“One of Many” by Melissa Wiley

Issue 23 / Fall 2020

We live so many more lives than the one we’re living. Within only a month of us having met—maybe even a shorter timeframe—you shared with me your theory of multiple universes. You’re proud, to this day, of hatching this concept before any known physicists adopted it, before mainstream science embraced your same love of vastness. I have never bothered investigating whether the sequence of events here is accurate, whether you truthfully conceived of this vision before any scientists. I have never researched whether any cosmologists may have posed the possibility of other universes before I met you by happenstance, invalidating your claim in the process. I have never considered the details concerning a lot of things, though, important. With a lifelong tendency to privilege emotion over fact, I have consistently valued the heart’s warmth over a cooler head. I say this aware your belief you were the first to alight on multiple universes has, as a matter of fact, made you happy.

For as long as I have known you, you have preferred the macrocosm to the microcosm, and to me this makes an enormous amount of sense, mostly because you are someone of expansive ideas and interests. You compose a new song on your guitar in our living room or kitchen—or while singing in the shower—almost every morning along with conjuring another idea for another invention. Though you hardly ever sing for anyone else besides my ears alone, you do not seem to mind when occasionally I tell others you’re a songwriter. I have also overheard you at different times call yourself an inventor, and in your mind, you do so for good reason.

After meeting you for the first time, people are often surprised when, in response to their questions, I am forced to tell them what you really do and what you haven’t. Those who hardly even know you yet—people we have perhaps met while seated beside on an airplane or waiting in line for a concert or movie tickets—are often treated to your intellectual theatrics, to what they assume to be fact when I know some of this to be fiction. Most can hardly believe when they find out you have never tried to capitalize on your brilliance, have not become famous in some way. Never knowing how to defend you, I usually allow the conversation to collapse under the weight of its own awkwardness. In the end, I let them think a little less of you, to be honest. I believe you and I both know you tend to present yourself as more dynamic than the man I live with.

I have also known you long enough by now to realize that presenting your ideas suffices as fulfillment. To your way of thinking, implementation is almost superfluous. I have heard you say again and again—have heard you say without ever completely buying it—that the concept matters more than the execution. I have understood and partially accepted that going through the trouble of constructing an invention or putting together an album of your latest music would only sap your joy, would only prove disappointing compared to staying in the visionary stage. However much you may contend theory alone proves satisfying, theory alone also risks no failure or embarrassment. You manage to keep yourself safe in this way, immune from criticism. Safety for you means freedom from judgment, and this must be part of the reason you’re impossible to find on the internet, for instance, why no one will ever come across you singing your songs on any stages.

The only problem with this is that failure and embarrassment themselves may be essential components of the creative process, which is to say intrinsic to the human experience, however that experience factors in a larger context, amid so many universes. Occasionally, I feel a slight shock when I realize, reviewing all the evidence, you have amassed and retained more dignity than I have, though I’m also unsure you’ve come by your own portion fairly. Keeping yourself protected from exposure by never venturing beyond concepts seems too simple, too easy. I say this knowing you are hardly unusual in this regard, however unique in others. I’m certain even those people who bother building and then selling their inventions—even those who play all their music for an audience—also hide things, protecting themselves to some extent. This too is only being human, and the only way for either one of us to survive this marriage must be to serve as each other’s resting place, to further soften. I don’t always make you feel safe. I know this. Sometimes I offer too much criticism.

Though you might be little more than talk in the end, every year you still fill several notebooks with ideas for more machines or contraptions, with hundreds of sketches for gadgets you maintain would make you wealthy and famous. New designs for umbrellas and toaster ovens are perennial favorites, though sometimes you’re more imaginative. For almost two decades, you have alleged you were the one who first invented a spinning building, a high-rise that rotates to generate its own energy, which is another way of reiterating the fact you often find it almost too natural to give yourself credit. This, though, again is only me nit-picking. This is me doing the opposite of offering you the acceptance that can matter even more than love at times. How much we both need this.

