Friday, March 15, 2019

Life in Two Minutes

a short story by Bill Adler


“Hi.”

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

Quinn looked to his left and right. 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.

Quinn squinted, then blinked a few times to dislodge the blinding beams from his eyes. Quinn’s brain’s cells shifted position in an attempt to reorganize themselves into coherence. Something in her smile looked familiar. But why would a seventeen-year-old girl smile at a random forty-seven-year-old man? Quinn looked down, in part to refresh his eyes, but also to remind himself that his forty-seven-year-old belly was decades past anything this young girl could have an interest in. Quinn noted that his waistline eclipsed his shoes.

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

The Grand Seiko 3180, where the magic began.
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.

“Hello, Quinn.”

Quinn stopped breathing. He wondered if his heart stopped beating, too. He peered into her eyes.

“You do remember me,” she said.

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

“I…”

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

“Janet?” It wasn’t a question, even though Quinn’s inflection made it sound that way. “Janet Oachs.” Quinn’s 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. Quinn 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, Quinn felt as if his school days were over forever. He was free. “I just like office supply stores,” Quinn admitted to himself.

As he was leaving the store, 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's cheeks rose high. “I’m Quinn.” He smiled back, and giggled once 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, like he’s 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 Quinn’s 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 Quinn. She had 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.” Janet kissed Quinn 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 Janet. “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 moon. Movies, dinners, reading in the rain in the park under Quinn’s big, black 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. Quinn could do no more than nod back. Quinn didn't even try to reply, “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.

Today was goodbye. Quinn inhaled a few deep breaths, searching for oxygen. A full body shudder undid his paralysis. Quinn unbuckled his watch. As he was handing 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 my love.”

“This should never happen to anyone else.”

~~~

Janet raised her wrist and aimed the watch at Quinn.

“My watch,” Quinn said.

A Grand Seiko 4522-7000, another great Grand Seiko
for time travelers. 
“Your watch. 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 that either of us 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 only making Grand Seiko brand quartz watches. This 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 velocity he had when Janet first took his arm the day they stepped out of the office supply store in May, 1989.

“There’s no time to explain, my love.” 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 was 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 was happy? He and his wife hadn’t been intimate in eight years. Not kissing, not 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 television news. A roommate for the rest of my life. Vacations were tepid events. Quinn 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 to Nevis in the Caribbean; Quinn spent his days and nights drinking tropical drinks while his wife did who knows what.

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

Quinn padded 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 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 not just survived, but hooted and hollered with wild abandon during and after each jump, Quinn 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, like he’d run a hundred meters.

“No time, Quinn. No time. 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 Quinn’s mind. They were the same as Quinn’s. 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, Janet stepped through the doorway, glowing an iridescent blue as Quinn watched her from the other side of time. Just as Janet was about to pull Quinn through the doorway, Quinn shook off Janet’s hand. She snapped backwards. Quinn watched Janet tumble. Before she hit the ground, Janet mouthed a word Quinn couldn’t hear, but which he understood: “Why?”

Quinn’s face collapsed. Janet and the doorway were gone. The grass beneath him recoiled from his salty tears. Quinn crumbled to his knees, his words barely sounding like any language at all, “I’m sorry. I’m sorry.”







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