She sits at the wrought iron table outside the cafe. The table has six sides, the mesh on top a sturdy hexagonal lace. A cup of tea with honey cools atop a bone saucer, untouched.
She’s wearing an extremely well-fitted double-breasted houndstooth jacket of the sort I think you would call a peacoat. Dark gray leggings protrude from beneath it. Her hair is pulled back and up in a high, tight bun, presumably to keep it out of her face while she works.
Spread out on a soft piece of suede unfurled in front of her are a plethora of parts, tiny, delicate, and beautiful. Gold wire legs and antennae, fine-toothed cogs, wings made of leaf so thin you can see through it. She sews them into place once the jeweled carapace is in place using a needle so small she needs a jeweler’s loupe to thread it, then pokes at a spot where the thorax joins the abdomen to set something in motion within.
The new-minted bee starts with a shake, sets its wings to buzzing, streaks in circles beneath the umbrella overhead and zips off.
There are no chairs at her table save the one in which she sits. She has been there every time I’ve chanced to pass this way, and on the occasions such as today when it wasn’t chance at all. I have been here almost since she began, and now that she’s finished, I stand, frozen.
What to do now? Every time I’ve watched her finish before, I’ve turned and hurried away before I could see what, if anything, she would do next. Pull a book out of her handbag and start reading? Get up and leave?
Except she almost always had her tea, as she does now, untouched.
I watch her watch the bee past the point where I can no longer begin to follow where it’s gone. She then smiles to herself. I can almost hear the soft sigh of contentment she lets out. She settles back in her seat.
I want to go up to her, to tell her my name and ask hers. I want to ask her how and why and a hundred questions but above all how. I want to be her new best friend. I want to do all of this and more, but I can’t bring myself to intrude upon this elegant, solitary woman who makes bees on a coffee shop patio.
Not without some sign, some small sign, that she would be receptive…
Too late, I realize that she’s looking around and that the sweep of her eyes are on a collision course with mine. Her smile broadens and she says, “Hello.”
It is probably a mistake to judge someone’s voice based on two syllables projected across a distance in the open air, and had it transpired that her voice was anything other than everything I’d hoped it to be, I wouldn’t have. But it is confident, clear. It drips with charm.
My hands look for something to do, and wind up pulling both my newsie-style hat and my scarf off and mopping my very not-sweaty face. I realize I’m basically hiding behind them and force my errant extremities to my side, then approach her, hat literally in hand.
“Hi,” I say. “Do you mind if I talk to you?”
“Oh, I don’t mind much,” she says. She reaches for her tea. “I find it doesn’t often help if I do.”
“Oh,” I say. I don’t mean for my face to fall, but I can feel it. I turn away, hopefully before it has a chance to ruin her day. “Sorry to bother you.”
“Excuse me,” she says, “but I do find I would like some company, and I suspect yours will do. Please.”
I turn around.
“Are you serious?” I say.
“Too frequently. Please pull up a chair. Oh! Only, if you intend to have anything to drink, please do order it beforehand. I can’t abide an empty chair at my table. Too many people in this world take it as an invitation.”
“Seriously, if I’m being a bother…”
She slaps one delicate hand on the table. Most of the motion is in her wrist, so it makes a satisfying slapping sound without actually upsetting anything.
“I will tell you what is a bother!” she says. Her wide nostrils flare are her dark eyes flash. “It is that the people in this life who are the least bother are the ones most worried about being one, while those who are the least likely to be extended an invitation are also those least likely to wait for one! Please! Get yourself something to drink and then pull a chair over. If you will not, I shall be very disappointed.”
Well, if there is any prospect in this world that fill me with more streams of hot and cold running anxiety than being a bother, it is the prospect of being a disappointment. I take a moment to throw my scarf over my shoulders and replace my cap, then head into the coffee shop.
As many times as I walk by this place, I have never been inside before. I wouldn’t have any reason to notice it if not for her, and that made it feel like the whole place was her territory, or at least, not mine.
