Bad Timing

What he saw was so out of place that for a moment he questioned whether he had jumped through time. There somebody was, right in front of him, talking on a cellphone! It was pressed to her face hard enough to leave lines on her face, if she ever peeled it off. He definitely was not in 1814 anymore. What was happening?

“Harold,” he said to himself, “Don’t be ridiculous. Take a breath.” He took a long, steadying breath. He blew out, lips pursed, and shook himself. Of course he had jumped through time. He couldn’t very well have stayed in 1814 forever. It was simply too difficult, tripping over ladies’ hoop skirts all day and having to worry about tuberculosis and such. Not to mention the cows. Centuries ago, there were entirely too many cows all over the place. And then there were horses, too. It was just not to be borne, and so Harold would be very glad to be back, once he got over the shock.

It was always a jolt to his system every time that the time changed. The jump wasn’t a choice, exactly. Once, he had been able to control it. With just a squint of his eyes and a moment of concentration, he could skip back to the Jurassic Period and run from some dinosaurs until he got bored and decided to come back. He had done that, and some other epochs as well, until once in the early Middle Ages he had gotten stuck. He had lived among the filthiest people for a full year before he was able to pull himself back to the present. That seemed like a good time for a break, and several hot baths in a row. Eight of them, actually. Luckily, nothing bubonic had happened yet when he had been, or anything else that came back with him. It was, in a manner of speaking, a clean break.

Eventually the skips had just started happening, dragging him along without his doing anything and certainly without his consent. There really is only so much time one person can spend in the past. Before too long, you get bogged down, held back, tied up, and entirely irritated. All in all, Harold was relieved to see a cell phone, though he’d been in the nineteenth century for such a time that it took him a full ten minutes for figure out what had happened.

“Well, I supposed I’d better get out of these clothes,” he muttered, tugging at the cravat. Once he had untucked his blouse from his pants and disposed of the frock coat, he felt almost normal. At least when he traveled, he stayed in approximately the same place. This had been awkward for a while until he figured out that he’d better make sure the heights matched. He’d gotten quite good at doing research on past architecture and geology. This meant that he wasn’t far from home, now that he was back to his time. He could walk, and he did.

When he got home, the door was locked. Nineteenth-century gentlemen don’t carry around twenty-first-century house keys, so of course he didn’t have one with him. There should have been one under the frog statue, but he couldn’t even find the frog. “Bloody hell,” he said to himself, and pounded on the door in frustration. He sagged.

“Yes?” Harold almost fell into the hallway when the door swung open. A young woman was looking at him, a phone in one hand and a sponge in the other. Her eyes narrowed to see a disheveled man in a blouse with sideburns falling down. He looked up at her.

“Cecilia?” He was flabbergasted. His mouth hung open.

“Yes, Harold?” She was impatient, and fit herself into the crack between the door and the frame so that he couldn’t see past her.

“What on earth are you doing here? You, um, you died. You died in 1813. A year ago. I mean, two hundred and two years ago. What? What.”

She rolled her eyes. “You’re such a man. My goodness. You think you’re the only person in the universe, the only person like you, and the rest of the humans are all just little ants or something, don’t you?”

“What. What? What?”

She slapped him across the face. Gently. “Well, you couldn’t expect everyone to live like that forever, right? I was quite fond of you, but my God, embroidery gets very boring. And I didn’t know you could time travel too. I’d just gone on little trips before, ones that I could get away with.”

“What?” Harold scrunched up his face and opened his eyes wide. He was definitely awake. “You’re a, I mean, you time traveled?”

Cecilia sighed. “Yes, I did. And do. And I came here because I thought two hundred years would make a nice change. I looked up your last name, on a whim, and was very surprised when I found you. There can’t be that many Harold Edgartonvilles in the world, so I lied to a locksmith and got into your house. I’ve been living here ever since. I didn’t expect you back, honestly.”

Harold stared at her. It was like a fairy story. “It’s like a fairy story,” he said.

“Why?”

