Tor.com is pleased to reprint “The Difference Between Love and Time” by Catherynne M. Valente, as featured in Someone in Time: Tales of Time-Crossed Romance—available from Solaris.
Even time travel can’t unravel love
Time-travel is a way for writers to play with history and imagine different futures—for better, or worse. When romance is thrown into the mix, time-travel becomes a passionate tool, or heart-breaking weapon.
The space/time continuum is the sum total of all that ever was or will be or ever possibly could have been or might conceivably exist and/or occur, the constantly tangling braid of physical and theoretical reality, (steadily degrading) temporal processes, and the interactions between the aforementioned.
It is also left-handed.
It is, as you have probably always suspected, non-linear, non-anthropic, non-Euclidean, and wholly non-sensical.
In point of fact, it’s a complete goddamned mess.
It has severe social anxiety.
And a weakness for leather jackets.
We first met when I was six. Our fathers arranged a playdate. The space/time continuum looked like a boy my own age, with thick glasses in plastic Army camouflage-printed frames, a cute little baby afro, and a faded T-shirt with the old mascot for the poison control hotline on it. Mr. Yuk, grimacing on the chest of time and space, sticking out his admonishing green Yuk-tongue. POISON HELP! 1-800-222-1222.
It smelled like lavender and bread baking in a stone oven.
I said I wanted to play Lego.
It looked helplessly at me with big brown eyes magnified into enormity by prescription lenses like hockey pucks.
It picked up a black block with an arch in it. Part of the drawbridge in my Medieval Castle Siege playset. The space/time continuum handed me the black arch and opened its mouth and the sound of a pulsar spinning, turning, thumping through silver-deafening radio static came out instead of “Where does this piece go?” or “It’s nice to meet you” or “The idea of your shitty Lego drawbridge amusing me for even a nanosecond is hilarious on a geological scale.”
The space/time continuum is a manifold topology whose coordinates can and frequently do map onto certain physical states, events, bodies. But that map looks like one of those old paper diner menus with a giant squiggle on it labelled Enter Here on one side and You Win! on the other.
And it changes all the time.
And you can’t win.
And the crayon evaporates in your hand and rematerializes in your hospital bassinet under the Welcome Baby! card.
Or on the surface of the moon.
It doesn’t care for television except for re-runs of Law & Order. It cannot get enough of predictability. It says every episode is a bizarre upside-down bubble universe in which justice exists and things make sense.
The first real actual word the space/time continuum ever said to me was: “Nothing.”
The first words I said to it were: “You can’t just go around saying ‘nothing’ to people, it’s weird. Do you want my extra Capri Sun?”
The space/time continuum wrapped its skinny baby arms around me and whispered it again in my ear: “Nothing.”
I didn’t like being hugged then. I yelled for my mom. She didn’t come for a long time.
In high school, the space/time continuum looked like a scene kid with a million flannels and ironic shirts, a long black undercut, and a patch on his backpack from some band called Timeclaw. It got in a lot trouble for drawing or carving or scratching its initial in desks all over the place, this funky S that kinda also looks like a pointy figure 8. But not lying on its side like the infinity symbol. Infinity standing up.
I’ve seen them everywhere. Still do. The space/time continuum gets around.
You’ve probably seen it, too.
It failed all its classes but shop. It was always punctual at the circular saw. It never failed to make a perfect version of the assignment from oak, birch, ash, even plastic. Every day, it brought me the objects it had been compelled to make by Mr. Wooton. A model PT Cruiser. A wooden orchid. A puzzle shaped like an iguana. My favorite was this bare green circuit board with a little lightbulb on it that flared to life if you put your finger in the right place. It used you to complete the circuit.
The space/time continuum and I sat behind the bike racks for hours after school smoking weed and putting our fingers in the right places.
Ocean Shores, WA is not the space/time continuum, though it is, of necessity, an inescapable part of it. Ocean Shores, WA is a city that used to be a pretty big deal and is now not even a little deal.
See, back in the sixties, the state of Washington thought maybe it would legalize gambling because fuck it, why not, and people started buying up all the land and building nightclubs and hotels and gold courses and bungalows and boardwalks so that when the legislature hit the buzzer, the good times would be ready to roll. All kinds of movie stars and rich people’s girlfriends and purveyors of semi-legal entertainment poured in from California. But then the state of Washington thought maybe it would not legalize gambling so now there’s just a lot of cold sand dunes and closed attractions and motels with names like Tides Inn or Mermaid’s Rest Motor Court and Weigh Station.
Ocean Shores is hollowed out like a gourd someone meant to make into a drum for a beautiful party. But they wandered off and maybe even forgot what drums are to begin with so now it’s just an empty scraped-out dead vegetable lying on a cold beach nobody would ever hold a party on.
