There is a life waiting for me. It's out there, custom made, given shape from a cast-iron mold and laser engraved with the declaration Rose Lalondein a font that is just barely too small to read. It has been waiting for me since the moment I was born, every delicate branch shaped in precognition on the path I have been deposited on this Earth to take. Experience Childhood, Mature, Find Love, Acquire Success, Reach Fulfillment, it says, the bonsai tree of choices as illusory as it can be. The pruned branches on the ground may make fleeting change, may treat the delusion that every other human shares, may even ignite something inside me that could (theoretically) be a semblance of free will. I know better. This reality was not meant to house me. Choices are still made—like when I say I don't want to share a room with Dave anymore, like when I spend weeks pouring over college selections—but they are perfunctory. I know I have the ability to see which path I will take, to open my eye and just look, and though I don't the fact that I can has stolen any pleasure I might have gotten from something even as mundane as looking past my reflection in the vending machine. I can know, and somehow that is just as bad as knowing.
I go through life as best I can. Waiting. In some distant splinter, in a time I can't fully touch, I swipe a page from another girl's book and come to the very cliché existential conclusion that nothing is coming. I am not the special Rose Lalonde. I do not get to see beyond stars, I do not get to play the rain. The anchor of gravity weighs so heavily on me, I think my spine might snap with the effort. That other girl, the one I'm stealing my rather unfortunate character arc from, was also burdened with a great Knowing, but by God it couldn't have hurt this much.
Physics shouldn't hold me. I should be able to fly.
It is after great psychological interrogation of my own mind that I determine the only way I'll avoid stymieing into depression is to follow the lead of every other human on this planet when they wake up one day and realize no stylishly dressed denizen will ever whisk them from their childhood bed and off to adventure: I keep my chin up. Live one day at a time. Hence, the life that is waiting.
I am a very successful author. I have a loving wife. We live together in a stylishly modern house that is a completely different flavor of stylishly modern house than my father's, and the two of us have a cat. I age with the grace that is expected of my species.
But still. I dream at night. There are visions of still moments and hands placed in the smalls of backs, there are intertwined fingers I can't make out. But more important than these glimpsed moments is the shape of the thing that they command. I know that it—the cavity that holds the memories—belongs to a person, but only tangentially, a mark in the dictionary that simply says see here for more information. The sense is powerful. Potent. My vision does not know specifics, does not know the color of her eyes or the way her nose catches the light in profile. Instead there is the solid and unmistakable recognition of love. Of resoluteness. I miss something I never had because whatever her and I had to withstand, it did not make it to this universe.
Dave goes traveling abroad. The cat dies. My loving wife and I hold a funeral for it.
It makes no sense for me to long for her. A girl, a concept I have never met. There is no fate in love, there is no incompleteness to me as a person simply because in another time I had met someone and chose to commit. It would not follow for my other me (the one who is a million thousand versions of a her teenage self) to pine for a woman on Earth because I (the ragged and aged I) happened to marry her.
My loving wife leaves me because I am too emotionally distant.
John wakes up when I try to move his head off my shoulder, all the orchestrated effort of the past six minutes down the drain. He yawns, his entire face going wide then contracting, the whole range of expression like a cartoonist studying their face in a mirror.
When he sees the bit of drool he left on my blouse he says, "aw jeez Rose, I'm sorry. I guess I forgot we can't really do all nighters anymore."
"I was able to manage our 'movies where an estranged cousin shows up and ruins everything' marathon just fine, thank you very much," I point out.
He grins, the remains of his boyish bucktooth'dness peaking through on his middle-aged face. "Wow. Guess you owned me at movie night. I'll go grab the big gold trophy."
I allow a pleasantly neutral smile to cross my features. I fail to mention that I spent the entire night with my back straight and my gaze locked unflinchingly at the poster-encrusted living room wall.
He gets up and makes us both breakfast, which is chocolate cereal and nothing to drink, the exact same as the past two mornings. Memories vanish from my mind like blown dandelions, time so stretched and grainy that I find myself missing full hours. One moment, I finish my breakfast first, and the next thing I know I'm alone in the kitchen and staring down into a sink of unwashed cereal bowls. Archeologists will be able to date them back at least three weeks. I am wrist deep in hot water when John comes in.
"You didn't have to do that," he says evasively. Or maybe it's guilt. "I was going to get around to them eventually."
"It wasn't a problem," I say. "I was already here." This feels like a lie. I am implying there was some sort of conscious thought to it.
