Friday, March 15, 2019

Life in Two Minutes

a short story by Bill Adler

“Hi.”

Quinn was daydreaming when the girl appeared out of nowhere. She stood in front of the late afternoon sun, which surrounded her with an expansive, red halo.

He looked around him. The path through the park he took from his office to the subway station was usually empty, as it was this afternoon. Except for the girl.

He squinted, then blinked a few times to dislodge the blinding beams from his eyes. Something in her smile looked familiar. But why would a teenage girl smile at a random middle-aged man? Quinn looked down, in part to refresh his eyes, but also to remind himself that his fifty-seven-year-old belly was decades past anything this young girl would have an interest in. He noted that his waistline eclipsed his shoes.

I must have dropped my wallet and she's returning it.

Still, a smile, whether genuine or not, was always a welcome sight, especially when worn by such a beautiful creature. Her flowing, chestnut hair floated over her shoulders with the grace and nonchalance of youth. Her eyes, wide with delight, beamed as she smiled even more broadly at Quinn.

The Grand Seiko 3180, where the magic began.
“Hello, Quinn.”

Quinn stopped breathing. He peered into her eyes.

“You do remember me,” she said.

His jaw loosened, his leg muscles stood on the cusp of dissolving. The color of his face turned ashen before burning like a crimson sun.

“I…”

The girl stepped toward Quinn and wrapped his hand in hers, her warmth igniting a spark that touched every neuron in his brain.

“Janet?” It wasn’t a question, even though Quinn’s inflection made it sound that way. “Janet Oachs.” His head swiveled like a weather vane. “No, no, no. You must be Janet’s daughter or something.” Quinn’s brow grew furrows. “But you look exactly like her.” Even as he spoke them, Quinn knew his words were mistaken.

“It’s me. Janet Oachs, here in the flesh.”

“I don’t understand—” Quinn didn’t know how to complete this sentence.


~~~

Quinn had met Janet only a few days before the end of senior year. It was a typical rainy May day in Seattle. He had stopped in an office supply store a few blocks from school. He wasn’t sure why, because he didn’t need more school supplies. While college was only a few months away, he felt as if his school days were over forever. He was free. He just liked office supply stores. .

As he was leaving, a voice as soft as kittens’ fur said, “Hi.” A hand touched his arm. Quinn spun around.

“Oh, hi.”

“I’m Janet.”

She's perfect, Quinn thought. The Mona Lisa has nothing on her.

“I’m Quinn.”

“I’m Janet.”

Quinn felt his cheeks rise high. “I’m Quinn.” He smiled back and chuckled before he could stop himself.

“Do you mind if I share your umbrella to Westlake Station? I left mine in my locker. That is, if you’re walking to Westlake. And if you don’t mind sharing an umbrella.”

Quinn tripped over his words as if he’d been jogging through a forest of fallen branches while wearing sandals, but managed to blurt out two sentences: “I am. I don’t mind.”

Janet took Quinn’s arm in hers, keeping their bodies close and dry under his large black umbrella.

On their walk to the station, and between talking about college, music, their future plans, hopes, and dreams, Quinn crafted the exact words he was going to use to ask Janet out. Two conversations running at the same time — one out loud with her, the other in his mind — almost stalled his brain, like a car deprived of oxygen and fuel at the same time. But he did it, just before they boarded separate trains.

“I like garlic,” Janet said, after kissing him.

She leaned over and pressed her lips against his in the middle of dinner at the Olive Garden on their second date. “Garlic isn’t going to keep me away. Nothing is going to keep me away from you, Quinn Saly.”

“I—”

“I know you don’t know what to say, so I’ll say it for you. I’m all yours, for as long as we have.” She kissed him again. “Even if you order pizza with anchovies. Can I ask you...do you feel the same way? I mean, we’ve only known each other a week, Quinn, but I dunno, I’m smitten. Can I say smitten?”

“Yes, you can say that. And me, too.” It was Quinn’s turn. He kissed her. “For as long as we have, I’m yours.”

“Why?”

“I feel good with you. I feel happy, and I think I’m going to become even happier.”

“That’s good enough for me.” Janet pointed to the pizza. “Now eat more garlic.”

For the next three months, Quinn and Janet were as inseparable as the tides and the moon. Movies, dinners, reading in the rain in the park under Quinn’s umbrella, lots of double garlic pizza, shopping, sampling Seattle’s ice cream shops, and long walks were their life. But time flew faster than the swiftest arrow as each day carried them closer to the inevitable goodbye.

“This should never happen to anyone else” were the last words Janet said to Quinn thirty years ago. He could do no more than nod back. He didn't even try to say yes because the dam holding in his tears would have fractured if he opened his mouth.

She was going to Oxford, he to Pomona College, a continent and ocean apart. Had they tried to keep their relationship alive, they would have become each other's tormentor, no less cruel than Satan himself. Even at seventeen, Quinn understood that a relationship in colleges eight time zones apart was as certain to end in disaster as an asteroid on a collision course toward Earth. He had paid attention in English literature class. He knew how hearts worked.

That day was goodbye. Quinn inhaled a few deep breaths, searching for oxygen. A full-body shudder undid his paralysis. He unbuckled his watch. As he handed it to Janet, a single tear from each eye fell onto the watch.

“I want you to have this. Not to remember me, but because when you wear it, we’ll always be in sync. We’ll laugh and cry at the same movies. We’ll enjoy the same books. We’ll drink wine at the same moment.  Heck, maybe we’ll both even get the same type of dog years from now.”

It was Janet’s turn to cry. “Yeah.” She managed to force a smile, but that didn’t stop her tears. “We’ll always be in sync.”

“I’m going to go now. I’d better go,” Quinn said. “Goodbye, babe.”

“This should never happen to anyone else.”