And then a seagull shits in it.
My mom and my dad and me used to always drive down for the last weekend of summer. Dad would always give me a riddle that I had to solve by the end of the trip. Like the one with the wolf and the chicken and the bag of grain or what has a ring but no finger? I’d play the twenty-year old games on the last remaining boardwalk while my parents argued about what to do with me under the white noise of the waves.
Eventually dad left and it was just me and mom. We’d rent a bungalow that was once destined to be Jayne Mansfield’s fuck grotto or whatever and sit in the moldy jacuzzi freezing our asses off, singing showtunes to the seals and shipping freighters out at sea.
The space/time continuum thinks Ocean Shores was at its best when only dinosaurs lived there.
I asked the space/time continuum who its mother was once. Did she have fluffy curly hair like mine, did she smell nice like mine, was her name Alice like mine, did she sniffle a lot like she was crying even though she usually wasn’t like mine, did she always pack a fruit and a vegetable in his lunchbox (a Lisa Frank purple-blue cosmic orca one that I secretly coveted)?
The space/time continuum glanced nervously at the ashy green blackboard at the front of our classroom. This made me dislike the space/time continuum, as at the time many of the children liked to make fun of me for being dim-witted, even though I do all right. But it gave no other answer, and only a long time later did I consider that it was not looking at the blackboard at all, but the eraser.
When the space/time continuum stuck that black Lego arch over the scuffed blue moat pieces, it stopped being a Medieval Castle Siege playset and started being a Cartoon Sparkle Rainbow Geoduck playset.
Our dads didn’t notice. They just kept drinking beers, one after the other, lifting the red and white Ranier cans to their lips and setting them down automatically after each rhythmic sip like they were beer-drinking machines stuck in an infinite recursion function.
The space/time continuum in the Mr. Yuk shirt smiled at me shyly. It was giving me a gift. It wanted desperately to please me. I was not pleased. I liked my Medieval Castle Siege playset a lot. It came with four different colored horse minifigs. Geoducks are weird gross dumb giant clams that live in the mud for a thousand years and come with zero horse minifigs. Their shells aren’t rainbow-striped and they don’t have friendly eyes with big long eyelashes and smiling mouths and they definitely don’t sparkle.
I didn’t even think Lego made a Cartoon Sparkle Rainbow Geoduck playset.
But the space/time continuum’s eyelashes were very long, too. So I said thank you.
It made the pulsar sound again.
You have to understand I was alone a lot of the time. It came and went as it pleased. But not because it was afraid to commit. The space/time continuum asked me to marry it when I was eight and we were pretending to fish with branches and string in the pond behind the primate research labs on the edge of town. I couldn’t figure out why the fish weren’t biting. I was going to bring my mom the biggest salmon you ever saw and she was gonna say how good I was and be so happy instead of staring at the dish soap for an hour while I watched the Muppets, but the stupid fish weren’t on board with my plan.
That time, the space/time continuum looked like a girl my age with a red NO NUKES shirt on under her overalls. It said: We didn’t bring any bait. Or hooks. And there are no fish in this pond because it’s not really a pond, it’s a big puddle that dries up as soon as there’s no rain for a week. Be my wife forever, limited puddle-being.
I said: Shut up, your face is a puddle.
The space/time continuum lay its pigtailed head on my shoulder as the sunset sloshed liquid pink and gold and said: We are a house and a hill.
But we were already holding hands so tight, without even noticing it.
So it’s not about commitment.
The space/time continuum just has a hard time with confined spaces. Like the public education system. And calendars. And apartments.
Its favorite album is the iconic 1979 Breakfast in America by often underrated British prog-pop group Supertramp. But its favorite song is Time After Time by Cyndi Lauper.
I don’t really have anything to say in defense of its weakness for easy listening.
I guess it just wants something to be easy.
The space/time continuum is holistically without gender.
Its pronouns are it/everything.
Or, to put it another way, it is a quivering, boiling mass of all physio-psychological states that will/are likely to/have develop/ed across every extinct/extant/unborn species, making the whole issue pointless, irrelevant, and none of my business. The seventy-fourth time we met it looked like a Estonian woman who had just graduated from the Rhode Island School of Design, so you can see what I mean.
Butch on the streets, churning maelstrom of intersecting time and matter in the sheets.
Later, the space/time continuum told me that was only the second time we’d met in objectively perceived time. Which always meant its perception, never mine. It was freshly in love. I was forty and tired. It was July. Rain beat the streets down till they gave up. The puddle talk happened yesterday. Its hair was so long and fine I felt certain that if I touched it, it would all dissipate like smoke. But I really, really wanted to touch it anyway. It wore a pale blue leather jacket over a white T-shirt with a Frank Lloyd Wright quote on it in thin grey Arial letters. It looked so fucking cool. It was always so much cooler than me.
