This is one of those stories where you think you know the plot. One of those stories where the characters are dead and don’t know it. Only there’s no grand revelation, no tacked-on cinematic twist. For they’re also alive. They’re both dead and living. But they aren’t ghosts and this isn’t a ghost story. No, this is a story of time in its most unconventional guise. A story of each moment as eternal. Infinite gestures and choices split off from one another, forming separate streams. This is also a story of that most unconventional topic—happiness. But it’s happiness experienced in the shadow of nothingness, happiness as it happens above a chasm.

In this story, you’re on a flight, though you’ve never been comfortable on planes. You and your wife are going to London. The subject came up two weeks ago when her office decided to send her to a conference there. She’s nine weeks’ pregnant with your first child, and this might be the last chance the two of you have of traveling for a while. So now you’re tagging along, heading to the airport. You’re willing to fly. You won’t let fear stop you from seeing distant countries, but you’ve doped yourself up. Two pills with a shot of whiskey before hailing a cab. One more in the airport bar with a glass of wine. You’re there in body, and you move, but you can’t recall boarding. Your wife leads you through security like a child, and when you board, you smile as a child would. You’re past caring, floating in a deep euphoria. The fear is there, buried, but on the surface, you’re relaxed. You watch other passengers board, squish carry-ons into the overhead compartments. Women and men of different sizes and skin tones files past, a parade of multicolored clothing—pink sweats and green sweaters, suits of black and grey, blue jeans and khakis. In your state, they whoosh, your observations disjointed. You wonder if you’ll die with these people. Even the drugs can’t stop this. You wonder if this will prove a statistical anomaly—a flight that crashes, rends asunder midair, blows up. Is there a bomb onboard? How tight is security? And what would blowing up feel like?

In stressful situations, you do this—turn to second person.

Calm down, you can get through this, you’re not going to die.

You always tell yourself you’re not going to die. But you have no idea if that’s true. It’s always possible, especially this far aboveground, so you can’t be there. Your body, sure, it has no choice. But you—whatever you might be outside this corporeal plain—can’t be present, and the drugs make this possible. You’re there but not. Your body sits, but your mind takes a breather. It’s detached, on holiday as the plane transports you, hopping from one landmass to the next.

That happiness is difficult to render is acknowledged by most artists. But even more difficult than rendering happiness is revealing your own, telling someone you’ve been happy, that you’re happy now, as you speak. Outside certain circumstances—the birth of a child, your wedding day—many will do anything to disavow it, to point to the myriad things you should be upset about: famine, third world debt, terrorism. A select few, of course, will think you harbor some secret. They’ll ask you to share: “What’s the secret?” But both types are forgetting that happiness is momentary, fleeting.

This trip to London is a gift from my wife. Her boss is sending her on business. She’ll provide tech support for a medical conference and won’t have time to tour the city. Yet, she’s asked them to book a room for two. They’ve also brought her plane ticket, and we split the cost of another, so we’ve found a relatively inexpensive means of traveling to my wife’s favorite place.

London. For the fanboy inside me, it’s a hallowed place, and I understand my wife’s devotion even before we set down. The plays of Shakespeare! The novels of Dickens! 221B Baker Street and Sherlock Holmes and visits from Doctor Who’s TARDIS. Then there’s the music! From the melodic British Invasion of The Beatles and Stones to the distinctive 90s britpop serenade of Blur and Pulp, I’ve always loved the country’s artistic exports, and here I am, riding through the same streets, seeing the same churches, parks, monuments.

My wife’s company sends a driver whose accent sounds delightfully similar to Michael Caine’s. As we travel, he and my wife discuss the city’s preparations for the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee. I popped two more pills on the plane, and I’m coming off them now.

“Have you been to London before?” the driver asks.

“Three times,” my wife says. “I studied here in college.”

Each time the driver speaks, I smile, thinking of Alfie and The Italian Job, mouthing lines like, “You’re only supposed to blow the bloody doors off!” I imagine Caine’s cockney drawl coming from my own silent lips. For years, I’ve wished I could do an impersonation, but it comes out sounding more like Sean Connery. They’ve acted together. They both have distinctive voices. People do impersonations of both, but I’ve never nailed down Caine.

“My cocaine,” a friend coached me. That’s how he says his name.

