Karel Bruckmann, Les Frères Bruckman, 1923

An Accident of Stephens

I sometimes imagine that there is a parallel universe in which a version of me, one who has made wiser decisions than I have, is leading a richer and more satisfying life. The thought doesn’t sadden me, and I am not terribly envious of him. For if this is true, there must also be versions of me who made much worse decisions and are now languishing in a loveless relationship or trying to get clean in a detox clinic.

Parallel universes are the stuff of science fiction and thought experiments of physicists. I don’t really understand the mathematics which prompts such speculation. From what I gather, it has to do with a divergence of events on the quantum level. But that doesn’t make for a very interesting story.

Let’s say instead (as some thinkers have) that each time you make a decision that alters your future, the universe splits and another self is generated to live out a different life. Apparently there’s no communication between these parallel universes, but I think the fun only starts when you start imaging that you could quantum jump from one universe to another and discover your alternative selves.

And so, I decided to conduct my own thought experiment, one in which I could jump from one of my histories to another.

I discovered as I shifted between these parallel universes that many of us—me, that is—have lived very similar lives, even if we have different jobs and live in different cities. Oh, a few are fatter than me, though none obese, and a few are much fitter than me and have done the triathlon I was training to do before being sidelined with a SLAP lesion. None of us who have beards have dyed it, in the same way that none of us married a woman or became a surgeon. There are doctors among us, yes, but no surgeon. A man who spent his childhood painfully aware of his lack of coordination does not easily take up a trade with knives.

Most of us are missing our gall bladder, and the others are just waiting for the stone to make its presence felt, as mine did one night at a friend’s riverside apartment in London. Jörg got me to the hospital where the doctor administered a shot of morphine to relieve my pain, the first and only time in my life I was given an opiate. I wish I could say that the drug made me woozy and not myself and I didn’t like it at all, but that’s not the truth. I have encountered versions of myself in these parallel universes who are addicts, and I can understand them. They are very few in number, but that does not surprise me, seeing how cautious we tend to be.

At first I suspected this sameness could be a sampling error. Perhaps the selves I was encountering were just an unusual sequence of very similar variants, like a rare repeated series of 2’s and 3’s in a chunk of digits of an irrational number, and that this freak region of sameness lay in a distant sector of Stephen-space far from the majority of possible selves who were published authors with fabulous husbands. What if I am an outlier?

But no. I come to realize that the less fortunate versions of my self were drawn by native intelligence and an overdeveloped sense of responsibility back to the person I am now. The store clerk became a manager, the short order cook a chef. At the same time, the more successful variants were never enormously successful, handicapped as they—we—are by an aversion to taking risks and discomfort in leading others. Both our gifts and our failings have nudged most of us towards a mean, as if some guiding hand held us all on a leash, allowing us the occasional foray into impulsiveness or imprudence and giving us the illusion that choice alone determined our lives.

All of us are gay, of course, and all of us know it, even the earliest of our permutations, even the rare ones who have channeled their love of men into a love of God and bound their passion in the friendship with their fellow monks.

Yes, most of us have converged back to an archetype of self, whose contours and scope of possibility were laid down long ago. We are like twins separated at birth who later meet and discover they’ve married the same kind of woman.

We, I say. I’ve already begun thinking of these variant Stephens as a collective, a “we”. And if we are a collective, then we deserve our own term of venery, as foxes and otters and nuns all have. Gang and colony don’t sound right, and coalition and convocation are too formal. Besides they’re already taken by cheetahs and owls. But an accident? That hasn’t been used yet. Yes, an accident of Stephens. That sounds apt—we are, after all, the result of a long series of chance events as much as of discrete decisions.

During one of my jumps, I met a man who suggested that we have a dinner party. “It’s so much more efficient than us jumping about on our own,” he said. I smiled. It was such a Stephen-like thing to say. And so we organized one, and of course news of this quickly got around, and countless other get-togethers were organized, all happening at the same time.

We all wanted to cook, of course. The translator in Antwerp, and the man with the small bookstore that he had opened in the city of his (our) birth, and the psychiatrist—they all wanted to. It’s our way of taking care of people. But none of us is particularly comfortable with sharing his kitchen with other cooks, and since we couldn’t all cook, we decided it was best to take turns.

As I walked into the dining room I saw that a few guests were elegantly and expensively dressed, though in the same muted palette of earth and coal that marked the chinos and dress jeans that the rest of us wore. A few were wearing contact lenses, the rest of us wire- or horn-rimmed glasses. Nothing that would make a statement, naturally. None of us had had laser surgery to correct our vision, even the men who could easily have afforded it.

Despite our native introspection the conversation was lively. We are good at taking turns and we listen attentively. We tend to ask a lot of questions anyway, so no one needed to take the lead in conversation; it was given to him. Few of us could remember the last time we spoke like this. Unaccustomed to being so courted we rushed to end our story and let the others talk.

