by Nathan Witkin
“I want to tell you,” I shout over the panorama of agony shrieking from the collapsing universe, “that I’m glad I found you before it all ended.”
“But it’s ending because we found each other,” she shouts back then averts her iridescently light-brown eyes, the color of coffee mixed with just the right amount of creamer. She feels a deep twinge of lameness for (a) squandering our near-psychic connection by telling me something I already know and (b) ending history on a downer.
With the infinite emptiness closing in like a violent stampede, she stops beating herself up over all of it and we simply hold hands as if unwilling to trade this moment for all of the moments that preceded it.
As the last two seconds look to each other before merging into a final moment that can only look back in silent reflection, I can’t help but compare the endless nothingness to the void I felt prior to meeting her.
In hindsight, I had always known that my fear of meeting new people wasn’t entirely irrational, but I didn’t expect these introverted tendencies to be protecting me (and everything else) from the apocalypse.
If there were an athletic competition in social-ineptitude called “The Anti-Socialympics,” then I would be Michael Phelps in all but the swimmer’s body. Despite this, I always felt like my soul mate was out there and that I’d find her if I could just get out of the shallow end of the dating pool.
Driven by my hapless search for a singularly kindred spirit, I had ventured out like a pre-Columbian explorer, ready to sail off the edge of the world. My ship was an online-dating website, each continent of potential treasure and treacherousness was an awkward first date, and the edge of the world turned out to be the actual edge of the world.
I first spot a hint of this precipice of reality, paradoxically, while trying to keep my sanity on a particularly bad first date.
“So, then the psychologist told me to stop emotionally unloading on my dog,” she scoffs, “that my so-called ‘negativity’ was causing her to have incontinence issues.”
While my mind wanders hurriedly away from her manic blather, she is responding to my waning attention by trying to talk even faster.
“But then I was like, ‘I don’t take orders from pet psychologists. Just prescribe Bella more doggie-Xanax or I’ll chew your face off.’”
Perhaps it’s my brain’s attempt to float above the situation, but I come to the sudden realization that this woman has the personality of my least favorite step-cousin. It’s as if one actress, with an uncanny ability to alter her appearance, was playing both my step-cousin and this one-date-wonder without changing a single quirk or mannerism in shifting between the two roles.
Desperate to distract me from my date’s verbal onslaught, the defensive firings of my under-siege neurons set off a chain of logic that would ensnare me like a noose:
How could anything as complex and nuanced as a human personality be repeated?
Which triggers the neural pathways forming the question:
What if personalities repeated across the population specifically because they are so complex?
Which then sparks the critical realization:
Maybe the universe is a simulation with a limited amount of memory, thereby requiring complicated aspects–such as human personality–to be constrained to a set number of possibilities that repeat within the simulation.
This thought becomes a life-consuming preoccupation, bringing me to seek out people in curiosity rather than loneliness. And what better way to analyze people in great breadth and depth than online profiles and first dates?
After having coffee with Xerox copies of my fifth grade teacher, Trish from Accounting, and the opinionated guy from my Thursday yoga class whose rants are very informative into just how annoying he is, I start tracking these souls in a field journal. It is also at this time that I get the feeling that I myself am being tracked.
Clinging to the delusion that my life isn’t under siege, I ignore my online dating profile being hacked and rationalize my apartment burning down. But when the shattering glass of the coffee shop’s storefront interrupts a date with a Follower Class-3 archetype and reveals a poorly-aimed bullet, I take off without the obligatory argument over the bill.
Navigating past personality types who would step aside and avoiding ones who would thoughtlessly run into me, I rush into a crowd. Spattering blood highlights more missing bullets and the expendablilty of the clones around me.
I turn a corner into a dead-end populated only by a shadowy figure in a trench coat that whips in the wind like smoke. When it shoots out at me, I expect the hand to deliver a blow permanently removing me from the simulation, but instead it wraps perfectly inside mine and guides me through the safety of an obscure door.
When the panic-inducing neurotransmitters subside and my eyes adjust, I am looking into milky brown eyes that are an intense mix of piercing beauty and guarded hope that teeters over life-shattering disappointment.
“I’ve been following you,” she mumbles, unnecessarily because we both instantly understand everything passing around and between us. Her shoulders sag under all of the other opening remarks she wishes she had tried, but lift with the swelling in my chest–hearing her voice is like a confirmation of my entire existence.
“Are there any others like us?” I ask in equal futility.
She shakes her head, keeping her bewildered eyes locked on mine, and I can see that she is just as scared as I am.
As we simultaneously lean in for a kiss that could only be transcendental, the dilapidated brick wall next to us explodes outward and, immediately, we are hand-in-hand fleeing in the other direction. Neither of us is guiding the other, but somehow we are making the same turns through the murky depths of a building that is lonely with neglect. It releases a groan from all around us that, we realize, could not be caused by our pursuers.
Sprinting out into the growing light around us just before the building lifts off from a cloud of debris like a space shuttle, we become suddenly paralyzed by the landscape visible through the settling dust. All matter is dismembering itself, from nearby vehicles tumbling in a trail of parts suspended in the air, to distant high-rises aimlessly drifting off as if confused by their newfound freedom, to the people everywhere in various stages of rupture and rapture. Sound and light stretch and ripple away from us as if we were splashing across reality’s otherwise calm surface.
We both look down at our entwined hands and up at each other. I feel the smile coming before it finds her lips.
“At least my sense that the universe was conspiring to keep me lonely is vindicated,” she says.
I consider that the connection between two people could be defined by the disconnection they feel with everyone and everything else. But then, observing the splintering reality we are happily strolling through, I dismiss this idea. Our rejection of this world, and its quite visible rejection of us, does not do justice to our love.
I respond, “Any universe that can’t handle our feelings for each other isn’t worth simulating.”
Nathan Witkin is a criminal defense and divorce attorney in Marion, Ohio, an innovator and guerrilla leader in the field of alternative dispute resolution, and an MMA cage-fighter. His short stories have appeared or are forthcoming in The Horror Zine, Schlock!, Infernal Ink, the Three Minute Futures competition, 365 Tomorrows, Fiction on the Web, Black Petals, Anotherealm, Euonia Review, The Rampallian, and Congruent Spaces.
The November 2014 Flim-Flam Games are sponsored by Bear Jack Gebhardt, author of Practicing the Presence of Peace.