I’m searching my memory for the film they did together when we pass Buckingham Palace and see the changing of the guard. Soldiers in trim-fitting red coats and black cylindrical hats high-step down the road. All the King’s Men, I think. But is it? No, The Man Who Would Be King. That’s it. And watching these soldiers march, I’m falling in love with the country. Horses trot past, and a packed crowd looks on, snapping photos from the lush green park to the side.

“They’re not just ornamental,” the driver explains. “These boys are on active duty. Some are just back from Afghanistan.”

In my haze, I watch. I hadn’t know this before. It’s the type of haphazard knowledge one gains while traveling, knowledge that reminds you these people live here and I’m a guest in their country. I want more. I don’t want impersonations. I want the real thing. I want to wander and explore. I want to absorb this city, to experience all it has to offer, to take advantage of my fortune in being here. Three weeks ago, I hadn’t planned on traveling anywhere, and now I’m here, and I hope for the visit’s duration to immerse myself in the culture.

The theory of relativity and what it implies about the nature of time have, since the theory’s inception, make the notion of free will problematic. To our perceptions, time seems to move forward along its course. One event follows the next in a linear path, but that seems is important. According to Einstein, time isn’t immutable but affected by an object’s motion. For a moving figure, time progresses more slowly than for a stationary one. If I stand in a fixed position, I’m still moving through time, but once I begin walking, I’m dividing that energy between both time and space, so time slows down relative to the stationary figure.

Of course, the difference can only be calculated with motion at greater speeds than humans can travel, but this theory throws previous ideas about the fixed nature of time into a tailspin. If time is relative to motion, who says my present is yours? That the past is gone? That the future doesn’t already exist? And if it exist, what does that mean for my choices? Are they already made? Are we simply here to follow a prearranged sequence of events? Do we labor under the illusion of choice, the universe having predetermined our every move, the ends of our lives? Do I, then, on my second day in London, decide to focus my efforts solely on exploring the southeastern corner of the city, or am I acting out a preestablish program?

When we arrive, the weather is temperate, mid-seventies, blue skies, cumulus white clouds. My first afternoon, I unpack and stroll along the Thames with my wife, but on the second day, I miscalculate the balance between effort expended and enjoyment received, and this prompts my decision to stay in the southeast. Notting Hill is the destination. Guidebooks have recommended Portobello Road, for “its mixture of quaint antiques shops and bohemian stalls,” though I have to confess that a not-so-guilty pleasure for romantic comedies staring Hugh Grant also draws me here. My travel preference is to make my way on foot, and this is my first mistake. Notting Hill is on the other side of the city. I chart a course through Hyde Park and figure I’ll take in the springtime flowers, bursting with purples and yellows and pinks. What I fail to consider is that I’ll be on foot fourteen miles there and back.

I didn’t sleep well the first night, troubled by strange dreams. But I’m not about to let a few yawns interfere with my trip. I head into the city, camera poised, ready to make my tour. It strikes me as ludicrous the lengths people go to pretend they aren’t tourists. Some conceal their cameras and take shots surreptitiously. Others refuse to consult maps so they don’t appear lost. But as long as one isn’t obnoxious, there’s nothing shameful in it.

I try to behave better abroad than I do at home, where I sometimes forget my manners—open doors for people, say please and thank you. When I snap photos, I avoid walking backward, bumping people. I get a few good shots—gardens, couples rowing boats across the lake. I almost capture a dog urinating on a black box labeled, “Dog Waste Only,” a photo that would have tickled my juvenile sense of humor. Still, it remains difficult to engage the city without a guide. And though I’d like to gather better information on where to go than books offer, my attempts to talk to a waitress in the restaurant I dine at on Portobello Road meet little success.

The room is cozy—hardwood paneling, framed photos from turn-of-the-century London. They offer green salad, gnocchi, a glass of red wine for eight pounds, and though the restaurant is empty, I don’t take this as a comment on the food’s quality. I sit at a table and order, and when the waitress returns, I comment on the weather.

“Oh, yes,” she says, “It’s unusual for this time of year.”

“I’ve had a nice walk,” I say. “Seven miles.”

Then I stop, hesitate. Miles? Ignoramus! It’s kilometers!

