“I beg your pardon?” I manage to sputter, following behind her to break the boxes down into smaller pieces that will actually fit inside the bin. My toddler, Johnny, is in bed already, but my mother insists that we have “girl time” at the end of each one of her unannounced visits.
“We all do.” she says breezily. “You, me, your sister, your dad. Especially your dad!”
“Okay.” I say hesitantly, hoping that this conversation will just die off if I don’t engage too much.
“I mean, if you’re going to have another baby, you need to be in better shape, don’t you?” she takes the dishes off the table and carries them to the sink, places them on the draining board with the clean cereal bowls from this morning, with the wine glasses from last night that are waiting reproachfully to be put away.
I wait until she pours herself another glass of diet cola before I get up and rinse the dishes, leaving them in the sink for later.
My mother has, thankfully, moved on to talk about my cousin’s new job, and how she’ll be moving closer to the rest of the family. If you listen very carefully for the way she breathes between sentences, you can hear that my cousin is leaving her partner, and our whole family is dying to know if she’ll go “back to men” when she starts dating again.
While she talks and breathes and drinks her diet cola, I stare at my reflection in the dark kitchen window and quietly hate how round my face is.
My husband Rafe comes back from walking the dog about an hour later.
He gives me a look when he sees that my mother is still here. I’m sure I have an unread text message telling me to get rid of her.
Rafe puts the dog to bed and goes into the living room. I can hear the TV go on, the recliner pop back.
“Want something to drink, babe?” I call.
Faintly, he grunts. The memory of how he used to greet me when he came home, no matter what I was doing or who was in the house, stings like antiseptic on an open wound.
My mother pauses her current monologue to cock an eyebrow at me, a smug smile passing across her face.
“A good wife wouldn’t have to ask.” she tells me.
I take a beer from the fridge and walk away without replying. If I speak, I might let spill the flood of vitriol I’ve been holding back, starting with all the things she’s done and said that have driven splintering wedges into the cracks of my marriage. My face, thankfully, remains impassive.
“I’m sorry” I whisper as I hand Rafe the bottle. “She’ll be gone soon, I swear.”
He doesn’t look at me. He grunts again.
I see — or rather shove — my mother to the door, and find Rafe lying in bed staring at his phone.
“I’m sorry.” I say again, lamely.
“I’m not gonna tell you your mom can’t come to our house.” he says flatly, not taking his eyes off of the screen. The argument is so old that it sits like an invalid dementia patient in the corner — nearly irrelevant, but not dead yet. Inside, I imagine what it would be like if he looked me in the eye and said what he really felt, what he really thought. If he would just tell me how to fix the broken bridge separating us from each other.
I sigh, undressing and carefully placing my dirty clothes and the ones he has discarded on the floor and the back of the chair in the corner in the hamper.
“Did you hear what she said about dieting?” I ask, closing my eyes wearily, as I run a hairbrush through my messy curls.
Rafe makes a half-hearted jerk of the head and torso that could be interpreted by the generous as a sympathetic shrug. Standing there topless at the end of the bed, hair loose around my shoulders, I give him a shy smile.
“I mean, I’m not so bad, right?”
He looks me in the face then, his eyes startlingly focused.
“You’re the one that keeps letting her tear you down like this, I don’t know how you can expect me to rebuild your self-esteem every time Momzilla comes tearing through.”
I turn away abruptly, going to the dresser and hurriedly throwing on an old pair of flannel pajama pants and an oversized t-shirt. Rafe sighs, and the bed springs groan as he gets up, tossing his phone on the nightstand with a soft clatter.
He stands behind me as I finish dressing, just within arms’ reach. I want him to close that gap so badly, to wrap himself around me and tell me that everything is fine, really. For a moment, I think that he might go as far as to stroke my hair, or take my hand.
“I’m sorry,” he mutters, “of course you’re beautiful. You’re wonderful. I love you.”
His voice sounds nearly ashamed, as if saying those things costs him something. His honesty?
“It’s fine.” I say, in an overly bright voice. “You’ve had a long day, and I know—”
I know you hate my mother? I know you aren’t attracted to me anymore? I know you wish we weren’t behind on the mortgage and that the shower weren’t clogged and that the dog would stop peeing on the welcome mat, and that somehow you’ve decided all these things are my fault?
