What was most extraordinary about the neighborhood was how familiar it looked. It was, of course, her own neighborhood, though seven years older, and it looked brighter somehow, and tidied. Some changes she noticed—the Carsons or whoever lived there now had added a room on the side, a sun room or solarium, the Wittenberg house was painted gray with a rose tint, not particularly becoming, the Feinmans had put in landscaping. But it was all familiar. Ordinary. You’d think seven years would leave more traces, some progress would show. A lacrosse goal yawned on the front lawn of old Mizz Crowden’s Tudor. She must have passed on.
There, Cassandra thought. That’s real change. Even the cars. They looked as you’d expect. In their eagerness to draw the future, the designers had caught up to it, so the bodies looked new but more of the same. Funny–in my day the auto companies were on the defensive, always accused of planning for obsolescence. Now they plan for the status quo. I don’t know which is worse.
She’d kept her eyes from her own house, her and Gordon’s faux English cottage. It was a way she had: avoid looking at a gift until it was unwrapped, revealed. She and Gordon had downsized after the kids got settled—what was she then? forty-eight? With half of her life before her. She tasted the disappointment she’d felt after the boxes were emptied and the things put away. Somehow, along with the heirloom dessert plates, the Sheridan dining set, the flatware in the drawers, she had moved her lackluster life as well.
Now two years later she stood before the house she and Gordon had moved into. Not two years, she had to remind herself. This morning, when she’d parked at the Lab, it was two—but the Trip adds seven. For a few hours, it was nine. She had traveled seven years ahead, all the Lab would allow, all they felt was safe.
In a stride she stood breathless before the front door. This morning when she’d locked it behind her, it had that rich stain, Cotswold oak, the label on the can read. But it had been repainted in a teal gloss that already showed signs of wear. The woman she expected to see, to open that door, would be herself, seven years hence.
Go slow, the Trip counselor told her. We have found, they said, that the visitee often expects you. Remember, she has all your memories. By all means you can talk about the situation, your reasons for the voyage, the reunion. But don’t make decisions. Don’t try to change things. You’ll have two hours, max. Make the most of it. Relax, be yourself. And don’t interfere. You’re there to visit the future, not to form it.
She’d dressed for the Trip. Her best linen summer-weight suit, the coral a shade that showed her complexion and her minky hair to advantage, low heels, stockings (stockings!). She’d spent a fortune on Jazzercise, Pilates, Bikram to maintain her size nine and she loved to have it noticed. Van told her she had the body of a woman fifteen years younger. All of it, he said and winked—how she’d thrilled at that. Once at his condo he was racing to leave town and couldn’t fit in the barber. So, wearing only panties, she washed and cut his hair for him. Towards the end he leaned over and blew some trimmings off her breast, she’d never forget that. Amazing, he’d said and she loved that he was flirting.
“You’re trying to catch a plane,” she scolded. “There’s no time for that.”
“Always time. Simply amazing.”
The affair was keeping her young. Van was Gordon’s age, but so…something, so vital. It wasn’t simply the muscles—Van played racquetball. Gordon had long gone to flab, and along with the muscles, the libido, the romance.
“Gordon,” Van told her, “is that dullest and noblest of species.” She thought Van urbane, how easily he talked of her cuckolded husband and how naturally supported him. “The ever-faithful, unsuspecting husband. If he got out more, had a little bit of something on the side, maybe you wouldn’t be here. You’d be home trying to keep him.”
She arranged the perfect part of his hair. He took the blow-dryer from her hand and turned its warm air to clean her chest of his trimmings. Leaned forward, put his tongue where the space between her breasts began. “You’re starting up with me,” she said like some character in a romantic comedy, and that’s when he led her back to bed.
Van had argued against the experiment. “They don’t really understand the technology. It could be dangerous.”
“If it was dangerous, the government wouldn’t let them do it. They’ve had over 150 voyages and no flaws. And that’s here in town. There are thirty other sites.”
