harvey's time machine
My name is Harvey Cush, and I discovered time travel on Wednesday, October 16th. The weekly staff meeting was just like every other weekly staff meeting. The same dry cake donuts that only the fat people would eat due to the obligation that exists between fat people and pastries. The same burned coffee. The same corporate jargon. This particular staff meeting had made me miss Ice Cream Sandwich Day in the 3rd floor break room so I was in no fucking mood for market shares or demographic penetration. Instead, I was doodling on my yellow legal pad: 3-D boxes and solitaire tic-tac-toe first, and then just a furious, scribbled circle. Instead of listening I was trying to figure out the minutes I’d been without her. And how long it would take until there were more minutes without than there had ever been with.
I was trying to see how many loops it would take to rip the paper. The black swirls were piling on top of each other like squid ink pasta as my pen went around and around and around. I wasn’t even looking at the pad at this point. I was staring out the window at the rain and trying to remember the lyrics to that one Adele song – you know, the one about love. I was wishing that instead of walking into this meeting I had walked in front of a bus.
My stomach did a little flip, like the time I got fish tacos from that guy at the bus stop. There was a pop in my ears and a tug against my bellybutton. Everything shimmered as my breath caught in my throat and my eyes watered. Suddenly, I was standing by the door. Glancing down, I saw my shirt and tie had duplicated, melting together and splitting apart.
I stepped forward. But I also didn’t move.
I watched as I walked across the room and took my seat. I saw myself pick up the pen and start the 3-D box, then move on to tic-tac-toe, then the circle.
Then the pop. Then the tug. And then it was gone.
Now, I’ve never been a big déjà vu guy. As far as I’m concerned, people get the feeling that they’ve experienced a moment already because they have. A few decades of Mondays and Fridays. The nights where you can’t sleep and the nights where you can. Taco night after taco night. Of course people think, I’ve seen this episode of ‘NCIS’ before. We live the same dozen days over and over.
This wasn’t déjà vu.
I, Harvey Cush, had just traveled back in time.
There was no confetti. Nobody cheered. Nobody even noticed. That’s probably how it always goes. I doubt there were any ticker tape parades tromping past Steve Jobs’ garage. The moment of invention passed in an oblivious blur for everyone in the room but me. After it passed, once I found myself back at the table with my notepad, I set about duplicating the conditions. I looked out the window at the drops of rainwater cutting lightning bolt paths down the window. I sang Someone Like You in my head. I traced a black circle.
And then I thought of her.
* * *
I’m standing on the north lawn of East High. But I was also sitting with my back against a birch tree, my backpack tossed aside, talking to a girl with red hair.
The sitting me had lost about ten pounds and gained a few pimples. He also (shit) totally had more hair. I make a mental note to buy some Rogaine back in the present and step closer.
“Oh yeah,” 17-year-old me said, “I thought The Great Gatsby was brilliant. A really smart, cutting expose on the disintegration of the American Dream.”
I hadn’t read The Great Gatsby. But I had read the Cliff’s Notes.
“Mmmmm,” the red head said, nodding thoughtfully. “Yeah. Totally. And didn’t you think, like, Daisy is Zelda?”
“I so picked up on that,” 17-year-old me said, wondering how a novel set in the Roaring Twenties could have anything to do with one of my favorite Nintendo games.
As the me with the full head of hair bullshitted his way through the conversation, I try to turn my head and see her. I want to watch her walk across the grass. Maybe she was walking alone, an inscrutable smile on her face. Maybe she was laughing, arm-in-arm with friends. It was the first time I met her, and I want to see every second. But I had been too busy trying to impress this girl whose name I no longer remember to look. And because I didn’t see her coming the first time, I can’t see her coming this time.
She tripped over my backpack and went sprawling. 17-year-old me had the reflexes of a teenager and darted out an arm, catching her.
That day, the first thing I’d seen was the red and white of her volleyball jersey. The colors that meant outsider, rival. 13 years later, after all we’ve been through, the first thing I see is the way the gold curls of her hair split the sunlight, haloing her soft, sweet face.
She hung there for a moment, suspended in mid-fall, staring into my 17-year-old face. She closed her eyes. I step closer. Get to one knee. I can smell her perfume. The one she wore all through high school and her freshman year of college. The one whose name I could never remember, no matter how many hours I’d spent since studying the rows of colored bottles. The one whose scent I’d long forgotten. But here it is. Sharp, fresh, and crystal clear.
And that ruins me.
