I’m living in an alternate universe. Here I have no water view; it is cold and damp outside and not warm enough inside. There are dogs to be let in and out, dogs that make me wheeze. The cat doesn’t cuddle up to me like mine does. I sit and try to work on a small kitchen table where I can’t spread out my stuff because we will be using it for dinner later. In this alternate reality there is a 14-year-old girl who, even after 18 months isn’t sure she wants her dad seeing anyone, including (especially?) me.
After visits to friends and family on the way, I am here, to celebrate a holiday I don’t care about. There is a tree. This is not unusual—I have long been subjected to Christmas trees as none of the men to whom I was married were Jewish—but there have been several years without the fuss and bother of putting it up and taking it down. I have been on the road for more than ten days and I am weary and I miss the sunshine and the water and the view I have longed and fought hard for.
But this alternate reality is one in to which I have bought. And only sometimes does it jar and rankle. In the evenings, after work is done for both of us and we make a meal and share some wine and sit and watch an old television series about the end of the world as we know it this alternate reality seems very fine.
I guess I have often and always inhabited alternate realities. From the time I opened an abridged edition of The Little Princess and joined Sara Crewe on the streets as she bought a hot bun for a starving child, I have lived in worlds others have built. Maybe even before that, as I remember the writing of Lois Lenski and how I felt a shiver of familiar kinship with the Strawberry Girl. Most recently I have been deep in the America of the late 1950s with Stephen King, who, better than almost any writer I know, captures you whole and takes you wherever he wishes. And you willingly follow, not even bothering to pretend you are suspending disbelief.
I have created my own alternate realities, too. From the time I was a child of eight and attempted my first novel to the countless short stories that fell first from pen and paper, later typewriter and word processor where I tried to tell tales that were like my own but better or worse, depending on the demands of the tale. I have written memoir and I have spoken out about politics, and all of those pieces of writing have formed yet another place other than my own.
In my very fertile and sometimes overactive imagination I have had long conversations with people who have done me wrong , tried to soothe hurts, found the right thing to say hours, perhaps days, after the incident which sparked the mind’s dialogue. And too, I create alternate realities by waiting for things to happen: good and bad. I rearrange my life to accommodate visits from my children, which though brief now that they are grown and gone, necessitate a stopping, a re-starting, a slowing down to cherish the few days or hours I have with them.
What encompasses my everyday life is a series of slipping in and out of alternate realities. Perhaps that is why I am so fascinated by the possibility of them, by what King calls the strings that slip around the past, present and future, each of them elongated by each decision we make: who we choose to love, how we choose to spend our days, what meaning there is in what we say, even, perhaps, the mere way we step out onto the street.
In some of my other worlds, I am not a woman in my fifties with grown children who still struggles with each word she puts to paper. My children are babies still growing inside me with all the joy that is yet to come. In some of my other worlds I am not the daughter of a father who is dead and a mother who is crippled by dementia. My parents are still alive and healthy and I have been able to show them who I am and they have rejoiced in that. In some other worlds I am not even divorced. The marriage that began with such hope did not crumble into incoherence. In some other worlds still the people who I loved and who have died are just on the other end of a phone call. In others, I am more, or less, content. In some I have all the answers to all my questions.
I make up worlds because that is the only thing I know how to do well. And because it is the only thing that makes the reality of my own lovely universe make sense. I see the alternate realities around me as part of the fiction that is life itself. Parsing it is painful but necessary.
Leaving a novel is like leaving a place where you were whoever the author wished you to be. You buy into the vision and you are taken for the ride of your life, if only for a few days. For those days you stay up far later than is wise, snuggled deep beneath the covers, the light over your shoulders your only connection to the reality that is outside the world a writer has created for you. Coming out of that world is like surfacing from the deep. You gasp for air, you look around, and yes, there are the dogs clamoring for attention, the dinner to be made, the evening to be spent and the small, sad moment when you realize that tonight you won’t have that world in which to escape. It is like every good-bye to every alternate reality into which you step.
Leaving one world for another is no easier than putting down a cherished book. Each time I slip from place to place, from time to time, from moment to moment, a fissure opens, a string pulls, I surface down the road again, sighing with both pain and joy, another trip into another world for another small amount of time.