Time Machine is staffed by ethereal beings in tight pants and astronaut helmets. Their gold visors shimmer as they slip between tables with silver trays. Their bare feet match the general theme of things not fitting in: Victorian bicycles, a stuffed giant sloth, Byzantine statuettes, vines bearing blue roses coiled over the patio seating. The burbling fountain in the corner looks to be half starship parts, half paleolithic rock covered with cave-art graffiti.
Ella's been bugging me for ages. Everyone's gushing about it, she kept saying. Just the other day … and last week ... She's sighing at the menu now, her eyes flicking from spot to spot, her cheeks pressing back into their dimples. I'm staring at the prices: eight bucks for the tiny (“Hapsburg Court”) cookies or one cup of (“Warring States Period”) tea? The prices soar up from there. The menu itself is a touch screen under a tattered book cover. I've watched the couples at other tables tap the screen, flip the cover closed, then wait for an astro-waiter to glide in with some small, fragrant novelty.
“I'm baffled,” I tell Ella. “Some of these, um, delicacies seem justified by wordplay, some seem like they might be vaguely historically accurate, but others seem completely random. Incan sandwiches? Polynesian muesli?”
Ella seems too enamored to respond. I scroll through the pages quickly, end up on the last page, which begins with something called "Lift Off" that costs approximately one-third of my monthly pay. I flip just as quickly back to the beginning of the menu.
“Ooh, we've got to get some Persian Empire soldier's gruel,” Ella says. “And maybe some Iroquois herb tea to wash it down.” She looks up at me, and I shrug. She sticks out her tongue and taps her menu.
I watch a number materialize in the top right corner of my screen. She taps again for the drinks. The number adjusts itself higher. When she flips the cover of her menu shut, I feel my jaw muscles relax. We both slide our menus to the side of the table.
Ella squints at me. “Are we going to have one of those serious relationship discussions soon?”
“Why are you asking me?”
“You usually initiate them,” she says. “I think it's part of your gender birthright. You get to scratch your balls, swing heavy weapons around, and initiate monthly discussions about the state of the relationship.”
“I think you're confusing your gender norms.”
“I'm not trying to be smart-alecky, or whatever the term is,” she says, then pouts a little.
If Ella gets imprecise with her language, it's usually a bad sign. I do a quick mental review of the past week. Did I forget to pick her up somewhere? Leave a pile of crusty dishes in the sink? Insist too forcefully that she brush her teeth after oral sex? All of the above? Unfortunately, I don't retain much of that sort of information. As Maya Angelou once said, screw the details of the world, I only remember how they make me feel.
“We're in a time machine now,” Ella says, “but do you know what the date is in the world out there?”
I glance around the patio, taking in the clear soup on the table to our left and the three women in black pantsuits at the table beyond that until I'm sure of the implications.
“Hold on,” I say. “You declared that we should do away with anniversaries!”
“Well, sure,” she says, “after you went on a twenty-minute rant about how arbitrary and ridiculous they are.” She looks around and mimes shooting an arrow at the giant sloth's broad, furry chest. “Anyway, that's just context, not something I'm bringing up for its own sake.” Something about her behavior is still nagging at me. She seems distracted from her own conversation, which is also un-Ella-like.
Then there it is: the golden glimmer in the corner of my eye. One of the silent space humanoids is beside our table, setting our gruel and tea in front of us. I take a close look, but the visor is completely opaque from this end. The humanoid recedes, and I consider the gruel sitting in its bowl between us.
“Very fragrant gruel,” I note. Ella squints at me, looks down at the gruel, and nods.
“I guess we should eat some now,” I go on, waiting for some sort of reaction from her. She frowns, picks up her fork and scoops up a small, soggy chunk.
It's pretty amazing gruel. Such delicately mixed flavors. Cinnamon? Cloves? It's no wonder the Empire could quash so many rebellions and retain so many soldiers. We eat it in uncharacteristic silence, sipping our slightly bitter teas and eavesdropping on the next table's conversation about some scandal at the farmer's market involving produce from Walmart.
“What should we do?” Ella asks when the bowl is cleared, looking at me, her fork tines tapping her bottom lip.
“Is that a broad status of the relationship question?”
