A Peculiar Arrangement of Atoms

by Daulton Dickey.

a face like a Picasso painting, not one of the cubist or bizarre Picasso’s but more like a woman in a painting from his so-called ‘blue period.’ Her eyebrows were turned upward and her eyes seemed to excrete sadness. She seemed on the verge of tears. Any minute now, I wagered, she’d start crying, just blurt out something inane or insane and lower her head and sob.

She sucked on the filter of a cigarette but the cigarette wasn’t lit. Was she a smoker? reformed? And at one point she pulled it away from her mouth and parted her lips into a pruned ‘o’ and mimed an exhalation of smoke. Then she sucked on the filter again.

Something inside me compelled me to talk to her. It propelled me to my feet and I glided across the room and sat beside her. Not motivated by lust or desire, I turned to her as soon as I sat down and I held out my hand and introduced myself.

‘Sadie,’ she said as she shook my hand.

‘Loud in here,’ I said.

Music played, some modern dance bullshit.

Her eyes fluttered and she glanced at the ceiling, as though fixing her gaze on the sound waves.

‘I hadn’t noticed,’ she said.

‘Listen,’ I said, ‘I couldn’t help but notice—from over there, on the other side of the room—but … is everything all right? You, and I don’t mean to sound rude or anything, but you look like a woman who just buried her husband.’

Her gaze broke and unspooled. She blinked.

‘Excuse me?’

‘You just … I couldn’t help noticing how sad you look.’

‘Do I?’

‘Like you’re going to start crying.’

She touched her cheek, and she gazed at the bar top, stared at it with a fixed yet empty gaze.

‘You know what?’ I slid out of the chair and backed away from her. ‘I feel rude or like I’m intruding. I’m sorry. I don’t know what …’

‘No.’ She reached out to me. ‘Don’t go.’

‘I feel like a jackass now,’ I said.

‘Please.’ She stood and clutched a handbag. ‘Come outside. Will you come outside with me?’

She walked with a stiff spine. Her head didn’t move and her arms stayed up, curled at her chest. I followed her, and from my vantage point I saw less of a human being and more of a skeleton, of the stop-motion variety you’d see in old fantasy movies.

Following her put me into a kind of … I don’t know how to describe it. It’s like something about her prevented people from glancing at her. It’s like no one even acknowledged she existed, like crossing the bar, heading for the door, she’d become a bubble or a void, and not even light penetrated this bubbly void. And following her, trailing in her wake, I felt enmeshed inside her bubble. No one acknowledged her and no one acknowledged me. And I was aware of it. I sensed it, like the exact opposite of agency detection—the ability to sense when people are oblivious to you.

She pushed open the door without holding it for me, and I latched onto it and flung it open. Without glancing back at me, without stopping to wait for me, she cut through the parking lot and wound her way around parked cars and ended up at the far-end of the lot, a sort of rock-strewn cul-de-sac. There, she removed a lighter from her handbag and torched the end of her cigarette.

‘These no-smoking-in-public laws are a bitch, aren’t they?’ I said.

The moon was full and white and the craters scarring its surface were a sort of purple or blue. She craned her head back, just enough for her gaze to reach the moon. I traced her gaze with my eyes and landed on the moon. But I wasn’t certain that it had snagged her attention. She could’ve been searching the constellations for all I knew. Or she could’ve been spacing out, thinking without fixing her gaze on anything.

‘Are … I hate to ask, but is everything all right?’ I said.

‘Funny how we do this.’ She didn’t peel her eyes from the sky. ‘Day after day, month after year and so on. Funny how everything just … is … How nothing is how we think it ought to be.’

‘Blame Hume,’ I said, ‘for cursing us with his whole “is-ought” distinction thing.’

It was admittedly a bad joke, but I’d hoped it’d elicit something like a response.

‘How many atoms do you think there are in the universe?’ she said.

‘I wouldn’t begin to know. An obscene amount, probably.’

‘Of all the atoms in the universe, it’s a coincidence that the atoms inside us are configured in such a way as to make me me. And to make you you,’ she said, still gazing at the sky. ‘Given the age of the universe and the uncountable number of atoms it contains, I think this has happened before. All of it. I don’t think it’s impossible to suggest that these same atoms inside me right now, these same atoms that make me me, have previously combined in such a way as to configure me. Previously. Maybe a billion or more years ago. Maybe in a galaxy we don’t even know exists.’

A train track ran alongside the back end of the parking lot, on the other side of the woman. Two teenagers ambled along it. They said something, shouted something, and laughed. Then they shouted again and ran off.

Still, the woman didn’t break her gaze.

‘My life,’ she said, ‘every second, every minute, is old to me. It’s stale. My entire life is one long, prolonged feeling of deja vu. Nothing is new. Nothing is surprising.’ She broke her gaze and twisted toward me. ‘I saw you earlier. Watched you walk in and order your drink and sit down. And I knew you were going to approach me. I even knew what you were going to say. And I knew—I don’t know why, but I knew—that you were going to comfort me. That voice. Or the way you kind of awkwardly stood and shuffled your feet. Nervous, the way certain children tend to act when they’re introduced to strangers. And it did,’ she said. ‘It did comfort me. But the sensation of being comforted wasn’t relaxing in any way. I anticipated it. I expected it. And so when it washed over me I felt like I was experiencing it through a mirror, as though I were watching myself experience comfort more than actually feel the sensations of the experience.’

