was, thank goodness it’s over! Come on, I want you to meet somebody,” she smiled encouragingly.
“Oh, dear God, please don’t let her fix me up with someone again!” Taylor thought, remembering that it was Christine who had arranged, willingly or accidentally, several of her encounters with her neighbor and paused to consider the wisdom of her choices, however well intentioned.
“Have you heard from your mother recently?” Christine tried to change the subject in a manner that would reintegrate Taylor into the normality of her old life.
“No,” Taylor remembered bitterly. “I sent her a couple of texts, but she didn’t answer. She must be busy.”
“I’m sure she is,” Christine tried to comfort her, all the way thinking that if Taylor’s mother would not have been so emotionally unavailable, maybe Taylor wouldn’t find herself in this unfortunate situation, entangled with suspicious characters and getting in who knows what kind of trouble. Her friend didn’t want to talk to her about her experiences during the last month, and for Christine that was proof enough that something untoward must have happened. “Do you want me to try and contact her, maybe I have better luck?”
“Or maybe she would feel more uncomfortable ignoring a total stranger,” Christine thought. “I’m not one to judge, but somebody should intervene, this is nothing short of neglect. Some people just can’t be bothered to care about anyone other than themselves.” She felt good about taking charge of this situation and then remembered she had promised Matt they were going to meet in fifteen minutes to sample the pastries in the new shop that had opened on campus the day before, excused herself a million times for not being able to spend time with Taylor, like she wanted to, made sure that the latter didn’t get upset with her and left her there, all dressed up with nowhere to go, and went to meet with her sweetheart.
“Well, as long as she cares,” Taylor thought, without getting upset. She had considered going out anyway, the room had started to feel a little claustrophobic and she thought the fresh air will do her good.
Fall had arrived in full force, there was a chill in the air at dusk, a crispness made cheerful by the splendid colors of the turning leaves. Large flocks of birds where clouding the sky and making a terrible racket, unsettled by the approach of winter; they flew from one large tree to another and changed direction unexpectedly, all at the same time, perfectly choreographed in the perfection of their natural instincts. They were the only living presence on campus, except for Taylor. There must have been some event everyone else went to, because the campus looked deserted, like vacation had already started, even though they were right in the middle of the semester. Taylor did a mental review of the work she had left to do for the classes she was taking, pleased with the grades she was getting so far and a little surprised, considering the limited amount of time and attention she had dedicated to them. Despite endless interruptions of her life by events which did not pass the acid test of reality, she seemed to do just fine. Maybe Christine was right after all, she knew her friend meant well, just look at the things she’d been doing lately! If somebody sent her picture after picture of doors she would have considered calling somebody to assess that person’s sanity too. It just wasn’t something a reasonable person would do!
She decided that this experiment of hers, even if it seemed to be mandatory in nature, had taken a toll on her functioning as a normal human being, and her first priority, if she still considered herself rational, would have to be to put the experience behind her and focus on things people of her age did: her school work, her social life, and her dating.
She felt a lot better about herself after this analysis and was so glad she had decided to go out for a walk, that she didn’t even realize her steps had taken her to the library, without planning to do so; she only stopped when she found herself in the middle of the tall and drafty reading room.
The large table was covered in books, as always, somebody must have been working on their metaphysics’ thesis, because that seemed to be the theme of the table this time, with mounds of books spanning from religion to philosophy, and a lot of psychology in between.
She looked around and discovered the cause of this soul searching frenzy. Right in front of her eyes, on one of the large columns which supported the skylight, was a poster announcing an new lecture series: “Between Lives: A History of Metempsychosis”
“Well, then,” she thought, with bitter irony. “That must be where everybody went, it looks like I’m missing out.”
She lifted her eyes as she turned around to exit the reading room and noticed the North Star glowing through the glass of the skylight; she wondered why she never paid attention to the night sky before, wondered why would it be so wrong if she took some time out of her busy schedule to hang out at the campus observatory, and maybe look at some star charts to learn where to find the constellations, and how to follow their travels across the firmament.
She was sure it was the North Star, at least she thought so, maybe it wasn’t, she didn’t know that much about stars. The world seemed much larger, all of a sudden, full of places that were very far away and of things she knew nothing about, and even if she wasn’t yet sure whether her experience had been real, that life was indeed without end, she was happy to believe it, happy to know she’d have enough time to figure out all of those things out there, those beautiful things that daily life passes by, confident in its priority status, and relegates them to the entertainment and leisure section, to be browsed through quickly when one wants to get one’s mind off of things.
Life is different when you have time, and Taylor had time, because at the age of nineteen she had inadvertently walked into eternity. She wrote down the schedule of the lecture series, not sure yet if she wanted to attend, and exited the halls, just as the speaker made the announcement that the library would close in fifteen minutes.
Another week passed, with class assignments and social events, and a lot of fretting and preparation for the upcoming midterms. In the rush of activities, Taylor almost forgot about the weirdness next door. She had decided not to pay it a lot of attention, since she couldn’t explain it, anyway, or figure out how this whole experience would fit into her life.
Christine and Matt were spending almost all of their time together now, and since Taylor seemed to have come to her senses, Christine didn’t stop by as often as she used to. Taylor took her comment about the door lock to heart and decided to stop by the locksmith’s shop to see what was the hold-up in repairing the lock.
The guy behind the counter was new and very young, probably a student trying to make ends meet. He didn’t seem to be particularly enthusiastic about his task and moved about begrudgingly, with a level of inefficiency that seemed almost far-fetched. He looked through the invoices and didn’t find hers, which, obviously, explained why nobody ever showed up. Taylor had to spend more than an hour going through old credit card records and through the invoices until she managed to find what she was looking for: her name was misspelled and the address was wrong.
“How do these people manage to stay in business?” she wondered, looking at the guy who seemed to have gotten tired from all the looking at her while she did all the digging through the files. He shoved his ear buds deeper inside his ear canals, in an attempt to permanently plug them, thus never, ever having to interact with people like her again. She had to speak very loudly to get over the sound of music, set up a firm appointment for the repair and left with absolutely no hope of it happening as planned. Oh, well, such was life.
She almost bumped into her neighbor on her way out the shop, and discovered, to her surprise, that she never expected to see him again, even though he continued to live in the room next to hers. The encounter gave her this sinking feeling that her trip to the twilight zone wasn’t over yet and she could get dragged into who knows what else at any second.
“So, did your door lock get fixed?” he asked. She hesitated before answering, because she simply knew he must have had the answer before she did anyway, and wondered what was the point of this elaborate theatrical production, but decided to play along anyway.
“No, it seems there was a mishap with the invoice. Somebody’s coming on Friday.”
“Are they now? Well, that’s good. How have you been?” he reverted to standard conversation.
“Fine. Busy with school work. You?” she continued the absurd filler conversation, not really sure why she was engaged in it, mind reading and all.
“Oh, I just learned that I have a lot of stuff to do, a deadline just got pushed back, my schedule is winding up very tight. On an unrelated note, wouldn’t you know it? I hung out with Matt and Christine the other day, and they seem like very nice people. Are you still friends with Christine?”
“She loathes you!” Taylor thought. “How does this guy get to spend time with the love birds, when they avoid me like I’m contagious or something?” She realized she was really jealous of her neighbor spending any time with her friends. Doesn’t one get to keep anything for oneself? Curiosity and peeve got the better of her and she decided to fish out the details of this newborn association. She got just the right question to ease into details.
“You know, Christine had asked me repeatedly, but I never remembered to ask you. What is your given name? She really wanted to know.”
“Of course it is,” she replied, with a dry smile. “That went well, I feel like I’m talking into a recorder. Not much different from the last hour and a half at the locksmith shop. At least I can tell Christine that I tried, if she ever finds time in her packed schedule to talk to me again.” The whole endeavor struck her as an irritating waste of time, but she was saved from it by the most improbable of sources, her mother, who texted her with the surprise announcement that she was coming to visit.
