The reality I was born in ceased to exist when I was three years old. So Mama and I moved to a different reality.
We moved a lot, actually.
“We can’t stay more than a few years,” Mama would say as she unzipped the fabric of the space-time continuum and scanned the flickering images inside.
There were so many, I got motion sick if I looked too long.
But Mama always knew which one to pick. She’d catch a corner of a shimmering image, brightly colored like rainbow sprinkles, then take my hand and pull us both through.
• • • •
I met Amand in a coffee shop on a rainy day two years and nine months after my mother and I moved to this reality. The café menu offered various espressos and lattes, the Germanized English happily familiar. I thanked the barista and looked for a seat.
That first glimpse: Amand sat in a corner, reading Die Liebe der Bienen, a bestseller literary graphic novel that had a different ending for everyone who read it.
Grayish afternoon light highlighted his black curly hair and dark skin, and his glasses adjusted to the light flow, the rims bright blue. Broad shoulders were highlighted under the fashionable sweater he wore, navy blue with the New Chicago Physics (the local soccer team) logo emblazoned on the chest.
He flipped the last page and sighed, dark eyes half-closed in contentment.
He caught me staring at him. I was used to that by now. Odd looks when I couldn’t lose my accent or maybe I had a neon sign over my head that read DOESN’T BELONG.
“What ending did you get?” I asked.
He grinned. “Dominik and Erik reconcile, and then Erik proposes and he accepts and they live well to their days’ end. It’s what I hoped for.”
I smiled back. “That’s the ending I got, too. Well. Dominik proposed, when I read it.”
“Amand,” he said, offering his hand.
“Joseph,” I replied. We shook. My heartbeat hadn’t slowed, though I had yet to sip my cappuccino. “Can I join you?”
He nodded at the plush armchair next to him. “I would like this.”
• • • •
Each new reality was different.
Sometimes there’d be buildings in the sky, sometimes technology was less advanced, and sometimes there wasn’t anybody around at all.
(Mama picked those empty realities once in a while, but we only stayed for a few days.)
Mama had a talent for explaining who we were to the people in each reality: why we had weird clothes and accents, why our skin was the color it was, sometimes why I was a boy (if they hadn’t been invented yet), sometimes why she was a girl, and sometimes why we had genders at all.
She had a gift. She knew which realities were unsafe. She could make people like us, or at least not hate us. She was extraordinary but she never drew attention. Mama designed new cover stories depending on where we ended up. Mama never had trouble understanding the language. She’d teach me, but I didn’t have her skill. It got harder as I got older, too, always being the weird kid.
“Don’t make friends you can’t let go of, Joseph,” Mama always said. “We can’t stay long.”
“Why not?” I asked angrily when I was ten. I’d just met Mohamed who lived down the street, and he was going to let me drive his custom-built racecar.
“Because our atoms don’t belong here,” Mama said, “and eventually we’ll crumble into little pieces if we stay too long. Reality-bending is tricky.”
So I didn’t have many friends. I knew people, lots of people, but they were a sea of changing faces and bodies and names (or sometimes numbers).
I tried not to let Mama know I was lonely. We had to survive. She was trying to make a good life for us.
And she’d promised that one day we’d find Daddy again.
• • • •
Amand and I spent the next two months inseparable. He showed me the old baroque district, full of niche clubs and piano halls and statues of composers and artists and philosophers. We toured the Babylon Gardens, reconstructed and raised half a mile into the sky.
I was nineteen. I’d been in and out of so many schools I wasn’t sure what level my education qualified. Amand had just finished college. He was applying for jobs in the energy reconstruction projects, striving for cleaner power and more of it. New Chicago was prospering, but so much of the continent was still ravaged from the Fallout War, reconstruction and rehabilitation for the country was slow.
Amand wanted to help change that, the determination clear in every fluid movement, in the line of his jaw, in the brightness of his eyes. I couldn’t keep my eyes off him when we were together. I didn’t want to.
I didn’t want to fall in love. Or maybe I did. It was so hard to tell.