No one is waiting for service when I enter, so I study the board and try to find something I can order without embarrassment. I have always loved the smell of freshly-roasted coffee, which I have regarded as one of nature’s most insidious traps ever since the first time I actually tasted it. Tea is a bit more manageable, but I’m too aware that everyone has opinions about how it should be prepared, taken, and drunk to attempt it in public.
I settle on hot chocolate, though. Coffeehouse hot chocolate isn’t quite the same as homemade on a stove, but frothy steamed milk and syrup is not dehydrated powder and microwaved water, either.
I step forward and give my best attempt at a smile.
“What can I make you?” the barista asks. She has a round, pleasant face with a sparkly stud in her nose and short, spiky hair.
“One hot chocolate, please.”
She rings me up, and I pay, then she turns to start heating the milk.
“Oh!” she says “Forgot to ask: whipped cream and sprinkles?”
The question starts a war within me. On the one hand, if I do not dress my chocolate up then anyone looking at it might suspect I am being very properly adult. On the other hand, whipped cream and sprinkles. Boldness or some approximation thereof has already served me well once so far today, though.
“Yes, please,” I say.
“Yes, please,” I say a little louder.
A man standing very close behind me, as if drawn by my worries of projecting maturity, says in a carrying voice, “What are you, twelve years old? This is a coffee shop, not an ice cream stand. Whipped cream and sprinkles!”
“I don’t actually care for coffee, thank you,” I say, still in interacting-with-customer-service mode.
He’s a little less than a head taller than me, compactly built but wide across the shoulders. His arms seem long to me. That’s the first thing I notice on most guys: their reach. I wouldn’t care to say why. He wears a blazer with patches on the elbows and a smell like bananas clings to him. I suspect the electric pipe in his breast pocket has something to do with that.
“You’ve probably never had good coffee, then,” he says. “You know, coffee is a lot like chocolate: people think it needs a lot of milk and sugar and other rubbish to taste good, because they’ve only ever had stale, over-processed garbage. Did you know the coffee bean is actually a berry?”
“Is that so?” I say.
There is a smile that I have seen on the faces of other women that is both an armor against men like this and a beacon to other women. I don’t know if I really know how to make it, but I give it my best shot.
“Oh, yes! And like any other fruit, it can be very sweet. This is the only coffee shop in town that serves proper coffee, which is why it’s the only one I come to. When I saw you come in, I knew I’d never seen you before, which meant I knew you were in for a treat. I can’t stand here and let you miss out on that.”
“That’s very kind,” I say, “but I’m really trying to cut down on caffeine.”
“Then you shouldn’t order chocolate,” he says. “Carla, she’ll have…”
“I’m already making her order,” Carla says.
“Then she’ll also have…”
“You know, I’m fine ordering for myself,” I say. “I don’t want coffee. I don’t like coffee.”
“Well, you can’t stop me from ordering an extra one,” he says.
“Have at it,” I say.
“And you’re not leaving until you try it.”
“Are you going to stop me?” I say. “Physically.”
“What? I mean, I wouldn’t… but you’re not going to.”
“Well, I’m not drinking something I don’t like because you think I should, and I’m not staying here one second past when I have my drink.”
“Here you go,” Carla says, reaching across the counter with a steamy mug piled with whipped cream. “You know, I had a hunch and added a little splash of French vanilla, not so much that it tastes vanilla but just a hint? It’s how I make it for the regulars, and I think you’ll like it.”
A look passes over her face for a fraction of a second. It’s half apology and half concern. I understand. This guy is a regular. She has to be nice. She sees me, she’s here. I think she’d support me if something were to happen, beyond the drama that’s already unfolding, and probably nothing will.
Most of the men who get in your way and won’t listen when you say no the first time will stomp off with nothing more than a few parting insults. The problem is that the ones who will do worse don’t look any different.
“That sounds lovely,” I say, giving Carla a quick nod and taking the mug with both hands. “Thank you.”
“Oh, so, you’ll let her take liberties, but my suggestion is brushed off?” the man says.