Taylor tensed immediately, knowing that the sight of a dorm door with a broken lock was going to unleash an avalanche of criticism on top of her head, and wondered if there was anything she could do to make the repair happen before her mother’s visit, but since she didn’t know precisely when that visit was going to occur, she unconsciously wrung her heads, helpless.
“I haven’t seen you in yoga class lately. You decided to give that up?” the other Taylor asked, just to make conversation.
“I didn’t have the time, with school work, things tend to get very hectic,” she excused herself.
“There’s always time,” he suggested, “you just have to find it.”
“Why is he here?” Taylor asked herself. This whole casual conversation felt so patently absurd she wondered if she had accidentally walked through some invisible door and slipped into another la-la land reality alternative that she was going to have to dig herself out of later.
She decided to continue the conversation, because all of that walking in silence was getting awkward. “Are you teaching any other classes this quarter?”
“As a matter of fact, I am just starting a new one, if you’re interested, in about a week or so.” He stared, inquisitively, waiting for an answer.
“Well, I only have myself to blame, I walked right into that one,” Taylor thought, trying to come up with a way to extricate herself from any commitment.
“Yeah, you’re right about that, you’ll probably be too busy for the rest of this year, why with all of your course work and life and such. I’ll see you around,” he smiled and split, changing direction so suddenly he almost scared her. She continued the rest of her trip alone.
Her room was quiet, what a blessing, and its details felt familiar and comforting, all but that cursed door which seemed to mock her from the wall. Why was that door there? It couldn’t be an accident, it was way too convenient to have happened randomly. She hesitated before walking back into that room, worried that something unexpected was going to happen, like it always did, and this time she will bear full responsibility for the consequences. The door had been left wide open, and that annoyed her a little, because she was sure she’d closed it before she left.
“I’m like a gerbil in a glass box, my whole life is being lived for me, I wonder why I even bother to make plans!” She got up to close the door and stopped right in front of it, with her hand on the handle. Room number eight looked exactly as before, and she was suddenly embarrassed when she remembered sending the door pictures to Christine. What on earth was she thinking? “Is that my student ID?” she squinted at a tiny plastic rectangle hanging on the edge of the chintz chair.
Her life was getting completely out of hand, she chastised herself, she simply had to cut all of this reality distortion out and focus on her goals for the future and bona fide work, this whole adventure into the unknown simply had to stop. She walked into room number eight, decisively, picked up her student ID and turned around to go back to her room. She got a little confused, something didn’t add up. She knew there were only eight doors, and that at the end of the class one of the doors always opened to lead her back to her room, but for the life of her she couldn’t understand how she never noticed until then that that door, the one which always opened, was in fact door number eight.
“It is settled, I’m too gullible to live. I can’t believe I fell for this guy’s trick this entire time, no going through door number eight indeed! This should teach me, what in the world was I thinking, I should really thank Christine for looking out for me, even if I seemed to have reached the limits of her patience and understanding. How come I never find myself on the other side of the table in this endless series of sucker bets? I just hope to God that Christine doesn’t bring up this insanity when my mother shows up, I’ll never hear the end of it!”
She walked towards the door, her mind still racing.
“What a prize, this guy! Must be nice being him, he’d never find himself in this kind of situation, I’m sure! Why do I always do?”
She was able to see her room through the open door and could hardly wait to get back to it, forget the whole thing happened and find a way to persuade the student council to allow her to switch to a different dorm as soon as possible, even if that meant sharing with a room mate. At least it would be human!
“God, I wish I were male!” she thought as she walked through the door. These things never seemed to happen to men, for some reason, they never seemed to get unwelcome advice, their life being run for them, endless judging of their looks, gossip about their private lives. Her mind wound itself up progressively, and by the time she hit her bed, she was absolutely furious, and felt very very tired, and displeased with the way her life had unfolded so far, and wanted to blame somebody for it, so she directed all of her frustration to the immediate cause of her problem, the guy in the other room, who didn’t seem to assume any responsibility for messing up her life.
“That’s what they do, she thought! Men! They upend everybody’s life, and then, when the proverbial fan starts running, they make themselves conveniently unavailable and let the suckers clean up the mess.” This thought brought up the anger she was still feeling over the untimely passing of her father, something she’d never gotten over, even if she knew that being angry at a loved one for being dead was completely irrational, and she blamed him for it too, for getting into that accident that clearly wasn’t his fault, thus steering hers and her mother’s lives into an unwelcome direction.
“Great, now I’m too tense to sleep!” she thought, eyes wide open in the room that had gotten so dark she couldn’t see her hands in front of her face. “I’m going to be tired and not able to pay attention in class tomorrow, on top of it all! That’s all I need, more problems!”
Door Number Eight – The Forbidden Door of Wishes and Desires
“Whoa, what’s on fire?” Taylor woke up the next morning to painful, unholy banging on the door. “What’s gotten into Christine, and why doesn’t she just come in, she knows the lock doesn’t work?”
She stumbled towards the door, nursing a bear of a headache, surprised to see that somebody had already repaired the broken lock. The door burst wide open, slamming into the wall, and in came Matthew, carrying a giant pizza, steaming hot. The sheer amount of meat on top of it was enough to make Taylor’s stomach revolt.
“Wake up, man! Coach is going to bench you if you’re late again. I brought help, your favorite, meat lovers’. Edge to edge, my friend!” He stared at Taylor, who was about to protest on behalf of vegans everywhere, and a doubtful look appeared on his face. “What on earth are you wearing?”
Taylor looked down to find out what was wrong with her pink jersey pajamas and was shocked to notice a pair of unusually large and very hairy legs emerging from their bottom.
“Listen, man!” Matt said, his doubtful look settling into a stable frown. “Whatever happened last night, I don’t want to know! Poor Jessica, is that her pajama?”
“What’s that have to do with Jessica? Am I male?” Taylor mumbled, staring at her hands, wide eyed, feeling as if she was watching a train come straight at her, while unable to move.”
“Whatever you were on last night, drink some coffee and walk it off, and pray to the deity of your choosing that coach doesn’t find out about it!”
“So, I’m male,” Taylor continued blabbing incoherently. “How long have I been male?” she asked the worst question of them all.
“Ever since I can remember,” Matt indulged him, eying his friend eagerly and trying to assess if the current state warranted the trip to the emergency room which was sure to get them both kicked off the team. “Listen, I left a little early last night, and I don’t know what brought about this state; can you remember what you took? You don’t look so well.”
Taylor turned around to see herself in the mirror, and was welcomed by a face that had become familiar: dark hair, glasses, wispy beard. Her face was looking very strange indeed, wide eyed as it was, and paired with pink pajamas.
“Oh, no, he didn’t!” she blew her top instantly. “If I ever get my hands on him,” she started, and then remembered that if she nursed any hope to get back to her normal, female state, her neighbor was her only chance. She looked at Matt, who stared back, concerned; Taylor assessed it would be a fool’s errand to try to knock that door down with questions about her gender, so she chose the next best approach.
“Listen, do you remember my neighbor, the guy in room number eight?” she asked, only to see the worry in her friend’s eyes grow to epic levels.
“That’s it, man, we’re going to the doctor, and you better be sick, ‘cause if we miss the rest of the season for no good reason, I will never forgive you!”
“What did I say?” Taylor walked back the comment, not sure what was wrong with it. “Please indulge me, I know I’m a little weird this morning.”
“There is no guy in room number eight, dude! You live in room number eight, you have since you arrived to this college.” He saw the incredulous look in his friends eyes and continued. “Check it out for yourself if you don’t believe me!”
