Notes to a Version of Myself, Hidden in Symphonie fantastique Scores Throughout the Multiverse19 min read
I need help now.
I can’t wait any longer for you to contact me.
When you told me the first thing you check in any world is the Juilliard Library’s score of Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique — even before looking in on the local version of us — I thought it was self-indulgent.
But after having spent four days in this world, both familiar and unfamiliar to me, I now understand your impulse. The score is completely identical to the one in my world, its red cover bright and cheerful—it gave me a welcome sense of comfort: a lodestone, a marker of interconnectedness. And better yet, when you follow me here and check the score, I know you’ll find this note and come to my assistance ASAP.
I’ve been working on steering the local version of us into what you called the “ultimate Zoey-ness.” It’s like tuning a string, you told me: Just a twist here, loosening there, and she should easy-peasy snap into place.
Well, she’s not.
The Zoey of IndigoWorld — I call it that because its buildings are a vibrant blue, and Lincoln Center was built with lapis lazuli!—isn’t responding to any of my cues.
Maybe I don’t have your talent for helping others. Maybe I’m not selfless enough. Maybe it’s like my dear teacher Mrs. LeFay used to warn me, that I get so focused on “art” that I can’t see the bigger problems staring me in the face.
I apologize for writing out of turn. But I don’t understand why you insisted I travel ahead of you and try to help IndigoZoey on my own— wouldn’t it be better if you observe me in the morning and then give me pointers over coffee in the afternoon? (Sometimes I think I’ve caught sight of you at the back of a crowd or walking across the plaza at Lincoln Center, and I lean forward on my tip-toes and call out, “Zoey!” but to my chagrin, the person is never you. But by now you must be nearby, somewhere. Surely?)
I don’t recall exactly when you said you would follow me to IndigoWorld.
I’ve made no progress, and, as you can tell from this letter, I’m questioning my abilities to help IndigoZoey.
—Your student, Zoey
PS Is it okay to call you “Maestra Zoey?” I feel that you are my spiritual conductor, as it were.
PPS Honestly, I always found Berlioz to be rather silly but perhaps the multiverse has cottoned onto his musical notion of an idée fixe, clinging to this one unchanging motif even when set against different keys and moods.
Dear Maestra Zoey,
IndigoZoey isn’t responding.
Which brings me to my next question: How long should I stay in IndigoWorld before moving on? You said I would need only a day or two to fix the local Zoey, and then I could jump to the next world to help its version of Zoey. I was hoping to help as many Zoeys become their best selves before I have to return to my world, inspired by your stories about getting dozens of versions of us on the right track.
My new job starts in three weeks. Time moves at the same pace in all worlds, but I’m getting anxious—I can’t screw up my first day. Positions at the Metropolitan Opera don’t open up every day.
Okay, okay, honestly, it was much more than just having time on my hands. I remember thinking, “If I do this, Mrs. LeFay, if she were still alive, could never have accused me of ignoring other people’s problems.”
Enough worrying. I’ve got three weeks, right?
Here’s the good news: IndigoZoey is a barista at Café LaFortuna. Discovering my favorite cafe exists here was like finding an old friend! Just like in my world, the café is nestled in a cozy little spot in the basement of a brownstone (well, here they’re bluestones) on West 71st Street, filled with the scent of strong Italian coffee and cannoli. Its awning is a deep azure, not the red, white, and green stripes so familiar to me. As I settled into one of its little wobbly tables, a recording of Mirella Freni singing “Si mi chiamano Mimi” filled the air. (Although IndigoWorld’s Freni sings the aria at a slightly slower tempo—graciousness and charm abound here.)
I have kept myself hidden from IndigoZoey, of course. I step into the cafe only when she’s off duty. I don’t want to shock her the way you gave me a fright.
Her coworkers think we’re one and the same. Rather than question me, they greet me cheerfully as I pretend to have forgotten something in the café or sit at a table, indulging in a cappuccino. When I leave, I drop hints for IndigoZoey—a Juilliard course catalog, a marked-up Beethoven score—by placing them on the counter where she brews espressos and cappuccinos.
Despite my efforts, she’s not done one single thing to get her life on track.
Help! What am I doing wrong? If IndigoZoey won’t change, should I give up?
My two previous letters remain unopened inside the Symphonie fantastique score.
Could you have encountered a problem in following me? Or maybe you tried, but the doorway opened to a world other than IndigoWorld?
