From the very beginning—which I guess is also the middle and the end if you follow the bent logic involved and arrange events by some scheme other than strict chronological order—there was never any way of knowing which one of us, my wife or myself, was going to invent time travel. Neither one of us was a physicist, theoretical or applied; we weren’t even qualified for rewiring the wall sockets or fixing the dead laptop. As far as life skills were concerned, I had a little more imagination and she had a little more practicality. She did more of the household repairs and I did more of the heavy lifting. That was it. Neither one of us seemed equipped to completely rewrite the laws of space and time, and before we found out that it’s what we were fated to do, neither of us had ever particularly included it among our ambitions.
Before we found out that one of us was fated to invent time travel, my wife always had a little more antipathy toward the premise than I did. Whenever we sat on the couch watching some show where somebody traveled into his personal past and intersected with his past self in some way that either rewrote his personal history or somehow cemented his pre-existing destiny in place, I was always the one who thought it cool and my wife was always the one who complained that it made her head hurt. She had no head for paradoxes. Whenever she encountered one of those narrative Möebius Strips, she always winced and declared that time travel made no sense.
Since finding out that one of us was going to invent time travel, we’ve argued almost nonstop over the likely suspect. I foolishly concluded in her hearing that it was going to be me. She read this as me calling myself smarter than her. Maybe she was right. I had to apologize for condescending. Then I said it was probably her and she got mad again, because it blamed her for everything that’s happened since. Sometimes I think that if I had a working time machine now I’d go back and warn my prior self that it’s not an argument worth having, that I’m fated to be wrong whatever position I take. Then I realize that believing it desirable to tinker with the small mistakes and larger heartbreaks of one’s past is precisely the kind of messed-up thinking that has made our current lives, the lives before we create time travel, such a parade of hellish interruptions.
This much we’ve agreed on. Since we’re both fairly bright but not world-class geniuses, the secret to time travel has to be fairly simple, the kind of thing so obvious in retrospect that it just gets overlooked until somebody woolgathering about something else entirely makes a connection nobody has ever made before, slaps his forehead, and cries, “Eureka!” That could turn out to be either one of us. We’re not brilliant, but we’re both Eureka prone. Maybe in some versions of the future it was her and in other versions it was me and in still other versions it was both of us collaborating, maybe on one of those long drives where there’s nothing but us and the highway, heading toward my in-laws, or hers.
It all seemed to depend upon where we were or what we were doing when we invented time travel, but some of the future versions of ourselves who came back to us gave the impression that they were hiding the invention from the other. They certainly each did whatever they could to keep the other one in line. There was one version of my wife hailing from about twenty years in the future who popped in all shimmering the way they do, while the current version of my wife was home alone and on her hands and knees looking for an earring that had come loose and bounced somewhere she couldn’t find it. The future version of my wife told my current one that in her timeline it had been considered lost for seven months and only found by accident much later. The trick, the future version of my wife said, was that it hadn’t skittered underneath anything, as my current wife believed, but had unpredictably bounced in another direction entirely, and neatly hooked itself on the wire framework of a statuette in the corner. It was the kind of hiding place a small inanimate object like an earring could not have found for itself unless it had been deliberately trying. The only way the current version of my wife ever would have found it—had the future version of her not interfered—would have been to dust the statue for the fortieth time since the incident and for the very first time ever, register the telltale clink.
None of this would have been even worth mentioning had I not walked in the door at that moment, seen the two versions of my wife together, and said hello to both of them . . . at which point, the one from the future cried out in sudden fear and disappeared. We had no idea why that future version of my wife would be afraid of me, and her little cry was a sore subject between the current version of my wife and myself until a version of me from some future where men wear an entire ring of differently-patterned cloth ties, hanging from both the front and back of their collars, showed up after dinner to say we shouldn’t worry about the reasons, because a further future version of me had intervened and talked the offending future me out of doing whatever horrible thing he had done.
Unfortunately, the time-traveling version of me telling us this blinked out and another future version of my wife blinked in, holding a glittery crystal gun on me and telling the current version of herself that she shouldn’t listen to him because he was “in on it” and “as dangerous as the rest of them.”
Then multiple future versions of myself and multiple future versions of my wife all shimmered into existence and charged each other with an array of weaponry that included energy weapons, electrified whips, and scimitars.
This is just the kind of thing that happens multiple times a day, since my wife and I found out that one of us would someday invent time travel.
We learned that there was only one way to get a few moments of peace whenever the chaos of being the future inventors of time travel got too apocalyptic or complicated, and that was to concentrate real hard and promise ourselves that if we ever did invent time travel, we would pledge our first journey into the past to going back to that moment and talking ourselves out of it. Just the threat of that was always enough to erase all the future timelines these versions of ourselves came from and make them shimmer away to nonexistence. It wasn’t a permanent solution, ever, because even if that moment of sublime invention was erased it just meant that one or the other of us would still experience the same brainstorm an hour or a day or a week later, starting the age of time travel all over again. Sometimes the two of us cleared the room with the “I’m going to erase any timeline where I create time travel” bomb, only to have another unwanted drop-in show up a few seconds later and say, “Don’t worry, I’m not staying; I just wanted to let you know that you did the right thing, because those guys were out of control.”
