Apr/May 2002  •   Fiction

Universes Among Us

by Linda Falkenstein

No, the woman does not fundamentally think of herself as obsessed—as one of those crazed people who gets hung up on one specific person, can't get over the relationship, love affair, whatever you want to call it, if you want to call it that; can't move on. She is not one of those potential stalkers.

The woman does not call his number and then hang up. She does not drive to his house at night and check to see if his lights are on. And if his lights are off she does not drive to the house of his new girlfriend to see if his car is parked out front and whether the lights there are off or on, and she does not even know the address of the new girlfriend. She does not want to know the address of the new girlfriend she does not want to know her name she does not even want to know there is a new girlfriend and she most positively definitely and certainly does not want to know the new girlfriend is very proficient at performing oral sex. But the woman has been the reluctant recipient of this information, imparted ever-so-casually by the (now) ex-boyfriend in small, bit-sized pieces. You know, all it really takes is a zero or a one to organize a lot of knowledge, to create knowledge out of nothing. The information age. Girlfriend, yes; vacation together, yes; Valentine celebration planned in advance, yes; oral sex, yes yes yes.

There is little elaboration on the information, few particulars, but then there doesn't need to be. All it takes is a zero or a one. I mean it is not as if she is one of those women who would for instance break into Brad Pitt's home; I mean she is not batshit crazy.

No. There's nothing particularly weird or obsessive about it. The woman and the (now) ex-boyfriend have a pretty average post-relationship relationship. If they are not old friends they are, at least, friends. It is somewhat troubling, however (although, and she likes to point this out: the woman is perfectly willing to admit this) that their separate motives for remaining friends are so disparate, there ought to be at least two different words for what it is they have. Neither of which may, exactly, be, or exactly should be, "friendship."

He needs her to assure him he is, deep down, actually a nice person.

He periodically calls her up and asks her whether she thinks he is a nice person or not, usually in the tone of having recently been accused of not being one. Because she needs him to be a nice person (otherwise she is one of those women who falls in love with men who are not nice, and she does not want to be one of those women), she is willing to reassure him. It's not as if there's not also something in it for her.

And if friendship is possible, then it might too be possible he will one day see his mistake. That he will see she was the one he really wanted to be with all along. To that end, she does not mind if he has other girlfriends, as long as their ultimate function is to disappoint him and provide a nagging feeling things were better when he was with her: his faithful friend who always assures him he is a nice person. Just after he has left or been left by someone else.

If you believe there is something in this life preordaining the marriage of certain souls, then, then nothing you do can possibly be too much in order to ensure this soul-mate state of affairs comes to its evolutionary fruition. Nothing accomplished in pursuit of the joining of the souls could possibly qualify as obsessive. Is it obsessive to want to balance the state of matter in the universe? It's not an obsession; it's a law of physics. This symmetry, this happy state of affairs, this carefully achieved equilibrium, does not breed stalker-like obsession. It is the still center around which everything else moves.

I mean, so she lives in the past a little bit. But the slipping (if, in fact, she has begun to slip at all) into what might by outside eyes be mistaken for something resembling a kind of obsession came not from her occasional fascination with the past, but from one of her small, hopeful gestures toward the future. And so how can she be faulted for that?

It began, she thinks, with the Trojans ad. In the men's magazine she was reading while she was in the dentist's office waiting to have her teeth cleaned. In women's magazines, ads for male-borne contraceptives tend to be halfway between the soap opera and no means no. There was always something vaguely moralistic about ads for male-borne contraceptives in the ads in women's magazines. In the ad in the men's magazine, it appeared there was good sex happening (not about to happen) and that this good sex was being provided by the male and not merely provoked by the female. The man had his hands on the woman's hips and he was placing her. Somehow.

She tried looking at the ad optimistically. People do this; someone could be doing this to me someday soon. A new person. A new glass of wine. Van Morrison singing "Brand New Day." A remastered Van Morrison singing "Brand New Day." Etcetera.

But what she saw when she looked at the ad was the (now) ex-boyfriend doing that with her, the new official her. The sensation was similar to imagining something but it was not the same as imagining something. One minute everything was clear and the next, there was a new whole in the world she was shut out from and there it was for everyone to look at, right there in the pages of a magazine, in the boredom of the dentist's office, the day outside cold and gray but the heat from the radiator burning her knees through her jeans. Her knees were hot and they vibrated lightly as if after sex.

She slapped the magazine closed.

But closing the magazine wasn't enough to keep it at bay.


Pre-Christmas. In the Spiritual Enlightenment Bookstore (We Sell Incense), the woman is staring at objects. (For whom does she need to BUY, what do those people want to GET, why does she want to GIVE?) She browses into a rack of laminated cards, about the size of placemats, cards addressing such essential topics as ayurvedic diet, the chakras, the Tao of sex. Ayurvedic diet and the chakras are plain old column-and-row tables, but the Tao of sex consists of a series of drawings featuring a tiny male and a tiny female engaged in sexual relations in 26 or so different positions, like a reference chart for the semaphore alphabet.

