This much was clear.
At some point in my future, I would have access to a time machine.
This was a ridiculous sentence and a tragically irrelevant concern while my wife Judi was on the floor and possibly dying, but there it was: nonsense, in the presence of death.
This was the central tragic absurdity of the day. My future self had materialized in the corner of the room, as solid as a blow to the face, and it was not even my most important concern.
My most important concern was Judi, who lay on the floor of the guest room in the house where we had been staying to take care of a dog named Beri. Judi was indeed entering her final cascade, though I did not know that yet. She would be gone in just a few days. I had not known how sick she really was, during the four hours it took me to get her to agree to an ambulance.
It was our friend Edie, called for advice, who blew up at me. “Take charge, damn it.”
So I took charge. I told Judi I was calling an ambulance.
Her anger had been frightening, edging on incoherent. She was stoic, my wife, even when the circumstances were as frightening as they were now.
The last thing I’d needed right now was my own future self, my much older or least much thinner self, looking pale and mournful in the corner.
This is what you need to know about me. My name is Adam-Troy Castro. At the time of Judi’s collapse, I was sixty-one years old, an old straight white man. I am among other things a science fiction writer, as well as a horror writer and a writer of children’s books. In my professional life and in my life as a prolific reader I’d had too much experience invoking well-worn tropes like time travel to have the usual incredulous conversation the protagonists of fantastic stories have, whenever the visitor introducing the fantastic element must spend several hundred words making sure that they’re well and properly convinced. This had always been an aggravation to me. To my mind, when a floating green man appears in a puff of smoke and tells you that he’s a genie, it is crazy to argue. It’s stupid to doubt. But the stories always had these maddening dialogues where the protagonist refused to believe whatever the situation clearly was, and the visitation had to say, Yes, I am from another planet. Yes, I am a robot. Yes, I am a vampire. Yes, I am Death. As a reader as well as writer, I had come to loathe the rationality of protagonists who spend pages on end needing to be convinced, even when the evidence is present and the evidence is gross. Saving us both the time, I knew that the newcomer who had just appeared in the corner was my future self, arriving during my wife’s medical crisis, and that nothing about his presence boded well.
I spoke only two words to him. “Help her.”
My future self shook his head. “I can’t. To me, This has already happened.”
I wanted to scream, then why the hell are you bothering me?
Judi had tried to get out of bed. She had fallen to her knees and then to the floor and she had refused all attempts to get her back into bed. She’d been adamant that all she needed to do was lie there for a while and gather her strength, at which point she would be able to do it for herself. I’d listened to her because she was a chronic pain sufferer who was never not in pain and because there had been a number of incidents like this in our shared past, incidents that had indeed ended with her marshalling her resources and returning to her life, to our lives. When I’d begged her to tell me if there was something I could do she’d demanded Gator-Aid—“lots and lots” of Gator-Aid, she said, no doubt thinking that whatever was wrong this morning could be fixed by an infusion of electrolytes—and I’d willingly abandoned her long enough for a frantic Publix run, already feeling this to be insane. At Publix I’d stopped an employee in green apron to speak the most tragically ludicrous words of my life, I don’t have time to look, I need Gator-Aid for a medical emergency. But the magic juice had not helped Judi. She guzzled one bottle and then rolled over, to use the twelve-pack as what must have been a hideously uncomfortable pillow, and there she had remained for hours, drifting in and out of sleep and openly angered by my questions, our brief spasms of conversation drifting further into irrelevance as her voice grew more slurred, her thinking processes more and more incoherent. At last, hours in, I’d just a few minutes ago listened to Edie, exercised my will over Judi’s, and summoned the ambulance, but they were not here yet. Only the future version of myself was, standing there in the corner of the guest bedroom, with folded hands and mournful eyes.
I did not have the stones to interrogate him further. I had no particular reason to, either, not at that moment, now that he’d shot down my plea for assistance. My entire attention was owed the woman who’d come into my life only after I’d reconciled myself to being alone, who had become my best friend before I realized that she was also the love of my life, the woman who I still believed was suffering one of her regular medical crises, no worse and no more lasting than any other. There had been quite a few over the years. Just the other day we’d laughed about it, driving past a local hospital. I’d said, you know, you’ve had many multiple-night hospital stays, over the years of our marriage. Surgeries on your ankle, on your stomach, on your heart. I haven’t been in the hospital overnight for over twenty years. I demand parity. She’d been at the wheel because she couldn’t stand my driving. She wasn’t particularly amused. Whatever. That was an actual conversation we had. And so this specific collapse still seemed routine, somehow: an incident only a little bit scarier than most. She was going to be okay. She was going to be okay. She was going to be okay. She was going to be okay. She was going to be okay. She was going to be okay. I still believed it. I rejected any connection between what was happening and the arrival of my future self. I did not wonder why he was here. He was an extraneous element. The ambulance was coming. She was going to be okay.
