It’s probably simplest to say that I first met Loren Wells in a club in San Francisco. We’ll set aside for the moment that it wasn’t the first time he’d met me.
It wasn’t the best night of my life. I could barely remember the names of the people who had dragged me there. My borrowed dress was heavy with perspiration and self-consciousness, and in the throes of waning drunkenness I was now scouring my memory for any time when I’d been lonelier. I’d just come from drifting in a jet-lagged haze through three days of bar-graph presentations to lecherous executives and their nose-picking underlings. I’d just been dumped from a distance of 2,580 miles. I was sleepless and tired—and no matter how I’ve always prided myself on needing nothing from anyone, all I’d wanted at the outset of that stupid night was a few degrees of human warmth as I nodded off. I hadn’t cared how I got it.
Three hours of bad pick-up lines later, having realized that I did care after all, I first laid eyes on Loren in the suffocating underground of the club—and something about him put me naturally at ease. Maybe he looked as out of place there as I felt. Maybe his goofy grin had a depth and a sincerity that shone straight through the shallow, lying crowd. Maybe it was just fate.
The first thing he said to me was hard to forget.
“Did you ever hear the one about the two brothers who loved baseball?” he asked me, out of the blue, seeming to swallow something as he did.
“What?” I said in shock.
He grinned wordlessly.
“That’s my favorite joke,” I said, over the throbbing music and the chatter of cocaine conversation. “How did you—?”
“We’ve met,” he said.
“Oh, jeez,” I said apologetically. “I’m sorry. I don’t remember—”
He showed me a dismissive smirk and told me his name. “And you’re . . . Andrea, right?” he added, though I was sure he was faking his uncertainty.
“Yeah,” I said. “When did we meet? It couldn’t have been here in San Fran.”
He shook his head and said nothing.
We chatted long enough for me to see the wit in him. He was confident, too, but it was more than that; all the awkward carefulness that shrouds the interactions of strangers was strangely absent between us. I racked my brain for a clue as to where I’d seen him before, but I was pretty sure I never had. After a while, even as sick and sober as I was, I started to think of inviting him back to the hotel. I didn’t say anything, but something shifted between us. Every trace of affection made him recoil a bit further until he evaporated into the alcoholic haze from whence he’d come, leaving me to nurse my assumptions for a while and then catch a cab.
He’d left me only one trace of his existence: an enigmatic inscription on a paper napkin.
I love you. Photon. 15—Toynbee / 2245 / May 12.
For its sheer bizarrity, and believing I’d never see him again, I kept it. I gave it its own pocket in my briefcase and took it out on the lunch hours of particularly corporate days. I took weird solace in it whenever the universe felt oppressively predictable.
That was February.
By the twelfth of May, it had been a while since I’d needed the napkin of mystery. Things had shaped up, and my life in New York had become bearable again; or, at least, the new guy I was dating was enough to distract me from the fact that it hadn’t. Bud was a man who lived for bizarrities, and I always struggled to impress him. So when the date finally came around, I told him the story of the stranger in the club and showed him the napkin note.
“Bogus!” he exclaimed through a mouthful of soggy Cocoa Puffs. “I know that place!”
“What place?” I asked.
“Fifteenth Street and Toynbee Avenue. ‘Photon.’ It’s a disco. Used to go there all the time.”
The gears in my head ground to a halt.
“Well, then, what’s 2-2-4-5?” I said.
He munched contemplatively for a while and then said, “Military time. 10:45 PM.”
I didn’t know what to think. Unraveling the enigma felt like sacrilege.
“We have to go there,” Bud said suddenly—and although nothing in me really wanted to pursue this, I knew just by watching him slurp down the brown milk that there would be no curbing his curiosity.
We pushed through the lacquered doors at 10:45 on the dot.
Sure enough, Loren was there . . . and yet, also, not. Someone who looked exactly like him was there, bathed in splinters of light from the mirror ball whirling above his head, but he was different. He looked younger now, and all the suave he’d once had was missing along with the years. His dancing was rhythmless, spastic, weird. People were giving him a wide berth.
