We didn’t call it anything, but my mother and I played a game when I was a child. She got the idea from “Sliders,” a television show we watched on the couch at dinner about a man named Quinn who travels to parallel universes. From episode to episode, he flits from one world to the next. The series is a string of taglines. If only, they all begin: … the Brits won, … the Cold War never ended.
We imagined other worlds compulsively. The game always began with a question. If you had to live in a world without something, she’d say, and then she’d trail off, her hands in my memory tightening on the steering wheel. The action of loss was the crucial part. The other worlds, whatever we imagined them to be, had to lose something that was present in our own.
We argued over the precise mechanics of this removal. Would a world without red mean no blood? (Religion tells us there would still be blood. Adam and Eve left the garden. We don’t know if they looked back.)
Like any game, the folly was the arbitrary rules. The limit for each round was one subtraction. But the nature of loss is that it spreads. We had different ways of defining the scope of each loss. Mom aired on the side of optimism, I on melodrama. A world without mosquitoes meant for her fewer scratches, for me a bothersome disruption of order.
Whenever I read, I still play the game. I get some comfort when I imagine what these other people who live in the ink of a page imagine. In these moments, I am my mother driving the car on a foggy morning, turning my head back to Iago or Miss Havisham in the back seat, and I am asking them, If you could live in a world without something, what would it be?
They all ask for the same thing. In fairy tales, the world returns to perfection once someone — the wolf, the stepmother — dies. In the tragedies, villains still exist, but their death grants no absolution. Hamlet thinks that without Claudius, everything will be fine.
Tony Harrison wrote in his poem “V” about a time he caught a skinhead spraying with a can of graffiti his parents’ tombstone in Leeds. The angry young man wrote the letter “V,” as in “versus,” along with profanities. As we read, the man lobs insults at us.
When I asked Harrison, in the back seat, he did not have an answer. At first he told me maybe a world without spray paint, because then maybe the graves were safe. But in that world, maybe the skinhead used paint instead. It might be best to live in a world without paint. He said: I read somewhere that cavemen, in fits of desperation, used the leftover blood from animals to write on the walls, so perhaps we would have to do without animals, too. Certain plants, like milkweed, if you squish them with enough strength, ooze a painterly paste.
He asked me: Is this enough?
I thought, in a world without pens, Harrison would stand a chance at finding the tombstone unscathed. That world would also be a world without the poem.
We could not settle on anything. Later, I figured out why.
When I ask, he tells me, breathlessly, in a soft accent that I sometimes don’t understand, that all he wants is a world without bloody skinheads. He won’t tell me that he wants a world without death, or war, in which his parents are still alive. Maybe that should surprise me, but somehow I understand it. Harrison just wants to grieve. He wants above all else to feel grief.
We don’t have a word for this feeling. Maybe we don’t want to recognize that it exists, or we fear that we are monsters for feeling it. It is a strange desire, because even if we talk about grief as catharsis, we still think of it as a process we must thrust upon ourselves with faith that the sting of remembrance will soon yield relief.
But the yearning to grieve is not the same as the desire to lose. It’s true that it requires a certain realism to accept that loss is a part of life, but if you do, maybe it’s inevitable to desire a way to recognize loss.
When I was five and my mother told me my father had gone to heaven, I told her she must be wrong because his car was still in the driveway. The tragedy for my mother was watching a child incapable of grieving for the death of her father.
Like all games, eventually we tired of it. It became apparent that we would never agree on the point of the exercise. But imagine a world without water, I said once, after my mother told me about a flood in our basement and said she would like to live in a world without water. What I meant was: In a world without water, we could not feel gratitude for living in a house without a flood, because we could never imagine the possibility of a flood. She shook her head.
The quandary is almost too familiar to mention when we apply it to people. People leave us, and when they do, we question whether their presence was worth the grief we feel in their absence. I saw the relief the game granted her. My mother’s worlds were all places she would rather go. Her idea was: We’re better off without certain things. I think sometimes about her closet, full of his pinstriped shirts still stiff the last time she ironed them, years ago, in late October, and it strikes me that sometimes we play games to convince ourselves of the things we want to be true.