Best of All Possible Worlds
I was repairing the coffee maker when my husband, Lewis, summoned me to his lab. I’m not mechanically inclined, so repairing meant banging it with a spoon. Tapping wasn’t helping. I was about to give it a good whack when I heard Lewis beckoning over the intercom.
“Maddie, could you come down please? There’s something I’d like to show you.”
Down in his lab Lewis, dressed in a crisp white lab coat, is standing in front of a gizmo. Lewis is always standing in front of gizmos dressed in crisp white lab coats. It’s his thing. Lewis is an inventor. This invention looks like a door-sized flat screen TV. Lewis is beaming.
“What would you say if I told you we are steps away from a better life?” he asks.
Lewis gestures with a remote. The gizmo throbs; it disappears. Only it doesn’t. There is a rippling along its seams, like a heat haze, a highway mirage. Lewis motions for me to take a closer look.
The center of the screen is a perfect reproduction of his lab, like a trompe l’œil painting, only things are moving inside, the oscillating fan on his workbench, his scribbles fluttering from the breeze, tamped under the Beam Me Up, Scotty mug I bought him in San Diego when the Sheraton double-booked the annual Society for Cinema Studies meeting alongside a Star Trek convention and all us film nerds joked it was the only time we weren’t the biggest losers in the building.
Lewis explains his device. “Every time we speculate about what could be we are describing a possible world. Possibly, I could be a concert violinist. Possibly, you could finish your thesis. Possibly Pigs could fly, hell could freeze. If these statements are true, there must be possible worlds where Lewis performs, Maddie defends, pigs fly, hell freezes.”
Inwardly, I roll my eyes. Possible worlds. Right. Got it.
I’m skeptical, too, about my thesis, but I know better than to interject. Lewis has thin skin when it comes to his inventions.
“Does it not stand to reason, dear Maddie, that there must be a world where we are happier? I mean, don’t get me wrong, you’re a delight, and I am too, I suppose, or you would have left me long ago. But don’t tell me I’m perfect. Don’t tell me I couldn’t be improved in some small way. Don’t tell me the thought’s never crossed your mind.” Lewis explains that he has been tinkering on a device—a doorway to possible worlds. The calculations were complex, but he has dialed up our best of all possible worlds. “What do you say? Care to take a walk?”
Lewis struts a jig, crooks his arm like a dancer in an old timey musical, like any moment stagehands will peel back the walls of his lab to reveal hand-painted skies, a paper moon, and Lewis in a gleaming satin top hat and me in a low-cut dress….
I think about Lewis’s tastes in movies.
I was in grad school when we met, puttering on a go-nowhere film studies thesis, a monograph on Yasujiro Ozu, pages clotted in jargon that should’ve been distilled into sinewy haikus. On our first date, he asked about it, and I tried to explain it, and he flashed one of those I-have-no-idea-what-you’re-talking-about smiles, and I asked him about movies, his favorites, and he said he loved movies with talking animals.
Not puppets. Not animation.
Movies with real animals, only where dubbing is used to make it look like the animals are talking. Lewis can’t get enough of them.
That’s Lewis, I think. One-dimensionally sweet-brilliant, beautiful even perhaps—a memory of us skinny-dipping, newlywed, a mountain pond blanketed in mist, loons calling to each other in the fog, Lewis tiptoeing on the shore, bracing at each step, moonlight silvering up his skin, tight across his ribs. He sees me, flashes his big loopy grin.
He is a good man. But is he hip to mono no aware? Can he spot how cracks in a clay pot or silhouettes of cherry branches on a wall at night call to mind the bittersweet transience of all things, and, in so doing, gin an even gentler wistfulness at the realization that Loss is our only constant?
Nope. Not Lewis.
I imagine a world where Lewis and I tear up while watching Ozu’s Late Spring, a world where he does not laugh quite so enthusiastically at movies full of talking dogs.
I smile. I take his hand. We dance.
Neither of us feels any different after entering our best of all possible worlds. We spend a lot of time pinching ourselves, groping our faces. Shouldn’t we feel like fuses on sticks of dynamite? Like orphans who stole warm pies off a windowsill?