Suddenly he was nervous. “I mean, because I liked you. Um, I loved you. And then you died? But now you’re here.”

She smiled. He had missed that dimple in her cheek, and the way she glanced down when she was happy about something. “So my parents said I’d died, huh? Of course they did. They probably assumed I’d run away or something. Can’t have that. How weird.”

“Cee, uh, what about me though? You’re living in my house. I need to live here. And you could, you know, say something back about how I feel. How you feel. We’re not in the nineteenth century anymore.”

“Oh,” she said, her dimple deepening. “I can answer you.” She tilted her face up and looked him in the eyes.

He blinked and the world wrenched itself around his body. When his eyes opened again, he was in the countryside. In a field, far off, he could see a peasant girl bent to the ground. He was surrounded. He sighed. Cows again. So many cows.

On Seeing

“You just have to have faith,” she told me. “It’s all there right in front of you if you would just open your eyes.”
My eyes were open. I could see everything in front of me. “My eyes are open,” I said.
“No,” she shook her head, hair swinging, lips pressed together. “They’re not. You’re refusing to see. Why?”
I shrugged. “There’s nothing to see.” I didn’t see anything. We were walking down the street. The sidewalk was gray. It was always gray, spotted and pitted and stained like it always was. The buildings were brick and concrete and steel just like usual. The men sitting on the steps hooted at us as we walked past, as they did every day. I didn’t see anything whatsoever out of the ordinary.
She closed her eyes. Her steps didn’t waver. Her hand reached mine, fingers entwining. “I can see,” she said.
“Your eyes are closed.”
She nodded. A smile puffed up her cheeks. She pulled my hand up and against her chest, hard. I heard a whistle, but as if it were far away. I saw.

The air moved. The stumpy trees, crowded between street and sidewalk, breathed. The man eyeing us from the corner made a small noise in the back of his throat. I saw it. I reached up to my face, but it hadn’t changed. My eyes were the same, wide open and staring but no bigger. They felt hot, but my fingers felt no heat through my eyelids. Everything was vibrating, shimmering, wrapped in silver and ringing. I blinked, and watched the slow motion movement of my vision shrinking as the bodies in front of me shifted, like walking through sand, running through water, held in place by time and the gleaming shattering air all around them.

When I opened my eyes again, she had dropped my hand. The world was normal again. The man on the corner was now looking at us with undisguised curiosity, his mouth twisted. Somebody’s dropped bottle of soda rolled across the sidewalk. She was looking at me, her eyes wide now, her lips tucked in.
“What?” I said, pushing hair back from my face, shaking my head.
“You stopped,” she said. “Did you see something? What happened?”
“I don’t know,” I said, closing my eyes tight for a moment. “Everything went funny for a second. What am I supposed to’ve seen?”
“Magic.”
“Magic? Please.”
She raised her shoulders, hands outspread, mouth still crinkled. “Maybe.”
I grabbed her hand again, and we started walking. My legs felt weak, shaking, as though I’d just climbed the longest stairway. “No,” I said, not looking at her. “Come on, be real. There’s no such thing.”
She was quiet.

Sometimes I still see it out of the corner of my eyes. Once you see like that, I guess, it’s learned. You can’t really unsee. Your eyes already know the shapes and patterns, the light that fills everything. The shuddering of the shadows and the way the brightness shakes, presses, bursts. The contrasts are overwhelming. It gives me a headache. I can’t wish I’d never seen. I just pretend that I didn’t, though. I press my fingers to my temples and take a breath and then go on as though nothing has happened at all.
She looks at me oddly when that happens, when she notices. It happens more around her, I think. It makes it hard to be around her, but of course I do anyway. I can’t stop loving her just because I see magic when I’m with her. She’s worth the pain in my head and that brief, disconcerting feeling that the world has shifted just an inch or so in between each shuttering of my eyelids. When she looks at the world, there is wonder written in the lines of her face. I understand why, I suppose, even though when I look at the world it’s ordinary at best. At worst, the beauty and the terror fleeting across my vision make me want to crouch down, eyes closed, head safely inside my arms and nothing before me.
Either way, we keep going, together. There isn’t much else to do, is there? Not for me, anyway. This is just how it always is. Her beauty, my pain. At the end of the day when we curl around each other, it’s night. The room is dark. The lights are off. We press our bodies together, skin to skin, touch over sight. Neither of us can see anything at all.

