Jessica lowered her eyelids as her jaw leisurely worked the crispy, cheese-coifed hunk of chicken parm. “Scrumptious,” she oozed, drawing out the word. A drop of marinara, barely noticeable, dove down towards her sleeve, but she’d worn scarlet; she was prepared. “Did that sound pretentious? ‘Scrumptious’ is one of those words that you read occasionally but rarely hear, you know?”
I chuckled and leaned over the edge of the booth, pretending to scan the room for a server. “Just keep your Pretentious Dial locked. If you break out ‘piquant’ or something as the manager’s walking by, they’ll probably demand that we upgrade to a better-quality wine.”
“…and since what I know about wine could fit on a Post-It note, I’ll panic and bolt for home. You’ll text, but I’ll be too embarrassed to respond, and two months from now, I’ll be sitting on a curb by the 7-11, berating myself for allowing you and ‘piquant’ to hurl me into a life of crime.” Jessica nibbled on a roasted pepper with care and concentrated, trying to match stern words with hardened features, but the corners of her mouth insisted on a breezy smile instead. “And all because this place has incredible chicken. I don’t know if it’s the spices or if they slather it in some fancy oil, or—”
“Don’t say ‘slather.'”
A mock-exasperated huff. “Why don’t you pay some of that attention to your pasta whosiwhatsis there?” She grinned, stabbing her fork at the air in front of me. Snippets of conversation slinked around us alongside clinked glasses, scraped plates, and a polite but rather fervent inquiry regarding whether or not the scallops were locally sourced. Jessica was enchanting, I’d managed to not commit any serious faux pas, and the food truly did merit a radiant Yelp review. So this was contentment. I’d almost forgotten.
“Michael.” My date reached across the plates, slipping her fingers into mine. She carried the expression of a creative child who’s just dreamed up a wonderful, thoroughly-impractical idea. “It’s…it’s our fourth date now, and…t-there’s something I…” She exhaled heavily, her anxiety coasting the table in miniature jagged waves.
“Jessica, you all right? Is—” A cold front crept in, the freezing tendrils wrapping around my insecurity. I pushed back and shoved the frost down. “Is this…not working for you? I mean, you and I. Did you want—”
Her eyebrows woke up and thrashed mildly. “Oh, nothing like that! No, trust me, I’m enjoying myself, and I love getting to know you better. It’s just…” She squeezed my hand and with her next breath, the sincere, apprehensive expression on her face curled into a sneer. “If God is omnipotent and all-loving, then how can evil exist, Mikey-Boy?”
My utensils clattered, one sailing unceremoniously into the aisle. Feedback tore through my thoughts. The room was now tilting on the axis I’d never realized it had. “You’ve got to be fucking kidding me,” I spat at her, much too loudly. Faint, disapproving murmurs burbled out from our neighboring tables. “Get. Out.”
The thing currently driving Jessica laughed—a low, quiet, gravelly sound I hated, and that had become my most faithful companion. “Really, Michael, was that necessary? Abominable manners. You ought to cut this poor woman loose; she’s wasting her time. Jessica can do so much better.”
“Anything I can help you with?” I’d failed to register the server standing next to me, ready to respond with an additional appetizer, or perhaps my expulsion from the premises.
It cleared Jessica’s throat. “We’re great. Thank you,” it said in my date’s voice. “Philosophical discussions make my boyfriend very cranky.” The wink it sent me could’ve powered NASA for a year.
“Mmmmmm.” The thing paused in-between bites to sigh, the sound dripping with satisfaction. “Your girlfriend’s sweet and a little too naive, but she knows how to pick a restaurant. Hey, are you two splitting the bill? ‘Cause if you’re covering it in full, that Oreo cheesecake looks divine. Jess doesn’t usually eat dessert, you know. Worries about her waistline for some reason, even though body accepta—”
“WHAT do you WANT, Sofia?” My growl nearly matched its own.
“Filosofia,” it corrected. “It’s rude to not address people properly. What do I always want, Mikey-Boy? A lively, thought-provoking discussion! Now, if God has infinite compassion—”
“You’re not a person. And it’s been almost a decade,” I rasped. “If we’re gonna talk about compassion, how about releasing me? Early parole for good behavior?”
“That’s above my pay grade,” Filosofia replied cheerfully. “Forty-three days, one for each offense. Legally, I lack the authority to pardon or commute your sentence.”
“You could’ve let me serve those days consecutively!”
The thing shrugged. “I could’ve, but spreading them out over your entire remaining lifespan sounded way more exciting! Well, for one of us, anyway.” Jessica’s eyelashes fluttered at me. “Hmmmm. She’s got exquisite lashes,” Filosofia muttered. “Mine naturally clump together. It’s a unique flavor of frustration.”
“Have you…have you been her the entire time?”
Jessica’s face shifted into pure disdain, as if she couldn’t process a question so idiotic. “Of course not,” the thing chided, clicking my date’s tongue. “I’m busy, Mike. You honestly think I can afford to sit around and possess your girlfriend all day? You haven’t even made that Facebook-official, by the way. That’s what she was about to ask you before I sent her for a nap.”
The air trickling into my lungs seemed a touch less stifling. So Jessica’s affection for me…at least that was real. “And this is the first time you’ve—”
“Heh!” Straw slammed into ice cube as Filosofia slurped every remaining drop of water from Jessica’s glass. That same rattling echoed in my bone marrow. “That’s not at all what I said. I’ve been on all your dates, Mikey. In fact, this is the third conversation you and I have had tonight. I’d guess…” A finger twisted around Jessica’s garnet curls as Filosofia trailed off in thought. Jessica had mentioned the habit on our previous date, claiming it was a remnant from her childhood that she’d been unable to break. “…probably around half of everything out of her mouth was just me flexing my improv skills. But I exit the vehicle when you’re not around. You’re the point, not her.”
