Some Theories on Time Travel

by Nathan Tavares

I’m staring at myself, fifteen years into the future. Future me is laughing with my friends. He looks thinner, younger than I do. Happier, too. I hate him for it.

There’s a small crowd, maybe fifteen people, gathered in my backyard. Today is my thirty-first birthday. Our thirty-first birthday, my future self was quick to announce. He let me blow out the birthday candles, though. You take this one, he said. I already turned thirty-one.

There’s a banner nailed to the fence that reads, “Happy Birthday Chris.” My future self told me to call him Topher. Even his name is a bookend to me. I can tell he thinks this is really funny. Topher stands by the folding buffet table, talking with some of my friends. The dried, late-August grass crunches beneath my feet.

A too-small birthday hat rests on my head. Omri drew a “one” in black marker next to the bright yellow “three,” making it more age appropriate. The gesture is sweet. I normally would’ve appreciated it more, but I feel dumb. I blame my future self. His laughter. His thin and tanned face.

“Aren’t you going to cut the cake?” Omri asks.

Omri is my boyfriend. I love the sound of his voice. He’s hard of hearing. His voice has this kind of flatness to it. Makes me think of a kid playing a trombone.

“Yeah,” I say. I’m always sure to speak facing him, my words exaggerated. He reads lips. He signs, too. Quick flits of his fingers. He tried to teach me sign language once but my hands are too clumsy. Omri has messy brown hair that he always pushes out of his face, but never cuts.

I take the knife from Omri and go to my birthday cake. There’s a candid picture of me at a cookout frosted onto the cake. A bad picture, but I’m sure Omri tried hard to find a good one. He cropped the picture at my shoulders, hiding the half-eaten hamburger in my hands. In bleeding edible dye on the buttercream frosting, my eyes look dead. My face too round. I cut the cake into sections. Then, I hand out my dissected cake/face to my friends.

“Oh, I shouldn’t,” Topher says when I get to him. He eyes the cake, tempted. He bites his bottom lip and furrows his eyebrows. There are no wrinkles in his forehead. I imagine injections there. I wonder if I ever make that stupid furrowing expression now, of if it’s something I’ll learn within the next fifteen years.

“But what the hell,” he continues. He reaches for the foam plate. “I’m on vacation.”

That’s what Topher told me when he showed up at me and Omri’s apartment a week ago. He was on vacation. In his time, the temporal vacation industry is huge. Five days, four nights in ancient Babylon where you can visit the Hanging Gardens. Brush up on your Nahuatl with the Aztecs in Tenochtitlan. Party in Rome before Christianity swooped in and ruined the orgies.

Topher showed me his travel documents. His two week time travel visa was wedged between the pages of his passport. His visa was (will be? My tenses are fucked now) stamped by an agent of the Commission for Temporal Transportation at Boston Logan Airport. Destination: 2012. Extent of stay: Two weeks. The visa is made of a thin, patterned metal, and has a small digital timer. Milliseconds tick down until the time of his departure, numbers moving so fast they almost blur.

I recognized my jawline of twenty pounds ago. We compared fingerprints. He lifted his shirt to show the scar across his stomach—the same one I have—from appendicitis. Except his scar cut across his taut abs, while mine looked like a seam in a pillowcase that sagged with Halloween candy.

I still didn’t want to believe him. Omri wasn’t home. It was just me, staring at Topher on the front stoop. He had a backpack slung over his shoulders and a rolling suitcase at his side.

“How do I know this is for real?” I asked.

Then he told me things only I knew. Remember the time at camp when that counselor caught you jacking off with Danny Newton? Remember how you got so drunk on a date with your first boyfriend that you pissed yourself? He could’ve kept going, I knew, but I stopped him.

“Jesus,” I said, stunned. “Alright. Come inside.”

“I’ll be gone before you know it,” Topher said, grinning wide.

