Published on 2013/04/14

Fool Me Once

Joe Christopher

Today he awoke with love handles. A pot belly too. Looked like he was middle-aged—again. He wasn’t even sure how old he really was anymore. Or how long he would have to live like this. Tomorrow he could wake up back in his old college dorm or on his deathbed. He never knew.

When he arose from the bed his bones cracked. Arthritis. Short breath. Looked like today it was going to be a challenge just to get the mail. The bedroom he awoke in was modest, too. Modest cotton sheets on a modest twin bed. Modest department store wall art. A modest hardwood floor that was beginning to splinter. And he was sure that when he went downstairs, he would be greeted to a modest wife. Though if he had learned anything over the course of this perpetual time loop he was trapped in, Nicole was anything but modest.

He found her in the kitchen whisking a double-boiler of Hollandaise sauce. Rarely did she ever cook, let alone something as time consuming as Eggs Benedict. Maybe she actually loved him today, though he doubted it. She never did.

He took a seat at the modest coffee table in the even more modest kitchen. Her hair was greying and she was missing great big clumps of it on her scalp. He touched his own head but came up with nothing.

“You’re going to be late for work,” Nicole said, whisking away furiously over the grimy electric stove.

“Did the newspaper come?” He rummaged through a pile of junk mail and bills, all covered in Red, vindictive Past Due stamps.

“You don’t read the newspaper.” When the Hollandaise was done, she poached the eggs next. She had deep crevices in her sagging cheeks and thick luggage underneath her eyes. But she was still beautiful to him. That was the one compromise about this. She was always beautiful in some form.

“I just want to know what date it is. What year, actually. I assume we’re in our fifties, I can tell that much by how long it took me to take a piss this morning. But I don’t know. I guess it doesn’t matter anyway.”

Nicole set the muffins in the toaster oven then let the poached eggs cool in an ice bath. It smelled like she burned the Canadian bacon. “That’s the last time I let you drink on a Sunday night, Mark. You drive me so crazy when you act like this.”

“So you remember yesterday? In what context? I mean, we lived in this same craphole? Lived the same sordid life?”

She didn’t answer, only whimpered. So he left it at that. He didn’t have the energy today to try to convince Nicole that he was timeless. Tomorrow he would wake up in a new reality. The only question he’d ever wanted to answer was whether or not Nicole would too.

Once she collected herself, she set a plate of Eggs Benedict in front of him, then took her own plate to the couch in the cramped living room. It looked like they weren’t going to be talking today. And that was fine. He’d just about given up trying to fix their fractured relationship, no matter what decade he was in. He stabbed at the eggs with the plastic fork she’d left for him but they didn’t run. He wasn’t hungry anyway. He’d felt a strange compulsion for tobacco ever since he woke up. “Nicole,” he called to her. “Do you know whether or not I smoke?” Her answer was drowned out by the soap opera she turned up to max volume, but he assumed it was a reluctant confirmation.

She spent the rest of the day watching bad television until she fell asleep on the couch. He decided to skip this one too.

In the morning he was young again. It was the vigor, which had eluded him for quite some time, that compelled him to give this life a shot. Immediately he noticed that he was lying on Egyptian cotton sheets and he studied the intricacies of the mahogany bedposts through the mirror on the ceiling above him. He admired his own reflection for a long while. So this is what it felt like to have abs. And was that a connecting bathroom? God, how he had always wanted a connecting bathroom.

He smiled, too, when Nicole emerged from it, wrapped in a white terrycloth towel. She tanned now it seemed, and apparently he had bought her implants. She really was stunning. Too bad that was all she ever had going for her.

She sat at her vanity without acknowledging him and plucked at almost non-existent eyebrows with a pair of tweezers. Mark crept behind her to lick a droplet of water from her soft earlobe. She shuddered at his touch. “Jesus. You’re gross.”

Perhaps his new abs weren’t going to have the desired effect on her. But they were nice. And it looked like he’d done well for himself financially. Yet she still recoiled at his advances, and carried on now as if he weren’t even in the room. This time he tried a more subtle approach, wrapping his arms around her chest and allowing the towel to fall nimbly into her lap. The water on her breasts gleamed in the mirror and the vacancy in her eyes reminded him of that song someone wrote about them once. “Brown Eyed Girl.” He sang it for her at their wedding one day—the only time he ever thought she’d actually loved him. But did The Sex Pistols or Van Morrison come first? That was his fate. He never knew what came first. There must have been some moment of complacence in their lives though, which did come first, because it had to.

