By Frank Thomas Smith
April is the cruelest month,
breeding lilacs out of the dead land,
mixing memory and desire,
stirring dull roots with spring rain.
I woke up shivering from the cold, naked under a sheet. It must be a very unusual and sudden cold snap, I thought. Buenos Aires has some cool days in autumn, but not freezing like this. I jumped out of bed and ran to the closet from which I took underwear including an undershirt, which I only wear in winter, then a shirt and jeans and socks. I dressed quickly and realized it wasn’t enough. I took a sweater from a drawer and put it on. Then I looked at the window. It seemed opaque, which couldn't be, so I put on my glasses, which I usually only use for reading, and looked again at the windowand saw that it was frosted over, something I hadn’t seen since I lived in Switzerland. Thick frost with out-splaying lines from dark moons. I didn’t want to open the window and let in the cold, but if I wanted to look outside I had no alternative. The catch was frozen and I had to use both hands to open it. I looked down at La Pampa Street from my third floor apartment. It was snowing! But it never snowed in Buenos Aires, not even in winter. A few cars flowed slowly along, throwing up snowpuffs behind them. Pedestrians walked with their heads hunched down into the wind, bundled up in heavy winter clothing.
Something very unusual was happening. The news! I turned on the TV. The anchorperson was talking about the war in Afghanistan. More suicide bombers, a mosque blown up. I waited until he casually mentioned that the snow had caused long delays at the airports. Nothing more. I picked up the phone from my desk. When I dialed Alicia’s number a man answered. I was surprised because it was 8 o’clock on Friday morning and no man should have been there. “Er…Alicia, please?” I said.
“Wrong number,” the man said, and hung up. That’s a relief, I thought and dialed again, more carefully this time. The same man answered. “Excuse me,” I said, “am I speaking with 760-4903?” He said yes, “…and no Alicia lives here.” He hung up again, this time with a bang and not a whimper. I couldn’t believe that Alicia had changed her number without telling me. But then women do strange things sometimes. I usually called her every day that we hadn’t seen each other, but lately I’d been busy with a lot of new clients, mostly because I designed a website for Charlie García, the rock star, and my phone had been ringing off the hook with future stars wanting a site like Charlie’s. When I told them the price (greatly increased since I became a star in my own right thanks to Charlie) and that payment was in advance, as well as the fact that I was backlogged for three months, most said they’d think about it and let me know. I also had a regular job as a programmer, but had more or less decided to quit and be my own boss – at last! Because of all that activity I hadn’t called Alicia for at least a week, although she’d left several messages on my answering machine. Still, is that a reason to disconnect herself from life, or at least from mine?
I put on a sweater and my heaviest coat – which wasn’t very heavy – and walked around the corner to the garage where I parked my car. I was shivering. The people I passed were bundled up in heavy parkas and wore boots. When I walked into the garage the attendant said, “Buen día, Sr. Hernandez.” I stopped in my tracks and stared at him. The greeting was as usual, except that my name isn’t Hernandez. “Something wrong, señor?” he asked. I shook my head. My name, Suárez, is almost as common, so he could be confused, why not? Or was it I who was confused? I handed him the keys and he walked to the rear of the garage to bring my car to the entrance for me. I saw the short puff of smoke emerge from the exhaust of my red Fiat. Then he backed out expertly from between the tightly packed cars and pulled up alongside me. It looked like my car and it had come from my space, but the license plate number was wrong – or had I confused that too? “Are you sure this is my car, Rosas?” I asked him. He looked at me as he would a madman. “Of course it is, Sr. Hernandez, but I’m not Rosas.” I took out my wallet and checked the automobile registration. It showed the same number as that on the license plate, and it belonged to Pablo Hernandez.
I decided that I was dreaming, a confusing dream no doubt, but then aren’t most if not all dreams confusing? (I pinched myself; it hurt.) I decided to ride with it and see where it would lead me. I also resolved to record all the details of the dream when I woke up. This was the first time I had known during a dream that I was dreaming, so I certainly had never before resolved to record the dream during the dream. This fact should have acted as a wake-up call (no pun intended).
I drove toward Alicia’s place, but as I got to the Palermo Gardens shopping center on Avenida Santa Fe, I drove into the underground garage, parked and entered the first clothing store in order to buy a heavy coat and boots for the snow. The store had just opened so I was the only customer. I selected the most expensive items, including a fur hat. (Why not, if it was only a dream?) I took out my bank card and was just about to hand it to the clerk when something struck me – a thought, not a brick, although it felt like one. Numbers seemed to be awry: Alicia’s telephone (although I hadn’t yet abandoned the idea that she had changed it due to pique at me), my car registration. What if my PIN had changed as well? I put the card back and pulled out my American Express credit card, which required no PIN. The name on it was Pablo Hernandez. I looked at the bank card: the same. So Rosas (by any other name) was right and I didn’t even know who I was. I smiled at my clever, oh so realistic dream and handed the clerk (a pretty girl by the way) my American Express card.