She doesn’t seem to notice, but goes about wiping down countertops, ignoring me. Not that I think this penance for not going metric. I assume many tourists come through looking for small talk. Maybe she thinks I was hitting on her. Either way, I eat in silence and pay.

As I walk back, my limbs grow heavy, my eyes squint against the sun. I consider whether I’ve made the most of my afternoon. It hasn’t been disagreeable. But I only have ten days in this country, and I might have spent my time more wisely. I’d planned on using these first few days to venture far, then stay near the hotel later in the week. But there’s more than enough to explore in one region alone. The Globe, I decide, is where I’ll go the next day. I’ll see a play, experience Shakespeare on his home turf. It’s too late now. I’ve missed the afternoon show. But that’s what I’ll do—get a good night’s sleep, hope the strange dreams don’t return, and head out in the morning to the Globe.

An image, only an image—a rift, a great gaping chasm, an abyss opening beneath you. A jolt, then shuddering, then fire and ash. The smells of fuel fill your nostrils. Fuel spilt on bare flesh. A spark and screech as metal tears from metal, rending. A horrible screech. Wind ripples through—a hot wind, full of ash and fuel and flame and a horrible screech. Then the air, night sky over the Atlantic, impossible to breath.

One solution to the problem of free will is the idea that every time we make a choice, the time stream splits. We continue on a path with the choice we’ve made while a separate version of self in an alternate stream makes a different choice and continues on his or hers. This is metaphysical speculation, yet I find it comforting. If I choose to visit the Globe, but had also entertained the notion of going to Westminster Abby, there’s some version of me somewhere that gets to see Westminster. And while the experience of this other me doesn’t edify my own, it’s fun to think that somewhere, some place, I’m doing everything possible. I’m across town having fish and chips at a Pub. I’m atop the London Eye, the majestic Ferris wheel that towers above the city.

Books and films have toyed with the concept, even as their inventions stray from science and fact. Not that science has ruled this out. What science points to, in this vein—and really it’s only the math that points to it, there’s no way to empirically test the theory—is the idea of a multiverse, that our universe is one of an infinite number. And in this infinite number, some are so entirely different, they’d be unrecognizable—different forms of matter, different forms of life. Some would resemble our own with slight variations—perhaps one in which Europeans never discovered America or one in which cockroaches became the planet’s dominant species. Others would be duplicates with alternate versions of us, leading similar lives, making similar choices. If this is true, it means everything we can think of is possible somewhere, an idea that’s simultaneously beautiful and terrifying. And whenever I’m struck by the limits of time, whenever I make a choice, opting for one path over the other and wondering if what I didn’t choose might have been better. I think of all the possible versions of me out there who get to experience things I don’t.

Still, there are certain choices I’m so content with, experiences that fill me with such joy, that if I linger on it, I feel sorry for any version of me that didn’t get to have them. My afternoon at the Globe is one such experience. I had passed the building my first day and noticed they were holding an international festival—all thirty-six plays done in thirty-six languages by theater troops from countries all over. As I enter, I’m uneasy about watching a play written by a playwright famed for his eloquence with the English language performed in a tongue I can’t understand.

All’s Well That Ends Well. In Gujarati. Performed by a troop from Mumbai.

I arrive early, since I don’t know whether the plays sell out. I mill about the gift shop, perusing shot glasses with quotes from Macbeth and tee-shirts with snippets of Hamlet. In the courtyard are engraved bricks with the names of donors who provided funding for this recreation of the Globe on its original site. The first Globe—Shakespeare’s Globe—burned to the ground in 1613 when a canon misfired during Henry VIII, and a second was pulled down to make room for tenements after being closed by Puritan protests in 1642. This current building boasts the same dimensions and was built with the same materials to approximate the conditions audiences enjoyed in the seventeenth century. Of course, they were listening to actors speak in Shakespeare’s native tongue, but the playhouse hums with energy and excitement no matter what language they’re speaking, and I soon forget my reservations, subsumed within the enthusiastic crowd.

I file up a cozy wooden staircase and take my seat on a wooden bench. Some people have rented pillows since these benches are hard, and my back aches while sitting there. But as the music strikes up and the troop takes the stage, singing and dancing and waving images of a bejeweled gray elephant, I forget the discomfort and focus on the bright silk outfits of blues and yellows that float around their lithe bodies. I’m not sure what I’m looking at, but in the midst of it all, an Indian man leans over and whispers: “To bring about a positive outcome, they’re offering a prayer to Ganesh.”