She turned her head, smiled. I move my head closer to mine, try to pretend she can see me. That she is looking at me now, instead of me then.
“Just leave that thing anywhere,” she said, the skin around her eyes crinkling the way it always did when she really, truly smiled.
Pop. Tug. Gone.
* * *
I wake up on the couch. Again.
I sit up, my feet freezing and my neck stiff. I dart a hand across the coffee table, knocking over empties and scurrying across a note pad crammed to the margins with hand-drawn black holes. I grab my cell phone. Swipe off the alarm.
There’s the scent of bacon in the air. And then it’s gone. Nobody has made bacon in this house for a long time.
I walk to the kitchen, rubbing sleep from my eyes. I pass our bedroom, the door solid and shut. The last time I slept there – the night after – I could still smell her on her pillow. I woke up in the middle of the night, certain she was there. I had reached out a blind hand and come back with nothing but pillow. And I had pulled it to my face, smothered myself with it. I had tried to pull that smell into my chest, like I could breathe life into both of our lungs if I just tried hard enough. I breathed and breathed and on the third breath the smell began to fade. I panicked. I got up from bed, grabbed my pillow and slammed the door.
I closed that door a month ago and haven’t been inside since. My closet had always been the guest bedroom. I guess I could sleep in that room. But it’s too close to ours.
To mix things up, I take a shower. I run the water too hot. I stand under it until my skin glows red and my heart thuds against my rib cage. I don’t shave.
Back in the kitchen, I tell myself I should eat something. That it’s getting fucking ridiculous. But I open the pantry and see the jars of sauces and capers and olives. The sun glints off cellophane packages of pasta; the stick-straight, the curled, the knotted, the tuberous. I wonder when they expire. I wonder how long I can keep them.
I sit down at the table. I hum a few bars of Chasing Pavements.
I pick up my pen.
* * *
“Honey, we can’t afford this,” she said.
“Let me worry about the money,” I said, unpacking the reusable cloth grocery bags that I had once thought so hippie-dippie and now couldn’t shop without.
I slide into the seat across from her. Study the lines growing on her face. I turn my head and see me slide a package of squid ink pasta from the bag.
“I wanna try this first,” I said. “Venice is our first stop, and their specialty is Spaghetti Di Nero. Might as well develop a taste for the stuff, huh?”
“Why is it black?”
“It’s made from squid ink.”
“Haven’t I thrown up enough?”
I laugh now. I didn’t laugh then.
Pop. Tug. Gone.
* * *
There are rules to this time travel stuff. Very specific, very precise rules. And it’s not like it comes with an instruction manual. Hell, even IKEA gives you pictures of a frustrated man holding a hammer to help you assemble your Tåpêrfüňgenđuģaldœrg bookshelf. But for time travel? Nothing. I, Harvey Cush, had to discover the rules on my own.
There are three rules:
You don’t get to live it. You only get to watch it.
* * *
A swarm of energy and optimism blitzes past me – 15 high school seniors in pinstripes. There I was, in the middle of the pack. Beaming, because I loved baseball. Loved watching it, loved listening to it, and loved playing it.
Still do, really. But I don’t get to play baseball now. The easy answer is because of my knee. The true answer is because of my life. There was time for baseball before meetings. Before car insurance and health insurance and life insurance. Before eggshell-colored waiting rooms and offered tissues.
But I can time travel, so I go back to 1986.
18 was the sweet spot for me. The age where I had mastered cracking sunflower seeds and spitting them into the fresh-cut grass, smacking my free hand against the leather of my glove and shouting smack talk. The age when the rest of my life unspooled before me in a clear, slick line of unbroken blacktop. When I was the fastest, strongest, best version of myself.
All I want is to be 18 again. To have one more chance to see that pitch. Feel my bat connect with it – the way it sent a dazzling, rattling ripple up my arms. Letting me know that this was different. This was special. I want one more chance to watch that gleaming white ball leave my bat and streak across the blue May sky. One more trip around the bases on strong, steady legs. One more chance to round second and see her – her red and white letter jacket bunched on the bench next to her. See her friends standing, booing, shouting shit at me. See her eyes crinkling at the corners as she smiled at me.
And, when I touched third and headed for home, see that blue eye wink.
But you don’t get to live it. You just get to watch it.
So I stand in the row below her, my back to the field, starring at a muddy, blurry smear of red and white. I hear the crack of the bat, the roar of the crowd. Hear the smear in front of me begin to boo.
I stop breathing, wait for it. Wait for her.