• • • •
“You’re moody today, mein Herz,” Amand said, rubbing his thumb over my knuckles. We held hands and leaned on the railing atop the new hydroelectric dam. It wasn’t technically open to tourists yet, but he’d snuck in before—his aunt was the foreman and the workers liked him—and told me this was the most stunning view of the sunrise you could see outside of the tower complexes. “What is wrong?”
I shrugged. “I have to move soon.”
God, I’d told him when we first went out that I wasn’t going to be in town for more than a few months. It was my mother’s work schedule, I’d explained, and I accompanied her because she had health concerns. (The lies had been harder than ever before, stuck like congealed oatmeal in my throat.)
I was so tired of moving. But what choice did we have? Move, or cease to exist.
“But you don’t want to,” Amand said slowly.
I gazed down at the polished curve of the dam. It was a long way down, even with the safety nets strung at intervals across the face. “Nein,” I whispered. “I like it here.”
Amand slung an arm over my shoulders. “There is no one else who could take care of her while she travels?”
Mom didn’t need my help. I needed hers. How long would it continue? Until she died from an accident or old age? Since I didn’t know how to unzip the space-time continuum, I’d be stuck facing my inevitable death somewhere that wasn’t home. Alone.
The depressive realization hit like I’d swallowed an old, bitter espresso shot. Dizziness swamped my head and I pushed away from the railing before I lost my balance or puked. Armand’s arm steadied me.
The nippy wind tousled his hair and snaked down my collar. It was still dark, our only illumination the safety lights down the curvature of the dam.
“I can’t leave her,” I said. The first red bars of dawn peeked over the horizon, backlighting the uneven cityscape’s profile.
Amand’s expression was unreadable. “Well,” he said at length, “we can always write or vidchat, and you can visit again, ja?”
But I couldn’t, so I only nodded. I rubbed my face. The wind had made my eyes water.
He was right, though. The sunrise view from the dam was amazing.
• • • •
My second favorite reality was where I met Dr. Amelia D’Cruz. Mom dated her briefly while we integrated into the tropical cities spread like a beaded bracelet around the equator.
I was six, and Mom had promised me she would look for a doctor who could perform gender reassignment surgery for me. It took her slightly longer not to call me Josephine, but only a little.
Dr. Amelia smelled like bubblegum and cinnamon, and she always smiled so bright that I wanted to smile back.
I told Mom I didn’t want to leave when, almost three years to the day—my surgery two years past—we packed our bags and said goodbyes.
I clung to Dr. Amelia, who rubbed my back and kept saying, “It’s okay, Joseph. You’ll find a place you belong one day. You’ll find your home. I promise.”
I didn’t believe her, and I didn’t speak to Mom for days after we stepped into a new reality and started over yet again.
• • • •
“It’s time to go, Joseph,” Mom said. We sat eating noodles and watching the news that same evening. “We have to leave tomorrow.”
I set my bowl down, my stomach heavy. How had time gone by so fast? I thought I had another week left with Amand.
“Are you sure?” I asked.
She fiddled with her chopsticks. Her gaze remained on the screen. “We’ve been here too long. There’s nothing for us.”
“What?” That wasn’t her usual explanation. She would tell me of the destabilization in her bones, the static buzz in her sinuses that told her we were getting close.
“He’s not here,” she said.
Dad had disappeared before I was old enough to remember. She said we’d find him and we’d discover a reality that we could live in as a family.
We’d wasted sixteen years. I didn’t know what a home was, what stability was like.
All I could think of was Amand’s face, his quirky smile and stuttering laugh. The way his hands felt in my hair and on my skin. How he always arrived on time. Even when his temper flared and we got into arguments about politics or history, he’d kiss me afterwards and say the way I confused the timeline was adorable, making up events in place of real ones.
(I hadn’t told him that those events were real somewhere else.)
I stood up and slammed my bowl in the sink. “We’re not going to find him, you know.”
“He’s out there somewhere,” Mom said, almost to herself. “We aren’t giving up on him. Pack your things.”
She knew what she was looking for. She had always known.
I didn’t know what he looked like, let alone what kind of man he was. She never told me stories; maybe she didn’t want me to grieve for something I might never have.