“Go talk to him,” said Bud, pressing me forward.
“Why should I?” I groaned.
“You wanna spend the rest of your life wondering what was up with this creep?” he bellowed. “There’s a mystery to be solved. Hop to it.”
So when the song ended I rolled my eyes and stepped up to the sweat-polished Loren Wells look-alike and uttered a distrustful “Hello.”
“Hi,” he said between heaved breaths.
I waited uneasily.
“Do I know you?” he asked.
“You’re Loren Wells,” I said.
“How . . . do you know that? Where do you know me from?”
“You never told me where you knew me from,” I protested.
He could have been looking at an impossible math equation. I was sure he didn’t recognize me at all. Then a spark of realization crossed his face and he said, cautiously, “You have me confused with somebody. Sorry.” With that, he started to crawl back into the crowd.
“You gave me this note,” I called. I held the napkin out to him.
He hesitantly came back and stared at it, never touching it.
“Great Scott,” he said gravely.
“You gave me this note,” I repeated. “In San Francisco. Do you want to . . . talk about . . . something?”
“No,” he said, and started slinking away again.
“Hey!” I said, and knew that Bud had finally succeeded in infecting me with the rabies of his curiosity.
“If I gave it to you in San Francisco, ask me in San Francisco,” Loren whispered anxiously. “Not here. Now . . . leave me alone.”
He didn’t bury himself in the crowd this time. We chased him back outside to an enormous motorcycle at the curb. A moment later, our ears ringing from the loud pipes, all we could do was watch his taillights flit into the rain-greased night.
How in God’s name did I end up in a relationship with this man?
And yet, it happened.
June found me in an Oakland hotel room on another inane errand, again with no one waiting for me in New York. All Bud had left me was a heap of dirty bowls and spoons, a crap sci-fi paperback, and that same old case of rabies. After the last bar graph was projected and the last nose picked, I had nothing else to do. So I crossed the bridge to San Fran and went back to the barstool where I’d first met the enigma. When I didn’t find him, I took a shot of liquid confidence and told the bartender I was Loren’s sister, very worried about my missing twin. Impossibly, it worked. She said Loren had been there almost every night throughout the month of February but had then disappeared—but she knew a regular there, a sequin-scaled scarecrow of a girl, who knew the building where Loren lived. It turned out to be only a block away.
What the hell was I doing? I asked myself, more than once. But haven’t you ever needed to follow a mystery past all the limits of common sense? Have you ever found yourself in a whole awful prison of a world in which every last familiar and sensible thing has finally come up hollow and pointless? Have you ever been left with nothing on which to stake all your hopes of transcendence, save one good leap into the abyss?
It also suffices to say that the story would have ended here if it hadn’t been for alcohol.
He buzzed me up. But when I knocked on his door, I heard his drunken voice say: “Oh, jeez. I made a mistake. You can’t come in. You have to go away!”
“What!” I squawked.
“No, no, stay, come in,” he said.
The door jerked open onto a landscape of squalor bathed in the eerie twilight of MTV.
“I made a mistake,” he said again, wiping his mouth on his yellow polyester sleeve.
Looking at him again, I was certain I’d been right: the unsteady, booze-reeking Loren I now beheld was years older than the one I’d seen only weeks ago.
“Mistakes,” I mumbled through my own intoxication, my thoughts lost in the disorder around me.
“I know!” he groaned. “A lot of them. A lot, lot, lot of mistakes. Such as I thought you were the July you. I mean—sometimes I get a little confused. You know.”
I didn’t know what he was talking about. I didn’t ask.
“I knew that you were coming back,” he said. “But . . . why are you here?”
“Well—” I paused. “Wait. How did you know I was coming back?”
“Because I didn’t explain it to you last time. What you knew . . . urp . . . what you’ll know, in July. And I didn’t explain it to you then—I mean I won’t then, so it had to be now.” He paused to perform some invisible calculation on his fingers. “I guess it has to be tonight, or soon. That I explain it to you.”
