Walking into a parallel universe turns out to be as easy as walking up a flight of stairs. Easier, actually; there's no incline involved when you travel from world to world. It's leaving that universe behind when you find out it's not what you wanted that's the hard part.
One moment I was hustling between classes at West Virginia University in Morgantown, weaving among the slower pedestrians crossing the street below the stubby columns of the Beechurst Personal Rapid Transit station to get to my next class. The next second, the view was the same, but my world had changed irrevocably.
Horror can live in the perversion of ordinary things. I glanced up into the street, and could not move. The other people on the sidewalk broke around me in waves like the Monongahela River around a rock, as I stood and stared at what was to them the most ordinary thing in the world.
A nondescript gray sedan waited at the red light. A Nissan Stanza. Perfectly unremarkable, except for one thing: in the world to which I was born, there is no such company, and no such car. My world was - still is? - filled with Datsuns.
It's not likely that I would have missed such a major corporate action. I have always been interested in automobiles, and I have a good memory for their makes - the kind of omnivorous memory for trivia that makes a good Jeopardy contestant. The Merkur and the Hyundai, odd variants like the Volkswagen 412, came as no surprise despite their relative rarity in West Virginia.
How then could I have missed it when Datsun changed to Nissan? In this new world, I discovered, Datsun had been putting the words "by Nissan" on their cars for years. How could I have missed such a thing for so long?
I don't think I did. I don't think I would have, if I had been in this world when it happened. I don't think I was.
Later I noticed other subtle indications - for some reason, most of them corporate - that I was elsewhere. For example, this world saw the advent of Diet Coke, at which no one had hinted in the world from which I came. To be fair, that brand's surprise appearance in Morgantown could have had an explanation, though. Morgantown was rumored to be a test market for many products; it's close to a major city (fewer than 50 miles from Pittsburgh) but otherwise relatively isolated, and its population is dramatically skewed towards the young who make up the bulk of the buying public for such products.
Then there were yet more subtle alterations. Personality changes, most notably in my then-girlfriend, who still existed in this world though now she couldn't stand me. I persisted in thinking it was my fault, or hers, but now I suspect that our new differences had another explanation.
In novels of alternate universes, the discussion often hinges on the cusp: the turning point, the point of divergence - the one triggering event before which histories are identical, and after which histories diverge. In the stories, the event is usually apprehensible to the reader, or to the character affected - it's a large and obvious thing, like JFK's assassination, a major battle, or Nazi Germany's victory in World War II. Either that, or it's a small but personal thing of which the protagonist has knowledge. But in reality the event might have been an invisible milestone, unnoticed by everyone involved.
My feeling is that Nissan's name change was not the trigger - that the thing I noticed first was itself merely an effect, not a cause. I don't know, and not knowing is itself a source of pain. For a long time, I felt that the cusp was sometime in the early months of 1982, because that is when I changed tracks. Now I realize that couldn't be true. The cusp must have happened much earlier, for Datsun to have started changing their name in the late 70s here. Still, it must not have been too far in the past, or else the divergence was very, very slow, for my memories of events before I switched tracks, to the best of my recollection, coincide with this world's history, and most of the personalities and people I knew were the same.
Who knows what else is wrong? This world perceives the 60s, and idealism in general, as aberration, and has repudiated much of the change attempted then. In mine, they were a door opening, slowly perhaps and with many errors, to new realization. The events were the same, but the emphasis is different.
* * *
Do I believe in all this?
Let's just say I don't disbelieve it as strongly as I should.
Frankly, I don't like much about the world I find myself in. The rise of corporate fascism is much faster and more blatant here, and seemingly unopposed. The consequences of pollution are much more common, and somehow hope for the future seems dimmer. What else has gone wrong?
Is this just my perspective changing as I age? Or can it be that I remember my birthright - that I was born to a brighter world?
I don't have any answers. Just questions.
* * *
Begun April 15, 1993. Hasn't ended yet.
©1993, 2001 Alan P. Scott. All rights reserved.
Last updated February 7, 2001.