9 • SCHRÖDINGER'S CAT
The world came back to me, first in sounds. I could hear my breath, my heartbeat, the buzz of the fluorescent light bulbs, and the sound of paper being rustled as pages turned in a book. Then, the world came back to me in bright lights that muddied my view with soft green halos. Squinting caused a sharp pain in the front of my head. I shut my eyes again and tried to speak.
“Phhf…” I coughed and cringed at the pain it caused in my head. “…ugh…you sure know how to make an entrance.”
“Charlie! You’re awake! Oh my god, I’m so sorry. I thought I killed you. Are you okay?” she replied in a mix of panic and relief, a strange combination that elicited a kind of sharpness in her tone.
“I don’t know. Can you turn off the lights?”
“I tried earlier. I couldn’t find a switch. Sorry.”
“Where’s my hat?”
I heard her set whatever she was reading on the floor and stand up. She walked over to me, partially blocking the fluorescent onslaught from above, and knelt down next to me. She lifted something from my stomach that I wasn’t aware of until she removed its minuscule weight from my midsection. She took my hand by the wrist and placed the brim of the hat in my feeble fingers. I made a weak fist as I took hold of it and set it gently on my face so that it covered my eyes. There was something wrapped tightly around my head, covering the wound on my forehead. I tried to let the world back in again. My eyes opened hesitantly and were immediately met by the shadow of the hat. I was lying flat on my back. I looked down to try to take in a little more of my surroundings and my efforts were again answered with a sharp pain.
“What are you reading?” I asked, giving my eyes more time to rest.
“The book I found in the library. I was comparing the symbols in it to the ones you drew in your journal. There are seven main chakras that represent different places in the body. Each one has a unique meaning. The orange one you found in the kitchen is related to the reproductive system. The big purple one you found in the library is located on the crown of the head. And, the white one in this room is found in…” she cut herself off mid-sentence.
I still couldn’t open my eyes to see what kind of expression she was wearing. So, I simply asked, “Where?”
“…in the exact center of the forehead,” she answered in a quiet voice
“Ah. I see. Nice aim. Hope that one’s not important.”
“It’s the center of balance within the self and deals with insight and intuition.”
“Well then…no harm done. I’ve never been accused of being insightful or intuitive. I think I can get along fine without them.”
“What about balance within the self?”
“Well, considering I just had a chakra surgically removed from my forehead with a door, I’m much more concerned about balance outside the self right now.”
She laughed in a hushed little giggle and said, “How are you feeling? Really.”
“Nauseated, dizzy, heavy, and my head feels like a watermelon at a Gallagher show. It’s kind of like being drunk.”
“A what show?”
Her question made me feel old and I didn’t have the energy to explain. “Forget it.”
I gently eased the brim of my hat up, letting in the blinding white light. I slowly opened my eyes, muscling through the pain it aroused in my head, and the room began to take shape. I could make out her figure against the light. She was kneeling beside me, perched forward on her knees. I reached an arm back and propped myself up on my elbows. I must have made a distressing noise of some kind, because she leapt forward to help me up.
“Easy. Easy Charlie. Take it slow.”
“What’s wrapped around my head?” I asked as an excuse to rest a moment before trying to sit up fully.
“I folded the sleeve of my shirt over the broken skin on your forehead and tied it in place with my stockings.”
She pulled down the right side of her jacket, revealing her bare shoulder where the sleeve of the white blouse had been.
“You’re a regular MacGyver,” I said without realizing that I was dating myself yet again. “He was a…”
“I know who MacGyver is,” she blurted out in protest of my explanation. “My mom loved that show.”
“Ah. A woman of taste,” I said in a tone that was both honest and sarcastic. After all, it was a stupid show, but a true guilty pleasure.
She took hold of my shoulders and helped me sit up all the way. The change in orientation caused the taste of vomit to rise in my throat. I swallowed hard and took a deep breath. I looked up and, finally, was able to make out her face in the light. Her eyebrows were slanted in concern and her mouth was slightly open as if in preparation to say something. I spoke first.
