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Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Retrograde

A short story about time, and a chance meeting, and watching the film unwind.

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Retrograde


I met Hannah about a month ago.  Of course, she wouldn’t phrase it that way, but maybe there’s no other way to say it and be understood, so let’s just leave it there; I met her about a month ago, the week before Christmas.
It had been an unusually cold December.  Even people who’d been born and raised in Ithaca were complaining.  There were about two feet of ice-crusted snow on the ground, and the sound of the plows growling by became so common that you stopped hearing them.  I was walking up Meadow Street, and as my boots pressed into the snow on the sidewalk, they made that squeaking noise that only happens when the temperature is getting close to zero.
I do this walk most nights, up from the bicycle shop where I work to the Ithaca Bakery to grab a bite to eat, then over two blocks on Cascadilla Street where I rent an upstairs room from an elderly couple.  It’s an okay life but you don’t need to tell me that I’m floating, that I’m slipping through life doing the bare minimum.  My mom tells me that most times I talk to her, but it’s not like I don’t see it myself.  I’ve got a decent brain.  I know I could do okay in college, but right now, I just don’t see a path.  I’d rather work at the bike shop, come home with my food and sit and read or watch TV or mess around online, than go to college and spend lots of money to spin my wheels, you know?
Anyway, I was doing my usual trek on that icy December night.  It was right around the solstice, so it’d been dark since around five o’clock, and by this time it was that kind of dark that seems to be an actual substance, not just an absence of light.  Even the streetlights didn’t help much, just illuminated the flakes of snow that were beginning to fall again.  I passed a guy I often see on that walk – tall middle-aged dude, wearing an old-fashioned felt hat with a feather, always going the other way, carrying a briefcase.  That night he had a thick scarf wrapped around his face, and I could barely hear his voice as he said, “What happened to the goddamn global warming?” 
“No kidding,” I said.
“Winter storm warning tonight,” he said.  “Supposed to get another foot and a half by tomorrow noon.  Christ.”
I shook my head.  “Unbelievable,” and then we both went on our way.
The Ithaca Bakery was empty except for me.  There never were many people in this late, but it wasn’t usually completely empty.  Maybe the winter storm warning kept people home.
I could hear a couple of folks in the kitchen, bumping around as they cleaned up.  There was only one person behind the counter.  I’d never seen her before, and I knew most of the staff by name.  She’d been looking down, her hands holding onto the counter, when I walked in, but then she looked up at me.
She was one of those people who is hard to describe; pretty but not beautiful, medium-length blond hair held back by a clip, oval face, medium height.  Her only real standout feature was her eyes, which were a very pale blue.  An artist might describe them as a chilly blue, an icy blue, but that’s not right; there was no cold in them at all.  They had a fire in them.  I’ve read that the hottest fire, past red hot, and yellow, and white, is blue; and after seeing her eyes, I think I understand that.
And as soon as those eyes met mine, she started crying.
She looked down again, still clutching the counter, her whole body shaking.
“Jesus,” I said.  “What’s wrong?”
She shook her head, kept on crying, and I just stood there, feeling weird and uncomfortable, and glad there were no other people in the Bakery that night.
Finally she just looked up, those pale eyes still flooded with tears, and said,  “Eli, I can’t believe it’s already that time.”
I stared at her for a moment, and then said, “Do I know you?”
“Not yet,” she said.  “But you will.”  She drew a sleeve across her eyes, and attempted a smile.  She finally unclenched one of her hands from the counter edge, and reached it across for me to shake.  “I’m Hannah,” she said.
“Eli,” I said, even though she apparently already knew that somehow.
“What can I get you tonight?” she said, trying for that cheerful and courteous sound that restaurant staff always have, and mostly succeeding.
“Sun-dried tomato bagel, toasted, cream cheese and lox.”
She smiled a little bit, for real now, and said, “The usual, then,” and turned away to get me my food.  I put a five dollar bill on the counter, and pretty soon she came up, handed me my plate, gave me my change.
“Look,” I said, still feeling strange, “you want to talk for a while?”
She shrugged.  “No one’s here tonight, and the place closes soon anyway.  We won’t get many more people in this weather, and if we do, I can just get up and take care of them, right?”
“That’s fine.  We can talk for a little while.”
I went to a table, over in the corner by the window, and she followed me, sat down, and rested her chin in her hands, her elbows on the table.
I looked at her, trying to place where I knew her from, but still drew a blank.  I’ve got a good memory for faces, and I wouldn’t forget those eyes, I knew that.  I was certain I’d never seen this woman before.
“I know you don’t understand, now, Eli,” she said.  “It’s so awful for you.  I’m sorry about the way I acted.  Inexcusable, really inexcusable.”
“Are you sure you know me?” I said, taking a bite of my bagel.
She just smiled a little.  “Do you want me to explain?  It won’t make much sense now.  It will later.”  She paused.  “My name is Hannah, by the way.”
“Hannah,” I said.  “I know.  You already told me.  But explain?  Explain what?”
She looked out of the window, at the snow falling faster, hissing against the glass panes.
“I don’t see the world the way others do.”
That was kind of a vague start, I thought.  “None of us see the world the same way,” I said, trying to be helpful, and only ending up sounding like somebody who’s read too much pop psychology.
Her lips tightened, her face looking resolute.  “Okay.  I guess I just need to say it straight out.”  She took a deep breath, exhaled slowly.  “What’s the past for you is the future for me,” she said, in a low, intense voice, and then just looked at me, her pale eyes searching mine.
My rational mind said, This chick is crazy, but something about her demeanor seemed so normal that I couldn’t just attribute her odd behavior to her being a nut.  “What’s that supposed to mean?” I asked.
“When you say something is in the past,” she said, patiently, “it hasn’t happened for me yet.  What I remember is what you call the future.  What you call the past I don’t remember, because it hasn’t happened yet.  For me, at least.”
I stared at her, my mouth hanging open a little.  “That’s impossible,” I said.  “The past is the past.  The future is the future.”