“It’s not my fault if you don’t know the difference between a nice gesture and… what you’re doing,” I say. “And you know what? I bet if I had told Carla that I don’t care for vanilla, she’d have apologized and made me a new one, not stood in my way and told me to try it anyway.”
“Okay, but there’s still no reason you can’t try the coffee,” he says.
“I don’t need a reason!” I say. “Are you going to get out of my way?”
“You don’t have to be so rude!” he says.
“Are you going to keep me here?”
“I shouldn’t have to!”
“You don’t have to!” I say. “No one’s making you!”
“Hey!” Carla says. Her voice cracks when she raises it. “You have to go now.”
“What?” the man says. He rounds on her, and I see the naked fury on his face. I flinch, shrink back within myself, when his arms come up. “What the fuck, Carla?”
“You are… causing a disturbance,” she says. “It’s upsetting people.”
He looks around.
“There’s no one here but me!” he says.
“Her,” Carla says. “And me. Get out.”
“Fine, just get me my coffee.”
“GET OUT!” Carla screams.
He looks back and forth between us. The look on his face says that something very wrong has happened, that he can’t quite make it add up, and then he leaves, stomping out and slamming the door.
“Sorry,” I say to Carla.
“It’s okay,” she says.
“Are you going to be in trouble?”
“Maybe, maybe not,” she says. “There have been complaints about him before. The owner says he hasn’t hurt anyone, though? He’s an artist.”
“Yeah,” I say. “Thank you. For the vanilla.”
We exchange another set of nods and then I head outside. The woman who makes the bees has put away her tools and out a sketchpad, and she’s now bent over it, drawing anatomical sections of insects in what I think is charcoal. They look more like ants than bees.
I watch her from what I hope is a respectful distance, wondering if I’ve missed my window.
“I’ve been thinking,” she says, “about branching out.” She blows on the paper, then looks up at me. “Well, put that down and get yourself a chair.”
I do so, and she resumes working and talking.
“I thought I heard shouting,” she says. “Are you alright?”
“I… yeah,” I say. “It was just a man.”
“I told you about empty chairs,” she says. “Well, one day a man dragged a chair over while I was working. He sat down next to me, and made sure that I knew he knew many interesting facts about entomology. I told him that I was working and he said that was okay, he didn’t mind. I told him that if he distracted me, I might make a mistake. He laughed and said I was a big girl.”
“That’s awful,” I say.
“He asked me to make him something, so I did,” she says.
“What was it?”
“A yellowjacket,” she says. “I told him it wouldn’t sting him if he didn’t make it mad, but he didn’t listen. He called me an unkind name and left.”
“It got mad,” I say.
“Do you do this every day?” I ask her.
“Making bees,” I say.
“Weather allowing,” she says. “I think I’ve seen you watching me before.”
I lower my head.
“I don’t mean to stare or anything, it’s just fascinating,” I say.
“It is,” she agrees. “And impressive.”
“Yes. Why do you do it?”
“Well, someone has to,” she says. “Otherwise we’re liable to run out.”
“How does it work?”
“Oh, there are many aspects,” she says. “Little tricks. I’ve learned them over the years.”
“And you just let them go?”
“Bees have their own lives,” she says. “That’s what makes them bees. I mean, not what makes them bees in particular. But having a life is what makes my bees be bees, and not trinkets or toys.”
“That’s interesting, because I thought bees lived in hives.”
“Everyone’s got to live somewhere,” she says.
“I mean, I thought they were colony creatures.”
“I live in an apartment. I still have my life,” she says. “There are solitary bees, but even in a shared hive, every bee is still its own bee. It still does what it wants.”
“Isn’t that just chaos?”
“What are you doing right now?”
“I… what? Nothing. I mean, I don’t…”
“Are you doing what you want?”
“You mean, with my life?”
“I mean right now.”
“I guess?” I say.
“Is it chaos?”
“Sometimes,” I say. I’m seeing the man in the coffee shop, in my head. He had been doing what he wanted, at least as far as he could without my involvement.
“You’re not running rampant, though,” she says. “You’re not tearing things down or burning things up. You go through life and I bet mostly what you want to do is to get along, right? You want to be comfortable. You want to feel good. You don’t want to be alone.”
