Parallel lives were the trope of their friendship. Sometimes she would launch into the middle of a conversation, expecting him to follow along, and then stop at his confused stare.

Sorry, she’d say. We must have been having this talk in a parallel life.

And it was about…? he’d ask.

You’re very witty in that life.

I’d like to meet me.

Oh, you’d like you.

And they would continue the conversation, he trying to be as clever as his parallel self, she laughing as though he were.

He actually knew very few details about these parallel lives; she maintained most of them, though she assured him that he existed in each.

In one life, he worked as a reporter for a big city newspaper, and she was a girl copy editor trying to break into the big time. In this city, men wore hats and women wore straight skirts with sensible shoes. Like Lois Lane and Clark Kent, she explained, without Superman. He was relieved to have only a secret identity.

In another, they lived in a fishbowl. She was a goldfish who swam in tight, fast circles around the plastic castle. He was the diver who stood over an open chest of doubloons and emitted bubbles.

Some of their parallel lives were fraught with danger and intrigue, like their life smuggling guns over the Pyrenees to embattled anarchists in Valencia. Those lives reminded them that even their life in the glow of the office lights was contingent and precarious.

When not keeping track of parallel lives, they chronicled the many daily indignities, real and imagined, that they suffered. They made light of them, laughed at the wounds, and accepted their lot. But on hearing these travails, they both became white-hot with righteous rage in the other’s defense.

She was often upset that her boyfriend never went inside the coffee shop with her. He waited in the car, sulkily, while she went in to fetch coffee to-go. The chairs and couches arranged around the gas fireplace beckoned cozily, but she dared not sit down. Sometimes she went to the shop alone to read and imagine having subtle conversations with someone across the table.

He counted the times his wife failed to kiss him goodbye in her rush to work. Often he was in the kitchen packing lunches, or in the children’s room folding clothes, when he heard the front door slam shut. Sometimes this happened two or three times a week.

So, is he afraid of coffee? he asked.

No. He just doesn’t drink coffee.

They sell other things at coffee shops. Soda, juice …

We’re usually going someplace. He doesn’t like to take detours.

Ah, my life is a detour—I lost the map years ago.

She thought that a kiss before work would be better than coffee. On the weekends, she stayed at her boyfriend’s house and usually slept late, waking to his impatient clattering downstairs. During the week, she rushed out of her own house, locking the door against its empty rooms, and came home to fold her own laundry.

And though he frequently felt invisible to his wife, and wondered if she would notice if one day he left and didn’t come back to load the dishwasher or roll the socks, he loved her completely. His favorite hours came late at night, with the children and his wife sound asleep, the dishes and clothes put away, the coffee maker set up for the next morning, nothing left to do. He would stand in the hallway and listen to the deep breaths coming from behind closed doors and feel proud that they could all sleep so profoundly.

They never expressed these thoughts to each other.

He was certain that he loved her more than she loved him. She was younger, after all, and her heart had been broken and divided fewer times than his own. Someday, perhaps, she would develop the small muscles of the heart that make it ache while at the same time keeping it whole, but for now her heart was unpracticed and able to beat for just one person at a time.

She was certain that she loved him more than he loved her. His first loyalties, after all, were to his children and wife. When he talked about his children, even to complain, a wistful, proud smile spread across his face and made his cheeks glow. She could never steal him away for a few minutes of subtle talk at the coffee shop, would never be the one to kiss him goodbye in the morning. His heart was already filled, and she could hope at best for a handhold on the outside of it.

They never expressed these thoughts to each other, either.

Once, he called out her name in the middle of the night. He woke from an oddly abstract and agoraphobic nightmare, in which the space between them was expressed as a dark, empty room and his longing was symbolized by a pair of mirrors reflecting into infinitely small squares. She never thought about him when she made love with her boyfriend. But she did think about him afterward, listening to her boyfriend’s sated breathing as he drifted to sleep, when what she wanted more than anything was to talk. The desire pushed against her lips the way the desire for orgasm had pushed against her womb. She could contain it only by surrendering to a parallel life where she lay beside him and whispered silly, playful things while he listened appreciatively. She nurtured this parallel life as her private realm, and alluded to it only obliquely.

When he wondered what it would be like to sleep with her, he seldom imagined beyond the first kiss. That, he realized, was what he really desired—the drowsy, half-lidded way two faces finally come together, surrendering to mutual gravity after hovering so long, the instant just before lips meet when the inevitability is made real, when the kiss is still theoretical. He missed the brief giddiness of a surprising kiss, a kiss not required under contract or in return for services rendered, a kiss given up bravely like a martyr mounting the scaffold for a glorious cause. But he knew those kisses cannot be sustained, and belong to the young and nostalgic.

She longed to be enchanting, to be regarded with eyes full of wonder at her strangeness, eyes that could see past the clumsy, frightened, garrulous woman and onto the graceful, brave, eloquent girl she wanted to be. Sometimes she talked to him about enchantment, and they dissected the various levels it might obtain. He never told her that he found her that way, fearing it would break the spell.

He had practiced the goodbye for a long time, convinced that it had to come eventually. Real life was bound to stumble into their parallel lives and knock down the carefully painted sets, scatter the props across the stage. But it was better than letting them bleed into the physical world, taint the daily drab with their strange colors, threaten the careful clockwork with irregular beats and rhythms.

She had not practiced the goodbye. But she did find one day, with muted surprise, that she possessed fewer parallel lives than the day before. Each day after that, she took inventory of them, and wondered what had become of the fishbowl, the copy editor, the doomed Catalan anarchists. She couldn’t be sure if they were fading away, or if they were somehow twining their threads around the ropes of her daily world.

So when her boyfriend took a new job in a different city, and she decided to follow, he didn’t try to dissuade her. And she was only half-sure she wanted to be dissuaded. He expressed his fondest hopes for her happiness, teased her about chasing her to the far corners of the world, promised to call and write. She promised the same, though she knew it wasn’t like the blood pledges made to each other in other lives.

He thought about saying, We’ll always have Valencia, but didn’t.

He did say, I might not miss you.

And she said, I’ll miss you terribly, with her lips not far from his.

And in that space between their lips, wider than the dark room of his dream, they saw the thousand parallel lives finally intersect where the real world’s geometry never could.

Copyright © Michael Hartford 2005. Title graphic: "Refracted" Copyright © The Summerset Review 2005.