Instead, I feel like me.
Then Lewis gets this look, like he’s seeing the world for the first time. “Maddie, you’re beautiful!”
I say “thanks” and smile, though it feels insincere, like, surely, I must be grinning too desperately. Thing is, I can’t tell if he means it. Does Lewis really think I’m beautiful? Or is it just the best of all worlds talking?
I try to change the subject in a best-of-all-worlds appropriate way. “Hey,” I ask, “Do you want to get gelato?”
The way I figure, you can’t go wrong with gelato. Surely, we’d eat more of it in the best of all possible worlds. Plus, imagine the flavors. Forget cioccolato all’arancia. Forget cassata. Imagine Inside-of-Your-Head-Explained gelato. Imagine Knowing-What-You-Do-Matters-In-Some-Spectacular-Way gelato.
“Maybe we could drive over to Hudson? See what flavors they have at the Milk Barn?”
“Sounds great. Let me just power down the machine, tidy up the lab.”
Upstairs, I scout around to see if there are differences between our home in this world and the one we left behind. From what I can tell, they’re identical, right down to the wooden spoon I left on the counter. It’s a gorgeous afternoon, though. No doubt about it: mulchy aromas, crocus buds thrusting up through mud. One of those early-spring days when you’re apt to notice dust spiraling lazily on sunbeams and forgive the universe for the passage of time. I throw open the windows. I let the curtains billow.
Maybe I drift off.
I recline on the sofa and close my eyes. When I open them it’s as if a great time has passed. There are goosebumps on my arms. No sign of Lewis. I decide to whip up a pot of coffee to clear out the cobwebs, but when I depress the on/off switch the machine does nothing but sputter. I wait for a drip. I wait. When I lift the lid, there is a hiss, a puff of steam that blisters my eyelashes. I give the coffeemaker a whack with the wooden spoon.
That’s when it hits me: this cannot be the best of all worlds.
I would not have to wait this long for coffee in the best of all possible worlds.
I find Lewis in his lab. He is staring into the portal, his mouth agape. He is watching us.
I don’t want to say he is watching us do you-know-what but, yes, we’re you-know-whatting on the other side, only it’s more cinematic you-know-what than we’ve ever managed in real life. It’s you-know-what that looks like it deserves a musical score full of cannon fire and soaring fanfares and guys in tuxedos hammering the bejesus out of kettle drums.
“Do you want the good news or the bad news?” Lewis asks.
The good news is we made it to a better world. That’s us on the other side, and, from what he can tell, we’re happy.
The bad news is another us had to remain behind.
“Think about it. Here, in this world, it is propositionally true that Lewis and Maddie are only more-or-less happily married. So, another Lewis and Maddie needed to pop into existence the moment the old ones migrated, to keep this reality humming smoothly, being how it happens to be one inhabited by a Lewis and a Maddie who are only kind of sort of in love.”
Lewis gives a shrug, like it’s his fault.
Part of me is jealous, of course. Who wouldn’t be? But another part of me thinks, Well, good for them. It’s like learning a sibling won the lottery or narrowly escaped being struck by lightning.
“So,” I ask, “Do you still want gelato?”
Later, we move the portal upstairs to the living room. Lugging it is a chore; it’s weightless but slippery, its edges slick with unforeseen potentials. The views change as we carry it. I catch glimpses of the other Lewis’s and Maddie’s home, which is cleaner than ours with more tasteful bric-a-brac.
We get in the habit of watching them in the evenings, best-of-all-possible Lewis and Maddie. They resolve to turn over new leaves—live more mindfully. They hire personal trainers. Eat more greens. Savor each bite.
Maddie takes up kickboxing, becomes a small business owner, opens a tiny cinema in a former roadside burger joint perched on a piney lake. She decorates it in thrift store furniture, tangerine sofas and spinach-green recliners, garish and fusty but so snug when you settle in that you’re reminded of childhood, drizzly afternoons with nothing to do but watch old movies.
The cinema serves microbrews and pizzas made with artisanal cheeses. On Fridays and Saturdays Maddie screens blockbusters but Sundays are reserved for quieter fair—matinees of European films where nothing happens but long conversations about why it’s so hard to be happy.
