On Monday mornings, I send out a story via email: ultra-brief tales of 1,000 words or more, usually in genres including horror, science fiction, and the supernatural. Those stories collectively are called Once Upon A Time. I’ve also published several ebooks and compendium volumes of those stories so far.
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I married my first wife when I was thirty years old. I married my second wife much earlier.
My first wife was a work colleague, in a way. We didn’t actually work together, but we were in the same department and the same building, and I saw her most days when I was arriving in the morning. One day, I said hello, and three years later I married her. We had already been living together for eighteen months by that point. It’s often how these things go.
We had two daughters, barely a year apart. That was also often how things went. I wouldn’t trade them for all the tea in China. I wouldn’t trade them for anything — or so I thought. And as it turned out, I didn’t have to.
There are certain things you get when you’re a man who reaches the age of forty. Some of them are welcome, like the nice watch and the nice dinner and the nice hugs from your children. Some are less welcome but tolerated in good humour, like the cards and comments making fun of your deteriorating body, and your greying hair, and your abandoned dreams. And some are not welcome at all — like your deteriorating body, and your greying hair, and your abandoned dreams.
The social media sites announced my big-number birthday for me, of course, and there was the customary stream of emoticons and template messages. The university pals talking like they talked to me when I was at university, so that they could briefly pretend that they were still at university too. But there was also the comment — just a Happy Birthday! — from a username that I hadn’t seen before, but which quickened my pulse immediately because I recognised its components.
I did the simple subtraction in my mind, and was bemused and saddened to realise it had been nearly thirty years since I’d last seen her. We were children, really, at the start of high school, and she had moved away soon after. Maybe she had been my first true love. Probably. The definition of love shifted a lot when you were young, but adolescence was the time when it started to become variations on a theme.
I was going to reply to the comment, but there were so many reasons not to — the primary one being how very much I wanted to. So I turned to my memories instead.
I found that if I focused my mind, eyes closed, with silence around me, I could still see her clearly, at least as she was all those years ago. I could begin to hear the bustle of the school. I could still feel the ever-present weight of my bag on my left shoulder. I could feel what it had been like to be there. And if I held it in the centre of my thoughts, not as a recollection but as a set of sensory experiences, I found that I could open my eyes and be back there again.
Not in my mind. There, in that time, as real as it ever was. Back, and starting over.
I forgot my future at first, but it came back to me within a day. All of it, decades of memory, like a story I’d been told in great detail, and I knew that it was true — but also that it hadn’t happened yet. I suspected that I could even return to it the same way that I’d come back, but I didn’t. I went to see her instead, and she was exactly as I remembered her.
I was different, though; a man in the body of a boy. I was calmer, and more sure of myself, and much more able to let others be who they were without frustration or judgement, because I could see how unformed and in-progress they all still were. I was content to bide my time, and to be what I had no hope of being the first time around: the best version of myself.
She still left, of course, because we’re only passengers in our lives at that age, but this time she left with the memory of me still strong, and we kept in touch in the ways that were possible back then. And when a more connected world bloomed within a handful of additional years, I was ready for it, and I moved my life to be nearer to hers at the first opportunity.
I rewrote the years I’d already seen, and with the combined tools of my hidden experience and maturity, and my patience and acceptance, and my foreknowledge of the world, the conclusion was inevitable. I married her more than five years before my first wedding had taken place, in a different world; a different time and timeline from the one I had painted over.
They were wonderful years, for that first couple of decades. The invincibility of youth and unlimited potential, coupled with my praeternatural determination and self-belief, were a heady combination. I achieved a great deal, but most of all she loved me. I loved her. Just as I loved my first wife.
As the years went by, I thought of my first wife more and more. I considered looking her up, but I shied away from doing it, because I knew that there would only be pain. If she was well, then she was well without any knowledge of me. And if her life had turned dark, then it had done so, at least to some degree, because I had abandoned her before we ever met.
I should have foreseen how my fortieth birthday would affect me.
The second time around, but different in every way, and yet all I could see in my mind was her — my first wife, the first woman I’d proposed to and married, the mother of my only children. The woman, or at least the version of her, whom I had erased. My second wife thought that it was just depression at reaching a major milestone of age, but in truth I was mourning my family.
I excused myself, and I went for my customary walk in the woods nearby, and I sat down on a stump and closed my eyes. I remembered the other woman’s face so well. I remembered the smell of her perfume, and the feel of her hair. It was so heartbreakingly close. And when I opened my eyes, I wasn’t so very surprised to find myself still on the day of my fortieth birthday, but back in my other life.
Happy Birthday! the message on the screen said, from the username that still bore a maiden surname instead of my own.
I imagined her sending it from the house that was ours, near the woods and the stump, but of course that wasn’t how it worked. I closed the laptop lid with unnecessary firmness, and I ran to find my wife — my first — and when I embraced her, I wept.
Perhaps she thought it was just depression at reaching a major milestone of age. She had no idea that my tears were of relief, at being given a chance to set right the gravest mistake. I picked up my children and held them tight, and my heart stuttered in my chest at my own stupidity and selfishness.
I wish I could say that it ended there, in the manner of the best stories, with a lesson learned and the value of a life affirmed, to be appreciated and cherished ever after. But I’m only a man, and I’m weak, and I knew that I ought to choose only one.
I also knew that I didn’t have to.
Can it be truly wrong to love someone? And thus can it be wrong to love someone else as well?
That’s the position I find myself in. I love them both, in different ways and in the same. So I spend my time in both worlds, moving between them when mood or duty or guilt move me. I walk the line between two small universes, each revolving around a woman, and the version of my own story that I continue to tell there.
The lesson I’ve learned isn’t a moral one, and not suitable for the best stories, but it’s a lesson nonetheless.
When you love someone, two lifetimes is no more than one.
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