Blurred Vision | Claire Gustafson | Acrylic Ink and Paper on Wood
Lena opened her eyes to the soft darkness of her old bedroom. She looked over and saw the sharp outline of his profile on the other side of the bed, his chest gently rising and falling with each breath. She wondered about the time—did it flow differently here, more slowly? Everything seemed so still, so stationary and solid.
She felt her own breath leaving her body, imagined it dissipating into the air around them, wondered if it would remain even after she had gone. She closed her eyes.
Her watch began to buzz, waking Lena with a mechanical indifference that approached cruelty and left her groping blearily for the dial. A few notches to the right, and the darkness of her old bedroom began to bleed away into the lavender walls of her current apartment.
The sun shone blandly through the curtains as she dressed for work, illuminating each mismatched piece of clothing as she tugged it on. Ryan was still asleep, his face wedged between the pillows as he drooled through oblivion.
As usual, the elevator felt like a descent to the bottom of an abyss framed on either side by skyscrapers. Their mirrored surfaces threw the light back and forth, drowning the early morning city in sunlight.
It was dizzying—Lena felt unsteady as she walked, jarred by the vibrancy that crowded her perspective.
“This reality feels so volatile,” she once told Ryan. “So different from the equilibrium I feel in my other timelines.”
“That’s because this is your timeline,” he told her. “You’re just visiting the others.” He always had the answers. It was one of the things she hated about him.
She was so tempted to change the channel once again—skip work, find somewhere quiet, and make a day of it. But she’d already used up all her sick days, and she just knew that somehow Ryan would find out and threaten to take away her watch.
He always asked her where she went, what her life was like in a world where she had made different choices, where they had not ended up together.
“I’m single,” Lena told him. “I travel a lot and I own an indie bookstore.”
“We can travel more,” he said. “And you already work at a store that sells books.”
“It’s a gift shop,” she replied. “We sell t-shirts and postcards.”
She went to the break room during her lunch and settled onto the couch. It would only be thirty minutes, but it was better than nothing. She shifted the dial to the left and watched as the colors and shapes of her world dissolved into static.
There was nothing but the rush of wind, the grainy pulsation of matter. A little more to the left…
The bookstore was nearly empty around noon, the only shoppers being a couple of high schoolers who were unlikely to buy anything. Lena gazed down the rows of crowded bookshelves, the books disorderly yet stable, firmly at rest.
She walked down an aisle, letting her fingers trail along the spines. What books existed here that had never been written in her reality? Could her choices truly have affected that?
The bell at the door jingled, and she turned to see Nick walk in, carrying two bagged lunches. He looked around, taking in the emptiness of the store.
“We’ll be lucky to meet our conservative projections,” he said.
They went to the office to eat, and he started going over the day’s sales. Lena bit into her roast beef sandwich. She hated roast beef.
“I’m going to meet with Nathan tonight to talk about marketing,” he said. “So I may be home late.”
Lena suddenly remembered being in high school, lying to her parents about going out with friends when she was actually seeing Nick. She’d felt so justified at the time, so sure that it was none of their business, that they would only interfere. She felt a sudden surge of compassion for them.
“All right,” she said.
Lena left the office, which was beginning to feel cramped, and walked around the store straightening books. The two high schoolers were paging through books that they would never buy, laughing at strange titles and taking pictures among the stacks.
They made a strange pair—the girl was short and animated, while he was the kind of self-conscious tall that longed for the anonymity of the crowd. He seemed built of such uncertainty that she half expected his limbs to slide sheepishly into each other and whisk him mercifully out of view, only to find him later arranged neatly in the corner like a folding chair.
They seemed happy, unconcerned. They probably had no other timelines they preferred—each choice they’d made so far had led them to this particular afternoon in a random bookstore. Why weren’t they in school? She wished they would just buy a book, if only to make Nick happy. Her watch began to buzz.