“Why’d you come up here anyway?”
“I found a room that might interest you. It has the same flower symbol as the library. The purple one with lots of petals.”
“What? Another library?”
“No. It’s full of TV screens and control panels. Like a security office or something.”
“A camera room? Where are the cameras?”
“All over the house. I saw all of the rooms that you’ve been in, plus some that I’ve never seen before. I think a few of the monitors might be broken, though.”
I reached my hand up and gestured for her to help me. She steadied herself, took me by the forearm, and pulled with all her weight. I pushed myself off the floor and let her do the rest. I came to my feet with locked knees and almost plunged forward back to the floor. She caught me in a hug and grunted under the strain of my weight. I was stiff. I held myself up on her shoulders and hazarded a few tentative steps. My legs were locked straight and I balanced myself on uneasy heels. I must’ve looked like Boris Karloff playing Frankenstein. Finally, my body began to relax and control slowly returned to me.
“You okay?” she asked, still holding me steady.
I nodded in response.
“Let’s go,” she said, pulling me toward the door.
She was here. I had seen her just before I blacked out. I didn’t know how it had happened, but she was really here. She touched me. I felt her hand on my cheek. It was like she had emerged from my memory and taken form right in front of me. It was real. It had to be.
“Sarah! Where is she?” I asked desperately.
“The woman that was here just before I passed out. Where did she go?”
Her expression became sympathetic. “We’re the only ones here.”
“I…I saw her! She was here!”
“Why don’t you just sit back down for a minute.”
“No!” I shouted, snatching my arm away from her. “She was here, goddammit!”
I lost my balance and, despite her best effort to catch me, collapsed to my hands and knees. I wasn’t sure what had set me off, but tears began to pour from the corners of my eyes and down my cheeks like I had sprung a leak. She was gone. Had she even been here? My gasps turned into wails and I gave in, letting myself crumble right there on the floor. My companion knelt down and pulled me close. I could feel myself trembling against her body. I couldn’t stop.
“It’s okay. It’s okay,” she repeated herself softly. She was obviously at a loss as how to comfort me. And, who could blame her. Even I didn’t really understand what had happened.
“What did I do?” I muttered between howls.
She squeezed me tighter just as Sarah had done when we were standing embraced in the kitchen imagining our future together. Why did I leave? Why couldn’t I remember? It was the house. The house wanted to make me into someone else. Suddenly, the crushing despair turned to overwhelming rage and I pushed her away, standing up on trembling legs. I wanted to mangle the house. I looked around the room for something with which to arm myself, but the room was empty. The only thing amid the blinding whiteness was the clock and the two of us. I clenched my fists in frustration and my limbs became frantic. My arms flew about in the air, desperate for something to assault. The only thing I could destroy was myself. The house had designed a new me with these clothes. The suit, the hat, the shoes, and the watch were all part of a bigger picture and I wanted nothing to do with it.
I cocked my head back and screamed like an animal. Still howling, I ripped the hat from my head and threw it toward the face of the clock. Its weight was too little to carry it to the intended target and it flopped on the white floor a few feet in front of me. Next, I stepped on the heels of my shoes respectively and kicked them across the room. I loosened the knot of my tie and pulled it over my head, flipping up the collar of my shirt. I dropped it to the floor next to me and grabbed the cuff of my jacket, jerking my arm from the sleeve and whipping it around until it flew from my other arm. It fell to the floor in a mess with one sleeve inside out. Finally, I came to something that I could ruin. I grabbed the collar of my shirt with both hands and ripped it open, sending buttons flying in every direction. I pulled the bottom of my shirt from my pants and flicked it behind me haphazardly. I paused for a minute, breathing heavily and hunched in readiness to continue my bizarre self-destruction. I grabbed my belt and pulled it loose, whipping it from the loops on my pants. Two of the loops broke as I pulled the belt up and away from me like a lasso. I wound up my arm overhead and hurled it with all my strength. The metal buckle made an ear-shattering clack as it made contact with the hard surface of the wall and collapsed to the floor in a heap.