Back home, I’d be outraged if someone leaned over to talk to me during a play. But this is exactly what I’ve been looking for. Someone to share knowledge I don’t have, someone who can teach me new things about the world I’ve entered. I smile. “It’s wonderful,” I say, though it’s more than wonderful. The interpretation is full of energy, life. It transcends language. The actors are twirling. Their silk garments billow out. I gather the plot of unrequited love and mistaken identities through gesture, facial expressions, body language. My neighbor provides cross-cultural commentary between the scenes. “The lead actress,” he tells me, “is famous in Indian films.” During intermission, he asks why I’ve come to the play when I don’t speak Gujarati. I tell him I’m only here a few days and wanted to see something at the Globe. “I love it,” I say, and his smile widens.

The theater troop has changed the setting from Italy to India, and as happens when I travel, I dream I can speak the different languages, all languages—not just Gujarati, but French, Italian, German, Spanish, Chinese, Arabic, Japanese. I find myself wishing I knew the history of these places. I want to read about them, fill myself with knowledge, go there, have experiences, conversations, even the most simple exchanges like the one I’m having with my neighbor.

When the play ends, our connection breaks, and I float off, borne away by the crowd. I maintain silence. I don’t want to interact with anyone. I want to let these last three hours wash over me. I read on the placard outside that the next day they’re presenting A Winter’s Tale, performed in Yoruba by a troop from Lagos. I don’t know where that is, but decide I’ll be coming back. I could take a chance and explore some other parts of London that might or might not prove gratifying or I could come back here where I’m sure the work will infuse me with ecstasy.

I wonder what my neighbor’s life in England is like, what the play meant to him. I imagine he relished the chance to see a star of Indian film perform so far from his homeland, in his native language, that it filled him with joy, that he’ll be talking about it for weeks. I linger on the dancing, the use of hands intertwining above agile, gyrating hips, the vocal acrobatics, a dynamic warbling so different from European ideas of pitch. Right now, I long to see and hear and experience everything that can be seen or heard or experienced. Even the knowledge that this isn’t possible and probably a bit naïve doesn’t diminish the warmth washing over me.

If there are, indeed, an infinite number of worlds in the ever-expanding realm of space-time, and these worlds are composed of the same building blocks, then we can assume there are many versions of you somewhere in that expanse. The best analogy I’ve heard to explain it, courtesy of Brian Greene’s The Fabric of the Cosmos, is a deck of cards. With a deck of cards, you have fifty-two building blocks to deal. The hands will be different most times, but if you deal long enough, every hand will repeat. This could mean there are different versions of you all over, and if these different versions have made different choices, ever so slight, there are worlds where you’re rich, poor, a serial killer, a drug addict, President, an operative in the CIA, a rock star, an actor. You might be married to someone else or not married at all. You might not be in London right now, watching A Winter’s Tale but on a different course entirely. To that end, there are likely a number of worlds in which you’re dead—a car wreck, an overdose, cancer, a plane crash.

In the shadows, shapes pass, slow, cresting foam, color, saturation, darkness, cold. Your body breaks, and still you feel the wet seeping through, sensations sudden and sharp and then gone. You’ve sunk past the aquamarine shallows, drifting into blue, then navy, then black. The depths. The shapes move toward you and hesitate, curious. They swim and circle and begin to move in.

My dreams are only disturbing because they’re so vivid and aren’t confined to sleep. I get flashes, dream aftershocks that hit when I’m in the shower, letting the water wash over me. My wife and I have made it here, but we still have to make it home, and who can say this won’t happen on our return flight? That the plane won’t hit the ocean, submersing our bodies in a place they’ll never be found? And even if we make it safely, who can say this fate hasn’t befallen me elsewhere? That these images aren’t a glimpse across the fabric that separates this self from others?

My days in London are winding down. I’ve opted to visit a Damien Hirst retrospective at the Tate Modern, and it’s only on my stroll through the galleries that this comes into focus. My dream aftershocks becomes more intense as I stand before the submersed corpses of sheep and cows and sharks, their bodies preserved in aqueous hues, formaldehyde solutions.

 The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living (1991).

