Emily sits on a couch in Waiting Room 2, leafing through the pages of a People magazine whose expiration date, if magazines had them, would long have passed. Her eyes take in a gluttony of red carpet photos captioned in bold serif fonts, but they do not register. The stream of sensory information entering her body is rerouted along detours through obsolescent structures—evidence of the present moment disappearing into deep caverns in her lizard brain.
Or rather futures. Because Emily is not content to consider just one. She must consider each and every possible future, which she has come to think of as universes unto themselves. It’s a convenient ontological pivot that reframes her tendency to obsess about the future as a desire to explore new worlds, even if the latter are mere simulacrum.
In one universe, the mass of cells they’ve recently found in her gut is an isolated specimen. Benign perhaps. Or else curable with a single delicate surgery. In this universe her pending conversation with the doctor is just a formality. The first box to check on her way back to a completely normal life.
But there’s another universe where that mass is only one island in an archipelago that stretches across her most vital organs. In that universe, all sense of normalcy is gone. In that universe, her own life becomes the formality—each day another box to check on her quick march to annihilation.
There’s another universe, she understands, where she’s not sitting in the waiting room alone.
A ranking of cancers, from worst to best. At the top of the list sits an inoperable glioblastoma. Those fuckers bury themselves too deep inside your head to be removed. And she thinks there’s something about a tumor in your brain. A betrayal in the throne room.
Further down the list are cancers that are more likely to kill you than not, but where there’s still some glimmer of hope, so long as you are not too late. Cancers that inspire pink ribbons, charity runs, and public awareness campaigns. All the way down on her list are the cancers in name only, as far as she is concerned. Testicular and most types of melanoma. Here survival rates are inverted. If death is inevitable at the top of the list, down near the bottom it requires a great deal of effort.
Because somewhere along the way Emily convinces herself that she will get cancer well before an age where it is appropriate. Once she resigns herself to this inevitable fact, she feels some small sense of relief, though not enough to keep out of her general practitioner’s office month after month, reciting a litany of symptoms she’s read off some website.
But she isn’t just another hypochondriac, she wants to tell everyone who discovers her little secret. She doesn’t worry about catching the flu or even having heart attacks. She is only worried about cancer. Of discovering some ticking bomb inside her own body, of wasting away while the doctors consider which wires to cut.
This time it is different, though. Even her friends, dulled by years of tumors that never materialize, seem genuinely concerned when she describes these new symptoms. Dr. Hendrickson, who normally takes a ‘wait and watch’ approach to any new health condition, utters the word oncologist within three minutes of examining Emily.
An older man stands up, aided by a cane, and makes his way across the room. At his age cancer is somewhat of a given, Emily thinks to herself. She only hopes that his wife is waiting for him at home.
Bored by the pomp and circumstance of these visits, perhaps. Emily decides he might have prostate cancer. It’s progress is fairly slow. She has a friend whose grandfather lived with it for 30 years and then died at the perfectly respectable age of 83. That is the kind of cancer she can get behind.
Three months earlier, before the onset of any of her current symptoms, she is home alone on a Friday night watching PBS while Charlotte is on a business trip. It’s NOVA or something NOVA-esque. The kind of show that reminds her of how little she knows about this world. The topic is quantum physics. Emily knows nothing of quantum physics other than it is supposed to be very, very strange.
The host explains how electrons behave quite differently than people. There are situations where you cannot say where the electron is, only that it might be here or there. Or, more peculiar still, that it might somehow be both here and there simultaneously, or neither here, there, or anywhere.
The host explains how some physicists reconcile this strange quantum behavior with the fact that we never observe electrons, or anything else for that matter, in two places at once.
Consider the electron, the host continues, in its indefinite state of being here and/or there. Promoters of the multiverse believe that just before we make an observation—that is just before we look to see where the electron actually is—the universe splits.
Now, there is one universe where the electron is found to be here. And another universe, where the electron is found to be there.
She finds the whole idea rather confusing and not particularly believable. But also, useful. Throughout her life she’s considered all the various ways some event could go, and now she has a scientific theory that gives credence to all those possibilities that never came to be.
For they are inevitable for someone— if not her then some other version of herself living in some other version of her universe.
She understands that the multiverse doesn’t simply contain different universes for different outcomes of cancer biopsies. It also contains worlds for every possible outcome in every decision that might ever be made.
There is a universe, for example, where she decides against drinking a chocolate milkshake for breakfast, identical to this universe in every conceivable way but the current lactose intolerant rumblings from her stomach. There is a universe where she and Charlotte never meet. Never decide to spend their lives together. Never begin the long and arduous process of in vitro fertilization.
And there’s a universe where she never finds herself in Waiting Room 2, because she never even has symptoms.
Not an actual person, of course, but not an apparition either. No, an imprint of some kind. A faint echo of information screamed from another world.
She imagines this other Emily has received completely different news — that their lives are now set on completely different trajectories. And yet in this moment their universes differ by only a few paces down this poorly lit corridor.
Outside the hospital the wind has picked up. Earlier just a trickle, it is now a river sloshing through the streets, fed by invisible waterfalls that pour down the city’s skyline. Emily hurries the two blocks to her car. But it’s slow going against the wind. She wonders if that other version of herself was able to find a closer parking spot.
All the mindfulness tricks she’s learned in therapy seem completely inadequate for this present moment. And so she does the thing that comes most naturally. She closes her eyes and begins to build new universes.
In one universe Charlotte, the pragmatist, decides to leave her. “Why throw good money after bad?” The baby she’s been dreaming about finds no quarter in her womb, riddled as it is with tumors. The two children they’d spent years talking about, the children they’ve yet to have, vanish from pictures they’ve yet to take.
She sees now that this is the end of her own family tree, unless her sister suddenly has a change of heart and decides she no longer loathes children.
In another universe, another branch in the multiverse, she’s cancer free and has two children after all. And there are branches where both she and her sister have children. If she goes back in time—if she climbs down the tree—she sees another branch in which she has another sibling.
The branches continue to multiply, like shards of color in a kaleidoscope. She sees a branch where she’s healthy, but where she and Charlotte never meet. A branch where she beats this cancer but eventually succumbs to another.
Each time the universe splits she sees the branches thinning out. Until she arrives at the end of time, or as far out as she can conceive of time lasting, where the branches are mere whisps. Fragile things that threaten to blow away on a day like this.
The celebrations and sorrows of all her various selves. It occurs to her that there is no end to this. That she could very well have left the doctor’s office with the greatest news of her life, only to find herself anticipating all the various horrors she might encounter tomorrow, or next week, or next year.
In the multiverse, she now understands, there is no dearth of tragic endings.
Some sort of buzzing awakens her from this recursive loop of thoughts, and for a moment she is disoriented. This is her car. Her city. But none of these things are sufficient to determine which of the many universes she is in.
Then buzzing again. A text from Charlotte.
OMG, what a relief!!!!! Get home quickly so we can celebrate!!!!
She cannot recall what the doctor has even told her. Or rather, she recalls so many versions of the conversion that she cannot be certain which one has actually happened.
As she starts the engine she notices the windshield has a light covering of frost. So she turns the heater to defrost, and sets the temperature to max. But she waits to turn on the fan, for only cold air could be ready now.