You are sitting in your Philosophy class, on a Tuesday afternoon. The topic is John Locke’s theory of personal identity, according to which you are the same person that you were at some earlier point in time, if you can remember your conscious experience at that time. You are skeptical. The question of your identity seems more complicated than this. Certainly, there are occasions when you feel connected to your past, almost as if your life has been one long story, in which you are the main character, but you have to admit that you’ve been feeling this way less and less, lately; that most of the time, you feel disconnected; that perhaps what you thought were memories are in fact glimpses of other people, in their own worlds, living their own lives.
The other students ask petty questions, like whether Locke’s theory implies that one ceases to be oneself, with every lapse of memory. This irritates you. The teacher, a kindly man with thick hair and a moustache, tells them that the relevant issue is whether one could, in principle, remember one’s past consciousness, an answer that strikes you as even pettier and more irritating than the question that prompted it.
As you look around the seminar table, you realize that you don’t know anyone’s name. This is strange. You have been attending this boarding school for several years and have known some of these people significantly longer than that. That girl at the far end of the table, for example, the girl with the huge eyes, you’ve known her since you were a little kid. For a moment, you see the two of you, six or seven years old, behind the bunks, at summer camp. You are kissing her and touching her cheek, as the two of you tremble with excitement.
The class is in your school’s satellite campus in Oxford, on the High Street, a five-story, stone building that dates back to the Middle Ages. The main campus is in London, and twice a week you and your classmates come here by rail to study Philosophy and Antiquities. The station is inside the building on the ground floor, and the train pulls right up to the landing, at the bottom of the bottommost staircase, an arrangement that has always seemed convenient, but which strikes you now as odd. You try to think of your days in London, but can see nothing but a grey mist, from which emerge faint voices, snatches of conversation, clinking glasses and laughter – all the sounds of a rich and satisfying life – but nothing definite, nothing concrete. You know that you’ve been traveling back and forth from London since you started school, but you also know that you’ve never been anywhere but here, in this building, in Oxford. The thought is distressing, and you raise your hand and excuse yourself to the restroom.
Like much of the building, the restroom is undergoing restoration, and there is a mottled, grey cloth covering half of the sink-top and mirror. You splash warm water on your face and close your eyes, savoring the sensation of heat penetrating your skin. Blinking through the water, you look at yourself in the uncovered portion of the mirror. The image is blurry at first, but soon sharpens, and you find that you are vaguely alarmed at the sight. You recognize the person looking back at you but feel as if you don’t know him. As you stare at your reflection, you suddenly realize that you cannot remember your name.
You shake your head and look up. The room is dark, and the wall in front of you is bathed in a deep, orange light, which radiates through the window that opens out over the High Street. You look down at your watch and see that two hours have passed. School is over. Hurrying out of the restroom and down the back stairs, you hope that you can still catch the train back to London, but when you arrive at the ground floor, you discover that it has already left. There will not be another until the next day.
You ascend the stairs to the main floor, where you hear voices. When you reach the landing, you see that the entry hall is ablaze with light and filled with students, who apparently have just arrived. They talk noisily and fumble with their book bags, for several minutes, before dispersing for the classrooms, on the floors above. You don’t recognize any of them. It seems odd that a new group of students would begin a school day this late in the evening, but you cannot deny the testimony of your eyes, so you add it to the list of things you’ll likely never understand.
You walk across the now-empty hall and open the door to the dining room. Several people are eating and exchanging quiet conversation, but it is difficult to make out what they are saying. You consider joining them, but your attention is suddenly drawn to two boys, about sixteen or seventeen years old, sitting at the far side of the room, who seem familiar. You make your way over to their table, and as you get closer, you realize that one of them is your college roommate and the other is your childhood friend, whom you’ve known since nursery school. They are leaning towards one another, talking in urgent whispers, and it takes them several moments to notice that you are there.
You: What are you two doing here?
Craig: We could ask you the same thing.
David: Yeah, this is the first time we’ve seen you. Where have you been?
You: We? There’s no “we.” You two don’t even know each other.
Craig and David exchange glances.
Craig: We go to school here and in London.
You: No, I go to school here and in London. I don’t know what you two are doing.
David: [To Craig] You see? It’s happening to him too.
You: We’re roommates, Craig, but not yet. Not for several more years, not until college. And David, we’ve been friends since we were toddlers, but you stayed in the States, when I went off to boarding school. How are you two…?
Craig: Never mind that for now. What can you remember?
You: Nothing. A few stray moments here and there, flashes, but nothing more than that.
David: Same here. Neither of us can remember anything, other than that we go to school here and in London.
You are struggling with the idea that David and Craig are here, together, as if they’d been plucked out of time and space.
You: How did you two find each other?
David: [Shrugs] Dunno’. Maybe I noticed that he was looking as confused as I was. I’m not sure.
Craig: I just felt drawn to him. I knew him, even though I didn’t. It’s the same with you. I know you–shit, I know you better than almost anyone–but at the same time, I don’t know you.
You: What should we do?
Craig: Get out of this building, for one thing.
David: I agree. This place is starting to give me the creeps.
You wonder whether this is possible. It should be the easiest thing in the world to walk out the door and onto the street, but you cannot remember ever doing so. You know that you must have done it many times – innumerably many – and yet, you cannot actually recall being out on the street or anywhere outside of the school, for that matter. Oxford, London, your home in the States, your grandmother’s apartment in Tel Aviv, your childhood summers in Key Biscayne and on the Maine coast. You know the stories and the people, hear the sounds and see the sights, but you can’t put yourself back inside them; can’t feel yourself in the body of that boy.
