At the far fringes of the galaxy there was an art exhibit that replicated the impossible sensation of entering into a black hole. We traveled for light years, you and I, to view the exhibit on opening night—even though night and day were merely constructs of a world that no longer meant anything to us. We were nearing the end of our natural lives, and you were convinced that if we didn’t go to the exhibit on opening night, we never would. Our tendency, after millennia together, was to suggest exciting or exotic-sounding events only to forget about them and continue on with our pleasant, if predictable, existence. But time was a fickle, ephemeral thing.
When we awakened after stasis, we found ourselves in the black hole exhibit, which, through the use of thousands of hanging lights and mirrors, created the illusion of infinite dimensions. We stood side-by-side, our reflections repeated in every direction, every pane of glass, on and on, forward and backward in a cavernous kaleidoscope. The feeling of selfhood, of being a distinct entity, was obliterated. This wasn’t an original thought or anything. Obliteration was actually the name of the exhibition. I watched you look at yourself. Yourselves.
“Which one is me?” you asked. You pointed into the void. “Who’s real?”
I grasped your finger, holding it like a child would. “That’s just your reflection.”
You sighed—the gnawing, guttural kind that came from deep in your throat. I had grown accustomed to it over the last few years, having come to understand it as a mounting impatience. Not with me, exactly. With time. The fact that we were running out. “What’s the difference?” you asked. “Aren’t we just two points on a cosmic graph?”
“You’ve got a body.” I said, hoping to end the conversation quickly and decisively—an intellectual blitzkrieg. “Your reflection doesn’t.”
“You say my reflection like I own it. Like I possess it.”
“You do,” I said. “You’re real. You step out of the black hole, the reflection’s gone.”
“My body is transient,” you said. “If my toe fell off, would that toe still be me?”
I hesitated. I knew you were drawing me into one of your cerebral rigmaroles, but I took the bait. “Whenever something leaves you, it’s not you anymore. You’re continuous.” To add emphasis, I wrapped my arm around your waist. Our likenesses did the same.
“What about the dead skin cells that sit atop my live ones?” you asked. “The billions of bacteria that live in my gut? Or my hair, for instance? Or your hair?”
“What about my hair?” I asked, running my hand through what remained of it. My hair was growing thinner by the day, becoming less and less a part of me.
“Your hair is already dead,” you said. “It has no blood, nerves, or muscles. When you cut your hair you don’t feel pain. For all practical purposes, hair isn’t part of us—except for the obvious feeling that it is. Doesn’t that complicate our sense of self?”
Worry swam in my stomach. “You’d still love me if I went bald, wouldn’t you?”
“Of course,” you said. “You’re more than the sum of all your hairs. I can even prove it to you. Would you, if you had to point to yourself, point to your hair?”
“I guess not.”
“Where would you point?”
“I don’t know. My forehead?”
“Interesting,” you said. “But it makes sense. Our bodies are always in flux, but we know, intuitively, where we’re located.”
I attempted to wrap my head around its own interior. “So, we’re our brains?”
“Well, not the organ,” you said. “We’re the thing that results from all the synaptic connections, the spark from electrical signals flying back and forth. A light in the dark.”
“How poetic,” I said.
You realized I was being glib.
“I’ll be logical, then,” you said. “You’re a valve, a machine built to reduce the world to its most salient features. Verisimilitude is a false idol.” You gestured out into the infinite and all the other versions of you made the same grandiose arm movement.
I whispered in your ear: “I already know what I’m seeing isn’t really real.”
You didn’t whisper. You never whispered. You considered your thoughts worthy of full volume. “It’s not just that,” you said. “What we see is a total fabrication, a complete fiction. Did you know your eyes see images upside down and your brain puts them right side up? Is the universe actually upside down or did your brain make things closer to reality?”
“It doesn’t matter,” I said.
“Of course it does,” you insisted.
I stared at you. The many yous. All of them were wrong.
So many true things were ineffable. On earth, where we came from, the sky was blue. I knew this not because I read it somewhere—I had experienced it. For us, blue was blue. Blue was real. In other universes, the sky on earth might be red, or orange, or a color we could not even imagine. But until these myriad universes collapse into each other—perhaps at the end of time—we will have to settle for creating our own truths within this inexplicable world.
About the Author
Matt Goldberg's fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in a bunch of wonderful literary journals, including SmokeLong Quarterly, Fictive Dream, The Normal School, Coolest American Stories, Bending Genres, and others. His work has also won first place for the 2021 Uncharted Magazine Sci-Fi and Fantasy Short Story Award. He earned his MFA from Temple University and lives in Philadelphia, PA. Find him on Twitter @mattmgoldberg.