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Our Bodies Move at Different Speeds

Justin Carter is a PhD student at the University of North Texas. His poems and stories appear in The Collagist, Day One, Ninth Letter, Prairie Schooner, and Sonora Review.

My friend Paul is a scientist, so he understands these things, the complex physics behind the way our bodies move through time. "True, true love," he says, "if it ever could exist, would be that brief moment that two people exist at the same time for long enough to truly bond, maybe thirty hours or so." He says it would feel like a tingle that would never go away, an ache so strong it could kill us, but then we would fall asleep and wake in separate moments, would forever then only know that one ghost of each other. I tell him about me and Ramona, how we've been setting our alarm clocks for the same moments, how we've known these versions of us have been together for almost a week.
"No," Paul says. "One of you must have slept an extra second."
"No," I say, "I can feel that we are both real. Right now."
"Love is strong," he says. "It can make you feel things that are not real."
It's been six years since a government-funded study revealed that everything we know about sleep and the body is wrong. When our minds enter unconsciousness, they cease to move through time. When two people wake up even moments apart, they do not see the same version of the person beside them--the old one, instead, becomes a spectre, never to be encountered again.,
"It's almost like parallel dimensions, an infinite number of them," the newscaster had said, a way of assuaging fears.
Think of it this way: this fact is easily ignorable if one can learn to accept that every space we wake into is completely indistinguishable from the space we fell asleep in. Every version of another that we encounter is exactly the same. And yet--
"I don't know why this bothers you so much," Paul says. "You and Ramona will always have as much love as possible. You will never know that you are in different places. It would be perfect if it hadn't been for that study."
"It's not perfect," I say. For the past six years I have been part of a community that works to build a foolproof process by which all people will stay together, forever, in the same moment. I joined partly from fear--at how many different versions of everyone I've known, at a future where I would never know how many versions I would know--and partly from a curiosity--what would it mean if we really could be together with another person? We've created a system of alarms that we are confident will cause anyone who hears them to wake simultaneously, but we have not quite figured out how to fix the other side, when the eyes first close. Ramona and I have been taking melatonin, dropping it into our mouths in the same instance. If we have become separate, it is only by a few seconds. "Close enough," she says, "to count."
When I return to our apartment, I can feel a shift in the energy. I have been gone three hours. Ramona stands to greet me, to hug me. I do not know if she has fallen asleep. I do not know if we are still here, still together, but I know if I ask her she will say everything is okay, the same thing I would say if the roles were reversed. We know we will drive ourselves to the edge if we keep going at this, if we don't concede that our mission will never succeed. We eat leftover casserole in silence. We take our melatonin. We set the alarms. Tomorrow we will keep pretending that everything is still synced up--even as I stare at the ceiling, stare over as Ramona drifts into sleep. We'll keep pretending to do the impossible to keep ourselves from fully trying to do the impossible.
Walter, the founder of Keep Us Together, asks me and Ramona to stay after our meeting.
"You've perfected it," he says.
Ramona and I look at each other. It's been three weeks of this routine, the pills and the clocks. We've both caught each other asleep at various moments and we've both pretended we didn't. We look at each other in a way that says we are close as we can be, says we have to keep up these appearances.
"Yes," Ramona says.
"I want to go public with this," Walter says. "I want to tell people that we can help them, can keep families in one piece."
There is a part of me that wants to tell Walter the truth. I know that he will announce this and slowly the reports will come in to say that it does not work. The illusion--ours and, more broadly, the illusion that anyone can control anything--will fall apart.
But another part needs to hold onto this as long as possible. I look to Ramona. We both close our eyes, turn back to Walter. We smile.
"Yes," I say. "Yes."
The End
This story was first published on Wednesday, June 7th, 2017

Author Comments

When I was a child, I thought a lot about that old phrase "time flies when you're having fun," especially in relation to how the hour I was given to play video games suddenly was over. "What," I thought, "if time really does move faster when you have fun?"

Fast forward to last year when I was trying to get back into writing fiction after spending a long time focusing on poetry. I thought back to this childhood thought and tried to write a story about it, but going for the angle where time moves differently while you're awake seemed too difficult--specifically from a logistical perspective. I still wanted to write that concept, so I settled on this view of it--sleep as what changes time.

- Justin Carter
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