Empathy Everywhere All At Once

2 for web

I witness the material sins of my father in the form of a dripping flame while I’m parked near the corner of Broad and Gilmer. He’d assured me that my true blue 2006 Mitsubishi Lancer — a car that’s a beater in every universe — had just passed a safety inspection. Regardless, when I crack my door I meet smoke rising from the molten remains of my car’s grill, and when I look down, I see the infernal last gasps of the hand-me-down vehicle from my grandmother. 

✦       ✦       ✦

Halfway through my return from a summer road trip through Hampton Roads, I decided to stop in Richmond on a whim; at some point before I parked, my car caught fire. The whole trip started and ended in smoke — on the bus to Main Street Station (I had to get my car from Alexandria before I could start driving) the smog from Canada’s forest fires painted the sky an apocalyptic gray. On the descending stretch of the ride through downtown, I wondered if that summer would be my last, and how many decisions away from death I was. I’m always waiting for my “Final Destination” moment. 

The theory of quantum immortality suggests that every time you die, your consciousness leaps to a reality where you simply didn’t make the decision responsible for your death. Combined with the now well-digested idea of an infinite multiverse, and parallel universes with subtle differences to the one we reside in, there’s a perspective on life where you keep dying, again and again, and simply hop to a realm where you only had another close call. Up until the moment I had my hand on the handle of my car door, I was still considering whether or not to stop and park. I will always remember how much more likely it was for me to keep driving.

In “The Space Between Worlds,” a sci-fi novel by Micaiah Johnson, travel between different universes is possible with one limitation: travelers can only go to the universes where their alternate version is already dead. The main character Cara is exceptional because she’s dead almost everywhere. The book, published in 2020, offers a creative and contemporary narrative that wrestles with age-old themes of capitalism, racism and queerness — practically every form of a marginalized identity — and engages with these deep-rooted issues on an omniversal scale. If anything, wondering about the what-ifs is one of the most common thoughts to have. That makes a multiversal lens something anyone can closely relate to, regardless of distance from the themes of a text. Anyone can daydream about what might have happened if they said the right thing to the right person at a crucial moment. Sometimes I imagine how many parallel universes are between me and a world where my ancestors were never slaves.

The underlying conceptual metaphor of the multiverse is now so relevant that there are feature-length culture articles about its history, reception and meaning on CNN, The New Yorker and Esquire. The ability to explore lost opportunities and decisions never made is especially relevant post-2016, with the widespread speculation about the cultural bombs that did go off in America — Trump’s election, quarantine, the overturning of Roe V. Wade, the siege on the Capitol — surrounding our recent history with a tone of regret.

The speed of capitalism’s acceleration and perceivable descent is the most obvious cause of postmodern nihilism and the present-day obsession with nostalgia. It’s hard to pinpoint one thing that gives everyone common ground or is undeniably valuable. It’s hard to know what actually matters. That truth echoes throughout popular culture right now. Franchise reboots and new iterations of the same characters have always been a thing, but lately there’s been a well-discussed lack of authenticity in the most recent rounds of remakes, spin-offs and crossovers. Whether it’s the awkward pauses making space for audiences to cheer after the introductions of previous Spider-Men in “No Way Home,” digital replications of dead actors in the messy third act of “The Flash,” or John Krasinski in seven minutes of “The Multiverse of Madness,” the biggest pockets in Hollywood are perverting the idea of the multiverse. It’s morphed into an excuse to use an audience’s prior association to characters or actors as a replacement for a good narrative. Even “Oppenheimer” has cameo-filled sections — the camera will bounce between Casey Affleck, Jack Quaid, Josh Peck, then back to Robert Downey Jr. — that make the film seem like a white male parody of “Smash Bros.” 

Gen Z’s fixation on the past is explicitly expressed in our trends and the things that make up our own personal brands — usually on display in online spaces. A rekindled interest in camcorders and digital flash-photography, y2k clothing, PS2 era games and early 21st century aesthetics fuel a large chunk of what we end up reflecting in our day-to-day lives, but also what we produce for others to consume. Liminal space art — photos that include settings like haunting and incomplete recreations of McDonald’s play places or the employee-only sections of Sears — is popular because it reflects the dark side of our yearning. For better and for worse, we are reconciling with the horror of a distorted memory in a time where everything, from the moment of our conception to the thousands of ways we might die, can be googled. We are dealing with the complications of being recorded from birth.

A brick marker sits at the entrance/exit of the neighborhood I grew up in.

My own dramatic fascination with nostalgia has a clear diagnosis. I spent my childhood in Western Branch North, in a neighborhood nestled underneath the Chesapeake water tower. Divided between multi-family condos, and single family homes, it’s the type of suburban neighborhood where old metal takes on a living quality. I still remember every field-green street sign, humming electrical box and parked car rusting under a tarp. Directly in the middle, there’s a patch of concrete with cluster mailboxes that served as a bus stop for the area’s only high school. It also doubled as a landmark for children to defend with plastic Captain America shields and Nerf guns in imaginary battles. 

Outside of the neighborhood there’s a park, suburban forests, and one road headed to the highway.

When I lived there, my world was defined by its limits. My family’s condo was at the end of the neighborhood, next to a forest the wooden fence separating it from us. Through the trees were train tracks; I didn’t comprehend much further than that. Western Branch is named after the area of the Elizabeth River that serves as an eastern border, and is almost exclusively residential. On Fridays my best friend’s dad would buy us Dairy Queen and shuttle us to Home Depot, Wal-Mart and then Toys-R-Us to let us stretch our legs. Larger excursions included trips to MacArthur Mall or Virginia Beach, but even those places have a distinct calm in my memory, almost like the density of southern air begs people to settle evenly.