Taylor opened her door again to certify that, indeed, it was marked with the number eight. There had been an improvement, however: the number was fastened through the top, like any normal person would expect, and was hanging plumb, perfectly perpendicular to the floor.
“Well, your parents are here, I’ll let them decide,” Matt excused himself, happy to be let off the hook with no guilt attached.
“My parents?” Taylor asked.
“You do remember your parents, don’t you? Oh, man, your mom is going to have a fit when she sees you like this! She called five times yesterday and I told her you were fine. She will never believe I didn’t know anything about it! You’re lucky your sister came with, your dad wants to give her a tour of the campus, they’ll be busy with that!”
“My dad!” Taylor pressed.
“Are you stuck on ‘record’? Yes, your dad. You knew your parents were coming, this visit was two months in the planning. There they are,” Matt looked out the window and pointed to a group that was approaching.
“Same parents!” Taylor whispered. “Dad! That’s dad!”
“Yes, and I’m sure they’ll take very good care of you, whatever this is that you’re going through,” Matt spoke gently, as one would to a troubled person.
“Who lives there?” Taylor grabbed onto the last straw, like a drowning person, pointing to the door between rooms, which for some reason was still there.
“An exchange student from Senegal, I think. Just moved in.”
“What does he look like?” Taylor asked, with renewed hope.
“It’s a she, and she’s pretty. French accent.”
“This can’t be happening!” Taylor mumbled.
“Well, I’ll be off, I hope you get better,” Matt rushed out the door, just as Taylor’s parents and sister walked in. Taylor recognized her sister, strangely enough, very well, in fact. They had grown up together after all.
She decided to let the situation play out and see where it led her, instead of trying to convince her loving family that her gender had been recently switched. Taylor had always been a rational person, and as such, she put herself in the position of her parents: what would she do if her child, whom she’d always known as a male, suddenly insisted she’d been a girl her entire life, up until the day before? Naturally, her mother would never believe it, no reasonable person would. She decided that until this situation was remedied, she would be male and not question it, for the benefit of avoiding involuntarily confinement if nothing else.
She spent a wonderful afternoon with her family, engaging in the usual exchanges with her dad, who, as always, expected Taylor to apply herself more. Her mother doted on her and her sister the entire evening with almost fanatical devotion, fussing over their eating habits, comfort, emotions, plans for the future, and trying to anticipate their every need before it was even uttered.
As soon as the parents left, Taylor rushed back to her dorm and busted through the door into room number eight, hoping against reason to find her neighbor there. To her surprise, he was.
“I thought somebody else already moved in here,” she started with an illogical comment.
“I got it temporarily reassigned for office hours, it seems you might have some questions?” he asked, unable to contain a smile. “I apologize for my reaction, but I’m not used to talking to myself, I feel like I stepped out of a mirror.”
“How did this happen to me?” Taylor went on attack.
“I think it would be a fair assumption that you went through door number eight, despite my repeated warnings,” he said, impassible.
“Why do I look like you?”
“Door number eight makes your strongly held wish at the moment you pass through it come true. I think the obvious explanation is that you wanted to be me. I’m flattered, even though this creates a bit of a logistical problem.”
“Change me back!” Taylor rushed towards him, worried that he would leave before the problem was solved.
“I’m sorry, Taylor, I can’t do that. This change is irreversible.”
“You can’t be serious! You can move between life and death and you can’t turn me back the way I was?”
“Do you have any idea what the odds are for a specific gamete to be successful in fertilizing an egg? Astronomical! You might as well ask me to reenact the Big Bang and have the universe come out exactly the way it is now. I can probably find a female version of you, but it would require a prohibitive amount of time to find the specific female you were before. This ‘you’ turned out pretty good, if it ain’t broke, why fix it?”
“How ain’t it broke? I’m male!”
“Well, for one you’re in splendid health and reasonably handsome, if I may say so myself, your family is great and you are still one person.”
“What the heck do you mean?”
“Have you ever heard of triplets? It happened to some people. I’m not exactly sure how things work out in this case, to be honest with you.”
“You mean other people went through door number eight too?”
“Everybody goes through door number eight; in two decades of teaching this class there hasn’t been one person who didn’t break that rule, it’s like an enchantment or something, no matter how many times I say ‘don’t’, it only makes the temptation stronger!”
“But I thought I was going back to my room, I saw the door led to my room! I was sure of it!”
“Remember what I told you about the doors? That not all of them are two way doors? That’s why the university policy requires you not to go through the doors alone. You can’t tell them apart.”
“So, what am I going to do now?” Taylor blurted, in despair.
“You chose a bio-engineering major, if I’m not mistaken. I suggest you continue your studies.”
“I’m not pre-med?”
“Not in this particular incarnation.”
Taylor dropped in the chintz chair that looked even more out of place in the empty room where she was talking to another version of herself.
“Not to be insensitive,” he commented, “but, as I said, this created a logistical problem for us, and I’m not too pleased about that. I liked being me.”
“Well, at least you get to keep yourself,” Taylor commented, resentful.
“Not exactly. You don’t expect two versions of you to walk around campus, do you? Everybody knows you don’t have a twin.” Taylor looked guilty all of a sudden, so he softened his argument. “Don’t worry, it’s not the first time. I’ll just have to change again, it happens.”
“How are you going to cope with this, doesn’t it completely wreck your identity?” Taylor asked, more for herself than for his sake.
“It doesn’t make that big of a difference. No matter who I end up being, I’m still going to be me.” He looked at the watch. “It seems like our time is running up. Do you have any other questions?”
Taylor didn’t even know where to start, or if there was a question that she wanted answered, except for the obvious, which related to what things were expected of her now that she was male, because she simply didn’t know, and she didn’t feel different in any way, she was still herself too.
“Well, if there isn’t anything else,” he said, showing Taylor the door, which was now open.
“Are you sure this leads back into my room?”
“Of course I’m sure, but even if I wasn’t, what could possibly happen to you that hasn’t already?”
“Are you alright, dear? You don’t sound like yourself,” her mother insisted over the phone. She was of half a mind to get on a train and stop over to see for herself what the problem was; her confused son/daughter had to use her best cajoling techniques to dissuadeher. Taylor wasn’t too sure of herselfyet; she wastrying to adjust to being a guy, and begrudgingly so, because she was still holding up hope that some miracle will happen and everything will return to normal.
Her mother gave up the fight and started going into a long drawn rendition of her sister’s college application process, the schools the latterfavored and how stressful the process was for the entire family. She then gave Taylor a detailed account of all the happenings in the household, told her she missed her terribly, even though they spoke on the phone every day and reminded her to wear warm clothing so she wouldn’t catch her death.
“Face it, Taylor,”she watched herself in the mirror after having hung up the phone. She just couldn’t believe she was looking at somebody else’s face.“You’re a mama’s boy.”
“Do you wanna borrow my mascara, dude? Your eyeliner is running a little bit over there,” Matt punched her in jest when he passed her by and saw her stare at herself in the mirror again.
“Good God, that hurts!”Taylor held her breath until the pain subsided.“Does he have to kick me in the kidneys every single time? Why do they do this to each other?”She thought about kicking him back, but reconsidered. She had no concept of her own strength yet and didn’t want to risk injuring her friend.
“How is Christine?” she grabbed onto what she thought was a safe subject. She really missed Christine, who had been her best friend, and with whom she’d shared many issues of the heart.
“What’s it to you?” Matt answered back, shockingly belligerent.
“Whoa, slow down, dude! I didn’t mean anything by it, she’s nice and I like her, that’s all.”
“Not from where I’m standing, you’re not! Don’t think I didn’t notice!” Matt retorted, in a gloomy mood.
“You’re crazy, forget I asked,” Taylor changed the subject.“Great!”she thought.“One more thing that made it to the chopping block since I turned male!”