He moved into our spare room. There’s a bed there, and a treadmill that had mostly been used to house my old sweaters. Topher hung his clothes neatly in the closet. I thought about calling the police. For what? Trespassing? His name was technically on the lease.

Topher is laughing, his hand on my friend Jake’s arm. This is a gesture that he probably means to look casual, but I know he’s feeling up Jake’s bicep. A few of the others have heard about time travel vacationers like Topher. Friends who have friends who were visited by future selves. Others who were visited by distant descendants who wanted to rough it and see how people lived back in the day.

“But how do you look so good?” Jake asks.

My friends steal glances back at me. I know they can’t help but compare. Make a mental Venn diagram of where my and Topher’s traits overlap and differ. Same eyes. Same nose. His cheekbones stick out. He has whiter teeth and better clothing.

Topher’s laugh is a loud hooting that rattles my insides. He laughs in a way that makes me want to punch him in the face. He leans back too far, so I can see the roof of his mouth.

“Oh please,” Topher says. “Forty-six is the new sixteen. Everyone’s hotter in the future.”

“But how,” Jake continues, unconvinced. “How can you be here without…?”

“Altering the future? Creating a paradox?” Topher guides him.

I’m annoyed. He’s leading the witness, your honor, I want to protest. But Jake looks drawn in. A lost cause.

“Yeah. That,” Jake says.

Topher takes in a deep breath. I can tell he loves this shit. He gave me the same speech the first night at our place. I ordered pizza. Omri was sitting next to me on the couch, so close that I could smell his skin. Topher was across from us, patting a pizza slice with a paper towel to soak up the grease.

“Every possible moment in the universe exists already,” Topher says. “Time’s not like an arrow’s flight. It’s more like a wave in the ocean.” He explains this slowly, his voice animated. This is his kindergarten teacher voice. He curves his arm through the air, like he’s moving it through the open window of a moving car.

My friends watch him, eyes glinting. I’m apparently the only one that finds his showboating obnoxious.

“A wave has the illusion of being a separate entity,” he says.  “But it’s really just a part of the whole ocean. Just like time that we observe.”

He pauses for effect. He practically has a hard-on from their attention. Other people around him, who weren’t immediately involved in the conversation stop to listen.

I’m holding a slice of my picture cake.  The slice has my mouth. I’m eating a picture of myself eating. The weird Escher-staircase of symbolism creeps me out. I take a bite and the frosting is so sweet I feel my taste buds singe.

“Because of that, no one person or event is important enough to screw with anything on a wide scale,” Topher continues. “Think of time travel as tossing stones into the ocean.” Another weighted pause. He takes a sip of his drink then grins. His smile would look goofy on me, but goddamnit, he makes it look cool.

“What does a stone do to the ocean? Nothing. I’m just here, tossing stones.”

I nudge Omri, who’s at my side. He watches the liquid movements of Topher’s lips so he can understand every word the future me says. Omri turns to me. He has eyes the color of steeped tea. I want to kiss him, but my mouth is half-full of cake.

“What?” Omri asks.

“I said, do you want to head out?”

“It’s your birthday party,” he says. “You can’t leave early.”

I stare at Topher, irritated. He says, oh enough about me, in a way that I know he really wants to keep talking. Topher explained to me updated models of physics. He talked about wormholes and sub-atomic particles that shift, freely, through time. Most of these things were over my head, even with his dumbed down similes. But the biggest mystery to me is how, in fifteen years, I become this asshole.

*

Topher hits on Omri. He walks around the house in a towel the way that built frat guys in coed dorms do. Wanting the attention, but hoping that people will think that they were just too lazy to put on a shirt. I can count eight hard nubs of muscle in his abdomen. Between the slabs of his pecs is a space so lean that I can almost see bone. His hair is buzzed in a way that would highlight my fat cheeks, but compliments the curving lines of his skull.

I don’t see Omri looking. I feel relieved, but not as much as I’d like. Not that he’s ever given me a reason to doubt his love for me.