“I guess,” I say.
“And that’s your nature, just as it’s a bee’s nature,” she says. “Do you know that honeybees can control the temperature in their hives?”
“I’ve heard they do things like gather together and vibrate to make friction,” I say. “To heat the hive. And that they can use wings for air circulation, like fans.”
“Oh, yes, but it gets subtler than that. There are special bees with higher core temperatures and they can move around and regulate the temperature within themselves to change the temperature of the hive. They control how the brood develops, you know. One degree change in any direction in a developing pupa and you get a different sort of bee. Do you know how they decide, the heater bees?”
“I’ve always thought the queen directs the hive, somehow.”
“Most people do,” she says. “But there are no gears turning inside the hive, no wires running from the queen to the heaters or the workers or anyone else. Every bee, from the queen to the heaters, just does what it thinks best.”
“So there’s no real hive mind?”
“There is,” she says. “It emerges from the behavior of the whole. Right now, what do you think the neurons in your brain are doing?”
“…firing?” I say. Neurology is not my area.
“Each neuron, how does it know to ‘fire’ or not?”
“I guess you’d say each one is just doing what it thinks is best,” I say. “But you could say that about any cell in my body. The muscle cells in my biceps.”
“But by that logic, the atoms that form the molecules in the cell are also just doing what they think is best,” I say. “And the electrons and protons and neutrons that make up the atoms, and so on.”
“Yes,” she says.
“But subatomic particles and stuff, they’re all following immutable physical laws,” I say.
“Well, aren’t you doing so, too?”
“Well, yes, I can’t decide to ignore the laws of physics,” I say. “But I can decide to turn left or right. I can decide to take the short way home after work, or the long way that goes past the sidewalk cafe.”
“I am not a particle physicist,” she says, “but it is my understanding that they deal in probabilities, that the motion of particles is predictable within large groups over time rather than individual particles in the moment.”
“That sounds right,” I say.
“It’s true of people,” she says. “A social scientist couldn’t predict what you or I would do in a given situation, or even model it properly, but gather enough people together and they can begin to form predictions and determine laws. And if it’s true of people, it’s likely true of bees. And I daresay it’s likely to be true of cells of your body.”
“But if I have consciousness and I’m consciously making decisions,” I say, “and those decisions determine what the neurons in my brain are doing, and the neurons are made out of atoms… there can’t be consciousness in the atoms, or the neurons, can there? I mean, there’s a me that’s making decisions and everything else follows suit.”
“But isn’t the collective action of the neurons the same as you making the decision?” she says. “And isn’t the collective motion of the particles that make up the neurons the same as their action? Or do you imagine a ‘you’ separate from all of those that gives the smallest particles their marching orders and it just goes up the chain from there?”
“I dated a guy once who told me that quantum uncertainty proved free will,” I say. “He said without it the universe would be deterministic, but since it existed, we obviously had free will.”
“I’m not sure I follow how something maybe being random is the same as having free will,” she says.
“Well, we were talking about it in the context of, if you could rewind time and let events play out again, would you do the same thing every time?” I say. “I was saying that you’d do the same thing every time, because whatever reasons you’d had for doing it the first time would still be true.”
“That is completely sensible,” she says.
“He got really mad about that,” I say. “I didn’t understand why. Still don’t. But he shouted at me that I was saying free will didn’t exist. No, actually, what he said was that I was saying he didn’t have free will. Like it was personal? He looked at me like he wanted to hit me, then pounded the wall with his fist and stomped off.”
“‘Pounded the wall with his fist’,” she says. “That is an interesting turn of phrase. In point of fact, he punched the wall, didn’t yes?”
“Well, yes,” I say. “He did. Inches from my head.”
“Scary,” she says.
“It wasn’t at the time?” I say, then I remember how I felt, and I shudder. “No, wait, it was. But it was also normal? I didn’t see him for a day or two, and then he came back, smiling and told me that he’d figured it all out. Quantum uncertainty, he said. The randomness of electrons meant that if you rewound time and let events play out over and over again, he might do a different thing each time, and that meant he might have free will.”