“Explain what?” I demanded.
He ignored me and continued, pressing his palms to his eyes in anguish, “Oh, but I shouldn’t tell you at all! But I don’t have a choice. If I don’t tell you now, I’ll just wind up telling you later.” He hiccupped and finished somberly: “And . . . I should let you go. I won’t make you come back again against your will.”
“How could you do that?” I asked with a mocking snicker.
“Because it all evens out,” he said. “History.”
He plopped down on a pile of clothes by the window, while his hands searched for a bottle that still had anything in it.
I cleared a space on his couch and waited in suspense.
He told me: “I’m from the future, Andrea!”
I laughed a little.
“It’s true,” he said, laughing with me. “I’m from the future.”
“The future . . . the future . . . the future,” I echoed, imitating a movie preview.
“Exactly,” he said. “The future. I’m a time traveler. I mean . . . kind of.”
“Well, in a way,” he said between sips. “In a way I’m the only person who isn’t moving through time. What I mean is . . . Riddle me this, Andrea. What would you do, if . . . Say you stole a time machine—”
“Pfft,” he said. “Who cares how you got it. Say you had a time machine. What would you do with it?”
“Jeez,” I said. “I dunno. Um. Go back and assassinate Hitler, or—”
“But what if you couldn’t.”
“Why couldn’t I?”
“Paradoxes!” he said. “I explained it to you years ago. I’m too drunk to do it now. Just . . . you can’t change anything. You just can’t. Everything evens out so that you can’t. Not if you already know it happened, not if that’s your reason for changing it. Okay? So what would you do with a time machine?”
“Fine,” I said. “I’d check out the future.”
“No, no, no,” he said. “The future is . . . a stupid place. You wouldn’t want to go there. Trust me. One look and you’d turn right around.”
“Maybe I wouldn’t!” I protested. “You don’t know me.”
He gave me a doomed look.
“I know you,” he said.
“What do you know?”
“I know you’re a drifter,” he said. “Attached to nothing, attached to nobody. It’s so important to you to be independent, to think you’ve got . . . a thing of your own, a life to yourself . . . but—”
“Is that so,” I said coldly. I had stopped smiling.
“But,” he insisted, “you’re not special. You’re like anybody. Like all those people trapped under the glass ceiling that you look down at with so much proudness that you made it through anyway, even if the price is going anywhere the company sends you, never tied down, never really knowing anybody, ever. You’re no kind of island. You’ve got no independence. You just want to go home. Just like me.”
After gritting my teeth a while, I said: “Fine. What would I do with a time machine?”
“What anybody would do if they thought it through,” he said. “You’d go back to the best part of history and stay there. For good. Repeating that one year.”
It took me a moment.
“You’re saying—” I chuckled. “You’re saying that this is the high point.”
“Yeah,” he said unflinchingly.
“You think 1984 is the high point? You think there’s never going to be a better year than this?” I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. “Do the Soviets win or something?”
He laughed loudly.
“Make me understand this,” I said. “Why is this the best year in history?”
He scratched his head and looked around, then smiled deviously and crawled to the television. He twisted the knob until Thomas Dolby’s “She Blinded Me with Science” was pounding on my eardrums.
“Could you turn that down?” I yelled.
“Science!” he shouted with the song.
Somebody hammered on the floor below us. Loren giggled stupidly and turned MTV back down, pressing his finger to his lips.
“But that’s it!” he whispered excitedly. “Don’t you see? The synthesizer is still a new instrument in 1984! The computer-pop of the future is dissonant, overcomplicated crap! And the movies, don’t even get me started on the movies. Anybody knows The Road Warrior was the high point of Gibson’s career, just like Risky Business was the best Cruise ever did, and “Thriller” was the best song MJ ever did. The talent. The genius. God, Andrea, the waste. They’ll all go batshit crazy in your lifetime. One by one.”