For all our troubles and fears and challenges, all human life and endeavor and torment have to fail to register in any genuine scheme of things, any speaking to real vastness. Especially when compared to the lives of galaxies and universes, all human existence can mean little more than next to nothing. In any useful cosmology, you and I cannot count in any real sense. As it is, here on this one planet, no one else sees us making love or hears any of our arguments, and yet to me these things make all the difference. To each other, you and I expose everything, and one of anything has always struck me as a paltry number. You and I each have only one person who witnesses all the beauty as well as all the ugliness. Within a month of having met you, I found your theory intuitive, if only because one universe alone sounds too lonely. From the time I can remember, I have also believed in infinity, which makes multiple universes seem axiomatic.

I have seen pictures of several galaxies strung together—likely when you showed some to me—and to my mind, these images at once suggested a series of nerve endings within a human nervous system. One of my own pet notions envisions a single universe as equivalent to a single celestial body, and universes themselves may congregate into tribes, cities, nations. Look at me, though, lapsing into theories of my own. Neither of us with a way to prove our brilliance. If the number of universes is infinite, this is only another way of saying their actual number stands as little consequence.

I do not expect for either one of us to ever completely know the other, however long we both might still have to live, however many months or years or decades. For all that seems knowable about the other person, some aspects of our personalities will never show themselves, never develop. Only one lifetime—only one universe—remains all too limited. So perhaps the best way we can love each other from this point on, as our middle age only deepens, is to offer the other the freedom to function as someone of impossible mystery, to stay a stranger in essence, even if every evening we brush our teeth together, share a tube of toothpaste, even while we have little to no privacy with our bodies. If I could ask you anything, I would ask you to begin to try and unknow me, to allow all your old assumptions about me to unravel, to allow me to expand from a woman in her early forties into a spiral of luminous galaxies, into endless star formations. I can hardly tell you how much I want this. To expand and keep expanding, breaching all boundaries of apparent fact, defying all evidence of all my limitations.

In my small attempts to absorb some shards of Eastern wisdom—in my attempts to expand inwardly at least, enlarging my awareness—I have read from some people whom others consider sages that we actually contain the world rather than inhabit it. The entire world, with all its infinity of universes, exists only inside the fabric of our consciousness. At the deepest level, we are said to be this consciousness rather than a body, rather than a soul even. This is the source of all mystery, the god at the center of each person that no other person can ever know completely. This is the black hole at the heart of every galaxy—another one of your theories from our early days, one that has since become more popular, come into fruition.

Sometimes I feel as if there are far too many selves inside me—far too many neurons resembling their own galaxies firing beneath my skin—for me to ever live as full and productive a life as most other people manage. Something or someone inside me often feels preoccupied—feels too busy with a concatenation of uncaused emotions, of raw reaction to circumstances that cannot be glimpsed—even when I’m doing nothing or next to nothing, when the day seems calm and ordinary. This is my way of saying I feel I am accomplishing hardly anything in this lifetime, this one in which we seem to be married, to be nothing more than two human bodies. I often feel this, and sometimes it bothers me in spite of how insignificant I realize this one human life is.

Of everyone I have known, you can probably relate least of all to this feeling. Believing the realm of theory to be sufficient, you may also come closer than I ever can to living in the moment, which signals another primary tenet of Eastern wisdom. In addition to our consciousness containing all possible universes, these same kind of sages claim there is nothing outside the present. Everything that seems impossible on a material level appears true from a spiritual perspective, according to all my reading. This, of course, is yet another reason to regard facts alone with suspicion. You would probably only accuse me, though, of confirmation bias in searching for truth among the mystics rather than science.