It’s the room’s centerpiece. The shark looks alive, though it’s immobile. Its jaws are peeled back, revealing rows of razor-sharp teeth. On the walls near me are smaller fish—elongated and squat, black and silver, ghostly shades of white—all preserved in positions that look to be swirling around this predator, their escapes frozen in time.

The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living.

The title comes from an essay Hirst wrote in college, but standing here, I see myself, my wife, the others whose bodies were ripped apart, burnt to ash by the explosion. All are underwater, preserved in the same aqueous hues as these fish. Our eyes are wide and vacant. Our hair waves in the fluid. Sea creatures pass in schools, heading the same direction. Fins and gills, patterns shooting here and there. Then, I have stranger visions, eyes where eyes shouldn’t be, no eyes at all, tentacles, gelatinous movements. The sinking hull has caught on a ridge, and there it sits. There we sit. Strapped to our seats. Left to sit. Sitting as the creatures come close. Touch a hand. Have a taste. Nibble. Bite. We’re consumed, slowly. The underwater creatures relish the taste. And once that’s done, the water gets to work. The salt eats at our bones, eroding all we are. And I know that this much have happened somewhere—that somewhere, we’re dissolving to nothing. But this doesn’t ruin my trip, send me spiraling into an introspective daze. If anything, the Hirst retrospective heightens my invigoration, reinforces the high traveling provides me, my enthusiasm for new ideas. Hirst’s work, focusing on life and death, resonates. In one room, the temperatures are gauged for the lifecycle of butterflies. Hirst has painted chrysalides into a canvas, which pupate and hatch and fly around, landing on our backs, heads, arms. The room reminds me hope exists, reminds me of renewal. It’s beautiful, I’d say. Or wonderful. Or exquisite. And though I’m sure I think this as I cross the threshold, pushing aside the heavy plastic curtains hung there to keep them inside, I believe I’ve used these words too often. Beautiful, wonderful, exquisite—words that, like the concept of time, have no inherent meaning but are relative to whomever is using them. The same expression of beauty or wonderment or ecstasy I feel might mean nothing to you or even another version of me, and this is where we run into problems, trying to explain the significance of any trip, any transformative experience. Language fails to convey the emotions, and you’re forced to fall back on words like beautiful, wonderful, exquisite. At the end of each day, my wife asks how my day was, what I did, and I run down a list, inventory each event. But I can’t describe what it means, how each experience excites me, fills me with joy, even to the person closest to me. I feel transformed, reinvigorated, and as we head home—as my wife and I board our flight in two days’ time—I’ll want to act on this newfound vitality. I’ll check out books from the library about India. I’ll consider enrolling in language courses. I’ll wish to engage the arts, go to theater more. I’ll dream of traveling to other places—Japan, perhaps. It’s always been on my list of places to see. But this enthusiasm won’t last. The feeling will dissipate. I’ll return to work and get mired in the drudgery of day-to-day life. I won’t have enough money to take these trips. I’ll forget to hold doors for people, forget to say please, thank you. When tourists in my home city forget I’m there, walk backward, bump into me, I won’t be as forgiving as I might, having had that experience in another country. I’ll walk through the frame and ruin their shots. I won’t have the energy to attend classes, study, learn those languages. I know all this, but I don’t want to know it. I want to believe I’ll do these things, that I’ll be the person this trip makes me believe I could be.

Perhaps somewhere, some version of me talked to that waitress, made a friend my wife and I could return to visit. Perhaps somewhere, some version of me can do that spot-on impression of Michael Caine or snapped the photo of that dog urinating and gets a good chuckle from it every now and then. Even better, perhaps somewhere, there’s a version of me who persists in his studies, who learns about India and goes there, who plans his trip to Japan, who masters languages. Or maybe there isn’t any one version of me who does it all, but many versions doing many things. I’d like to think that my vision of the one world in which I no longer exist is just one of many in which I do. In some version of events, the plane crashed before we arrived. In some version, my corpse wastes away under the waves. But this isn’t a ghost story. Somewhere, some version of me is dead, but here I’m alive, feeling more energized than I’ve been in some time. I want more life. I want to live and love and learn. But here, I’ll rest, boarding the plane home. Here, I’ll rest above the sea. Here I’ll rest, for as brief as the moment may be, in utter contentment.