First, I want to give you this moment. You will understand why in the end.
We were walking on the trail, the way we did on Sundays: the sun-washed gully, the open air, the shadows of last night’s rain staining the earth dark and slick beneath our boots. At the river’s edge, I caught my husband’s hand and pointed at a stack of topaz-eyed turtles that had piled themselves ancient and precarious as a cairn.
Here are the shapes and shades that colored my life, before.
Then we looked up and saw you.
• • • •
You had the hunched posture of someone trying to appear casual and unassuming. Which is to say, someone tougher than you actually were. Your brow gleamed with a yet-unfocused anger that pegged you at no older than nineteen. Your cheeks were flushed, as if you had been running.
You said, “Thank God I found you.” My husband and I didn’t look at each other. We didn’t need to, to know: Yes, my antenna is up, too. Yes, one or both of us is prepared to shift into action now and debrief after. Power Couple, our friends joked about us in these moments. Ready to take on the world.
I said, “Are you okay? Are you hurt?”
“No,” you said. “It’s just—I don’t.”
Your dark hair spilled over your collarbone as you studied your feet. I realized later how unusual your shoes were: a sleek, marine silver with small ridges along the top. I would remember this standing near the kitchen window, wiping at a stain in the paint that turned out to be a shadow: I should have known and did I know and what could I have done to prevent this.
But in the moment, I just watched you study your toes with a misplaced anxiety. Then you looked up and blurted,
“I’m your daughter.”
• • • •
Forgive us, the Girl, while we have this laugh: Ha! Ha! Ha!
Ha! #1: We have been married one year! We have never had children!
Ha! #2: We are not interested in having children! In fact, Officially and As Far as Our Mothers Are Concerned, We Are Not Having Kids! Not Right Now!
Ha! #3: We are certainly Not Having Kids negative-twenty years ago, when we were ten-year-olds living in different parts of the country!
Your attention flickered to your phone while we chuckled. The clear lines of your face rumpled and bent.
“I know it sounds crazy,” you said. “But I need you to listen. I don’t have much time.”
My husband, a skeptic in all matters except for babies and dogs, looked to the bushes and the sky, checking for cameras.
“Okay,” I said, swallowing a smile. “So you’re our daughter. What’s your name?”
You looked at me for the first time, your expression a mixture of annoyance and apology.
“Not your daughter,” you said. “His.”
Then you added, like an afterthought before dismissing me entirely, “Sorry.”
• • • •
Sometimes, when confronted with rudeness, my brain shuts down. As if it examines the three hundred billion complexities and nuances of the social codes I have been consciously and unconsciously indoctrinated with since birth, holds this particular moment up to the light, and spits out DOES NOT COMPUTE.
That sorry? Did not compute.
• • • •
I listened to you tell my husband, referring constantly to your phone, the things that you were allowed to explain: that you were from the future, although you would not say when. That he must go to Radio Coffee on Friday morning at 10:37 and wait at the bar. You said, take the last stool on the end if you can, but the next one over is okay, too. No matter what, do not sit in the stool closest to the cashier.
I examined you while you talked: the angles of tension in your neck and jaw; the sleepy, lash-fringed blue eyes that drooped at the edges, as though threatening to spill their color onto your cheeks. The Texan sky overhead was bleached denim, summerpale.
Behind me, my husband laughed. “What’s wrong with the stool closest to the cashier?”
You said, “I can’t tell you that, Dad. Please. Just trust me.”
My husband and I exchanged a look. His eyes said ? and mine said, shrug. Like, Sure, in this future in which I do not matter, I guess I’m down for whatever.
My husband smiled wryly and kissed the top of my head.
“Okay,” he said into my hair, muffling his amusement. “Stool on the end.”
You folded your arms across your chest. “You told me you’d be a jackass about this,” you said.
“Sounds like you know you well,” I muttered to my husband. He snorted into my hair, his warm breath gushing in a burst down my scalp.
You sighed. “Fine.” You sounded a little petulant. Like, I can’t believe you’re making me do this. “I’m supposed to tell you ‘remember Marietta Ninetales.’”
Behind me, my husband went still.
“What does that mean?” I whispered to him.
He asked you, pulling away, “How do you know that?”
“You told me,” you said, sounding almost sorry.
“What is that?” I asked again.
“My childhood cat,” he said.
I thought, You told me you were allergic to cats.
