I sincerely hope I don’t catch myself masturbating.
That was my last thought as I heard the tape begin to slow down. I laid down, relaxed my extremities and took a deep breath as the tape slowed more, and the sound dropped in octaves until that perfect moment when the last, single second droned in a loop and there was a sensation like lying just under the surface of a rushing river. The drone of the tape echoed off unknown surfaces in this unknown space where I didn’t feel weightless, but exhilarated, like some airborne thing.
And then it was over and the sound left my ears and I opened my eyes and I was lying prone in my old bedroom. The tape whirred in the boombox next to me, the gears grinding against the end of Side A. The snap of the PLAY button disengaging woke me up fully from my trip. I was alone, thank goodness.
My crappy old guitar lay on the bed. My girlfriend’s slightly less-crappy guitar leaned against the closet door. I sat on the bed and idly tuned the thing up and looked around. The mess was a lot less charming at fourteen years remove. Stacks of CDs, books, papers, dishes occupied every available surface. The dim room had the musty smell of old laundry trapped behind a rarely-opened door.
Time travel, as it turned out, was pretty easy. I’d found this old cassette while I was digging through a box my mom had given me of my brother’s old things. It was a tape I’d made back in high school–it was this really embarrassing pastiche of me singing really bad songs I’d written, prank phone calls, and songs I’d taped off the radio. It’s the kind of thing one finds when and where they least expect it, is burdensome to know it exists, and is therefore kept and cherished forever. I’d popped it in out of morbid curiosity. It began, mercifully, with a Matthew Sweet song–the tape starting a bar into it, the DJ shouting the station’s call letters over the opening riff. I lay on my living room floor and then… and then I was in my parent’s old house, in my old bedroom. And not metaphorically, I was actually there. I’d quickly (and I still think I’m a kind of secret time genius for thinking of this) ejected the tape, flipped it to Side B, hit play and lay back down. That brought me back home.
I’m not certain what made me want to come back. Walking through the old subdivision didn’t really clarify that. I’d broken one of the cardinal rules of time travel by going out in public, but given the frequency with which I’d ever conversed with any of our old neighbors, I didn’t think I was in danger of running into anyone. Plus, I didn’t want to be lurking in my bedroom when I eventually got home from school. That would be creepy.
So I hid in the bushes near my old bus stop and waited for it to arrive. Not long after, the long yellow bus groaned and squealed and stammered and pulled away in a cloud of fumes and there I was. Wearing several layers of black clothes, despite the May Georgia heat. Shoulder-length hair pulled back in a pony tail, I leaned forward as I walked against the weight of my bookbag. I stared at the ground as I walked, only slightly bobbing my head at whatever was playing on my Walkman–a ratty pair of headphones at my ears, the stringy cord swaying at each step. It was almost quiet enough for me to hear the mechanisms whirring around inside the tape player, to sense the emulsion sliding around the heads and capstans. The electrical impulses traveling up the copper wiring into the cheap plastic speakers–the tiny vibrations pumping directly into his ears–my ears–moving bones and converting air back into electrical impulses inside of my barely comprehending mind.
I didn’t want to attempt a direct confrontation and be startling, so I positioned myself on my periphery and attempted to make eye contact. When I sauntered past without so much as a glance, I ran to my driveway and waited.
And there, at ten paces, we stared at each other. Like pistols at high noon. He pulled the headphones down to his neck and straightened up. I tried to appear as friendly as I could while meeting his gaze and being the same person as him, only older.
–Wha… he asked.
I was breaking another cardinal rule of time travel: don’t meet yourself or you could make the universe implode or something. I didn’t see that happening now, so I figured we were safe.
–Hey look, you wanna go for a drive?
I held up the keys I’d swiped from the pegboard by the front door.
Once in close quarters, side by side in my mom’s old Mercury Sable, he seemed to loosen up a little. He dug a cassette out of his bookbag and put it in the deck.
–Pixies? I asked. He nodded. Of course.
We drove that way for a few miles, letting Surfer Rosa run out Side A. We got to an empty stretch of undeveloped land around the time the tape flipped over, magnetic heads snapping into place, the reels running in reverse and an REM album started, again, the transformation from electricity to air and back. The car sped us through country making a bid for suburb. I knew that in a few years, they’d start building a neighborhood here, then a shopping center across the road. And then by the time I was out of college, both of those things would be already falling into disrepair. This whole area would go from bustling back to the quiet we were driving through now. He didn’t know any of this.
–You wanna drive?
He started to say something, I assured him that yeah, I’d walk him through it. I pulled over and we walked around the car. I got in, buckled up–he stood outside at the open door for a minute, silent, not moving–before hopping into the bucket seat.
–Where we going? I asked.
–You tell me old man.
I recognized that tone and the squint in his eyes. He regretted saying it as soon as it came out. He was testing his boundaries. I chuckled.
–Just take it up to that stretch by the park, there’s a long straightaway there.
–So why are you here?
I had to think about that for a second.
–I don’t know.
–You traveled back in time and you don’t know why?
–If you found out you could, wouldn’t you just go? And you are me, so I know what you’d do because I did it.
–Good to know. … So when do I start getting fat?
–I’m not fat! I’m… 30.
–But I mean, like, you’re doing okay, right? Like, I’m gonna be alright?
–Yeah. Trust me, you will leave this town, things will be …interesting for a while. But your life gets so much bigger after high school and man, after college. You know…hang in there.
I felt pretty lame saying that last part. But one of the biggest rules of time travel was not to say or do anything that would fuck up the future, so, apart from dropping in on my sixteen year old self, I was staying pretty guarded.
–So you’re married. Who do I get married to?
–Man, I can’t tell you that. You’ll meet her eventually.
–Is she anyone I’m in school with now?
I couldn’t help myself there.
–Look, I’m not gonna drop a bunch of hints for you about what your future’s gonna be like. You’re going to live, you’ll fuck up occasionally–it mostly turns out okay. But there is one thing…
I swear that at this point I didn’t pause and stare out the window for dramatic effect, I just had to think carefully about what I was going to say next.
–You should talk to your brother more. Like start having conversations with him. I know that you feel like the black sheep in the family and you’ve got a lot of issues… There’s…um…
He was looking at me. I had to gesture at him to keep his eyes on the road. Christ, I could be flaky.
–That’s really the only thing I can ask you to do. You know he’s a quiet guy.
–Yeah, he is.
–So, you know.
The tape had played all the way to “West of the Fields” by the time we pulled back into the driveway. Downstairs in my bedroom, I got the boombox ready to send me back. He picked up a guitar and strummed a couple things.
–Hey, you wanna hear this song I’m working on?
–I’ve heard it. You’ve got a coffee house show coming up?
–Dude. Seven songs. Keep it to seven songs. That is an acceptable set length for an acoustic singer-songwriter.
Tape went in on Side B. I hit play, lay down, and was gone.
I came to on my living room floor. My living room was still my living room. My house was still my house. My cat ran up and pounced on my chest.
That’s funny. I never had a cat before.
This piece was originally written for a Hyde ATL reading themed around time travel.