I stared at him in disbelief as he sat giggling by the TV.
“You’re telling me . . . ,” I said, “that you have a time machine . . . and you can go anywhere in all of time and space . . . and you decided to use it to go back to this year and just live it over and over again.”
He nodded and said: “Every time the clock turns on New Year’s Eve, I jump backward and start my ’84 over again.” He smiled blissfully and added: “In a different city each time. You know. So as to never meet an earlier version of myself.”
“How many times have you done this?”
“I guess . . . six so far.”
“You’re saying . . . there are six more of you out there? In different cities?”
“More than that, I hope,” he said. “I’m just getting started. There should be at least fifty or sixty more of me out there.” He paused and said solemnly: “Or . . . that’s what I would have hoped.” Then he continued: “You don’t understand that I’m here for good. This is my home. This time.”
“Why? For what? Nostalgia?”
“It’s not nostalgia,” he said bitterly. “I was born in 2008. How can I be nostalgic for something I never had? I did my homework, all right? I know my history backwards and forwards. This is it. This is the year.”
I started to say something.
“Shh!” he said excitedly, then turned the volume on the TV up again. “This is my favorite song of all time,” he said. It was something by the Talking Heads.
I sighed. The booze was wearing thin. Moment by moment, the carriage of my unwise curiosity was turning back into a pumpkin. But did I actually believe him?
“You just think I’m crazy,” he murmured. “Even if you believe me that I’m from the future, you still think I’m crazy.”
“Well, maybe you should go,” he said.
The same words had been on the tip of my tongue, but they sounded wrong coming from him. I stood uneasily from the trashy couch and started for the door. But my hand wavered above the knob.
“You said you loved me,” I said.
He nodded and said, “I . . . I do.”
“You met me before. Or . . . you will. We’re going to meet somewhere else. Is that what you’re telling me? That I’ll meet you in one of your previous . . . repetitions . . . in some other city. And you’ll fall in love with me?”
The weird electricity in that room had grown too thick for me to stand. I didn’t say anything else. I just walked out.
In February he’d been charming enough for a one-night stand at least, but seeing him in the apartment—and on the dance floor in New York—I had felt no attraction to Loren Wells. Especially if it was falling for me in some other city that would catapult him into alcoholic depression in San Francisco the following year. Or, rather, the following . . . iteration.
The whole thing gave me a headache. For that reason and others, I resolved never to talk to him again. Maybe he’d told me that the past couldn’t be changed, but our relationship was still in the future from my point of view. No, I would not meet him. I certainly wouldn’t date him.
Then in July I was promoted to Chicago, and I didn’t even have fake friends in Chicago. The isolation whittled away at me until, when the solo Friday nights and the bad dates had piled up to a critical mental mass, I thought that somewhere in that city was some incarnation of a man I did vaguely know. Somebody who, all complications aside, I knew could appreciate me. That’s what I must have been thinking.
If I had the power to decide never to meet him again, I reasoned, surely I had the power to change the course of the relationship for the better. How did I know the breakup would really be that bad? Maybe it would be bad in an epic, romantic kind of way, a Casablancan breakup: maybe we’d make it all the way to New Year’s Eve, and then he’d choose Thomas Dolby over me and regret it dearly for many ’84s to come. Would that be so bad? For me?
I found him in the white pages and made the fateful call.
“Remember me?” I asked. “From that disco in New York?”
“Y-yeah,” he said. “The disco, and Central Park.”
“Never mind. I remember you.”
“And . . . we met in San Francisco, too,” I added cautiously.
“I’ve never been there,” he said.
“Do you want to talk about this over coffee?” I asked.
For a while, it even worked. He was clean, he had an ounce of sensitivity, and he was smarter than most. That was enough for me. He had other bad quirks besides his vibrant passion for pop culture, but I could relax into them—and although he always seemed faintly upset whenever I first said hi to him, he always seemed to stuff down and cheer up. He never talked about time travel, and I wasn’t in a hurry to ask.