Being the future inventors of time travel wasn’t all bad, of course. It was great to know that we’d never lose anything, never go to a movie that turned out to be a stinker, never buy a book we wouldn’t want to finish, never go out to a restaurant where the service was lousy, and never get stuck in a traffic jam, because we’d always be warned away, beforehand. It was terrific to have some future version of myself pop in just as I was about to irritate my wife with some inconsiderate comment and tell me, “It would be a really bad idea to say that.” It was convenient to have some shimmery future-me pop in and say, “Move that coffee cup away from the edge of the table, if you don’t want it to spill.” It was helpful, though annoying, to have some future version of myself pop in and grab the TV remote from my hands with a contemptuous, “I’ve seen that already, and it sucks.”
No, where it really got annoying, and what drove both of us to shouted declarations that we wouldn’t invent time travel ever, were the is-now-the-right-time-to-have-sex debates. We’d lie in bed at night, drawing close in what might or might not have developed into lovemaking, only to hear the telltale pop of displaced air and see the dazzling glow of arriving time travelers, and have some future version of my wife say, “No, not tonight, trust us, tonight’s a bad idea,” while some future version of myself contributed, “Don’t listen to her, she’s lying.” Then some future version of my wife would pop in, with wild eyes and fried just-stuck-her-finger-in-a-light bulb-socket hair, and shout, “No, you have to! I come from a ruined world! You have to fuck right now!” Then a version of myself with half his face replaced with a gleaming silver mask and one eye turned into some kind of targeting laser would pop in behind her and start chanting “Annihilate, Annihilate.” And they would all start shouting to be heard over one another, and my wife and I would both shout at them to get the hell out of our bedroom, and they would all say that the stakes here were critical and we would say that as far as we were both concerned there would never be any such thing as time travel and that was final, and they would all vanish into nothingness, and there’d be a moment or two of abashed silence before the shimmering resumed and a version of my wife dressed in diaphanous silk and sporting a head as bald as a melon would pop into existence to inform us that the futures we’d just been warned about had all been narrowly averted by our swift action, but that we should both, now, not eat any radishes. And then she’d disappear and an aged version of me, wearing coke-bottle eyeglasses, would appear in her place to assure us that it was now perfectly safe for my wife and I to touch one another, at least for the next twenty minutes, though there’d be some problems with the economy of Peru if we allowed ourselves to become at all frisky afterward. By which point, seriously, who could still be in the mood?
Sometimes we try to avoid them. We once had a lot of cash on hand thanks to a six-week run of grand prizes on Powerball, so every couple of weeks we packed up enough for a week’s trip and hit the road. But our future selves always remembered every trip we’d ever taken, and were always certain we’d still need their help bringing about the destinies they preferred. We’d find ourselves in traffic jams that were entirely made up of cars from possible futures, ranging from gleaming hovercraft to heavily-weaponed monstrosities cobbled together out of post-nuclear wreckage. The road was overpopulated with versions of ourselves, shouting at us through portholes. And it wasn’t just cars: We encountered caveman selves in leopard skins, riding bareback on tamed Apatosauri, zombie selves lurching toward the horizon in search of human flesh, and impossibly-mutated selves who were nothing but giant heads riding about on floating disks. Every five miles we’d have to yell, “That’s it! We’re not going to invent time travel!” just to clear the road so we could make a few miles before they started to multiply again. Eventually, we turned around and went home, because the possibility of us actually ever getting anywhere on this trip had descended to just about nil.
Once, and only once, we got as far as a bed and breakfast nestled against a mirrored lake, far from any city noise or temporal paradoxes: there was no phone, no internet, and no other guests, the atmosphere as close to perfection as any we’d ever known. We strolled along the shoreline, holding hands and saying nothing, pausing as the sun dipped below the trees and the smooth unrippled surface of the water cast a sheen of golden light over the world. No time traveler interceded. Daring to hope, we returned to the room, built a fire, and nestled together with flutes of champagne, talking about how wonderful it was to have finally found a spot where we could be alone. We kissed, and nuzzled, and nature took its course, and as we made love for the first time in weeks I was not deterred, but rather pleasantly slowed, by the lingering fear that every moment’s uninterrupted perfection would be the last. It was impossible to completely avoid the suspicion that just as we approached the big moment the telltale pops of air displacement would erupt on all sides of us and we would find ourselves inundated by shouted advice from future selves intent on informing us that we should do this and not that. But the time travelers left us alone even as we shuddered together and giggled in mutual appreciation. And then my wife went off to the bathroom, and slipped on the bath mat, and came down hard on the rim of the tub, breaking her femur.
We couldn’t get rid of the time travelers after that. The emergency room filled with them. They took all the chairs, lined up ten-deep in the hallways, and hung from the walls using suction cups. Tinier ones, from some future capable of human miniaturization, jostled for space on our armrests, or clustered together on our scalps, imitating the sensation of lice. According to them, permitting my wife’s accident had been the chronometer’s equivalent of tough love. “See?” they told us. “See what kind of trouble you can get into if we don’t interfere? See how you can get hurt? See how our superior knowledge is missed the moment it’s not available to you?” I cursed them and vowed again and again to never invent time travel, a threat that has always kept them down to manageable numbers but never solved the problem. My wife looked at me and said words she had uttered a thousand times before, and would a thousand times again: “I hate time travel. I hate it. Hate hate hate hate hate it.”