When she was seven, Jessica’s mother forced her into an orthodontist’s chair. Her teeth were crooked and stuck to their own agenda, rejecting Jessica’s authority over them. She eventually prevailed and won the smile she’d coveted. With Filosofia driving, those teeth, meticulously straightened and perfectly balanced, seemed too sharp. Unbalanced. Too eager.
“Is she in pain? She’s not trapped in her own head or something, yelling for help?”
The thing rolled Jessica’s eyes. “Mikey Boy, I thought we’d reached an understanding.”
Before I could react, a hand shot out and clutched my own.
To a bystander, it would’ve appeared romantic; in reality, abstruse shapes and patterns taunted me as I struggled with the weight of the thing’s grasp, seasoned with a pinch of vertigo. And the others, all the people in my life Filosofia had driven, began to surface in higher definition than usual.
I remembered the Store Manager at Publix who claimed he’d caught me shoplifting, and only released me after a three-hour discussion about history repeating itself.
I saw Nicole, a fellow regular at Aroma Joe’s. For months, a coffee schedule was all we shared—until the day she swaggered over, introduced herself, and demanded more. An misty image with torn edges slowly sharpened, focused: Nicole in the parking lot, sipping a Perfect Cloud (extra hazelnut) and leaning against her Ford Focus (2008, lime, “My Child Is An Honor Student At Pine Crest” bumper sticker). “Mike, we’re talking about the universe. Now, I’ve got to pick up Brayden in a few, so let’s stay focused: What IS truth?” Nicole existed in a perpetual state of Transporting Brayden; she never stayed longer than half an hour on any given morning. The moment it noticed me in line, Filosofia sent Nicole to sleep and “drove” her. For a month. I finally switched coffee shops.
The parking lot faded, replaced by the JetBlue rep who refused to place my luggage on the conveyor belt until I’d argued whether either of us could experience anything objectively.
When that memory retreated, one of my first encounters with Filosofia took its place. I gawked at the younger, thinner version of myself reemerged, witnessed scenes from the entire afternoon I’d spent on the phone with Tech Support. The first rep thanks me for calling, we exchange names, I briefly describe the Error Messages of the Day that Windows 7 (64-bit) had chosen. The tech gives me one new piece of information, and then says: “Michael, it’s been my pleasure to assist you, but I’m afraid I cannot continue to provide you with support until we’ve settled the larger issue at play here: does everything happen for a reason?” I hang up, repeat every step with a different rep, inch just a smidge closer to solving the problem—and then hear the question again. I cycle through the entire department twice before I surrender. That computer currently lives in my garage; I haven’t powered it up in nine years.
The other memories followed and I trailed after them, re-living every discussion with Filosofia I’d had, remembering the faces it’d borrowed and the voices it’d stolen. Desperate for air, I gasped when it released me, certain that I’d been swimming in the past for several weeks.
“Back already? Hmmm. That was about four minutes,” it reported with Jessica’s voice, completely unimpressed with my effort. “Did you learn anything from our relationship montage, Michael?”
“What would you like me to say?”
It ignored me. “Have I ever hurt them? Any of them?”
“You never thought about it,” Filosofia said, its bewilderment popping from Jessica’s lips. “I gave you more credit than you deserve, Mikey, much like my gracious host here.” It patted Jessica’s back, and something about the gesture sent a mild shiver through me. “She’s napping, like I told you. I can switch her between waking and sleeping states in a fraction of a millisecond. Once she’s awake, she’ll accept everything I said and did as her own memories. Obviously, I’ll be erasing our tête-à-tête here before I leave, so don’t be surprised when she can’t recall most of this date.” The thing heaved a very labored sigh, and I felt shame in spite of myself. “All those lives across so many years, and the only puppet you’ve asked about is her. What does that suggest about you, Philosopher? Maybe we ought to debate that.“
“I…I’m sorry, all right? I was awful to…um…Kathy.” That wasn’t right. “Karen? Krissy. She went by Kristine, didn’t she? It started with a ‘K.’ I’m positive.”
“To quote you earlier tonight, Mikey Boy, ‘you’ve got to be fucking kidding me.'”
“It was almost a decade ago!”
“Yes, Michael.” A new, dark note in its voice. “And Kelly Pollack’s done quite well for herself despite the humiliation, the repeated mansplaining, and the blatant theft of her work by a man who doesn’t even remember her name. She didn’t summon me, you know. I volunteered after “you” won an Avicenna and a Hempel. Remember your speeches?”
“I do. Listen, I’d choose differently today. I would. But…will you release Jessica? Please?”
Jessica’s head swiveled, her body shaking gently as she placed a fresh glass of wine back on the table. Filosofia was laughing. “Twenty minutes ago, you were whining for your own release. Now hers too?” Tiny wisps of smoke snaked around the glass’s edges, spiraling into the air. “Of course I’ll leave her. She’s a good-hearted soul with unfortunate taste. But first, you’re going to impress me.”
“Now, Philosopher,” the thing across from me cooed. “If God is omnipotent and all-loving, then how can evil exist?”
It was an issue I couldn’t stand and couldn’t escape. Filosofia knew my positions verbatim. I’d been locked into this disagreement for half my adult life—and yet, twenty-six days, thirteen hours, one minute, and seven seconds of my sentence remained.
I negotiated with the lump in my throat, lost, and began. Again.