“Not for me.”
“Time passes the same way for everyone.”
She shook her head.  “It’s been this way all of my life.  All the few short weeks of my life.  Time runs backwards for me.”  She gestured at my plate, and smiled a little wryly.  “Can I have a bite of your bagel?  I’m starving.”
I picked up half of the bagel, handed it to her.  “Why did you ask, if for you it’d already happened?  For you, you’d already taken a bite, right?”
“Yes.  But I knew by what you said that it was going to happen, and if I hadn’t asked afterwards, you would have wondered why the hell this strange chick had taken a bite of your dinner without asking.  I learned this stuff the hard way.  I’m beginning to adapt.”
“So you asked to have some of my bagel because for you it had already happened?”
She shrugged.  “I guess from your perspective, that’s the only way you could make sense of it.”
“This doesn’t make any sense.  The clock only runs one way.  No one lives in a world where glasses unbreak, snow falls upward, balls roll uphill.  That’s scientifically impossible, right?”
“I can’t answer that.  All I can say is that we see the same things.  For me, the film runs backwards, that’s all.  Other than that, there’s no difference.  There’s nothing I can do to change the way things unfold, same as with you.”
“That’s why you were crying, when I came in.  Because of something that for you, had already happened?  What was it?”
She shook her head.  “I shouldn’t answer that.”
I thought for a moment.  “It’s me, isn’t it?  For me, I was just meeting you for the first time; for you, it was the last time you’d ever see me.”  I winced, and rubbed my eyes with the heel of my hand.  “Jesus, I’m starting to believe you.  But that’s it, right?”
She didn’t answer for a moment.  “The thing is, you know, you just start looking at things as inevitable.  Like you’re in some sort of film.  The actors seem to have freedom, they seem to have will, but in reality the whole thing is just scrolling by and what’s going to happen is only what’s already written in the script.  You could, if you wanted to, start at the end and run the film backwards.  Same stuff, different direction.  No real difference except for the arrow of time.”
“I guess I’d cry, too.”
The corners of her mouth turned up a little.  “It’s no problem, I can get you another bagel,” she said.
Before I could ask her what she was talking about, there was a sudden crash as someone dropped something in the kitchen.  I jumped, and my hand jerked.  The plate with my dinner slid off the table and fell upside down on the floor.
I looked at it, mutely, then at her.  She shrugged, and smiled a little.
“Yeah,” I finally said.  “That’d be great.”
She stood up, one eyebrow raised quizzically, and went off to the kitchen.
My mind was spinning.  Was she crazy, or was what she was saying the literal, factual truth?  How could anyone perceive the world in reverse?  If what she was saying was true, someone should be told; it would blow away all of what was known about science.
But then, how could they test it?  As her life unrolled, she would forget more and more, because as our clocks moved forward, hers would be moving backward.  Only at the present moment did our lives touch – for an instant only, and then continued to spin away along their inverted paths.
She returned with the bagel.
“Sun-dried tomato, cream cheese, and lox,” I said.  “You remembered that, at least.”
She just smiled at me, and sat down, then reached across the table, and took my hand.
Then I thought, No, she didn’t remember.  You just told her.  All she did was get what you just told her to get.
Looking across at her, my heart gave a funny little gallop in my chest.  She knew it because it had already happened for her, I thought.  It was the past.  She was remembering, not predicting.  And I think that’s the moment when I was convinced that she was telling the truth.
“It’s been three weeks since it all started,” she said, still holding my hand.  “It’s nice to find someone to tell about all this.   You’re the first person I’ve told.”
“Three weeks?  Three weeks since what?”
“My life started three weeks ago.  I don’t really understand how, but there it is.”
“Started?  Started how?  What happened three weeks ago?”
She looked down, her eyes becoming unfocused for a moment, as she searched her… memory?  What else could you call it?  After a moment, she looked up.  “The first thing I remember is a shock.  Like an explosion.  Then I felt wind.  Before I knew what was happening, I was up on a bridge, near Cornell, over that really beautiful gorge, I forget its name.  It was snowing, just like today.  Cold.  I didn’t know where I was, all I knew was that my name was Hannah and I was cold.  And I began to walk, and finally came here, and talked to one of the managers, and he offered me a job.  They let me sleep on a cot in one of the offices in back.  Only till I can get a place, and it was really nice of them to let me, I honestly don’t know why they agreed.  But three weeks – yes, that’s when it all started.”
“So that means you’ve only got three weeks to live.”
“I suppose that’s the way it would appear, from your perspective.”
“My perspective?” I shouted.  “My perspective is all I have!  You don’t mean to tell me that in three weeks you’re going to die, and there’s nothing you can do about it?”
Hannah shrugged.  “I don’t know any other way to explain it.  It really is all about perspective.”
I leaned back in my chair.  “So you’re telling me that from your point of view, you’re going to get younger and younger, and finally a baby, and then you’ll disappear up into your mother’s uterus, and then you’ll just… cease to be?”
“It’s not so very much weirder than your life seems to me.  What will happen to you when you die?”
Well, she got me there, and I didn’t respond for a little while.  “I don’t know,” I finally said.  “I’m not religious.  But even so, I don’t know how you can expect this to make sense to me.”
“Look, you don’t have to be upset on my behalf.  It is what it is.  Maybe we should just stop talking about all these matters of life and death, and the afterlife.  Or beforelife.  Or whatever.”
The snow was falling faster now, beginning to pile up on the older drifts, swirling in curtains against the streetlight.  “I’m not upset,” I said, and I was telling the truth.  I felt completely calm for some reason, despite having spent fifteen minutes in what was the most peculiar conversation I’d ever had.  I ate the last bit of my bagel, and looked into those eyes, those strange, luminous eyes.  “Look, I don’t know.  Do you want to come back to my place?  I know it’s weird to ask, but it might be better than your staying here, alone, and having to be left with… your memories.”  
She smiled.  “I’d like that.”
I held out my hand for her, and she stood.  “Let’s go,” I said.  “I just live a couple of blocks away.”