“No,” she says, “I mean about food. Are you full? I'm not full, but it's kind of expensive, right? Should we get something else?”
I wince and drag my menu back over. My goal, I tell myself, is to find something that sounds filling and that's economically priced, but without seeming too obviously cheap. Not the cheapest, or the second-cheapest item on the menu, but in the third- or fourth-cheapest range.
As I scroll through the menu, an odd little section catches my eye. In what looks like smaller font, down beneath "Ottoman Hors d'oeuvres," is a heading that reads Childhood.
“Hey, Ella,” I say and flip my screen around.
“Huh,” she says. “Whose childhood?”
The items read:
“They leave things pretty vague,” she says.
“A lot of wiggle room,” I agree. “I think I have to try it.”
“Look at you! Wait, are there some hidden cameras here? Am I on Misers Gone Wild?”
Ha ha. I sulk and tap "Hot Meal" on the touch screen, watching the number in the top corner blur and come back into focus thirty dollars higher.
I run the calculations in my head. If we don't eat out for a month, and cook with a lot of beans and lentils, this night should be doable. If I can convince Ella to take the bus to class, that'll help too, shave a little off the gas bill. What we should do is just cancel the Internet. Fifty dollars a month! We can get it at a coffee shop. Of course, then you have to pay the guilt tax of a two-dollar cup of coffee, and if you do that five days a week, for two people, shit, that's eighty bucks a month. Now if Ella could keep hold of a part-time job …
Our mute celestial waitress (or is this a different one?) arrives again with a plate of goulash. The look of it doesn't call any immediate response from my memory, but I do remember my mother making a goulash over noodles like this, so that's relatively accurate at least. I scoop a portion of it into the gruel bowl for Ella and then take my first bite.
The mind-clearing familiarity arrives in two stages. The very first taste sends a flash of recognition, like a little flare, up into some ancient, primitive part of my brain. Tomato, onion, black pepper, paprika, pork, everything just how I remember, down to the consistency of the noodles between my teeth. The fullness of my astonishment, and the accompanying deep unease, seeps in over time as the following bites confirm a deep resonance with my childhood dish. Stray fragments—red carpet, my mother's hands on a serving spoon, the sound of my father's sneeze—intrude briefly, surfacing with the surges of taste-memory.
“So?” Ella asks, and I eat steadily on, my mind filling and emptying with each bite.
When I finish the last of my portion, I'm struck by the image of my mother standing in the kitchen, scrubbing a pot clean, grave-dirt visible between the sleeves of her shirt and the yellow latex gloves. That doesn't even make sense, since she was cremated, not buried. What a mess my mind is. I'm trembling a little, so I open my mouth, as I do in most troubling situations.
“My mom made this.”
“I mean, it's just like my mom made this. They must have some complicated system for individualizing these meals.”
“Yeah,” Ella says, “they probably do some crazy Internet thing using your name from the reservation, or even do an image search after you walk in.”
“Sure,” I say, feeling a little better. “Those hidden cameras. And then they've got some algorithm.”
“Exactly, an algorithm to comb your social media and cut out all those posts about pop stars and hangovers and get down to that one time that your childhood friend tweeted a reference to your mother's cooking.”
“Of course, that would just tell them what she made, not how she made it.”
“Well, what if she blogged her recipe? Or even emailed it to a friend. I mean, Gmail's an open book these days, and … ”
This is what we do. It's the ongoing project of our relationship, transforming the small mysteries of our lives into complex systems of nonsense and conspiracy. We get to create the world while showing off our accumulation of stray information. The work of bullshitters and artists. But that taste is still hanging around, some tiny particles lodged between my back teeth or in some little folds in the skin of my cheeks. I push my finger onto the plate to pick up the remaining red smears, transfer them to my mouth one fingertip at a time, while Ella goes on.
God, things pass by. I'm only thirty, but I'm thirty! Dead mother. Thinning hair. Chronic aversion to long-term life goals. Genetic combination XYZ passed through situations A and B, divided by not-quite-poverty and an occasional, and unnatural, sensitivity to random events … equals? Sure, I've never studied much math or science, but I have decades of experience with self-absorption and self-analysis. A plate of goulash and I'm reeling. This is some sort of crisis in slow motion. I barely know why I feel like crying. Where's my mommy—is that it? Why can't I figure out what I want and set after it? That just leaves How, What, and Who to wrap up the questions.
