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Joshua Malbin

Chirality

Alex invited me to lunch. We’d been very good friends in college and for a long time

thereafter, but I hadn’t heard from him in well over two years. He’d left my life without

warning, having just borrowed several hundred dollars. All at once he’d stopped

responding to texts, emails, phone calls. I’d worried about him, and became more so

when I asked friends and learned he’d done the same thing to nearly everyone. Not the

borrowing, but the disappearance. Only one or two people still spoke to him at all and

could confirm he was alive.

A year after he cut himself off I received a check in the mail from him, in the amount

he owed me. No note. I’d never cashed it.

Then recently a text message, which read simply: “Sry been out of touch but want to

catch up. Lunch?”

I’d considered not answering. It had hurt to be dropped without explanation, and I

wasn’t sure I should let myself be picked up again with one still lacking. But I

remembered something my father had told me at college graduation: “You have all these

great friends at school,” he’d said, “and of course you’ll drift away from most of them

over the years. You probably know that. What you don’t know is that you won’t make

many new ones to replace them. A few, sure, but really it’s downhill from here.”

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“It’s downhill from here” had seemed like a hilariously inappropriate piece of

graduation advice, and I’d often told the story to friends with that as the punch line. Yet

in recent years, as old friends moved away or had children, I’d come to notice that I

really wasn’t replacing them. It wasn’t as easy to write Alex off as it once might have

been.

So I did write back, and after a few messages back and forth we settled on a

restaurant in the eastern part of Chinatown, east of the Manhattan Bridge, an area I didn’t

know well at all.

When I exited the subway on Grand Street I was already running late, so I only

glanced around once quickly and took my best guess at which direction was downtown,

keeping watch for signals I might have made the wrong choice. The first was that the

building numbers counted up where I thought they should be going down. That put me on

alert. Then I reached Delancey Street, which I was almost positive was uptown of Grand

Street. Worse, the East River seemed to be on my right when it should have been to my

left.

I asked someone passing and she confirmed that yes, I’d been going the wrong way.

The whole world seemed to wrench about and reorder itself, leaving me with the feeling

of standing in a different city from just a moment before.

I mentioned this little episode to Alex when I joined him at the lunch table, a

weightless, nonthreatening anecdote to get past the awkward start to things.

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“I love when that happens!” he said. He’d grown a beard and gained fifteen pounds.

Both looked good on him. “I used to imagine that I’d wandered into this alternate version

of New York where everything was like—do you remember organic chem?”

I held up my hand and wavered it, meaning, I remembered a little.

“You know, how every molecule has left and right versions that are mirror images.

You remember? So close to the same you can’t even tell them apart with a mass

spectrometer, except for that one little mirror-image flip, and then once you start making

whole protein complexes, building up to having a complete organism, that makes all the

difference. You get these complicated, folded, three-dimensional proteins and maybe

only the left-handed version fits into the slot where it’s supposed to go. I always thought,

why can’t there be the same concept at the quantum level, since every atom has two

possible spins and quarks have all these opposite flavors? What if there was a universe

just like this one only reversed? So that when you have those moments of being turned

around it’s like a glimpse of Opposite New York. When I get stuck like that, instead of

asking directions I just go with it. It lets me imagine what things might be like over

there.”

“And what’s it like?”

Our plates arrived. Burger for me, Caesar salad with chicken for him.

“How you just felt, right? Everything looks pretty much the same, but you have this

creepy feeling it’s all wrong, and you’re trying to ignore it. That’s what it’d be like to go

there. I was thinking about that kind of thing a lot a couple of years ago, when I stopped

being in touch for a while.”

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This set off a warning bell. I wondered, was it really so likely that I should mention

getting lost and that experience should turn out to explain what Alex had been up to for

the last two years? Alex had a reputation for being liberal with the truth, and it was

possible he was making up a story.

“You don’t believe me.” He must have seen it on my face, and stood up from the

table abruptly. “C’mon, I’ll show you.”

