Ryan’s eyes snap open.
He straightens in the chair.
“What do you mean?” Daniela asks.
“Do you trust me?”
She reaches over and touches my hand. Pure electricity. “Of course, honey.”
Ryan says, “Even when you and I have been on the outs, I’ve always respected your decency and integrity.”
Daniela looks concerned. “Everything okay?”
I shouldn’t do this. I really shouldn’t do this.
But I’m going to.
“A hypothetical,” I say. “A man of science, a physics professor, is living here in Chicago. He isn’t wildly successful like he always dreamed, but he’s happy, mostly content, and married”—I look at Daniela, thinking of how Ryan described it back at the gallery—“to the woman of his dreams. They have a son. They have a good life.
“One night, this man goes to a bar to see an old friend, a college buddy who recently won a prestigious award. On the walk back, something happens. He never makes it home. He’s abducted. The events are murky, but when he finally regains his full presence of mind, he’s in a lab in South Chicago, and everything has changed. His house is different. He’s not a professor anymore. He’s no longer married to this woman.”
Daniela asks, “Are you saying he thinks these things have changed, or that they’ve actually changed?”
“I’m saying that from his perspective, this isn’t his world anymore.”
“He has a brain tumor,” Ryan suggests.
I look at my old friend. “MRI says no.”
“Then maybe people are messing with him. Running an elaborate prank that infiltrates every aspect of his life. I think I saw that in a movie once.”
“In less than eight hours, the inside of his house was completely renovated. And not just different pictures on the walls. New appliances. New furniture. Light switches were moved. No prank could possibly be this complex. And what would be the point? This is just a normal guy. Why would anyone want to mess with him at this level?”
“Then he’s crazy,” Ryan says.
“I’m not crazy.”
It becomes very quiet in the loft.
Daniela takes hold of my hand. “What are you trying to tell us, Jason?”
I look at her. “Earlier tonight, you told me that a conversation you and I had inspired your installation.”
“Can you tell me about this conversation?”
“You don’t remember?”
“Not a single word of it.”
“How is that possible?”
There’s a long pause while she searches my eyes, maybe to confirm that I’m serious.
She finally says, “It was spring, I think. We hadn’t seen each other in a while, and we hadn’t really spoken since we went our separate ways all those years ago. I had been following your success, of course. I was always so proud of you.
“Anyway, you showed up at my studio one night. Out of the blue. Said you’d been thinking about me lately, and at first I thought you were just trying to hook up with an old flame, but this was something else. You seriously don’t remember any of this?”
“It’s like I wasn’t even there.”
“We started talking about your research, how you were involved with this project that was under wraps, and you said—I remember this very clearly—you said you probably wouldn’t see me again. And I realized that you hadn’t stopped by to catch up. You had come to say goodbye. Then you told me that our existence was all about choices and that you had blown some of them, but none so badly as with me. You said you were sorry for everything. It was very emotional. You left, and I didn’t hear from you or see you again until tonight. Now I have a question for you.”
“Okay.” Between the booze and dope and trying to unpack what she’s telling me, I’m reeling.
“When you saw me tonight at the reception, the first thing you asked me was if I knew where ‘Charlie’ was. Who’s that?”
One of the things I love most about Daniela is her honesty. She has a direct link hardwired from her heart to her mouth. No filter, no self-revision. She says what she feels, without a shred of guile or cunning. She works no angles.
So when I look into Daniela’s eyes and see that she’s utterly sincere, it nearly breaks me.
“It doesn’t matter,” I say.
“Obviously, it does. We haven’t seen each other in a year and a half and that’s the first thing you ask me?”
I finish off my drink, crunching the last melting ice cube between my molars.
“Charlie is our son.”
The color leaves her face.
“Hold on,” Ryan says, his words sharp. “I thought we were just having a stoner conversation. What is this?” He looks at Daniela, back to me. “Is this a joke?”
“No, it’s not.”
Daniela says, “We don’t have a son, and you know it. We haven’t been together in fifteen years. You know this, Jason. You know this.”
I suppose I could try to convince her right now. I know so much about this woman—secrets from her childhood that she only revealed in the last five years of our marriage. But I worry these “revelations” would backfire. That she wouldn’t see them as proofs, but sleights of hand. Parlor tricks. I’m betting the best approach to persuade her I’m telling the truth is clear-eyed sincerity.
I say, “Here’s what I know, Daniela. You and I live in my brownstone in Logan Square. We have a fourteen-year-old son named Charlie. I’m a middling professor at Lakemont. You’re an amazing wife and mother who sacrificed her art career to stay at home. And you, Ryan. You’re a famous neuroscientist. You won the Pavia Prize. You’ve lectured all over the world. And I know this sounds absolutely crazy, but I don’t have a brain tumor, no one is messing with me, and I haven’t lost my mind.”
Ryan laughs, but there’s an unmistakable twinge of discomfort in it. “Let’s assume, for the sake of argument, that everything you just said is true. Or at least that you believe it. The unknown variable in this story is what you’ve been working on these last few years. This secret project. What can you tell us about it?”