“There’s a lot they don’t know. Christ, they couldn’t even answer your question about wrinkles.”
She had asked whether she could wear linen. Whether the suit would wrinkle in transit. They didn’t know. The Trip Handbook had a litany of Don’ts–no metal, she’d had to buy a bra without hooks, like the kids wear—but linen was nowhere mentioned.
Now she stood on the threshold of her own house. She’d left it that morning to drive to the Lab, and here she was, seven years on. A new doormat –the traditional fiber but with black letters that said Welcome (theirs had ducks)—and rang the bell. She hadn’t thought of what to say. Be natural, the Handbook advised.
A sleight, dark-eyed woman, china-doll pretty and too young, opened the door. It suddenly occurred to her—she and Gordon were gone. Between breakfast this morning to now, two hours plus seven years, they’d moved away.
“Hello,” Cassandra said. “I’m sorry to bother you. I’m looking for the Larrabees. Cassandra and Gordon. They used to live here?”
“I know the name,” the woman said. “But they don’t live here. We do.” A shy miniature of the home owner, her hair in bangs, peeked out from behind her mother. The woman put her hand on the girl’s head and rested it protectively against her thigh.
“Do you know where I can find them?”
“They moved away. After….” she began to say.
“After the closing. I met him at the closing, I never saw her.”
“Away…?” Cassandra shook her head, a gesture to ask, Anything else?
“I don’t know. Out of state. I’m sorry.”
“No forwarding address? They must have their mail sent on?”
“At the Post Office. You’d have to ask at the Post Office.”
The little girl whispered and her mother bent to hear. Cassandra realized her time was ticking away. Five thousand dollars.
The woman stood. Managed an apologetic smile. “Wait a minute.”
Five thousand dollars for two hours. Forty-two dollars a minute, Cassandra figured. Just under. What would she do if they’d left town? She could go to the club, see friends, hear what had become of them. But how to explain herself? And the fact was, she didn’t much care. That would be a lot of money and a long way to come for the crab-mango salad and an iced tea.
The woman came back, holding a loose page. “I got this off the internet.”
“Larrabee, C.,” it said in bold face. Under it was an address near downtown, not an especially good neighborhood, at least not seven years ago, and by “Telephone” the word Unlisted.
A short drive in the look-alike Ford the Lab had provided. Its dashboard was a copy of the one in her Lexus that here would be seven years old. A figured subdivision sign announced in script The Stratford Residences, and she turned into a mews built cheap but gimmicked up, gingerbread and timbers, to look cute. Parked and, emboldened by her success (after all, she had traveled in time, spoken the language, not revealed herself by her Chanel suit or her scent), approached the house. She would just be herself.
This time she was prepared with a greeting. But the face at the door stopped the words in her chest. The blond woman was smiling—was that a grimace?—a tight, pursed-lip expression as if she’d just been told a joke she didn’t get.
And this woman was undoubtedly she.
Older, for certain. Little webs like the stipules of a leaf fingered out from the corners of both eyes, and the face itself had suffered an immeasurable and unmistakable sag. The hair had been done over. It could no longer be termed what Van fondly called Cognac brown. What possessed me? she wondered. Suffer the trauma of reduced circumstances, and become a blond. It was the color of a paint chip—perhaps sunflower?—with lighter streaks. And cut disturbingly short, the way some older women wear it to declare something—scratched from the contest? no longer a slave to male aesthetic? –something aggressive and more than a touch dikey.
“I’m…” Cassandra began and stopped at the stupidity of what she was about to say. The whole adventure suddenly yawed from miraculous to foolish.
“I know who you are,” the woman said.
“You do? But…”
“I know what you know,” she said easily. “Plus, what is it, six years?”
“Of course. Seven. Would you like to come in?” She stepped aside and Cassandra passed uneasily by her.
“I go by Cass now. I find it suits, and it will save confusion.”