Thus protected against the imaginary elements, I drove on to Alicia’s apartment just off Plaza San Martín. I pressed the bell to 3B and she answered through the intercom immediately: “Sí?”
“It’s me, Pablo," I said... "also known as Juan,” ... just in case.
“Oh,” she said, not very enthusiastically, but she pressed the button and I entered. She’d left the door open to her apartment so I walked in without knocking. She was dressed in a thick bulging coat, trousers, snow boots like mine and a woolen hat pulled over her ears and almost to her eyebrows, and was stuffing stuff into her shoulder-bag. The last time I’d seen her, only a week ago, she was wearing a miniskirt.
“Hi, Pablo,” she said, “what’s the Juan bit about?”
“Oh, just an unfunny joke…” I almost added “Ali”, but her name might have changed, be different in my dream, so I didn’t dare say it.
“And what are you doing here at this time of the morning?”
“I just wanted to tell you that I’m sorry I haven’t phoned you all week, but I’ve been…”
“I know you’ve been busy, darling,” she interrupted. “As a matter of fact so have I, so no problem.”
“Oh, good.” With that off my mind I didn’t know what to say next. “How about a cup of coffee?” I hadn’t had breakfast and I could have used some. But she just raised her eyebrows and laughed. “Are you kidding? Don’t you know the time? I have to get to work, and so do you? Or did you quit already?”
“Er..no, not yet.”
“Well, help yourself, lover, the kitchen is yours and the coffee is still hot,” she said as she brushed passed me with a brushing kiss. “Just close the door well on your way out. Bye-ee.”
Alicia was a real good kid, smart, good company and sexy and I was in love with her. She had one defect – in my eyes (ears actually) – she laughed at the wrong times. But my karma seems to have preordained me to be involved with women who laugh at the wrong times. First there was Judy, who was the most talented of all in this respect. During a play an actor would make a remark that she thought was a joke and a peel of laughter shook the theater. People turned from all sides and looked at us; it was embarrassing – for me, not for her: ten minutes later she’d do the same thing. She had no sense of humor and didn’t understand jokes. Then there was Paula, a beautiful, intelligent, sensitive woman, who giggled before every sentence. Her giggles were like quotations marks. Alicia was too shy to laugh out loud in public but did so loudly in private, watching a movie on TV, for example. She could easily have replaced canned laughter. I on the other hand hardly laugh at all. When something really tickles my funny bone I just sort of squeak like a mouse in labor.
That’s all a digression. I had to find out what Alicia’s new name was. But first I went into the kitchen and poured myself a cup of coffee and put two slices of bread into the toaster. Then, with the coffee cup in hand, I went into her work-room. There were envelopes on the desk, some bills and a personal letter. The name on all of them was Zoé. Zoé? What the hell kind of name is that? And Rosenberg. Alicia was a practicing Catholic, one good reason why I was reluctant to marry her. Hard to get a divorce unless you’re a movie star. Did she change religions with the frost? Well, I thought aloud, I’m nada - no religion; maybe now I’m something. Alicia-Zoé would have died laughing at that one. I only squeaked.
After breakfast I trudged through the snowdrifts that covered the Plaza San Martín and reached the knees of the Liberator’s statue and entered my employer’s office on Maipú Street. The boss and founder, Francisco by name, was in his office and receiving, signaled by the green light over his door. (red means the 3 Ds: Don’t Dare Disturb.) Luckily his dream-name, Hugo, was stenciled on the door. Francisco-Hugo was a paean of democracy: he wore jeans, never a tie and had curly hair down to his shoulders – and, except for the hair, expected everyone else on his “team” to dress accordingly. I already mentioned my intention to leave the company, but I hadn’t had the courage to actually do it. I had a lot of independent work now, but who knows what the situation would be in a year, or even six months. Was sink or swim really for me? But since I was still merely dreaming, there was no reason why I couldn’t simply walk up to Pancho (as he preferred to be called) and say: “I quit, Pancho, you pompous creep.” I walked into his office without knocking.
“Hola, Pablo,” he said, glancing aside from his computer. He had the uncanny ability to look at you with one eye while keeping the other glued to the screen. “You’ve been doing great work lately, so I decided to give you a raise, fifteen percent.” His eye swiveled back to the screen. “Effective immediately.” He must have heard about my moonlighting, I thought, and this is his way of keeping me at his beck and call. Dream or no dream, it knocked me off balance, along with him now being Hugo instead of Pancho. “Anything else?”