“Did that make sense to you?”
“No,” I say.
“I think he had it backwards,” she says. “If what you do is random, then you have no free will. If you’re doing the same thing each time, that still leaves the possibility that you’ve chosen it.”
“I kind of agree?” I say. “But…”
There’s a scrape of metal on stone at the table behind me, at the same time as a forceful exhalation of air. I twist around and crane my neck to see a man a squat man with short arms pushing back from the table and turning his chair towards ours. He’s wearing an olive drab bucket hat and a pointedly ugly gray and red sweater.
“Hold on there, ladies,” he man says. “This has been an interesting enough conversation to listen to, but now you’re talking nonsense.”
“Excuse me,” she says, “you’re interrupting her.”
“Someone has to!” he says. “Look, the essence of free will is choice, right? And if you have to do the same thing every time, that’s not a choice, and that’s not free. Wouldn’t you agree?”
“That’s an interesting point of view,” she says.
“But I asked you a question. I said, wouldn’t you agree?”
“You already know my thoughts on the subject,” she says. “If you would like to hear more of them, you’re welcome to listen.”
He shakes his head, grinning.
“Darling,” he says, “darling, that’s just not how a conversation works. There’s got to be some give and take.”
“I was not having a conversation with you,” she says.
“Well, it’s a free country, and I have free will,” he says. “And I have chosen, freely, to have a conversation with you. Are you going to respect my autonomy?”
He says this last bit triumphantly, with a gleam in his eye like he has us now. Neither of us has mentioned autonomy as a concept by name, but I have a feeling that in this moment he’s winning the last argument he created with women about how we used our time.
“We actually have somewhere we need to be,” she says. She removes the sheet from her sketchpad and carefully puts it into a pouch, then puts the pad in another pocket. “Plans. Goodbye.”
“Bullshit!” he says. He sounds personally affronted. “I’ve been sitting here since before she got here,” he says, jabbing a finger at me, “and I know for a fact the two of you have never said a word to one another before today.”
“We’re old friends,” I say, “and we really need to go.”
“Yeah? Then you know each other’s names,” he says.
“Katrina,” I say. It’s the first thing that pops into my head. “I call her Kat, but no one else does.”
“Bullshit,” the man says.
“Her parents call her Katie, but she hates that,” I say.
“And she’s Anna,” my Kat says, and just like that I am. “I call her Anna. Are you ready to go, Anna?”
“Yes, Kat,” I say, standing up. “Ready when you are.”
“Bullshit!” he screams again, getting to his feet. “Let me see some ID! If those are really your names, I’ll… I’ll…”
Kat leaps to her feet. She is tiny, and somehow seems tinier standing up than sitting down, but her eyes blaze.
“You’ll what? You’ll let us have a private conversation unblessed by your input?” she screams back at his face. “Let us leave? Let us exist in peace?”
“Don’t make me the bad guy here!” he says. “I’m not the one selling a line of bullshit and getting defensive when corrected!”
“We weren’t selling you anything,” Kat says. “You were listening.”
“It was a public conversation!” he says. “But shit, if you’re just going to be like this about it, never fucking mind!”
He kicks the chair and storms off, his progress periodically punctuated with primal screams of “fuck” and “shit”.
I watch him go to make sure that he’s really gone, and then I turn back towards Kat, who is still standing. Her eyes are closed. Her head is tilted down. She is breathing forcefully but slowly in and out of her nose. Her arms are at her side, straight down, but her hands jut out perpendicular to the ground.
I’m about to ask her if she’s okay when I notice behind her: a whole swarm of glittering mechanical bees, hovering in the air in two perfect formations; a pair of symmetrical angel wings formed of intricate hexagons.
She relaxes, unclenches her body and lets her hands go limp. Her eyes open. The wings break apart, the bees scattering into several streams that stream away in different directions.
“That was incredible,” I say, watching her watch one of them.
“I can certainly barely credit it,” she says.
“Yeah, that guy was something else.”