She shifts into focus as, behind me, I rounded second and saw her. In the stands, I rise onto tiptoes to get my eyes level with hers. But try as I might, the wink isn’t aimed at me. Well, it was. But it isn’t.
And it won’t be. No matter how many times I come back.
Pop. Tug. Gone.
* * *
I pick up my messenger bag and sling it over a shoulder. I kick aside the new pile of mail. The cards are still coming. I’ve stopped opening them.
So sorry for your loss.
How lucky you were to have the years that you had.
You’ll see her again.
I don’t need to open them. I know what they say. I’ve said it in cards of my own to friends who’ve lost parents, grandmothers, babies. Watercolor flowers and cursive fonts. Empty platitudes. Insufficient.
The fresh air actually does feel good, though I’ll never admit that to my sister. I stop at the coffee shop on my corner. Three bucks for a large, but worth it to not drink the free office stuff that tastes like someone burned a diaper full of cigarette butts. And I can’t make it at home anymore. Grind the beans and pour in the filtered water. Put the record on the platter, fill my cup and sit at a table for two. Coffee to go has become the way to go. The door chimes as I step through it and Mel has it ready. The tag reads “Melanie” but I’ve been calling her “Mel” since she insisted on it the first time I came here three weeks ago.
“You look nice today,” Mel says, eyes narrowed, suspicious. “What’s different?”
“I showered,” I say, pushing out a smile and handing over my debit card.
“For me? You shouldn’t have.” She hands me back my card and her finger brushes my thumb. Lingers. I meet her eyes. They’re a faded green. They don’t crinkle when she smiles.
My eyes move down past the flush in her cheeks, over the gloss on her lips. Down to the delicate tattoos arcing like brittle black chains up over her shoulders and plunging down under her tank top. Maybe they meet in the middle at her heart. Maybe they split back apart, scooping up and under, meeting again in the small of her back. Maybe I should just take my fucking coffee and sit down.
At the table, I take a sip and wince. Too hot. I stare out the window and watch people walk like the ground can’t vanish any moment. My fingertips fiddle with the corner of a cocktail napkin. They itch for a pen.
I’ve tried it a bunch of different ways. But it has to be a circle. Drawn counter-clockwise. The song doesn’t seem to matter so much. The Beatles worked. So did Neutral Milk Hotel and The New Pornographers. Bob Dylan’s Moonshiner took a full verse and chorus, but it got the job done. I use Adele because she was her favorite.
I was hoping that by altering the method, I could alter the results. That by changing the song or the doodle on the page I could leap fully into the moment. Inhabit instead of observe. But nothing’s worked so far.
There’s something profoundly lonely about this type of time travel (the only type of time travel, as far as I know). The type you witness, but don’t experience. The kind that makes you a ghost in your own life. You know how your own voice sounds weird when you hear it? Your own life is a thousand times more detached when you watch it.
I’ve never been more lonely in my life than when I was traveling back through it.
And, as I’ve come to discover and name Rule Two, back is all I’ve got.
There’s no going forward. You can only go back.
Time travel is a one-way street. No right turns on Memory Lane. And sure, I’d like to see if they ever make another Die Hard. I’d like to know how much longer people let that fucking Price is Right stay on the air. I’d like to see just how I was supposed to die. But that’s not an option. You go back and that’s that. You can spin that pen around as quick as you can, sing Hello with all your might. But you’re not popping past the present.
“Are you going to drink that or paint it as still life?” Mel says from behind me, her hand resting for a moment on my shoulder.
“I’m letting it cool,” I say, mustering up the best smile I’ve got left.
“I didn’t realize you were such a delicate flower,” she says, nudging me as she steps past. She turns and looks at me over her shoulder. “Next time I’ll leave a little room for breast milk you big baby.”
I laugh. And it’s the first time in such a long time.
And I stop laughing.
I grab a pen from inside my coat.
* * *
We were thirty miles from the end of our honeymoon when Kermit, the green hatchback I’d had since senior year of high school, gave up the ghost. We spent two hours in that service station in the Illinois cornfields, prolonging the inevitable. Maybe he just needs a new battery, I’d thought. Maybe it was just the alternator. When it was clear to everyone but me that it was toast, she took my hand and squeezed it.
“Lot of good times in that thing,” she said, winking like she had that day at the ballpark. Like she did every time she wanted to make me crazy in public. “This time, let’s get something with a little more room in the back.”
I step up just behind her, get as close as I can and close my eyes. Pretend that she’s whispering in my ear.
