by BRANDON K. NOBLES
We met at a carnival, on a ride, a tilt whirl went up and down, and gravity brought us together in the aisle, our little prison, in our little prison free. Ten years hence and we were friends, good friends, as close as two could be, but it seemed it would not be as she, erudite and proper, she was from a different, more civilized world, affluent and responsible. I was from an abandoned set from the movie Deliverance, a southern shanty-village with one traffic light. The traffic light. We were both still in school at the time. The more we talked, the more we talked; the more we talked, the more we sought to do so. She was cultured and soft spoken, compassionate and understanding, with a poetic bent. I would later cast our mad romance in the vein of Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights. I was, of course, the orphan madman Heathcliffe, and she was my Catherine;
I fought through a world of noise to reach you, so for now you must endure my silence.
We would end up casually dating, after spending time together at work, and much more afterwards on weekends. We went to the Museum of Modern Art a lot, skating with the gold Prometheus in Central Park. As high-minded and cultured as we affected, we worked at a sandwich shop one inspection check short of an issued writ from the health and safety commission, Nam Pang’s on MacDougal St. in Greenwich Village. It was owned by a crazy ex-physics professor and engineer from Cambodia – we called him Ho-Chi (because we were racists) who, after trying his hand at inventing, failed to produce anything anyone cared for other than greasy sandwiches. It was a fun place to work; She was a manager. I was a grunt – appropriate for our respective levels of intelligence.
We worked there for years; she was behind the counter, taking orders, and I was on a shitty bicycle, peddling Cambodian sandwiches on Long Island. Everything was routine. Other than Ho-Chi’s inventions, and the stuff we did to amuse ourselves usually involved the devaluing of others’ food. It was unremarkable, really, nothing much to say – but her face, to me, was an idiot’s lantern. The kind of light a blind moth could use to find his way.
After work, we’d have drinks at The Squeezebox, a jazz club on East 42nd St, the cover bands, Miles Davis madness, women in tuxedos and top hats handing out cigars, expensive wine and raucous music, the air thick with the fragrant cigarillo smoke. We hid as best we could from the spectre of responsibility – which always found her on the moment before our mania turned to madness. She’d drive back to Manhattan where she lived, dropping me off in Flatbush. Ho-Chi was my only other friend, and I’ve had very few friends that I hated with the same love and compassion of Ho-Chi, man. I had dreams though, to write, to create time capsules. What better way than this? This is voodoo, old word voodoo, and literature a time machine.
Everyone who has ever studied physics has wanted a time machine. For different reasons, surely, though killing Hitler would be the right thing to do. I always wanted to find one perfect moment, with one perfect person, like a sunset – like the pink and yellow, blue and purple belt of Venus slowly falling, falling forever as I watched with someone I loved, so we could repeat it, rewind the world and watch the curtains fall again. So I worked out a working theory, a model, and proposed it to Ho-Chi; he worked out the rest. We knew it would take years, but we also knew that if we succeeded, we could be thieves of times; we could take those years back, and hold them, and for all time.
He finally got the machine to work, so many days, so many long days and long hours in them. I didn’t tell her at first, though we were dating at the time. We loved each other, well, I loved her, and she tolerated that love with varying degrees of reciprocity. We went out to the fair that night, the same annual fair where we had met, and we rode that same tilt-a-whirl. Something went wrong during the ride, something mechanical came loose and her harness came loose, throwing her from our seat onto the steal railings that enclosed the ride. When the seats came to a stop I ran between the spindly, octopus like metal legs of the tilt-a-whirl and knelt beside her. She was okay, just bruised and sore with a formidable headache. I followed her to the hospital, riding in the back of the ambulance with her, holding her hand tight in mine, squeezing it periodically to get her to squeeze back, to let me know she knew that I was still there.
They say when you’re about to die, your life flashes before your eyes. I don’t think that’s true–not the life you’ve lived, but perhaps the life you want. And when she was flung, I saw a life we would never have, and when she was reprieved, I decided to attempt to make that life a possibility. I saw so much I didn’t know if I could live a life without, considering the happiness the moment’s contemplation brought me.
There was a catch, for the time traveling device: you could only go back in time for ten seconds, and it would only affect you and anyone in contact with you. That wasn’t a serious drawback–as I thought of that never dying sunset with my love. And when I saw her hit the steal, it made me think. I wondered if I could ever live without her. I decided to do something drastic: I was going to ask her to marry me, against the advice of everyone I knew (two people), I would ask her to marry me–as soon as the time machine was working, so we could watch that never setting sunset together and live that perfect moment.