“You know full well what I mean, I won’t let you mess with Christine like you did with Jessica, keep away from her.”
“What did I ever do to Jessica?”Taylor asked herself, but didn’t dare ask the question out loud because she was afraid of what she was going to hear.
“In all fairness, I love you, bro, but you’re a dog,” Matt continued.
“What did I do to Jessica??!!”Taylor’s mind started spinning at a hundred miles per hour.
“Although I hear you swore off eating meat, did you have a profound religious experience? Maybe decided to give up other things as well?” Matt continued to tease her.
“Meat is disgusting,” Taylor mumbled, a little irritated that she had to justify herself.
“Whatever you say, man. Just stay away from my girlfriend.”
After Matt left, Taylor had this strange impulse to apologize to Jessica, even if she didn’t remember exactly what she’d done to her, but immediately decided against it, because it felt embarrassing and dumb. The team had finished practice and walked into the locker, and for some unholy reason each and every one of them treated Taylor to a friendly punch to the shoulder, until she was sure there must be a bruise there.
“What’s with these guys and the punching? Either this is the fraternity salute or I’m the designated punching bag for the team. Either way it sucks! I swear to God, the next guy who touches me is going to get a black eye!”she thought, morose.
“What’s yourproblem, man? You don’t want to wrinkle that black belt of yours?” one of his team mates asked reproachfully, offended that he didn’t get punched back.
“I have a black belt?”Taylor thought.“That’s good news. I wonder what martial art it’s in? It’s surprising I ever made it to yoga class, these guys look like they would tar and feather me before they allowed me to walk through the door of that studio. How did I end up on the bleeding edge of masculinity as we know it, any more and I’m going to fall off?”An image of his father, frowning at wuss-like behavior, emerged from the deep recesses of her memory, dragging behind it a groan.“Ah.”She didn’t answer, she just smiled enigmatically.“I wonder what other Easter eggs are buried beneath my male persona, this may have been a lucky break after all.”
“Fair warning, man. Jack is really mad about that thing with Marie the other weekend. He swore he’s going to beat the crap out of you when he gets the chance,” his new friend volunteered information.
“Or not,”Taylor continued her thought.“Why does everything hurt? Do I get beat up every day?”she wondered as she tried to lift her arm and stabbing pain ran through her right shoulder.
“How is that tendon, Taylor? Healing alright?” the coach asked, giving her a slap on the back in passing, with complete disregard of said painful shoulder. “Don’t mean to rush you, man, but your side has been wide open since you got hurt, we really need that arm.”
“Yes, coach,” she answered.“I need to find that guy, no matter what, before one of these well meaning friendlies kills me,”Taylor thought. Her former neighbor seemed to have kept his promise to disappear off the face of the earth. Taylor had gone back into the old room number eight a couple of times, and turned it upside down trying to look for a sign, or any kind of information about the guy’s whereabouts, but found nothing.
One morning she woke up and saw that the door between the rooms was gone. After that, she wasn’t really sure whether she was remembering what had happened or her frazzled mind had made it all up. She tried to look for the pictures of the door on her phone, but found none. She even risked infuriating Matt and texted Christine to inquire about the ones she’d sent her, but Christine didn’t answer.
“What if I did make all of this up? Between school work and these godless practices that start at five in the morning, maybe I just lost it,”she thought. Either way, she wasn’t considering telling this ludicrous story about how she used to be a girlto anyone, especially now thatshe wasn’t really sure it was true anymore.
Fortunately for her, the new neighbor, the Senegalese exchange student, provided a wonderful distraction from all the craziness. The young girl was very beautiful, Taylor thought, with that flawless chocolate skin and the big brown eyes with long eyelashes. She mostly kept to herself and rarely spoke, to avoid revealing a thick French accent that gave a sing-song quality to all of her phrases.
“Well, the next best thing,”Taylor thought.“If I’m stuck in this situation, I might as well enjoy the view.”She had tried to engage her neighbor in conversation, but her reputation must have preceded her, because the girl next door always seemed too busy to talk. Taylor asked around but couldn’t even manage to find out her name, so she decided this was too much work and focused on her studies, finals were coming up anyway.
After the finals’ week passed and the sportive activities had come upon a lull, as they naturally tended to do in the depth of winter, Taylor found herself with a lot of time on her hands. The problem with having time is that it removes the excuse one has about not examining one’s life. She didn’t want to churn over what had happened, it seemed futile to linger over a life she was, apparently, never going to have again. The main problem, as she saw it, was that what seemed to be her wish, even though she might not have been consciously aware of it, didn’t really come true. She wanted to become her guide, but she didn’t become him; she had his body, she had his former life, which was a lot less glamorous than she thought, she had his family, his friends, his major, his hobbies, but she felt in no way different from the girl she used to be.
She grabbed pen and paper and decided to run a tally, though a day late and a dollar short, of the pros and cons of her transformation, which, as things presently stood, looked permanent.
In the pro column, her life seemed to have condensed the previously diffuse, broad distribution of duties and emotional responses around her person, with no strings attached. Many things that were expected of Taylor the girl ceased to exist altogether: social guilt, niceness, responsibility for others’ happiness, divided loyalties between the widespread aspects of her life. She liked being stronger, and having the fitness level of a professional athlete, especially since all of these features came as nice surprises and she didn’t have to lift a finger to get them. Unrelated to the gender change, but still in the pro column, since they came with, his father was alive, his mother doted on her every emotional and physical need, she had a sister whom she loved and her place in society seemed to have shifted to privilege.
What she didn’t get, the one thing she really wanted, was her teacher’s mastery of his own environment, his ability to be centered inside himself, the inner knowing, ease and emotional plasticity that made him who he was. In short, Taylor the girl had acquired for herself a very good looking male attire to wear. That was definitely not what she wanted; she had never aspired to be a Ms. Bradford the heiress, or a Mr. Bradford the successful, and the more she thought about it, even if she could, hypothetically, become the center of his universe, she didn’t want that either. She wanted to bring the same level of mastery of thought, order and purpose into her own life.
That being said, as she stood right now, she was male. No more long talks with Christine to unburden her soul, no more daydreaming about the beautiful colors of fall, no more planning to have babies some day, life’s every comfort seemed to be suddenly gone. She still had bruises over a good part of her body, even if the season had ended more than a month ago, and her shoulder still hurt.
What she missed the most, however, was that short glimpse she’d had into ‘more’, she felt as if the world had opened its doors ajar to show her what was possible and then slammed them shut in her face. What difference did it make whether she was male or female, an instant success or a hard working nobody if she never got the chance to wish upon the stars again? Her adventure showed her all the things she was certain about and didn’t know she had no control over, things that can be given and taken on a whim, as if they’ve never been.
What good does it do people to tie their identity to certain circumstances, or apparently intrinsic qualities, like gender, only to find out that those too can be changed with a snap of the fingers?
“That’s why you keep busy, Taylor,” her mother’s reproach resonated in her mind, “so you don’t have time to think about things like these!”
Taylor thought that was the most outrageous thing she ever pondered in her entire life, the advocacy of being too busy to think.
She shook her head and went back to the tally. Male or female?
She really didn’t like morning practice. At all. Unfortunately it seemed to be tied to her attendance of the school, so it was non-negotiable. Being able to eat a donut, talk up a cute person, or walk alone at night with no shaming, guilt or fear, good. All the freedom, none of the consequences. Speaking your mind without feeling obligated to be nice, good. No more decisions by committee, good. Getting punched in the kidneys by your friends, bad. Implicit inextricable commitments, really bad.
All in all, she had to admit that this experience offered her a unique perspective into an aspect of life everybody takes for granted.