I thought of Amand and how he always wore mismatched socks and programmed his glasses frames to match his shirts. Did I even know what I wanted?
I’d always been focused on not growing too attached, on being able to leave everything behind. It felt like I’d grown up a hundred times and then fallen down the ladder to land back where I’d started, never knowing when it would stop.
Would I ever have what she had with my father, if I always left before I could find out?
Mom put a hand on my shoulder. She had to reach, now. “It won’t be forever, Joey.”
I covered her hand with mine.
I was so tired of running and never getting anywhere. It had to stop.
“I know,” I said. “That’s why I’m not leaving.”
I turned around in time to see her bite her lip.
“Nonsense,” she said, but without conviction.
I held her hand tight. “I can’t do this anymore. I want to stay here, with Amand”—if he would keep me—“even if it’s dangerous.”
“But . . .” She took several deep breaths. Arguing with herself. Finding excuses, reasons, commands. Her shoulders slumped. “You’re grown up, aren’t you? Not my little boy anymore.”
“I’ll always be your son, Mom. But I need to do this for myself. I need something to call my own.”
She blinked hard. “You won’t have much time. A few weeks at most. Please just come with me. We’ll find your father—”
“No,” I said gently. “A little time’s better than having forever with nothing to show for it.” That was one of Amand’s favorite quotes from Die Liebe der Bienen.
What if she was right and I disintegrated once the three years were up?
Was that really worth hurting Amand? Or was it any different than stepping out of this reality, out of his life, forever?
“Please, Mama.” I kissed her hand. “I need to stay.”
She pulled me into a hug. Her body trembled. “Let me show you how to unzip the fabric,” she whispered. “So you have a way out.”
“No,” I said into her hair. I wanted to be like the people around me, given one life to make what they would of it. “I’ll take my chances.”
• • • •
I asked Amand to come with me to see my mother off the next day. I didn’t know where she was headed.
We stood in a dry field outside the city limits as Mom unzipped the space-time continuum. Amand gripped my arm as we watched.
She held out her hand once to me, but I shook my head.
“Bye, Mom,” I said.
She didn’t say goodbye. Maybe she couldn’t.
She took hold of a corner of another reality and pulled herself through. Then she was gone, and the seam melted closed.
I sagged against Amand.
Mom wasn’t here. That sudden emptiness hit me harder than any reality-hop. My knees buckled.
He caught me and held me.
I didn’t know I could miss her so badly so fast.
“What if I never see her again?” I said into Amand’s chest.
The rims of his glasses pressed against my temple. “We always find our family.” Then, softly, “Will you stay with me?”
“Ja,” I said. “As long as I can.”
I felt him smile.
• • • •
I haven’t seen my mother in ten years.
Amand and I got married. We adopted two beautiful children—Monique and Sebastian—and we’ve been living each day as if it’s the last. It might be.
But, sometimes, I don’t think it will happen the way Mom predicted. I don’t think my mother wasn’t entirely honest with me as a kid.
My dad ran off through a different reality when I was two. She waited a year, but he didn’t come back. She wanted to find him the only way she knew how, and what else was she going to do with me except take me along?
Maybe the three-year limit was just an arbitrary definition because she couldn’t bear to stay anywhere too long and let Dad drift father away.
I’m not angry at her. If I hadn’t reality-hopped, I wouldn’t have met Amand. I wouldn’t have settled down in this sky apartment overlooking New Chicago, landed a job as an art historian, found a loving husband, two amazing kids, friends, and a life I’m content with. (I dedicated my first memoir to Dr. Amelia and my mom, in gratitude.)
There are days I wonder if Mom was right about our atoms not connecting with this reality we live in now. One day, I might just snap out of existence. If I do, I won’t have too many regrets.
(I’d told Amand my whole story after Mom left. He believed every word. The day before he proposed a year later, I told him again about the risk I could just vanish.
“Risks are just life with different letters,” he said, and kissed me. “We’ll take risks and life together, ja?”
“Ja,” I’d said, pulling him closer.)
If I see Mom again, the only regret I’ll have is that she won’t stay for very long. Wherever she is, I hope she finds what she’s looking for. Me? I’ve found my home.