Jennifer A. Howard
WHEN TIME TRAVEL — BOTH WAYS — BECAME EASY AND CHEAP
People had so many plans: to go back to the right moment and save their fathers from hunting accidents, to read more books so they'd talk at parties, to learn guitar or tap dancing or a slice serve while they were still young. But early trips were hard to control. A kid with a stutter landed back in the womb. A grandmother jumped only to find her house was built on the site of a mental asylum and got herself locked up. A cowboy careened so far ahead he met the next generation of dinosaurs, tamed one, rode it around.
Later, we got the hang of it. A toll booth operator jumped forward just to the end of her shift, every day, to just the moment the pizza boy knocked at the door. A sous chef changed history so he was the man who invented Béarnaise sauce. The guy in 11th place headed back to Labor Day and redrafted his fantasy football team: no more C. J. Spiller. Women in love with college boys too young for them traveled forward so they could catch up. A young widower traveled back to do more poorly on his spelling tests so he'd get into a third-rate college and never meet his wife. Some people worked to make sure aborted babies got born, others that babies didn't. We leapt so we were in the driver's seat this time, we made sure our kids came home by curfew, we avoided known disasters.
In our new pasts, we drank less, kept our pants on more. We didn't work harder, but we slept better, until the new bad thing happened, and then we jumped again.
We got older and older in longer-ago times and missed out on what was new now: Call of Duty 23 and Steve Carrell's great-grandchildren's variety show and dream exercise that burns calories during sleep. We tried to rewrite famous books but didn't get it quite right: "Okay, I'm going to hell then, I guess." We painted lilypads too fuzzily, sang Imagine but received only polite clapping, tried to buy Manhattan for beads but were turned down. We invested in stocks that this time through tanked, because the world—we started to figure out—didn't owe us anything, we don't deserve more just because we're trying again.
Some people tried to be good anyway. One woman loved her angry son better this time. It worked, kind of, but elsewhere: chaos and genocide and war. Another found a new regular bar, took in her pocket the name of the band never to see, the drummer never to fall for, though she found her life wasted by someone else instead, and this time her children liked their dad better. A boy traveled back to stop a school shooting, but after he stopped the shooters he got run over by a bus, and that bus went over a cliff into a valley and smashed into an orphanage, killing everybody involved, including the goats that gave the parentless children their morning milk.
Eventually, we went back to just die quicker. We ate all the Ding Dongs and drank all the tequila; we smoked all the cigarettes and threw the butts wherever. We stopped saying we inherit the world from our children, because we already knew our children became sad grownups too, and soon.
The people we went back to love again didn't realize they were being loved harder a second time around. How could they know things were ever another way? So we got angry they didn't appreciate how nice we were, and we messed everything up the same way, or a different way, although the good news is there were fewer divorces in the new pasts because it turns out very few people got married when given the chance to do it all over again.
Except for me and you, baby. We'll get married stay married. Shush: I'll meet you back there, when we're still kids, before either of us does anything irreparably wrong. We'll keep each other away from danger, and we'll call each other cabs. You'll make sure I never go to that party, and I'll keep you home the night of the storm you'll want to chase. We'll bet on horses in small increments, just enough to keep us in cheeseburgers and roller derby tickets and gas for the souped-up RV we'll drive from library to library. You won't resent that you've never kissed anybody else, that you didn't get those years in bed with the girl who played piano, and we'll never argue about your drinking because you'll never become a drunk. I'll find a way to still get knocked up by my ex, so the right sperm goes after the right egg, so the right kiddo arrives on schedule—don't tell me we can't make that happen—and we'll drive, the three of us, heading only forward, the slow way, living on the road in a real time we had no idea how to navigate the first go round.
Jennifer A. Howard edits Passages North and directs the MFA program at Northern Michigan University on the south shore of Lake Superior.