Rain

On 145th Street, there’s a building full of rain. I don’t mean that it’s flooded or anything. It’s not like when you open the door, the jangly glass kind at the front of a store, there’s water that rushes out and pushes you across the sidewalk in its hurry. There’s only perhaps an inch of water on the floor. It must leak out somewhere, and you can see the stain as it bleeds into the pavement at your feet when you’re right outside. You don’t get hit with a wave when you open the door. You just hear it; ppt ptt ppt ppt tpp prt. Thrumming against the concrete floor.

I found the rain room by accident. I was trying to get away from a thunderstorm, if you can believe that. I was running down the street with my coat over my head and my slippery-wet hand in my girlfriend’s hand, our fingers jamming together. We were laughing like mad. It had just started raining, out of the blue. Really, the sky had looked clear as any day when all the sun wants to do is wrap you in light, but then the clouds had come. They just sort of showed up, uninvited, and then they spilled all over us. Mel and I stopped strolling when we felt the first few drops, and our steps quickened. Then, right away, the rain sped up too and it began beating down on us. We ducked under our jackets and sprinted. Thinking back on it, I’m not sure why we were running. We were a bit far from anything, and we would’ve gotten wet by the time we reached a subway or a bus anyway. We just ran, hands clinging and feet slapping sprays of water onto each other. We ducked into a building with a half-cracked door and took a breath of relief before we realized that we hadn’t stopped getting wet.

Mel tipped her face right up to the ceiling and watched the drops fall toward her. I just watched her for a moment, too dumbfounded to talk. When I found my voice, I said, “Just our luck. The ceiling must be leaky. I bet this place is abandoned. Don’t do that, sweetie, the water’s probably all dirty.” In response, of course, she stuck out her tongue. She tasted the water that down the corners of her mouth.

“No,” she said. “The water, it’s just rainwater.”

“Of course it’s rainwater! It’s raining out. And it’s leaking.”

“Not out,” Mel smiled. She always was faster to catch on to things than I was. “It’s raining in here. Don’t you see?”

I looked up too. “Shit,” I said. “No it’s not.”

“Yes. It is.”

The ceiling was dropping water on us. Or at least I think it was the ceiling. I couldn’t really see any plaster or paint through the fog. Well, clouds, I suppose it was. The clouds covered the ceiling of the building and huddled in the corners in sulky gray masses. Mel smiled into the corners, the rain running down her face and twisting her hair into tendrils that streamed down her back. I started to laugh. She laughed too, until the both of us sank down and sat in the puddle that was the floor. We leaned against each other and laughed ourselves helpless at the escape we’d found from the rain outside. At the sheer absurdity of the building that rained on the inside.

We’d had a fight earlier that day, another one about her work that was taking all her time from me. She always answered that by saying, rather cattily, that if I only found something to do then it wouldn’t be a problem. I’d been sullen ever since, but now I laughed and when we paused to catch our breath I pulled her toward me. We kissed, sloppy and soaking, in the room that rained on us. I’m not sure there was a moment before or since that I felt us breath and beat together like that as the rain trembled to the floor around us.

When we finally went home, we were so drenched with rain that a pool of water spread on our seats on the bus and poured itself down into the grooves on the floor. We were both shivering, still wracked with giggles, drawing stares from the three old ladies who were the only other people on the bus. We got home and took a long hot shower. We broke into laughter again the moment the water began to spray.

Everything’s a little different now. With me, with Mel, everything. I think it can be better, though. I haven’t seen her in a week, but we’re going to meet up on 145th Street. I won’t bring an umbrella, just in case.