I did not study the future version of myself, but he was there, in the room with us, and it was impossible to avoid taking his measure. He was old. I don’t know how much older he was. His face was drawn and lined, the look of someone eighty or ninety, though some of that may have been the effect of his significant weight loss. I had been obese for many years. I had topped out at a terrifying 270. I now weighed about 215, after a diet-driven weight loss. I was still fat, in that I could stand to lose another thirty pounds, but I’d lost multiple sizes and my pants hung on me a billowing tent. Judi and I had been less than eager to buy more size-appropriate clothing that might itself need to be replaced if I lost too much more. Her own lifetime weight peak had been a staggering 502, but she had lost most of that years ago and had of late been losing more. We thought we were getting healthy, insofar as we could. The time traveler’s appearance established, at the very least, that I would continue to diminish. He was underweight, almost emaciated. The protruding belly, a companion since my late teens, was gone on him; so was the big butt. He still had my bad posture, the weak chin I hid with a beard. But he had something I’d been missing for many years, and was still missing today: visible cheekbones. He looked gray. He had a cluster of liver spots on his forehead. He supported himself with a deeply wrinkled hand on a wooden cane. His eyes were sad.
He was in short exactly what I’d pictured, for that one story I’d published in Nightmare Magazine, “The Old Horror Writer,” about the ancient, retired version of himself who got to use his story-generation smarts against a malicious supernatural visitation; except maybe not quite as old. It was impossible not to remember that for that story I had depicted myself as a long-time widower. He looked old and I was terrified and on the phone with the 911 operator, who now broke in to tell me that the paramedics were less than two minutes away and I should go stand at the front door to wait for them.
I told Judi, “They’re coming. I’m just going to open the door for them. I’ll be okay. I promise.”
Judi muttered something that processed as another irritated whatever, and I ran for the front door.
The future version of myself left by the time I returned.
• • • •
The paramedics, huge and professional but patient and helpful and the closest my life had ever come to the presence of angels, arrived in their masks and gloves and made their way to the guest room, where they clustered around Judi, asking her how she felt and apologizing for the rough handling as they lifted her into a rolling desk chair procured from the office. They took their measurements. She answered their questions coherently enough, though her voice did not sound like her own. It sounded drunken and whiny, nothing at all like the Judi I knew. The paramedics determined, via methods invisible to this layman, that she had not had a heart attack or a stroke. They started negotiating an evacuation to the emergency room, overcame her resistance, got her grudging acceptance, and took her. Even before they had her loaded into the back of their van I got into our car and preceded them to the hospital.
This was on 12 July 2021, at the height of the COVID crisis. I should have expected that when I got to the hospital, I would not be allowed into an emergency room bay with her. Instead, I was sent to a teeming waiting room, where I lingered and went quietly crazy. I called and tried to get updates. I was told that she was being looked at and that no information was available. I went more loudly crazy. I got on my phone and called anybody I could think of who needed to know: Judi’s sister Lori. My sister Jill. Our friends Elena, Chris, George, Edie, Janna, David, Deb, the traveling Brad and Laura. I heard the embryonic mourning in their reactions. I wanted to call my mother, too, but she had died only a few months earlier. I wrangled what tears there were, from the living. They were already readying themselves for the worst, but the situation cast me as the grown-up one, the present authority who had to tell them that there was still hope. She was going to be okay, I said. I believed that she was going to be okay. I barely thought about my future self, who I had not seen since the coming of the paramedics. Instead, I drifted and did what fiction writers do, craft scenarios for the way this day would shake out. I crafted two, a highly dramatic one where Judi died, and a highly happy one where she lived and where the biggest of the various professional balloons I had floating out there in the aether of possibility came in for a successful landing, allowing us to prosper. For us to get back in the realm of positive numbers. To travel.
Then the phone rang. It was one of the doctors working on Judi. No, I could not see her today. No, they did not know what was wrong with her, not yet.
Then he said the words that shattered my world.
“She’s on the brink.”
He actually used that phrase. On the brink. Jesus.
“She’s critical,” he said.
“What’s wrong with her?”
“We don’t know. We’re addressing the symptoms.”
“You don’t even know what it could be?”
“We’re running tests. But this is a crisis. She can go at any time.”
“Can I see her?”
“No,” he said. “The Emergency Room is closed to visitors.”
It was a firm no. Blame COVID.
Judi was going to be moved to the intensive care unit as soon as a bed opened up, which wouldn’t happen until almost midnight. I wouldn’t be able to see her until tomorrow morning so there was no point in me staying in the waiting room, not while I could wait in more comfort, even in frantic comfort, at the house only a few minutes away.
I went outside. I sat down on a stone bench, right outside the waiting room entrance.
It was a hot day and the heat baked in the body odor stench already rising after hours of stress and tension. I realized that I’d never showered this morning—I’d risen to the crisis—and that I had to reek. This struck me as a tiny consideration.
