"The Invention of Separate People," by Kevin Brockmeier
Once, not so long ago but before our time, all people were the same person. That’s not to say that they weren’t immersed in their own lives; they were, of course, as people always have been—millions of fish in their millions of bowls. It’s just that they were equally immersed in everyone else’s.
In those days it was possible to browse the spice aisle at the supermarket while you lay in bed reading a book, harvested lemons from an orchard, went snailing past a traffic accident on the highway, and hammered a piton into a rock face, coloring the air with that marimba-like sound of steel entering granite. Every moment contained the traces of all the others, so that even the most irresistible gust of excitement or laughter was accompanied by someone else’s rage, wistfulness, drowsiness, petulance, and fear. The best experiences were inextricably wrapped up with the worst, the happiest with the most miserable, and no one received so much as an instant of life without also dying somewhere. That was just the way things were. People were accustomed to it, never having known a world in which everyone wasn’t the same person, a big little aging athletic young lazybones who was everywhere anyone was.
Though there was love back then, or something like it, there was no privacy. Dating was effortless, and frequently inadvertent. Now and then people would find themselves spending time together in the flesh rather than apart—that’s all—and how, they might wonder, would it feel if two of their ankles brushed under the table? If two of their hands touched? If two of their bodies made love? Romances were fixed into place with an orderly tock-tock-tock, like tiles a mason was situating on a floor. And if the day came for you to settle down and marry, you would simply turn your gaze inward and sort through your galaxy of other selves until you found one beside whom you could agree to spend a lifetime.
* * *
Maybe such love wasn’t love at all. That was what one part of everyone believed. He worked as a dispatcher for a small-town hospital, and on overnight shifts, when no one’s brain or heart or shotgun went off, he would sit at his desk and let his mind wander. What would it be like if people knew as little of each other as that pen standing in his cup knew of that clock hanging on his wall? What if people could be separate, truly separate, a whole planetful of genuine individuals, completely alone inside their bodies? No one but a mystic could imagine such a thing, and even then only in wisps and snatches, but this particular part of everyone could not stop trying to make sense of the idea. He was sure that the world would seem bigger, and he himself bigger inside it, if only it had a little more mystery.
Whenever a portion of himself ruptured an artery or lay jerking for breath on the pavement, he knew it at once, and frequently, if that portion was nearby, the signal on his phone would flash and he would take down the details so that he could dispatch one of the ambulances. The long minutes as he sat rushing toward himself were horrifying. He never grew used to the feeling.
He had learned over the years that to distract himself he should concentrate on being other people, stronger ones, with bodies they could ignore if not indulge. His favorite was a woman on the opposite side of the world who worked repairing floral coolers, servicing their motors, sprayers, thermostats, and condensers. All day long she drove the city streets, from the coast up to the hills and back, maintaining her company’s machines. He was fascinated by the way she could spend a full eight hours wielding pliers, valves, and wrenches and still smell like flowers at the end of it all, a perfume she hardly detected except when she saw herself as he did. They were two small parts of everyone, the pair of them, separated by multiple oceans, and he knew that his was not a life of hers she especially noticed, yet occasionally he wondered if he did not, in fact, love her.
Sometimes he found it hard to be so tiny a fragment of other people. A molecule of her—that’s all he was. No, not even a molecule—an atom. He fantasized about introducing himself to her as a total stranger, a piece of herself she had somehow never met.
“You might like me if you got to know me,” he would say.
“Take a chance,” he would tell her.
Maybe the concept was senseless, but he kept turning it over, examining it again and again in his own poor parcel of people’s minds. Love, he thought, or at least the idea of it, needed risk, impenetrability. It suffered from too much certainty. Somewhere far away he was a little girl making a chain of paper dolls with her safety scissors, snipping them free where their hands came together—and here he was in his office, in the middle of the night, wishing he could make the same series of delicate snips in real life. Everything was connected. It was just that the strings were drawn too tight.
Read the rest of this story in Unstuck #3.