“Well, since I am now male, I might as well enjoy it,” she thought, kicking back and putting her feet up on the bed with the shoes still on. She looked at the phone and saw that her mother had already sent her several text that day, to consult her about the color she wanted her room to be painted when she came home for the holiday vacation, a shining example of too much of a good thing. And to think that only a short time ago even having a message answered by her mother would have been a special treat. Taylor wondered for a second whether her gender change had had anything to do with this attitude adjustment and immediately dismissed the thought as absolutely ridiculous. She was finally seeing the devastation tragedy inflicts upon one’s core personality, and realized she was experiencing her mother the way she would have been if none of the bad things happened to her.
“What on earth am I doing to myself? I had all these things I wanted to do, in the near and distant future, and now I’m spending all my time analyzing gender differences. It’s just a body!”
In this mindset, the first order of business was to figure out what happened to the doors and if there was anything she could do to bring them back. She examined the wall, which didn’t show any signs that there had ever been a door in it. The likelihood of having hallucinated this whole thing blew her away; the sheer level of detail it involved, including but not limited to a very clear image of her previous appearance, clothing style and mannerisms, was flabbergasting. Taylor shrugged off the thought as just random mental noise, got dressed to go out, opened the miscellaneous box where she now threw everything she couldn’t find a place for, and which, interestingly enough, had become the permanent home of her keys, and found herself staring at the tiny shred of concrete which had made it back to normal reality all the way from Sydney.
“This can certainly drive a person mad,” she thought, without fretting over the finding, and decided that the best approach to this problem is to accept the experience as both real and not real, much like her being both alive and dead as long as she stayed concealed inside a locked room.
She shrugged again and went to attend the lecture series on metempsychosis.
“’T’s up man?” Matt asked Taylor who was about to take the seat right next to his.
“Nothing,” Taylor asked, pleasantly surprised that the conversation didn’t get into any more detail than that. “I could get used to this,” she thought. She looked around the lecture hall, to see who else was there, and saw her, the next door neighbor, sitting in the first row, looking a little distant and lost in her thoughts.
“Any luck with that?” Matt teased, startling her.
“Any luck with what? Oh,” Taylor answered, suddenly displeased with the role she now had to play in a potential interaction. “I couldn’t even find out her name, it’s like she’s in witness protection or something.”
“It’s Khadi,” Matt clarified. “Christine had coffee with her a couple of times. She doesn’t talk much, she’s really shy. Christine tried to get her to open up, but she said she didn’t have much luck with that either.”
Knowing Christine, Taylor had all the confidence that any detail that could be pried out of the reluctant conversation partner had been retrieved.
“Philosophy?” Taylor tested the waters, trying to guess her new neighbor’s major.
“Really?” Taylor frowned. She mentally thanked Christine for her irrepressible need to meddle in other people’s business and hoped she went above and beyond the call of duty to dig up extra details. “How did Christine meet her?”
“They go to to yoga class together,” Matt replied.
“Yes! Finally the team is going to give me a pass back into yoga class. Thank you Khadi!” she thought, and then it occurred to her to ask. “By the way, how is Christine?”
“Mind your own business!” Matt’s feathers ruffled immediately.
“This is ridiculous! Is there an active restraining order that Christine filed against my person, whether it be male or female, so that I can never speak to her again? Having an entire history you are unfamiliar with is debilitating!” Taylor tried to remember any interactions with Christine that didn’t pass muster, but couldn’t. She really missed her friend, their trips to the bookstore, their walks around campus together, their chats, even her meddling. Oftentimes, when she heard a knock on the door, she expected to see Christine come in with a bright smile on her face and a giant box of donuts in her hand, cooking up some excuse to sample them all. She missed asking her opinion on outfits and mellowing out together in the sunshine on the cafeteria patio while they enjoyed their afternoon coffee. It simply felt unfair that she was expected not to see her friend anymore.
Her attention got drawn back to Khadi, who looked spellbound by the intricacies of various belief systems with respect to the afterlife and was taking copious notes.
Taylor couldn’t remember why she ended up attending this lecture when she had already decided to go to the planetarium instead, but she conceded to allow fate and circumstances a little leeway, to see what they would bring. She was making an honest effort to adjust to her new life, but without either Christine’s cheerfulness or her own excursions out of reality, life had started to look a little bleak.
She didn’t even understand why she was trying to approach her new neighbor. Khadi was beautiful, but she looked so young Taylor couldn’t think of a single thing they could possibly have in common. She couldn’t engage her in friendly girl talk, which would have appeared very strange, now that she was a man, and trying to woo her felt completely out of place, since she hadn’t adjusted to her male identity yet. She didn’t have Christine’s gift for friendly gab and all she could picture when she thought of interacting with her new neighbor was a series of uninspiring small talk dotted by long and awkward silences.
She wasn’t sure it was right to expose another person, especially someone as young and innocent as Khadi, to the active construction site that was her life. Taylor herself didn’t know what was going to change next, nor could she talk about it to another human being in any way that sounded sane, and she was sure Khadi was already stressed out enough, from trying to adjust to a foreign country, a different language and keeping her grades up without being dragged into the life of a person of uncertain gender whose main interest consisted of searching for doors.
Besides, she was sure that Khadi, should she happen to consider cultivating her presence, would want to bring her along to all sorts of social activities, and would want her to meet her other friends, and that would cut into the time Taylor devoted to activities of her own choosing, which she was sure would be a lot more interesting.
“Oh, my God! I’ve only been a man for a couple of months and I’m already thinking like one! There is no hope for humanity!”
She decided to stay with ‘Khadi is too young to understand’ and left it at that.
“Stop staring, dude, you’re creepy!” Matt whispered in her ear. “Besides, I know you’re not one for guilt and such, but it’s really not fair to Jessica.”
“What’s this train wreck of a story about Jessica? How did this person I became get entangled with Jessica in the first place, I simply can’t understand it. Are Jessica and I still an item and she’s expecting me to do something about it?” She wished she could ask Matt, but since that day when Taylor learned that she was and had always been a he, Matt had adopted a very circumspect attitude towards any behavior that qualified as odd. One more slip and he was going to call Taylor’s mother again, and Taylor didn’t want to spend hours trying to convince the latter that she was indeed ok.
“Come on, man! Do the right thing, leave the freshman alone and let’s go grab a cold one! My treat!”
“Awesome! I hate beer! Who comes up with a bitter liquid to drink for fun?”
She answered. “Will do. Lead the way.”
“Taylor? Taylor Bradford?” a voice called from behind the counter, with non-dissimulated boredom. “I’ve got the reference materials you requested. Where do you want them?” Taylor pointed to the table in the middle of the reading room and one of the assistant librarians who were working in that section dropped the thick stack of books on it, went back behind his counter and adjusted his ear buds to disappear into his own musical world.
Taylor was at a loss as to where to go from here. How do you search for something as unthinkable as a door that doesn’t exist, especially when you can’t ask anybody about it? Logic kicked in, impeccably, and suggested that if there was any information to be found about such a thing, even folk tales or urban legends, the library would be a good place to start.
She realized that was like trying to empty the ocean with an eyedropper, but since her sports training ended before the sun was even up, her school work wasn’t in any way overwhelming, her next door neighbor was too young to understand and she had had all the beer she could take in this lifetime, she found herself again with time on her hands.
She took a wild guess that if there was something to be found, the metaphysics and religion section would be a good place to start, so she headed in that direction.
“Looking for redemption, Taylor?” a somewhat familiar voice resonated behind her. It was Jessica. “Why don’t you start by making amends to the people you’ve wronged?”
“Oh, boy!” Taylor thought. “Maybe I’m being punished, that’s what this is. I crossed the line and got sent to hell, didn’t I? I’m in hell?” She smiled and turned around. “Hi, Jessica. How have you been?”
“Are you that much of an ass? How have I been, you insensitive jerk?” Jessica exploded. “Christine was right about you, but I didn’t have the sense to listen to her!”