“I’m doing my best,” Rafe says quietly, almost defensively, then in a softer tone, “we both are, right? We’re doing the best we can with what we’ve got.”
Another memory slithers into my mind, fangs dripping with venom. A younger, thinner me and a smiling, warm Rafe. The tiny apartment that didn’t heat properly and flooded easily, and the way we laughed huddling together under a pile of thrift-store quilts, the way we synchronized when damming the leaky floorboards against the third day of a rainstorm.
“Yeah…” my voice trails off, unconvincing and barely present.
Rafe retreats, falling onto the bed, holding the phone in front of his face like a shield.
I sit on the couch with my laptop. There’s a mostly-empty package of Oreos next to me; it was full when I started. I told Rafe I had to finish something for work when I put my pajamas on, but I’ve just been window-shopping on a half-dozen or so websites. Retail therapy by proxy. Not that my actual work isn’t demanding my attention, but… I admit to myself that work is the one place where I can put my own needs before everyone else’s demands.
It’s nearly midnight when I click an ad by accident. For a second I’m positive I just downloaded a virus because in no way can it be a serious ad.
CLOSEOUT SALE — DISPOSABLE TIME MACHINES
I’m relieved and slightly incredulous when I’m not suddenly faced with a million pop up ads, but only redirected to a listing on a popular e-commerce site.
There’s no picture, but the product description is pretty unbelievable:
Portable time displacement device, good for revisiting one moment on your personal timeline, return trip to present included. For use of one person only. Warning: residual memories of alternate timelines are probable after-effects of product use. Biodegradable, 100% eco-friendly.
I snort, blowing chocolate crumbs all over my keyboard.
I scroll down to read the reviews, expecting either gullible idiots with disappointed hopes or trolls who fancy themselves in on the joke.
[Verified Purchaser] The Disposable Time Machine allowed me to go back and tell my past self not to start a relationship with the man that cheated on me. 5 Stars.
Ugh. Trolls with really bad taste, apparently.
[Verified Purchaser] I was skeptical, but this machine actually allowed me to say goodbye to my father before his fatal heart attack. However, my past self was not able to persuade him to go to a hospital preventing his death altogether which was my original goal. 3 Stars.
[Anonymous] I used this machine to go back and allow my little brother to drown in the pool when we were kids. If he had lived, he would have been diagnosed with inoperable stage 4 pancreatic cancer a year later. My mother would have ruined her health caring for him and none of my siblings or I would be able to afford college. No rating given.
I close the laptop for a second, feeling sick.
I close my eyes and try to breathe deeply, try to let my mind clear.
There’s a small part of me that wonders what part of my history I could change. If Rafe had taken that job. If I hadn’t been in that accident. If Rafe had been able to get that scholarship. If we had never met because I was confident enough to take that study abroad course… If, if, if.
I open the laptop again. I stare at the screen.
I let the mouse hover over “Add to Cart”, an unbearable tease that goes on for a long, silent moment. I picture some version of myself that knows about fashion and flies to New York for business and has never worried about having a second chin. Or a third miscarriage. I picture someone who doesn’t clean up after everyone, who has a spine like polished steel and comes home from work feeling like she accomplished something bigger than staving off foreclosure for another month.
As though by divine appointment, Rafe lets out a eardrum-rupturing snore at the same time that Johnny wakes with a startled cry.
I close the laptop, hurrying to bring my son water and quiet him before his father wakes.
When he’s been sufficiently calmed and kissed, I go back to the couch, carefully brush all the cookie crumbs into my hand, and dump them into the wastebasket on my way to bed.
The next day I bring Johnny to my parents’ house. My mother is out, shopping with my sister. My dad makes pancakes in weird shapes, sprinkling in chocolate chips, alternating making silly faces and monkey noises at Johnny. Anything to make him grin in his little booster seat, where he sits stuffing blueberries and banana slices in his face.
I’m sipping a cup of coffee — mostly milk, actually, my dad likes his roast so dark you need a flashlight — and my mind keeps wandering back to the weird ad from the night before. I know it had to be one of the April Fool’s pages that never got taken down. But I can’t help but leaf through the pages of my own life, wondering what edits I would make if I had the chance.