John gets ready for work while I pretend to look at something on my phone, listening as he lists places we could go tonight since he's just such a horrible cook and he feels bad making me eat microwave chicken nuggets all the time. I nod noncommittally. He never asks how long I think I'll be staying—knowing John, it probably hasn't even crossed his mind as of yet. I'd probably have to stay a full month before the idea of not being a Perfect Host would even settle in that big wholesome brain of his, and even then he'd probably only ask if I wanted him to get me out an air mattress.
I should go home. I have a perfectly nice house to wait out my wretched mid-life crisis in, one with clean clothes and non-canned tea. At the very least I should have brought my laptop, but when I left my seaside cottage and began the two hour drive up the coast, I was in…quite a state.
"Bye Rose," John says, shouldering his own laptop bag. "I'm working double shifts, so help yourself to whatever."
And then he's out the door. My first day alone in the Egbert house, and I spend the hour after he leaves staring at that same spot on the living room wall.
I could go home, text John later and know he'll be perfectly understanding. That's the adult thing to do. But John's house is so much closer to the fabric store and I've been meaning to pick up new yarn.
The excuses will run out eventually, but I occupy myself by paying $3.86 for a bundle of malachite sheep's fur I'll never use.
As I pass by the rows of bolts, each one shining with color and promised softness, I reach out and feel the fabric between me fingers. It draws me to her, and I wonder if that means she liked to sew. I don't let myself draw the conclusion, though. I have no way of knowing what the tangential threads of association might mean, if the unique patterns were something she liked or something she did or some connection that present perspective won't yet let me imagine. I've learned my lesson about conclusions, that I only look the fool when I try to grasp the images I can't really see.
I used to think of her as The Madonna. It was summer, and my father took us to Florence, trying on "cool hats" while he escorted Dave and I around the walking streets as the petulant churn of family vacation rattled on. It was the least terrible of any trip he'd whisked us away to, actually. There was never a moment Dave's camera parted from his eye, his glasses pushed into his hair for a greater length of time than the rest of his life combined, and I likewise found that the city spoke something to me. I found I loved the art, the smells, the way everything seemed ancient and ill thought out instead of strange falsified monuments for my benefit alone. The Ufizi drew me into her clutches. It showed me things. I was stood in front of the Madonna del Granduca when I was struck so hard with familiarity that I allowed the smallest cry of shock from my lips. The other gallery attendees must have thought I was having a particularly divine revelation.
As I looked at the soft tones of her robe, the delicate way she held her child, I couldn't help but see someone else, find comfort in her compassion. This was at a time when I still believed my visions were that of the future, and I went on to conclude that the girl from my dreams was a particularly Christian woman, and thus my union was deliciously star-crossed. I spent many an embarrassing year flitting through Catholic church groups, trying to find a gossamer face.
So I've given up trying to make sense of her. I cannot even make sense of me.
I would be proud of myself for going out and managing to run an errand if not for the fact that that as soon as I get back to John's place, I sit in the exact same spot for the remaining six hours, except there is now a new ball of yarn on my lap.
John rattles the keys outside the front door. I look idly at where the living room connects to the hall and strain my ears. He isn't alone. He's talking, joking with someone as they walk into the front hall and the muffled voices straighten out into two recognizable ones.
"Hey sweetie!" my father says, holding one of John's grocery bags and greeting me with an overly sanguine smile that would wrinkle his crow's feet if they weren't so expertly concealed by his shades. "I haven't been sitting there all day, have I?"
"Hello father," I say evenly. "To what do I owe the pleasure?"
"Just wanted to come by and check to see how my favorite girl is doing." He comes over and, still balancing the bag on his hip, presses a kiss to my temple. "You know I had to learn about this whole thing from Dave?"
"I saw no reason to trouble you with it," I say, fighting the urge to wipe at the kiss's ghost. "As you can see, John has been expertly helping me through this difficult time."
"That so?" If my father notices the empty chip bags and dirty dishes surrounding my movie couch, he doesn't comment. Instead, he says, "movie night, huh? I remember the first time we had John over back in New York. I swear the three of you watched movies for like…forty-eight hours straight."
"There wasn't much for children to entertain themselves with in said house."
"Roxy pulled up just as I was coming home!" John chimes in. "Isn't that a cool coincidence Rose?" Even John can't be that enthused by something so mundane. He must be trying to change the subject.
My father, mercifully, takes the cue. He goes over and drops his cargo next to John's, likely glad to be of service. They're quire a pair: Father with his hair grown silver like bleached sand, and John's as dark as windswept nights. Father reaches out to ruffle it.
"Lucky you, bouncing from one pretty face to the next," he says, and John laughs.
"Our host shouldn't have to suffer your ceaseless flirting, Father," I say stiffly.