Soon after arriving here, I realized I hadn’t planned where I would stay. Or how to pay for it. After sleeping in Central Park for a couple of nights, I pawned my gold necklace of twinned eighth notes (a gift from Mrs. LeFay that I hated to part with). The money was enough to rent a shabby hotel room where I have spent the last few days practicing my skill in opening a doorway between worlds. Just as you taught me, I trace the labyrinthine pattern with my conductor’s baton through the air until a doorway appears.
The way you explained it, I imagined the multiverse cascading like the pages in a score, one page flipping after another.
And it is always the same world on the other side of the portal: The buildings of West 68th Street are visible, and, if I crane my neck, there’s a sliver of Broadway. The buildings lining the street are brownstones and pale limestone—no blues in this world—and trolleys run up and down its length. It is oddly quiet because the world has no cars or trucks.
In the past day, I’ve opened the door a dozen times and the world peeking through is always the same one (brownstones, trolleys, no cars or trucks.) I’ve determined that the worlds in the multiverse must follow an order like pages in a score. If that weren’t true, a variety of worlds would surely have been visible every time I opened a portal. But during my hundreds of experiments, it’s always the trolley-world on the other side of the doorway.
So if you indeed traveled from my world to the next stop in the multiverse, you should have stepped into IndigoWorld.
Where are you?
P.S. You told me we could flip back through the multiverse by reversing the labyrinthine pattern. I’ve reversed the pattern and nothing happens. Help!
I’ve been in IndigoWorld for seven days.
You should have followed me here by now. Yet my previous three letters remain hidden in the score. Perhaps you were delayed or are too busy observing my work that you haven’t had a chance to check the score.
It’s strange to be untethered from my own world. It’s providing me with plenty of time to think about me—not me, specifically, not who I am in my world—but what makes us the “ultimate versions of Zoey,” as you had put it. Clearly, it’s our skill in conducting, our ability to command a podium.
It’s brought to mind the first time I met you. I almost fled when I glanced up from the score I was studying at Café LaFortuna and stared into your (my) face. I thought you were my doppelganger. A harbinger of my death. How the mind swoops to the fantastical!
But you calmed my nerves with the assuredness I—we—possess while on stage.
You commanded my attention with your tale of traveling across worlds to find another Zoey who could assist you. You mentioned you had earned a master’s in conducting and had a job as an assistant conductor with the Met.
Just like me.
But when you asked for my help, I was initially skeptical.
Then you said the words that convinced me to join your quest: “Not everyone is as lucky as we two Zoeys have been.”
I was inspired by your decision to step out of your world to help other Zoeys achieve their potential. At that moment, I imagined myself helping disadvantaged versions of us—Zoeys who might not even read music!—and I felt a flutter of giddy anticipation. I could travel across the multiverse, helping versions of ourselves become more like us.
More importantly, I would prove my Mrs. LeFay wrong.
But I’ve failed. I’m writing this letter as I sit on the bluestone stoop across from Café LaFortuna, watching IndigoZoey through its plate-glass window. She commands the coffee bar and its gleaming chrome espresso machine like a conductor at the podium—directing her staff to pick up drinks, attending to every squeak and hiss of the machine, tempering its unruly quirks until it produces the nectar she desires.
It’s at that moment when a strange thought fluttered into my brain. What does it mean to be the best version of ourselves: Is it a Zoey who can balance a conductor’s baton in her hands? Or something else?
When you get this letter, I’d like you to take over IndigoZoey’s case.
I’m eager to explore another world before I must return to my own.
IndigoZoey will never attend graduate school in composition.
She will never reach her “ultimate Zoeyness.”
After I hid my last letter in the score, I needed a break from trying to help IndigoZoey find her true calling. I bought a ticket to the Metropolitan Opera.
At first, I thought the orchestra was an oddity. Surely, it was a coincidence its players were only white men—not a woman or person of color to be seen in the pit.
The next night, I attended the New York Philharmonic. The following evening, I sat in the plush seats at Carnegie Hall where the USSR State Radio and Television Symphony Orchestra performed (the Soviet Union never fell apart in IndigoWorld.)
All of the orchestras, the conductors, the musicians—even the stagehands—all white men.
I suddenly recalled something about my first day in IndigoWorld, when I’d stopped at the front desk at Juilliard and asked for a course catalog.
“Is it for your brother, honey?” the receptionist asked.
An odd question, but I didn’t think anything of it at that moment.
It’s bad in my world, but they really have a Great White Man complex here.
How can I steer IndigoZoey onto the path of becoming a conductor when it’s closed to her?
If you get to IndigoWorld, I’ve left.
Overhauling an entire unreconstructed white patriarchy is beyond me.
