There is no reality but this one; it’s fun to pretend anyway. The rules are the same everywhere and the only thing that matters are the decisions you made. Everyone else remains the same. You can’t change the minds of people who aren’t you, not even if you love them so much you fall asleep imagining their arms and the curve of their spine. It’s hard enough to change your own mind.
You can whisper the details of those other worlds right before you close your eyes at night. Say them again and again, invoke another reality with this simple incantation. You know what these places look like, can feel the hot breath on the back of your neck, the thrill of bravery flutter through your heart. The imagining is easy. The loss that follows is hard.
There’s another place where I didn’t let the words drop from my mouth. I traced the edge of that stone table and kept it all inside. The memories danced through my brain and joined hands, but they never met anybody new. They never carved rivers into that skull I worshipped. Instead, I am who I need to be. I pull people in and love them until they forget who they are. Every day I wake up knowing I am doing right. That I am functioning out of selflessness and justice.
And it is a lie, but it doesn’t matter. My life is all-consumed by those delicate fingers and the twitch of his mouth. I follow him across continents and into arid lands. My life isn’t my own, but it doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter, it doesn’t, I swear it doesn’t . . .
Until I wake up one day, look at the thin comforter spread over our bed and realize it really does matter. That I can’t recognize the sentences prepared in my lungs. There was never an opportunity for betrayal because there has never been anything real. It isn’t love until somebody can see you for all the brokenness that you are and still want to be near you. So it isn’t love.
Why is it so easy to slip into this world? To say everything would have been fine if I had just leaned a little farther in? That maybe my throat wouldn’t be so constricted, maybe this aching fear wouldn’t drip down the back of my neck, maybe I could still draw people into my life and welcome them home, never knowing what it meant when they left.
There’s somewhere else where all of these sheep evaporate before my eyes. They don’t exist for me, and it doesn’t matter because it is better not to have known them. The air is cold, but it doesn’t bother me anymore. It hasn’t for a long time. I know the shape of the snowflakes that nestle in my hair; we have become intimate friends after all these years and I see them even when I close my eyes. I know them as I know the blonde spiral curls, the pale curving cheeks, and the dusty long lashes. Even though I was born in a heat so cruel it melted tarmac, these things were burrowed in me before I first tasted air.
The fear has become a shaggy doglike monster in the corner of my mind; it scuttles back and forth occasionally, but it is no longer cause for alarm. I figured out how to reach into my own chest and get my heart to pump again, how to scream until I recognize my voice, how to focus my eyes and make them stay focused. I am still volatile and angry, but the hand on my wrist has become somewhere I escape.
There are three places where I no longer exist, but it is impossible to think about them.
There is a world where everything I could ever want is laid at my feet. I sit on a throne of bourbon and salt water taffy and laugh as the planet continues turning. People quiver when they say my name; they faint when I say theirs. We were not born to live in the same city, and yet we do. The daughters of the less fortunate resent me, they wish me dead when they rake me with their eyes. It doesn’t matter. None of it really matters.
The path beneath my feet is made of solid gold and shines only for me. The accent I was never meant to have slips off my tongue and wraps around my ankles. When I look into the eyes of my loved ones, we don’t really see each other. We don’t quite inhabit these bodies we were given. We reach for each other with tired hands, but our skin is made of paper. This isn’t something that matters, though. All that matters are the diamonds that line my arms and the steel that runs down my spine.
There’s another world where my body was never broken. My hip doesn’t click when I walk and there isn’t a dull ache in my back. I’ve never known what it feels like for all the energy to drain from my body, for the sweat to drip from my temples down the back of my neck to my lower back. Instead, I am angry and unmovable. All I know is how to rail at a world that did not shape itself for me. Humans were made for flight, but I don’t know this. I don’t know what it feels like to be weightless. I don’t know that every atom of me should miss this every day for the rest of my life.
I don’t know what ice smells like at 7 AM. I don’t know the satisfying crunch that comes when a blade digs in after the first rain. My brain is empty of these experiences, and it is wanting. It has boundless energy and passion and nowhere to put it. It steals secrets from everybody else before turning on itself and atrophying. It is alive, but it doesn’t know it.
There are no worlds where I am still lying in your bed, where my hair and lips and skin smell like you.
The final place is the hardest to talk about. Its smoky fingers weave their way through my life and try to drown me. In this place, I wander like a zombie. There is no help coming for me, no Lexapro slipping through my veins to keep me calm. There is only the pressure pushing up against my temples. There is only that faint ringing sound; it won’t leave me alone. My parents try to reach me wherever I am, but my eyes stare blankly. I can’t eat, I can barely stand up. Life continues to pass and weeks go by before I look up and realize I haven’t once left the apartment.
Lying at the bottom of this well is painful and familiar. I don’t want to die, but I don’t want to climb up and let myself out either. I’ve done that too many times. I know what the world outside looks like, and I don’t want it. I don’t want any of it. The girl that sits in my lungs screams to get out, but I push her down. Soon she will be a memory, the person people talk about when they talk about me. The goal is to be hidden by the end of the year. To be so far buried under my downy quilt that I lose myself.
And all the while ghosts dance around my room and sing that this is the end. It has to be. There has never been and there will never be anything but this. My path here was fated. Raise your hand and say goodbye because soon you won’t be strong enough to lift it.
These places do not exist; or if they exist, they exist somewhere far from here. As far as the edge of the universe or the back of my brain. It is useful to think about them sometimes, to fall into them and live there a while. But they do not have a hold on me. They do not form the buildings and the mountains of my world.I know exactly where I am when the sun beats down on my shoulders. When my skin starts to turn red from the angry, cancerous rays I know that I have come home. In these moments, the decisions that made me harsh and difficult must have been worth it. They scream through my brain and keep me up at night, but how could I give them away? There are no realities but this one. And for now, this one is all right.