“You’re going to make me late.” Nicole squirmed in his grip. He relished how tiny she felt in the pincer of his forearms, arms that were finally strong enough to keep her close. It’s what she’d always wanted, she’d said a few lives ago when he was flabby and insecure and kind of a push-over. But today that wasn’t him. He could be the man he never was. He let his lips fall to the beauty mark on her shoulder and sucked the cool water that collected on her flesh. She struggled even harder now until her arms were free as if he’d had them bounded. She also slapped him on the cheek then barreled toward the bathroom, leaving him, yet again, alone.

Mark resigned himself to the bed and found company in his own reflection. So she wasn’t impressed with his rock-hard body or the bulk of his wallet or the sports car he assumed was locked up in the garage. What would it take, then, to see eye-to-eye? He’d lived through so many versions of his life, worn so many masks, that he was almost convinced that maybe Nicole was beyond being content with anybody but herself. She might as well sit in front of that vanity every day of her life.

When Nicole returned, hugged by a pink bikini, Mark sat up in the bed and asked her, “Why can’t I ever make you happy?”

Nicole moved quickly to gather a few essentials from her marble dresser, and answered, in almost a whisper, “I’m not in the mood to talk about this.”

“When will you ever be in the mood to talk about it? You never want to talk about it. I feel like I’m just some leech who’s constantly sucking the blood out of your ass.”

“I guess you’re just not going into work today.”

“Oh, forget work, Nicole. Let’s just spend the day together.”

“I’m going to the beach. And I probably won’t be home until late tonight, either. Goodbye.” And with that, she left him with his own bitter thoughts, left him with a Queen-sized bed that only slept one.

He lay back on the pillow and figured that she was just having an affair. It wouldn’t be the first time. He remained in that position all day, getting up only to take a piss, drink a few beers, and then go back to the bed, the shades, drawn. She didn’t come home to well after midnight too, but he had given up on the day before afternoon hit. He closed his eyes with the comfort, however small, that things would be different tomorrow.

And they were. When Mark awoke again, and again alone, he no longer had abs. He wasn’t completely out of shape though—he looked a lot like he did the last time he was in his thirties. But he couldn’t count on his physique impressing Nicole much today. And by the look of his bedroom, which only included a mattress on the floor and a small dresser in the corner, his assets wouldn’t do much for her either.

They didn’t live together though. Judging by the frugal state of the apartment, this was a starter place. But he’d noticed a receding hairline when he was brushing his teeth at his leaky faucet, so it was something else entirely, like he’d once lived a comfortable life and had been suddenly forced into this dismal existence.

His refrigerator was barren, save for a half-gallon of spoiled milk and an empty carton of eggs. There was a sheet of paper on the freezer door that looked like a part-time work schedule at the local Wal-Mart. Monday, 9:00 AM – 5:30 PM. He certainly had no interest in that. He moved to the sink and drank warm tap water out of a red plastic cup.

The small window above the sink offered him a view of the apartment complex outside. His window directly faced the dumpsters across the street, dumpsters that had been overflowing with trash so bags had been left scattered and open on the pavement. He sat down on a metal folding chair beside the counter. This was the first time he’d ever awoken in a world without Nicole. What did that even mean? Was he finally able to enjoy a day free of inadequacy?

But then the phone rang, a landline too, and he answered it reluctantly. A familiar voice greeted him on the other end.

“Hey, is there any way you can watch Sam today? I can’t get a babysitter.”

“Nicole, I assume.”

“I really don’t have the time, Mark. I just need to know if you can do this for me. Karen got into a car accident on the way over.”

"Yeah, sure. Bring…” Sam could have been the name of a boy or a girl. “Bring Sam over.”

“Thank you. I’ll leave her with some money so you can take her out.” She hung up.

He’d had a few kids before. One played in Little League and another was battling leukemia. But that was all he never knew about them. He didn’t care to know an entirely new one all over again, so he inspected the kitchen drawers and thankfully there was a full bottle of Vicodin inside. He swallowed it all and washed them down with more rusty water. He unlocked the deadbolt on his front door then lay down on the cheap couch in front of the color TV with no cable for what he hoped would be the final time.