The next day when we came into work, Ho-Chi called us all into the a converted guest room from a previous shop-owner, the dingy kind of room that just looks sticky. He described the machine to everyone in the room, how it worked, its limitations. A genius is most often a crazy person because sane people don’t apply intelligence to things in the same way a crazy person does; this man ran a sandwich shop and spent his time working on obscure inventions (a toilet that wiped the would-be shitter,) and he had his button–the time machine. The science is boring and uninteresting, but the effects were most extraordinary. He pressed the button and I found myself outside the room again, and walked back inside to find him smiling.
At first I wasn’t sure what it was that happened, until he extended the effect on everyone in the room. That is me, Vanessa, my friend Thomas. He kept us within five to ten feet, me and Thomas and V, and had her write her name on a sheet of paper, sign it, and moved everyone away from her. He pressed the button and she froze, time rewinding, and he took the paper from her as she stood there frozen, and signed his name, then the 10-second cycle closed and everything synced back up. Look at the page, he told her. She looked down and her eyes widened. and to her astonishment, to the astonishment of all of us, we realized it worked. for 10 seconds. Impractical, but it would do, for our sunset, forever rewinding, forever falling.
There was one big problem, and he couldn’t stress this enough – it took ten seconds to reinitialize. If it was used before it was recharged, he said, it would break the universe. I’m not sure what kind of merit this statement had, but when you see the universe as an expensive, Ming dynasty vase, something that you’re holding that can break, it is unlikely that you’d want to drop it just to test a theory. The people of Earth would care for it more if it was a cheap keepsake on the mantle, outraged to find it scuffed.
After that, things went back to normal around the sandwich shop. It was a sandwich shop, and Ho-Chi was too much of a bigot to submit his idea, or the theory we worked with, to any scientific publications. Being ostracized by the scientific community can turn a normally reasonable person into a bitter asshole. So as soon as he went out, I broke into his office and took his time-button, asked Vanessa out to dinner, and arranged to steal an engagement ring in the meantime.
I went into the jewelry store and asked for a man to give me the most popular and expensive ring he could find. He gave it to me, and I pressed the button, and had a free engagement ring. We met at the Minetta Tavern on MacDougal St. It’s a nice place, full bar, classy and expensive. It’s easy to hang onto money in New York if you don’t have a drug problem. Anyway, we both had the Cote De Boeuf steak, wonderfully prepared and cooked, and were having drinks. After I paid the bill I took out the ring and asked her, “Vanessa, will you marry me?” Immediately, seeing her gasp, I panicked and pressed the button, and went back and didn’t ask that way. I handed her a ring and said, If you will marry me, meet me on the Observation Tower at 6:30. Don’t say anything, not just now, meet me there, and I will know.
I wandered around the city picking up wine and food and snacks and cigarettes and everything for our perfect moment. When you’re preparing for a moment never-ending, you have to bring supplies; bourbon, Cabernet sauvignon and blush chablis. And I sat there waiting watching my clock. 6:30 came and went. Then 7 and the sun began its descent and I was there to live my moment alone. And I thought back to that moment on the ride when I saw such beauty in our lives together, tired and smoking cigarettes sweating in a disheveled bed listening to Tchaikovsky’s barcarolle, with our happy children sleeping peacefully in the other room, unafraid, unconcerned with monsters–the monsters would be daddy’s friends.
They’d have racecar beds and video games, pianos and guitars and violins, everything they’d want and books, Dr. Seuss and Shel Silverstein and Where the Sidewalk Ends. We’d read them to sleep and go to their baseball games, little league and spelling bees, and somewhere for their trophies. But none of that would happen.
I saw the ghost of Christmas’ never was. By myself with a bottle of wine at an old pool table writing verse, spinning the ball around the table as I thought about it, drinking myself to sleep and living in a mess of unorganized papers and cigarette butts scattered across the floor. And there I’d fall apart, unpeeled by each passing afternoon like a bruised banana by a poor man’s patio. It isn’t money that makes a man rich; it is the value of his friendships, the meaning he derives from his pursuits, his successes and failures.
I looked over the ledge of the observation tower. The sidewalk is where it ends, I thought; to live a lonely life is tolerable until it is no longer a choice you’ve made. When you’re the odd-man out in a reject crowd, the outcasts always mourn–and alien tears will fall for them.
Like two doomed ships we passed in storm
We crossed each other’s way;
We made no sign, we spoke no words;
We had no words to say.
For we did not meet in a holy night,
But in the shameful day.