I met Omri in a crowded room at the courthouse, five years ago. We were both there for jury duty. We went to a movie on our first date. He kissed me once the previews were over. He pulled away, smiling so wide in the dark that I could almost see the opening credits reflected on his teeth.

Now, I see myself reflected through his eyes. I’m not really proud of what I see. I’m different from when we met. Doughy. I used to run an eight minute mile. I smiled more. Other things have changed, too. The way that I come home from my shitty, entry-level coding job heavy and mind-numb. The way I don’t like to go out anymore. How I weigh Omri down with my doubts, telling him, I thought I would’ve done more with myself by now.

What hasn’t changed are my feelings for him. Whenever I think of how much I love him, I need to tell him, right away, no matter where we are. Buying groceries. Running to catch the Green Line, laughing and breathless, just as it glides away from the Northeastern stop. I can’t keep the words inside of me. Like I’m afraid that if I don’t tell him, then and there, my silence will somehow lessen what we have.

Topher speaks sign language with Omri. They sit on the couch, having whole conversations. I try to keep track of their hands, looking for words that I know. God, Omri says, bringing his hand of front of his face. I catch Topher saying wolf, pinching his fingers away from his nose to make a snout. Tomorrow. Elevator. I wonder what possible combination of these words would make sense. I turn to the TV, seething.

Omri laughs. He always signs when he laughs, his fingers flicking “H” and “A” back and forth. I change the channel and mumble, I love you, to Omri. Only he can’t read my lips because his eyes are closed and he’s still laughing.

*

One day, the three of us are at my favorite sushi restaurant, tucked down a side street of Porter Square. Away from the bustle of Harvard, the artfully-mussed trustafarians, and the street performers. Topher remembers this place. He said in his time, it’s out of business. Someone came in and opened a greasy taco chain joint.

“Threesome?” Topher jokes.

Angry, I can feel a piece of seaweed wedged between my front teeth.

“It doesn’t count as cheating if two of us are the same person,” Topher says. He laughs with his perfect white teeth. Omri laughs a little too, and reaches under the table to squeeze my hand. I miss our spur of the moment couch sex. The sex we have now is rushed, vaguely guilty, we have a house guest sex.

In bed later, I turn to Omri and call Topher irritating.

“You’re being so negative,” he says. Omri tells me things like this, sometimes. Even pre-Topher. You’re becoming so short-tempered. Why are you snapping at me? Why don’t you relax?

“He’s just trying to make friends,” Omri says.

Omri rests his hand to rest on my stomach. I immediately move it up from my paunch to my chest. Omri falls asleep on me. I stare at the clock, not wanting to move even though my shoulder is asleep. I drift off, but come to a little while later. I carefully nudge Omri off of me and sneak into Topher’s room. Topher looks peaceful when he’s asleep. His passport is on the dresser. I flip it open to his time travel visa. Tired, I stare at his departure countdown, willing the bright red numbers to move faster.

*

The three of us take day trips, mostly Omri’s idea. He likes to play tour guide. Which is great, because I don’t like being alone with Topher. I’m not itching to make conversation with him. It freaks me out. So, Omri takes a few days off of work. Topher says he lives by the Prudential, so it’s nice to be back in his old neighborhood. We spend a lot of time just walking. We eat sandwiches in the grass by a footbridge over the Charles, people watching. Omri asks Topher how much Boston has changed. I expected flying cars and glass-domed rainforests nestled between skyscrapers. Topher says things look pretty much the same, except traffic isn’t as bad.

We walk along the Freedom Trail, visiting graveyards with names fading off of tombstones. We go to dive bars and other places that have got to be much cooler in the future. When I ask how all this could possibly be interesting to Topher, he looks at me like I’ve just pissed on his shoes.

“In the future,” he says, “the past is so in.”

Omri is friendly with Topher. Warm, even. They talk about how exciting the future is. Omri asks Topher what his own future self is like, if Future-Omri might ever visit. Topher shrugs, easily.