They had her sister over for dinner that night. The three of them sat around a tiny table in the apartment’s tiny dining area. Ryan had made stir fry and carefully spooned it out onto their plates, drizzling it with sauce and a handful of green onions.
“Let’s just eat,” Lena said. “It doesn’t need to be impressive.”
“Aesthetics are an important part of the culinary experience,” said Ryan.
“It looks great,” her sister said. Megan was always the mediator.
Lena speared a piece of broccoli on her fork and lifted it to her mouth. The fluorescent light overhead reflected off the thin coating of sauce, illuminating each green branch and bud. She knew if she ate it, each green particle would work its way through her body, ending up in her bloodstream or her fingertips or the tissue of her heart. She didn’t want to be a piece of broccoli.
“Aren’t you hungry?” Megan asked.
Lena did feel hungry. She hadn’t yet eaten that day, at least not in this channel. She was angry at her body for feeling hungry, for tethering her to this reality each day with food. She was already a piece of broccoli, a casserole, seventeen potato chips, a split pea soup.
She wondered which piece of food her thoughts came from. Was that gray matter within her skull composed of mashed potatoes or spaghetti? Was she as inanimate as this stir fry, a bedazzled pile of bedraggled meat and vegetables?
She ate the piece of broccoli.
“This is really good,” Megan said. She turned to Lena. “You’re lucky your boyfriend is such a good cook.”
“I do my best,” said Ryan.
After dinner, she and Megan went up to the roof to talk, sitting in lawn chairs beneath the curving sky.
“Ryan tells me you’ve been tuning out a lot,” said Megan. “Aren’t you happy here?”
Lena speculated that there was a universe where Megan and Ryan had ended up together. It would make a lot of sense. “Yeah, I just get curious. I always want to know where I would be if I’d chosen a different college, or if I’d never broken up with Nick, or if I’d taken that job in Chicago.”
“You can’t keep fixating on a breakup. You made the right decision then, and I think you’d make the same decision now.”
“It’s just nice to think that there’s a universe where we ended up together, where we were happy,” she said.
“No, Lena. That universe doesn’t exist. There’s no time or place where you and Nick live happily ever after. Because frankly, he’s an asshole, and you know that. I know you know that.”
They sat in silence for a few moments.
“If you’re unhappy here,” Megan continued, “you can always change the channel the old-fashioned way. Make a change in your life. It’s not too late to choose what timeline you want to live in.”
The next morning, while walking to work, Lena decided: she would quit her job, break up with Ryan, move to New York. She would get a job at an upscale coffee shop, or at a fashion magazine if she was lucky. This timeline would become one she would visit every year or so, just to see how she and Ryan had ended up.
She arrived at work, put her coat and bag in the locker, and began to open the shop. It was about to be the holidays, and the museum gift shop would get a lot busier. She aligned the porcelain tortoises in careful rows on the narrow shelf, angling them at about forty-five degrees. They each seemed to stare at her wisely, knowingly, aware of the fact that with one mistake she could shatter them against the floor. They didn’t seem to care.
It didn’t seem fair that their lives were in her hands. She shouldn’t be able to break things, especially not on accident. She decided that the universe should have a buffer, to protect against mistakes. Why hadn’t they invented that yet? It didn’t seem fair for her to quit just before the holidays, either. She decided she would stay on awhile longer. It was an easy job, and it paid well.
It would be nice to have one last Christmas with Ryan, as well. They’d always had good Christmases. Perhaps for New Year’s she could tune in to some of her other lives, see how she and Nick were getting along. She’d have some time over lunch for that as well. Maybe there was a timeline where she had already gone to New York, so she could see if it was actually a good idea.
Lena surveyed the gift shop. It needed a little dusting perhaps. She gazed over the rows of trinkets and t-shirts, items that would perhaps be presents for people in just a few weeks. There was so much potential in this timeline—every pixel of reality seemed to tremble as she looked around. She began dusting the tortoises, excited to begin exploring the possibilities over lunch.