“Christine, again. Must be a female solidarity thing, at least I hope so. Did I do something to upset Christine too?” Taylor thought, instinctively retreating, with a tiny, frozen smile.
“Are you mocking me? Really? After all we’ve been through? How could you do this to me?” Jessica’s voice amplified, and in the middle of the quiet section, no less. The few other people who were there, seeking understanding of the great and immutable laws of existence, looked at them, startled and appalled.
“I have to do something, otherwise they’ll kick me out of here, and I really want to be able to come back,” Taylor thought. “What to do, what to do…Well, apologizing never killed anybody, let’s go with that. The problem is I don’t know what I’m apologizing for.”
“I’m really sorry, Jessica. I really didn’t mean to…” she tried an open ended approach, hoping that Jessica might fill in the blanks.
“Oh, that!!? You are apologizing again? How little do you really think of me, Taylor! Do you think I’m going to fall for this apology cop-out of yours? You just think ‘sorry’ solves everything, don’t you?”
“That went well,” Taylor thought. “Think, Taylor, think!”
“We’re through, you hear me? This time we’re through. I’m done with your crap!” Jessica put a finger in her face.
“Oh, thank God!” Taylor breathed a sigh of relief, looking forward to what she was going to do next.
“Are you really willing to let go of us? After everything we’ve been through, after all this time, all the things we’ve shared, are you really that cruel?” Jessica looked on the verge of tears and Taylor knew from personal experience that this event shaped up to become a three-four hour talk, way past the library closing time. She crushed an inappropriate word between her teeth and kissed her research time good-bye, at least for the day. She decided to try a different approach.
“Of course not, Jessica! Don’t you know how much I care about you, sweetheart? Don’t cry, it makes me sad when you cry, come here,” she invited Jessica into her arms and gave her a warm hug. “I’m sorry I upset you, sometimes I’m such a jerk!”
“Well,” Jessica struggled with her mixed emotions. “I don’t know, Taylor, this time you really crossed the line!”
“I’m really sorry, ok?” Taylor said, quite sincerely, in fact, because she wasn’t entirely sure Jessica wasn’t in the right in this argument.
“So, then, that means you’ll take me shopping next weekend? Callista and Marie are coming too and they so want to meet you! You can’t imagine how humiliating it is to talk about an invisible boyfriend.”
“Didn’t see that one coming, did you, Taylor?” she asked herself. On one hand, shopping seemed like a tolerable activity and a fair trade for being relieved in the present time to do what she had come here to do, on the other hand she remembered that she would now have to shop for male attire. She had no idea what was in fashion or whether she should even care about that and her enthusiasm deflated. No matter; Jessica seemed to have regained her good mood, and things were looking up.
“So, do you want to come with me to the bookstore? I was just heading there,” Jessica shifted nimbly.
“I’m sorry, baby, I can’t right now,” Taylor excused herself. She was going to follow up with a reasonable explanation, but didn’t get a chance to continue.
“Are you actually calling me ‘baby’? What, you forgot my name now?” Jessica flew off the handle again, on the verge of tears.
“I didn’t mean…” Taylor started to despair, like a person wandering the desert for days who cries for joy at the sight of an oasis, only to discover that his eyes played a cruel trick on him.
“Do you think I’m blind, Taylor? The way you carry on with that little thing next door?” Jessica raised her voice again and everybody started staring at them.
“Jessica, please, I hardly know her!” Taylor tried to defend herself.
“Oh, yeah? Why is she here, then? Huh? Did you change your major too, Taylor? Or this is where you’re looking for your biology reference materials now?”
Taylor looked around and noticed that, indeed, Khadi was sitting at the large table in the middle of the reading room, close enough to them to have witnessed the drama in its entirety. She briefly raised her eyes from her book to throw an indifferent glance in their direction, and then went back to her reading, unperturbed.
“That settles it. I am in hell. I died and went to hell, it is clear to me now.”
“We’re through, you hear me? You don’t deserve me!” Jessica turned on her heels and really rushed out of the room this time, leaving Taylor standing in the middle of the floor, her cheeks flushed with embarrassment.
“The real problem is,” Taylor thought, “that I don’t even know if she’s right! Maybe she’s right, I seem to get corroborating information on this issue. The guy didn’t strike me as a philanderer, but I never actually interacted with him outside of class, so, what do I know?” She paused for a second to contemplate the enormity of her choice. Even if wishing to be another human being weren’t revolting in principle, which she now admitted it was, wouldn’t a reasonable person at least do some research ahead of the transformation, to be advised what to expect? She wondered what other surprises the future held, feeling really awkward about the public drama and discombobulated enough to browse randomly through the shelves, not able to remember what she was looking for. “Doors,” she remembered, “you’re looking for doors. Why is she here, anyway?” Taylor couldn’t help wonder, looking back at the table in the middle of the reading room, as inconspicuously as she was able. The girl was gone.
“Is there anything I can help you with?” a soft voice asked from behind her, in a heavy French accent. The universe seemed to have no holds barred that day.
“Help? Why would she think she can help me? She just got here,” Taylor thought, still irritated that she had been the subject of public humiliation and the public had actually drawn closer to observe. Khadi explained herself.
“I work here. I’m assistant librarian for this section,” she smiled politely.
“Great! There goes my research! Between a rock and Jessica!” It didn’t seem fair to take out her frustration on Khadi, who didn’t have anything to do with her own life choices, however misguided they might have been. “No, thank you. I’m just browsing.”
“Well, if there is anything in particular that you can’t find, don’t hesitate to ask me.”
“Of course,” Taylor smiled back, eager to go back to assessing which of the large number of books on the shelf in front of her was most likely to provide useful clues.
It turns out people don’t write books about doors that don’t exist. They don’t make up fairy tales about them, they don’t create myths around them, they don’t tell folk stories about them. Book after book opened wonderful avenues to knowledge, but turned out no actionable information for Taylor as far as her unbelievable adventure was concerned.
Khadi was often there, when her shift happened to overlap with Taylor’s research time, and she kept bringing her the stacks of books she had checked out from the reference section, or directing her to the proper library area for one subject or another. For the most part of the time she sat at the end of one of the tables, reading.
Taylor almost envied her detached poise, the young girl seemed to float on top of life instead of being in it, not worried about petty details, thinking of flowers, maybe, or missing the landscapes of her homeland, not combing shelf after shelf for the ghosts of reality.
The strange coincidences of life, Taylor thought. What were the odds of somebody’s path crossing yours so often, especially someone who had come such a long way to be in the same place as you? Before her unlikely experiences, Taylor would have chalked it up to coincidence and had never have given it another thought, but lately she had learned to pay attention to the more subtle nuances of life.
She decided to try a different approach for breaking the ice and asked Khadi to help her in her quest for information about things that didn’t exist, since the latter had so kindly offered. Khadi was shy but surprisingly knowledgeable in matters of metaphysics and religion, subjects which seemed to be of great interest to her.
“I should have known,” Taylor reevaluated her previous attitude. “Why else would a computer science major spend time at a lecture about the many transformations of the soul?”
“Come sit with me, Taylor. Stay and talk,” Khadi said, with a friendly smile, pointing to a couple of chairs in one of the recesses between book shelves. Taylor was a bit reluctant to comply, but followed her, surprised that Khadi had something to say to her. After they sat down, the young girl looked at Taylor silently for a few moments, as if trying to judge if the guy had what it took to understand her.
“Well,” her smile broadened, after she finished her evaluation, “what are you really looking for, Taylor?”
“Not going to happen, oh, pretty little one,” Taylor thought. “I have no desire to spend quality time explaining to you that I am, in fact, a girl.” She tried her very best to find a rationale for discussing the probability of time portals, but couldn’t find one. In fact she couldn’t picture discussing any of the door experiences with anyone, while still expecting to maintain the illusion of sanity. “Would you like a tinfoil hat with that?” Khadi was still staring, curious, waiting for her to talk.