John shakes his head. "I don't mind really-"
"And I should be going," I add. "I am sorry John, I know you wanted to go somewhere for dinner but I really have been away from home for far too long and the plants will be getting very thirsty without me."
I rise. My father watches I with a frown on his face, and John looks just as uncomfortable as I gather up my few things. "O-oh, okay. Let me know how you're feeling later? You can come back any time, you know."
I do know. What I didn't know was all that the only motivation I needed to leave this place was being subjected to oppressive family concern.
Roxy has, and always will, remind me of Dave. The demented mirror of a twin brother I possess, who doesn't even give me the decency of acting like his multitude of doomed selves. Dave is not the sort of person who maintains a real, paper subscription to The Economist. All hope for him dies the night of my sixteenth birthday when I find him with several articles from Business Insider printed out and held together with binder clips shoved under his pillow while he drools on the corner. Memory be damned, this is not a Dave Strider.
But he is my Dave Strider. I was fourteen when I asked him, "Dave? Do you remember our earlier conversation about zombies?"
His head lifted instantly. "About how in zombie movies no one can ever have heard of zombies before because otherwise they would know to just shoot them in the head and then the movie would be over?"
"No I don't." He was sitting on my bed, setting out the developed pictured from Italy one by one in alphabetical order. What "alphabetical order" meant in a visual medium, I failed to ask.
"Well I have an extension of that theory," I said, knees pointed outward as I sat in the perfect center of my velvet pillow. "Are you aware of the movie Groundhog Day?"
"Yeah Rose, I've met Egbert too." His face didn't change as he set a close up of a bird next to a sunset shot of Perseus with the Head of Medusa.
"The concept of a Groundhog's Day Loop, or sometimes simply a Time Loop is implicitly fascinating to our popular culture ever since the release of Bill Murray's cinematic masterpiece in 1993. So when we, as an audience, recognize such a Time Loop in another piece of media, we shorthand the plot to our fellows as 'like Groundhog Day'. However, in every subsequent interpretation of this classic story structure, whether meant to be moral or fantastical, no character in universe ever recognizes the fact that they are inside a Groundhog's Day Loop, despite the fact that it is practically burned into our collective cultural understanding of time travel."
He looked at me. Finally. My fingers picked at a loose thread in my quilt. "Are you saying that all time travel media resides in a universe where Groundhog Day doesn't exist."
"Damn. That's fucking good."
"If I might posit a question." My hands stopped, needles drawn inward as the scarf ceased. "If I was to tell you I was Groundhog Looping, would you believe me?"
"Fuck no," he said. "Movies aren't real, Rose."
So that is how my brother part and I. Still, he has his fairly successful accounting position, and I have my…magnum opus? A work I'll never top and so since its publication I've never seen the need to try. What they never tell you about authorship is that it sinks into your cortex, affects your train of thought until you begin to narrate your own life. Rose Lalonde-Evans sits down at her computer. Rose Lalonde-Evans stares at the page for forty-five minutes before making herself some hot chocolate.Though, maybe I will need to drop the Evans in the future. The thought leaves me standing in my kitchen until my cup becomes cold chocolate.
It isn't fair. Her love has cost me my own, and I don't even know if longing for this gone girl is even worthwhile when I've never seen how our story ends. Would we have lasted? Only a singular time do I see the two of us making it to adulthood, and after that is the white blur in my vision where my Sight is replaced with the exceedingly less helpful Ultimate Self. I hope Ultimate me is having fun with her new self-actualization, because her gain has left me a pathetic woman holding what amounts to a handful of acrylic dice. She's probably looking back at me, maybe musing how this strange doomed offshoot came to exist, a place with no Gods, no Game and instead just a small, angry planet.
I flip off my reflection in the chrome refrigerator, just on the off chance.
The adult in me realizes that whatever I feel isn't love. Love is miniscule decisions made every day, and whatever I can say of my alternate selves, the ability for informed compatibility was minimal. Ideally, these teenage versions of ourselves could have grown up, continued to love each other every day, but in the nature of Paradox Space there will be millions of them and only one of me to take on their discarded memories.
Rose eats. Rose sleeps. Rose stares at her screen and ignores texts from her father. She goes out and buys cat food for just for something to do, to feel alive in this modern existence where trying to make a human connection is so much more difficult in a world absent of forced contact. A sixteen-year-old Rose is more socially developed after living on a meteor for three years but that doesn't help when her barren offshootcan't even remember the girl's face.
Rose goes home. Rose tends to her lemon tree. Rose winds back at John's house a few weeks later.
Dave brings back a girl.
The line between bringing back a girl and bringing me back a girl is remarkably thin, because as soon as I hear Jade's name it all falls back into place. I know she used to have the universe in her palms but, unlike me, she doesn't even know what she's lost. I don't know which of us that makes more pathetic.
