For me, a good story is one that manages to surprise me while I’m writing it, taking me to unexpected places. “A World Without Selfie Sticks,” which first appeared a year ago in McSweeney’s, is definitely one such story. When I sat down to write it, I was sure it was about relationships, but only when I got to the end did I realize it was about something else entirely.
In retrospect, I shouldn't have yelled at Not-Debbie. Debbie herself always said that yelling doesn't solve anything. But what is a person supposed to do when, a week after saying a tearful goodbye at the airport to his girlfriend, who was flying to Australia to do her doctorate, he bumps into her at an East Village Starbucks?
There she was, large as life, harassing the barista with questions about their milk substitutes, and when I asked her how she could come back to New York without even letting me know, she just gave me a cold look and said impatiently, "Mister, I don't know who you are. You must have me mixed up with someone else." That's when I lost it. After almost three years together, I'd hoped for more civil treatment. So when she said she didn't know me, instead of arguing, I stood in the middle of Starbucks and yelled out all the intimate details I knew about her, including the scar on her back from when she fell on our trip to Yosemite and the hairy mole in her left armpit. Not-Debbie didn't reply, just gave me a shocked look as two café employees pushed me out.
I sat down on a bench in the street and started to cry. Five weeks earlier, when Debbie told me she was moving to Australia, I'd been devastated, but I understood that the split was inevitable: Sydney University had offered her a doctoral grant, and I’d just been appointed to head a team at one of the hottest Big Data startups in the country. And honestly, though the separation was painful, it wasn’t cruel or humiliating, like that frigid encounter in Starbucks.
Suddenly, I felt a gentle touch on my shoulder, and when I looked up, I saw Not-Debbie standing next to me. “Let’s be clear,” she whispered, “I might look like her, with the mole and all, but I’m not her. Really!”
Not-Debbie and I moved to another café on Third Avenue. She ordered a weak cappuccino with a lot of foam, just like Debbie used to, gave me a searching look, also familiar to me, and began telling me the craziest story I’d ever heard. It seemed that Not-Debbie was also named Deborah, but she hadn’t come to New York that morning from Australia. She’d come from a parallel world. I’m not kidding—that’s what she said between sips of her weak cappuccino. She wasn’t part of an alien invasion or the result of a scientific military experiment gone wrong. She was here as a contestant in a TV game show called “Vive La Difference,” the top-rated program in the alternate universe she came from.
Five participants in the show are sent to a universe that contains everything they have in their own world, except for one thing, and that’s what it’s all about—figuring out that one thing which exists in their world but not in the one they’ve been sent to. The contestants are filmed 24/7, each on his own special channel, and the first one to discover what that missing item is and say it aloud is instantly returned to the TV studio in the world they came from, to the cheers of the audience and a million-dollar prize. And, to raise the stakes, while the winner celebrates, the rest of the contestants have to live the rest of their lives in the alternate universe they’ve been sent to, never really knowing if they’ve lost the game or if it’s still on. This sounded to me like a hell of a price to pay for the losers, but Not-Debbie said it didn’t bother her at all because her ex was a real asshole and she hadn't spoken to her parents for years.
It all felt too incredible to be a lie, and Not-Debbie spoke with such sincerity that I just had to believe it. Last season’s winner, she said, was an immigrant from Ghana who discovered that the missing item in the alternate world the contestants had been sent to was a selfie stick.
"A fucking selfie stick, can you believe it?" Not-Debbie said. "I would have never managed to figure it out."
I asked her a few more questions. It turned out that, like Debbie, Not-Debbie had studied clinical psychology, but she wasn't interested in being a therapist or getting a doctorate, which is why she now found herself stuck in an administrative job in some rich college in upstate New York. I told her about my split from Debbie. About how I'd gone to the airport with her the week before and didn't leave the terminal until I saw her plane take off for Australia. She nodded and said it made sense. Contestants are never sent to the hemisphere where their parallels live, and if Debbie hadn't flown to Sydney, then she would probably have ended up in Buenos Aires or Auckland. "I'm glad she left," she said, giving me the smile that had made me fall in love with Debbie two-and-a-half years ago. "With all due respect to Auckland, nothing beats New York."
When we finished our coffee, Not-Debbie insisted on paying, and right before we were about to go our separate ways, I offered to help her win the prize on the show. In order to find what her world had that ours didn't, Not-Debbie had to be exposed to as much information as possible as quickly as possible, and I, as a computer person with expertise in databases, could help. When I saw her hesitate, I backtracked quickly and said that if helping her or using computers were against the rules of the program, then… But Not-Debbie smiled and interrupted me.
"It's not that," she said. "I just don't want to drag you into this whole complicated business. It's not like I'm just a girl you never met before."