“Great!” Taylor thought. “This is just great! Gotta love assistance! Why are people always so intent on helping you with things you would rather keep to yourself?”
“Well?” Khadi asked at the end of a long silence.
“I’m not exactly sure,” Taylor embroidered around the subject, “I have a vague concept that I’m following, but I’m not sure how to put it in words yet.”
“A concept relating to what?” Khadi asked, determined to be helpful.
“Reality,” Taylor tested the waters. Khadi looked around.
“Could you be a little more specific? That would be pretty much every book here.”
Taylor was about to lay another goose egg when she noticed, out of the corner of her eye, that Matt was staring at them. She excused herself, promised to return with a good answer and went to talk to her friend.
“Dude, you’re in so much trouble! Is Jessica out of town, or something? She could walk in here at any moment, are you crazy?!” Matt started the verbal artillery, looking around for the imminent danger.
“You have no idea!” Taylor thought, and then said out loud. “Got it, Jessica, listen! Can you do me a big favor, and please don’t get all ruffled up about this one? Can Christine, you and I get together some time soon? I would like to get her advice on why Jessica is so upset with me, it would help a lot if I could talk to a girl about it, you know, get the view from the other side.”
Matt looked very doubtful about Taylor’s real intentions, but reluctantly agreed to talk to Christine about it and get together if his girlfriend was willing to do so. Apparently Christine’s impression of Taylor wasn’t exactly stellar.
“What did I do to your girlfriend to make her also upset with me, I simply don’t understand!” Taylor blurted, exasperated. Matt didn’t answer, but threw a poisonous stare in her direction. “Oh!” Taylor thought. “I hope I won’t need to go into hiding to avoid all of my former flirts! Atta girl, Taylor!” She realized that it was going to be a very awkward get together, but she needed to find out where she stood with Jessica and what key words would trigger the latter to start another public scene. “I hope we’re not engaged!” Taylor thought. Who was to know, really? The next time Jessica asked her to go out it could be to pick china patterns or sample wedding cakes. She had absolutely no idea how serious their relationship was and the mere thought of getting hitched to a Jessica made her nauseous. She really had to find a way out of that nightmare scenario, stringing a fake girlfriend along was not only wrong, but, given the latter’s unstable behavior and distasteful outbursts, bordered on dangerous.
She did meet Matt and Christine at the cafeteria, a nostalgic reminder of more genial times, but Christine was very reluctant to offer Taylor any information that would help shed light on her relationship with Jessica. Taylor remembered her alternate life behind door number three and wondered if her role in the current life, as far as her ‘girlfriend’ was concerned, was the same one Matt seemed to have played in the other one, which was that of a human poodle.
Taylor evaluated the option to reveal that she wasn’t, in fact, Jessica’s alleged boyfriend, and furthermore, she wasn’t even male, but dismissed the solution as poorly thought out. Getting involuntarily committed to a mental institution just to avoid her stalker seemed like too high of a price to pay for freedom.
“How in the world did I get myself tangled in this?” Taylor thought, irritated. There was something about this whole Jessica story that didn’t jive with what she’d experienced so far, it seemed too unlikely to have happened.
“And just think how much this is going to upset your father, he was so relieved when you and Jessica finally decided to go out together,” Christine chided at the conclusion of her thoughts.
“Oh, hell no!!!” all the blood went to Taylor’s cheeks. She was rabid. “Don’t tell me that I got ‘assigned’ to a Jessica as part of a business arrangement! Being male gets less and less appealing by the second, no wonder my former next door neighbor didn’t seem crushed over the loss of his identity; this body trade-off almost feels like a ‘get out of jail’ card. Forget the doors, the first priority is to get rid of the Jessicas!”
Christine’s last comment did, however, shed light over her stalker’s sense of entitlement and people’s glacial attitudes towards her. Things were clear to Taylor now, even though they felt deeply offensive, and she had a good sense of how to move forward. Heart infinitely lighter, she headed back to the library to finish her conversation with Khadi. The thought that if one of her acquaintances saw her talk to the girl, they would automatically assume she was trying to pencil the latter into her busy schedule as a potential flirt was really unpalatable, but under the circumstances she didn’t have a lot of room to maneuver around that.
“You came back!” Khadi smiled, genuinely pleased. “Did you get any clarity on that which you wanted to learn?”
Taylor frowned, embarrassed, wondering how on earth did she find out already? “I bet the whole campus knows by now, I must be the only person who was in the dark about it. I won’t be able to show my face in public again.”
“About your concept of reality,” Khadi clarified, half-singing her words. “Your developing idea?”
“Hhm, not yet, still a bit foggy about that,” Taylor replied, a little taken aback. “I’m struggling with my thinking, but, just to broaden my horizons, I thought I would explore a few fairy tale themes, you know?”
“That’s interesting! What themes, exactly?” Khadi’s eyes gleamed with amusement.
“Aahm,” Taylor gulped hard, “there seems to be a recurring motif about heroes going to another world in search of something, a challenge, a treasure, a cure, knowledge, that sort of thing.”
“Aha! The Otherworld!” she laughed out loud. “I’m sure I can come up with some research material about that. Are you looking for your Fairy Godmother?” she teased, with a twinkle in her eyes.
“Serves me right for being an idiot! Even baby-face here is laughing at me,” Taylor thought bitterly. “Fairy tales indeed!”
“I think your phone is ringing,” Khadi pointed out. Taylor checked it and found several unanswered texts from her mother, all about what color she was going to paint the room for when her son came home during the winter break. “You should answer that,” Khadi smiled encouragingly and left to look for the books Taylor had inquired about.
The latter got suddenly excited at the thought of having a real holiday, even though she tried to stifle her excitement under a morose comment. “Really, Taylor, don’t you think you’re a bit old for chestnuts roasting on an open fire?” She then remembered the scene would likely include a reckoning with her father, who expected her to show up with Jessica. Her mood got gloomy, only to brighten up a second later at the thought that she was grateful her father was alive. Her emotions seesawed like that for a little while, from I’m so happy I have a sister to why does my mother always take her side while I catch all the heat, from getting annoyed that her mother needed to consult her about the smallest details to feeling really happy that she had a family who cared about her, even if they overdid it a bit at times.
She shrugged and looked towards the counter to see if Khadi had found any of the books she was talking about, but the girl was nowhere in sight. The clock had struck four and Khadi’s shift was over.
“Great!” Taylor thought. “This just never ends, does it? Nobody cares!” She left the library in a sour mood, trying to be as inconspicuous as possible, just in case she accidentally crossed paths with Jessica. She needed to put together an action plan first, on how to handle her ‘girlfriend’s’ wrath.
The following week passed quickly, in a blur of midterms, assignments, and a million other tasks whose urgent status overshadowed Taylor’s interest for legends, myths, and mysteries. She spent a lot of time at the library during that week, but nowhere near the metaphysics section. She was feeling a little guilty about that and she wondered whether Khadi had kept her word and, as she had promised, there was a tall stack of books behind the assistant librarian’s counter, just waiting for Taylor to pick them up.
She was slowly getting used to being a man, a task she didn’t, in her wildest dreams, imagine she would have to undertake. It felt a little strange that none of old Taylor’s friends and acquaintances noticed the obvious differences in personality and demeanor, and that after her initial shock of acknowledging the change, shock all if them chalked up to the use of a mind altering substance yet to be revealed, Taylor’s life had picked up right where it had left off.
The strangest part of this experience was that in order to maintain order and normality in her life – if one could call the fact that Taylor Bradford had become a different person, male, captain of the football team and heir to Bradford Industries, normal – she had to let go of reality itself. Society doesn’t take kindly to people who experience things outside of the norm. It unconsciously perceives them as a threat to the common welfare and natural unfolding of events, and for this reason it pushes the ‘perpetrators’ further and further towards the edge of what’s acceptable until they eventually fall off. Taylor didn’t want to fall off.
