Joel’s ears were ringing like he was buzzed, but a man of his size couldn’t get buzzed off two glasses of wine. He wasn’t tipsy. He was fucking confused.
Sherman leaned over the table, and Joel unconsciously followed suit.
“Every morning, I wake up in a different version of the universe,” he said.
“You wake up…”
“In a different universe. Yes. Like I said, I know it sounds crazy.”
“And you said it anyway.”
“Because it’s the truth,” Sherman said. He glanced around to make sure they weren’t drawing attention before continuing. “It started almost two years ago now. At least. At first, the changes were so subtle, I don’t know how long it was happening before I noticed. And then…have you ever heard of the Mandela Effect?”
Joel sighed. “What, you mean those crazies who think they changed universes because they forgot the name of a children’s book or something?”
Sherman nodded. “Yeah, exactly like that. I didn’t actually believe I was shifting universes, not with shit like that. Probably forgot, or got confused, whatever. No, I didn’t think anything was really happening until my car changed.”
“Your car changed?”
“Same car I’d had since college. A Honda Concert hatchback. But one day I go out to the car, and it’s not a Concert. It’s a Civic. A Honda Civic. And as I’m oh-so-casually asking around, everyone calls it a Honda Civic. No one has even heard of a Concert. And neither has the internet.”
Sherman shook his head. “They’re Civics here, too. Other stuff started popping up, every day. Brand names kept changing, I guess maybe because there’s always so many decisions on what to name shit? I don’t know. I think I’ve seen about thirty different names for Razor crackers.”
Joel had no idea what Razor crackers were supposed to be, and honestly didn’t care all that much. The good date was over. His good feelings were gone. Sherman had finally revealed that he was just another internet disappointment. At least now Joel could get Taco Bell on the way home and eat his feelings.
Sherman gave him a thin smile. “You don’t believe me.”
“You think I’m another internet crazy, and you’re at least relieved you can get Taco Bell on the way home.”
His face was painted with shock. He was sure of it. There was no amount of preparation that would have helped him keep his face entirely straight. To hear your thoughts as words from someone you’ve only just met…
“This is the part where I really need you to not freak out.”
Joel only nodded. What the fuck was he supposed to say to that? Sherman already said he was from a different universe, and now Joel wasn’t supposed to freak out?
“This is our first date,” Sherman said, gesturing to the two of them. “But this is not the first time I’ve dated a Joel.”
A Joel. As in, one of many.
Not just a bunch of different Spider-Mans swinging over and around each other. The whole world. Everything around him.
An infinite amount of Joels.
“This is insane.”
Joel had started carrying cash to these dates for this exact reason. He pulled a handful of twenties out of his pocket, hopefully enough for the amount and tip, and dropped them on the table.
“You need therapy.”
He was outside on the curb long enough to get the Lyft app open before Sherman was next to him.
“Just listen to me.”
“Nice night. Think I’ll walk. Don’t follow me.”
Sherman did anyway.
“I’m sorry. I don’t like doing this part. But I think I was making things worse when I didn’t,” he said. Joel had about a half foot on him, and Sherman was practically jogging to keep up. “I realized it a few months ago. I…Joel, please…please, just stop, and give me thirty seconds…twenty seconds! Twenty seconds to convince you! And if I don’t, I’ll leave. I’ll leave you alone.”
They were at an intersection now, anyway. Joel sighed and rubbed his eyes with the palm of his hands.
“You’ve got until I can cross the street,” Joel said, nodding over his shoulder. The sign was currently counting down from twenty-three.
“Okay, that’s more than I need.” Sherman took a big breath. “Your name is Joel Jeremiah Carter. You list your birthday on the internet as November first but it’s actually the third. You think that can help you protect your identity. Your parents kicked you out at eighteen when your shitty sister outed you, but your dad secretly tries to keep in touch. You don’t know how you feel about that. You’re the only person I’ve ever met you likes plain frozen yogurt, and that’s true in every single universe I meet you in. You tell people you don’t like sitcoms, but whenever you’re sick the only thing you want to watch is…well, the show changes depending on the universe, but it’s always some show you otherwise pretend to hate.”
The crosswalk countdown hit zero. The walk sign illuminated across the other street.
Joel didn’t move.
“How do you know all that?”
“Because in the universe I left…my universe…Joel, we were married. We met when we were in college, at a party thrown by some gross frat. I don’t know, I might be too far away from home now, maybe you never went to that party…”
“Kappa Sigma, junior year,” Joel said, barely aware he’d moved his lips at all.
Sherman nodded, his hair flying. “That’s the one. We both got dragged by stupid friends. I was hiding in the kitchen looking for an out and you followed the pizza delivery guy into the kitchen. You were going to pick a pizza and take it home with you.”
“Wow…I haven’t thought of that…I did do that. I don’t remember…”
“The first dozens of universes I passed through, we were still married. And then, one day…I woke up and you weren’t there. The odds of us meeting that night weren’t good, I guess. If you went into the kitchen here, I didn’t.”
This is insane.
But that voice was quieter. Unsure. The things Sherman knew…the instant spark they had.
“So, what, you want me to, like, come with you?”
Joel would never admit it, but it was the smile Sherman gave him at that exact moment that made him believe him. There was so much in that soft curve of the lips, the crinkle in his eyes. Affection. Gratitude. Sadness. Loneliness.
“I appreciate the offer. But you can’t. Or at least, I haven’t figured out how yet. I’m not doing this for me, Joel. I’m doing this for you. I am not the Sherman who belongs in this universe, but there is a Sherman here. And when I leave tonight, he’ll be back. He won’t remember this date, I don’t think. Tonight will be…fuzzy. But you’ll still have him matched in that app. Reach out to him tomorrow. Start fresh. Like tonight didn’t happen. Because for him, it didn’t.”
Joel hesitated, leaning back a little. Sherman put a hand on his shoulder.
“Before I said all this, it was going well, right? Really well?”
Joel said nothing, but knew the ‘yes’ was painted on his face.
“Well, imagine meeting a version of me that doesn’t have all this weird baggage.”
He couldn’t help it. He laughed.
Sherman’s hand was still on his shoulder. They both realized at the same time. Sherman pulled it away. Joel wished he hadn’t.
“Do…do you want to get a drink?” Joel asked.
After a bit of hesitation, Sherman shook his head. “I shouldn’t. I know what happens and…it hurts too much. Message him in the morning, okay? As soon as you wake up. He…I…we’re always awake before you.”
Then he was gone, working his way through the streams of people. Joel managed to follow him through the crowd with his eyes until he turned a corner.
Chase after him.
Demand more answers.
Joel turned around and went to find his car.
In the middle of the night, staring at his ceiling, it was easy to believe the whole thing had been some tragic joke. This Sherman person was nothing more than a bizarre conman. The things he knew could have easily been found on the internet. Educated guesses. Emotional lies. Just another terrible internet date.
But the next morning, when he finally rolled over and sat on the side of the bed, he picked up his phone.