“I’m not done eating,” I muttered.

He dropped enough cash on the table to pay for both of us and walked out.

“Goddamn it,” I told the waiter, since there was no one else to tell, and followed him.

“I haven’t tried this with someone else before,” he said. We fell in step, heading for

the subway. “We need somewhere to get lost. How well do you know Central Park?”

The ride uptown took nearly an hour and for all that time Alex stayed away from

talking about himself or me. Instead he talked politics. I didn’t object because after all,

friendships didn’t need to be reestablished with deep talks confronting matters of

personal importance. Easy ones on neutral topics could be just as important.

We got off the train at 103rd Street and Central Park West, far uptown of my comfort

zone. What knowledge of Central Park I did have was limited to its southern end.

“Central Park is designed to separate you from the New York grid,” Alex said.

“Nothing at right angles, no clear lines of sight.”

Sure enough, we followed a path from the park’s outer walls and past the very first

fork were in a stand of trees thick enough to screen completely from view the apartment

blocks of Central Park West. We continued by a stretch of open water and then climbed a

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long slope, still winding through trees, and emerging at the edge of a round meadow.

From this high, open vantage I could see buildings once more at the edge of the park, but

we’d been walking for at least fifteen minutes and I had no idea whether or not we’d

gone far enough yet for those to be on the east side, if we’d gotten turned completely

around and were once more facing west, or if we’d meandered off to one side and were

now seeing the north. We descended again, following one path to another, until we hit

some part of West Drive or East Drive, which together make a big loop inside the park.

I looked left and then right, and both directions looked the same: country lane

winding through trees, cyclists and rollerbladers flowing past. Only they all seemed to be

going the wrong way. Bike traffic in Central Park was supposed to run counterclockwise

around the core, so all the riders and skaters should have been going left to right as I

faced them, not right to left. I cast about for landmarks, familiar pieces of skyline, but

everything seemed wrong.

I had the sudden fantasy that Alex had in fact drawn me into his imaginary mirror

dimension and I would now be trapped here, like Zod and his henchmen in the Phantom

Zone in Superman II. I recognized the thought as ridiculous as soon as I had it, but it

reflected the real anxiety of being stuck here in an unfamiliar place with a man I was no

longer sure I knew so well.

I decided the situation needed confronting. Whatever Alex thought he was doing, it

at best danced around the important questions. At worst it ignored them entirely, and in

any case it was starting to make me uncomfortable.

“Can we stop this a minute?” I stepped onto the dirt beside the road. Alex halted

beside me.

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“Did I ever tell you what my dad said at my graduation? About losing friends?”

Alex looked puzzled.

“How everyone loses all their college friends and never makes new ones to replace

them? That’s been happening to me. One by one it seems like they’re all going off to

other cities, or getting married and having kids, or they’re always busy at work, or I’m

busy working…”

Now Alex looked downright annoyed. “And I’m one more jerk who’s leaving you

behind.”

I squirmed, rubbing my palms on my hips. “You kind of already did,” I said. “That’s

why I’m doing this with you, for chrissake. I’m trying to figure out what happened.”

“And I’m trying to show you.” Alex swept his hand left to right, indicating the sweep

of the road before us. “All you have to do is tell me when the world is backwards.

Because I’ve been seeing it since we left the subway.”

“Now,” I sighed. “It’s reversed now.”

“So you see how everything feels a little unfamiliar, like it’s all been replaced with

something not quite right.”

A pack of bicyclists zipped past the wrong way. I nodded.