I paused again and looked down at her. She was still sitting on the floor where I had pushed her away, but she had scooted herself away from the vicinity of my anger-induced striptease. Her expression was somewhere between caution and confusion. She was looking up at me with her big hazel eyes, waiting for the all clear. If I continued, I would be going beyond the boundaries of our association. As my social sensibilities returned to me, the tantrum released my limbs from its grip. I looked down at myself and then at the wreckage of clothes around me. I was embarrassed. Standing there in only my blue slacks and white undershirt, my face turned red. The sensible part of me thought it would be best to just ignore the last two minutes and move on.
“So, where exactly is this security room?” I asked, attempting to sound nonchalant while still catching my breath.
She gave a huff of disbelief through her nose and smiled hesitantly, “it’s just down the hall.”
“Well, let’s get going.”
I reached my hand down to help her to her feet. She still seemed slightly on edge as she took my hand and stood up. A rush of dizziness struck my head as I attempted to pull her to her feet, as if I was using the last morsel of strength in my body after the sudden exertion. I stumbled back as she rose and she caught me, steadying me against her shoulder. Without a word she ushered me toward the door and we left the room and the ruins of my persona behind. We stepped in to the hallway and I waited for her to lead the way. We turned left and walked down the right side of the hallway. She stopped in front of one of the identical doors, two down from the clock room. She slowly pushed the door open and waited for me to enter. The room was dimly lit by the flickering TV screens that filled the control station against the right interior wall. It was a small room and seemed even smaller and darker after being in the clock room. There were two rolling office chairs in front of the control panel. The back wall and the left wall were both lined with metal filing cabinets that were stacked high. I sat down in one of the office chairs and looked at the monitors. The pale light from the screens in contrast with the darkness of the room hurt my eyes and my head. In my rage, I had almost forgotten that I was now nursing a moderate head wound. Lucky me. I tried to keep my eyes open and allow them to adjust. She came in and sat in the adjacent chair.
The top-left screen showed only static and snow. The label underneath it bore only a purple circle on a white background. I skimmed the labels under the other monitors. A white upside down triangle inside a circle, a light blue circle inside an upside down triangle, two green triangles forming a six-pointed star inside a circle, a yellow upside down triangle inside a circle, three orange concentric circles, and a red upside down triangle inside a square and a circle respectively. Some of the labels were blank or missing. I was growing accustomed to being confused. I dared not even to speculate on the meaning of the labels.
I looked at the controls laid out on the console in front of me. The surface was filled with lights, knobs, buttons, faders, and switches. It reminded me of a large mixing console in a music studio. I preferred the image of a music studio to the dark voyeuristic playground in which I found myself. There was a set of monitor headphones hanging from a hook on the wall over the console.
I looked over the various screens. The kitchen, the library, the clock room, hallways, all the rooms I had visited were being observed. There were images of rooms I hadn’t yet seen. One monitor showed our own silhouettes against the light of the TV screens from behind. I instinctively raised my arm and waived it around in the air, watching from the monitor, as if I was worried that it wasn’t really me. With my childlike curiosity satisfied, I browsed the other unfamiliar images. There was a workout room with free weights, machines, and punching bags and a tumbling mat. There was an elegant-looking study with a fireplace, reading chairs, a large desk, bookshelves, and what looked like an old free-standing two-sided blackboard. It was the kind of room in which I imagined lonely European philosophers would read quietly by firelight and furiously scribble epiphanies while pacing and arguing with themselves night after night. It looked cozy. It was the kind of room in which a coffee drinker would suddenly take a liking to tea, just for the imagery. The adjacent monitor displayed a room that looked like another library, only much smaller. It was full of various kinds of stereo equipment and speakers. From what I could make out of the pixilated picture on the screen, there were several sizes of record players, a cassette deck, a CD player, a phonograph, and several other unidentifiable items. I wondered if there was an 8-track deck in the room as well. There was nothing quite like the sound of quadraphonic analog. The thought made me snicker out loud. She was either too preoccupied to hear it or she was simply ignoring my mounting eccentricities. At this point, either was fine with me.
