Sylvia leaned across the table, raising her voice to be heard above the clinking glasses and muttered conversations of the café. “So there’s this story I’ve been writing.”
Michael looked down into his coffee with an air of supreme indifference. “As you’ve been known to do. You’re a writer, Sylvia.”
“Yes, but the thing about this story is that I keep getting the feeling I’ve written it before. The characters, the situations—I mean, it’s really eerie. I checked all my old story folders but nothing came up. And yet, I remember.”
“Hold it,” Max said. He slumped back in his chair and settled his feet on the coffee table amid scattered remotes and a pile of unopened mail. “Are you writing a story about deja vu? Cause, you know—been there, done that.”
“No,” Pete said. “You’re not listening. So, this character, Sylvia, she’s drinking coffee with her boyfriend Michael. Michael’s this real prick, an unsupportive bastard. Honestly, I don’t know why Sylvia confides in him.”
“Have another hit,” Max said, “and tell me more.”
“Bad, lazy writing,” Professor Moore said to Claudia. “Your characters are meeting over coffee, over smokes—they’re surrogates for your own activity. Let me guess—you wrote the Sylvia section in a coffeeshop, didn’t you?”
“I don’t see why that’s a problem.”
“And the guys sharing a joint?”
“I don’t do drugs, if that’s what you mean.”
“Your next scene will probably feature Michael and Sylvia having sex.”
Claudia rolled over, the sheets wrapped tight to her body, a cigarette trailing from her hand. “A lot you know about it.”
“I read this article once,” Michael said. “It said that most artists, or writers, or whatever, they go through their whole lives recreating the same basic story. You know, one girl only writes about revenge against her ex, while another writes about how this guy that broke her heart in high school was secretly in love with her.”
He pushed a madeleine across the table toward Sylvia then snorted, an unattractive almost-laugh. “Maybe you like to write about people who’ve lost their minds.”
“You know,” Max said, “You’re right. This Michael is a real prick. So what’s this story that Sylvia’s working on?”
“It’s about this guy named Sawyer. He’s a physics professor at a little city college, which means he spends a lot of time professing and no time at all doing physics. You know, a sad case. This is some good shit, by the way.”
“Don’t I know it. So what does this Michael do?”
“Sawyer. Michael’s the other one.”
“Okay, so what happens with this Sawyer?”
“He has a theory about memory—a very interesting theory.”
“See, this is a problem. You’ve got an inconsistency on page three,” Moore said. “Wasn’t he supposed to be a physics professor?”
“He is,” explained Claudia. “Haven’t you ever done any interdisciplinary work?”
“Yeah, sure. Sex and literature. What else is there?” He reached across to stroke Claudia’s breast.
“Hey.” She shoved his hand away. “Do you want to hear this or what?”
Moore sighed, and settled back against his pillow. “Yeah, okay. Michael, Sawyer, Max, Sylvia. You’ve got too many characters already.”
“Sawyer,” explained Sylvia to Michael, “believes that human memory is an illusion. That what we think of as solid matter isn’t really, and that when we move through space, that’s an illusion too. See, people, and all things, the universe itself, are composed of these little bits that move randomly through the universe. These little bits think they’re connected and create a pseudo-reality composed of false perceptions and memory.”
“But that’s not original at all,” complained Max.
“It is to Sylvia.”
“What, is she living in the 1920’s?”
“Okay, perhaps I’m not explaining this well. There’s a whole quantum mechanics angle on this, but I thought it would get too confusing, so I kind of glossed over it.”
“This is a sci-fi story, right? I think, Pete, that it might be relevant to the geeks reading it.”
Pete snorted. “Calling me a geek? Those are fighting words, honey.”
“If Max and Pete are lovers, you’re introducing this fact a little late in the narrative.”
“How do you figure?”
“It’s the central feature of their relationship. I’ve already formed a picture of them in my head, and it didn’t involve sex.”
Claudia cupped a cigarette in her hand. “You’re so inflexible.”
“Narrative has rules, my dear.”
Professor Sawyer drew a series of connected arcs on the projector. The class was distracted, not really listening.
