by Leela Raj-Sankar
Leela Raj-Sankar (he/they/she) is an Indian-American teenager from Arizona. Their work has appeared in Rejection Letters, Brave Voices Magazine, and CLOVES Literary, among others. In his spare time, he can usually be found watching bad television or taking long naps. Say hi to her on Twitter @sickgirlisms.
You, Yourself, and Newcomb's Paradox
The problem goes like this: you and Future You are sitting at a table, and neither of you can look the other in the eye. Why? Because you are deathly afraid of the future and Future You is deathly afraid of the past. Sometimes it feels like you were born panicking. No matter where you turn, there's a monster lurking behind every corner. What makes a monster a monster? you ask of the silent room. Fear, of course, and both you and Future You have an abundance of it, shoulders hunched and twitching. Future You bites their lip until they draw blood. It’s the nervous habit you’ve never been able to shake, no matter how many times your mother yelled at you for it. On the table in front of you: two boxes. The first is a sure thing, what your parents would’ve wanted for you, clear through the display glass: the cushy office job, steady income, picket fence, two and a half kids in the suburbs. The second is all-or-nothing, the wild dreams you entertained as a 12 year old, every hope that managed to escape being beaten out of you by high school, then college, then corporate America. The afternoons you spent watching reruns of old movies, dreaming of Hollywood, the nights you spent imagining yourself floating in the stars, the mornings you spent with your fingers burning against guitar strings. It should be an easy choice. This or that. A or B. You’ve done this cost-benefit analysis before. You know the payout isn’t worth the risk. You know Future You is a reliable predictor but surely not reliable enough to know what you’ll reach for without a second thought. Surely not reliable enough to condemn you both to a life of endless what if-s and forced tunnel vision. You’re a game theorist, but not a good one. You can’t decide between expected utility or strategic dominance, whether to put all your eggs in one statistical basket or bet all your winnings on the slim chance that maybe this time you could make it work, that maybe this time you’ll be happy. You’re a game theorist, but not a good one: you’re too optimistic. Always have been. You’ve always believed your will was your own, that if you just believed, just closed your eyes and held your nose and jumped, it’d turn out fine in the end. It had to. You can’t let yourself think of what would happen if it didn’t, if everyone was right and you should’ve played it safe. You say: Do you still remember when you climbed that tree with that friend from kindergarten, up to the highest branch where the sky was so close you thought you could touch it? (Future You stares.) You say: Because I do. Because I still dream of it—don’t you? You say: Do you still hate shellfish? Or cover your mouth when you laugh? (Future You frowns.) You say: Do you know me? Do you love me? Because I think I could love you, I really do. (Your fingers twitch. Future You’s eyes flick toward the second box). You say: Just work with me here, okay? (Future You coughs, quietly, telling you to hurry up.) You say: Don’t you know what I’m going to choose? and Future You says: Both of us are guessing; says: I don’t even know myself, how could I know you; says: I hate shellfish but I don’t remember that tree; says: It’d be easier for both of us if you just picked up the right box and moved on. Future You is a game theorist, but not a good one. They’re stuck in an endless feedback loop of logical fatalism, circular reasoning, this will happen because it will and you don’t have a choice. You think maybe predetermination is easier to believe in when you’ve spent your entire life in denial. When you’ve spent your entire life putting your hands over your ears and blocking out the noise of your own desire. Even if you are Future You and Future You is you, it doesn’t matter: there’s only one correct answer and neither of you will ever know what it is. Future You is practical to a fault but tonight, Future You will get so drunk they won’t remember anything in the morning, your collective paranoia, the weird ache in their chest they can’t dispel. Future You sighs. Future You cracks their knuckles. Future You says: Don’t you understand? Both of us have already made our decision—