That night I walked out of the hospital and stood under the stars and addressed the infinite number of future selves who were no doubt listening, from their bunkers or their pods or habitats. I said, “You know, for once, I don’t care what the rewards are. I don’t care what disasters await. I don’t care what information I need to impart to my past self. I don’t care if telling you people to go away has never worked before. This time I mean it more than I ever meant anything before, even more than I meant telling my wife I loved her or asking her to marry me or anything like that. This is still the life that I chose and the very point of life is living it, day by day, encountering every new chapter as it’s written. If that means some terrible catastrophe takes me by surprise, tomorrow, so be it; if that means we miss yet another lottery win or fail to move away from the East Coast just before the big tsunami then so be it; then so be that. You’re making life not worth living. If you have any respect for us, which is another way of saying any respect for yourselves, then for God’s sake please, please, please, either don’t invent time travel or go visit Shakespeare or play golf with trilobites or watch the Earth fall into the Sun and leave us the fuck alone.”
Even as I spoke the words I really didn’t expect that to be the end of it, but a cold empty wind blew across the parking lot and I found myself looking up, in awe and terror, at a universe folding in on itself. I had read a story once—not a time travel story—that ended with the stars blinking out even as the narrator watched, and this was like that, except worse; it wasn’t just the stars going out but the very idea of the stars going out, not just the actual physical entities being reduced to nothing but the physics that rendered them possible as well. I looked down at my hand and it had become like a two-dimensional drawing of a hand from some anatomy textbook, the cross-hatching that gave it the illusion of depth disappearing even as I watched. Distant buildings became block drawings and the horizon became a straight line, its ends contracting as they raced toward a single point in the middle. I further felt the flattening process taking place inside me and knew that either my wife or I inventing time travel was in some way centrally important to the existence of the universe as a whole, perhaps because one of our future travels would be to the moment of creation itself, perhaps enabling it to happen. I knew that if I did not rescind my words I would be damning all of existence to oblivion. And I must confess that, for a few seconds, as the universe packed itself away like an unwanted toy, I considered all the problems this would solve and was sorely tempted to let it happen. But then sanity prevailed and I sighed and said, “Oh, all right. Invent time travel for all I care. And until we do invent it, feel free to visit us anytime you want. I welcome your input.”
The result was as dramatic as it might have been if I’d said, “Let there be light.” The universe unfolded itself again, with an audible boing and several additional colors. You only think “orange” has been around all your life. It hasn’t been. Why would there be a color that doesn’t rhyme with anything? There wasn’t. There just is, now. Australia’s new, too; I don’t know what my wife and I might have done at some point in prehistory to make Australia happen, but it has, and now we all have to live with it.
Right now my wife has gone out on an errand, the same errand she has been stopped from carrying out for five days, by various dire warnings from future epochs. I stand on the roof and follow the progress of her journey across town from the various mutations I detect in the skyline: the two-story buildings that suddenly expand by fifty stories, the skyscrapers that suddenly become smoking craters, the mushroom clouds that threaten to blow the entire city away but that disappear only to be replaced by gleaming metallic spires. My wife is out there, somewhere, in all of that, her appearance changing constantly as time traveling versions of herself alter her past decisions to make her blonde, brunette, purple-haired, tattooed, tanned to lizard texture, anorexic, obese, hooded, naked, paraplegic, gymnastic, sumo, thin-lipped, botoxed, dressed in rags, dressed in furs, happy, sad, angry, fed-up, borderline insane, followed by a thousand cats, or attended by her own robot butler; everything about her changing at every moment and everything about her staying the same as she cries the words that have become her mantra: “I hate time travel!” I know she wants to be the one to invent it because she also wants to be the one who’s clever, but I also know that part of her has always secretly blamed me, because it’s such an annoying invention and anything that inconveniences her to such a degree cannot possibly be only hers. I also know it may have been a terrible mistake to let her go alone, because without me being there to track every single change she undergoes between now and then, or her being at my side to witness every single matching change I undergo at the same time, there’s no guarantee that we’ll recognize each other when she returns.
I only know this, and perhaps, at long last, this is the point. In all her incarnations, my wife hates time travel; in most of her incarnations, she loves me; in all of my incarnations, I love her. I didn’t need the threat of nonexistence for all of space-time to know that she was at the center of it all, because I knew it from the day we met. Even if we were only blessed with one timeline and no ability to change it and no guarantee of a far stranger future, she would still be capable of surprising me, still capable of dazzling me with her infinite variety. She is the one who carries me from one day to the next, and provides both with a point.
I would never have the nerve to speak these words to her out loud, because she hates time travel so much and would not appreciate the comparison, but: She is my time machine, the vehicle which has carried me from bland and empty past to rich and delightful future. I cannot take credit for inventing her. But I bless the mysterious forces that have.
© 2012 Adam-Troy Castro