One of the screens was nearly impossible to make out. It was an incredibly small room in which the walls intruded at various jagged angles. It looked like a carpenter’s worst nightmare. As far as I could tell, it was just an empty geometrically confused room. There was something strange about the shine of the interior. The oddly shaped walls looked as if they were made of glass.
Another of the monitors was too dark to make out. It wasn’t blank. It was definitely showing something, but it was too dimly lit to get any sense of the size, shape, or contents of the room. There was also a hallway I didn’t recognize on one of the screens. The tint of the screen was a pale blue like a night vision setting on a camcorder. The hallway contained no doors and seemed to stretch out as far as the camera could see.
The screens were all numbered and had corresponding lighted buttons on the control console. A ragged sticker above the grouping of buttons bore, in faded letters, the words, “Push to select channel.” The sticker was peeled in one corner and curled in on itself. I scoured the face of the panel for a brand name or model number, but there was nothing on the console to identify it. I pushed the numbered buttons in sequence, watching each one light up when depressed. A static popping sound accompanied each push of the button, alerting me to the pair of speakers I had previously overlooked. They were small and built into the far sides of the console. Aside from the crackling of the changing channels, no recognizable sound came out of the speakers. I continued pushing the buttons in order. I gave a sigh of disappointment as I neared the last button in the sequence.
“Please come back to me. Please come back to me. Please come back to me…”
My hand froze, hovering above the buttons on the console. The woman’s voice was quiet and distant. She repeated herself over and over again, speaking in barely more than a whisper, as if to herself. The small speakers gave no context or character to the voice. I frantically scanned the control surface for a volume fader, worried that the woman would stop talking before I could figure out where she was. I froze again. Just short of smacking myself in the forehead, I let out a breathy grunt in recognition of my stupidity and lifted my hand to look at the number on the illuminated button, “13.” I looked up at the corresponding TV screen, but it was blank. It was one of the monitors I had assumed was off or broken. I flipped the switch above it a few times just in case I was overlooking the obvious. The screen remained blank. The label underneath the screen didn’t match the others. It wasn’t made up of simple shapes and colors. The label bore a Chinese character that I hadn’t seen anywhere else in the house yet. I resumed my search for a volume control and hazarded a few random button pushes, hoping for the best. Finally, I noticed an obvious fader labeled “Volume” immediately adjacent to the group of buttons I had been pushing. I reached over to push it up before realizing that my companion was already retracting her hand from doing just that. She leaned forward toward the speaker on her side of the console. I did the same on my side. The woman continued.
“Please come back to me. Please come back to me. Please come back to me…”
The increase in volume did little to improve the audibility of the voice. We both strained to make out something identifiable. The sound became more distant and then stopped suddenly. The rustling sound of coarse cloth or paper followed and then the speakers fell silent. We maintained our forward postures for a while after the voice stopped, hoping it would resume. Finally she leaned back in her chair and sighed deeply.
“Goddammit!” I shouted, my voice dying quickly in the small room.
I pushed the “14” button and then the “13” button again, hoping to uncover some sort of glitch that would restore the voice. I repeated the process a few times before giving up and moving on through the rest of the numbers. I waited between channels to make sure that I wasn’t missing anything.
“Hey…” she said, interrupting my sequence of buttons.
“Are we going to talk about what happened back there in the clock room?”
“Okay. Just checking,” her voice had that childlike quality of innocence in it.
I shifted my attention back to the control console, pushing buttons, turning knobs, and moving faders. I wasn’t coming any closer to understanding the operations of it, but I continued probing. I looked up at one of the monitors that I hadn’t noticed before. It displayed a still frame image of Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks. Almost immediately, it was obvious that there was something wrong with the painting on the screen. The man that was usually sitting next to the woman in the red dress at the far end of the counter was missing completely. He hadn’t been painted over or damaged or faded by time. He simply wasn’t there. The space that he had occupied was filled in with the background that he must have normally obscured. It was as if he had simply stood up and walked out of the diner.