You: [Whispering] How? How do we get out?
David: We shouldn’t let anyone see us leave.
Craig: [Looking around] Yeah, we do it out of sight. Who knows how many people are in on this thing?
Your friends are thinking about this too literally, trying to make what is happening fit into a narrative that they can understand, and what is easier to understand than a conspiracy? You find yourself wishing that you could deceive yourself in this way, but you know that the truth is something much more difficult than this; something, for which mere discretion will not be enough; something which cannot be put off or otherwise delayed; something about which nothing can be done. Then, you suddenly think of the restroom and remember that there is a window there, which looks out onto the High Street.
You: How about the WC? It has a window.
Craig: Good call. We’re only on the second floor. It won’t be a very long climb down.
David: We shouldn’t all go together, though. You go first. Craig and I will follow.
You get up from the table and return to the restroom. It is exactly as you left it before. You lean on the sink and splash water on your face again.
The door opens and you turn, expecting to see Craig and David, but it is your philosophy teacher; the kindly man, with the thick hair and moustache.
Teacher: What do you think you’re doing?
You: Just washing up.
Teacher: You don’t belong here, you know.
You turn back to the sink and splash more water on your face.
You: I know. I don’t know what’s happening anymore. Everything’s gotten so weird.
Teacher: [Laughs] What on earth are you talking about? I just meant that you should have been on the last train.
You look up at the mirror, but can’t see the teacher, who is standing on the side that is covered with the drop-cloth. You feel a sudden urge to tear it away, to see him.
You rip down the cloth.
He stands there as he did before, but where his face should be, there is a mass of writhing tendrils. He reaches out towards you, his hand magnified by the mirror.
At that very moment, Craig and David come into the room. There is a moment of shocked silence.
Craig: Get out! Now!
In three long strides, he is across the room. Leaps through the open window.
David: [Grabs you] Time to go!
The two of you turn and jump through the window.
You step off of the train and onto the landing. The school administrators and teachers are there, in full academic regalia, and the current student body, in fancy dressed, is assembled. A cheer goes up, as you disembark. Stretched over the staircase is a purple and gold banner, across which is scrawled: “Welcome Class of 1986.”
The Chancellor claps you on the back, as you make your way past him, up the stairs. Someone has thrown confetti, which falls like gold and silver snow, and you turn for a moment and wave down at the cheering crowd. When you reach the first floor and the entry hall, you see that it is already crowded with alumni and abuzz with conversation.
Two of your former classmates are chatting animatedly with your old philosophy teacher. His hair is significantly thinner now than it was when you were in school and has gone grey, as has his moustache, and looking at him, you are suddenly aware of your own aging. As you watch your friends talking and laughing, a sense of contentment washes over you; of friends well met, journeys well taken, a life well lived. You reminisce for a while and drink the fine wine that seems to endlessly replenish itself in your glass. Then, you see her.
Across the room, in a small group, is the girl with the huge eyes. She is thinner and greyer, but to you, she is the same as she was. You catch her eye and gesture toward a private corner of the hall, partially hidden behind an elaborately carved, wooden screen. She says something to her friends and follows, until the two of you are behind the screen. You take both of her hands and for one eternal moment you stand there, inches apart, swaying gently to a silent melody. Then, you are kissing her and touching her cheek, as the two of you tremble with excitement.
She excuses herself to the restroom. As you watch her go, sipping your wine, you have the feeling that someone is watching you. You turn and see two vaguely defined figures at a table at the far end of the room, waving. You fumble in your tuxedo pocket for your glasses, and upon putting them on, realize that the two figures are Craig and David, your college roommate and childhood friend. They cannot be more than sixteen or seventeen years old, and you are struck with a sudden recollection of a man who met his friends, past and future, in a strange place, at the edge of time and space.
Craig and David are not beckoning to you, but waving you off; signaling vigorously towards the exit and shouting, their voices lost in the loud hum of a lifetime’s conversations. Peering at their faces, you see that their mouths are forming the words, “Get out!”
You turn and bolt for the exit.
When you enter the restroom, the girl with the huge eyes is there. She is crying silently. You are too wrought with emotion to respond and turn to the sink, where you splash warm water on your face. You blink through the water and look at yourself in the mirror, noticing that half of it is covered in a mottled, grey cloth. You are struck with another memory, this one of a man, who looked in a restroom mirror and was confronted with the meaning of his life.
You look to see how the girl with the huge eyes is doing, but she is standing on the side of the mirror that is covered with the grey cloth and is not visible. You feel a sudden urge to tear the cloth away, to see her.
You rip down the cloth.
She stands there as she did before, but where her face should be, there is a mass of writhing tendrils. She reaches out towards you, her hand magnified by the mirror.
You push past her and out of the restroom, into the entry hall. It must be now, or you will never know; never understand.
Your philosophy teacher stands at the center of the hall. He looks as if he is waiting for a train. You approach him, and it takes a moment before he notices you, but when he does, he smiles warmly.
You: Can I ask you something?
Him: Anything, ______. Anything.
Your eyes well up with tears, at the sound of your name.
You: Is this some kind of test I’m being put through? Some kind of ordeal, for whatever reason? Or is this just life?”
The teacher looks at you, and you see in his eyes a sad resolve that resonates with the music of the universe. Him: Would you believe me, if I told you I didn’t know?”