I first notice you in the far corner of the small backyard as I stand on the deck, sipping a Corona-and-lime, my thoughts still back at the lab. I think it’s the way you’re standing that catches my attention—boxed in by a tall, lanky guy in tight black jeans who I recognize from this circle of friends. He’s an artist or something. I don’t even know his name, only that my friend Kyle has said to me recently, Oh, that guy fucks everyone.
I can’t explain it, even to this day, but as I watch him chatting up this dark-haired, dark-eyed woman in a cobalt-blue dress—you—a flash of jealousy consumes me. Inexplicably, insanely, I want to hit him. Something in your body language suggests discomfort. You aren’t smiling, your arms are crossed, and it occurs to me that you’re trapped in a bad conversation, and that for some reason, I care. You hold an empty wineglass, streaked with the dregs of a red. Part of me urges, Go talk to her, save her. The other half screams, You know nothing about this woman, not even her name. You are not that guy.
I find myself moving toward you through the grass, carrying a new glass of wine, and when your eyes avert to mine, it feels like some piece of machinery has just seized in my chest. Like worlds colliding. As I draw near, you take the glass out of my hand as if you had previously sent me off to get it and smile with an easy familiarity, like we’ve known each other forever. You try to introduce me to Dillon, but the skinny-jeaned artist, now effectively cockblocked, makes his excuses and bails.
Then it’s just the two of us standing in the shade of the hedgerow, and my heart is going like mad. I say, “I’m sorry to interrupt, but it looked like you might need rescuing,” and you say, “Good instincts. He’s pretty, but insufferable.” I introduce myself. You tell me your name. Daniela. Daniela.
I only remember pieces of what was said in our first moments together. Mainly how you laugh when I tell you I’m an atomic physicist, but not derisively. As if the revelation truly delights you. I remember how the wine had stained your lips. I’ve always known, on a purely intellectual level, that our separateness and isolation are an illusion. We’re all made of the same thing—the blown-out pieces of matter formed in the fires of dead stars. I’ve just never felt that knowledge in my bones until that moment, there, with you. And it’s because of you.
Yes, maybe I just want to get laid, but I also wonder if this sense of entanglement might be evidence of something deeper. This line of thinking I wisely keep to myself. I remember the pleasant buzz from the beer and the warmth of the sun, and then, as it begins to drop, realizing how badly I want to leave this party with you but not having the balls to ask. And then you say, “I have a friend whose gallery opening is tonight. Want to come?”
And I think: I will go anywhere with you.
AMPOULES REMAINING: 1
I walk the infinite corridor, the beam of my flashlight glancing off the walls.
After a while, I stop in front of a door like all the rest.
One in a trillion, trillion, trillion.
My heart is racing, my palms sweating.
There is nothing else I want.
Just my Daniela.
I want her in a way I can’t explain.
That I don’t ever want to be able to explain, because the mystery of it is a perfect thing.
I want the woman I saw at that backyard party all those years ago.
The one I chose to make a life with, even though it meant giving up some other things I loved.
I want her.
I draw in a breath.
I let it out.
And I open the door.
Snow from a recent storm has dusted the concrete and coated the generators beneath those glassless upper windows.
Even now, flurries blow in off the lake, drifting down like cold confetti.
I wander away from the box, trying to temper my hope.
This could be an abandoned power plant in South Chicago in any number of worlds.
As I move slowly down the row of generators, a glint on the floor catches my eye.
Resting in a crack in the concrete six inches from the base of the generator: an empty ampoule with its neck snapped off. In all the abandoned power plants I’ve passed through during the last month, I’ve never seen this.
Perhaps the one Jason2 injected himself with seconds before I lost consciousness, on the night he stole my life.
I hike out of the industrial ghost town.
Hungry, thirsty, exhausted.
The skyline looms to the north, and even though it’s decapitated by the low winter clouds, it’s unmistakably the one I know.
I board the northbound Red Line at Eighty-Seventh Street as dusk is falling.
There are no seat belts, no holograms on this El.
Just a slow, rickety ride through South Chicago.
Then the urban sprawl of downtown.
I switch trains.
The Blue Line carries me into the gentrified northern neighborhoods.
Over the last month, I’ve been in Chicagos that looked similar, but there’s something different about this one. It isn’t just that empty ampoule. It’s something deeper that I can’t explain other than to say it feels like a place where I belong. It feels like mine.
As we cruise past gridlocked rush-hour traffic on the expressway, the snow intensifies.
Is Daniela, my Daniela, alive and well under the snow-laden clouds?
Is my Charlie breathing the air of this world?
I exit the train onto the El platform in Logan Square and thrust my hands deep into the pockets of my coat. Snow is sticking to the familiar streets of my neighborhood. To the sidewalks. To the cars parked along the curbs. The headlight beams from rush-hour traffic slash through the profusion of snowflakes.
Up and down my block, the houses stand glowing and lovely in the storm.
A fragile half inch has already collected on the steps to my porch, where a single set of footprints leads to the door.
Through the front window of the brownstone, I see the lights on inside, and from where I stand on the sidewalk, this looks exactly like home.
I keep expecting to discover that some minor detail is off—the wrong front door, the wrong street number, a piece of furniture on the stoop I don’t recognize.
But the door is right.
The street number is right.
There’s even a tesseract chandelier hanging above the dinner table in the front room, and I’m close enough to see the large photograph on the mantel—Daniela, Charlie, and me at Inspiration Point in Yellowstone National Park.