1. First Encounter
Caught like a cockroach in a narrow ravine, she crossed the avenue lined on either side by glass-and-steel, sky-extending monoliths and thronged with motorized predators, taking a path so familiar that it could have been paved with the DNA of her shoes. Stung by the wind, aurally assaulted by blaring horns, and puddle-sprayed by collected rainwater, she wondered, for an instant, if she could cross time the way she had just crossed the street.
Pushing open the door, she entered Java Heaven. The aromas of freshly brewed coffee hung in the air until it permeated her clothes and shelves were lined with planetary pockets of beans from its Four Corners.
Sliding the bills and coins across the counter to the acne-rutted face framed by wire-rimed glasses, she nodded toward him before he even asked, “The usual, Ms. Jeanette?”
Mirrorlessly attempting to convert her wind-whipped cotton candy into its brown, silky waterfall hairdo and inching the Styrofoam cup toward her, she warmed her hands on it as if it were a portable heater, before sitting at a tiny round table near the door, absorbing its hot, aromatic liquid by both olfactory and taste sensations.
Following in her footsteps, a plump lady picked up her own order from the counter and made her way to the door, but did not give herself sufficient clearance and bumped into Jeanette’s shoulder, spilling a few drops of her coffee on the table in the process.
“Oh, I’m so terribly sorry!” she exclaimed. “Here,” she continued, snatching her napkin, “let me clean it up.”
“Oh, don’t worry,” Jeanette assured her. “It’s only a few drops.”
Studying the woman as she absorbed the itinerant liquid, Jeanette felt a premonition flow through her.
“Why,” Jeanette said, “I somehow think we’ve met before.”
The woman squeezed the damp napkin into a ball and eyed Jeanette.
“No,” she said, slowly shaking her head, “I don’t think so.”
Compelled to connect with her, Jeanette invited, “If you’re not in too much of a hurry, why don’t you sit down,” she said, indicating the empty chair across from her with an open palm.
“Well,” the woman hesitated, glancing at her watch, “I guess I have a few minutes. I wasn’t in any rush to go back out into this drizzle anyway.”
Sipping her coffee, Jeanette nodded. “I know what you mean. I feel like I went through a hurricane just to cross the street from my office.”
“Oh, you work here!”
“Yes, right across the street,” she replied, pointing to the tower with the black marble staircase leading to its doors.
Bowing her head in embarrassment, the woman shared, “I used to work in this area myself many years ago, if my memory serves me,” she said with a nervous, barely audible laugh. “But, with my age, it sometimes doesn’t.”
Jeanette pursed her lips.
“Well,” the woman said at length, “I-I guess I’d better be moving on.”
Inexplicably drawn to her, Jeanette said, “Wait! Don’t go just yet! I mean, I’m usually here everyday around this time. Maybe we’ll meet again.”
“Well,” the woman responded, contemplating the offer, “maybe we will. We’ll see.”
Fishing through her pocketbook, Jeanette said, “Let me give you my name and number.” Annoyed, she exclaimed, “Oh, sugar!” as she delved deeper into her bag. “I just changed my pocketbook this morning and I’m afraid I didn’t put much in my new one…wait…here…I’ll-I’ll just give you my business card.”
Following suit, the woman rummaged through her own pocketbook. “Coincidentally, I recently cleaned out my bag and—I guess it’s the age thing—I’m afraid I didn’t put much back in it.”
Contemplating the dearth of supplies, she said, “I know. Why don’t I just write my information on the back of your card?”
Perplexed and brow-furrowed, Jeanette said, “But if you give me my business card back with your information, how’re you going to remember mine? You just said that your age doesn’t always work in your favor when it comes to remembering certain things.”
“I will. I’ll remember it—because it’s the same.”
Shaking her head, Jeanette pressed, “I-I don’t understand.”
Looking up, she only saw the vacant chair and the now-open door through which the cold, damp wind blew, passing through her as if she had been bodyless.
2. Aunt Wise
Ruffled and haggard, Jeanette sat down in the coffee shop three days later, reviewing her morning. Unable to change it, she thought of the elderly woman she had met there at the beginning of the week and reached into her pocketbook for the slightly bent business card, turning it around. Yet she found nothing on the back of it.
I’ll remember it—because it’s the same. The woman’s words cycled through her mind, as if they followed a loop-shaped track.