“You bet,” he says.

I come up with excuses to touch Omri. Brushing an eyelash off of his cheek. Plucking lint off of his shirt. Topher watches us. I can’t read his eyes. Omri drags me into a photo booth in the mall. We make faces. We kiss, insistent, for the camera. Outside of the booth, Omri reaches for the thin strip of pictures. He only touches the edges, afraid he’ll smudge our faces.

For a second, Topher is gone. I move close to Omri, one hand on his waist. I whisper I love you into his ear. I peer over his shoulder at the four versions of us, happily contained within white borders.

Topher is quiet when we get back home. Some part of me wonders why he came here without the Omri from his time. I don’t ask because I don’t want to hear Topher’s voice anymore. I’m thankful that he goes out, alone. Later, he brings home some guy from wherever it was that he went. I can hear their low, flirting tones and secretive laughter through the walls. Beside me, Omri sleeps.

*

The night before he leaves, Topher decides to cook us dinner. Nobody goes hungry in the future, he says. Everyone eats these calorie-controlled meal bars. Vegan. He wants to cook us something fresh. Something primal. I don’t know what that means.

When I cook, I burn bacon. I brown meat and assemble sodium-bomb enchiladas from supermarket kits. Omri kisses me on the neck when I hand him plates and eats everything, no matter how awful the food is.

Topher sears scallops. He cooks things I haven’t even heard of. Fiddlehead greens. Cherimoya. He makes purees that look like baby shit, but taste amazing, and smears them across the plates, like chefs do in restaurants.

We eat. We talk without signing, so I can understand. Topher tells us how much fun he’s had. Omri says he’s so glad he got a chance to meet Topher, but then looks at me, confused.

“Though I guess I already know you?” Omri asks.

My laughter is forced, not like theirs. Topher pats Omri on the hand like they’re already old friends. Topher’s eyes spark, happy. I’m glad he’s leaving soon. The scallops feel spongy on my tongue, and taste sweet.

*

The next morning, Topher hugs Omri in our living room. Topher snakes one arm around Omri’s waist. He brings his left hand up and threads it through Omri’s hair. He presses their cheekbones together. I’m jealous—yeah. That’s how I hug Omri. I let Topher have the hug, my goodbye gift to him. We’re the same person, apparently. I wouldn’t want anyone taking Omri away from me, either.

I’m thankful that Omri is the one to step away.

“Take care,” Omri says.

I load Topher’s luggage into the car. He lowers into the passenger seat and clips his seatbelt. He doesn’t speak most of the way to the airport.

We’re in one of the parking lots at Boston Logan. Topher takes out his time travel visa with the countdown clock. He says that his departure gateway will manifest when the clock runs down. I don’t ask questions.

“He leaves us in three years,” Topher says.

Hurt, I clench my jaw. I don’t want to believe him. The way he hugged Omri goodbye, the way he dodged questions about Omri’s future. I guess it makes sense. I should’ve asked Topher before. But me and Omri not together—in any possible future—just didn’t seem to make sense.

“Does he say why?” I ask.

Topher looks down at his open passport. He runs his thumbnail across the headshot of his tanned, lean face.

“Doesn’t matter,” he says. He unbuckles his seatbelt. “Just love him while he lets you.”

I offer to wait with him a while, but we both know that I don’t mean it. I get his luggage out of the trunk. We stand together for a moment, awkwardly, not talking. He kisses me goodbye on the mouth. I drive away.

It takes some time, but I get my running stride back. I take Omri to movies and I’m the one to lean in, because I can’t not kiss him. He teaches me to sign, patiently molding my hands when I get sloppy. I laugh more often, a little louder. My chest burns, so full, when I’m with him. He’s happy.

Sometimes, I think of Topher, his similes about the ocean of time. His barely recognizable eyes. I don’t believe what he said before he left. I don’t know why. Maybe it’s because of how Omri looks at me, his brown eyes glinting, in a way that I know I’m loved.

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