“Hey Dad,” I ask absently, reaching for the can of whipped cream to pile more whipped cream onto my pancakes, “if you could change something in your past, what would it be?”
Dad blows a raspberry at Johnny and looks back at me, his head cocked at a strange angle.
“I dunno, babe.” he says slowly. “I guess I’m pretty happy with the way things are right now. Do you want a little more coffee?”
I nod. He lifts the old pot from its ancient burner and pours a bit into my mug. He brings the milk jug from the fridge, a thoughtful look still on his face.
“I guess I could always go back and tell myself about some big stock market thing, or all the Super Bowl winners or something? Take you guys on a nice vacation or help you pay off more of your student loans.”
“There’s nothing you would do for yourself?” I ask without thinking, still off in my own world. He shakes his head.
“What do I need?” he shrugs, looking fondly at me, and over at Johnny who is determinedly reaching for an open bottle of maple syrup. “As long as you all are happy, that’s enough for me.”
I put the maple syrup out of Johnny’s reach. He squawks in wordless indignation, but Grandpa is there in the nick of time to distract with a bite of pancake. I look at the two of them fondly as they smile at each other, one face smeared with chocolate, the other dusted with flour. But as my mind aimlessly wanders through all the might-have-beens it can summon, my eyes lose focus. I don’t see them anymore.
I see that person that Rafe still runs to kiss after he walks in the door. I see someone who doesn’t dread holidays because they inevitably involve someone storming out or locking themselves in the bathroom, crying hysterically. I see someone who doesn’t have to think about her husband or her child and is free to go off and find all the different potential versions of herself, picking and choosing parts until she Frankensteins together the perfect life.
“What if I’m not happy?” I say softly to myself.
Johnny is pulling Dad’s reading glasses off his head, so Dad doesn’t hear.
After Johnny is in bed, and Rafe is asleep, I go back to read more reviews. The page isn’t hard to find — I don’t even have to use my internet history. It’s the first thing that comes up when I search for “personal time machine”.
I comb through the reviews, looking for a skeptic or a dissatisfied customer, or even a link to Snopes or some other site to debunk the whole thing. Before I know it, I’m at the end. Down in the company contact information, I spot something interesting.
Still on the fence? Try our one-time-only free sample via company associate!
What did that mean? I’m too curious now to resist clicking the link.
A chat window opens.
Megan: Hello, how can I help you this evening?
Cust19423: Hi, what is the free sample?
Megan: The free sample is a small-scale reusable device that one of our company associates can use to show you the effectiveness of this line of products. I’d be happy to offer you a demonstration if you have the time to answer a few quick questions?
Cust19423: Um, sure.
Megan: Ok, great! Please confirm that the following information is correct:
The next message contains my full name, date of birth, address, Rafe’s full name, Jonny’s full name, my place of employment, and my current job title. I have to stifle a shriek, and begin typing furiously.
Cust19423: WHAT THE HELL?! How do you have all my information??? How do you know all that?? Did you hack my computer? Do you have my SSN too???
Megan: Please remain calm, ma’am. When you clicked on the offer of free sample, you did agree to disclose some personal information, but I assure you our system is completely secure.
Cust19423: This seems really shady.
Megan: If you would like to discontinue the free sample, you can disconnect at any time. Would you like to stop?
Cust19423: No… I want to keep going.
Megan: I’m happy to help you with that. Can you please choose from one of the following options:
Cust19423: What is this for?
Megan: I will be making a minor, completely positive adjustment to your timeline in one of these three categories. Please choose one.
Cust19423: A, I guess. Diet.
Megan: That sounds great. Please wait one moment.
Megan: We hope that you have enjoyed your free sample and that you will consider purchasing one of our full products or experiences before the closeout sale ends! Have a great night!
The chat window closes.
“I didn’t screenshot anything!” I groan to myself. “No one at the police station will believe me, and without a police report, none of the credit agencies will take this seriously either.”
I let my head fall back against the couch.
After a few deep breaths, I set my laptop aside and go to my secret stash of snacks in the kitchen. There are a few Oreos left, I know… but they’re gone. I mutter to myself, wondering if Rafe got to them. Then I notice that next to the pantry, the recycling is empty. No pizza boxes.