The thing was, I felt no high drama. I only felt numb.
I made a few more calls, giving the same update to multiple people Judi loved until I tired of repeating the same non-information. When I ran out of energy to inform anyone I glanced up at the roof of the emergency room overhang, and saw a magnificent hawk. It reacted to my movement and made what qualifies as eye contact, from a bird that certainly could not have cared less. I had the writerly thought, Depending on how this works out, I can later say that this was an omen of Judi’s death, or a comforting advisory that she was going to be okay. Forgive me. I am a writer, and sculpting the narrative is a reflex I can’t turn off. In truth, the bird offered no helpful advisories. Based on current data, it was value-neutral.
Then I glanced back at the stone bench and saw my future self sitting there. He held his cane between his gnarled hands, and he regarded me with glassy eyes red-rimmed with tears.
I still didn’t have the patience for the dialogue so familiar with my chosen genre, where the man meeting his future self demanded proof of the time travel. Instead, I sat down next to him and said, “Is she going to be all right?”
“I can’t tell you,” he said, in a tired voice that showed another couple of decades of wear. “That much is against the rules. I’ll be yanked back to my time if I even try.”
“Then what good are you, then?”
My future self emitted a soft wheeze that might have been embittered laughter. “I’ve been asking myself that question since before I was you.”
The area around his eyes had picked up a couple of additional skin tags in the gulf between my current era and whatever year he came from. His glasses were thicker, distorting the features behind them to an extent that testified that my already impaired vision would someday get far worse. I also saw that he was missing some teeth, a feature that reflected my many decades of flawed oral hygiene.
“How did you even get here?”
“I guess you can call it a time machine. By the time you’re my age there’ll be commercial services that can project people into the past. I don’t want to get into the physics or how they avoid time paradoxes. I don’t even want to tell you what it costs.”
“Judi would hate that,” I said.
Of course he knew. I—him and I—had published a story, “My Wife Hates Time Travel,” based on Judi’s long-expressed aggravation with the subgenre. Stories of the sort drove her crazy. And yet she adored Doctor Who. Go figure. It occurred to me that she might have seen her last Who episode, and with this silly manifestation at joys that might have been lost to her I felt the first manifestations of deep grief, premature as they were.
I said, “You said it’s expensive. You have money?”
Because things have always been tight. I’m a writer, like I said.
He shook his head. “In coin other than money.”
I did not want to know the coin he was talking about.
He went on. “Anyone who goes must file a detailed travel plan. It’s subject to the approval of the operators, who keep tight control of things. I can be recalled for any reason, if I misbehave or if you say that you no longer want me around. But I’ve been permitted to come back and tell you a couple of things. They’re three separate things that you’ll need to know, and I can only tell them to you when they’re appropriate. So it’ll be one now, one later, and potentially a third some months from now, if you agree to hear it then. You’ll have to give me permission each time. I tell you now that it’s the third one I most care about. But the others will make more sense to you, now. And you’re more likely to hear me out, later, if I demonstrate that you can trust me, now.”
A lifetime spent telling stories of the fantastic leads to intense familiarity with that familiar trope, the wise old figure giving the protagonist the ground rules. Here are the rules that govern zombies, vampires, deals with the devil, or for that matter time travel in this particular universe. It is a function of this strange form of fiction where otherwise everything would be as arbitrary as they were in this world where a woman can be enjoying a barbecue meal with friends on Sunday night and, as that doctor had said, on the brink the next morning. But Judi and I, who were plugged into story structure because of the way I spent my professional life, had come to see such moments as clumsy, and many were the nights when we’d been streaming some stupid science fiction movie and found ourselves greeting this moment’s arrival. Here it is, we’d cry. The rules speech! An old recurring gag . . . which might never recur now.
. . . I covered my eyes with my hand.
He remembered, of course. “Yes. The rules speech. Judi always hated that.”
I tried to change the subject. “I don’t suppose you could tell me what happens with global warming. Or if the fascists take over America, Or if . . . if . . .”
My wife was dying, but what I had started to ask was whether my writing, respected in quarters but never successful enough to make me rich or a household name, would ever break out. Damn me. Even now, that question came to mind, establishing once and for all that I was a selfish prick.
He spared me the memory of saying it out loud. “No, I can’t tell you that.”
I wanted to strike him. I could. He was solid. Who was he, to bother me during my vigil? He who already knew how it was going to work out? But being a science fiction writer and a horror writer to boot meant that I knew what the protagonists of all those stories mostly failed to appreciate, that the rules were there for a reason, and that you broke them only at your extreme peril. I didn’t need to know the cosmology involved. I just had to accept it. And so I said, “What can you tell me?”
“Do I have your permission to tell you the first thing?”
Drowning in certainty, I said, “Yes.”