“Well, no Pa…, thanks,” I mumbled, and resolved to use this dream scene as preparation for the real thing.
“Okay, see you later.” Dismissed.
I left his office and went to my work-station, clicked on my computer and typed in my user name and password.
ERROR! flashed on the screen: User name and password incorrect. Shit! Of course this had to happen. The User Name was easy. My real one was suarezj (last name and initial); so now it had to be hernandezp. But the password was a random series of eight digits. Maybe a logical method for transposing the real to the dream digits existed somewhere in my unconscious, but it would be easier to extract it from the software somehow. As I was pondering this, a colleague passed by and joked, “Don’t think so much, Juan, let the machine do it for you.” I just smiled and waved and let the machine do it for me. If it really has Artificial Intelligence (which it doesn’t), I could just ask, but for that I needed the password. I couldn’t get it from Windows, so I re-booted and sneaked into DOS. A half hour later I had cut into the computer’s guts and retrieved the valid password. I wrote it in ink on my palm, entered it in Windows and I was in business. I doubted anyone else on the team could have done that – including Pancho-Hugo.
I worked well into the night, wanting to get the day over with, but it was hard to concentrate on the work, especially when names and numbers had all changed.
I fell into bed under three blankets (I borrowed one from a neighbor whose dream name I never found out) and my new coat, not knowing, or by then caring, what the new day would bring.
The door-bell woke me. I opened my eyes and saw the sunrays flitting through the window-shutters and making patterns on my bed. I was sweating. I staggered to the door, pressed the speaker button and asked, “Sí?
“Hola, it’s me,” a metallic voice answered.”
“Zoé!” I exclaimed.
“I mean: Alicia!” I buzzed her in, opened the door and waited in the hall for the elevator to arrive.
“Who’s Zoé?” were her first words, naturally.
“Nobody, I was dreaming. You woke me up.”
“May I come in?”
“Oh, sorry, yes of course.” Inside my apartment she kissed me, passionately, if I may say so. I returned the passion, being really glad to see her.
“You look terrible. You’ve been working too hard. You can at least relax on Saturday. What’s this?” she asked looking at a pile of winter garments on the living room floor: my new coat, the boots and woolen hat. “And there’s a puddle under them, it’ll ruin your floor.” I shook my head and opened the living room window and the shutter. Warm April sunshine returned happily to my life. I pinched myself to see if I was dreaming; it hurt.
Now, many years later, I still live in the same apartment – third floor on La Pampa Street, and I’m finally getting around to writing about that long ago April interlude. The delay is because I hoped it would all be explained somehow, and perhaps it has, at least to the extent that such things are explainable. Alicia and I did get married, by the way, when she agreed not to do it in the Catholic Church. I was born into the Church myself, had escaped though, and was determined to stay as far away as possible from the moldy onanistic monks.
We have lived happily ever after, so to speak. She was the only one I ever told about that April. It was just before our wedding in case she wanted to change her mind. She listened, nodded, and didn’t mention it again. That doesn’t mean she believed me, though. Years later she said she thought I was testing her.
Recently I’ve been reading about quantum physics and a theory of parallel universes. Essentially it says that all the possibilities described by quantum theory (which seem to be infinite) simultaneously occur in a “multiverse”, composed of those other universes. However, according to the theory of “quantum decoherence” (love that name), the parallel universes will never be accessible for us, making them physically meaningless. Why? Because once a measurement is done, the measured system becomes “entangled” with both the physicist who measured it and a huge number of other particles, some of which are photons flying away towards the other end of the universe. In order to prove anything, one would have to bring all those particles back and measure them again, together with the system that was measured originally. This is completely impractical, but even if one can theoretically do it, it would destroy any evidence that the original measurement took place, including the physicist's memory.
This applies to a physicist doing a conscious experiment. I, however, am neither a physicist nor was I performing a conscious experiment. I was completely unaware of what was happening, so much so that I confused it (at first) with a dream. And perhaps for this reason my memory was not destroyed. The question therefore arises: Am I the only one, or only the first to travel to a parallel universe (if indeed that is what occurred)? Or are there others, many others (necessarily non-physicists) who have had similar experiences but either confused them with dreams or are too embarrassed to mention them?
And – What does it matter? Life goes on quite satisfactorily in my own little home universe. One the other hand, if I were a physicist I could write a paper disputing the theory of “quantum decoherence” based on experience. But there are too many imponderables such as: if I was in one how did I get there? And, how did I get out? And, why? Another imponderable, so much so that I prefer not to think about it, is that my name is neither Pablo Hernandez nor Juan Suárez, but Frank Smith. If it weren’t for the coat, the boots, the fur hat and the double-stitch woolen socks (forgot to mention them), worrying objects molding in my hall closet, I’d say it was just a cruelly cool April dream and let it be.