One-Sided

Mr. Murray Mendels was having a difficult conversation with his father. It was difficult because it was entirely one-sided, and Murray wanted advice. He wasn’t getting any. He could feel the anger hot behind his eyes and tight in his clenched hands, but he tried to keep his frustration under control. Of course, showing that he was angry wouldn’t help a bit. Nothing would, really, but he kept talking anyway. He was very determined about it, and had been having one-sided conversations with his father for quite a long time. He had a lot of practice by now.

He tried again. “Listen, Papa, I just want to know what you think I should do. I’m at my wit’s end here, I really am, and there’s nothing I would love more than to hear your opinion. It’s about to get serious.”

His father stayed silent.

“Oh, for goodness’s sake, Papa, I know this is practically the same problem I’ve had for ages, and it’s probably very dull to hear me talk and talk and talk and talk and talk about it. But all that talking isn’t getting me anywhere, and I’m supposed to pay the rent last Saturday, and it’s a big problem! Big! I just don’t know. That woman at the shop, she must know that I’m not going to do anything about it, but I should. I have to. If she just gave me some of what she owes me, I mean never mind that, if she just gave me the interest I’m owed and I’d have half my rent already, I mean really.”

Still, his father was quiet. He spoke no words of counsel or reassurance.

“But what should I do? That’s the question. I mean, do I write her a letter? A strongly worded one. Dear Madam, To Whom It May Concern, You have owed me seven hundred dollars for the last two years and I need some of it back now, please. If you don’t mind, you see it’s important, in that I’m broke. Flat-out couldn’t-be-broker broke. The brokest of broke. I’m not asking because I’m impatient, really I’m not, I wouldn’t even care, it’s just that I need to pay rent by a week ago and would you please. Oh, God almighty I’m no good at strongly worded, this is the kind of thing you should help me with, Papa. You were always very good at getting people to listen to, your whole life. and I haven’t got that kind of facility with persuasion, I’m more of a wheedle and plead kind of guy. Not very convincing unless you’ve got some extra pity to use up and I’m the closest one around. What should I say, how should I say it?”

Murray’s father did not speak.

“And you know that the landlord’s not going to give me much longer. So what am I going to do, get evicted out of this crappy place because I can’t talk to the pretty girl down the street? I’m a pushover, I really am, she asks me for hundreds of dollars as a quick loan, she’ll get it right back to me, aren’t I a dear. And then nothing! Not for ages. Not a word to me, barely an acknowledgement. Maybe she’s embarrassed. No, that’s silly, because she smiles at me every time she sees me.” Murray stood up, pushing the chair back, where it hit his pile of cleanish laundry. “She knows exactly what she’s doing, the minx! Oh for heaven’s sake. This is ridiculous.”

His father probably agreed, but did not say so.

“Come on, Papa, just tell me. What if I tell the landlord that she owes the money? No, he would never buy that, not for a minute. It’s my responsibility. That’s what you always told me, you do what you gotta do, right? This is what I gotta do. I have to march right in there and say— well, something. What?”

Murray’s father offered no helpful words here either.

“This is the least helpful conversation I think I’ve ever had. I’m trying to talk myself into solving my own problems, for all the good you’re doing me. This is useless. You’re not telling me anything, I’m going to have to figure it out for myself just like I did my whole life, same as always. I mean, I didn’t exactly expect you to be there for me. You’re not here, you know, and you never were there for me at all anyway. Even when you were alive, nothing. Why should I expect any different from you now?”

His father did not answer.

She Paints

She paints people. It is a hard job, because people are so full of light and shadow and color that they cannot fit fully on one canvas. Today she is painting the man who stands behind the counter at the bodega on the corner. She sets herself up on the sidewalk. The easel leans just so, the canvas propped against it, her spurt-stained palette and rags and brushes in a jar all crowded by her feet. She does not sit, because when you paint as much of a person as you can fit on a canvas, you cannot be comfortable. Besides, when she looks so closely at somebody else that she can see the color of the pulse beating in their throat, she tends to forget to feel her own feet.