The female has rather large breasts for such a tiny drawing. They dominate the rest of her rather vaguely drawn body—she looks like the outline female on truck mud flaps. The man is generic, but extremely willing.

It looked like a placemat, but it wasn't anything you would probably want to eat your dinner over.

A wallet-sized version of the card would come in handy, like a tip table. For when one was out and about and going home from a bar with someone for the first time. Although the figures would end up being pretty small. Perhaps it could be accompanied by a tiny Cracker-Jack-sized magnifying glass. A wallet-sized OED of sex. There are so many ways to get fucked, apparently.

The woman stares at the card with clandestine speed, as if she's in the position of having sneaked off to the bathroom during a final exam and has not much time to glean the vital information from her crib notes. She's reading too quickly to really absorb, but with interest. She remembers the old joke about the kid who was accused of cheating on an exam. Pulls himself to his full height and says arrogantly to the exam proctor Do you know who I am?

No, the proctor replies, because he doesn't care who this kid's parents are or how much money they gave to the college. No.

Good, says the kid, who then thrusts his blue book into the middle of all the rest of the exams and runs out of the lecture hall.

There are more variations than one would imagine on keeping one leg up in the air, or sitting on each other, facing north, east, south, or west, variations that may technically be different but probably end up producing sensations all pretty much the same. And there are some variations that must produce some pretty shallow penetration, penetration that might feel at best like a tickle to be brushed away—from the female's point-of-view at least, unless the male is hung like a baguette. The card fellow is very willing but the card does not reveal further information of that nature.

The problem is the card is not 26 or 36 abstractions that may or may not produce pleasurable sensations depending upon physical parameters and the emotional context. The problem is the card is 36 or 46 ways he wants to try making someone else happy, 46 or 56 ways he is giving someone else an orgasm, 56 or 66 ways he is fucking someone else and not her. 66, 67, 68, 69.

She slides the card back, hiding it behind the laminated Feng-Shui reference card.

The woman fumbles at her self-confidence and makes herself leave the Spiritual Enlightenment Bookstore (We Sell Incense) slowly. She slaps the magazine closed. But closing the magazine isn't enough.

I mean it's not as if she's trying to get herself into these situations. She's flipping through some dumb catalog that arrived unasked for in the mail, Betty Henley's The Lighter Side holiday catalog, and sees a t-shirt available for sale for $15.98 reads:

Sexual Position No. 268
The man sits in a comfortable chair with a cool drink and a TV remote
The woman goes shopping.

268! They are going to need multiple wallet-sized cards. That, or a really powerful magnifying glass.


Positions the woman is actually interested in, truth be told:

Side-by-side I: He is behind the wheel and she is in the passenger seat with the map spread out across her lap, and there's a bag of maybe pretzels open between them and they each have a drink, some kind of sweating drink in a waxed cup with a straw coming out of the top of the "to go" cover, nestled in the cup holders.

Side-by-side II: Unconscious and unselfconscious, almost asleep, drooling on his chest, onto the clean white t-shirt on his chest.

Back-to-back: Maybe she stands on one side of a gallery and he stands on the other. Apart, they stroll the perimeter or dart diagonally from painting to painting, gradually circling back to the center of the room where there is a bench, a flat leather ottoman of a bench. There they finally sit, facing away from each other. They lean back into each other, each other's backrest. His voice is close to her ear, her voice is close to his ear, and they watch the other museum patrons stroll by, amidst all that Gaugin, Matisse, Klee.

Nested: I mean, the woman is no expert, but she has been reading about the origins of the universe, except those in the know about such things no longer believe there is only one universe. Universes. (The singularity is also in some doubt.) It is a matter of scientific fact (whatever that means) there are black holes in the universe. There is a current line of thought that inside every black hole is a universe, and those universes form in such a way that they, too, are predisposed to develop black holes, which will in turn form universes. It's an evolution type thing. Universes that can spawn will continue to form, whereas universes that don't will condemn themselves to oblivion, whatever "oblivion" can mean in a universe(s) holding within it black holes holding universes holding black holes holding universes, and which is itself a universe inside a black hole inside a universe. What this nesting means is difficult to fathom, because daily life is the same. The sky above us, the earth below our feet; leaves sprout, grow and fall to the ground. The moon pulls the tides, and we continue to say such things as "the sun rises" and "the sun sets." Fossil fuel. Carbon-based life forms. When she awakes too early in the morning and wishes to go back to sleep, she likes to imagine not him, really, but a something, a something surrounding and accepting her; not a force, but an idea just there, like the cosmological constant. Her cosmological constant. It lets her hold her place. At other times the woman feels there must be another universe very near by where everything between the woman and the (now) ex-boyfriend is working out. On the other hand, there are universes where she's already dead.