We didn’t talk any more about time and perspective – just talked about what we liked, talked about the weather.  We each had a beer and sat on the couch for a while, and then went to bed.  I offered her the couch, but she just smiled and shook her head, saying that that if the point was for her not to be lonely, the couch was no better than her cot back at the Bakery.  I didn’t argue.
We made love that night, and as I was drifting off to sleep, I wondered what that had been like for her – an explosion, merging into excitement, fading into anticipation, then subsiding into silence.  I hoped that it was good, however she had perceived it.

She stayed with me for three days.  On the morning of the fourth day, I awoke to find a note on the pillow next to me, and that she was gone.  It wasn’t really a surprise, but still, it made my stomach clench when I picked it up.  Time was spooling by, the clock was running; it never stopped, whatever direction it was going.  You couldn’t halt it either way.
The note read:
Eli…
I know you won’t understand this, but this can’t go on indefinitely.  It will make sense to you eventually, I hope.  I hardly know you, and as time passes for you, I will know you less and less, and finally forget you entirely.  It’s better this way.
Hannah

I looked at the note for a while, then got up, showered, dressed, and headed up to the Bakery.
Hannah was behind the counter.  She looked up at me, and I was greeted by a smile.  I went up to her, stood silent for a moment.
“My name is Eli,” I said.  “I don’t want you to forget that.  Eli.  And for three days, you were important to me, Hannah.”
She smiled again, those odd eyes glittering.  “I won’t forget,” she said, and reached across and touched my hand.
“Don’t forget,” I said.  “Don’t ever forget me.”

And that was all.
I went in to the Bakery a couple of days after that, near closing time, taking my usual route after getting off from work at the bike shop.  Tom, the long-haired, multiply-pierced counterman, greeted me with a grin.
“Hey, Eli,” he said.  “The usual?”
“Yeah,” I said.  He started putting together my dinner.  “Hey, Tom,” I said.  “What do you think about that girl who works here, Hannah?”
Tom half turned, my bagel in his hand.  He rolled his eyes.  “That chick is wack, and that’s my considered opinion,” he said.  “Owner said she could live in the back room for a coupla weeks, till she finds a place.  But she’s a strange one.  Nice looking, though.”
I nodded.  “Yeah.  Pretty strange.  You got that right.”

Then last week, in the Ithaca Journal, the following article appeared on the front page.

Local Woman Killed in Fall from Bridge
Hannah van Meter, 24, was killed in what police are considering a probable suicide.  On the night of January 17, she fell from the bridge on Stewart Avenue into Fall Creek Gorge.  A witness, whose name has not been released by police, stated that she had been standing for some time, looking down into the gorge, and that he went up and attempted to speak to her.  She seemed disoriented, and would not leave the bridge even though the witness attempted to persuade her to do so.  She threatened to jump if he approached her more closely, he stated.  After five minutes, the witness went to a nearby house to get help, and was walking back up toward the bridge when van Meter jumped or fell over the bridge railing.
She was the daughter of David and Helen van Meter of Chenango Forks.  She had lived in Ithaca for only a few weeks, and had been employed by the Ithaca Bakery since mid-December.
Police are investigating.

I sat in my room, crying and reading the article over and over.  You still cry even when you know how the story’s going to end, sometimes.  But perhaps, if the story is read backwards, it will have a happier ending. 
Or beginning.  Or whatever.
At least that’s what I am hoping for.

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