The man does not see her, but she does not intend him to. The artist has to find out about him when she paints. If he sees her watching him, the awareness of being watched will cloud him over. She needs a clear view, because even when she sees perfectly, her painting will only be a jumble of colors. People don’t look hard at her paintings, hard enough to see everything she’s making with them, as hard as she has to look at people in order to make them. So she angles her easel and watches the man in the bodega for a while. She starts to sketch without looking at her hand or altering its jabs and scratches across the white. She just watches the man and moves, making the shape of his head, adding in the curve of the hollow of his throat, twitching back his hair where his ears stick out. Only after she has darkened the shadows to her satisfaction does she pull a paintbrush from the jar and stand back, studying what she has done.

She paints in a fury. His skin, his hair, the color of his eyes, the wrinkles in his shirt and around his mouth. Once she has pushed color and form onto the canvas to show what he looks like, she begins to paint who he is. Now the artist studies the lines pressed into his cheeks and the way they jump when he smiles, how they tremble when he frowns. His mouth presses close when he is annoyed, the words caught behind his lips. His hair is smoothed down with a comb because it springs from his head when he gets up in the morning. His hands are small with short fingers and broad palms, and they are cracked and rough with the cold. When he turns his head against the light, the shadows well in his eyes and trace the shapes of bone beneath skin. She paints the blue shadows that deepen when he sighs. She paints the tension corded in his neck when he is startled by a sound. She paints the hope held in his mouth, tucked in the corners, tugging at his smile. On her canvas she shades the sadness he’s accumulated over the years, that he wraps around himself, that makes him shiver. His wistfulness, the ache he pushes away when he watches a stranger smile at someone else. His anger that draws his shoulders into a droop like bone-deep weariness. His bottle of memories, held within, of his children when they were so young that they reached for his hands without thinking. She colors and shades. Her paintbrush rasps and smears, pokes and smudges, carves and feathers across the canvas. She paints his impatience with the customers in the store, his fear and loneliness, his quiet contentment when he watches crime show reruns, his brittle bitterness, his rare fierce joy.

When the painting is finished, it is because no more of him will fit on the flat square of canvas. She can paint no more of him. The artist picks up her paintbrushes in their jar, her rags and her palette, her tubes of paint. She folds up the easel and carries everything, canvas and all, in a jagged unwieldy lump in her arms. When she gets home she lays it all on the sofa, carefully enough that the paint won’t be touched. She goes down to the bodega and buys a carton of eggs to make herself dinner. She eats standing over the sink.

On some days, the artist tries not to paint. It is exhausting work. She leaves her brushes and canvasses leaning in a corner and does something else for the day. Inevitably, always, the turn of someone’s wrist or the flicker of someone’s eyes will pull at her, and she will wish for her colors and brushes again. She will get on the train and go home, where the paints are waiting.

Storyteller

I like to tell stories that shift the world slightly. Good fiction should heal, somehow, it should tuck and twist the lines around everything just enough for it all to fit together a little more easily. The universe should make more sense to people. Humans wander around feeling like everything is out of balance, like chaos reigns, like their lives have no meaning and purpose and sense. I want to banish chaos, to restore meaning, to put the balance right. More than anything, people want to be the protagonists in their own stories. They want everything to flow around them a little bit like it would in a well-written novel, where they are likeable and relatable because the main characters always are. Where what happens to them has some kind of drive behind it, and you know that it’s going to have a satisfying ending. If it doesn’t, at least the tragedy or the drama makes you sigh with real feeling. People don’t want to feel like everything that makes up who they are is false.

This is why people give excuses to teachers and parents, professors, coaches, spouses, and priests. My printer broke. I came down with a fever, suddenly, and couldn’t write the paper. I couldn’t get home in time because the car broke down. My grades are slipping because the teachers are out to get me. I was only talking to her to be nice. I was only sleeping with her because the devil tempted me. Whatever. There has to be a reason to it. A story. If there isn’t a story, it’s too empty, too dull, too flat to be real life.

