Short Story: Fifty-Nine Times but One by Aditya Gautam
Now we’re walking on this empty street and you tell me how we’re very much the same, how much our thoughts and choices match.
‘It has been just a month since I met you,’ you say, ‘and already I feel like I’ve known you for years.’
You said that on this same night five years ago and I laughed out loud then. I told you what a cheesy sentimentalist you are.
You looked straight into my eyes and said quietly, ‘You feel like home.’
Maybe that was the moment you sealed our fates together; I put a stamp on that seal when I kissed you in the next moment. Now I just nod and tell you that I feel the same way. I wish you would not say such things tonight. It will make what I am going to do so much more difficult.
This is one of the rare times when I have come back into a reality I have already been to, except for a few details of course; no two realities can ever be exactly the same. In a way, I am happy to be here – this is the reality, or dimension, whatever you may call it, where we first met.
I turn around once to look back at the softly lit café we have come from. You were eating tiramisu and I was sitting with a glass of wine in my hand. I sipped between your pauses and watched you, trying to learn every single line and every single movement of your face. The way you pick the tiniest morsels in every spoon so that it will last longer, the way you keep the cake in your mouth a moment longer than anyone else I know, so that the taste may fade away slower.
I replied without thought, almost mechanically: it is the same conversation we had five years ago, at the same table.
You have long, brown hair in this reality and I am still not used to it. Where I was up until a month ago, you had blue spiky hair and I had nicknamed you Pixie. That was a good month. At least until the last day when we were in your apartment and the curtains caught fire.
My guts clench as I remember the last words you always say to me: ‘Until the next time, my love.’
Why do you always say that? It isn’t as if you know how true it is…
There is only one street lamp on this stretch of the road and the shadows of trees look like cobwebs around our feet. In one of the houses by the roadside somebody is playing an old song by Kishor Kumar.
Mere mehboob qayamat hogi, aaj ruswa teri galiyon mein mohabbat hogi…
My darling, there will be apocalypse today, love will be disgraced in your street…
You pick up the tune and begin to hum. Everything fits together, eventually.
I know it better than most people, but sometimes it still surprises me. I wonder if this song was playing here five years ago also. You slip your hand through mine, our fingers entwine. I look at you and you smile up at me, your silver earring sways and I realize that if there’s magic anywhere on this earth it is right here in the space between us. Left to right and right to left… I watch hypnotized.
Last month in the other universe, when the firemen reached your burning apartment, there was room only for one on their crane. You jumped up ahead of me and clutching the fireman, said sadly, ‘Until the next time, my love.’
Did you know you were leaving me to die? Or did you really think I would have a chance till the fireman made his second trip? I don’t think in your panic you even remembered that I was there. Your instinct for survival is so much stronger than our love, and I can’t really blame you; for you, it’s the love of a month, every time.
You tug at my elbow lightly. ‘Where are you lost today, love?’
We have about ten-fifteen minutes before everything ends once and for all: no cheating this time, no reality-hopping.
‘Oh… nothing. Just some problem at work,’ I reply in a small voice. Memories are too heavy on my heart today.
Last month you found me a job at the hospital and told me that if I went at it well for a year I would definitely get a promotion.
I laughed. ‘How about after one month?’
You frowned a bit and asked me whatever did I mean by that. I told you it was just a stupid joke.
My hand is at the small of your back, just the way you like it and we are walking on this almost dark street to my definitely darker conclusion. But then, maybe I was a fool to hope for any other kind of conclusion.
In our fifth reality together, you told me how our lives are much shorter than we think. You said that our lives are only the moments when we are happy, the rest that happens is just space-filler. You were quite philosophical in that reality, and now I see how right you were. All I remember of my life with absolute clarity are the five years I’ve been with you; the rest is faded into a grey nothingness, to be the ‘space-filler’.
I wonder what would happen if I stopped us right here, if we never went around the corner on the next street. Maybe I will tell you all about the last five years, about the fifty-nine months we have been together and about the fifty-nine times I have had to run from one reality to another. Will you believe me if I told you the story of a man who did not want to give up on a girl who’s fated to be with him for just one month, who is always fated to betray him in the end?
Maybe just as a joke I could tell you about our twelfth reality together in which India was still ruled by the East India Company and you literally left me alone with a death sentence. Or, the thirty-seventh one in which for some reason there was a law against listening to music. You decided you wanted to celebrate our one month anniversary by listening to the Smiths.
Take me out tonight… Where there’s people, there’s music, there’s light…
We were arrested, and the month ended the way it always does.
Of course you’d think I am insane. Sometimes I have thought that too.
When we go around the corner two men will approach us. One of them will be wearing a grey hoodie with tomato ketchup stains on the left side and faded brown trousers, the other one a shirt of some indeterminate colour and light blue jeans. The Hoodie will have a small knife in his hand, the only shiny thing in the entire alley, and he’ll ask us for money. Fifty-nine realities ago you ran away the moment you saw the knife. The Hoodie panicked and stabbed me. Once, twice, thrice.
I don’t think I could bring myself to kill them even if I thought it would make a difference. And I know it will not make a difference. We’ll still end up doing in this reality what we have always done in others: I will fall and you will fly, you will run and I will die. The only difference is that I will not save myself this time.