“Now think about where human beings came from. Hunter gatherer clans and then

after that small villages. Everyone having the same range of experiences day to day, the

same context. Nowadays, though, if we’re lucky enough to go to college that’s probably

the last taste of that kind of life we get. Everyone doing the same thing, living together all

the time. It’s not the same as a nomad tribe, obviously, there’s huge differences, but it’s a

taste, right? That’s why you get that feeling that friends there matter so much, because

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they know all about your life. Or your high school friends, maybe, if you can’t go to

college.” He smiled tightly. “But you grow up. Not so many people really get you

anymore. Maybe your girlfriend. Even with her, though, she doesn’t see you at work, she

only understands that big chunk of your life because she listens to you talk about it every

day when you come home. You can’t do that with each and every one of your friends and

they see even less of your day-to-day life than her, so you do the short version. You know

there are little things they’ll never fully understand. Mostly trivial things. Who needs to

know about all the boring shit you go through at your job? What’s going on is that your

friends no longer know you, they know an image of you, and over years the distance

widens between you and your many images, as many as you have friends.”

He gazed at his feet. “Then something happens that makes you feel ashamed. Maybe

you lose your job, and you’re drinking too much, and you borrow money you can’t pay

back. If everyone still knew each other’s business the way they did in college, they’d

already have known how you were fucking up before you ever got to that point. They’d

feel they were to blame, in a way, for not having stepped in. But it’s not like that

anymore. We’re not all in a little clan. You’d have to confess it all, explain it all, and

your friends could stand aside, without feeling responsible, and examine you. That’s

unbearable.”

“We all loved you and were worried about you,” I said. “I never cared about the

money.”

“You’re missing the point. I know you’re caring and supportive and would have said

sympathetic things and told me to forget about the money. But you’d be looking at my

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fuckup that you had no part of, and you couldn’t help judging that. If you try to claim

different now, you’re lying.”

He had a point. Part of me might have judged him—was even judging him now—

without feeling responsible for him. I couldn’t help it. Instead of arguing I switched gears.

“So you started wandering the streets, trying to make the world turn backwards? That’s

what made sense to you?”

“No, it didn’t make sense. It was weird and unfamiliar, that was the whole point. It

wasn’t my fault I felt alien and alone, it was the rest of the world that was screwed up and

wrong. Not built for human beings the way we know them in this world. There was

something comforting about it.”

He left the grass and rejoined the foot traffic uptown (downtown?), with a little jerk

of his chin telling me to join him. I did. “I was doing this every week, then every other

day, and then all the time. If you keep deliberately confusing yourself walking the same

blocks, it gets to be pretty easy to turn yourself around. Especially if you’re a little

drunk.”

A pair of joggers pounded by, two men a touch older than us, feet hitting the

pavement with the same piston-like regularity, wires flapping in the empty spans between

their ear buds and the iPods velcroed to their upper arms. Their faces, in the glimpse I

caught of them from the side, were scowled in concentration.

“Then one day I saw you,” Alex said. “I was standing by some building with one-

way mirrored glass, watching the reflections of everyone who went by. You walked past

texting or something on your BlackBerry and I had one of those moments when you feel

the emotional charge of Hey! I know that guy! before you can process why you feel that

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connection. You were gone before I remembered who you were, and that made me feel

so lonely, because the part of the brain that connects faces directly to emotions, that’s

powerful stuff. It doesn’t want to hear about, ‘the whole world’s fucked up, it’s not my

fault.’ That’s when I sent you the message we should meet.”

We came to another pond, this one much more expansive than the last, fringed with

weeping willows. Diagonally across the water in the distance rose a pair of ugly

cylindrical Modernist towers. This was the Harlem Meer, right at the uptown edge of the

park; the moment I understood that I had that feeling of wrenching reorientation again,

the city setting itself back into proper alignment. Bikes and runners coursed by us in the

proper direction. We stayed on the drive past the Meer, curving around again to head

downtown, I was now sure it was downtown.

We walked a long time in silence. I felt bad for Alex, felt he was looking to me for a

response to undo his isolation, and wished that were possible, but I didn’t think it was.

Not all at once, not easily. Or maybe he wanted something else from me. Clearly he’d

tried to show me all this for a reason, and I wasn’t giving him the answer he needed.