A stretch of a bridge between Hampton and Chesapeake.

At the start of middle school, my dad got a promotion and we moved to Alexandria — the new house had a white picket fence. We gave up our family plan at the YMCA and I started working out alone at Planet Fitness. After that I lived my life clamoring for a return to my idea of normal. I got social media to hunt down my distant friends, I visited my old neighborhood as often as I could, I thought about what I could’ve been had I not left that place that felt like a small town. The scale of my life was getting too big, too fast, at a time where I was first recognizing the layers of separation between myself and the world. I was getting better at code-switching, at masking, at putting myself in a closet, before I fully realized any of what I was doing.

Route 1, or I-95 in Alexandria.

Externally, I could see through most cracks. The neighborhoods around Mount Vernon put the area’s wealth inequality on full display. Underserved apartments are on the same streets as houses with motorized iron fences and guest suites, and in the same mile radius as a neighborhood called Yacht Haven. I saw close neighbors and classmates side with politicians pushing for more oppression. I reconciled with what it meant to visit George Washington’s plantation for class and run past it during cross-country practice. I watched the Proud Boys storm D.C. I spent 2020 finding political theory on Tiktok and debating politics in live streams, while also missing an ex whose family happened to be the Trumpian type of Republican. I tried to consider what everything meant when it was all put together. I guess I thought of an America that never escalated past the 2008 financial crisis, or something like that.

The inability to escape a linear prison of progression is exactly what multiverse stories, at their best, emphasize. In the eighth episode of “Rick and Morty,” Rick accidentally turns the majority of humanity into grotesque insect-monsters. He and Morty have to find a new family in a new universe. Specifically, a universe where the versions of themselves are similar enough and also recently deceased. In the next episode, Morty’s sister Summer has a breakdown over her conception being an accident — to that, Morty admits to replacing her version of himself, giving a spiel that ends with, “Nobody exists on purpose. Nobody belongs anywhere. Everybody’s gonna die. Come watch TV.” In the conclusion of “Everything Everywhere All At Once,” a somewhat-traditional-and-more-conservative-than-her-daughter mother and a somewhat-radical-and-more-progressive-than-her-mother daughter have to come to terms with each other. By the end, they both recognize the effects each of their material pasts have on their relationship — they integrate the idea of each other as individuals into their lives. Even the “Spider-Verse” movies focus on the bridge between personal gaps, be it generational or informational. So many multiverse stories center around dealing with an expanded sense of awareness and coming back to the same problem or place they started with. 

The biggest shift of my life has been the noticeable loss of faith in the values America was supposed to hold. As a black kid I never gave them too much credit, but 10 years ago I could feel a collective belief in a narrative about the country. Even what I didn’t believe — that we championed freedom and bravery among other things — felt like it was functionally true. People had an idea of the country and the way it would respond to a hypothetical crisis, and then a crisis happened and it didn’t play out the way it was supposed to. People had an idea of a future, but we took a wrong turn and kept driving. Then you’ve got all these previously sheltered people whose worldview is shattered, and the title “American” finally loses its definition. That type of narrative dissolution is hard to live through; it’s the type of event that makes a past that you used to understand better than a future that holds questions. In a panic people often cling to tradition.

The last time I went to Chesapeake, I aimed an aluminum gun at my childhood best friend on the East Coast’s biggest airsoft field and drank on Virginia Beach — a place I hadn’t visited in maybe a decade. There I thought about when I first wrestled with the fact that his dad was a sheriff most of our lives, and there we danced around the fact that he himself was in the sheriff’s academy now. It guarantees stability, and a lot of people in Hampton Roads are military or law enforcement. I don’t know where I’d end up or how I’d think if I was never forced to leave. Near the end of my trip, we went off-roading in the truck he got from his dad, through the mud of the forest bordering the neighborhood we used to share. I think of his impulsiveness, his previously humorous immaturity, the ADHD pills his parents wouldn’t let him go to sleepovers without. The night before I left we went to Wal-Mart, and I exploded in the dairy aisle, only raising my voice as loud as I’d allow myself. In something more like a passionate whisper I told him he had to consider what it means to be a cop. I waved my hands a little and displayed a look of exasperation, and he made a face like he might’ve internalized what I said. We both stayed quiet and shrunk a little on the way out of the store. 

✦       ✦       ✦

The fact that one of the friends I’ve had the longest is training to be a cop disheartens me. At the same time, I’m also aware of the way I often move the goalpost for the people I’m closest to. With a bigger frame of reference it feels impossible not to be the more empathetic person. I have to consider all the years I’ve cared for him and all the choices I’ve watched him make. I think about all the factors I couldn’t control that led to where I am and the way I think now. With the abundance of stories about the multiverse in a time where social media has perfected the broad strokes of exposing different perspectives, it’s difficult to isolate the things I interact with. We get pieces of art about how specific our individual frame of reference is all the time now. We focus on how relative everything is, either explicitly or implicitly. It’s hard to compartmentalize any single part of my childhood friend, or my thoughts about him. It’s hard to not recognize Chesapeake as a residential haunting ground, not to empathize with the people my age who live there and lament about having nothing to do. I see the way it harbors ghosts. In the morning, my friend is at the sheriff’s academy, and I leave his parents’ house without running into anyone. When I park on a whim in Richmond, I see fire, and I take everything into account.

Graphics by Lesly Melendez