He placed his hand on my wrist. Despite the sun, it felt cold, in the way of the touch of very old men, like it had been a very long time since his blood had warmed it. But it was not an unpleasant coolness. It was the comfort of one closer to the grave than myself, and I remembered after too many years the similar touch of my Grandpa Meyer, and in more recent times of my father, who had died rough not too long ago, in the scheme of things. I shuddered and watched the world blur.
He said, “In the days to come, you will wonder if the delay calling the hospital made the wrong kind of difference. You are in fact already wondering that. The doctors will tell you that Judi might have been heading for this as long as a week ago, that she was probably already in serious condition during last night’s dinner with John and Louise. They will say this to you, and you will still torture yourself wondering whether they’re lying just to comfort you. I am a time traveler, and I can determine things that these doctors cannot know. If you had called the ambulance at sunrise, it would not have changed anything that’s going to happen. If you had called them five days ago, or ten, it would not have changed anything either. The damage has been happening, invisibly, for weeks. You cannot affect it. Don’t make these events worse with guilt.”
I took no comfort whatsoever. “Is she going to die?”
But he had flickered out of existence and was gone.
• • • •
Of the next few days, I can only say that it was an exercise in alternating pronouncements of doom with dollops of hope.
The doctors told me, Nobody comes back from these numbers.
The doctors told me, This metric is just one notch above death.
The doctors told me, There’s probably too much damage.
The doctors told me, We need to be guarded about this, but her numbers are a little bit better.
The doctors told me, She’s fighting.
The doctors told me, The improvement is downright phenomenal.
The doctors told me, You know what? In just a few days we can start talking about rehab.
I sat by her bed whenever I was allowed to be there and I watched as color returned to her cheeks and I started to listen selectively, giving the good news more weight than the bad. Yes, I was warned that her recovery if any would likely be a long and difficult one, and that even if she lived, she would likely be even more physically challenged than before. She would almost certainly spend the rest of her life on dialysis. But I clung to the sheer likelihood of survival, of the false promise that we could go home and return to giving each other merry hell. We were witty people, the two of us, and boy did we give each other hell. I deeply missed it, already, and I wanted it back, wanted her presence in the bed back. I concocted promises that she would be back, and never felt closer to it than the morning they weaned her off some of her meds, and entered the ICU to the welcome news that she was awake.
I leaned over her bed and said, “Judi.”
She startled. She focused on me. She could not say anything, because she was intubated, and this forced her mouth into an O of astonishment, that was now matched by her questioning eyes. It was the look of a woman with no real understanding where she was, who had suddenly had something familiar pop into the center of what was otherwise a shifting abstract.
My voice broke. “I’m here, Judi. You’re getting better. Can you squeeze my hand?”
She did not squeeze my hand. Maybe she did not possess enough muscular control and maybe she did not possess enough understanding. Maybe—and this still tortures me—maybe that look of recognition was as illusory as the reflexive smile as that other Florida patient Terri Schiavo, who years before had ignited a political firestorm by smiling, without any real thought or recognition, whenever lifted into a sitting position. But I think not. I think there was recognition there. Judi’s brain was still active. I think there was thought there. And if there was further consciousness, I think she had time to wonder, how do I tell him? These things he needs to know, how do I voice them?
I glanced away for a second and when I looked back, her eyes had closed. She had either passed out or fallen asleep.
It was all I got, all I ever would get.
• • • •
This woman who had taken a man who considered himself worthless and given him a reason to consider himself valued, who had taken charge of me, who had laughed with me, who had made love to me, who had traveled with me, who had written a couple of stories with me, who had shared dreams that had come to fruition and dreams that had come to naught and dreams that we still hoped to realize, the woman who called herself Fiona to my Shrek, the woman who had been Mommy to our cats and the light of my life and the one solid place to anchor in an ocean where no other land deigned to show itself, this woman who had been my partner in endless deliberately baffling conversations that we had in public just for the joy of confusing strangers, this woman who had also warned me time and time again, that she knew she would die long before me, a warning I always shrugged off with the advisory that I did not want her to talk that way, that woman, the one I brought to conventions and introduced to writers I had not seen for many years, who quietly took me aside and said, “Seriously, Adam, you hit the jackpot,” that woman, my favorite person in all the world, never opened her eyes in my presence again.
The Doctors said, She had a bad night.
The Doctors said, We can’t wean her off the meds.
The Doctors said, She’ll be gone within the next day or two.
The Doctors said, She’s going even faster than we expected.
The Doctors said, You need a CMO order. Comfort Measures Only.
The Doctors said, She’ll be gone in a few minutes.
The Doctors said, She’s gone.
The official time of death was 10:50 PM on July 15, 2021.
And for the next week I was what that Pink Floyd song calls “Comfortably numb.”