It was a perfectly crisp day, clear and beautiful the way the city only gets in the fall.

We came to the reservoir, that concrete basin whose expanse forces the main circular

drive all the way out to the park’s borders. Here we paralleled Fifth Avenue and I caught

sight of the Guggenheim, and I remembered the day on a college break when Alex and I

took acid and rode on wheelchairs down the museum’s long spiral ramp, through an

exhibit of the Italian Futurists. We’d spent hours there, ending in a wild career when the

ramp pitched sharply down, whizzing us past monstrous tourists who flattened

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themselves to the rail to avoid us and leapt from our path as we sped across the lobby.

Afterward we wandered in Central Park until the streetlamps began to glow, at which

point my class-bound suburban fears of the city rose up and I had a screaming panic

attack at the thought of being caught there after nightfall.

It had been late November then too, and an hour later we’d emerged from the park

all the way down by the Plaza Hotel, where Alex had had his own acid-induced freakout

over the menacing face of mass consumerism presented to us by FAO Schwarz in full

Christmas display. Flocks of screaming rich children and pigeons blew back and forth in

feral chaos across the deep FAO Schwarz plaza. A pair of garish Christmas trees stood

sentinel, and the ropes of Christmas lights inside the store’s glass façade were all white

and sterile. A cop stalked the steps from the plaza to the street, billy club in hand.

“He knows there’s evil here,” Alex had whispered to me. “He’s looking the wrong

way.”

Today I felt those younger versions of us walking just inside our skins, our shared

past separated from our present by only a thin membrane. Those versions of us whose

friendship and trust were so strong that I’d trusted Alex and no one else when I dissolved

in irrational terror, and he’d trusted me when he did the same.

And now I knew there was something I could do for Alex. I could bring those boys

to the surface once we reached that corner of the park—the one by FAO Schwarz—if I

could think of the right words. I could drag them back into being and Alex would no

longer have to feel alone. All I had to do was take for granted that Alex remembered too,

speak directly to that younger man inside and make him respond.

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We walked and walked and I turned over in my mind how to bring it up. We spoke

little, merely small observations about the kids sailing rented toy boats on the

Conservatory Water, the slack crowd at the zoo for a clear weekend day.

When we finally emerged at the bottom of the park, though, we weren’t where we

should have been, and all thought of what I should say evaporated. It was a New York

intersection, of course, one I knew very well, but it was the wrong one, and for an

unbearably long time the world seemed to stop as my mind failed to make sense of where

I was. In the end I simply had to ask Alex.

He stared at me as if I might be playing a joke. “Columbus Circle,” he said at last.

I’d seen that. I’d known it. I’d managed not to consider it real. FAO Schwarz was

supposed to be at the southeast corner of Central Park, Columbus Circle at the southwest.

We were supposed to have emerged at the southeast. Unlike the previous times, though, I

experienced no wrenching realignment, no feeling of the city reverting to a direction that

made sense. This was Columbus Circle. Columbus Circle was in the wrong place. Those

facts remained stubbornly unreconciled.

They did for days, in fact. I went about my life with the sneaking fear that I really

had slipped into Alex’s alternate New York and never come back. Everything seemed

new and strange, from my morning commute to my girlfriend herself. She remarked on

my passion when we made love and there was no tactful way to say it was because she

was her, only different.

Nothing ever happened to resolve that eerie feeling. It faded after a week; I got used

to things as they were and simply stopped thinking about it.

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I hadn’t come up with the words to relaunch my friendship with Alex, so I continued

to see him only rarely. I did follow him on Facebook and Twitter, where he was active.

But contrary to their promise of “online community,” those websites brought me no

closer to him. None of what he wrote there bore any relation to what we’d discussed. His

status updates and tweets were lighthearted, and often he posted pictures of himself

having a good time with people I’d never met. I knew plenty about his day-to-day

activities and knew Alex himself less and less.

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