But he awoke again, knowing that killing himself certainly wasn’t an option, though it did speed the dullest days along. That offered him some amount of solace. His physical body seemed free of permanent harm but that didn’t mean his mind hadn’t reached its pinnacle. And today he found it difficult to move. He was strapped to an IV in a tiny room with an empty bed beside him. He inspected the backs of his palms and played Connect the Dots with the brown spots he could make out beneath all of the wrinkles. There was a wheelchair in the corner and a picture of an old woman on the desk beside that. He played a game to see if he could figure out who it was in three guesses. He won the game.

A young nurse came in to check on him periodically. Then an impatient doctor who kept looking at his watch and asking if he was comfortable. An overweight CNA cleaned his bed pan then reminded him she’d be back in an hour to bathe him. The days when he was elderly he was always the most at peace because he was that much closer to death. Maybe he’d get lucky this time.

When the CNA returned to bathe him, he took her by the wrist and asked, “Who is that woman in the picture?”

“Oh, that was Miss Nicole. She was a resident here.”

“Why do I have her picture?”

“You asked her son if he could leave that picture with you when he came to get her things. I thought it was the sweetest thing.”

She said her son, not their son. So, he and Nicole knew each other, had still ended up together, just not in the usual sense. His throat was dry, scratchy, on the verge of full collapse, but he mustered what little strength he had and asked her, “Can you tell me about her husband? Who was he?”

The CNA eyed him with a pitiful smirk on her face, as if he’d asked her this same question a dozen times before. And for all he knew, he did. “She had never married, dear. Her son was out of wedlock. She did talk an awful lot about this other fella’ from her youth—he was a painter, I think. Or a musician. I can’t really remember. But that was all she ever talked about.”

“I don’t suppose you remember his name.”

“Albert. His name was Albert. To be young and in love, right? Anyway, let’s get you bathed.”

The CN prepared Mark’s wheelchair but he couldn’t care any less about hygiene at this point. He thought about Albert, how important of a man he must have been for Nicole to fall so strongly for him that she talked about their short affair up until the day she died. He also couldn’t help but wonder what it all meant. Was this the way things were supposed to be? Was Albert truly the only one in this universe, the next, or any other, that could make Nicole think fondly of anyone but herself? He wished he could meet Albert, study him, know the man who made Nicole fall head over heels. It was a rare individual who had the power to do that, probably the only one in the entire multiverse.

He spent the remainder of the day in the rec room and played Checkers with a guy who claimed to have visited the center of the Earth with Jim Morrison. Mark looked out of the window at two residents who were walking hand in hand through the garden, feeding squirrels the stale bread they’d saved from their uneaten lunches. One day, in his early twenties, he walked on the beach with Nicole and they made love that night in the cool Cape May air. She agreed to marry him that time, but for what, he hadn’t remembered. The next time he proposed to her they were in their forties and she said that she wasn’t ready for that much of a commitment at that point in her life.

Mark often tried to see just what he could get away with in the time stream when he got tired of trying to convince Nicole to fall in love with him. He robbed a bank once and then turned himself in immediately just to get away from her for the night. Another time he even bought a gun and planned to shoot her in the head the next time she nagged him, but of course he couldn’t go through with it, even in a world without consequences. No, he’d turned the gun on himself instead. A lot more dramatic than swallowing a bottle of pain killers. He wanted Nicole to know, in that world, that’s what her constant discontent had driven him to.

He must have been staring at that couple for a long while because his Checkers partner got so impatient that he swiped all of the pieces off of the board and started cursing until the orderlies came in to restrain him. Mark pushed his wheelchair forward and waited for the couple to kiss. They never did.

Before the nurse put him to bed for the night he asked if she would take the picture out of the room. She looked surprised, and he’d offered no explanation. He was just tired of looking at it. Frankly, he was tired of her constantly upsetting his inconsistent world.