Within, the décor was exactly what she abhorred. Décor was an exaggeration, furnishings. A package, everything, the carpet, the seating group (was it still called a conversation pit?), the drapes and valences, everything coordinated, even the Big Box prints on the wall. We move you in and move you out.
Cass walked by her towards what must be a kitchen-slash-breakfast nook. It was, with the anticipated pass-through and wet bar.
“It’s a little early for me,” Cassandra said and glanced needlessly at her watch. “I have ten to eleven. Of course, with the voyage and all I really don’t know what….”
“You’re a little fast.” Cass took a low-ball glass from a cupboard, pushed it to the refrigerator where ice clattered into it.
An index finger came out from the hand that held the glass, pistol style, and pointed to the three armless chrome chairs tucked under a table. Cass took a seat and waited for Cassandra, who followed.
“So. What can I tell you?”
“This is weird. I feel awkward.”
“Don’t. We, ah…” Cass took a sip and swallowed, “…we know each other. Fair to say?”
She rose and went to the counter. Removed a shiny navel orange from a bowl and pulled the only knife from a wood block made for four, to cut off first the end and then a thick slice. The fruit bowl had been a wedding gift. Evidence, Cassandra thought. She must have the right house.
“This started out as an old fashioned,” Cass explained. “It’s supposed to have Maraschino cherries, powdered sugar, bitters. Angostura bitters.” She dunked the slice into her drink, submerged it with a middle finger and pressed down to release its juice. “Rabbits and bitters, that’s what they make in Angostura. Can you imagine? Sounds like an armpit of a place.” She sucked on the finger, looked up.
“I don’t much care for Maraschino cherries—I’m telling you?—and when the bitters ran dry and all I had was granulated sugar, I figured, what the hell.”
“Is that bourbon?”
“Sure is,” Cass said. “Change your mind?”
Cassandra shook her off. “I’ve always been a white wine girl. When do I start drinking bourbon?”
“Not supposed to say. Remember the Handbook. Rule Nine.”
“You know about the Handbook?”
“I know what you know,” Cass said again, without malice. “So, what can I tell you?”
Cassandra examined the woman. Her colors—she was dressed completely wrong, completely wrong according to Cassandra’s color chart. Earth tones. Ochre slacks that, from the way she wore her blouse, loose and long to cover her hips, were likely too tight in the waist. Adieu, size nine. God, is this really me?
“Gordon. The ‘Net has you listed under your name only?”
“Gordon,” Cassandra said again. Something the density of a jellyfish rose in her throat, and with a liquid noise she swallowed it. Gordon had eaten a three-minute egg with her only this morning. He liked to tear his toast into bits and scoop the loose egg on top. In a teacup, he liked a teacup, salt and pepper from a mill….
“I can’t believe it.”
“I know. Incidentally, that’s exactly what he said.”
An indistinct mass replaced the jellyfish. Solid. “I just can’t believe it. What happened?”
“Rule Nine. I can’t say.”
“So where is he? I mean, maybe if it’s nearby I’d still have time….”
Cass shook her head. One thing about this hairstyle, Cassandra thought. You don’t have to comb it every half hour.
“He moved out of state.”
“New Mexico,” Cassandra said, sure of it. He’s always loved New Mexico, talked of retiring there. “Santa Fe,” she guessed.
Cass smiled. “Las Cruces.”
“Not Santa Fe?”
“Couldn’t afford it after the divorce. We’ve both cut back. He was very generous about the settlement. Considering.”
“Considering?” Cass shook her head again.
“So what caused the divorce?”
Cass ignored the question and spun the orange slice about the cubes.
“And you? You’re making a go of it?”
Cass nodded, put the glass to her lips and when it wouldn’t yield, raised it topsy-turvy so the cubes clacked against her teeth.
“I’ve taken up teaching again. Substitute, but it gets you on the waiting list. And I shelve.”