Merged. 1 + 1 = 1. The male merge. She used to think of it as the singularity. Back when she labored under the misapprehension that the singularity meant when everything in the universe was one thing and she could use it as a metaphor for when the two of them were one, that moment in physiology or brain chemistry. Since she began her little reading program on the origins of the universe, though, she has discovered the singularity is a lot less comfortable as a metaphor than she had thought (perhaps like all metaphors, inherently unstable), for singularities are not about points; they are not even singular. Singularities merely indicate where the rules of general relativity break down. Okay, so, 1 + 1 means all bets are off. Is that a good or a bad thing?


So the friend wants to fix the woman up with a divorced guy. Facts about his looks, his job, his personality, his interests are mentioned. "You need to see someone," says the friend. It is not clear to the woman whether that means she needs to get a boyfriend or she needs to get a therapist. The idea of talking to someone she doesn't already know, i.e., the divorced guy (though it might also apply to the therapist), seems as perverse as any kinky act she can think of. But of course she does not then also imagine the logical extension of talking to the therapist as ending up in bed with the therapist, which she does vis a vis the divorced guy, and all she can imagine is reaching a point where their eyes meet in bed and everything grinds to a sudden and appalling halt.

It's when she doesn't answer the friend that the question comes. Are you obsessed with him?

She hasn't asked for any of this information he's given her vis a vis his new girlfriend—the cocksucking, blow-job-giving girlfriend—and so is it her fault if they have, unbidden, built a boudoir in her brain and they are up there, noisy neighbors, fucking at all hours of the day and night? It would be healthier to stand outside of his apartment waiting for his lights to come on. Healthier. Not for him, maybe.

I mean it's not just because she doesn't have anything to share with him, no new lover to hold up or casually mention to him, that she doesn't want to hear about it. Even if she had someone to mention, even if there were a "we" in her vocabulary these days, she wouldn't mention it to him. (There are stray "we's" creeping into her conversation, functionally mundane "we's" like married friends who take pity on her or co-workers out in a group, and she admits it is pretty much on purpose that she does not expunge those stray "we's" from her conversation.)

And I mean she does feel a slight twinge of guilt when she refers to the new girlfriend as the cocksucking, blow-job-giving girlfriend, because she recognizes there is nothing wrong with those acts. The C.S.B.J.G.G. has every right to S.C. and B. away and the (N) E.B. has every right to enjoy it because these are not acts to demean the female but loving, giving acts of sensuality and passion. Or so they say. It is wrong not to believe everything is really very okay.

But the (N) E.B. had always insisted to the woman he didn't even particularly really enjoy being sucked off; when she tried to (because she wanted to: she wanted to) he resisted. Okay. She didn't have to do that, and why? because she was listening to what he was telling her.

She listened, she followed the rules, but in this case, following his rule violated another: The Rule of Fulfilling Potential. There was of course considerable debate as to whether, in the universe full of universes, the same rules, the same laws of nature and so forth, would always apply in each of them. And who knows, god knows, there are universes right here, universes among us where the same rules don't apply.

"Divorced men are great because they've already been trained," the friend says, chirping the received wisdom. Trained. Trained. The woman is not interested in —would that be pre-trained (i.e., already trained)? or post-trained (i.e., after training)? —men. Words in English cannot even begin to express the extent to which she does not care if a man has been trained not to leave his socks lying on the bedroom floor, or to cook half of the meals, or to wash the dishes when she has cooked, or as to how and when to Cuddle or if or when morning sex is a bad or a good idea, because these are not her rules. If forced to choose between The Trained, the Untrained, and the Untrainable, she'd throw her lot in with The Untrainable. Or perhaps she is romanticizing untrainability all out of proportion, because where untrainability will get you in the long run is you have a (N) E.B. who has a new C.S.B.J.G.G.

It is not that the woman ever intended to remain virgin to the (N) E.B.'s memory (or anything) but it has just sorted itself out in this fashion, and galaxies sideswiped by cosmic dust stop generating new stars.

Betty Henley's The Lighter Side universe: a grim parallel universe where everything actually tragic is seen as comic and everything that should be taken seriously is ignored.

She does not want to go out on a date with a divorced man or anyone else. She failed the exam but she does not want to have to take the course over.

She wants the (N) E.B. to reconsider his grading policy from the first time around. He could reconsider. He could say something like, "You know, I'm going to give you points for this answer. I'm going to give you the points for generosity and sense of humor and sincerity, even though what we were really looking for in the answer was sexual dynamism. Even though that wasn't the question we asked."

But he's not going to reconsider his grading policy. I mean she should have looked on someone else's paper. If she had only thought to look on someone else's paper (because in life everyone looks on everyone else's paper; it was how they all always already knew what to do) and then she wouldn't have wasted the whole three fucking hours so to speak writing an essay about the wrong topic and mentioning that about reveling in touch and that "two halves of the same thing" thing and other such idiocies and would have known instead to list the 69 different positions the recitation of which assured you a passing grade in the course. That would be cheating. But if you thought quickly enough you could get away with it. You could stick your blue book in the middle of the pile, in the middle of everyone else's blue book and from the outside every blue book looks the same. You could ask the question. Do you know who I am? Do you?