Looking up and startled into the present, she gazed at the woman standing next to her table.
“May I sit down?” she inquired.
“Um, oh, well, why, of course!” she blurted at length. “I-I didn’t expect to see you again so soon.”
“Well, I was in the area again. There’re some good bargains at that grocery store down the street and, on my income, I take advantage of whatever I can.”
Eyeing her, Jeanette nodded.
“You know, I was going through some photographs my mother had collected,” Jeanette explained. “Some are so old they’re actually in black and white and the paper’s begun to yellow. Well, I know you seemed familiar to me when I first met you. When I got to the photograph, I said, ‘This is that nice lady I met in the coffee shop the other day.’”
“Really,” the woman exclaimed, as she raised her eyebrows and emptied a sugar packet into her cup.
“Well, I…I really don’t think she’s you—or you’re her…well, you know what I mean.”
“How can you be so sure, dear?”
Releasing a breath-laden laugh, Jeanette continued, “Because she died when I was only three months old—or, at least that’s what I was told. Of course, at three months, I don’t remember much of anything.”
“Interesting,” the woman remarked, as she picked up her cup and locked her vision with Jeanette’s.
“I guess it was a little strange,” Jeanette continued. “Maybe it has to do with the genes or something—I don’t know—I don’t understand much about this stuff. I’m in insurance. But I always resembled my aunt, Beatrice, and not my mother—or so I’ve been told.” Releasing a little laugh, she continued, “About my aunt. I know what I look like in relation to my mother—she’s still alive—and I don’t look very much like her at all. But I only know my aunt from pictures.”
Laboriously raising her cup to her lips, she stared at the woman. “Until now. I somehow feel she’s come back to life and you’re her.”
“Well,” the woman said at length. “I hate to disappoint you, but I’m not your deceased aunt—appearances to the contrary.”
“No,” Jeanette said, once again releasing a nervous laugh. “No, you couldn’t be. How silly of me. How ridiculous!” Taking another sip, she asked, “Then who are you? I never really got your name.”
“Well,” said the woman, as she crumbled her now empty cup, “if I do resemble your aunt, then why don’t you just call me ‘Aunt Wise?’”
3. The Watch
“There’s your latte,” the pony tailed girl behind the counter said. The distinguished profile draped in a trench coat slowly unfolded his crisp newspaper as if it were an accordion at one table, while the college student played his laptop like a piano at another. Yet, what reverberated through Jeanette’s mind was anything but music; indeed, the volcanic hiss of the milk being foamed more accurately reflected the tumult in it.
‘You look upset, dear.”
Startled, Jeanette jolted her neck into an upright position as her eyes absorbed the gentle, somehow wise, elderly lady who, dipping her tea bag into her cup, seemed to fit her “Aunt Wise” name.
“You-you somehow always appear mysteriously, yet exactly when I need you.”
Pleased, the woman wrung her tea bag out and deposited it into a plastic bag “for later,” she explained. “On my income, you do what you have to do.” Clearing her throat, she continued, “And about being needed—well, nothing makes me happier. I don’t have a lot of money, but, at my age, I have quite a lot of experience—and maybe a little wisdom. And nothing makes me happier than to use it to help my younger niece.”
Gulping her coffee, Jeanette stumbled on her words. “Yes, well, thank you, Aunt Wise.”
“Now, what seems to be the reason for your upset?”
Staring at her, as if she were looking into a mirror, she began, “Well, I had a terrible morning.”
“Why, my dear, we’ve all had them. Life is not always smooth.”
“Yes, I know, but the terrible part is me.”
Folding her napkin, she continued, “It was inadvertent—I mean, I didn’t mean to…”
“Most of us usually never do.”
“You don’t understand,” she pleaded, as tiny tears oozed from the corners of her eyes. “I guess I wasn’t in the best of moods. I’ve been having some trouble with my boyfriend lately…I don’t really know where it’s going. I had a restless night, thinking it over, waking around my living room, and I didn’t have much sleep. So, I guess I was at my lowest point. I had no patience or tolerance for anything.” She blotted the teardrops with her napkin. “And then I accused one of my coworkers of something she didn’t do…and she was called in the office and got in trouble…”
“There, there,” Aunt Wise assured her, patting her arm. “I’m sure you didn’t mean any of this maliciously.”