Cassandra’s eyes went wide and she took in an audible breath through her nose.
This brought a chuckle. “Books. At the library. Though it’s the same moves. God, honey, I’d forgotten what a snob you were.”
“Me too. Isn’t that a gas?”
When Cass stood this time she leaned against the table as if she was hurting. She made her second drink with equal speed and less ice. The clash of the falling cubes seemed amplified, as though something large and architectural were collapsing. Rather than carve another slice, she squeezed drops of juice from the mutilated orange into her glass.
“I’m surprised you haven’t commented on the generic booze. You were so big on buying brands. Don’t you want to know what make of car I drive?”
“Cass. I don’t have much time. Let’s not bicker.”
The older woman sat down. Her expression –how the skin lolled from the neck, the half-closed lids, lips puckered so a tongue could tug on the front teeth– seemed to signal a truce.
“Will you stay for lunch? We gave up all the clubs, but I could scramble an omelet, or we could go out…?”
“I’d rather just sit and talk.”
And they did. She asked first about the haircut. Sunflower wasn’t far off. The stylist called it honey with streaks. Cassandra asked about their health, Cass answered within the rules. Asked about people they used to know and new people.
“If your question is, Is there someone special of a certain gender in my life, the answer is no. Not at the moment. But then again there are lots of moments.” Cass squeezed off a brisk smile. “And of course lots of genders.”
She didn’t ask about Van. Didn’t want to know and accepted that Cass wouldn’t tell her. In seven years, she seemed to have grown a new respect for obeying rules.
They sat at Cassandra’s future table and gabbed. Soon they were laughing like girls at a sleep-over. As Cassandra was listening to a story about someone they once knew, a shadow of sadness dropped over her. Once, on holiday to Crater Lake she and Gordon had watched a cloud the size of a dirigible come across a perfectly blue sky. It sailed over the ridge and poured down the hill. There it enveloped a small lodge, rested a moment, and spilled into the lake. She’d never forgotten. All the while the sky stayed stone blue, while everyone in the lodge passed through a sudden and transient night.
She sensed that the contents of her life—the places they’d gone, the irrelevant people who filled their days, the things they’d bought and stuck on shelves and mantles—were spilling and she was too far in time or place to catch them before they smashed to the floor.
Eventually, close to noon, it began to fade. Just as the Lab had predicted, it seemed like bad television reception. First a stuttering of the picture, then intermittent gaps with no transmission, finally a pearlescent mural that was the inside of eyelids, and she was back in the recliner. She never thought to say goodbye.
The technician helped her up, held her hands while she steadied herself.
“Well. Looks like you didn’t wrinkle too badly,” the young woman said. She wore the false cheer of people who aid professionals and a plastic name tag that read Bonnie. “You can get away with another wearing.”
In the last minutes, she’d triggered one significant conversation.
“Tell me, Cass. Tell me what happened with Gordon.”
Cass shrugged. The liquor showed purple in her cheeks and viscous in her eyes.
“He found out. He found out about Van, and he left. He spent the night on the sofa—you remember the print with the fox hunters?”
“I still have it.”
“Of course—and the next morning he went off. I thought, to his office. But when I came home that night he was gone. He’d taken his clothes and some books. I never saw him since. He sold the house, divided everything down the middle, you know Gordon. To the penny. The kids stayed close with him, but he was hurt too bad.”
The physical exam took forever, she was anxious to get home quickly, but the contract required it. Bonnie kept repeating it was for her own good, and took some short cuts. Then there was a waiver to read. Cassandra signed, all the while resolving to change. She would talk to Van, end it, and then get herself home.
Remarkable. She felt as though it was not time but space she’d traversed, limitless skies and seas and land, to find this single coincidence on the globe where her car and home and closet awaited her. And that sense of good fortune buoyed her, these things would prop her up and her efforts. Especially the car—she liked to park the Lexus nose out, so when she returned she could admire the gold L on the grill.