I was aware that I should be wailing but I was in shock, treating visitors as a reason to be upbeat and hilarious. And boy was I upbeat and hilarious. I expressed worry that something was wrong with me, that I should be suffering more. I was advised by those familiar with grief that I would be, that my current callousness was temporary and that I was headed for a crash. The possibility seemed remote. I dithered. I made plans for the funeral. I wrote a eulogy, and delivered it, and asked my hosts if I could stay two more days, just to decompress before I got in the car and drove the five hours to where Judi and I had been living. It was necessary, I think. And I also think it was a way of putting off whatever came next. I had no idea what that would be.
My future self did not arrive for our second session until late one afternoon when I was sitting on the backyard patio of my hosts, warming myself in the sun and still, for the most part, not feeling anything.
I heard the rush of air displacement, immediately to my right, and without looking said, “You bastard.”
“I lost her too,” my future self reminded me.
This made me look, and damned if he didn’t look even older.
I couldn’t blame the light. It had also been a bright and unclouded day when we’d last spoken, just outside the Emergency Room. I remembered the sun glinting on his great bald head, somehow farther into hair loss than even I was. But he seemed to have deteriorated more in the time since then. He had among other things the feature I’d seen on many very old people, the eyes lined with blood-red color where the lids had turned up just enough to reveal a thin strip of their natural interior color. I could only wonder: how much time has it been for him? Not the mere ten days it had been for me, surely. Maybe years.
And he must have remembered me wondering that, because he said, “No, Adam. It’s only been a few hours for me. I told you that time travel had a price not related to money. Accelerated aging is just one of them, one reason I won’t be able to do this more than three or four times, altogether; a limitation that prevents us time travelers from going back to make pests of ourselves, every time our prior selves have a life crisis. We cannot use sports almanacs to make our prior selves rich. We have to pick the most important things to say, and in this case, well, I have to tell you, they get important the farther we go. This one’s bigger.”
I found myself shaking. “Who dies next?”
“No one. Do I have your permission to tell you what I came to say?”
The little bit he’d given me before had, I realized now, made a small difference during the four days it had taken for the most important person in my life to arrive where the universe had decided that she always would. The doctors had assured me the same thing, repeatedly, that a few extra hours of treatment would not made a difference, and so I only blamed myself the amount that most men in my position would have, which is to say, incessantly. It was still preferable to the degree I would have blamed myself had I not received his advisory, which is to say, enough to wipe all other thought from my mind, all other cushioning from the part of me that would have to receive the blow. And so I said, “Yes.”
He said, “It gets better.”
I almost laughed in his face. How banal was that? I’d heard those three meaningless words more times in the last few days than I had in my entire life. You didn’t need a time machine to say that kind of thing. You just needed a love of bumper-sticker wisdom, of the empty platitudes we all say that in the end don’t help at all.
But before I could tell him that he didn’t have to come back in time to say what everybody was saying already, he went on.
“But first, it gets a whole lot worse.”
I stopped laughing. He had already advised me that nobody else was going to die, at least, not while I was working this out. I wasn’t sure I wanted to live through this if he was right, that I had to look forward to worse. I said, “How?”
“I can give you the Reader’s Digest version. You will learn who among the people you treasure is a friend and who is not. You will receive help from at least one person you have every reason to despise, and you will have your knees kicked out from under you by someone you think you have reason to love. You will exhaust the good will of some friends who will give all they can, until they can give no more. You will long for death. You will lose your mind, a little bit. You will briefly become a dangerously unstable and physically dangerous person. You will know homelessness. You will picture yourself huddled under overpasses. You will think of high places to jump from. But you will also be offered a lifeline at your moment of greatest distress, and it will offer a thin guiding line back to sanity. Make no mistake. You will still want to die. You will erupt with sudden rages. You will weep, often and uncontrollably. You will become tiresome, an inconvenient person. And yet you will know outpourings of love and a conspiracy of kindness greater than any you can even imagine. It will be months, Adam, months that will seem like years. But in less time than it seems possible to imagine, the pathway back to a functional existence will seem not only possible but inevitable. You need to know that it will get better by year’s end and to prepare yourself for all the ways, more numerous than you can stand, that it will first get worse.”
My mouth was dry. I felt my lips moving and was aware that no sound was coming out. His return look was infinitely weary and infinitely compassionate. I reminded myself that he had been through everything he’d just warned me about—in particular that it would get better—and that it was history to him; and I thought of the tired, knowing look in those familiar eyes, and I wondered about just what one has to go through, to wake up one day with eyes like that. I wasn’t sure I could survive that. And yet he had, which functioned as proof that I would.
It didn’t seem to help. How could it help when your future self tells you that you are about to go through hell? The knowledge that I’d come through the other side was nothing, to my perspective, not compared with the awareness that I’d first have to live it. Judi’s death was already more than I should be asked to take, than anyone could take. How much more—
But he was gone again, the ancient old son of a bitch.