Jolting upright and clearing her throat, she responded, “You think?”
“I’m sure; otherwise, you wouldn’t be so upset now.”
“Yes,” Jeanette agreed, breathing a restorative sigh. “Yes, you’re right. Otherwise, like you said—if I really meant it, I wouldn’t be so upset now.”
Taking the last few sips of her coffee, she reflected, “Boy, if I could unwind the hands of time—and I knew then what I know now—I would sure do things differently.”
Rubbing the sleeve on her left wrist and becoming visibly uneasy, Aunt Wise scanned the coffee shop, shooting a suspecting glance at each face. “Well, I guess we’ve all wanted that from time to time,” she said at length. “But the fact that you’re sorry for what you did not only tells me that you had no ill-intent, but that you learned from the experience.”
Nodding, Jeanette removed a compact from her pocketbook and inspected her eyes in its mirror. “Yes, I definitely did. I learned that I should never accuse anyone of anything before I’ve learned all the facts. And the last thing I should to is judge anyone when I’m tired, short, or impatient.”
“There you go,” soothed the woman, as she continued to twist her fingers around her wrist. “As long as you learned something, it was all worthwhile.”
Glancing at her watch, Jeanette said, “Well, I guess I’d better be getting back. It’s 1:20.”
“Oh, my dear,” responded Aunt Wise, as she pulled back her sleeve and consulted her own watch. “I don’t want to cause you to be late.”
Staring at the woman’s timepiece, Jeanette became mesmerized by it. “Wow, I never saw a watch like that!” she exclaimed.
Quickly recovering it with her sleeve, Aunt Wise advised, “Yes…well…I don’t want to keep you.”
“Yes, I know, but the watch…”
Appearing ill-at-ease, Aunt Wise began to stand up.
“Wait!” blurted Jeanette. “That watch. May I take another look at it?”
Reluctantly, she re-exposed it. Appearing more like a thin bracelet, it was the exact color of her skin, and the digital numbers representing the time, day, and date were infinitesimal, as if they had been inscribed directly in her wrist.
“I’ve never seen anything like that,” Jeanette said, as she digested the discovery before her.
Whispering, Aunt Wise explained, “It’s not really a watch in the traditional sense of the word, you know.”
“Not a watch? Then what is it? What does it do?”
Pausing and once again scanning the coffee shop’s faces, she shared, “Remember when you said you wished you could turn back the hands of time?”
Both perplexed and intrigued, Jeanette nodded, unable to understand her direction.
“Well,” she said, carefully weighing each word, “what if I told you that you could?”
Raising her eyebrows and lowering her lips, she asked in a barely audible tone, “And you’re going to tell me that’s possible?”
Staring into the woman’s eyes, she once again felt as if she were looking into a mirror and toyed with the fact, for the first time, that the kind, gentle, and wise elderly lady she had recently met was either suffering from senility or was a total crackpot.
“Yeah, maybe in science fiction books!” Jeanette finally exclaimed.
“Or when you recover some of your natural powers or abilities, which people at the end of their lives tend to do, as they skirt the fringes between the physical world and the eternal one.”
Spelling skepticism and disbelief with her eyes, Jeanette stared at her, as if she had been pure, bodyless soul.
“And you’re going to tell me you can do that?”
Slowly nodding, Aunt Wise added, “And so could you—with this watch.”
Like an alabaster statue, Jeanette sat motionlessly across from her. “And for me to be able to do that…”
“You’d have to wear the watch.”
Almost suspended above herself in a void separate from the coffee shop, she uttered, “Wear the watch,” as she rode in the middle of a seesaw between terror and fascination.
“And if I changed time, so to speak, where would I go? I mean, would I come back?”
Nodding, Aunt Wise continued in a whisper. “It depends which way you’d like to go. If you went back, time would play out again until you ended up at the precise second you adjusted it. And if you went forward, you’d end up at whatever time you desired—which you would’ve reached anyway–eventually.”
Scanning the woman with her eyes, as if they served as a sincerity-measuring device, she slowly asked, “And would I change? I mean, would I look different? Would I become something different?”
Shaking her head back and forth, she assured, “Oh, no, my dear—nothing like that! It would still be the same you that you are now—just earlier or later—nothing else. This isn’t science fiction, as you labeled it—just an unknown ability few, if any, have discovered.”