The next day he awoke in a small room that found the space for two beds and two desks. It smelled like citrus and tobacco. On the desk beside the door sat a vast assortment of water bottles, half-filled with dip spit. His old roommate Josh used to leave the putrid stuff lying around back in college. So, he was eighteen again, and at his old dorm at Rutgers. He had only lived this time period once or twice before. He didn’t wake up alone either. She was asleep beside him, her hair, sprawled across the pillow, and bare—once again natural—breasts concealed comfortably under the blanket. They’d met at a party their freshmen year , he now remembered, and he’d been stuck with her ever since. She was always the invariable link in all of this. These episodes never started until they met.

But for all it was worth to know, he couldn’t even remember a time before Nicole. He hadn’t even lived through his childhood now that he could put a finger on it. Why the universe conspired to force two people, who shouldn’t even be left alone in a room together, to a fate of indefinite co-existence was something he would probably never figure out. He hoped that whatever it was which had set this in motion got a few good laughs out of it—because he refused to play this game any longer.

When he slipped out of bed he scavenged through the pile of laundry on the floor for anything that didn’t smell too dirty. Josh, his roommate, must have already been at class, on his way to becoming an accountant or a business owner or a terminal cancer patient. He never knew which reality to expect, or which was the truest. But this was where it all started if that had any significance.

There were novels on Mark’s desk, like Stranger in a Strange Land and A Brave New World, a hardcover textbook on literary theory and an Introduction to Physics text, so he really had no clue what his major was at this point. He decided that he’d spend the day deciding which interested him the most.

It was then that Nicole awoke, rubbed at her crusty eyes with her knuckles. “What time is it?”

Mark settled on an old Rutgers t-shirt then checked the digital clock on his desk. “It’s a quarter past eight. I think I’m late for class. See ya.”

“Wait, come here.” She propped herself up with a smile, covering her breasts with the sweaty cotton sheets. “Kiss me goodbye first.”

He was actually in a world where Nicole admired him, if not loved him, and it had been so long since he’d woken up to that that he nearly forgot how young simply that abstract emotion made him feel. This is what he’d been fighting for for ten, twenty, a hundred years, and now that he’d finally been afforded to live that elusive reality, and with seemingly no effort on his part, he couldn’t quench the notion that he no longer had the willpower to endure her. “Nicole, can I ask you something?”

“Sure, ask me anything.” She batted her eyes and reached out to hold his hand. Her fingers were boney in his palm.

“What do you want? I don’t even know what motivates you. What would make you happy?”

It was an honest question, and he wasn’t even sure if he’d prepared himself enough for the answer. He’d asked her the same thing once when they were going through their first divorce, asked her on their Honeymoon in Madrid, on the day his first novel was published. And always, despite how different each life may have been, he was always answered with the same resounding shrug.

But she didn’t shrug this time, merely wrapped her arms around his shoulders and leaned in for a prolonged, lustful kiss. “Nothing in particular. I’m happy now though if that answers your question. Even more so after last night.”

It wasn’t the answer that he’d expected, but it would have to do. He cupped her cheek in his hand and she moaned lightly at his sensual touch, and then he decided to head for class and for once, be the one to leave her behind.

“I get out of class at six,” she said, “If you’re able to hang out tonight. Then we can talk about it.”

He paused at his door, picked up his key from the desk and twirled the ring on his finger for a long while. Her eyes were glossy and uncertain. He said, “I don’t think I’ll ever really know the answer to that, Nicole. But I do know one thing. I can never be your Albert.”

It was the first time in his life that he’d ever seen her so wounded, so fragile, and probably, so confused. And he couldn’t exactly tell himself that he derived any pleasure out of it. “Oh, I get it. You just take me for a one-night kind of girl, typical college slut, right? I can’t believe I even wasted my time with you. I’m such an idiot.”

“Sorry. But you’ll forget about this all tomorrow morning.”

At least, in his world. Maybe there was a universe that was absent of his existence and Nicole could wake up there and start anew with Albert. He would never experience that sense of unity for himself, but he was finally okay with that. He didn’t see Nicole that night after class. She texted him a few times, but he deleted them promptly. Instead, he made a bed out of towels on the Rutgers football field with a six-pack of Miller and his copy of Stranger in a Strange Land. He would go to sleep late that night, prolong it while he could.

Joe Christopher currently lives in New Jersey and has nearly finished earning an MFA from Rutgers University. Some of his early work was published in Aphelion Science Fiction and Fantasy, bending spoons, and Writer's Beat Quarterly.