“I think we should start trying,” she said.
The mechanic stepped in from the garage, wiping his hands. “I can give you $200 bucks for scrap,” he said.
I took it and spent a little of it on a bag of stale pretzels and an orange juice to split while we waited for the taxi to take us back to Chicago. We needed the rest of it for that.
“We are so poor,” she said, laughing as we passed the bottle back and forth.
“The cab driver says he will be here in an hour,” the mechanic said. “Sorry, but it’s the best he can do.”
“No worries,” I said. “Do you have a deck of cards or anything?”
The mechanic shrugged and walked back into the garage, leaving us to entertain ourselves. Which was never our problem.
She pulled the book from my bag. I had always remembered it the other way.
“Read me a story,” she said, tossing my worn copy of The Catcher In The Rye onto my lap. I slide into the stiff metal chair on her right and lean back, staring at the fading patch of sunburn on her bare shoulders. Someday soon I’ll go back to the lounge chairs by the pool. To the way her back arched and her chest heaved as she slept in the sun. Maybe someday I’ll even go back to our room overlooking the pool.
I can’t yet.
Right now it’s enough to be here, watching and listening as we took turns reading Salinger to each other. I can even push aside the embarrassment I feel now at that having been my favorite book for too long.
“You think you’re him, don’t you?” she teased.
“Me and every other teenage boy,” I said.
“You’re about five years from teenage.”
“Doesn’t mean the world isn’t full of phonies.”
I wish I could grab me. Shake me. Make me understand right then what it would take seven years of marriage to learn: Holden Caulfield was an idiot kid. Not all women lose their brains. Most women have brains to spare. The best ones will even loan you some. And this one spent our marriage showing me there was plenty to love in the world, even if I was hell-bent on hating it.
I reach out my hand to her hair. I know I can’t. But I still try.
Pop. Tug. Gone.
* * *
I throw most of my coffee away and get back outside. I send work an email. I’m not sure how many sick days I have left. In fact, I’m sure they were gone a long time ago. Who knows how much longer they’ll be patient with me. I wouldn’t blame them. At some point you’ve got to stop being understanding and start running your business. But I get a response almost immediately.
We’ve got everything covered here. Take the day.
I want them to be angry with me. I want them to call me on the carpet. I want them to tell me it’s enough. That I can’t keep showing up one day and vanishing the next. I want them to fire me. I’m tired of being treated like I’m wounded. Like I’m brittle.
I’m tired of feeling that way, too.
I walk back home the long way, across the bridge over the river. It’s been raining most of the past week and I can hear it long before I can see it. I stop in the middle of the bridge. It’s a pedestrian bridge, and it’s empty. Everyone else is busy being productive. But I still look both ways before I step up onto the concrete railing. It’s wide and stable, and it’s easy to catch and hold my balance. But I throw my arms wide just the same. I close my eyes and listen to the white water rushing beneath me.
How many times have I been back to that ball field? That birch tree? I lost count weeks ago. I keep going back hoping that something will change. That the next time will be different. But enough is enough. I know the third rule, now. The final rule.
You can’t stay.
I know because I tried.
I tried to stay beneath that birch tree, her hair splitting the sun.
I tried to stay in the bleachers, one row away from those eyes.
I tried to stay in the service station, on those stiff metal chairs.
I tried to stay in the doctor’s office the day she got the diagnosis. Willing to see those tears stream down her flushed cheeks forever if it meant I could watch myself hold her hand. Listen to me promise her over and over again that I would live a good, happy life. Tell her I wouldn’t wallow. Wouldn’t give up. Would move on.
But you can’t stay.
Maybe, though. Maybe.
I pull the pen from my coat pocket and draw a circle on the back of my hand. My eyes focus on the rush of water slipping away under me. I sing.
* * *
Which day is the best day of the week to die? It sure as shit ain’t Tuesday. It doesn’t have a fun nickname like ‘hump day’. It isn’t Friday. It isn’t even Monday, the day that seems most built for death. It’s stupid fucking Tuesday. A nothing day plopped there in the midst of the week like the broccoli on your plate. A day for getting through. For moving past. Not for ending.
This was the shit I was thinking about the first time. I was sitting on a brown vinyl chair with a persistent creak, but I’m leaning against the window ledge behind me, watching as I ran nervous, exhausted fingers through my hair. I can smell the violently cheery, antiseptic-spiked air. I can hear the slow, haunted rattle of the breath in her chest.