Lewis sticks to inventions but his tastes in cinema improve. One Sunday, after a screening of Black Orpheus, he discovers a passion for Brazilian music, learns to pluck bossa nova. Maddie discovers she has a voice like a shot of bourbon crossed with the tinkling of a bell over a candy shop door. They win a Grammy in the category Best Contemporary Folk Album. Also, the US government recruits them to be spies, which they find challenging, given their hectic schedules, but they make it work, as they make all things work in their relationship.
Lewis invents James Bond gadgets. Maddie does fieldwork, and though she is captured each week by villains with lazy eyes, scarred faces, snooty accents, we never fear for her safety, confident that kickboxing and sheer love for Lewis shall conquer all.
For our part, Lewis and I let ourselves go. My Lewis retires to his lab more and more, emerges only in the evenings to keep tabs on our lives in the best of all possible worlds. He smells like Windex and Funyons. He succumbs, I suspect, to internet-based addictions: video games, porn.
I decide I need to get out more, so I take a job at an auto repair shop. I answer phones, monitor the candy jar. There are No Smoking signs on the doors and in the restrooms, but the waiting room reeks of regrets. Worse, Les, the owner, insists that the TV remain anchored in news channels staffed by angry white people convinced that the world is going to hell in a handbasket. The doom-and-gloom wears me down.
At Les’s annual keep-Christ-in-Christmas party I drink too much spiked eggnog, let his nephew, Donnie, get fresh under mistletoe. Donnie asks if I can give him a ride to his apartment, being as he has had too much to drink, and I say yes, being as I’ve had too much too, and we make out on his sleeper while an extreme sports show plays in the background, a competition where young men drive monster trucks into cinder block walls to see who can do it the hardest, the fastest.
One day I come home to find Lewis lashing himself with a belt. He has a new theory. Possibly, we could be happier but possibly we could be sadder too. Does it not follow that there must be worlds populated by more miserable counterparts? If so, shouldn’t we cut them some slack? Siphon off a smidge of their misery? For if we’re sadder here, in the actual world, wouldn’t there need to be at least one more possible world where we’re merrier?
“I mean, we have no shot at being happy, not truly so. The way I figure, the least we can do is strive to be more wretched.”
Lewis dials a new world, one where a gloomier Lewis has completed baking a ground beef and tater tot casserole. His Maddie looks unimpressed. My Lewis explains that Casserole Lewis lives in a world that is even less content than our own. At this very moment, in fact, Casserole Lewis would have been flogging himself with an honest-to-God razor strop in a fit of God-why-did-you-make-me-possibly-more-wretched-than-I-could-have-been had my Lewis not taken it upon himself to accept the lashing in his stead, trading places in the spectrum of potential miseries.
Casserole Lewis grins at his casserole. Mine beams at his good deed. Both wear the loopy smile another me might recall another Lewis flashing at movies full of talking dogs. It’s a shaggy dog grin, the essential face of Lewis, consistent across all possible worlds containing a Lewis.
That night, it haunts me. Lewis’s words turn in my head like a key: worn teeth, rusty tumblers. If we can be sadder, why can’t we be happier too?
Some closure comes a week later.
Lewis and I are settling in to contemplate our life in the best of all possible worlds when he asks if I’d like popcorn. It’s a rerun. Lewis and Maddie are young, newly wed, skinny-dipping in a pond in Maine.
Lewis turns to me in the real world, takes my hand. It’s the first time in months that he’s touched me. He says, “I hate you, Maddie.”
On screen, echoing, Best-of-All-Worlds Lewis tells Best-of-All-Worlds Maddie that he loves her as they drift like a pair of fallen leaves. When they aren’t looking, my Lewis cups his hand, whispers behind it, “Don’t worry. Didn’t mean it. Just wanted them to be happier.” He winks.
I smile, a genuine one. “I hate you too,” I say, and we settle in to contemplate all we could’ve been and more.
Joshua Shaw is a philosophy professor who discovered mid-career that he is a much happier and all-around better human being when writing fiction. Since then, his stories have appeared in literary magazines such as Hobart, Booth, Split Lip, and Ad Astra.