• • • •
Everything he said came to pass. The betrayal. The homelessness. The driving around in my car with trunk and back seat stacked with all my clothing. A day when I came as close to ending myself as I ever have. The craziness. I tortured people I love with despairing phone calls, hinting at imminent self-destruction. I found quiet places to scream at the top of my lungs.
I won’t write about the betrayal. That’s too big a subject. But it was my lowest point in those months, probably lowest ever. In response to that, my sanity bent to the breaking point. Ridiculously, the phone call that promised a route back to viability as a human being also came that same day, the same morning really, only a couple of hours later. It was a miracle of timing that I, the storyteller, understand to have probably been too convenient for any believable work of fiction.
I can tell you that the conspiracy of kindness was beyond spectacular. Thanks in no small part to being the kind of guy who relates the doings of his life online, I became the recipient of help from all over the world. I may find it hard to believe that I deserved it, but it came, both from people I knew well and from people whose names I had never heard. An old friend of mine named Ed Bungert said to me, “Face it, Adam, you’re George Bailey,” and this was a reference to Jimmy Stewart’s character from It’s a Wonderful Life, the discontented small-town man whose greatest moment of despair was also countered by incredible generosity from those who he had never suspected loved him. I won’t say that this completely halted the spasms of soul-crushing despair. I have always been prone to those. And I was always waiting for other shoes to drop. But the knowledge of what had been done for me blunted them. I owed the conspiracy what it had paid for, hope.
In early November I secured an apartment which, unfortunately, would not be ready for a couple of months. Having worn out a reasonable welcome at the homes of friends who had spare rooms and couch space to offer, and heading into a season where hotel space would drain my coffers in record time, I resorted to a measure that some of my personal critics would never believe functioned as austerity. (To at least one of those, I was “gallivanting” and “living high on the hog.”) To wit, I went on three consecutive Caribbean cruises, one on the Royal Caribbean Jewel of the Seas and two on the MSC Seashore. The cost of an interior cabin for a week was less than the cost of a run-down poverty hotel for the same period, with the added advantage of all the food I cared to eat.
I told myself that I wasn’t going to relax.
I discovered that the quiet and the break from all the stress gave my battered soul time to do what it been too beleaguered to do all this time, heal. I went to the shipboard shows. I lay on deck chairs, enjoying the breeze and sun. I went ashore in Costa de Maya and in San Juan and in Puerto Plata. I went to the beach on shore excursions, and swam in the ocean. Between cruises one and two my friend Chris Negelein got a brand new Chromebook into my hands, and I found myself writing again, at a daily wordcount that averaged to well more than I usually managed in even the happiest times. I wrote a story called “Cards on the Table.” I wrote half of the new novella starring my series characters, Minnie and Earl. It was confirmation that this, at least, had not permanently fled me.
I began to realize that my future self’s prophecy had come true. Things had gotten worse, and they had gotten better. Not yet perfect. The problems were still overwhelming. But I was taking them as they came. I would, I finally believed, survive this.
One day we were at sea, and I spent a few hours reading a paperback by the pool. I got less reading done that I would have, not too long ago. The knack, which had abandoned me in the worst of times, was not yet back. But that didn’t matter. I put the book aside and looked out at the sparkling sea, enjoying the way the afternoon turned the waves into so many sparkling jewels.
There was no one around.
I tried an experiment. “Judi’s gone.”
The thought made me sad. It did not make me crazy.
I said it again. “Judi’s gone.”
And it still made me sad, but there was a difference between this sadness and the all-out, raging grief that I had descended into, not so long ago.
I missed my wife. I missed everything about her. I even missed the sardonic name she always called me, “Pain.” I missed telling her I loved her and hearing her customary response, “I tolerate you.” But I did not mind missing my wife. Missing her was, I realized, a way to not let go of her, and I could be fine with that. It could be enough.
If any moment established that I was going to make it all the way through this, it was that one.
At the end of the three weeks, I returned to the Port of Miami. I went back to couch-surfing. But I could see the end of the journey up ahead. My new apartment would be ready in just a few weeks. I had waited for so long that it seemed like no time at all.
As a sad footnote that doesn’t really mean anything, one of the ships I’d been on hit the national news four days later. On the next cruise, the very next cruise, only four days after my disembarkation, a suicidal fifteen-year-old boy leaped from a high deck and died. Part of me thought that maybe the suicidal thoughts that had never gone away, for me, had resonated to and fro aboard the ship, achieved resonance with all those polished and mirrored surfaces, and taken up residence in someone else. This is another pitfall of being a writer: your imagination runs all the time. What I concluded was that, of course, it was just a sad event that meant nothing. What I felt, with a shudder, was that another soldier in line had caught the bullet. Maybe I would write a story about it someday. And maybe I wouldn’t.
And then one day, less than a week before I was to move into my new apartment, I was in the backyard of the friends who were hosting me then, watching the dog as I supervised her search for a place to pee, and I heard that familiar rush of displaced air.
