In another city.
Perhaps living under a different name, with a different woman, a different job.
If I am, if I spend my days under broken-down cars in a mechanic’s shop or drilling cavities instead of teaching physics to college students, am I still the same man at the most fundamental level?
And what is that level?
If you strip away all the trappings of personality and lifestyle, what are the core components that make me me?
After an hour, I emerge, clean for the first time in days, wearing jeans, a plaid button-down, and an old pair of Timberlands. They’re a half size too big, but I’ve doubled up on wool socks to compensate.
Amanda studies me appraisingly, says, “Works.”
“Not so bad yourself.”
Her thrift-store score consists of black jeans, boots, a white T-shirt, and a black leather jacket that still reeks of the prior owner’s smoking habit.
She’s lying in bed, watching a TV show I don’t recognize.
She looks up at me. “Know what I’m thinking?”
“Bottle of wine. Ridiculous amount of food. Every dessert on the menu. I mean, I haven’t been this skinny since college.”
“The multiverse diet.”
She laughs, and it’s a good thing to hear.
We walk for twenty minutes in the rain, because I want to see if one of my favorite restaurants exists in this world.
It does, and it’s like running into a friend in a foreign city.
This cozy, hipster place is a riff on an old Chicago neighborhood inn.
There’s a long wait for a table, so we stalk the bar until a pair of stools opens up, sliding in at the far end beside a rain-streaked window.
We order cocktails.
A thousand small plates that just keep coming.
We catch a hard, beautiful glow off the booze, and our conversation stays very much in the moment.
How the food is.
How good it feels to be inside and warm.
Neither of us mentions the box even once.
Amanda says I look like a lumberjack.
I tell her she looks like a biker chick.
We both laugh too hard, too loud, but we need it.
As she gets up to go to the bathroom, she says, “You’ll be right here?”
“I will not move from this spot.”
But she keeps looking back.
I watch her walk down the bar and disappear around the corner.
On my own, the ordinariness of the moment is almost too much to stand. I glance around the restaurant, taking in the faces of the waiters, the customers. Two dozen noisy conversations mixing into a kind of meaningless roar.
I think, What if you people knew what I knew?
The walk back is colder and wetter.
Near the hotel, I see the sign for my local bar, Village Tap, blinking across the street.
I say, “Feel like a nightcap?”
It’s late enough that the bulk of the evening crowd has thinned out.
We grab seats at the bar, and I watch as the bartender finishes updating someone’s ticket at the touchscreen.
He finally turns and comes over, looks at Amanda first, then me.
It’s Matt. He has probably served me a thousand drinks in my lifetime. He served me and Ryan Holder my last night in my world.
But there’s no hint of recognition.
Just blank, disinterested courtesy.
“What can I get you guys?”
Amanda orders a wine.
I ask for a beer.
As he pulls the tap, I lean over and whisper to Amanda, “I know the bartender. He doesn’t recognize me.”
“What do you mean you know him?”
“This is my local bar.”
“No. It’s not. And of course he doesn’t recognize you. What’d you expect?”
“It’s just weird. This place looks exactly like it should.”
Matt brings our drinks over.
“Want to start a tab?”
I have no credit card, no identification, nothing but a roll of cash in the inner pocket of my Members Only jacket right next to our remaining ampoules.
“I’ll just settle up now.” As I reach for the money, I say, “I’m Jason, by the way.”
“I like this place. Yours?”
He seems not to give a single fuck what I think of his bar, and it puts a sad, hollow feeling in the pit of my stomach. Amanda senses. When Matt leaves us, she lifts her wineglass and clinks it against my pint.
Says, “To a good meal, a warm bed, and not being dead yet.”
Back in the hotel room, we kill the lights and get undressed in the dark. I know I’ve lost all objectivity with regard to our accommodations, because the bed feels wonderful.
Amanda asks from her side of the room, “You locked the door?”
I close my eyes. I can hear the rain ticking against the window. The occasional car moving past on the wet street below.
“It was a nice night,” Amanda says.
“It was. I don’t miss the box, but it’s strange being away from it.”
“I don’t know about you, but my old world is feeling more and more like a ghost. You know how a dream feels the farther you get from it? It loses its color and intensity and logic. Your emotional connection to it fades.”
I ask, “You think you’d ever forget it entirely? Your world?”
“I don’t know. I could see it getting to the point where it didn’t feel real anymore. Because it isn’t. The only thing that’s real in this moment is this city. This room. This bed. You and me.”
In the middle of the night, I realize Amanda is beside me.
It’s nothing totally new. We’ve slept like this in the box many times. Holding each other in darkness, as lost as two people have ever been.
The only difference now is that we’re wearing nothing but our underwear and her skin is distractingly soft against mine.
Shivers of neon light slip through the curtains.
Reaching over in the dark, she takes hold of my hand and puts it around her.
Then she turns over, faces me.
“You’re a better man than he ever was.”
“The Jason I knew.”
“I hope so. Jesus.” I smile to flag the joke. She just stares at me with these midnight eyes. We’ve looked at each other a lot lately, but there’s something different in the way she’s looking at me now.