Swallowing her anxiety, Jeanette asked, “Then it could be? Then I really could move back the hands of time?”
Aunt Wise nodded affirmatively.
“And, how would it work?”
Inching the watch down her wrist to her hand, Aunt Wise said, “You only have to slip this on.”
Fascinated, Jeanette moved her left arm closer to the woman’s until Aunt Wise inched the time device over her fingers and then over Jeanette’s in a seamless link, as if one arm had been an extension of the other, until it had settled on her wrist.
“I can’t believe it,” Jeanette observed. “It fits like a glove. It’s so light. What kind of material is it made of?” Rotating her wrist, she examined it. “It-it almost feels like it was made to order—just for me.”
Aunt Wise only continued to send an invisible beam of light from her eyes into Jeanette’s.
“And-and how does it work? I mean, what do I do—just wear it?”
“No,” the woman whispered. “There’re tiny indentations on the side. It takes some getting used to. The arrow one indicates direction—either ‘time back’ or ‘time ahead.’ The other indentations are for what you want to set it at. You can set it according to the minute, hour, day, date, and year.”
For the first time in her life, Jeanette felt as if she could harness the power of the universe with the touch of a button, as she continued to examine the flesh-toned device on her wrist.
“So, for example,” she slowly began, “if I press the ‘time back’ indentation and move the hour to ‘9:00 a.m.’, I would restart my day?”
“Precisely—if that’s what you wish. Just make sure the watch never slips off you.”
“Of course! So, you mean—like I said—I could move back the hands of time and do it all over again?”
Nodding, Aunt Wise closed her eyes.
“So-so, for example, if I wanted to start today over again….”
“Then you would have to press the ‘time back” indentation. It’s very sensitive. Use you nail to make sure it engages.”
Spearing the indentation with the nail on her index finger, she saw the ‘time back’ light illuminate. Studying the woman, she said with deliberate caution, as if she walked through a mine field with her fingers, “I-I don’t feel any different.”
“Well, you’re not supposed to. Besides, you’ve only engaged the direction. You haven’t told it by how many minutes or hours you want it to take you.”
Breathing heavily and immersed in a strange mixture of anxiety and intrigue, she blurted, “I can’t believe this! This is impossible! This is absurd! You expect me to believe that I can actually travel through time? And if I press the hour indentation, I can just start my day all over again and avoid the mistakes I made—going to the office well-rested and not distrusting or accusing my coworker? What a gift!”
“Oh, my dear,” the woman advised as she waved her hand over Jeanette’s wrist in a thwarting attempt, “it doesn’t work…”
Determinedly pressing the détente, Jeanette saw the digital numbers flip back to ‘9:00 a.m.’
4. Time Back
Like a vertical mouth, the elevator opened its lips on the eighth floor, revealing a practically-swallowed woman: her silky, brown waterfall hair had been transformed into a boulder-collided splash.
Suppressing a yawn, she entered the maze of cubicles, chewed by the office’s bite. The xeroxing machines moaned, as they spit out duplicated documents. The receptionist grunted, “Good morning, Jeanette.” The ringing telephones wailed. And the hundreds of fingers caterpillaring their way over the computer keyboards crawled into the larva of her incubating headache.
Slapping her desk with her pocketbook, she sat down, rubbing her eyes and drawing a day-initiating breath. She had hardly ended her night.
Blotting her thick, red lipstick; dabbing at her auburn hair; and adjusting her curve-revealing skirt, Gloria, her coworker, slipped past Jeanette, leaving a trail of perfume her nostrils desperately attempted to reject.
“Good morning, Jeanette.”
Continuing to thumb through her mail, Jeanette only uttered, “Yeah, morning Gloria.”
Head bowed and word processor bound, she spent most of her morning gnawing at the insurance claims, until she returned to her cubicle after the 10:30 break.
Scanning the report left on her desk, she focused on the deficit figure stretching its arms from the paper to her neck, as verified by the initials “GD.” God damn Gloria D’dario, she thought. Her perfume left an imprint more indelible than her fingers had.
Rotating her neck to the left, she released bullets into the bulls eyes of Gloria.
“You rat!” she fired.
Recapping her lip gloss, Gloria engaged her body’s trigger. “Where the hell are you coming from today? Someone got up on the wrong side of the bed this morning—or maybe the wrong bed altogether. Spent the night without Doug again?”