He was back, looking worse than he ever had before. You know how very old people look when it seems impossible for them to survive their next breath. This is how he looked. He still relied on his cane, but before it had seemed like his problem was weakness in the leg. Now it seemed like the price of seeing me this third time must have been a stroke, that had paralyzed his left side and made any form of remaining upright a nigh-impossible chore.
I was nevertheless ridiculously happy to see him. “Hello!”
“Hello,” he wheezed. There was a graveyard rattle in his throat. “I won’t be long. I was right about things getting better, yes?”
“They’re starting to,” I said. And I felt the wonder that comes with saying a good thing out loud for the first time, and knowing that it’s true. “And I’ve got to thank you, man. I never would have gotten through these past few months if you hadn’t let me know.”
“Nonsense,” he said. The single word seemed to exhaust him, and he stood there, replenishing breath and swaying on his twig-like legs, while he worked out what to say next. “I’m a time traveler. I know. And one thing I know is that there are worlds where I never came at all, and where you arrived at this place of hope you now inhabit, without any intervention by me. You want to know who got you there? Judi. You got this far because you couldn’t betray Judi.”
He was right. That thought came often, these days, almost constantly, in fact. But it had morphed, somehow, from How can I ever live without her to What would she want me to do now? As always, I suffered a flood of regrets, from my failure to take her to the countries she’d always wanted to visit, to the ways in which my less-than-financially stable career had often forced her to do without; in particular with the attempts we’d made to adopt a child, that had resulted in the money we’d put aside for that purpose being taken by scammers, not the only time in our lives together that we’d trusted the wrong people.
I’d also come to understand that regrets were part of the deal. I’d loved her and she’d loved me, and many were the people who’d said that we were made for each other. That would have to be enough. And I felt an unseen, imagined but no less real presence telling me that this was the way to think, and I concluded something very mawkish that also happened to be very true: that she was not really gone. I’d internalized her. I’d built a ghost out of my memories, that would always be with me.
I came out of that reverie and found him still watching. “What?”
He said, “You remember. I have one more thing to tell you.”
His mouth curled into a black horizontal crescent, and I realized another way in which the ordeal of time travel had aged him. I have always struggled with dental health and I was considerably surprised, sometimes, by the happenstance that any teeth remained in my mouth now. That all of his were gone not from indifferent flossing but from time travel was small comfort to me. It looked terrible.
“You are,” he said. “Eventually.”
I felt a lurch. “Soon?”
“That depends on your definition of soon. It’s always soon. If it helps put you at ease, that clearly won’t happen until somebody invents time travel, but I won’t tell you whether it’s a year from now, or five years from now, or ten, or thirty. That’s more than I’m permitted to tell you. I am allowed to tell you something else, something even more important. Do I have your permission?”
I could have done what I’d done before and told him to go ahead, but there was something untrustworthy about the sneering curve of his lips, something that could only be understood by someone who had lived self-destructive madness from the inside.
I somehow knew for the very first time that what he wanted to tell me today was not a dispatch from anyone who had my best interests at heart.
And yet I could not just tell him to go away. He was me.
“What kind of information is it?”
He grimaced. “You still need an explanation? After all we’ve been through together?”
“If it’s what all this has been heading for, yes, I do.”
The dog came up to him and sniffed his ankle. It looked at me and then at him again. I think it was fortunate that it had only canine intelligence and was under the threshold of the Dunning-Krueger effect. It knew that there were things that it did not know, and was therefore comfortable with being confused by things beyond its ken. It emitted a thin whine, before toodling off in search of another place to pee.
He said, “You’re a writer. I’m a writer. We know how stories work. We both know the fundamental thing about happy endings: that they’re false and temporary. People who have slain the dragon end up having to face another problem, maybe a worse one, a year later. The handsome prince and beautiful princess get tired of each other. The underdog who becomes a champion is forgotten, and gradually becomes a sick old man, yearning for the end. This reflects real life. You know it does. You have endured a personal hell, but that doesn’t mean more bad times aren’t coming, more days when eating a bullet will seems like the most sensible solution.”
I didn’t like the direction this was headed. “Yeah. So?”
“So: I’ve lived through all that already, and I’m here to tell you that while you’ve already lived through the very best times life has in store in for you, there are still joys coming . . . and some valleys deeper than you can guess, separating them. There will always be times of great sadness when you’ll say to yourself, how can I possibly live through this, and where you’ll endure by remembering what happened this year and thinking, but it gets better, it has to. A limited number of times, that will be accurate enough.”
“And,” he spread his hands, “At one point, that will no longer be true. At one point, thanks to disease or circumstance, there will be no more happy days left: just a succession of steadily worse days, with no joy left to be had. Where that promise of things getting better will be a pernicious lie. Where there will be no hope, illusory or otherwise, and where it’ll be just a rocky descent to the end, going on longer than you would ever be willing to believe.”
I’d only thought my mouth was dry before. Now, it was the swirling sands of the Gobi. “And?”