I could feel her eyes on me the whole time. She was silently pressing her question. Her stare revealed her dissatisfaction with my answer and repeated the inquiry again and again without a single word. I could see it in my periphery and it quickly became too much to bear.
I let out a frustrated growl and said, “okay. Okay. Look…I’m not entirely sure what set me off back there, but I needed to get that out of me. I had been holding everything in and it finally exploded.”
“And your new minimalist fashion sense?”
“I wanted to destroy something.”
“Myself. The house’s version of me, anyway.”
“Do you feel better?”
“I have to tell you something.”
“After you blacked out the clock moved again.”
“What? I didn’t even notice. What does it say now?”
“The same. It didn’t move enough to change the time. What do you think it means?”
“I don’t know. Has it ever happened to you?”
“No. But the clock only stopped when you showed up. And, I’ve never used the room for meditation or whatever it was you were doing,” her voice held a hint of mocking, which I decided to ignore.
She reached over and placed a hand on my knee. I pretended not to notice as I turned back to the monitors. The warmth of her hand seemed to bring me back to life momentarily. The head wound had made me feel cold all over. I allowed myself to relax and I browsed the labels again. I recognized the assortment of colors. I reached over to her side of the console where she had set the book about Chakras and flipped it open on my lap. I skimmed through the pages, looking for the flower symbols that had become so familiar. I found each one and matched it with the colors on the labels. They were the same.
“Does your friend mention these Chakras anywhere else in the books in the library?”
“Yes. My friend does,” she said, emphasizing the word “friend” even more than I had. She was obviously annoyed. “They’re the whole reason we went to Japan together. It’s in the book you were reading before you came up here.”
“Okay. And what do you make of Nighthawks minus one?” I asked, pointing to the monitor displaying the altered Edward Hopper painting.
“I don’t know. You know as much as I do. The association of the couple in the painting with the ideal mother and father. In the painting, they’re still together and they always will be. It has something to do with the father’s absence, obviously. The real question is why it’s on a security monitor in this house.”
I nodded and stood up. The head rush caused a deep throbbing pain in my forehead and I steadied myself on the control console. It took longer than usual for me to regain my balance. She rushed to help me, grabbing my arm in case I fell.
“I’m okay. The pain doesn’t feel real. It hurts, but it seems distant somehow, like it’s someone else’s pain happening somewhere else,” I spoke softly and noticed that she was arching her eyebrows in obvious confusion. “That doesn’t really make any sense does it? Sorry. It’s just…this house is like something from a dream. I keep feeling like I’m going to wake up, but I never do. There’s something bigger at work here, a network of causes and effects that have led us here with some purpose in mind. The purpose is something known, something familiar but overlooked, like a B-list character actor. And now, we’re stuck.”
“I think that head wound is worse than we thought.”
“I’m serious,” I protested. “It’s like we’re simultaneously caught between alternate outcomes and we can’t move forward until one of the outcomes is realized. Have you ever heard of Schrödinger's cat?”
She looked at me blankly and shook her head.
“Schrödinger was a physicist who proposed an important thought experiment to illustrate the details of wave-particle duality.” Her expression was unchanged. “He asked his colleagues to imagine a box with a flask of poison inside. The details aren’t important and there are a lot of different interpretations, but the poison will be released based on some kind of random variable. The question is when will it be released? Schrödinger then places his cat in the box. If the poison is released, the cat will die. Until the box is opened and the state of the cat is physically observed, the cat can be thought of as both dead and alive. And that’s where you and I are, caught between outcomes. Do you understand?”
“That’s sick. What kind of twisted bastard would kill his cat for a science project? I never knew physics was so creepy.”
“It’s a thought experiment. He didn’t actually put his cat in the box.”
“Why does it have to be a cat? Why not a snake or a roach or something?”
“Because, Schrödinger had a pet cat. It’s irrelevant anyway. You could put a baby in the box if you wanted. It’s not a real box. Look, do you get it or not?”
“I think so, but it’s really just a question of terminology isn’t it? I mean, the cat can’t be both dead and alive.”