“Hello! Time Machine receptionist Ella calling. Come in.”
“I'm having one of those moments of existential confusion and bleak self-appraisal,” I say. “I feel warped. Everything is scrambled.”
“Existentially scrambled eggs,” Ella says. “That could go on our menu at our Existential Restaurant, which, for reasons of idealogical purity, can never exist. Nor not exist.”
“OK,” she says. We dip into a little bubble of silence under the murmur of the other tables and the clicks and taps of spoon, fork, cup, plate.
The space waiters could be anyone under those baffling golden orbs. Studying the bare feet, I'm pretty sure they're the wrong shade, and too young, to be my mother's. But who knows what reincarnation does to your feet? The burble of the fountain drips over everything. What is it about water? I've always wanted to live by some body of water. To have a pond in the front yard! Oh, I could dive in every morning, plunge through that other plane and come up renewed.
“Maybe I should switch to a history degree,” Ella declares. “Or no, a digital media degree—they have those, right?—and then I could study the crazy frontiers of data mining, get a job unearthing the dark secrets of the rapacious world of advertising. Or I could advise places like this on how to extract intimate data and use it to wow their customers and wring more cash from them.”
Ella's on year seven of her undergrad career. I think she's been a semester away from graduating for the entire two years we've been dating. For all I know, she came out of the womb fifteen credits shy of a degree in paleontology, or neurobotany, or whatever latest fancy caught her attention while she was floating in amniotic fluid. I gather Mom and Dad took on the loans for the first four and a half years of college. They must have had good foresight, though, and cut her off after that. The rest of the loans have gone in her own name, with the last set graced by my co-signature, for whatever that's worth. With her loans and my magnificently low pay, together we're a four-legged debt perpetuating machine.
Usually this kind of economic train of thought never fails to deliver me back to the station of minor life anxieties. But not now. Debt! Ha! I might become one of those people who just starts walking one night, ends up on the other side of town, keeps going, crosses the state, the country, oblivious to the TV cameras circling around, surviving off the sandwiches and coffee delivered by fans who recognize their own desire to escape their shabby lives. Then, when the land runs out, I'll become one of those people who sets out to swim across the ocean because, hell, what else is there in the world?
Ella is watching me with that squinty, troubled face again. She scoops up her last bit of goulash and puts the fork to her mouth. Then she puts it down again and scrunches her face up some more.
“This is terrible.”
“Really? It throws me into existential uncertainty, makes me question my life, and you think—”
“No, I haven't gotten to it yet. I have to tell you something. I keep chickening out.”
“That's a terrible beginning to a monologue,” I say. “Do you like Stone Age cuisine? Let's get the charred aurochs.”
“I'm a soulless bitch.”
“I think you're lovely. And your dimples!”
“Just shut up for a second and let me tell you. When Mike stayed with us last year—”
No, no, no. “That was nice. He seems like a nice guy.”
“I cheated on you.”
Those last words come out in a hiss that slithers across the table and through the hairs on the back of my neck. They sound oddly malevolent. I think she was trying to strike some volume balance between privacy and overpowering my babble. Now what? I'm rubbing my neck. Why did we come here? Who cares about the fourth dimension or the flavors of childhood? She's looking at me like she expects me to get up and walk out, or else wail and fling our plates at the floor.
The thing is, I already knew. I found out the day it happened. One of them (I'm assuming Mike) left the story out for me to read. It only takes one look at a soggy condom and clumps of another man's semen in your toilet bowl to tell the whole complex narrative of betrayal and lust. Sure, the knowledge of it thrashed in my chest for a while like some miserable, violent animal. Sure, I felt like throwing up when I ate. And when I went to bed, and woke up, and looked at her face. But over time I came to terms with that knowledge. The animal curled up and went to sleep. I liked our life in our little townhouse filled with second-hand furniture. I liked Thai Food Tuesday and her sense of humor and the shape of her breasts. Everything else in my life might be half-assed and uncertain, but this relationship was solid, this was good.
