Mark brought the steaming coffee closer to his face, cupping both hands around the warm ceramic. Rubbing his thumb absentmindedly across the chipped edge, he stared through the steam and imagined a slightly different world on the other side.
Many worlds. He’d first read about it in high school, probably. Dismissed it at the time as sci-fi. Well, not dismissed. He loved sci-fi in high school for the escapism of it, the round-breasted pneumatic women especially, and the heroes who he could picture himself becoming. In college he learned that the future depicted in science fiction was more like a metaphor for the present than a realistic future. He still loved it.
But now it possessed him, specifically the idea of multiple worlds. The “many-worlds interpretation”. Infinite universes. In this interpretation, every interaction could result in a split into two worlds. The world where Schrodinger’s cat lives, and the one where it died.
Mark knows it’s supposed to explain quantum mechanics and not relationships, but he draws such comfort from it that he can’t let it go. What if all the decisions he’d made – good ones, bad ones – what if they weren’t really decisions at all? This Mark was on a branch where he’d made one decision, and another slightly different Mark was on a branch having made another choice. The world proceeding forth from each decision would be slightly different. And what happened after that might mean the worlds diverged so much that there was no point in wondering “What if?” anymore. Somehow he finds this so comforting, to imagine that some version of himself had taken the road more traveled, and had wound up somewhere else, and thus it wasn’t that he’d made a wrong decision, he wasn’t missing anything at all; some other version of him was on the path he’d chosen not to follow.
There was a world, then, where they’d stayed together. A world where they’d stayed together and Emma hadn’t died, a happily-ever-after world, maybe. Also a world where they’d stayed together and she died anyway, and he wondered whether that pain would be worse. Probably not worse; probably just different.
Going further back, there might even be a world where they’d never met. Aren’t meetings so coincidental? If butterfly wings could cause a tornado, surely a missed bus or some other small thing could create a world – could create entire worlds – in which they hadn’t met. There’s a Mark somewhere who never met Emma, who met someone who found him easier to love, and who knows. Maybe if he hadn’t felt like a failure so much of the time, he’d be happier. He’d be more successful for sure. He’d feel more successful anyway, and isn’t that really the measure of success?
Who would he be without her? Who would he be without anyone? Sometimes he pictured himself like a lump of clay, easily molded into shapes by everyone he met, no definition of his own. Other times, he felt like a pinball, banging up against different people, sometimes a bell dings and sometimes he just buzzes on, nothing changes. And then you lose.
There was a world where he drank tea instead of coffee. A world where everything he owned wasn’t cracked or tarnished. A world where he hadn’t met Emma and so her death meant nothing to him. Worlds with different people, not yet disappointed in him. Somewhere, even, a world with all new faces. Not this one, though.
*In response to a writing prompt ("new faces"). Meh.