She dropped the cigarette and crushed it by stepping on it and twisting her heel.

‘Do you think it’s possible? What I said about previously being me? this specific configuration of atoms?’

‘Anything’s possible, I suppose.’

‘Yet you don’t believe me.’ She glanced at the sky again. Fixed her gaze again. ‘You don’t believe me about the déjà vu,’ she said. ‘About constantly anticipating and experiencing things I haven’t yet experienced? You don’t believe me.’

‘I never implied that.’

‘Yet you don’t deny it.’

‘I don’t … This may sound strange, but I actually know what you’re talking about. I mean, I feel the same way. Like, I knew when I woke up this morning that I’d come to the bar tonight. I knew, while I was at work, that I’d meet a woman here. And I know what you’re going to do in a minute, in a few minutes, when the train comes. I can’t vocalize it, I can’t say I really even think about, but it’s just a feeling, you know?’

She didn’t turn to me, she didn’t smile or break her gaze.

‘So do you know why I’m going to do it?’

‘I don’t.’

‘But you want to know.’

‘I do.’

‘I know you do,’ she said. ‘If you’re like me, and I mean if you’re really like me, then you know how awful it is. You how know how tiresome and dreadful life is, how horrible it gets when you expect and anticipate every action. Day in. Day out. You wake up and take a shower, brush your teeth, follow this routine. And even if it’s new, even if you do something you’ve not done before, it’s still a routine, you know? So even if it’s theoretically new, it still feels like you’ve done it before. Because, in a sense, I think, you have done it before.’

A train horn blew. It blew again, louder this time.

My stomach hollowed out. Vomit threatened to climb up my throat.

‘You don’t have to do this,’ I said.

‘I don’t. But you know I’m going to.’

‘But you don’t have to.’

She glided toward me and touched my cheek. Her hand was warm and soft and, I don’t know, comforting somehow.

‘What a peculiar arrangement of atoms we are,’ she said.

The train horn blew. It blew again, louder this time. And the ground rumbled this time.

‘But then what about me?’ I said. ‘Don’t make me live with this.’

‘You’ll live with it for a while, and then you’ll do the same thing, and then you’ll no longer live. Then in a billion years or more, atoms will coalesce into a certain configuration, in a part of the galaxy we don’t even know exists, and you’ll be you again, and you’ll live your life again, more or less the same life you’re now living. And then we’ll meet again. At a place like this again. And we’ll have this conversation again.’

‘It sounds awful, this never-ending circle.’

‘But it’s the way things are,’ she said, ‘and it’s the way things will always be.’

‘I can’t …’

‘And when we meet again,’ she said, ‘when we have this conversation again, you’ll protest. As you always do. And I’ll touch your face like this,’ she ran her palm over my cheek again, ‘and a tear will slide out of your eye again. Just like that. And then the train will approach again. And I’ll jump. And everything will begin again.’

‘Please don’t make me endure this alone.’

The train horn blew, louder. Louder. Then a train rocketed into view. The woman smiled and backed away from me, and she turned and leaped in front of the train. The horn sounded, screamed, and the wheels screeched.

And then life went on. And I felt that empty feeling, the feeling of knowing and expecting and anticipating everything. Life passed by and I didn’t experience it, really. Instead, I kind of stood outside and watched it roll by, or like I watched life through a two-way mirror: I saw it, interacted with it, but everything always remained familiar.

And then in my forty-third year I woke up and took a shower. I got dressed in the walk-in closet in the spare bedroom. And after I got dressed, I put the barrel of a shotgun into my mouth and pulled the trigger.

The earth died and the sun eventually swelled up and consumed the earth, and it fired atoms into the solar system every now and then, when flares erupted on its surface. They lingered, the atoms, and then they flowed through the galaxy. And after an indiscernible amount of time, the atoms coalesced and merged on a planet in the outer rim of the galaxy. Life flourished. Dinosaurs evolved and died. People evolved and prospered. Civilizations rose and fell, rose and fell. Then I was born. And pretty much from birth onward, I expected and anticipated every experience. And I kind of more or less drifted through life, drifted through it as though I were gazing into a two-way mirror. And one morning, in my thirty-ninth year, I woke up and felt a sensation assault me, and I knew I’d go to the bar that night. Then, while at work, I knew I’d meet a woman at the bar. And I wondered briefly if she’d be the one. I wondered briefly if she’d fall in love with me and save me. I wondered briefly if she’d make things feel new and unexpected.

So after work I went home and ate and took a shower. Then I got dressed and drove to the bar. I ordered a drink and crossed the room and sat in the corner, below a flickering light. My drink was strong, so I sipped it. And then I noticed her. Across the room, at the end of the bar, she stared into space, as if thinking but not thinking. The woman had

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