My story for my college (ex-)boyfriend is that I was falling for him and I was afraid, and we were graduating, and so I veered away in order to avoid all that pain and heartbreak I just knew we would feel for each other. That way, when I told him that, he could feel that razor brush of love, the scrape of sorrow, the wistful nostalgia for something beautiful that could have been true. I don’t think he knew I was sleeping with someone else, but either way, my story lets him believe that we were pure and good and that I loved him. It’s much better to be loved than to be lost.

Last year I told a story to half my family; my friend here was sick, so sick that I couldn’t come home to my parents’ house for Thanksgiving. I had to stay and visit, make soup and bring casserole. The year before that, another friend’s mother died. My parents like to know that I’m a good friend, a caring person, a responsible and compassionate human being. When I don’t go to the dreaded four-hour meal full of my aunt’s tirades and my father’s stoic silence, everything is a little bit better. My world doesn’t have to be miserable for days, and their world is sweeter because they believe in me.

If you pay attention to the stories, you start noticing them everywhere. They laid you off because money was tight in the company. He left you because he had to go find himself. She stopped calling because she got wrapped up in caring for her child, and you know what that must be like with a kid like that. I told my sister that I needed to visit for a bit because I was depressed, and just wanted to feel close to her again. I told my boss that I was so caught up in it that I worked through lunch. I told my dad that I knew everything would be okay. Everything is easier when you can fit it in a story, as small and cramped as that might be. Sometimes they are close to true.

There’s one story that I don’t tell. The purpose of stories is to heal, not to hurt. If there’s pain in a story, you know it’s there for a reason. I don’t tell stories that wound unnecessarily. I don’t see the purpose in it. Pain can be useful, but only when it brings you closer to some kind of resolution. I don’t tell her that I’m half in love with her. Even for a story, half is not enough.

Contradictions

My parents are like children. They are not so old yet that their hands shake when they move and not so young that they have all their memories still neatly ordered. They spend a lot of their time sorting through the supermarket coupons in front of a reality show about cooking or carpentry. When I visit them, I throw out the expired coupons and take out the trash. I make sure they’ve paid all their bills and check that the cat’s still alive. I’ve been living away from them for only two years and already I can’t remember their house feeling like my home. It’s the place where I remember being a child and the place where I am suddenly, wearingly, painfully too adult for my age.

The last time I was at my parents’ house, my mom wanted to make macaroni and cheese for me, to celebrate my being there. It was my old favorite dish when I was young and so she thought it would be special. She left the pot on the stove for half an hour after it boiled and the water had shrunk away while we weren’t watching. She had forgotten to buy extra cheese. She didn’t preheat the oven until eight. I stood in the kitchen and practiced my methodical patience. No, it’s okay, Mom. I got it. Don’t worry, it’ll start cooking while the oven heats up. That dish will be fine, we’re only three people, you can just stick the other half in the fridge and we’ll make it tomorrow. Okay, sure, I’ll grab a container. I’m perfectly calm and using my most tolerant voice so that you won’t accuse me of all the seething that itches under my skin.

My dad sat at the kitchen table and read a magazine for the two hours that this went on. I brought him a beer. He nodded without looking up. When we finally sat down, my mother had to ask him twice before he would look up from the pages and realize, bashful, that we were only waiting for him. While we ate, my parents asked me chipper questions about the job I’d left four months before.

I don’t remember anymore if my parents were grownups when I was small. I couldn’t have noticed, in the same way, if they brought the shopping list to the grocery store or if they ever got back into the car without unhooking the gas pump. Everything was funnier then, anyway. Now I take it seriously and it makes me want to laugh. What else can I do?

I try to visit less and then I worry that they can’t get on without me. If they’d never had a child at all, I wonder if they’d be able to take care of themselves. I wonder how they ever took care of me, or if they did. Now when I go back to the place where I am a child, I take care of my parents.