As soon as she was behind the wheel, she took out her cell and called Van. Pressed the button that marked her voice message Urgent.
Then she shopped for dinner. She’d make lamb chops and home fries and buy two servings of seven-layer cake for dessert. At the store her mood swung with boiling emotions: the remorse of what she’d put in jeopardy. Unsuspecting, Van had said. Noble. And the confidence that somehow she would salvage it, the anxiety would soon be over.
Van returned the call as she arrived at the check-out. She almost didn’t answer. She could break this off without seeing him. Van was at his apartment, it was on her way, and she had time. Gordon was a creature of habit. He wouldn’t be home until six.
If she had let the call go unanswered, or not stopped to see him, if Van had protested more, perhaps things would have turned out differently. Van was disappointed, of course, but reasonable. Affairs end, his posture seemed to say. His equilibrium doubtless came from experience: he’d navigated these choppy waters before. She was put off, also disappointed, but in herself. Or, as she later decided, vulnerable. That must be why, when he had kissed her, ostensibly goodbye, and suggested one last tumble, she yielded. She would leave him with one to rattle the ship.
By the time she got home it was too late for dinner. Concerned over her safety from the voyage, Gordon had come home early. He was on a second Black-Jack-rocks and the resolve she’d developed from her day had sharpened with an edge of guilt. She sat across from him in the matched club chairs in the living room, the bag of groceries in her lap, and dived right into her confession.
“I don’t believe it,” he said when she’d finished.
“Oh Gordon. It’s true.” Tears spotted the lapel of her jacket and where they fell the coral deepened in tone. “But it’s over. I swear it.”
“I don’t believe it.” He always took his suit coat off when he arrived home and left his tie on through dinner. She liked the way that looked, he always sat at the table like the head of household in a Fifties sit-com.
“Where did these assignations occur?”
“Oh, all over. What difference can it make?”
He accepted this response.
“When was the last time you saw him?”
“And when was the last time you slept with him?”
She wanted to lie, though it seemed beyond the point. It concerned her that blood from the chops was beginning to soak through the butcher paper, through the sack.
“This afternoon,” she said, exhausted. “I left his bed this afternoon.”
Gordon came to his feet and walked to the side table in the front hall. Took his keys and went out to walk in the mild summer evening.
She put away the lamb chops. Eventually she would freeze them, and then, finding them a month later, throw them out as if she’d found the limb of a corpse, wrapped in white paper and tied with string in a bow. She poured herself the first Jack Daniels-rocks she’d ever had, and later that night ate her half of the cake. In her linen jacket she found the small pamphlet –it fit the pocket exactly—called The Voyager’s Handbook.
She opened it idly while she was eating the cake, and found herself rereading some of the Rules:
- Be yourself, but don’t impose yourself.
- Assure that on your Voyage you do NOTHING to disrupt, alter, or block the Future. Once you’re back in the Present by all means use your Voyage to consider beneficial, broad changes in your life (for example, Stop smoking! Lose weight! Don’t drink and drive!) Short version: you can’t change the Future, but you can change the Present. Where they meet, we’re not so sure.
She heard the sound of his return and waited while she scraped traces of frosting from the plate. She heard the bump of the closet door opening and closing, the sound of his moving about in the living room, the rustle of cloth. He came in and stared at the plate.
“There’s another piece,” she said hopefully. “Would you like it?” It was delicious, he would love it, but she stopped herself from saying so. Contrition and worry had left her tired and ravenous. Perhaps if he said no, she would have this second piece herself.
He didn’t answer. Finally he said in a voice that seemed far away, seven years and light years in distance, “I’m going to sleep now. Do you mind if I sleep on the couch?”
She shook her head dully.
“I won’t use the throw pillows. And I’ll just put the bedclothes in the washing machine tomorrow.”
When Cass had told her about that last night she’d omitted that part. It suddenly seemed important, though Cassandra couldn’t say why.