We are Schrödinger's cat.
An atom or photon can exist in multiple states at once, each with a different possible outcome. We are simultaneously dead and alive until someone reveals our current state. Until the quantum superposition interacts with or is observed by the external world.
I call Ashton on the phone and I can hear her tired breathing on the other end.
In this outcome she is alive. We are alive.
We can be considered a thought experiment, a paradoxical theory.
She is comprised of about 7 x 10 to the 27th power atoms. I want to touch her atoms, to count them with my tongue and fingertips. I want to swallow the miles between us like fire down my throat. I want my belly to burn brightly.
I pace around my balcony overlooking Denver. I’m visiting for the weekend. I watch the cars speed by, little ants rushing towards promise. It’s almost voyeuristic. There is pain and regret and disappointment and everyone is driving towards their own possible outcome.
"It’s late here," she says. She knows that I know this. She knows that I purposely forget that we are dimensions apart.
Once a quantum superposition is observed, it collapses into one or another of the potential states. I think I have been collapsing for my entire life.
"I know, I’m sorry. I just miss you."
"You know you shouldn’t call," she whispers.
In Schrödinger’s thought experiment, a cat is locked in a steel chamber with an instrument containing trace amounts of a radioactive substance. There is a chance that one of the radioactive atoms decays. There is also a chance that none of them do.
I don’t respond.
"I miss you too," she says. "I’m sorry, it’s my fault I’ve been distant. I think Pam suspects," she says.
Ashton is always apologizing for the space between us. But it isn’t enough.
"It’s okay. What’s going on?" I ask.
"Kinda wanna die, kinda wanna be fucked."
There is an equal possibility that the cat dies or fucks.
"I refuse to kill you, but I will fuck you until you taste death," I say.
"That just turned me on, Mariah."
"Me too, Ashton."
I always say her name after she says mine. I hated my name up until the moment she first said it. I used to look in the mirror and repeat it over and over until it decayed in my mouth and my jaw began to rot and ache.
"What do you see?" Ashton asks, her voice heavy.
"Dark clouds on the horizon then a splash of pink sky."
"I hear the sound of rain hitting my windows and candles burning," she says. I can hear her smile pressed against the phone.
"What flavor of candle? I mean scent."
"I like flavor better," she says.
"Don’t lick the flames."
"You know me better than to think that I avoid playing with fire."
"Am I fire?" I ask.
"That’s up to you."
We hang up.
We are trapped inside a radioactive box. A gift no one wants to unwrap.
Ashton visited me for the first time after a year and a half of talking. On the first night, she told me to calm my body when we were lying in bed together.
But I’m always collapsing, always caving in on every version of myself.
"I can’t," I said.
"Just try to relax."
"This has been a year-long foreplay as far as I’m concerned."
"True," she laughed. She kissed my neck and my body tensed up even more. It tied itself into a knot. It didn’t care for any other state.
"Can you believe I’m really here?" Ashton asked.
"No, it feels like a lucid dream."
"But touch me, I’m real."
"That’s always what dream people say," I said.
I remember studying her face, the laugh lines around her crystal eyes and the way her smile exploded across her face. The two freckles just below her right eye. They looked like they were waiting for something. I couldn’t fathom her existence back then. I still can’t now.
Hugh Everett disagreed with Schrödinger about observation as a precursor to an outcome. He posited that there are many worlds or dimensions and that both dead and alive versions of the cat exist even after the box is opened. The two dimensions are merely separate from each other and do not interact.
"You’re crazy, you know that?" she said. To her that was like saying I love you.
"I know and so are you."
Upon waking the next morning, I looked over to see her bare body half-covered by the hotel sheets. They were the color of insane asylum walls.
"Wake up," I said, kissing her tanned shoulder.
What a beautiful arrangement of atoms.
"Why? This bed is so comfortable."
"Because you’re here and I’m here. We are in the same place."
I rolled onto my side and laid my head on her chest, our legs intertwining.
Once the observer opens the box, he or she becomes entangled with the cat so that the observation of the cat’s state and the cat’s state are one and the same.
"We can never really be together, can we?" she asked without asking.
"I don’t know. Let’s not talk about it now."
"But we can’t, right?"
