Back at the hotel, I left Amanda scribbling away in a notebook of her own.
I lied, told her I was going out for a walk to clear my head and get a cup of coffee.
I see myself step out the front door and move quickly down the steps and onto the sidewalk, heading for the El station, where I’ll take the Purple Line to the Lakemont campus in Evanston. I’m wearing noise-canceling headphones, probably listening to a podcast—some science lecture or an episode of This American Life.
It’s October 30 according to the front page of the Tribune, a little less than a month since the night I was taken at gunpoint and ripped out of my world.
Feels like I’ve been traveling in the box for years.
I don’t know how many Chicagos we’ve connected to so far.
They’re all beginning to blend.
This one is the closest yet, but it still isn’t mine. Charlie attends a charter school, and Daniela works out of the house as a graphic designer.
Sitting here, I realize I’ve always looked at Charlie’s birth and my choice to make a life with Daniela as the threshold event that caused the trajectory of our lives to swing away from success in our careers.
But that’s an oversimplification.
Yes, Jason2 walked away from Daniela and Charlie and subsequently had the breakthrough. But there are a million Jasons who walked away and didn’t invent the box.
Worlds where I left Daniela and our careers still amounted to nothing.
Or where I left and we both found moderate levels of success, but failed to set the world on fire.
And inversely, there are worlds where I stayed and we had Charlie, which branched into less-than-perfect timelines.
Where our relationship deteriorated.
Where I decided to leave our marriage.
Or Daniela did.
Or we struggled and suffered along in a loveless and broken state, toughing it out for the sake of our son.
If I represent the pinnacle of family success for all the Jason Dessens, Jason2 represents the professional and creative apex. We’re opposite poles of the same man, and I suppose it isn’t a coincidence that Jason2 sought out my life from the infinite possibilities available.
Though he’d experienced complete professional success, total fulfillment as a family man was as foreign to him as his life was to me.
It all points to the fact that my identity isn’t binary.
And maybe I can let go of the sting and resentment of the path not taken, because the path not taken isn’t just the inverse of who I am. It’s an infinitely branching system that represents all the permutations of my life between the extremes of me and Jason2.
Reaching into my pocket, I take out the prepaid mobile phone that cost $50, money that could have fed Amanda and me for a day, or put us up in a cheap motel for another night.
With my fingerless gloves, I uncrumple the torn-out sheet of yellow paper from the D section of the Chicago Metro phone book and dial the circled number.
There’s something horribly lonely about a place that’s almost home.
From where I sit, I can see the room on the second floor that I assume serves as Daniela’s in-home office. The blinds are open and she’s seated with her back to me, facing a giant monitor.
I see her lift a cordless handset and stare at the display.
Not recognizing the number.
She shelves the phone.
My voice: “You’ve reached the Dessens. We can’t take your call, but if you—”
I hang up before the beep.
This time, she picks up and answers before the second ring, “Hello?”
For a moment, I don’t say anything.
Because I can’t find my voice.
“What number are you calling from?”
I suspected she would ask this right off the bat.
I say, “My phone’s dead, so I borrowed one off this woman on the train.”
“Is everything okay?”
“How’s your morning going?” I ask.
“Fine. I just saw you, silly.”
She spins around on the swivel chair at her desk, says, “So you just wanted to talk to me so badly that you borrowed a stranger’s phone?”
“I did, actually.”
I just sit there, absorbing her voice.
“I really miss you.”
“What’s wrong, Jason?”
“You sound weird. Talk to me.”
“I was walking to the El, and it just hit me.”
“I take so many moments with you for granted. I walk out the door to work, and I’m already thinking about my day, about the lecture I have to give, whatever, and I just…I had a moment of clarity getting on the train about how much I love you. How much you mean to me. Because you never know.”
“Never know what?”
“When it could all be taken away. Anyway, I tried to call you, but my phone was dead.”
For a long moment, there’s just silence on the other end of the line.
“I’m here. And I feel the same way about you. You know that, right?”
I close my eyes against the emotion.
Thinking, I could cross the street right now and come inside and tell you everything.
I am so lost, my love.
Daniela steps down off her chair and walks over to the window. She’s wearing a long, cream-colored sweater over yoga pants. Her hair is up, and she’s holding a mug of what I suspect is tea from a local shop.
She cradles her belly, which is rounded with child.
Charlie is going to be a big brother.
I smile through the tears, wondering what he thinks of that.
It’s something my Charlie missed.
“Jason, are you sure everything’s okay?”
“Well, look, I’m on a deadline for this client, so…”
“You have to go.”
I don’t want her to. I need to keep hearing her voice.
“I love you very much.”
“I love you too. You have no idea.”