No pen, no pad, and with the button in my hand, took a breath, it’d be my last, and knowing she would never come, I closed my eyes and jumped.
I looked at all the people down below. People with families and kids, and back and forth they went, with shopping bags, holding hands. Happy people, miserable too, some going in circles. A lot to lose and nothing to gain is to die, an unbroken dreamless sleep. No hurt, no pain, no more love or fine champagne, no sleeping late on weekends, no well cooked meals with friends, just that dreamless sleep that never ends. I wasn’t scared, not really, until the visions started.
My life didn’t pass before my eyes, but a now impossible future. A happier life, with a wife, children, nice house in Manhattan, a name that matters, not a whisper in a screaming city. I saw Vanessa and her happy friends, her happy lovers that I’d never live up to. I’d be a smear on the pavement, a thumbprint on a skyscraper lost among a million more. The higher you get, the harder it is to distinguish people from one another. But I could see her halfway down, as soon as I saw the clock–it was 6:23, along with the one on the building, and mine was too far ahead–all those seconds I had accumulated with that button had put more time on my watch, and when I heard her scream I pressed the button again, to go back to before I jumped.
I’d been falling for too long, and I didn’t make it far enough to stop myself from jumping, and so I was falling again. No way to get back to the top, except to break the universe. So I was stuck there, my perfect moment full of dread and panic and indecision. And I still didn’t see my life, my past, I saw impossible futures. Christmas Eve and children.. A family. two girls and a boy, and one would be a writer and one would be an opera singer. I heard her scream again so I clicked the button, appearing just below the leg and so on. Falling again, caught in the ten second loop.
Another future, Easter Sunday, the children with their Easter baskets are looking for eggs. It was in Rose Hill, in South Carolina. I went there with my church as a kid. I never really looked until they said some egg hid a dollar, and that made it matter, so everyone wanted it. And then the images came. There was Vanessa by the water, the pitter patter of her soft soled shoes as she walked beside me, stuffed animal in her arms like a clichéd movie, smiling wide. That ride that brought us together, that gravity, would take us apart; the more I fell, and the images came faster. The queen of the night was in my ear and everyone below was smudged and through that holy music all I heard was screaming and I pressed the button once again, back just shy of the ledge to fall again, and so I fell.
I began to realize that that was life, falling and not knowing when or where you’re going to land. And there I was, back at my grandmother’s house, thirteen years old, the year before my father died. And there’s his casket, bronze and quiet and him in his Sunday best, a corpse in a three piece suit. And everybody’s crying and wailing. I’m in the bathroom on the toilet with a cigarette, my cousin standing just outside. Head in my hands, someone comes in and I douse the cigarette out. I pressed the button again. My little sister on my mother’s lap, my mom holding onto her so tight as she cried. The saddest thing I’d ever seen in my life. And my brother’s standing there not looking at anyone, head on his chest, eyes on his feet, uncomfortable with the noise, the crying. Ten more seconds.
And there I am in the emergency room, third grade I think, my head is bleeding. I did a flip off of a pole and landed on my head. Then the sounds became pictures, numbers had color, and that hallucinogenic effect extended to the city below me, and all I saw were walking skeletons, dying slowly on their ways to nowhere. From one prison to another on a multicultural slave ship, and my love in the distance in her best dress running towards me, and my clock too far ahead and I kept falling, falling, caught in that moment of hell forever, to break the universe or rewind time, time and time again until I’d no longer afraid to die.
Back at the ledge again and falling–waiting to see my love in the distance calling stop, no way to stop it; and we’re all falling, from day one falling, falling forever, from start to finish. And I realized something as I fell, the past swells up more ghostlike – but it’s no more touchable than the imagined happiness of the future; impossible days that extend beyond the moment. Birthdays and valentines, anniversaries and wine–and now I’ll never have the time. Just ten seconds to live and all was regret, too scared of death to stop the cycle.
We could’ve have had our sunset, like that tilt a whirl that brought us together, and in the air caught in a circle, I never could let go, and so I pressed the button once again. If only to try to picture it all in my mind, all the moments that we had, so they’d be just right, just in case I’m allowed to take one memory with me. What memory would I take? What memory could I choose?