~~~

Now, Janet raised her wrist and displayed the watch.

“My watch,” he said.

“Your Grand Seiko, which you gave to me. Do you remember?”

“I remember. But how—”

“You said we’d always be in sync. We were, we are, in more ways we could have imagined at the time. The watch you bought, the watch you cried on, the watch I never wiped your tears off of, was manufactured in 1989—”

“Yeah, the year I bought it.”

“Only it wasn’t. Or it shouldn’t have been. In 1989, Seiko was making only Grand Seiko quartz watches. This is a mechanical watch. Seiko didn’t revive their Grand Seiko mechanical line until 1998.”

“I don’t understand.”

Seventeen-year-old Janet put her arm around Quinn and leaned into him. Quinn shivered with the same intensity he had when she’d first taken his arm the day they met, in May 1989.

“There’s no time to explain.” Janet looked into Quinn’s eyes. “I can only be here for two minutes. Then I have to return to 1989. You can come with me. You will be seventeen again, too. We can have the life together we missed out on thirty years ago. We can have the second chance nobody gets. But you have to decide now.” Janet looked at her watch. “A minute’s gone already. We have one minute left.”

“I want to, but…” Quinn paused and took in another breath as if it were going to be his last.

“I have two kids, a boy and a girl. I can’t just leave them.” But I can. They’re grown. They’ve got families of their own. They don’t need me anymore — a hard reality to accept, but it’s the truth. Daddy's job is over. They’re happy, profoundly happy. Shouldn’t I be happy, too?

When was the last time Quinn had been happy? He and his wife hadn’t been intimate in eight years. No kissing or holding hands, and certainly not sex. They shared a bed for sleeping and brief small talk, nothing else. They ate meals in front of the TV. A roommate for the rest of my life. Vacations were tepid events. He enjoyed wandering aimlessly without a guide book. Kate liked art museums and spent all day in them. They each did their own things, meeting up at dinner time for a half-hour devoid of meaningful conversation. They had once tried a beach vacation in Nevis; Quinn had spent his days and nights drinking tropical cocktails while his wife did who knew what.

At home at night, he mostly read. It passed the time until sleep.

Quinn patted his belly. To be seventeen again, thin, lithe, athletic. I’d know how to prevent this belly from ever happening. I could do it. For Janet, I would do it. 

God, to love again and be loved. To feel a smile building inside, ready to explode whenever she walked into the room. To sleep holding each other. To begin and end the day together and to dream together in between.

“Time’s almost up, Quinn. You need to decide. Forty-five seconds.” Janet circled her finger around the watch’s steel bezel.

Quinn remembered jumping off a high cliff during a summer trip to the Mediterranean, where the dazzling sunlight had dotted the water’s surface with diamonds. He had hemmed and hawed for nearly thirty minutes, watching other kids jump first. After a dozen kids had not just survived but hooted and hollered with wild abandon during and after each jump, Quinn had leaped off that cliff into the turquoise water, too.

“Thirty seconds, sweetheart. Come with me. Love me again.” She rested her head against Quinn's arm.

“I need to call my kids, say goodbye.” Tears welled in Quinn’s eyes. He was out of breath, as if he’d run a hundred meters.

A Grand Seiko 4522-7000, another great Grand Seiko
for time travelers. 
“No time, Quinn. And even if there was, what would you tell them?” Janet twisted her wrist and looked at her watch, Quinn’s watch.

“Ten seconds, sweetie.” Janet’s thoughts echoed in his mind. I want to be with you forever.

Quinn’s eyes lit like there was a fire inside them. He took a step forward. “I’m coming.”

Janet tapped on the watch’s crystal, then pulled Quinn by the hand toward a shimmering glass wall three or so meters high and about two meters wide. The glass looked like a frosted window with thick rain pouring down the far side.

Janet spoke quickly. “The doorway to 1989.” Holding Quinn’s hand tightly, she stepped through the doorway, glowing an iridescent blue as Quinn watched her from the other side of time. Just as she was about to pull him through, he shook off her hand. She snapped backwards. Quinn watched Janet tumble. Before she hit the ground, she mouthed a word he couldn’t hear, but which he understood: “Why?”

Quinn’s face collapsed. Janet and the doorway were gone.  He crumpled to his knees, his words barely sounding like any language at all, “I’m sorry. I’m sorry.”

















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