So, cost benefit analysis over, she did her best to enjoy her new, masculine role, a position which at least offered the benefit of perspective, if nothing else. Lost one good girl friend, bad. Gained one good male friend, good. Got stalked by intolerable girlfriend, bad. Grew up with both mom and dad, good. Had sibling, very good.
“Maybe the other Taylor was right,” she thought. “I should count my blessings, this life is really not that bad, all things considered.” She looked in the mirror at the familiar face that wasn’t hers, and noticed her beard badly needed trimming. “What in God’s name am I thinking!” she exploded. “I have a beard! I’ll never get used to that! I’m not so far gone that I can just switch to another body and be ok with it!”
Be that as it may, this was her state of fact, and the only person who could shed light onto the issue was now staring at her from the mirror, a foot higher than usual and donning facial hair.
“I got to get out of here, before I completely lose my mind!” Taylor made the abrupt decision to go back to the library, find Khadi and try to forget for a couple of hours that her life had evolved into a surrealist play. On her way there she heard the clock strike four and got instantly irritated at the thought that Khadi’s shift had just ended. No doubt the girl was just about to leave and the short term coping mechanism that Taylor had devised for herself was not going to pan out. She changed her mind and turned towards the cafeteria instead, haunted by the ghost of Jessica’s wrath and somewhat satisfied to notice her ‘girlfriend’ wasn’t there. Taylor really didn’t care about Jessica’s antics anymore; nevertheless, she placed the fact that she didn’t have to take a stand for her freedom and self respect right then and there in the plus column. Matt approached her the moment she entered the room.
“Did you hear?” he told his friend, excited. “Jessica is getting married! She’s taking a couple of years off from college, she might decide to come back later, if she feels like it. How are you dealing with it, man?” Matt patted Taylor on the shoulder, not knowing whether to offer congratulations or sympathy.
“I’m sure I’ll live,” Taylor smiled, thinking that this new life presented her with strange circumstances, some of which turned out to be to her advantage. How did she get so lucky? Things like these didn’t just happen by accident, she thought. She then remembered that she had become male by accident and reevaluated the possibility that the sequence of causes and effects might be completely random after all. “Have you seen Khadi?” she asked Matt. His friend stared at her with a disapproving look on his face, somewhat disconcerted by the lighthearted way in which his friend was dealing with his relationship drama, but then remembered that Taylor was the aggrieved party, so he gave her the benefit of the doubt.
“She’s right over there,” he pointed to a table by the window, where a poised Khadi was sitting with a book in her lap and a faraway stare, lost in a world of her own.
“God works in mysterious ways,” Taylor thought, and in her deep gratitude for the permanent removal of Jessica from her life she almost forgot that she was now the wrong gender. She shrugged off the thought, “Well, when in Rome…”, as she approached Khadi’s table, smiling.
“Ah, Taylor!” the girl gestured to the empty chair next to hers. “Come sit with me, stay and talk!”
She waited for Taylor to make herself comfortable in the chair, all the while watching her patiently with a beaming smile.
“So,” she restarted the conversation from before, “have you given some more thought to the worlds beyond our sight? The Otherworld? Making any progress with your research?”
“No,” Taylor looked for an excuse. “I’ve been so busy with my midterms and projects, I didn’t have time to work on that at all.”
“What a pity!” Khadi stared at him, with the same beaming smile. “These things are very important, you know? Eternal,” she argued. “Life will find a way to keep you busy, but you have to make time for these other things, always. Tests, they will be there for you, and then you pass them and poof, they’re gone, as if they’d never been. Today, tomorrow, every day. Better set your sights on things that last.”
Taylor felt a little annoyed being lectured by a freshman on the meaning and management of her own life, but not enough to spoil what promised to become a lovely afternoon. What was it about her male persona that seemed to make it irresistible for girls to boss her around?
“I hope I’m not bothering you,” Khadi answered her mental commentary without even realizing it, and then looked Taylor straight in the eyes, suddenly very serious. “I’ve been told I tend to get a little preachy at times.”
“Not at all!” Taylor reassured her. “In fact, I was on my way to the library to see if you had found any of the books we were talking about last week. I’ve been looking forward to browsing through them.”
“Some,” Khadi nodded. “Not all things are learned from books, you know?” she mentioned, with a glimmer in her eye. “Some things you just have to learn from your own experience.”
“Is she flirting with me?” Taylor asked herself, feeling like a complete idiot. The gender shift had drowned the subtle cues of dating behavior, and between the cultural differences and the unfamiliar male perspective, she couldn’t tell whether Khadi was trying to give her an opening or was just being friendly.
“Some things we can even remember, if we know how to seek them out. Often we don’t think we do, but we certainly can,” the girl continued, unperturbed by Taylor’s obvious awkwardness. Khadi looked like she wanted to burst out laughing, but did a great job of maintaining her composure.
“She’s making fun of me,” Taylor thought. “Getting rejected twice in half an hour must be a new record. I’m thinking congratulations are in order!”
“But, like I promised, I selected a few books for your studies,” she said. “I’ve been waiting for you to pick them up, but since you didn’t show, I brought some to the dorm. I can give them to you when we return there, if you’d like.”
“Or maybe she isn’t,” Taylor thought.
“You should be taking your instruction more seriously, you know?” Khadi admonished, suddenly stern. “Not everybody is blessed with opportunities like yours. Don’t take them for granted! Some people don’t even make it past the front door in this school, and you, you need people to chase you around campus with materials for your research!”
“I apologize,” Taylor blabbed, surprised by the sudden professorial tone, which made her feel like she needed to spend her lunch recess writing ‘I will do my homework’ one hundred times on the blackboard. “I didn’t mean to inconvenience you in any way.”
“That’s ok,” Khadi smiled again. “The books are already in my room. I’ll give them to you now. Come!” she prompted.
Taylor walked beside her trying to think of things to say all the way back to the dorm, but couldn’t come up with anything.
“Wait here,” Khadi said. She opened the door to her room and slammed it shut behind her, before her companion had a chance to get a glimpse of what was inside. Taylor stood in front of the closed door with nothing to do but to stare at it, and her previous memories suddenly took hold of her mind. She could almost see the old sign, the one that couldn’t make up its mind whether to be a number eight or a lemniscate, superimposed over the banal number nine that adorned the door now.
“Forget it, Taylor,” she told herself. “If you hold any hope for even the semblance of a normal life, this is and has always been room number nine. What on earth is she doing in there, it sounds like she’s carving the books out of the walls with a pick axe!?” The noise coming from room number nine was drowning the sounds of all the surrounding activities. “What is it with this room that makes it a never ending remodeling project?” Taylor continued musing. There were sounds of power tools and metal studs dropping to the floor, and rivets being blasted through metal sheets.
After a long wait, Khadi finally came out, carrying a stack of books so tall that her whole person was hidden behind them. She handed them to Taylor, who was surprised to notice that, despite the girl’s graceful ease in handling the tomes, they were very heavy.
“These should get you started,” Khadi said. “Read them carefully, you will need the additional research this quarter,” she declared, frowning at the thought that, maybe, she had been too severe. “Care for a sweet?” she offered Taylor a peace offering: sugar plums from a box of confections that seemed to have materialized in her hand from thin air. Taylor’s hands were full, so she politely declined.
“I thought you said you liked them,” Khadi finally burst out laughing. She scrunched her face, as if to adjust a pair of glasses on the bridge of her nose, and said. “See you in room nine.”
About the author
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Other books by Francis Rosenfeld
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Letters to Lelia
The Plant – A Steampunk Story
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