“No, he really wasn’t,” she says. “I was, though. I’m not usually half that brave, you know.”
“No?” I say, amazed.
“Not at all,” she says. “I’m snarky, which seems similar, but only from the outside.”
“What made this time different?”
“I think you inspired me,” she says. “You know, I’ve never actually balled my fists and yelled at a man like that before.”
“I wasn’t watching your fists,” I say.
“Yes. Well. What were they doing back there, anyway?”
“Swarming,” I say. “Flying in formation. They looked like wings. It was like they were protecting you, or like they were a part of you.”
“That’s interesting,” she says.
“You didn’t make them do that?” I ask.
“I don’t make them do anything,” she says. “I just make them.
“So they all chose to do that,” I say. “Individually.”
“They all chose to do that,” she agrees. “But you were saying?”
“Sheesh, what was I saying?” I say. “We were talking about free will, and doing the same thing over and over again.”
“You said you agree that randomness is not the same as free will,” Kat says. “Do you want to know my name, by the way?”
“…is it weird if I don’t?”
“Then call me Kat, because I don’t think you’d ever not be Anna to me,” she says. “We found those names for each other. We forged those names in fire.”
“Isn’t that a little melodramatic?”
“Compared to him?” she says, gesturing vaguely in the direction in which he’d departed.
“Fair point,” I say.
“I’m up now, I’ve put my things away,” she says. “I would like to walk, Anna. Would you like to walk with me?”
“I would,” I say.
We walk, and we talk. I have so many questions in my head about the bees, but we’re already enmeshed in a broader topic and not only am I afraid to come off as prying, I’m actually enjoying this conversation.
“So, yeah,” I say. “I basically agree that free will and randomness aren’t the same thing. I mean, if we want to really get into it, what we perceive as random might not actually be random, and it might be the levers, so to speak, by which a disembodied conscious can affect the material world. I thought about it a lot, after that conversation, but when I brought it up again, he wasn’t interested. It was like, he’d settled the matter to his satisfaction and couldn’t understand why I was still interested.”
“Do you think that’s likely?” she asks.
“No,” I say. “I think there is something more to us than the material, if only to explain what consciousness is, but I don’t believe in an external soul, and I don’t think consciousness can be explained at the quantum level. I think it’s an aggregate. What’s the word you used? You said it emerges?”
“Yes,” Kat says.
“Yes. I think consciousness is emergent,” I say. “I think it emerges from… complexity. Intricate organizations of matter, complex chains of reactions.”
“So a hive might be conscious, might have consciousness in the sense that you or I do,” she says.
“But then what about the bees?”
“What about them?”
“You say they’re all acting as individuals,” I say. “Are they not complex enough to have consciousness?”
“It’s your theory.”
“Well, I don’t know where the cut-off is,” I say. “But I’m pretty sure my individual neurons don’t have consciousness.”
“Because I know that I do,” I say. “Cogito ergo sum. If I know nothing else in this universe, and I probably don’t, then I know that I am. And if I’m conscious, then my cells aren’t.”
“How does that follow?” she says. “You know that you have consciousness, but this doesn’t mean that I don’t, or a hive doesn’t. Why should it have any implications for your neurons?”
“Well, you’re not part of me. My neurons are. If I’m conscious, that means that what I say goes, right?”
“You’re equating consciousness with free will now,” she says. “Is it necessarily true that the two coexist?”
“What’s the point of consciousness without it?” I ask. “If it’s all just one domino knocking over the other into infinity, why is there anyone to watch it?”
“If you could set up an infinite number of dominoes, wouldn’t you want someone to watch them tipping over?”
“But there’s no real ‘me’ if I’m not deciding anything,” I say.
“I can credit that,” Kat says. “But why does that mean there can’t be a ‘me’ for each of your individual neurons?”
“Because they might decide different things than I do,” I say.
“Does your body always do everything you want, exactly the way you want?”
“Oh, hell, no!” I say.