Dear Maestra Zoey,
It’s now two weeks since I left my world.
I’m in the version of New York I saw from my IndigoWorld hotel room—the city with trolleys running up and down Broadway.
Finding the Symphonie fantastique score here rattled me. Their Juilliard School is run-down, with chipped paint and the scent of weed lingering in the air. The library looks as if it had been pillaged. Entire oeuvres of composers just gone. No Bach, no Beethoven, although Mozart and Berlioz are still on the shelves.
I’m calling it SteamWorld because they never developed the combustion engine. Other than the decrepit Juilliard library, it seems quite nice, and SteamZoey is a conductor—but of a steam trolley.
I gave up all pretense of hiding my presence from SteamZoey.
First of all, I don’t have any local money, nor anything else to pawn. Not sure what else to do with my time, I sat at the back of SteamZoey’s trolley. She noticed me right away when she came around to collect tickets. But she wasn’t frightened. In fact, quite the opposite.
“Are you my clone?” She stood in front of me in her gabardine uniform, brass buttons polished to a high sheen, her (my) face impossibly eager. (It occurred to me that operating a steam trolley might be less stressful than conducting an orchestra.)
“Not really,” I said. “Why?”
“Well, a lot of people have one. I’ve always hoped I might. My friend Val met her clone last year, and she says her clone has pushed her to do more with her life. She just moved to Boston to start a master’s in steam technology, actually. She’s rooming with her clone, who already has a Ph.D. in steam tech.” She held out her hand for my ticket. “So who are you, then?”
“I’m you, or a version of you, visiting from another world in the multiverse.” If she was used to clones, this shouldn’t be a shock, I reasoned.
She wrung my hand with a firm handshake, forgetting all about my lack of a ticket. “You’re practically my clone, then. Wouldn’t that be a gas to take you to parties and pretend you’re my clone? You could say that I’m the more advanced one, and I’m helping you become a better person. Would you do it? Please?”
And that’s how I ended up as the toast of the steam trolley crowd: SteamZoey’s lesser clone.
If you find this letter, I’m usually spending my days at Café LaFortuna—but more on that later.
Dear Maestra Zoey –
SteamZoey is a doll. And I love most things about SteamWorld.
But I can’t convince her to study music.
We have argued about it again and again at Café LaFortuna, which has a cappuccino machine that looks like a steam-powered pipe organ and belches out cups of coffee at the rate of a zillion a minute. The café doesn’t play opera or any music for that matter. Our conversations were punctuated with hisses and grunts from the cappuccino machine.
You see, music here is the provenance of the disreputable. The louche and debauched.
I didn’t believe it until SteamZoey took me to the Nickelodeon to watch a documentary about their version of YoYo Ma. He lived on a commune in rural Oregon and operated a sex cult involving psychedelics and minimalist tone poems he played on his cello. Oh, and he ran a multi-level marketing scam selling music recordings that he said would bring success in both money and love, but basically was a pyramid scheme. The Feds got him in the end for defrauding his customers and tax evasion. (He’s now in a high-security prison and not allowed to touch a cello.)
“But Lincoln Center is right across the street—isn’t that where you attend concerts?” I asked SteamZoey.
“Concerts?” She snorted laughter. “No one would dare to play music there! Lincoln Center is comprised of lecture halls. Inventors and scientists come from all over the world to speak.”
Unspoken in our conversations was an underlying belief that conducting a symphony orchestra represents the apotheosis of culture; that we were following a demanding and exclusive calling requiring heart, precision, and mental dexterity.
But SteamZoey’s job also requires heart, precision, and dexterity, yet she steers her trolley from a cloistered compartment at the back of the trolley car, unseen by her passengers. She collects tickets and doesn’t complain when passengers are rude or grumpy. No one applauds her, but she makes sure her passengers get to their destinations safely and smoothly.
I’m a jumble of questions and emotions because SteamZoey is making me doubt whether I or you embody the “ultimate Zoeyness.”
There’s an underground music scene in SteamWorld. Music aficionados meet in unmarked speakeasies with soundproofing on the walls to muffle the noise and avoid the police. (The only music that’s approved by the authorities is John Philip Sousa marches for official processions.)
The place I’ve been visiting has a red lightbulb in the front window—and the floors are covered with sawdust. I won’t lie, the crowd is rough. But they have heart.
Last night, I sat down at the piano (an old upright, out of tune, but I was overjoyed to place my fingers on the keys) and played the first movement of the Moonlight Sonata. I know it was a cheesy pick. But they had never heard it, and they went wild. I insisted that I didn’t compose it, but they didn’t care and asked me to play it three more times—until the police raided the joint.