So it was fine—as long as it stayed a secret. Because how messed-up and emasculating would it be if I knew she'd cheated and was too pathetic to break up with her? If I knew she'd fucked another guy, pulled his snake-like cock inside of her, rolled around moaning with him in our bed while I was grocery shopping, reading the fucking labels of packages of ground meat and cans of beans—if I knew all that and then still wanted to keep on dating her? As long as I "didn't know," I was faultless. I wasn't spineless and pitiful, just innocent. She handled her guilt on her own. Maybe she even treated me better out of guilt. As long as it never came up, everything was OK, everything was perfect.
“What?” I sound feeble, broken, and I guess that's about right for the moment. Does it matter if I keep pretending I didn't know?
“I know,” she says. “It kills me. When you were out shopping we were sitting together and it just washed up on me. Just this sudden, I don't know, sex madness. Suddenly it was happening, his pasty body, and … it didn't even seem real. And afterward, I felt like myself again, only more horrible than usual. And I thought I'd either tell you right away or I'd seal it away forever, Fort Knox, or, you know what I mean.
“And while I was deciding, I thought about how you always said you'd want to know if someone had cheated on you, even if it was a terrible mistake and they'd never do it again, even if they were the best thing that had happened to you. But then I wondered if you really meant that, if you really knew yourself. The self-justification started justifying itself, and of course I was selfish, and … ”
I want to shut her up, but I don't know if I can at this point. If this were news, I'd be motivated by shock and the freshness of the shame. I'd rip her apart. Maybe I would leap up, fling some cutlery around the room and storm out. Now there's just … nothing. Why would this happen now, after all this time? The gaping void that looked up at me from the toilet bowl, the void I carefully avoided giving voice to, the void I slowly, assiduously, forgot about, has suddenly emerged and swallowed this evening. It's swallowed the post-meal analysis on the ride home, the traded catcalls as we slip into pajamas, the battle over toothbrushes, the comfortable sex. It's swallowed the whole night, our dreams and satisfactions, and all the nights beyond it.
Then the overhead lights cut out, and the patio space is lit with only the dim glow of the ground lights around the fountain. The fragments of booster rocket reflect a dull red sheen. At the ends of the patio, white screens unfurl, creating something like makeshift walls. Ella's eyebrows rise. Voices are chattering excitedly. Two golden-headed space waiters take poles and draw a screen across the underside of the trellis. When they latch it into place on the other side, the space has become a dimly lit, screened-in room.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” a voice issues from our menus, “the Lift Off sequence has been initiated.”
Heads swivel around, trying to find the magnanimous source of this treat. There's one couple not searching, each just smiling at the other. The guy looks like he farted and is trying not to give it away, some sort of weirdly restrained smile bubbling up on his face. The woman is looking pleasantly astonished, her hand frozen where she was reaching for her glass. Fingers point their way, and then the wall and ceiling screens light up as some hidden projectors hum to life.
Suddenly we're a hundred feet up on some vaguely Earth-like, vaguely futuristic planet. I can see a boxy transport pod maneuvering between the tops of two buildings. Strips of vegetation run alongside a grid of canals. Tiny digital shapes stroll across the bridges that arc over them. On the screen to my left, a nearby skyscraper made of some reflective metal lets us get a glimpse of ourselves. We're a silvery and elegant craft shaped like some aquatic mammal, snub-nosed, sporting curved fins, and flanked by a pair of bright red booster rockets. Above us, a few stray clouds, a blue moon hanging in purplish, twilight sky. Our future is clear. We're taking this roomful of misery, plus our sloth and antique bicycles, into space.
“All systems go,” the menus chime. “Are all passengers properly secured and prepared?”
Somebody shouts a tentative “Woo!” and gets immediately shushed.
“Lift off in ten … nine … ”
This is where Ella would have clutched my hands in mock trepidation and glee.
“Six … five … ”
This is where I would have whispered a joke involving rocket ships and the male sex organ.
“Two … one … ”
This is when the sound of rocket engines kicks in. We can see the reflections of flames beneath us in the mirror-like building. The images on the screens simulate a little shaking, the clouds and the city shivering side to side. Then we're lifting off, the future-scape growing smaller, the whorls of galaxies appearing in the growing darkness above us. Amid the gasps and applause, the magnanimous man at table happiness is down on one knee, tiny ring box cupped in his palm. The woman's got a hand over her mouth, one knee bouncing up and down.