One morning, we were lying awake on his bed in the middle of a boiling heat wave. I said:
“I know your secret, you know.”
He eyed me and said, “I don’t have secrets.”
“You know I know,” I said. “What are you hiding from? Why won’t you discuss it?”
“Humor me,” he said with a sigh. “Tell me what you think my secret is.”
So I did.
“Well,” he said, “I think . . . that if someone did, hypothetically, do that . . . then they would be better off keeping it a secret. The whole plan would—hypothetically—be ruined, if the media got their hands on it, say. If someone realized they could find a copy of him in every major city.”
“Hmm,” I said.
“Just common sense, really,” he said. “Temporal etiquette. One would suppose.”
In the sweltering heat, I shrugged and decided to live with it. We never discussed it again in Chicago.
Yes. For a while, it worked. Then it worked much too fast.
We were together for a few months, in which time he fell hopelessly and inexplicably in love with me. As short a time as it had been, sometimes I even thought I had started to love him back. Then that fall it all went catastrophically wrong. It doesn’t really matter what happened. I don’t want to talk about it.
In November I didn’t just accept a transfer to the company’s Seattle branch. I begged for it. I pulled strings. The move was rash, heavy on desperation and light on foresight, but at the time it seemed like the whole breadth of Chicago stank too heinously of rotten memories, and I missed the sea.
Life in Seattle wasn’t bad. I walked off my psychic injuries. I cooled down. I made friends, and I knew the winter ahead of me would be dreary, but at least not too cold.
By Christmas, I started to regret breaking all contact with my strange friend. It dawned on me that soon I would go on into a bold new year while he and all his repetitions jumped back again, and if I lived to see him it would be as an infant child of the unthinkable new millennium.
I broke out the white pages again. After all, if I found him there in Seattle, he wouldn’t be the same Loren I’d left behind. Either he’d be younger, and thus innocent of our whole relationship, or he’d be older and over it. Maybe we could make some kind of amends, and then I could give him a proper send-off into the past.
His name was in the phone book, but the line had been disconnected.
Acceptance was never in my nature. What the heck, I thought. I talked to a private investigator.
She called back the next day.
“I’m sure I found the fella you were looking for. He was a friend of yours. That’s what you said, correct?” she asked.
“Was?” I said. “What do you mean was?”
“Afraid he’s dead.”
My mind locked up but my mouth kept talking. “When? How? What happened?”
“Accident on the freeway,” she told me, quietly. “In October. Drunk driver hit his motorcycle head-on. It was . . . instantaneous.”
“How old was he?” I demanded.
“. . .How old was the drunk, you mean?”
“I said how old was he? How old was Loren Wells when he died?”
Paper fluttered on the other end of the line.
“Thirty,” said the PI.
I was silent.
“Listen,” she said, but I hung up.
Just thirty years old? I thought. No. That couldn’t be. The one in Chicago was twenty-eight. That meant. . . .
Already knew what he’d tell me when I tried, but I had no choice. I couldn’t do nothing. I had to warn him.
Where would I find him? If I was going to try to change history, I wouldn’t settle for just his death. I’d take it all back if I could. So there was no going back to Chicago, nor to the apartment of the broken-down Loren by the Bay. I needed to find the youngest one. The earliest repetition I knew of.
I caught the last desperate flight to New York and picked up the first phone book I could find.
A muffled hallelujah left my chapped lips when he picked up his phone and grunted hello.
“Loren. It’s Andrea. Remember. From the Photon disco.”
“What . . . did . . . ?” he groaned.
“I know you don’t think you know me. I don’t care. We have to meet. I need to tell you something. It’s vital.”
“It’s four in the morning. And I shouldn’t be talking to you. I’m hanging up.”
I shouted: “You were born in 2008. You have a spoon-shaped birthmark on your left ass cheek. David Byrne is your hero. And I swear to God, if you hang up the phone I’m going straight to Sixty Minutes with the truth about you.”
The line sighed.