I sighed and tried again. “Until the outcome is physically observed, the cat is both dead and alive. We’re not familiar with the idea, because we’re using language to express the quantum behavior of particles that is usually described in math. The cat really is both dead and alive. And, we are caught in the same kind of obscure state, only we don’t know what the alternatives are. That’s how being in this house feels to me, like we are trapped between who we are, who we were, and who we might become. But, since we can’t observe what’s going on independently, we can be thought of as being all three people at once or nobody at all.”
“But, we’re still the same people. Even, if we change from time to time,” she interjected.
“Eventually you’ll realize, like I did, that a single life is made up of lots of little ones. When you look back on the ones you’ve already lived, they seem foreign. They’re like movies you watched as a kid or bedtime stories your mother read to you. They feel like the lives of other people. Then, the reality hits you. They are the lives of other people, because that person is gone. That’s not who you are anymore. That part of you has run its course.”
“I don’t believe that,” she said sternly, as if trying to convince herself.
“You probably already have different lives and don’t realize it. I’d wager that you’re a different person when you’re among different groups of people, co-workers, family, friends, strangers, peers, subordinates, superiors, Americans, foreigners, people you want something from, people you want to avoid, and even when you’re alone.”
“That’s not the same thing. That’s just human nature.”
“It’s how you see yourself. It’s how you want to be seen. Whether or not you literally become another person is irrelevant. It’s just a question of metaphysics, but don’t get caught up in that. Philosophy is all bullshit anyway. Our lives are what we make of them. In the same regard, we make ourselves. It’s more than just behaving differently. It’s having different opinions, different convictions, different tastes, different pasts, different lies, different truths, and different outcomes. Sometimes, people even have different names. What is it that makes us who we are? Our past? Admit it, you’ve altered your past in order to create a specific image for yourself. You create someone you want to be. Once you’ve rewritten your history, you can’t go back on it. The alternate life grows and grows until it consumes you and you become the person you created. It’s not a lie, it’s just a different version. Truth is not an absolute. You tell the story again and again until, eventually you come to believe it yourself. We all do it and each time we do it, we get a little closer to who we want to become. We learn something with each life that we live, telling ourselves that the next one will be perfect. But…it never is. It’s life. If it was perfect, it wouldn’t be any fun. Perfection is too predictable, too safe, too boring,” I stopped to catch my breath. “Whatever this is, it’s not real. It’s like we’re being forced to relive bits and pieces of someone else’s past in this house. I want to know why. And, I need to know who.”
She was stunned, standing in complete silence and staring off into nothing. She looked deep in thought and, instead of interrupting her, I decided to just leave her be. I cradled the book between my arm and my chest and slipped past her as I shuffled out of the small room. As I walked through the open doorway, I checked the handle on the inside. I was surprised to see a knob instead of the same industrial steel handle that was on the outside of the door. I was even more surprised to see the same Chinese character that I had found on the label under the broken monitor. I had another entry to make in my journal. I haphazardly sketched the outline of the character on a new page entitled “security room” and knelt down to look for the flower symbol on the threshold. As reported by my companion, it was the same as the one in the library. Instead of trying to sketch it again, I simply wrote, “same as library” and shoved the journal back into my pocket. Still somewhat dizzy from my encounter with the door, I clumsily staggered down the hallway.
“Wait,” she called out.
I stopped and turned around as she approached me with her hands pressed together in a tight ball in front of her.
“Where are you going?” she asked, looking into my eyes.
“To the library.”
“I’m coming too.”
She reached out and took my hand, squeezing it slightly in a gesture of what I assumed was affection, though it could have been fear. I gave her a smile and we walked back down the hallway toward the stairwell. I was determined to uncover something new in the library. I had no idea where this unprecedented optimism was coming from, but I decided to just go with it. Our steps echoed loudly in the dull empty hallway. It sounded like the march of soldiers on their way to an uncertain conflict. No. We marched the tired clumsy march of soldiers returning from war. With a bloody hole in my forehead, I certainly felt like I had been in one. I decided to just go with it.
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