“Now,” he lectured, “you see a series of curved lines, up, down, some at smooth angles, some at sharp angles. Now if you were to rotate this display ninety degrees, and see these lines as they appear at the vertical, what do you suppose you would perceive?”
No one answered.
“You would have a straight line, yes?”
A mumbled assent. Someone on the right began to snore.
“And perhaps you can imagine if you were to look at this line on end, a shorter line, yes? And given the discontinuous nature of space and time, there must be a place, a theoretical place, where the line you perceive reduces to a single point?”
Sawyer switched off the projector and strode to the front of the room. “Your eyes see curves, but your minds imagine lines. Can you comprehend that dimensionality can lead not to chaos but to simplicity?”
“I have no idea what you just said,” Michael said.
“Sawyer believes that there are no isolated people,” Sylvia said. “No isolated thoughts. It’s a matter of achieving the proper perspective.”
“Michael is a flat character,” said Professor Moore.
Claudia sighed. “Intentionally flat. It’s a subtle wink at the conventions of character-building.”
“There’s such a thing as too much self-reference.”
“You’re calling me narcissistic?” Claudia said.
“Not at all, my dear. I’m just saying that while I love your hips, you are rather flat up top.”
“This story may be getting out of hand,” said Max. “Conflating Claudia’s narrative devices with her body structure….”
“I didn’t do that,” Pete said.
“I thought that—”
“Claudia’s telling our story, honey. Our love story.”
“That’s what I mean. If Moore doesn’t shape up, I’m afraid our story may be taking a turn for the worse.”
The snorer in the corner muttered something under her breath.
“Give her a kick, would you?” said Sawyer.
“The hell,” Michael said to Sylvia. “What did you do that for?”
Sylvia lowered her foot to the floor. “Empathy, Michael. Something you don’t understand.”
“See,” Max said. “I don’t like where all of this is going.”
“Problem is,” answered Pete, “I think it’s where it has already been.”
“Parse a human relationship down to its essentials,” Sawyer said, “and you’ve only got a half-dozen states. The trick is to bring these states of commitment, jealousy, attraction, camaraderie, and so forth down to a single point. If all of eternity is now, in this present moment, you’ve got what?”
“A gun,” said Professor Moore. “Where did that come from? And why are you pointing it at me?”
“Dramatic necessity,” Claudia said.
“But the first act, I mean… Chekhov’s gun… you’re supposed to show your hand.”
“Umm, Pete? That thing you’re holding under the table? I’d like to see it.” Max said, his smooth little soul-patch quivering.
“Don’t you trust me, honey?” asked Pete.
“I’ve written all this before,” Sylvia said. “I remember the gun, the kick, the cloud—”
“There’s a cloud?” said Max.
“Does it rain? No, wait, does it snow?”
“It’s the middle of summer, Michael.”
“Pathetic and a prick. What’s that old chestnut about fair weather and fine friends?”
“Well, I imagine you wouldn’t want to leave any clichés out of your story.”
“Leave your old-wave criticisms out of it, has-been.”
“Can’t you work out your domestic disputes in a way that doesn’t involve me?”
“THE POINT IS—” shouted Sylvia. Heads turned. A waft of smoke drifted in through the open door of the café. Michael cringed back in his chair.
Sylvia’s voice dropped into a lower register. “It can’t be deja vu.” She calmly mopped up rivulets of coffee from the mosaic tabletop.
“Why is that?” Michael looked nervous; his attention alternated between tabletop and doorway.
Sylvia smiled sweetly. “Because I keep remembering it wrong.” She indicated the window and the wide boulevard outside, bright and busy in the noonday sun. The sky above was a clear, unbroken blue.
Michael shuddered. “You mean…” His hands dropped back down to the table in relief. “You’re not going to shoot me?”
Sylvia ruffled the pages of her notebook, a sly grin playing at her lips. “Got your attention, though, didn’t I?”
Karen M. Roberts lives in Los Angeles with her family. Her fiction has appeared in Farthing and Say…have you heard this one? She attended Clarion West in 2005, and is a member of the Fictionados genre writing group. Her website can be found here.
I wrote this story in a coffee shop as a diversion from yet another story about characters and their creators. I blame whoever first told me about the multiverse.