A lizard flicked over a rock nearby, and you flinched, visibly. I thought, drugs? But you seemed sober.
“You have to promise,” you said, again. Your face so urgent, young. “I’m almost out of time.”
I looked up at my husband, but he looked at the sky, the plants, your clothing.
“Sure,” he said at last, bemused. “Sure—fine, whatever. I’ll be there.”
It didn’t sound promising, but I knew—do you know?—that this is the way it is, with him. The more he’s pushed, the more he digs in his heels. But you must have known, too, because your face crumpled with relief.
“Thank you,” you said, and turned to go. I looped my arm around my husband’s waist, hoping—what? To make you uncomfortable? You twisted back just before disappearing over the hill and looked back at my husband, your face laced with complicated regret. I felt like somebody was intruding on something, but I wasn’t sure what.
• • • •
We walked back to the car through air turned muggy and still. The thin mosquito whine of the distant highway threaded through the treetops. My husband, walking ahead of me, whistled absently.
“That was weird,” I said, too loudly. “That was weird, right? That was definitely not normal.”
My husband laughed. “Nope.”
“But she knew about the cat.”
“Yeah. That was weird.” The silent expanse of his back rising and falling with each step.
“Who else knows about that cat?”
“My parents,” he said. “My sister. Craig, I guess.”
“So somebody’s fucking with you.”
I tugged the heads off some stalks of grass, scattered the seeds into the underbrush.
I said, “If I’m not her mother, who is?”
“I don’t know,” my husband said. “It doesn’t matter. It’s just somebody’s weird idea of joke.”
“Why, though? Why us?”
“Who knows,” he said. “It’s probably a stunt for some YouTube channel we’ll never watch. I’ll bet your students know about it.”
“Oh, that’s perfect. ‘Guys, today we’re talking about dangling participles—’ ‘Miss, did you know you’re on YouTube?’”
“Maybe they’ll pay more attention in class if you go viral.”
A wind blew up off the river, hot, and the sun-dappled shadows of live oaks and mesquite shivered over our feet. A man shouted on your left and thanks as he zipped by on a mountain bike.
A college professor once told us that free will can’t exist in the past tense. That by the time you are able to recognize and name the present, it is already gone. I spent the rest of class while she lectured on about the Greek Stoics and compatibilism thinking, Free will exists . . . now. No, now. No, now. Always just a hair too late, watching its tail whisk around the corner of time.
I said, distantly, “I wonder if I’m dead.”
“In the future,” I said. “Maybe that’s why I’m not her mother. Maybe I die first.”
My husband stopped and held my gaze. Took my hands in his, like he was cupping a flame.
“Unacceptable,” he said. “I would never let it happen. I’ll put you in a big safety bubble. You’ll just roll safely everywhere you have to go. We’ll go on bubble dates, and drink bubble tea, and grow old together in our bubble-rockers.”
“What about sex?” I asked.
“I’ll apply for visitation rights to your bubble,” he said. “It will look like a big Venn diagram.”
“Apply early,” I said. “The forms are very complicated. You have to fill them out in number 2 pencil, and they’re all bubble sheets—”
He swatted at my ass and I yelped, and grabbed at his, and in that moment, the whole morning teetered above us, golden and wobbling, nearly tipping into forgetfulness. But then a little boy ran by with a golden retriever, shouting, “Daddy! Look at me, Daddy! Look at me!” and my husband froze, and I turned away like I was looking out over the river, but it had dried to a trickle here, and there was nothing but rocks and mud.
“It was just a weird joke,” he said again, when the little boy had passed.
“I know,” I said, too brightly.
We walked to the car in silence.
• • • •
We’d talked about children early in the relationship, in the context of abortion. Not because we’d had a scare: because we were hungry to learn everything about one another. The bigger and less safe the topic, the more daringly intimate the conversation felt. Nobody in this emotional game of strip poker was toying with socks.
He said, “I don’t think it’s murder of a person. I think it’s murder of the potential of a person. But, like, everything’s the murder of the potential of a person: You turn left instead of right at an intersection, or hesitate five minutes too long, and you could miss meeting one partner and end up with someone else entirely. So all of the children you could have had with that first person are lost.”
“Or you do meet them, but you have sex at, like, 5:00 instead of 6:00.”
