There’s a connection here, and it’s getting stronger every day.
If I moved even an inch closer in her direction, we would do this.
No question in my mind.
And if I did kiss her, if we slept together, maybe I’d feel guilty and regret it, or maybe I’d realize that she could make me happy.
Some version of me certainly kissed her in this moment.
Some version knows the answer.
But it won’t be me.
She says, “If you want me to go back over there, just say it.”
I say, “I don’t want you to, but I need you to.”
AMPOULES REMAINING: 24
Yesterday, I saw myself on the Lakemont campus in a world where Daniela had died—according to an obituary I found online at the public library—at thirty-three from brain cancer.
Today, it’s a gorgeous afternoon in a Chicago where Jason Dessen died two years ago in a car accident.
I step into an art gallery in Bucktown, trying not to look at the woman behind the counter, whose nose is in a book. Instead, I focus on the walls, which are covered in oil paintings whose subject appears to be exclusively Lake Michigan.
In every season.
Every time of day.
The woman says without looking up, “Let me know if there’s anything I can help you with.”
“Are you the artist?”
She sets the book aside and steps out from behind the register.
It’s the closest I’ve been to Daniela since the night I helped her die. She’s stunning—form-fitting jeans and a black T-shirt splattered with acrylic paint.
“I am, yes. Daniela Vargas.”
She clearly doesn’t know me, doesn’t recognize me. I guess in this world, we never met.
She offers her hand, and I take it. It feels just like hers—rough and strong and adept—the hand of an artist. Paint is stuck to her fingernails. I can still feel them running down my back.
“These are amazing,” I say.
“I love the focus on one subject.”
“I started painting the lake three years ago. It’s so different season to season.” She points to the one we’re standing in front of. “This was one of my first attempts. That’s from Juneway Beach in August. On clear days in late summer, the water turns this luminescent, greenish blue. Almost tropical.” She moves down the wall. “Then you get a day like this in October, all clouded over, and it paints the water gray. I love these because there’s almost no distinction between the water and the sky.”
“You have a favorite season?” I ask.
“It’s the most diverse, and the sunrises are spectacular. When the lake froze over last year, those were some of my best paintings.”
“How do you work? En plein air, or—”
“From photographs mainly. I occasionally set up my easel on the shore in the summer, but I love my studio so much I rarely paint elsewhere.”
The conversation stalls.
She glances back at the register.
Wanting to get back to her book probably.
Having most likely made an appraisal of my faded, thrift-store jeans and hand-me-down button-down and realized I’m unlikely to buy anything.
“Is this your gallery?” I ask, though I know the answer.
Just wanting to hear her talk.
To make this moment last as long as it possibly can.
“It’s actually a co-op, but since my work is hanging this month, I’m on deck to hold down the fort.”
Begins to drift away.
“If there’s anything else I can—”
“I just think you’re so talented.”
“Oh, that’s really nice of you to say. Thank you.”
“My wife is an artist.”
“What’s her name?”
“It’s um, well, you probably wouldn’t know it, and we’re not really together anymore, so…”
“Sorry to hear that.”
I reach down and touch the frayed thread that’s still, against all odds, tied around my ring finger.
“It’s not that we’re not together. It’s just…”
I don’t finish the thought, because I want her to ask me to finish it. To show a shred of interest, stop looking at me like a stranger, because we are not strangers.
We’ve made a life together.
We have a son.
I’ve kissed every inch of your body.
I’ve cried with you and laughed with you.
How can something so powerful in one world not bleed through into this one?
I stare into Daniela’s eyes, but there’s no love or recognition or familiarity coming back.
She just looks mildly uncomfortable.
Like she’s hoping I’ll leave.
“Do you want to get a cup of coffee?” I ask.
Now severely uncomfortable.
“I mean after you get off, whenever that is.”
If she says yes, Amanda will kill me. I’m already late meeting her back at the hotel. We’re supposed to return to the box this afternoon.
But Daniela isn’t going to say yes.
She’s biting her lip like she always does when she’s nervous, no doubt trying to come up with some reason beyond a blanket, ego-destroying “no,” but I can see she’s drawing a blank, that she’s working up the nerve to drop the hammer on my foundering ass.
“You know what?” I say. “Never mind. I’m sorry. I’ve put you on the spot.”
It’s one thing to get shot down by a total stranger.
Another entirely to crash and burn with the mother of your child.
“I’m just going to go now.”
I head for the door.
She doesn’t try to stop me.
AMPOULES REMAINING: 16
Every Chicago we’ve stepped into this last week, the trees are looking more and more skeletal, their leaves stripped and rain-pasted to the pavement. I sit on the bench across the street from my brownstone, bundled up against the bitter morning cold in a thrift-store coat I bought yesterday for $12 with currency from another world. It smells like an old man’s closet—mothballs and analgesic cream.