“If the heaters didn’t do what the hive wanted, if the workers didn’t do what the hive wanted, if any appreciable number of the bees within a hive did not do what the hive wanted, the hive would die,” Kat says. “Yet, they’re acting as individuals. These are not contradictions.”
“Then who is really making the decision, the emergent consciousness of the hive or the individual consciousnesses of the bees?”
“Why does it have to be one or the other? Why can’t it be both?”
“Because… because… if the bees are making the decision, then the hive isn’t, and if the hive is making the decision, then the bees aren’t.”
“Because either way, one of them is bound by the decision of the other,” I say.
“Except that a bee can act against the hive’s decision,” she says. “And it’s possible, albeit unlikely, that so many will do so that in practical terms, the hive is deciding against the bees’ actions. But even if that never happened, if the decisions are being made at the same time, how can one be said to cause the other?”
I don’t have an answer for that. After a few moments, Kat goes on.
“Think about the rewind scenario,” she says. “No matter how many times a moment is replayed, you’d make the same decision. You know you would. It’s still your choice in every moment, but because it’s your choice you’d make it the same way each time, every time.”
“That’s pessimistic,” a man who had been passing by said. He looped back around and fell in beside us. He’s a scrawny guy, with long, limber arms and a well-trimmed beard covering his whole face. I find my eyes drawn to the abrasions on his knuckles. I get them a lot from running my hands into the sides of doorways and walls when I’m walking. I tell myself his could be from that, too. “You don’t think people would learn from their mistakes?”
“Oh, in the scenario under discussion, there’s no learning involved,” Kat says. “Imagine time flowing backwards, moments unraveling, until you come to the decision point once more. Everything then is as it was the first time through. You know nothing more. Nothing is different in any respect. All the factors that led you to make the decision the first time are in play exactly as before.”
“What if I made the decision on a whim the first time?”
“Then that whim and everything that went into it is in your head the second time,” she says.
“I think I’d figure out a way to send a message back,” he says. “I’d fight to remember. I’d overcome.”
“That’s nice,” Kat says.
“You know what your problem is? You’re underestimating the human spirit.”
“That’s nice,” she says.
He looks at her like she’s slapped him.
“There’s no need to be like that,” he says, and then, mercifully, he turns back around and keeps walking.
“What was I saying?” Kat says.
“You were talking about how we’d make the same choices each time, every time,” I say.
“Yes!” she says. “Only it’s stronger than that: because we only experience each moment once, we only ever do make one choice. If you have two paths laid out before you, you can never choose them both…”
We’re passing a row of houses with iron fences topped with fleurs-de-lis, like ornate little spears. An older man, arms long enough to reach around to the front of his mailbox, chimes in as we are almost past him.
“Your first mistake is accepting the choices life gives you as absolute,” he says. “If you don’t do that, you could find a way to do both, or pick a third path.”
“Yes, but in practical terms, that’s still making a single decision,” Kat says. “Which is my point.”
“You’re allowing yourself to be limited by accepting the terms presented to you,” the man says. “Me? I’m the master of my own destiny. That’s why I’m happy with my circumstances. I chose them.”
“I’m sure you are,” Kat says, and I fall a tiny bit more in love with her, just enough to tip some balance in my heart that lets me know I am in love with her, and have been in love with her, and have been falling more and more ever since the moment I dared to speak to her.
We walk faster. The man falls behind.
“You can’t be afraid to seize control of your life!” he calls after us.
“What I was saying,” Kat says, “is that you can only ever make the choice once. This means, in practical terms, that you can’t pick the other choices. But it’s still free will, isn’t it? I mean, if free will exists, it’s not negated by the fact that you’ll only ever pick one thing?”
“I guess not,” I say. “But that one thing isn’t predestined.”
“Well, I’ve never understood people who believe that predestination and free will are incompatible,” she says. “If someone could predict what you would say in a given situation with ninety-nine percent accuracy, you’d still accept that it was your choice. So why would one hundred percent accuracy change it?”
“When you put it like that, the whole thing kind of reminds me of my ex,” I say.
“I’m very sorry!”
