August 21st was the exact day I realized I was in an alternate universe. Not an exaggerated alternate universe, but a subtle and unnerving one. The most terrifying alternate universes will look like your world, but they will feel off, and you’ll never be able to fully articulate what is wrong because everything is a little bit wrong. It’s like trying to explain why Adrien Brody is unattractive— he seems right, but everything is just slightly off.
It’s what makes an alternate universe more frightening than hell. Hell has order. Dante’s hell has clear levels of increasing intensity, like a video game or a contest to see who can eat the hottest buffalo wings at a Tallahassee state fair. There are ironic punishments for specific sins. Hell has a gate and a sign (“Abandon all hope, ye who enter here”). If you are in hell, you know you are in hell, and you know why you are in hell, and there’s at least a small feeling of calm that must come with that type of structure. My vision of hell isn’t that much worse than high school— I will be surrounded by people I dislike, and I will be forced to engage with torturous activities, but at least there is a schedule, so I know when lunch is. The scariest hell is one where you don’t know if you are really there or not. You missed the gate, there is no orientation, you just hurt— but everything looks the same to you.
When I was younger, my dad told me about seeing the movie “Silence of the Lambs” in the theater, and how it was one of the scariest movies he’d ever seen. I was pretty proud when I saw it (full disclosure: I almost certainly saw a highly edited version that was tame enough to be shown on mid-evening cable television) and wasn’t afraid. It was a movie. I had seen movies before. It had a story and a musical score and an internal logic. You knew when Lecter was going to spring himself free, and you knew when Clarice found Buffalo Bill, you knew when something unpleasant was brewing because it was a movie. I wasn’t afraid of movies. And, later that week, I took that newly discovered complete lack of fear and watched “Eraserhead”— which made me throw up and gave me eighteen years (and counting) of nightmares. That’s because “Eraserhead” isn’t a movie. “Eraserhead” is what happens when cinema decides it hates you and wants you dead. “Eraserhead” is a movie the same way strychnine is a seasoning. It’s an alternate universe.
I recognized my alternate universe at 2:05 PM.
I worked for a small tutoring company in a very compact office in a strip mall. The office was sandwiched between a rib restaurant and a hot yoga studio. I tutored high school kids about to take their SATs, and the clientele was almost entirely brilliant, industrious kids aiming for Ivy League (and getting nothing from the company’s overly simplified workbooks and strategies). The place was staffed by college freshmen struggling to get some experience for their school’s education curricula and elderly former high school teachers tiptoeing out of retirement for something to do. I was the one employee in the middle of those two camps: in my earliest thirties, plenty of experience, nowhere near retiring. The young college kids left me alone most of the time. The retirees would talk about baseball, or how the SAT has changed since their day, or politics and President Trump’s battle of wits and words with North Korea (a popular topic among the retired history teachers, of which there were several).
It was a fine enough place to work. The students were impressive, the staff was friendly, the building constantly smelled of barbecue. But, I had only taken the job to make extra money after my wife left me, and walking into the building always felt like a failure.
When Lisa left me, there were hundreds of things that had to be done, each of which came with that same twinge of failure. I had to redecorate to cover up the hideous empty spaces on top of bookshelves where she had taken the photos of herself (or to replace the photos of the two of us that she had left behind). I had to take inventory of the books and DVDs that left with her, hesitant to replace them because I believed she would come back. But most things I couldn’t do— and still can’t. My car trunk is filled to the brim with photos and keepsakes from our wedding (things I can’t have inside but will never throw away). I can’t take off our wedding ring and haven’t in the seventeen months since she’s been gone. I still pay for her car insurance from a bank account that still has her name (though she doesn’t use it anymore)— a fact that will be scarier to my dad than “Silence of the Lambs.” But the worst was getting an extra job to make-up for not having her income anymore. Pulling my car into that strip mall parking lot feels like a failure. I failed at the one thing I tried my hardest to be great at—being a husband. I failed at it despite my hardest efforts, and now I’m in this strip mall where I teach kids to pass a test. An ironic punishment for a specific sin. Dante would be pleased.
It was August 21st at 2:05 PM. I walked out to the expansive paved parking lot, and there were dozens of groups of people all staring and pointing to the sky. Most of these bystanders were dressed in their yoga clothing and carrying their rolled-up mats. Some were standing next to their cars, some were sitting on the small patches of grass that freckled the big parking lot. Everyone wore sunglasses or looked through what looked like makeshift cardboard kaleidoscopes. As I looked over the scattered groupings, my brain put together all the pieces of this alternate universe.
We were under attack by North Korea. Our president (a former reality show host and conspiracy theorist who brags about sexual harassment and defends Nazis) had goaded the unhinged despotic leader of North Korea, who had been threatening to nuke Guam or attack the United States with weapons that could reach New York, into an air attack. People poured out of their hot yoga class (or their Panera bread lunches or their trip to the Verizon store) and gathered in this strip mall parking lot to watch the attack through miniature portable kaleidoscopes. I had stepped out at the end of my tutoring session with a student who comfortably knew everything I was asked to explain to her for the past two hours. My manager was a college junior, and I was training a new hire who was forty-seven years older than me. The air smelled like barbecue. My wife had left me exactly 366 days ago, and now the world was ending. Everything was a little bit wrong. Was Adrien Brody attractive? Nothing in the universe made any sense. Lasciate ogne speranza, voi ch’entrate.
Near my car, I spotted a woman in bike shorts looking through a playing card with a pinhole, and I understood the crowd was just looking at a solar eclipse. The world wasn’t ending. I squinted at the sky making my eyelids the thinnest slits I could make them. The sky was clear, but maybe a bit dim. I know you’re not supposed to look anywhere near the sun with unprotected eyes, and I felt stupid the second I craned my neck upwards. I instantly looked back down at the pavement.
“Here,” said the woman handing me her playing card. I put my eye to the pinhole. The sun looked mostly normal— maybe slightly off. I couldn’t tell. Nothing about it seemed explicitly wrong, but everything felt at least a little wrong these days. It was all slightly off. The whole world felt off. In every way. At the very least, my life was off in the most important way— I was about to drive home to my apartment, and my wife wouldn’t be there. She hadn’t been there in a year.
Alternate realities are scarier than hell.