During dinner I caught a Stephen—the one wearing the Armani trousers and a black turtleneck sweater—nibbling on crumbs of bread that he picked up from the table with the tip of his middle finger. Funny that he, too, hadn’t shaken this early childhood trait. Later he came to talk to me. He had meticulously trimmed eyebrows and much whiter teeth than mine, and the body of an older man who has the money for personal trainers and manicurists. I didn’t much like his company. He seemed too studied, too foreign to me, even if I could feel the inner anxiety scratching at the surface of his consciousness. I thought to myself that he had hidden it well but then I wondered, perhaps he is really different than me. His presence spoiled the camaraderie that the rest of us had established simply through our similitude. He was a reminder of what we could have been if we had been braver and more daring. “And luckier”, another guest said to me later.

Whenever two of us first meet, our conversation centers on discovering when we emerged. I didn’t use that word when I first started jumping. Emerge. Instead I wondered what point the other originated­­ fromwhen he diverged—as if I were claiming the line of true descent, the standard-bearer of the true faith and all the others heretics.

“When did you come into existence?” I would ask.

“When did you?” he would answer.

We were all, I soon realized, each of us but a permutation with no special claim to authority. And so I now look instead to the point of our emergence. There is no one absolute point, of course, it all depends on whom you’re with. A screenwriter—yes, there is one, I was flabbergasted to discover—he and I emerged when he, but not I, joined the university newspaper. A man who lives on an island in the Dodecanese and makes a very modest living giving private English lessons to the more affluent of the island residents diverged from me when a few years ago my boss, contrary to my own history, accepted the resignation I had tendered. It is dizzying to think how many times I have emerged in the course of my life.

We go back through time, recounting memories to learn which ones we share and which we don’t, circling closer and closer to that one decision or event that triggered the split in our shared universe. Do you remember gathering oysters in the pond on Martha’s Vineyard? Our first Gauloise? (Some have never smoked, others have never quit). The appendectomy?

We fire these questions as they come to us in no particular order, like Scrabble tiles withdrawn from the bag. But unlike the word game, the a’s and e’s of oft repeated pleasures are the most difficult to play. Matthew and I spent five Easters in a row on a quiet island in the Western Cyclades, each time with different friends, couples mostly. I’m not sure which couple came when. It didn’t matter; they all split up after the trip anyway. But they are no help in writing our history.

I ask one guest if he remembers the night our Boston landlord brought up a pair of prospective tenants to the roof for a view of the Charles River and instead came upon us lying naked in the arms of an oboist we had met on the Cape. He asks me if I remember the orderly we met swimming at the City Hospital pool, who took us back to his apartment in the South End for dope and sex, the one who would bite but not kiss.

It’s funny how our milestones are the men we have loved. We could ask about places we lived. It would be a helpful unit of measurement for the early years, when I was moving around a lot, though it is useless now. I have lived here longer than I have lived anywhere else in my entire life. But an apartment is not a milestone. We are not only attempting to date ourselves, we are telling stories to one another. I think we play this guessing game less to identify our point of divergence—sorry, emergence—than for the pleasure of remembering.

But I realize that the members of my accident don’t quite remember events or people the way I do. We fit our past to our present. The story must have coherence.

One of the other guests had stayed with Matthew after I had left. How could that have happened, I asked? At the time it seemed so inevitable that we would separate, like a gargoyle weakened by years of stress that breaks off and falls crashing to the street below.  I asked. “What about Lucas?”. The other man.

“Who?” he asked.

In his world there was no Lucas. One night years ago, it was soon after we had moved into our new place and just as we were beginning to drift apart, I told Matthew about a dating site I had heard about from a colleague. He insisted we go online together, joking at first that we would find a threesome but then becoming very earnest about hooking up. I got annoyed and left him to go to bed. But he stayed up the whole night, clicking on profiles and chatting, dazed at first by how easy it was to arrange to have sex with another man and by how desirable he was. But my interlocutor at the party had a different story. He sat with Matthew that evening and they talked to a young archaeologist who was very much into threesomes and who came over. Though they never saw him again, this Stephen and Matthew had found a way of injecting an element of adventure and passion into their relationship, and it was enough of a nutrient to keep the love they still felt for each other alive.

I wanted to ask if he was happy, but I knew it is the kind of question we never answer.

“It doesn’t matter in the end, you know,” he said to me. “You’re me. I’m you. We just have different memories.”

The painting featured in the post (Karel Bruckmann, Les Frères Bruckman, 1923) depicts the artist Karel Bruckman and his twin brother. Bruckman, a Dutch artist who lived for many years in the United States (with his life partner Evert Zeeven), worked largely in the tradition of magic realism.


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