“How many times have I told you to leave my personal life out of this? I’m a professional, here to do a job. My title’s Insurance Adjuster—not Pillow Adjuster, like yours.”
“When have I not been the epitome of fairness when I’ve acted on your behalf?”
“How ‘bout now?” Jeanette screamed, throwing the report on her desk. “Do you see the deficit on the bottom of it—or maybe your vision’s having trouble penetrating all that eyeliner?”
Snatching the paper, Gloria ricocheted, “Maybe your own vision’s faulty. What makes you so sure I haven’t acted on your behalf?”
Stretching her arm around the cubicle’s divider like a slinky, she counter-fired, “I suppose there’s another ‘GD’ who works in our office?”
“Yes,” Gloria affirmed, “those are my initials—but I only verified that I reviewed the report, not that you had actually caused the deficit. I’m not high enough to do something like that.”
Standing between them, the tweed-suited woman could only have represented their supervisor, Naomi Gilchrist.
“All right,” she said, “what’s the reason for this ruckus?” Passing her outstretched palm over the cubicle configuration, she urged, “People are trying to work here; they’re trying to represent our company to our customers in a professional manner as they talk—or, should I say, ‘try to talk’—on the phone.”
“Look at this! Look at this!” Jeanette screeched. “She’s accused me of showing a deficit in my department and I have her initials to prove it.”
“All right,” she said, “let’s go into my office and sort this out.”
Closing the door behind her and rerouting her gray hair around her ear, she took her position behind her smoked glass desk, moving her glasses to the tip of her nose and bouncing her gaze from employee to employee as if she were playing a game of laser tag.
Losing the battle between her pink tissue and her ever-triumphing tears, Gloria blurted, “I don’t know what she’s talking about! She’s accusing me of either verifying or causing a deficit in her department. I don’t know what’s come over her today. I didn’t do either! I only initialed the forms according to the review process—to see if all the information was entered correctly. I didn’t accuse her of showing the deficit!”
“Oh, come on,” Jeanette countered. “I have the report right here in my hand. If ‘GD’ isn’t Gloria D’dario, then what does it stand for?”
Scanning the document, Naomi asked, “And those are your initials, Gloria?”
“Yes,” she responded. “I’m not denying that. But they don’t mean that I somehow looked up or discovered that she caused a deficit. I’m only a reviewer.”
Absorbing Jeanette’s fury like a sponge, Naomi turned the report around several times. “And where’s Mr. Hennely’s signature?” she asked Gloria at length.
“That would come next,” Gloria replied.
“What to you mean ‘that would come next?’”
“After me, the report would get submitted to Mr. Hennely.”
“No,” Naomi shook her head, “that’s not what would come next. That should’ve come first. As reviewer of these claims, your initials verify, as the final step, that everything is full and complete. Whatever’s on them goes on to Jeanette’/s monthly performance report. This is the second or third time that you’ve gotten the sequence wrong.”
“But I swear,” Gloria pleaded, as a mudslide of black eyeliner, green eyeshade, and pink rouge flowed down her cheeks. “I wasn’t trying to get Jeanette in trouble. I was only doing my job. I just reviewed the form and verified the review with my initials—not the claims made by it.”
“You could’ve clearly affected her performance statistics and potential merit raise. I’ll immediately issue an instructive email about the proper sequence to Claims Reviewers. Now, you’re both dismissed.”
Nodding to Jeanette, Naomi reached for her cellphone, while Gloria fled the office, audibly announcing her route as she slammed the bathroom door down the hall.
Pinnacling into an internal thunderclap, Jeanette’s headache released its initial precipitation in the form of tears as she rode the elevator toward the ground floor toward her lunch break.
Oh, my God, what have I done? she thought. I had no patience or tolerance today, after such a bad night. My jealousy or envy of Gloria, who obviously has no trouble attracting a man, came out as anger toward her, yet she really didn’t mean anything malicious toward me. She didn’t follow the right sequence with the claims forms, but it wasn’t to deliberately screw me. And now I’ve gotten her in trouble. Oh, God, what’ve I caused? What am I gonna do to make all this right?
Following the scent of brewing beans, she crossed the avenue to the coffee shop.
[Continued in “A Story of Time: Part Two” on this very website.]