I escaped, but when I went by the speakeasy tonight, the red lightbulb was gone and the front door was boarded up.
Dear Maestra Zoey,
I feel both closer to you and farther from you than ever.
Mrs. LeFay used to tell me, “Helping others opens the world.”
Your goal, I thought, was to help me help others. And for the first time in my life, I believed I was truly connected—not just to you, but to every version of us.
Now that I’ve traveled into SteamWorld, I am doubting my assumptions. I assumed your world was the same as mine and never asked about your world, but, of course, it couldn’t be.
I’ve had many dark days since my last letter. Wondering what kind of world you came from. I don’t think you left your world simply to help other Zoeys. Something must have happened there—a personal tragedy? A global disaster?
And I am starting to worry you will never follow me. Maybe you never intended to.
I have continued to try reversing the labyrinthine pattern with my baton, but a portal back to my world has yet to open.
At my darkest moments, I picture you sitting at Café LaFortuna—my Café LaFortuna—enjoying a cappuccino and cannoli. Stepping into my life. My apartment, my job, my friends.
These thoughts have haunted and pushed me to a moment I’m not proud of.
Yesterday, I showed SteamZoey how to open a portal to another world in the multiverse.
“This could get me into the halls of Lincoln Center!” she exclaimed, grabbing my shoulders with her strong hands. (Is getting on the stage at Lincoln Center every Zoey’s dream?)
I guided her to the portal.
“Not every Zoey has the same opportunities you and I have had,” I heard myself say.
At that moment I truly understood you: One world didn’t need two Zoeys, and by convincing her to leave, I would be helping myself. This world is obviously in desperate need of a Zoey who could champion music, someone to bring it from the underground into respectability. The other Zoey would be fine. She would cope—it was every Zoey for herself.
I cleared my throat. “The other Zoeys haven’t been as lucky as us.”
Zoey frowned. “You mean they can’t become steam trolley conductors?”
“No, they can’t. Sometimes they are forced to be musicians.”
Her eyes grew sorrowful. “I’m going to jump through and help them achieve their best selves. No one should have to live like that.”
Her right leg was halfway through the portal when my heart skipped a beat, a caesura of warning. I recalled the excitement when you asked me to help you, the feeling of righteousness in proving Mrs. LeFay wrong.
Her back heel lifted from the floor, and she was about to swing her left leg across the portal when shame coursed over me like a cold blast of steam from a trolley engine.
If I allowed SteamZoey to step through that portal, I would be no better than you.
And I would prove Mrs. LeFay right in her view that I was so wrapped up with myself that I couldn’t see the bigger picture.
As SteamZoey’s left foot was almost through the portal, I yanked her arm backward. With a sudden exhalation, I slashed the air with my baton. The portal slammed shut in a blink.
SteamZoey has been sulking all day, but I reminded her that I’m the lesser Zoey and I don’t always make the right decisions. That brightened her up.
Today is the day when I would have started my new job at the Met.
I have lost everything.
I don’t know why I’m still writing to you. Except that I want a record of my travels, an “X marks the spot,” a sign that I’ve touched this world. A record that I’ve moved on.
SteamWorld broke my heart. There was so much to love—the steam technology, the devotion to science.
But Bach and Beethoven never existed in SteamWorld; or rather, they existed—their families steered them into the law. I can’t live without the Mass in B Minor or the second movement of Beethoven’s Second Symphony. I can’t live by sneaking into speakeasies and hoping I don’t get caught.
SteamZoey doesn’t really understand, but she threw me a going-away party at Café LaFortuna, and we both pretended we weren’t crying when we said goodbye.
I have visited 23 worlds since my last letter. The Symphonie fantastique score is in all of them, as you said it would be.
Some worlds were devoid of people—because of war? Disease? I didn’t stick around to find out. Other worlds had smaller changes, like no coffee or no cats (both terrible, but the one without cats was infinitely worse.)
But there’s one thing I’ve come to realize: None of these worlds are as perfect as my own.
This letter will be my last.
If you find this note—which by now I am fairly confident you won’t—be assured this world contains coffee, cats, and music. It’s not perfect; nothing can be after growing up in my world as my specific version of Zoey.
In this world, when I walk into Café LaFortuna, with “Mi chiamano Mimi” playing on its sound system, I can almost forget it’s not my own. But the illusion lasts no longer than it takes to direct an upbeat, the inhalation of breath before the music begins, and then something invariably reminds me I’m not home.