I explained that there was nothing complicated about it. Even though I'd been with Debbie for two-and-a-half years, she was Not-Debbie and we'd just met today, and if it was okay, I'd be glad to help her look for the missing thing. And who knows, maybe in the process, I'd become a TV star in an alternate universe.
At four in the morning, after nine straight hours of searching the technological, geographic, and culinary databases (would you believe that, in their first season, the parallel world was a world without maple syrup?), Not-Debbie said she couldn't keep her eyes open anymore. I changed the sheets on the bed in my small studio apartment for her and she fell asleep instantly. I sat and watched Not-Debbie sleep. It was weird, but I felt that, in those nine hours, I'd learned more about her than I'd ever known about my Debbie in the entire two-and-something years we'd lived together. The possibilities she raised in our search for the missing element revealed so much about her dreams, her desires, her fears. It wasn't that she didn't resemble Debbie, but there was also something else about her: she was open, brave, mesmerizing, and wild. I don't really know what to call it when it happens with someone who is both your ex and someone you've never met, but I fell in love. And while Not-Debbie slept in my apartment, so close that I could smell her shampoo, I pictured the other four contestants on the show still searching for flying cats, electric ear cleaners, eyebrow deodorants, or whatever it was that was missing in this imperfect world. And I knew that all it took for Not-Debbie to stay here with me forever was for one of them to find it. I closed my eyes.
When Not-Debbie woke me at one in the afternoon, she seemed a little slower. She told me it had taken an average of fifteen hours for previous season winners to find the missing element, and she'd been searching for more than a day already. "That's it," she said, "one of the others must have found it already."
I tried to reassure her. After all, there's no way of knowing—maybe they were baffled, wandering around Manhattan or wherever they'd been sent, and she could still win. "Maybe," Not-Debbie said, suddenly smiling, "but the truth is that from the minute I went on the program, I've been fantasizing about losing and starting a new life in this world, a better, less painful life than the one I had back home."
I didn't say anything, and she looked at me softly, unlike Debbie had ever looked at me. "Honestly?" she said, and touched my face with the back of her hand, "who cares what's missing in this world? You're here."
In bed, when I asked her if she was on birth control, she shook her head and said with a smile she really hoped that, of all the possible parallel worlds, she hadn't landed in one without condoms. It was a joke, but when she said it, I could see her hesitate a second out of fear that maybe it was actually true and that saying it aloud would return her to her world and separate us forever. After the sex, when I suggested that we check out the astronomy, geopolitics, and history databases, she said she'd rather have sex again.
Later, we went out for a walk in Central Park and ate hot dogs. Not-Debbie told me that in her world, she's a vegetarian for reasons of conscience, but she feels that here in this world, which isn't her own, it's okay for her to eat a hot dog. "I don't want to win," she said as we stood by the lake, "I don't want to go back. I want to be here, with you." We spent the rest of the day in the city, showing each other our favorite places in Manhattan.
That's how we arrived at Trinity Church. It was already evening and the illuminated church looked enchanted, more like a palace in a Disney movie than a real place. I told her that I'd passed it by accident ten years ago. I had just arrived in the city, and when I saw it, I swore that, if I ever got married, I'd do it there. Not-Debbie laughed and said being sure about the church was good, now all I had to do was find a girl who'd agree to marry me in it. I smiled, too, and right after we kissed, Not-Debbie said, "Let's go inside, I'm dying to see the place where we're getting married.”
The church was fairly empty, and from the minute we walked in, Not-Debbie kept looking around uneasily, as if she was searching for something. I asked her if everything was all right, and she said yes, she was just looking for something. When I asked her what, she looked at me as if I was an idiot and said, "God." Then she added, "This is a church, right?" I nodded, and she said, "So He'll probably be back in a minute." I tried to calm her down. I said that I personally didn't believe in God, but even the people who do say you can't see him.
Not-Debbie shook her head slowly and said, "Wow, that's it! In your world, there are churches and mosques and synagogues, exactly like in mine, only there's not really a God in it. Don't you get it? It's a world without Go…" She didn't manage to finish that sentence, at least not in my world.
Six years have passed since then, and I still try to imagine what happened to Not-Debbie, how she arrived at the flashy studio and was welcomed with cheers from the audience and compliments from a pair of sleek presenters, who told her she had won a million dollars. Sometimes when I imagine it, she's happy and tears of joy run down her face, but most of the time, she's sad, searching the studio, looking for and not finding me. My heart might want to picture her happy, but my ego—my ego insists on believing that the day we spent together was as meaningful to her as it was to me. Less than a year after she slipped through my fingers, I married Debbie in Trinity Church. Life in Sydney wasn't for her, and two months after she returned to the city, we made a spur-of-the-moment decision to get married. Sex with her, by the way, is never as spectacular as it was with Not-Debbie, but it's pleasant enough and familiar, and we have two adorable, beautiful children, Zack and Deborah-Junior, who will have to learn to live, as we did, in a Godless world.