I whip my phone out and scroll through the pictures. There’s Johnny eating pancakes but the picture of my perfect plate… gone. I freeze. I slowly run my hands over my stomach, my thighs, my chin. I feel different.
I run back to the laptop. My credit card is in my hand faster than I thought possible. I pay extra for overnight shipping. I leave a really nice review for Megan.
I can’t stop staring at myself in the mirror the next morning. I run to the bathroom at work at least a dozen times, unable to believe the way my clothes fit, actually fit my body. It feels like everyone is smiling at me, everyone is complimenting me. This is how they treat me even though as far as they know, I’ve always looked like this.
I can’t stop the excitement building in me — Rafe left for work before my alarm went off, swapping to the early shift as he does every few months. He’ll already be there when I get home. I call my dad and arrange for him to get Johnny from daycare — surprise date night, I say. Dad sounds surprised, but happily agrees. I float through the rest of the day, giddy with the memories of the candlelit dinners of our first year in our first apartment. And then, I think to myself, when Rafe goes to pick up Johnny, I’ll cancel that order. I don’t need anything else.
When I get home, I almost dance through the door.
“Hello,” I call out in my most seductive voice, “anybody home?”
Rafe makes some unintelligible response from the recliner.
“Hi, you.” I lean over him and kiss the tip of his nose.
“Hey.” he says, seeming slightly perturbed, “Where’s Johnny?”
“With Dad,” I say breezily, “I thought it would be nice to have dinner out, just the two of us.”
Rafe lets out a surprised, incredulous laugh.
“Out? With what money?” his face looks darker somehow, “We can’t afford ‘out’ right now, or did you somehow forget that?”
“I’m not talking about some five-star restaurant here,” I said defensively, my mood quickly spoiling, “I just thought—”
“You didn’t think, though!” Rafe gets up from his chair, disgusted, “You never think about the big picture, it’s always a mani-pedi here, and a new toy for Johnny there, and you just don’t process how these things add up!”
“God, Rafe, you act like a date night with your wife is going to get us evicted or something!” I wrap my arms around myself, face burning red.
“Well maybe if you gave me a heads up when you go off on one of these impulsive tears, I’d actually have some input into what was happening in my own life!” he snapped, snatching the dog’s leash from its hook by the door and storming out. Without the dog.
I stand frozen for a minute, my eyes brimming with hot, angry tears. My phone dings, and I scrub at my eyes with the back of my hands.
It’s a picture of Johnny and my mom. Johnny’s wearing a new shirt that says, “Mimi said I could,” his cheek sporting a red lipstick smear.
“Good luck with your little date night.”
“Didn’t work out. Coming to get Johnny.” I text back.
“Oh well,” comes the reply, “A good wife knows when to surprise, and when to plan ahead.”
I grip the phone so tightly my knuckles turn white.
It dings again.
“Package will be delivered tomorrow, 9:30 a.m.”
While I wait for my order to arrive, Johnny sits in my lap, playing with a plastic dinosaur I don’t remember buying for him. He says we bought it at the grocery store. Rafe didn’t come home before I fell asleep, and left before I woke up.
My dad wasn’t there when I picked up Johnny, just my mother, smiling that Cheshire Cat grin. Apparently, there was a very important errand she needed him to run, and a good husband does whatever their wife needs them to.
Johnny’s soft curls tickle my chin as he sings to himself. He smells like soap and the sticky sweetness of fruit. I close my eyes and savor the warmth of his small body leaning against my chest, the sound of his voice.
When the doorbell rings I put Johnny on the floor and he fusses.
I sign for the package and take it quickly, shutting the door behind me. I strew styrofoam and leaflets of instructions in different languages all over the kitchen counters. It assembles so quickly, so easily. Like a pocket radio, almost.
Johnny tugs at my pant leg. I look down at him, frozen. The events of the last few days fly like a blur through my minds’ eye. My only son relegated to a background figure in the most important decision in my life. The weight of the machine in my hand and the pull of his small hands are both agony.
I take a deep breath.
I kiss the top of his head.
“Mommy’s not going anywhere.” I lie.
I turn the dial.