“And I, myself, am well past that time, and I am willing to give you a precise date, the fixed point in time when surviving your then-current troubles will no longer reward the effort. I tell you this and you know precisely when you should give up the hope that will only torture you.”
The blood roared in my ears. I considered just how much I would have to suffer, someday, in order to take pleasure in making this offer to myself—and I knew that it would have to be more than I’d suffered this year, maybe more than I’d suffered throughout the long summers and winters of a life that had known more than its share of self-pitying despair. I was a volatile personality, a connoisseur of despair, somebody who had imagined himself a depressive until I was able to tell Judi, I only imagined myself chronically depressed all those years. But it was only unhappiness, and it went away when I married you.
Now I was being offered a firm timeline of how many years I had—if it even was years—before that feeling would make sense, where giving up would make sense.
For at least part of me, the part that seemed to enjoy the self-dramatization possibilities that went with misery, it seemed an unimaginable gift.
I said, “What good will it do?”
“You’ll know. You’ll make the choice that makes sense.”
“You mean killing myself.”
“Only,” he said, “when there’s no joy left to be had. All you have to do is give me permission, and I’ll give you the exact date.”
And here’s one thing you need to know about me, something true even if it’s not something I’m particularly proud of. And that’s this: as a bullied kid who never was any good at fighting, who never won any protracted fight in his life, who never successfully dodged a blow in his life, I happen to possess a rarely-used, but undeniable talent for the one thing that once or twice enabled me to put a tormentor down.
I have a knack for the sucker punch.
I don’t know how he didn’t see it coming. He was me, after all. But then maybe that was the explanation. He was me. I’d never been able to see sucker punches coming: ironic preparation for what happened with Judi.
He lay flat on the grass, staring up at me. It was the first time I’d ever successfully broken somebody’s nose, and I felt a dizzying pleasure from the moment, that I knew would at some point evolve into shame. He coughed, a sound that testified to various illnesses eating him up aside, and then he rasped, “Are you insane?”
“You know I am,” I snarled. “And you know how much.”
“I’m you. You’ll feel that punch someday.”
“And on that day,” I told him, with a pleasure that came close to euphoria, because I felt Judi standing behind me, and feeling proud of me, “I’ll deserve it. Imagine being the kind of person eager to take away someone else’s hope. I don’t ever want to be that person. Judi would want me to spend me the rest of my life making sure you never happen.”
He became whiny, a voice I knew and hated from those many times when I had thought I was being treated unfairly. “Don’t you see, I’m trying to save you—”
“You’re a bitter old man and you’re trying to erase whatever hope you have left, so it can stop torturing you. If I listened to you, I would lose that battle today. And it’s too nice outside for such a stupid surrender.”
He said, “You need to be warned—”
“I don’t need anything you’re offering. Get lost. Go back to where you came from. Stew in your misery and don’t bother me again.”
At 61, I am already too slow to rise from any position on the floor. At whatever age he was, he was slower. He grunted and groaned and made audible spinal creaks as he dragged himself to his feet, managed a version of upright equipped with uncomfortable stoop, and then straightened, at least as much as I, with my terrible posture, ever straightened.
By the time we were eye to eye again, he looked even older, older than I’m willing to survive, older even than I might ever could survive. His eyes now looked clouded, I was unsure that he really saw me; certainly not as clearly as my dear wife saw me, at that one point on her deathbed when she was startled by that moment of recognition. I was pretty sure that she’d taken some comfort, if not found any clarity, from that moment of eye contact.
He’d aged dramatically in the last few seconds. “You’ll . . . become me.”
“Not if I can help it. Go away, damn you.”
And he did.
I stood there for almost a full minute, my heart pounding, my mind racing from the narrowness of my escape. It was not an escape I ever would have managed, alone, even though any rational observer would have said I was alone. But no one’s really alone, I guess, if they can remember someone they loved, and as soon as I had that thought I suffered an immediate spasm of authorial remorse. No, That part’s mawkish. It’s gross and obvious. If I write these events down, I’ll avoid underlining them with anything that goddamned corny. Even if it’s true.
I took a deep breath. It was the first deep breath since this last visitation had started. It tasted like sea air, even though this specific backyard was too far from the water for that scent to carry. I figured that maybe I’d stored some while at sea. It was a nonsensical theory, but it would do for now; as would any theory that involved the influence of an invisible Judi, underlining the epiphany I’d had on deck.
All in all, I thought Judi would approve. She wouldn’t have wanted me to count down the days to the one when no further optimism was possible. She would have kicked my ass, and even if that angry old man wasn’t totally full of shit, and there was no way to avoid someday standing in his shoes, she would have been right. I would have deserved her kicking my ass.
I turned my face toward the sun, enjoying the warmth of the light on my face.
God help me, it and I felt brand new.
— For everybody who joined in the conspiracy of kindness.