There was that trip when I was in primary school, when the GT class went to the space camp in Alabama. We got to be weightless and listen to them explain what they did in space, and they showed us all the planets going round the sun. Jupiter the cyclops with a bloodshot eye and Saturn, majestic and engaged. Neptune the blue marble, and Mars the ruby with Olympus moms, Phobos and Demos, fear and panic at the side of that great God of war. And Venus where the Venusians live, that pink blue bubble. Mercury that scorched rock, burnt by its mother. And Pluto on the outside, cold and alone like all the children who never got a chance to grow, orphans in the Kuiper belt, a glimmer around a source of light it often forgets, like dust caught in a bent sunbeam stretching from star to star. So that moment, on the tilt a whirl, that would be that moment that I’d take with me, a picture of what I thought heaven was. Togetherness.
And then I had an idea that could save me. I pressed the button again and as I fell, as my love broke through the moping sea, I would throw her the button and let her send me back in time to a point where I didn’t have it. And she came out of the sea and grasped at the air as I threw it to her. Then everything went blank and I felt myself dissipate and fade into the background of the day, merging with the sky, just energy but aware of what I’d lost, losing the faces of family and friends. And then I was falling again, slightly lower down, and so it went again; over and over until she pressed the button before those ten seconds were up–which broke the universe and froze me on the ground.
She took my hand as I dusted off my pants. Everything was frozen. Cars and passersby, dogs chasing Frisbees in the park, people on their cellphones with their umbrellas–and the sunset frozen in the belt of Venus, locked in place. We were the only moving creatures in the world.
We walked among those statues, frozen mid-stride, the snowflakes frozen in the air as we passed over the bridge in central park. Vanessa plucked a snowflake from the air and blew it across the frozen water like a dandelion puff. It spun like a dreidel before freezing again, posed for us and perfect–a silent world with only us to wander, not to fall, through the amazon, all that beauty, jaguars beautiful in pursuit of prey, their fears now meaningless.
We kissed atop the Eiffel tower and had a glass of wine, walked across the never breaking shores of Galilee, walking on water in Venice–losing ourselves among the crowd at Mecca circling the black rock, the Kabba–the rock Muhammad circled when he came back as a general. We saw blankets of sand poised to strike but never to fall in the Arabian deserts, window dressing, timid curtains. We strolled along the Great Wall of China and into Russia, to Rostov von Don and onto St. Petersburg–the world we came from was gone, and everyone else – they were ghosts of living people.
And then we started seeing the green lights pass by us as we swung from a hammock under a blue sky in van Gogh’s Amsterdam. And again, while sitting in the lap of La Pieta and I fed my sweet Vanessa grapes and kissed her neck. And there I asked her once again, did she ever intend to marry me.
The button wouldn’t work, and I had taken it apart to make a lighter, so I lit a cigarette, barely hearing her when she said yes. So we decided to go home, back to my apartment in Flatbush. We were old but still played our little games. Spin the bottle, and it always landed on her. We kissed like we were still young. Always young, without cruelty or cowardice, we loved a love so fierce, beyond friendship, beyond family, and as we lay there in that bed at night, in a world for just us two, I thought about our ceremony and my vows, as we never had our wedding. I rolled over to my desk and wrote them out.
I will never be good enough for you, no one could be; you’re more than just my life, you’re the substance of my dreams, my cherub, my muse, the light that led Dante out of hell, all the way up to Heaven, just to see his reflection in a well with you the angel on his shoulder. I hope you will consent to be my wife and my friend as long as I live; to part at death would be too soon.
We wheeled our frozen family together with a priest and performed the vows ourselves.
Do I, Brandon Keith Nobles, take you, Vanessa Lee Hull, to be my unlawful wedded wife? “You do.” She said. “Do I, Vanessa Lee Hull, take you, Brandon Keith Nobles, to be my unlawful wedded husband?” You do, said I. You may kiss the bride. And when we kissed, I thought we must have looked just like the rest, frozen.
We had grown old together, no company except that green whiff of light that often passed us by, hovering in the air for a moment and letting out an inhuman static shriek, the sound of white noise and static on a dead TV station, and there we set with our sunset and at our end had spent our lives together; all together, a perfect life, so many impossible futures having never been we made the best with what we had.
Do you regret it? I asked. “Not at all,” said she. “I’ve never felt alone.” Neither have I. And then behind us a tunnel opened in the air and outstepped our old friend Ho-Chi, upset that we had locked him outside of time; somehow he had saved himself, said he, and had been tunneling through time to find us, just to find the button. He took it from me, and I told him how I’d broke it for a lighter. Not a problem, said he; I can fix it. There, he said, after a few minutes. We can do it all over again. But we wouldn’t remember any of it, he said. I looked at Vanessa and asked, Would you like to go around again, my love?
We met at a carnival, on a ride, a tilt whirl went up and down, and gravity brought us together in the aisle, our little prison, in our little prison free.