I’ve spent painful nights thinking about you, about me, and what it means to be Zoey. Not the “ultimate version of Zoey,” as you told me all those weeks ago, playing to my vanity.
I’ve also spent time thinking about why Berlioz and his indulgent Symphonie fantastique exist across all these worlds. I suspect it’s the message hidden within the piece: its idée fixe, the obsessive melody, that weaves through the symphony’s movements. But the melody is never the same, is it? I mean, the notes are the same, but the context changes its meaning — in one movement, the theme is a love song; in another, a march to the gallows.
In my world, you happened across a stop in the multiverse better suited to you than any you had so far found.
It was a world that had coddled its Zoey. A stop in the multiverse that, through luck and circumstance, had molded its Zoey into someone vain, naïve, and convinced of her superiority.
But this world doesn’t coddle. The American Revolution never happened; New Amsterdam is ruled by a patrician merchant class. Musicians are backed by patrons, and without a rich backer or a musical pedigree that extends several generations, it’s impossible to study at Juilliard or any other conservatory. They claim it’s a meritocracy, but it’s driven even more by connections than my own world.
I discovered NewAmsterdamZoey standing on the steps of a brownstone across from Café LaFortuna, where a group of people was huddled around her. She held a flag in her right hand, and she rattled off the history of the neighborhood.
A tour group conductor!
She spoke with charm and authority. (“Café LaFortuna has been the second home to many famous musicians, like Ava Mozart, the descendent of the great composer Nannerl Mozart. How many cappuccinos do you think she drank before her latest debut at Lincoln Center?” She lowered her voice, humor tinging her delivery: “I don’t know the exact number, but I heard it was a latte!”)
The tour group giggled at her cheesy joke, and I slipped between a couple wearing t-shirts emblazoned with the flag of New Amsterdam and a young man with a shirt that said “The Big Tulip,” the city’s nickname in this world. She herded the tourists across Broadway, through tight alleys, into used bookstores and out of the way of street hustlers. She warned her group against three-card monte hustlers and advised them how to score the best tickets to Lincoln Center.
After she ended her tour, I approached her. I was long beyond pulling strings or influencing from a distance.
“Did you ever want to be a conductor?” I asked her.
NewAmsterdamZoey blinked. She looked behind her, then over my shoulder. Her face was white, just as I imagine mine was when you first introduced yourself to me. “Are you my doppelganger?”
“I’m you from another point in the multiverse. Definitely not a doppelganger. So tell me: Have you ever wanted to be a conductor?”
She waved her flag in the air. “I am a conductor.”
“I mean, of music.”
She snorted. “I can’t even read music. I want to build my tour-conducting business into a franchise. Help tourists all over the city learn about the neighborhoods like a local. But—”
“I wasn’t born into one of the tourism dynasties. I’m good at it! It’s not my fault I don’t have the right bloodline or have enough guilders to buy my way in.”
Once, I would have looked down on her for conducting tours. For carrying a funny little flag.
Her flag isn’t that different from a baton. And bringing the city’s history to life isn’t all that different from lifting the notes in a score into a live performance. It’s our skill in leading people while providing them with what they need—coffee, safe conveyance, local information—that makes Zoeys who we are.
But within each Zoey sits the potential to steal the life from another person. Even worse, not just any person—from a version of ourselves. Each of us could waltz into another world, convince that local Zoey to take on a quest to “improve” other versions of themselves, hoodwink them out of their home with false promises, and step into their life.
But not each of us will make that choice.
“Are you okay? You got a funny look on your face just now.” NewAmsterdamZoey took my hand and led me to the brownstone, where I sat on the steps. She waved to a waiter at Café LaFortuna, and within a few minutes, she placed a frothy cappuccino in my shaking hands.
“I finally understand it,” I told her. “Why I’m here. Would you let me support you in achieving your goals?”
My fear isn’t that I or another Zoey won’t achieve our “ultimate” Zoeyness.
It’s that we all have the potential to twist into someone like you.
My life’s work is to make sure that never happens.
See, I’m teaching her if someone who looks like us appears and tells her she needs to leave her world to help Zoeys throughout the multiverse, that she’s the worst possible version of us and should be ignored at all cost.
I’m working at Café LaFortuna as a barista to help pay her fee to join the tourism guild—but I’m not going to manipulate her into becoming something she isn’t. The only thing I want is for her to be a better Zoey than I was.
And when I’m done supporting NewAmsterdamZoey in achieving her goals, I’ll wave my baton and step into the next world and support its Zoey too.