“No, I mean, the whole idea that it was more comforting for him to imagine that his actions were random than that they were fated?” I say. “Maybe that’s where my objection is coming from. If we can imagine that time might be rewound, or if we can imagine a point of view from outside of time, with all my history laid out from end to end, then we can imagine a being might exist that can see from that viewpoint and know everything I ever choose, but that doesn’t mean they’re not still choices? It’s not really that different from looking back at something that’s happened and knowing it can’t be changed.”
“Right,” she says. “So, if you can accept that free will exists irrespective of the ability to make an unpredictable choice, couldn’t you accept that maybe there are multiple consciousnesses making decisions that affect you at multiple levels, and they’re all acting freely?”
“I’m not sure I see the connection, except that it’s too scenarios that feel like they should rule out free will,” I say. “But yeah, I guess? You know what the weird thing is, though?”
“The more we talk about this, the less I feel like free will matters as a concept,” I say. “And the less I care about it.”
I stop and look around.
“Are you waiting for something?” Kat asks.
“I’m kind of expecting a guy to jump out of the bushes and tell me that free will is the most important thing in the universe, that without it life is meaningless, or that by giving up on free will I’m giving in to… something. The Illuminati. I don’t know.”
“We could go find a more crowded street, if you’d like,” she says.
“No, this is just about perfect,” I say. “I’m really enjoying talking with you. I mean, I can’t remember the last time I had a conversation like this.”
“About consciousness and free will?”
“A conversation where we’re just talking, not seeking anyone’s approval, or performing, or whatever,” I say.
“I don’t have a lot of conversations in general.”
“I don’t have a lot of patience,” she says.
“I’m surprised,” I say. “I think it takes a lot of patience to do what you do. I mean, with the bees.”
“That’s me moving at my own pace,” she says. “The materials never try to race ahead of me, nor drag their feet. It doesn’t take patience, just control.”
“Well, it must take a lot of patience to do it in public,” I say.
“That isn’t patience,” she says. “It’s stubbornness. Do you remember the man I told you about?”
“That happened the very first time I took my work to that cafe. It was a nice day, so I thought I’d work outdoors and enjoy the sun. Then that happened, and I found I had to make up my mind about whether I would let it keep me from doing so again in the future. I almost decided it wasn’t worth it to try again, but I realized I hadn’t actually enjoyed myself, or done the task I’d set out to do. So I went back the next day, and it was fine.”
“And you kept doing it?”
“Yes,” Kat says. “Every day, weather allowing. I’ll sit indoors if it’s not too bad to leave the house but not nice enough for al fresco, either. What might have been an occasional thing instead became a habit. Not to spite him, though.”
“It’s not for him,” I say. “It’s for you.”
“So, you didn’t always make your bees in public?”
“No, I started at home.”
“How did you get started, anyway?”
“With cats,” she says.
“Yes, cats,” she says. “They’re larger, more like us, and in some ways, less complicated. From there I moved onto birds, which are smaller and winged. I thought for a time I would need to focus on less-social crawling insects before I could manage something gregarious and winged, but I found I really had a knack for it. It’s my calling.”
“You know how to make a cat?”
“Well, it’s not difficult,” she says. “I so hope you won’t ask me to make another one. I feel guilty enough, in retrospect. We don’t have anything like a shortage of cats. Bees were always the goal, for me. The cats were just a means to get there.”
“Are any of them still around? I mean, do you have any of them?”
“Oh, yes,” she says. “I think I made fewer than a dozen before I was satisfied that I had the principle down. I kept three. One is my first. She’s a bit scattered, but very dear. Very sweet, very shy. You put me in mind of her, actually, peering out from behind your hat and scarf like that.”
“I’d love to see her!” I say before I can think about what I’m doing. I clap a hand over my mouth. “Oh, sorry. I didn’t mean to presume…”
“You know, Anna, you’ve been very accommodating to my whims, but what I want most of all right now is to act my nature,” she says.
“What do you mean?”
“As the bees do,” she says. “As most things do. What did I say before? I want to be comfortable. I want to feel good. And, Anna, I don’t want to be alone.”