“Help me,” she said again to no one. Those two words were the final firing synapses of a once fertile mind that’s become a fallow field.
“Help me. Oh God, help me.”
I told myself then that she was too far-gone. That they were just words, not feelings. The aftershocks of all the shit Big C put her through. Nothing more. I told myself this because it was the only way I could live with it.
I couldn’t. And I can’t.
There was a time where we thought we could. And we fought the brave fight, in sickness and in health. We planned the future. She did the treatments. I shaved my head. We bought plane tickets and read guidebooks on Tuscany. We unfurled our Mission Accomplished banner and pushed Big C off into a dark basement corner. But we turned our back on it, and that was our mistake. It got to work down there in the dark.
I see my hand reach out to brush a strand of hair from her face. That face. I hardly recognize it now. Hollow. Carved and eroded like a riverbed. And her eyes. God, I miss her eyes. She’s here. She’s still right here. But she’s not. This is a fossil.
The alarms chime. This was the worst part. I see her chest seize, her wispy muscles clench. I see me lift up out of that vinyl chair. It tipped over and smashed apart against the linoleum floor. I see me race from the room, tennis shoes squelching. I hear me scream for help.
I close my eyes and bite back a scream of my own.
If I could reach out and grab my arm, if I could stop myself, I would. I would spin myself around and force myself to stay here, to watch. Because by the time I get back, she’ll be gone.
But I can’t stop myself. I can’t change anything. And because I didn’t stay the first time, I can’t stay this time.
There’s a tipping and a leaning. A tug against my bellybutton. The air around me ripples like water after a stone’s been skipped. My ears pop.
And it’s all gone.
* * *
I thought that if I picked the worst moment that still had her in it, that fate or God or whatever would cut me a fucking break.
But, see, you can’t stay.
I’ve tried to stay in the days after she died. Back when I was still waking up forgetting she was gone. Because those fleeting morning moments where she was alive and well and making bacon were worth every bit of pain when reality came crashing back in. It was a thousand times better than the numbness I’ve been stuck in ever since. I would live there forever if I could.
But you can’t stay.
I move my toes over the edge, stare down at the water below me. I trace the path of it as it charges ahead, surging over rocks. I see the calm side pools where some of it gets trapped, caught in a slow spin cycle until it breaks free and forward.
A wise man once said, “Time flows like a river.” Well, you ask me, Stephen Hawking is full of shit.
Time is not a river. Time is rapids.
Most of my life it has pushed me forward, relentless. The sheer speed of it blurring days, weeks, years into white water as I’m pushed ever faster, ever forward toward the finish. Toward the falls. But every so often the current slowed. And it seemed like I’d be young forever, or like that meeting would never fucking end. Sometimes it even seemed to stop. The whirlpool spun me around and around as we had our first kiss or I prayed for an end to the pain.
At first it seemed like the greatest gift, being able to hop the rocks and swim upstream. To revisit those rare bright moments in the years of work and worry that made life so fucking worth it. But I can’t stay in those moments. And each time I visited the best moments of my past I ended up caring less about my future.
I stumbled across this time travel thing. It was an accident. I’m sure it had something to do with me being miserable in my present. That might be all it takes. You just have to hate your now enough to gain access to your then. But that’s when the trouble started. If I could do it all over again, I wouldn’t. We aren’t supposed to travel back. We are supposed to struggle forward. We are supposed to believe that our greatest days are just around this bend. The good moments and the bad moments are supposed to wear and weather.
We are supposed to keep swimming.
I lean my weight forward. I take a deep breath.
I don’t know how I was supposed to die, thanks to Rule Two. But this can be how I choose to die.
Because Rule Three won’t let me keep her.
Because Rule Two won’t let me see if I ever get over losing her.
Because Rule One won’t let me be with her.
And I’m tired of all this treading water.
I lied to my wife. I didn’t know I was doing it at the time, but how can I live a happy life without her in it? How can I move on?
I can take my chances that there’s something on the other side of this railing. Something at the end of the river. After the falls and beyond the rocks. Someplace calm, cool and quiet. Someplace where she’s waiting for me.
But I love her too much to break my promise.
I step down from the railing. I walk home.
I eat olives from the jar and flip through old photos. I wait out the sun. I flip the cushions on the couch.
My phone chimes with a friend request. Melanie. I turn my phone to silent. Maybe tomorrow I’ll accept. Maybe tomorrow I’ll go get a coffee. Maybe tomorrow I’ll jump.
Tonight I put on a record and sing along.
Tonight I pick up my pen.