‘—and the patient just wouldn’t tell us how he got all his toenails missing without any other injury–,’ Reminded me of you, actually. You are telling me some story from work and I try to listen because I know I am not going to get another chance at listening to this voice that I love more than any other.
In this reality you are a nurse. In the last one you were a doctor and in the one before that you were a supplies clerk in a hospital. There’s something with you and hospitals, I don’t know what. Those are always the first places where I look for you when I hop over into a new version of reality. Sometimes it takes just an hour, sometimes a day, sometimes a week or two, but in fifty-nine I have managed to find you all fifty-nine times.
It’s like we are two opposite poles of the same magnet scattered across infinite realities and no matter where I come from and where I am going, you are always there waiting for me. This time it was easier than ever because I crashed through the window of your hospital — I had been jumping from a burning building in the reality I left behind. I remember the way you looked at me, with concern but no recognition, and I knew I should be angry at you. But like always, I smiled at you weakly and thanked whatever it is in the universe — or rather, multiverse — that always brings us together.
We have about five minutes now before we will turn around the corner.
The night air is cold and fresh. Exactly the way you like it.
When it happened for the first time on this road five years ago, and you ran away scared while the two men were stabbing me, I wasn’t angry at you. I wasn’t even disappointed. With the last of my breath I moved from one reality to another. It was the first time I had done it since I was fifteen. But I wanted to see you again so very badly.
In the second reality, I remember, I had given up hope of ever seeing you again after a week of unsuccessful scrounging through the streets of Green Park — the same streets we’re walking now — but then one day I walked into a chemist shop at the other end of Delhi and there you were, asking me how many paracetamols I wanted.
In that reality I first learned how much you like pastries, and you told me that I should start wearing a leather jacket instead of my old-fashioned sweaters. We were so happy then.
It was summer and Delhi was hot as hell. You had known me for just two weeks but you still agreed to come with me to Manali, my hometown. We were rafting in the Beas River at the end of our second ‘first’ month when the raft sprung a leak. There was only one inflated ring in the raft and you looked at me confused for a second before you grabbed it and swam away.
Before you jumped out of the boat, I heard you whisper, ‘Until the next time, my love.’
We have turned around the corner now. I can see the silhouette of the two men and I feel your body tense up next to me. I wish I could change fate, but I cannot. No matter how many realities I change, fate will always push back and manage to reassert itself.
‘Should we go back?’ you ask in a whisper.
‘No, it’s alright’.
Go back where exactly, darling? Haven’t I tried going back fifty-nine times already? You see, I love you more than my own self, but I’m tired and weak now. So I am going to end this twisted game once and for all. No more of our month-long, years-long love story.
The men cross the road to approach us.
‘Your money, mobiles and watches,’ the Hoodie says and takes out his knife. I don’t think he was this laconic in our first reality together.
You turn to me with a glance of panic, fear and confusion. You look like an infant who has just been dropped into hell without a chance at earth. Your neck turns back a little, an imperceptible gesture to anyone but me.
And then based on instinct and whim I do something I’ve never done before – I clasp your hand.
‘Don’t leave.’ It might be useless, but I’m putting down all my cards on the table now.
‘Hey! Do it fast, you,’ the second guy shouts at me.
Against all of my understanding and assumptions you look at me once and nod seriously.
The two men must have been genuinely surprised at how cooperative we were because they keep glancing back at us when they go. I cannot say I blame them. I must be the first person who is giddy because of being successfully robbed.
It has been twenty minutes since we left that street; we are now at your apartment and you are still sobbing into my shoulder – the same apartment that I saw burning down so recently.
‘There’s nothing to be afraid of, dearest, it’s all over,’ I whisper in your ear.
‘No… no I am not afraid. It’s not that…’
‘What is it then?’
Is this a new kind of end? Are you going to leave now after we have been through all that?
You look up at me through eyelashes wet with tears. ‘I thought about running away from there, leaving you alone with those men…’
I laugh out loud with relief. You are worried about the thought of it.
‘I know,’ I tell you and I draw you into the hollow of my chest once more.
It is midnight when you finally go inside the house and just as I am about to leave, you open the door and with your head peeking out, you say your line that is etched out in all realities, ‘Until the next time, my love.’
I wave my hand at you in agreement.
Fate is not as inflexible as I thought. Maybe it requires persistence, maybe something else, but whatever that may be I am happy I have paid my dues. Maybe the ‘reality-hopper’ had to complete a full cycle of realities in order to find happiness. Maybe — that’s what all our games of probability revolve around — and honestly, I don’t know a more forgiving word.
I walk away breathing out fog into the cold night. The first night of our second month.
Aditya Gautam writes, dreams, reads and dream-writes. Not essentially in that order, though. He is 23 years old and is pursuing post graduate diploma in English Journalism from Indian Institute of Mass Communication in Mizoram, India. He spends his time also in choosing confusedly between mountain cities and metropolises. He finances his writing through his fast-dwindling savings (centuries ago, he used to be a software engineer in Bangalore), by begging his family for pennies, and sometimes by staring at his wallet unblinkingly for a few hours straight.
At the moment, he is working on his first novel and being a egoist of the highest order he hopes to strike at the motor of his society with that novel, and thus of becoming a real-life John Galt.