It has often fascinated me to consider that what I take to be connected, consecutive moments strung together to make up seconds, minutes, hours, days, weeks, months, years, decades, centuries, millennia, epochs, and ages may not be the only valid system operating. There may be such a thing as a juncture where what I consider a moment intersects with the moment of a starfish, a housefly, a bacterium, or something that operates on an entirely different schedule.
Beyond that there may be forms that I have yet to imagine, forms of life or something else that populate the spaces between my moments and remain unnoticed by me entirely.
Think of a movie. At standard projection rates of 24 frames per second, a still picture is shown for approximately a 50th of a second. Another is shown a 24th of a second later. The majority of the time we look at blackness. Due to something scientists call “persistence of vision,” we perceive only the brightness, not the dark interruptions. This ability to perceive only those things that stimulate our senses could extend beyond the black intervals at movies.
I love to imagine a parallel universe existing in the same place as our familiar universe, only in the gaps between what we perceive. I am not asserting that this is true absolutely, but there is evidence that cannot be ignored.
I have visited my dentist twice a year for the past ten years. I have seen the same hygienist for the last three of those years. I allow no one else to probe the depths of my oral cavity with lights and mirrors except my dentist and his hygienist. She knows things about me I don’t know about myself. I may say that in the three years we have been seeing each other we have shared intimate secrets. That would impart a misleading impression of our relationship. I have only met her half a dozen times. I can’t even remember her name.
“Mr. Majka,” she says. I suspect she keeps notes of our conversations on my chart. She must have similar conversations with a dozen patients every day. That would be 60 similar conversations every week. Or 1,560 similar conversations since we last spoke.
“Has the leaking stopped?”
I am confused. I don’t remember a leaking tooth. Perhaps she has pulled the wrong chart. My mind scans back six months. It was late summer. I remember having my roof repaired at the end of summer. Did I talk about that with, what, Linda, isn’t it? I take a chance.
“The roof is fixed,” I say. It’s OK.
She leads me into a room. We pass a plastic sign with her name on it. That’s it. Lynn.
“How’s your love life, Lynn?” I don’t really care about her love life. She hasn’t spent six months worrying about my roof. I hope to get her talking so I won’t have to answer questions while she has her hands inside my mouth.
I begin to remember some things about her now. She moved here from some desolate-sounding midwestern place. Nebraska? Minnesota? Fargo, North Dakota? Des Moines? That could be it. Iowa. She’s cute, in a short, tight sort of way. She’s not heavy but compact. She has lovely milky skin, translucent when she leans in front of the crescent lamp she focuses on my mouth.
“He’s no more,” she confesses. “You were right. No more musicians.”
Could that be on my chart? “Mr. Majka says musicians are trouble.”
The blond hairs form a downy halo along the edge of her cheek. The hair on her head is cut short and molded into one of those severe styles; it stays rigid as she moves. Gelled ruts where a comb has passed hours before still glisten in the brightness of the room. Back and forth she bobs, selecting instruments to scratch across my teeth.
“Too aad.” There’s a hose draped over my lower lip sucking spit from the bottom of my mouth. Lynn always pretends to understand this language without consonants.
I remember learning from my hairstylist that musicians are trouble for women. My hairstylist has been living with the same flaky guy off and on for as long as I have been seeing my dentist. My hairstylist and I have another sidereal relationship.
“Been shooting anything I might have seen lately?”
Lynn knows I direct television commercials. I haven’t worked in over a month. The last thing I shot was not a favorite. It didn’t air here anyway. I have nothing to report.
“Uhuuana erraw unah oooh,” I say with no particular meaning in mind.
“That’s too bad,” she says. She smiles just enough to show she understands.
I concentrate on the fumes from the latex gloves she wiggles in my mouth. I wonder if latex can make me high or just sick. What’s in latex? Ammonia?
There’s a long silence. Neither of us seems to feel like talking today.
I wonder what has been going on with Lynn in the gap of time since our last appointment. I can’t imagine her spending six months without a boyfriend. She is usually full of talk of dating and going out to clubs. I am suspicious. I wonder if she only exists for 30-minute intervals every six months.
I remember watching a Nova show about Dr. Edgerton. He was an inventor and a teacher at MIT. He developed stroboscopic photography during the Second World War for reconnaissance photos. Later he invented cameras that shot movie film at thousands of frames per second. He made the camera so he could look at stuff like hummingbird wings and falling droplets of milk and nuclear explosions. When the film from these cameras is projected at the normal rate of 24 frames per second, you can see things happen that would normally happen too fast to see.
Late in his life, Dr. Edgerton wanted to look at different things–things that moved slowly. He set up movie cameras with intervalometers–devices that trigger cameras to take just one frame every so often. The time between pictures could be a second or a minute or an hour or whatever. That’s how they make films of plants growing, flowers blooming, clouds racing, and food rotting.
Dr. Edgerton made underwater films of starfish. The films showed starfish scampering across rocks they normally appear to be glued to. He explained that starfish aren’t inactive, “On the contrary,” he said, “they are very energetic. We just don’t know how to watch them.”
As Lynn rakes my teeth with her steel needles, I picture her boyfriend and his band. Each member is playing at a different speed.
The drummer drums a hummingbird beat. The sound is nearly a roar as the separate strikes of the drumsticks follow so rapidly upon one another as to make a continuous sound.
Lynn’s ex plays lead guitar. He strums a chord for the starfish. Each string sounds out separately echoing in slow motion. Oscillations are so deliberate I can make out the disturbance of the air that causes the sound waves to pulse against my ears. Seconds pass before the sound of the next string hits me. Minutes pass before the chord is completed.
The singer belts out lyrics. I listen as he sings a ridiculously rhythmic “Hunk a hunk a burnin’ love.” His white bell-bottoms snap a different beat.
The effect is altogether chaotic. I think it could be the next rage.
A shot of pain as Lynn snags my flesh with her steel pick awakens me from band practice. A squirt of saliva rushes up the obnoxious sucking hose hooked to a spot made cold by the rush of air. My tongue tries to soothe my tender bleeding gums. Lynn withdraws.
“They look good. You’ve been flossing.”
I visit my teeth once a day with a brush and nylon thread. Sometimes twice. Between these visits bacteria grow and breed and attempt to devour my dental enamel. Every six months, like clockwork, Lynn scrapes off the stuff I miss. It could be plaque or tartar or calculus. Depends on when you ask. The name changes frequently (in dental years).
After 40 years (my time) my gums have rotted enough to require a visit to a periodontist. I wonder if a periodontist eats slower than a dentist eats. I wonder if their metabolisms are different.
I get a haircut every six weeks, but I shampoo on alternate days. No one scrapes my dandruff off but me.
These are parallel universes I encounter regularly. I assume they go on apace between the moments I can see them, just as I assume I do. I can’t help but wonder.
Between the firings of synapses and the lightning-speed rush of impulses within me, lifetimes begin and end in universes buried from my view. Forty years pass in the twinkling of a star billions of years old whose light may never reach me. I sit in Lynn’s office and think these things for just a minute while I wait for my dentist to come see me.
I postulate that Marcia’s home sitting in the chair she always chooses. I can’t see her now. She’s there, though. I know she is. In a parallel universe. I can feel her presence in the gaps between everything I know.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Tony Griff.