When I was a child I would sometimes feel like I was drowning for no apparent reason. Slick liquid would creep up my sides like bath water until I overflowed.
Last night a co-worker of mine suggested we grab drinks at the bar across the street from the office. I felt obliged to say yes.
We were a few drinks in, making small talk, when my co-worker told me that they had a confession. They leaned over and told me that they had access to other worlds. "Literal other worlds," they said.
They told me these worlds exist in odd juxtaposition to our world. The entrance to one world is in the bathroom of the 23rd street F train station, and another world exists inside of a glass paperweight once owned by John D. Rockefeller.
My colleague told me that these other worlds are exactly like our world, with the exact same people and the exact same places, the exact same weather, the exact same wars. But because my co-worker had access to these worlds, they knew that the versions of them living in the other two worlds had access to our world. So there were two versions of my co-worker who had access to our world who weren't my co-worker. It was at that point that my co-worker downed their drink and ordered another.
They waited for their refill in silence, then they downed that one too and asked for one more.
After taking a sip of their second refill, they told me, in slurred words, that because they had access to these other worlds, and because they knew the versions of themselves in other worlds had access to our world, they used to live in fear of seeing another version of themselves somewhere, either in this world or in the worlds they had access to. When my co-worker was at a restaurant or walking into a movie theater, they used to be afraid of seeing another version of themselves doing the same thing they were doing. After all, their other versions would have the same tastes and desires, and would therefore want to go to the same restaurants and see the same movies. My co- worker used to fear that the people they dated would be first courted by the other versions of themselves, that they would lose out on love to another them. My co-worker used to fear that they would be walking down the street one day and see another version of themselves who had come into our world and had decided to stay, had had a family, had moved into an apartment on the Upper West Side, and who was walking with their family down the street, that when the other version of them walking with their family saw them, the other them would steer their family in another direction, or distract their family somehow, so that their family wouldn't see the other them without a family.
And then, my co-worker told me, their fear got worse. They said that, after a while, they didn't remember when they passed between worlds, when they descended into the paperweight, when they entered the subway station bathroom. After a while, the worlds began to blur together. They would be in one world, and be so sure which world they were in, but then something would happen that would make them realize they were in a different world than the world they thought they were in. They said that, after a while, the three worlds became one world, or, put another way, each world became one third of their world.
But then, my co-worker told me, they found a way to deal with their fear. They told me that whenever the fear came on, they found they had to simply meet it with apathy. After a while, they said, they became immune to the fear. After a while, they said, when they were sitting in a restaurant or walking into a movie theater and they thought about the idea of seeing another version of themselves, they forced themselves to forget to be afraid. They said that when they thought about the prospect of losing the love of their life to another them, they forgot to be afraid. They said that when they made themselves their favorite sandwich and thought about the fact that there exists another them who likes the exact same sandwich made the exact same way, except for one very minute change -- the brand of mustard, the way the lettuce is arranged -- they forgot their fear.
And then, they said, after a while, another feeling took the place of the fear.
"You simply don't even realize that you're thinking about another version of you while you're doing it," they told me. "You forget when you pass from one world to another world. You forget that you can't remember which world you are currently in. You could be staring right at another version of yourself and it wouldn't even strike you as odd that there was another version of you, a notion that used to strike fear into your gut and make your throat dry. The only way to defeat your fear is to reach a point at which you can stare into a mirror and not even recognize yourself. The only real way to defeat your fear is simply to forget who you are."
I looked at my co-worker. My co-worker looked at me. I could feel the slick liquid from my childhood filling us both. Perhaps we were two versions of the same person from different worlds. Perhaps we were not. Perhaps there were more worlds, and everyone around us was a version of us from their own world. Perhaps everyone was the same person in the same world. How could we tell? We couldn't remember.