When I meet Jade and she throws her arms around me because Dave has told her so much since he found her on his many a wayward travel while trotting about the globe, and he's brought her back because she always wanted to visit America. I now know why those childhood Pesterchum conversations seemed so empty with just the three of us, but I don't know how to explain it to Dave and John. I've never tried to broach the subject since my moment with Dave, not even before then when I'd wake from childhood nightmares and my father would ask me what's wrong. I know how it will go. I've opened my inner eye to that willingly.
But this time I do actually need to divulge some of my Essential Information that is absolutely Not Rose Going Crazy to my loved ones, because it's suddenly vitally important to convince Jade to stay around. Something in me knows I can't lose her, can't go back to three. She's our missing piece.
I needn't have worried. Within the week she wants to stay and get a visa, and I wonder if, even here, the forces of Space are at work.
I wonder if the same domino of triggers could be done for my mystery girl. If I could just learn her name, then maybe all the memories would slide back into place like Jade as she sticks her butt on the couch between Dave and I. I doubt it though. Wherever she is, her reality is not accessible to mine, if one was created for her at all.
It takes entirely too long for me to realize that, through a series of technicalities, we are all moving in together.
I've stayed with John for months now, returning the favor by buying food because at the very least shopping makes me feel like I'm moving forward. When John told me he'd be changing places in the near future, I didn't even bat an eye, remembering the Extremely Heterosexual Pact that he and Dave had made as children: if neither of them were married by forty, they would move into their own bro pad and live out the remainder of their days as the coolest bachelors around. I've come along like a fixture, finding myself living with my brother once again. It's a nice place: Dave plays the stock market well, and John makes decent enough while working both the Mini Putt-Putt and standup nights at Colonel Sassacre's. The fact that there are four bedrooms doesn't even register to me.
That is until Jade. She's been staying with Dave like I've been staying with John so of course she is there, and suddenly we all live in a house and pretend there's nothing strange about that at all. It shouldn't be like this. We're all adults, we're meant to be out there, living our lives, not indulging in the rather cliché childhood fantasy of spending our nights together in the living room watching Ghost Rider. It's infantile. I need to grow up, get a job, get married, have adopted babies. I've broken things somehow.
"Rose is fresh out of a divorce, so there's that," Dave tells Jade while we eat takeout and stubbornly refuse to move from the kitchen counter. "Hey, now that she's free, maybe you two should hook up and expedite the green card process."
"Really?" Jade asks, all wild eyes with none of the power that should lurk beneath. "That would be so awesome!" But then her brow crunches. "Wait, no, Rose probably really doesn't want to think about that right now. And you were joking, weren't you? You were joking, Dave."
Dave shrugs his chopsticks. In that they move up and down on his fingers like a tiny, indecisive marionette.
Jade turns to me with that face I love and can't believe I ever forgot. "I'm sorry, I don't know if that's a sensitive topic…"
Leave it to Jade to apologize for Dave's dickery. "It's alright," I say. "It's certainly not the worst idea to make it past my brother's eloquent bullshit hole." And for once, I'm not lying. The mention of The State of Rose doesn't bring a reflexive pain.
Jade snorts. John declares that it would be a super awesome idea, and he and Jade immediately launch into plans for my hypothetical wedding. I think Dave is watching me.
Later that night, when a particularly obtuse foreign film is playing on the television since it was my turn to pick the movie, John falls asleep on me again. This time, he at least has the decency to pass out on my lap, where I can use my velvet pillow as a buffer to lift his head and discretely set it back. I extract myself from Jade's arms, knock aside where Dave has leaned against my legs, and head to the second floor balcony.
There's a telescope up here. John's addition no doubt, and the corner of roof looks so much like his childhood home that I feel a pain behind my eyes. In attempt to alleviate it, I press one against the finderscope.
I don't know what I'm looking for. Perhaps hoping I can see beyond the stars, through the infrared radiation, out beyond the universe into the one where she exists. But alas, the lens cap is on, and I have no idea how to work this fucking thing.
Distantly, I feel a memory, on that never happened exactly, but a composite of a thousand different moments that perhaps maybe happened. Long arms wrap around my middle and a chin rests on my shoulder, saying, "come back to bed, Rose."
Instead what happens is Jade presses her head into the small of my back, wraps her arms around my middle, and says, "come back to the cuddle pile, Rose."
I hesitate. I place my hands against hers. For most every other Rose, these constellations would be wrong, but for me, in this mistaken plane I've somehow created, they are mine. Maybe these three other pieces from the old world can be enough.
"Alright," I tell her, not moving. "I'm coming."