We sat shivering on an icy bench in Central Park, our bloodshot eyes squinting up at the first gray rays of December twilight. After all my panicked words over the phone, the strangeness of seeing him again—knowing he had only seen me once before—made me eerily wordless. I didn’t know where to begin.
“You’re dead,” I began.
He said nothing.
I continued: “In Seattle, you’re dead. You died in April. And I know you planned to spend the rest of your life in 1984, but the one of you that’s dead and buried in Seattle was only five or six years older than you are now. Just a few years into your future.”
He shook his head a little and just kept staring out into the chilly dark.
“Assuming I even know what you’re talking about,” he said, “what do you want me to do about it?”
“I want you to never have coffee with me. Don’t ever talk to me in Chicago. And whatever you do, never, ever go to Seattle.”
“Don’t you know about paradoxes?” he said.
“You can make your own decisions. You can do it differently.”
“And if I do, then in the next loop you’ll never find out I’m dead, you won’t come here to warn me, I’ll die anyway, and there’ll be another loop, and another, and on and on until random quantum events just happen to come together in such a way that I fail to save myself even if you warn me.”
“Stop blinding me with science! I’m trying to save your life, you idiot!”
“The sequence of events can only work out one way once it’s made,” he said. “The universe rights itself. It’s flawless. Trust me on this. It’s too late.”
“You’ve only got a few years to live, and you’re not going to do a thing about it.”
All the love I’d ever had for that deterministic dolt was rising to its climax at the worst possible moment. Here in New York. When he didn’t even know me, didn’t love me, never had, wouldn’t for years of his time. I felt my eyes watering and I wiped them hurriedly, afraid they’d freeze. In two days it would be 1985 and he’d be nothing but a handful of missing persons across the nation and one dead body in Seattle.
“How did you find out about my death?” he asked suddenly.
“A private investigator,” I muttered.
“Did they say anything about my will?”
“No,” I said.
“You might want to go back and ask about it,” he said. “But for now . . . I should go. We shouldn’t be having this conversation. Never should have. Bad temporal etiquette.”
“I thought it didn’t make any difference,” I groaned.
“Makes me sad,” he said.
Then he started walking away from me, hands stuffed into the pockets of his yellow striped pants, back hunched over, Flock of Seagulls haircut gleaming in the dawn light.
“Hey,” I said.
I asked him: “Ever heard the one about the two brothers who loved baseball?”
He shook his head.
“It’s my favorite joke,” I said. “It’ll cheer you up.”
“All right,” he said. So I told it.
“‘Well, brother, the bad news is . . . you’re pitching next Thursday,'” I finished.
The time traveler cracked a smile.
That was it.
After the clock turned, I called the private investigator again.
“That’s what I was about to tell you,” she said. “Mr. Wells doesn’t seem to have any next of kin. At all. The state was going to take everything, but then his will turned up. It’s a strange one. It only mentions one item . . . and it only mentions you.”
“He gave me something?” I asked.
“His motorcycle,” she said. “A Harley-Davidson . . . of unknown year and model.”
The impound lot didn’t want to release it to me. They wanted a lot of answers. They asked me how it had come away from a head-on collision at 60 miles per without a single scratch or dent. They told me exhaustively that the impossible VIN meant I would never be able to legally register it in the state; they said they didn’t know how to fill out their forms. I told them I was a lawyer. They surrendered.
I bought it a monthly space in a garage downtown. Sometimes I went to visit it, on the lunch hours of particularly corporate days. I took solace in it whenever the universe felt oppressively predictable—or, for that matter, oppressively chaotic. I sat in the saddle and rolled on the throttle with the engine off and, for better or worse, thought about him.
“The universe rights itself,” I echoed.
That was February.
Then one day in April I discovered the glowing control panel hidden under the seat. I found myself staring into a clock face that burned blue and crisp in the air in front of me—and as I watched a calendar etch itself out in holographic neon, I found myself thinking about how I never liked Flock of Seagulls or the Eurythmics or the Cure.
I like the Beatles.