I am almost embarrassed now to say this—I feel oddly exposed confessing it, losing what little dignity I may have left—but during the months before we met, I underwent a period of deep loneliness. Because I am largely the same person I have always been, neither outgoing nor dynamic, I felt I had every reason at the time to believe this state would not be temporary. My roommate, who had been my closest friend during my first two years of college, had decided to move back to Minneapolis. Doing so, she also left me to pay the rent for the whole apartment, though you might remember me telling you this shortly after we started dating. I know I’ve also shared with you how I searched without any success for a roommate before I realized I didn’t want anyone else around to allay my loneliness, not if I was honest, not if I could manage to pay the rent on my own instead. With a few more waitressing shifts, I found this feasible, if barely. Almost every night, I made myself scrambled eggs or a couple peanut butter sandwiches.

As my sense of isolation assumed more momentum, I took more refuge in my solitude, in its sheer abundance. I no longer wanted to summon the energy to attempt to match other people’s happiness. Once I was done with work and classes, I began to prefer my time alone in that apartment to going to a reading or play or other event on campus. I felt most myself when preserving the quiet of sitting in my living room with all the windows open to the onslaught of traffic. At the center of that quiet state, where I did little more than study, also lay a longing that felt akin to a black hole inside me, a place so removed from the outer world that it almost seemed as if it could swallow any glimmer of light skirting the event horizon. I carried a pain that was its own dumb weight inside my chest every time I stood to walk across a room in what I recognize now as not only loneliness, but depression. At times, I still carry this same feeling, to a lesser extent, which interferes with me executing my own concepts, which also keeps me from pushing past the realm of theory.

The only reason I believe I met you was because eventually I accepted my own unhappiness. I gave it room to breathe somewhere within me, allowed it to be without minding the misery it spun and shot like light from a star’s center. After a certain amount of time passed, eventually I stopped registering the longing as a problem. I had no TV then—my roommate had taken it back to Minneapolis—and had begun to make a habit of drawing in the evenings after I had gotten tired of reading or writing a paper for my classes.

I still remember one evening in particular, sitting at the table I had fished from the alley. I felt like drawing a face but had no image from which to work, none that appealed or meant something, so I gave my pencil permission to all but move on its own. I sat there, hardly looking down at the paper, and allowed my pencil to stray and wander across the page without attempting to control it as I did normally.

Without analyzing what I was doing, I must have been trying to draw from my subconscious, allowing the part of myself that usually never surfaced except in dreams to draw what it wanted. If I had thought more about what I was doing, I probably would have stopped sooner, have never finished my drawing. Unlike you in this as in other ways, my propensity has been to want to see fruit from my actions, even while in dampened spirits, with the failure to produce any fruit often only exacerbating my depression. Even when no one is looking, even when I know no one else will ever glimpse my artwork or read any of the words I’ve strung together, I have still wanted to bring my efforts to a sense of completion. That sweet and lonely evening, I felt less like I was drawing than waiting. I sat in stillness waiting to see when my hand would tire, when the pencil lead would break, when my drawing had finally communicated what it needed.

As my pencil revealed an angular face I could not identify—as it filled in a small beard and mustache—I told myself I was fine with this, meaning my life as it was then, as it might always be, steeped in aloneness. At the time, I had not yet exposed myself to any Eastern wisdom. I had never yet known anyone to speak about surrendering to the present, never heard anyone acknowledge the power of acceptance. Though I can no longer remember how exactly, in later years I must have merely stumbled upon this line of thinking, allowing an earlier foundation of knowledge to unravel into mystery. Still while delineating your features one night in my apartment before we met, before I believed our consciousness contains all there is, I must have become more like you whenever you are writing a song or dreaming of a new invention. Something inside me that enjoys control must have receded as I drew your portrait. I met you in a bookstore less than a week later by accident. Ever since, my life has meant accommodating not multiple, but conflicting universes.


Melissa Wiley won the 2019 Autumn House Press Nonfiction Contest for her book Skull Cathedral, which interweaves reflections on vestigial organs with autobiographical fragments. She is also author of the personal essay collection Antlers in Space and Other Common Phenomena (Split/Lip Press, 2017), and her work further appears in places including American Literary Review, Terrain.org, The Rumpus, Entropy, DIAGRAM, Phoebe, Waxwing, The Offing, Vol. 1 Brooklyn, and PANK.

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