“Sure. But even then, at 6:00, there are, like, half a billion sperm in each ejaculation, and even then, implantation is hell. Each time a woman does manage to get pregnant, that’s 499,999,999 potential babies not made. So, I guess every single aspect of life except the actual tiny act of implantation is abortion. And you can’t go around feeling guilty about that all the time or you wouldn’t get anything done.”
I burrowed into the warm space beneath his chin, cradling each word like a porcelain egg, luminous and velvet-wrapped. The fragile weight of them jostling in my chest. In the early days, each new thing about us seemed enormous, shot through with color and light. I wanted to escape in what I could already sense were the final lonely hours of my life: to hurry home to my one-bedroom apartment, spread them out on the carpet and consider each facet with care. To consider: How will my life look in this new light, and this and this. To be in love so young is to be constantly drowning in enormity.
I want never to know you, but I still want you to understand this: how when your father and I met, looking at one another was like staring into the sun. We became blind to everything else. We had never seen such light.
Later in our relationship, we would not try as hard to impress each other. We would still talk philosophy, but also about annoying coworkers and pooping and whose turn it was to buy groceries. I would obsess less self-consciously over small things. My husband, the reticent man that he is, would speak less. This is a thing you know about him, I suppose, or perhaps not. Perhaps in the universe in which he is your father, the woman who turns out to be your mother is able to tap into something I am not: to turn him into a laughing-eyed performer, some happier, brighter version of himself.
But then, in those early days, when everything was still spilling out gloriously between us, I gazed up at the shadows pooling in the popcorn ceiling, and wondered at the secrets there.
I said, “So the creation and destruction of potential life is essentially value-neutral.”
He brought his hand down to cradle the back of my head, and held it there: a warm weight.
He said, his voice crumbling a little, “I used to think so.”
• • • •
You had been told certain things, which must have made it difficult to understand that we were in love. One was that the man in this story was my husband, which means, by narrative necessity, that we must be secretly unhappy with one another. The other is that I would not be your mother.
And then there is this wretched past tense, drawing a line in the sand: before, when he was mine. And now . . .?
• • • •
While falling for each other, in a desperate attempt to put on the brakes, to save ourselves (ice climbers scrabbling for crampons, for picks), we did a clean sweep: Here Is My Emotional Baggage. Here Are My Secrets. How many people we’ve each slept with (five, eight). How many people we’ve each kissed (seven, lots). History of drug use, history of family illness, fetishes, phobias. We scrolled through our Facebook profiles and pulled up pictures of our exes: This is the first one who said I love you. This is the first person who broke my heart. And so on.
When he comes home from work the next day, I’m scrolling through the Facebook photos of his exes at the kitchen table, looking for dark hair and sleepy blue eyes. For no reason.
“Whatcha doing?” he asks, planting a kiss on the top of my head.
I point to a tab. I’ve dismissed Abby and Ellie and Jackie and Beth.
“Janelle looks kind of like her,” I say.
“Who?” he asks. Then he groans. “Oh, God. That again?”
“She does,” I persist. “Look.”
He squints. The nose is wrong, but the fair skin, the hair, combined with his long-lashed eyes . . .
“Huh,” he says.
“Does she have a younger sister?” I ask. “Or a cousin?”
He runs a hand across his head, covers his eyes. “I don’t know. She has a brother. Look, you know this is a stupid joke, right?”
“Of course,” I say. “But she could be the one playing it.”
He speaks from behind his hand. “You think my high school girlfriend tracked me down and sent her cousin to pretend she’s our future daughter.”
“Your future daughter,” I say. “Maybe. Sure.”
He sighs. “Look, I’ll send her a message, okay? Will that make you feel better?”
“I don’t care,” I say, closing the tab. “I’m just saying. It’s weird.”
“Sure,” he says, kissing my shoulder. But he doesn’t meet my eyes as he crosses to the sink to fill a mason jar, begins carefully watering the plants.
• • • •
A few days later, I come home to find him making dinner. There’s a small vase of flowers on the table. A fresh lemon quivering brightly beside the fruit bowl.
“I’ve got it,” he says, pouring me a glass of wine from an open bottle. “Okay, so. I know we said we were done thinking about this, but I was talking to Wissam at work and we realized, it’s a grandfather paradox.”
“What is?” I ask, but my stomach gives a sickening lurch.
He says, “Okay, so: If that girl comes back in time to make sure that I meet her mother, and then I don’t meet her mother, then she never could have existed to come back in time to tell me to meet her mother.”