We are still a thought experiment. Our minds murder and resurrect our love in a cyclical madness. There is an equality possibility that the cat commits or flees.
"Let’s not talk about it. Let’s just kiss and drink and love instead."
Cosmic entanglement. Our bodies braided, twisting like English ivy.
The multiverse is a proposed set of possible universes.
Including our own.
These universes encompass everything in existence.
Energy, matter, space, time.
Ashton, you and I, we aren’t so constant anymore.
We haven’t spoken in weeks. I can feel her pain from across the country. I know that she’s still breathing, but I can’t determine the pace.
I want to call Hugh Everett, ask him if she and I end up together in a parallel universe. I want to dig up his grave and devour the worms that eat away at him.
Within the multiverse, there is a galaxy that looks exactly like the Milky Way, a solar system indistinguishable from ours, a planet identical to earth, a house mirroring my own that is inhabited by a person who looks just like me. My doppelgänger. And there isn’t just one. There are infinite Mariah copies.
It’s been my birthday for one minute and I’m in Vancouver celebrating. I made it another rotation around the sun. Good for me.
Our doppelgängers inhabit realms so far away that light traveling since the Big Bang wouldn’t have had time to cross the great expanse separating the universes.
I wonder what my doppelgängers are doing. Maybe one got it just a little bit less wrong with Ashton. Maybe one figured out how to love within the eye of a cyclone. The bartender says it’s pointless to imagine such things, but he makes me an Old Fashioned with a maraschino cherry in it so I know he can’t be trusted.
My phone rings. It’s Ashton.
I don’t answer.
Somewhere, one version of me does. Somewhere, one version of me hasn’t lived to see her 29th year.
Text: I wanted to be the first to wish you a happy birthday.
Alright, I’ll step out of the bar, I respond.
I down my Old Fashioned, slip on my hoodie, and walk out the front door. The frozen air bites my exposed cheeks.
I call her back and she answers on the first ring.
Maybe her doppelgänger would have never called in the first place.
It’s senseless to consider such things.
No it’s not.
"Happy birthday," she says. Her penetrating voice removes my kneecaps.
"What are you doing?"
"Drinking at a bar."
"Yes, of course. That’s the way I like it."
The cat is simultaneously drinking alone and with everyone else.
"I know. How old are you?"
"You don’t know how old I am? We know each other so intimately in some ways and not at all in others."
"I’m sorry. How old?"
"Do you know how old I am?"
"I know. Can I tell you about the dream I had last night?"
"My chest feels like there’s an anchor inside of it," says Ashton.
There’s an alternate Ashton out there with a helium balloon inflating between her ribs.
"I had a dream I wrote you a letter asking you to be with me and you flew to come see me, but didn’t answer the question. We had dinner with my mother and she said, “Oh hi, Ashton, I have your name written down somewhere.” Then you gave me PCP and we looked at the stars, but you put a bag over your head because you couldn’t stand the beauty. I didn’t know how to save you so you burst into flames," I say, my voice trembling.
"I want to meet your maker, Mariah."
"She wants to meet you."
"Who does she think I am to you?"
"Everything and nothing, I think."
I bang on the walls of the radioactive box while Ashton sleeps in the corner. There is no observer and no observation. We fold into ourselves.
"I went to a suspension bridge today," I say. An elderly man in suspenders shuffles on 1by, hunched over. He’s carrying a stuffed elephant.
"Is that why I’ve felt unsteady?"
"Maybe. I pictured you against the railing holding your camera and taking pictures of the waterfalls. Your cloudless smile. Your golden hair. The way you whisper my name and paralyze the wind."
"You. You. You." She said each syllable as if it were poison she was compelled to drink.
"Fuck, I miss you."
"I miss you, too. I miss your truth. And your softness."
I say nothing. Tomorrow I will get on a plane and fly back to my universe.
She and I are addicted to the almosts.
The cat is both dependent and independent.
The cat is fed up with our shit.
Every possible choice a person has ever made and every option he or she has disposed of, will be played out in one universe or another.
In some, a person’s wildest dreams have come true.
In others, a person’s deepest fears have been realized.
In others, the results are highly unrecognizable.
"Ashton, can you let me in?"
"I’m trying to let myself in," she once said.
Yes, twist the revolving door of my sternum and tell me what you find.