He says, “So that’s how we know it’s a prank. It can’t work otherwise.”
He beams at me, waiting. The oil hisses in the pan: the comforting sounds of an occupied kitchen, a pleasant evening waiting to forgettably unfold.
There are the children who let their scabs heal, and then there are kids who pick and pick and pick until the skin beneath is something pink and shiny and new, and later wonder how they came to have a scar.
“No,” I say, slowly. “That’s how we know it’s true.”
I shred the tip of the aloe plant with my thumbnail and watch the clear fluid ooze onto my fingers. If I were burned, it would heal me.
I say, “The only way she can exist to come back in time and tell you to meet her mother is if you do end up having a baby with her mother.”
He stares at me a moment. The oil smoking in the pan.
“No,” he says.
“Yes,” I say. I wish we were talking about anything else: Game of Thrones houses, or if we should get a dog, or my student who was sewing little ghosts for each character in Hamlet as they died. “The fact that the girl exists is proof that it did happen. In the hypothetical. Where this isn’t a prank.”
He says, “I don’t think that’s right,” but a frown creases his brow.
His phone lights up on the table. I look down at it: a Houston area code. The name, Janelle.
“You got in touch with her?” I ask.
He sees me see his phone. “Yeah,” he says, lightly.
“Does she have any sisters?”
“Oh, shit,” he says, snatching the smoking pan from the stove. “What? No. Shit. Will you grab some paper towels?”
• • • •
Okay, so: I only met you on the trail if you were born.
Conversely, if you weren’t born, I won’t remember meeting you on the trail. There will be no you to remember.
Therefore: I go about trying to forget you as fiercely as possible.
• • • •
When I was a child, I read a story about a coin that would turn to gold if you held it in your hand and did not think about camels. An alchemy of forgetfulness.
I see you everywhere: the girls jogging on campus in the flattening Texas heat, the teenager glaring at her mom in front of the Target. My student Alexandra has to go to the principal’s office during third period for wearing see-through lace shorts. I jump when I see her in the hallway, the long dark braid of her hair. She laughs, Miss, what’s wrong, you look like you saw a ghost.
I will try not to think you. I will try, in fact, to avoid using the word you. If I can write an entire page of this story without you in it, then maybe you will be removed enough from the narrative that we can move on. What is forgetfulness, after all, but a carefully constructed habit.
(But if you do not exist, then who am I writing this story for?)
• • • •
On Thursday night, we go out with our friends. They have just gotten back from Iceland. There are hugs and wine, photographs of them pretending to climb glaciers. I tell a story about our hiking trip last year, and my husband chimes in to tell the punchline with me, in unison, and everyone laughs and laughs.
“You guys are gross,” says Craig.
“An old married couple,” says Kim.
“Young married couple,” says my husband, and leans across the table to give me a kiss, all exaggerated and giraffe-tongued until Craig pelts us with edamame shells and we part, laughing and triumphant.
I come back from the bathroom after the plates have been cleared and find my husband alone at the table, hunched over his phone.
“Where did our friends go?” I ask, and he jumps. Cold shivers into my veins.
Out of the corner of my eye, I think I see [ something ], but it is just a waitress who looks like—fuck it—you.
• • • •
My husband wakes up late on Friday morning, makes a show of looking at the clock, of yawning. He is usually a snoozer, but this morning he turns off the alarm and lies still, stretched diagonally across the bed.
He says, as I rifle in the closet, “What time do you have class today?”
I say, “I don’t teach on Fridays.”
I say, “You really don’t know this by now?”
I say, “It’s on our Google calendar.”
“Oh yeah,” he says, and goes quiet.
We both do not look at the clock.
He begins, casually, “I was thinking about—”
“I’m coming with you.”
He rolls up onto one elbow. “It’s just a joke, sugar-butt. Just a weird prank.”
“Then why are you going?”
“I’m curious,” he says. “I guess.”
He sighs, stares at the ceiling. His phone lies dark and silent on the nightstand.
“Fine,” he says.
“Fine,” I say. Like that will make it so.
• • • •
We walk to Radio Coffee in silence. It’s only ten a.m., but the heat is already brutal, obliterating. Sweat beads in the small of my back. Cars fling themselves past us, then fade again into silence.
“What?” he says, looking up.
“I didn’t say anything.”
The coffee shop is dark and cool. My husband steps ahead of me in line, ordering separately. I remember our first date, the way I ordered my own drink when his back was turned, because I didn’t want him to pay for me. Afraid of accepting that weight. Crowing to myself in my head, I am feminism ninja!
He takes the far stool, looks around. He looks so young, and so anxious, in the square of sunlight falling through the window. He cups his glass of cold brew coffee, his heel bouncing.
I settle into the stool nearest to the cashier.
His eyes widen. He pulls out his phone, pecks at it. Mine vibrates in my pocket, a text message.
I stare at him, the real life him, three stools down from me in the coffee shop, disbelieving. Then type out a response: What.
don’t sit there
I make a show of turning off my phone, dropping it into my pocket. Why. I mouth at him. Not.
“Because,” he whispers, helplessly. “Remember? What my—what the girl said.”
“It’s just a prank,” I say loudly. “Right? So it doesn’t. Matter.”
He stares at me a minute longer. There is something almost animal to it: a flattening of the ears.
Then he shakes his head and turns back to his phone, begins thumbing.
I stay on that stool for the next two hours, while the barista brings me tea after lavender-chamomile tea. I have to pee so fiercely that I feel nauseated, but I refuse to budge.
Ten feet away, my husband glares into his phone, flinches each time the door opens.
But your mother never comes in. Or maybe she does, but is scared away. Maybe I was sitting in her seat.
All I know is, when the clock strikes noon, we walk home together, and the fact of you is with us every step of the way.
• • • •
I go back to the trail weeks later, while my husband is at work. I walk the entire, heat-blasted, dehydrating thing. It is 6.75 miles of dirt and sandstone and paper-leafed trees, crisscrossing the riverbed like a running stitch. It’s been nearly a month since we met you, but I keep thinking I’ll find you just over the next hill, or tucked away on a knoll: curled up lotus-style in those liquid turquoise sneakers with their ridges, picking away at your phone. I scan the bushes for futuristic buttons, threads, a giggling camera crew. Anything.
There is nothing, of course.
But then why did I walk the trail?
• • • •
Later, I wondered if you knew this was going to happen.
If his future self told you: She will become obsessed with this. Tell me to come to the coffee shop alone. Yes, I know, it’s counter-intuitive. I promise it will work. I know her.
Do you know what you’ve done? What you’ve undone? Happily ever after is glory; ever after is grit.
Do you know many hours of work I will have to put in to get back to this kind of brainless happiness?
• • • •
By the time we got back from the coffee shop, everything I thought we could break free of was carefully cemented into place.
My husband climbed into his car and went to work. I waited for him to come back home all day. The day stretched into evening. I wrote series of careful texts, and then deleted them, and wrote one far less careful:
where the fuck are you?
His headlights finally pulled into the driveway at eleven at night. He crept gingerly into our bedroom. His eyes not yet adjusted. Still blinded by some other light. “Hey,” he whispered into the dark. “Are you awake?”
I said nothing.
As I watched him grope his way uncertainly toward the bed, I filled with a sudden, nasty urge to move the furniture. To see him stub his toe on a familiar chair he never suspected would be there, in the dark, waiting.
He climbed into bed beside me, and we both lay still, not touching, breathing up and up and up into the dark.
• • • •
I first played with time I was six years old. We were sitting on the cracked red clay lawn in front of the school, listening to a white man give a presentation on teepees. There was one teepee, and no one was allowed to go into it. The sun beat down on our heads and I picked at the dry, bone-colored grass beneath my feet and thought, soon, this will all be a memory. And then it was.
• • • •
As an old woman, at the end of life, I will lift the last eighty-six years from my bag like a broken string of pearls and spill them across the floor. The years will go everywhere: my high school crush bumping shoulders with my grandson on his birthday. The deaths of all of my dogs pooling together in a dip in the floor. The entire age of thirty-three rolling beneath the sofa, to be stuffed up the nose of the absent-minded next tenant’s toddler and extracted traumatically at the local emergency room.
And this? It, too, will be lost. Not gone, but smaller, mitigated. One of many in a long string of lost moments, no more enormous or shining than my sister’s doctoral defense, than losing my first tooth, than the Israeli man I’d meet on holiday. I’ll stir my fingers through them and feel them clack against one another, and think, how full I am. What a good life I have led, even without this man who once loomed so large as to swallow my entire vision of the future. And how much potential in it.
But for now, somehow, I cannot stop writing this story for you.