I took the continuum to that little Eritrean restaurant down on Oak. It ordered tsebhi derho with extra injera and ate like food had only just been invented, which, given the nature of this story, I feel I should stress it had not. I just had the yellow lentil soup. The space/time continuum cried in my arms. It thought it had lost track of me. I didn’t answer its text messages.
If it was a commercial cereal brand it would be Cap’n Crunch Oops All Genders.
I would be Cinnamon Toast Chump.
Whatever it looks like, it always wears glasses. Safer that way. For all of us.
The Frank Lloyd Wright quote was: No house should ever be on a hill or anything. It should be of the hill. Belonging to it. Hill and house should live together, each the happier for the other.
We had our first kiss in middle school.
The space/time continuum took me to the winter dance. It wore white. I wore black. We looked like winter, the wide deep snow and a bare tree. It picked me up at 6:45 and tied a corsage around my wrist. It said the flower was an odontoglossum orchid. Native to Argentina. Only grows in cold climates. Like me.
When the space/time continuum put its hands on my waist, lock-elbowed, stiff, uncertain, I smelled a lonely ultraviolet sea churning on a small world in the constellation of Taurus. It wasn’t winter in the constellation of Taurus. It was spring, and the sea on that planet was in love with a particular whale-plant living inside it, and I understood a lot of things just then.
When Bryan Adams hit his guitar solo, the space/time continuum kissed me, and I knew why he’d been wearing that poison control shirt when we first met, and also what it felt like to be a whale who is also a flower, floating inside a desperate sea.
The ninety-fourth time we met, the space/time continuum was on Tinder. It had a dog in its profile pic, even though it doesn’t have a dog in real life. Its other pics showed it fishing, hiking, doing a color run.
This was its profile:
S, Young at Heart
>0.1 miles away
I’m sorry. I was wrong. I’m an idiot. I love you. I’ll do better this time. I can be better. Come home.
But then I think it got nervous and confused because below that it said:
If you can’t handle me at the peak of my recursive timeline algorithm, you don’t deserve me when I’m an iguana.
The dog was a corgi. But not the orange kind, the black and white kind. Its name tag said Snack McCoy.
That’s a pretty solid Law & Order joke. So it probably was the space/time continuum’s dog. Somewhen. Elsewise.
I wonder if there was a version of me in the Snack McCoy universe. I wonder if there was a version of you.
I wonder if everything there was made out of crunchy biscuit treats.
I don’t know why the space/time continuum stopped loving me. Maybe I worked too much, too hard, too late. Maybe it wanted more than cozy taco nights in a rooftop apartment above, in descending order, a comedy club, a Planned Parenthood, and a laundromat. Maybe it wanted less. Was I overly critical? (Why the fuck do people just STOP at completely unpredictable points, what’s wrong with you, why would you set it up that way? Sleep on the goddamned couch, you narcissist.) Did I just consistently fail to put my dishes in the dishwasher right away? I could’ve done it any time I wanted. Cups go in rack not on counter. Easy. And yet. Did I not support its interests? Maybe I didn’t understand its love language. Or how to set up a retirement account. Maybe I took too long to lose the baby weight. Maybe I didn’t let it have enough me-time.
Maybe I stopped really listening. Maybe the nexus of spatial and temporal possibilities was just sick of my shit.
Maybe I don’t deserve to be loved.
That’s probably it.
One time it showed our first grade teacher, Mrs. Aldritch, the drawing it made during quiet period and she cried spinal fluid out of her eyes so that was pretty intense.
It refused to show me. Even though it borrowed my black crayon to color with in the first place.
The space/time continuum’s father looked very much like Mr. Clark, who used to run Dazzle Dan’s Vintage Diner by the train tracks. Mr. Clark’s name was not Dan. It was Clarence Peter Clark. But the previous owner wasn’t named Dan either. He was named Roderigo R. Rodriguez, which I am not making up. But it was pretty hard to be Mexican around here back then, especially if you wanted to sell all-American nostalgia burgers with lettuce, tomato, onion, and mayo, so he just went by Roddy.
Roddy was from Guadalajara. There’s a cathedral there called the Catedral de la Asuncion de Maria Santisima with two golden spires standing up into the sky and the birds together, completely identical.
Clarence Peter Clark was from Yakima. There’s nothing much in Yakima.
Nobody knows where Dazzle Dan came from.
By the time I was thirteen I was pretty sure the space/time continuum didn’t actually have a father, just a thing in its house like one of those old drinky bird toys that sat on the lip of a glass and rocked back and forth more or less forever, once you set it going. It needed a father to make sure no one suspected it wasn’t actually a boy with glasses or a girl with pigtails or an Estonian exchange student. But it didn’t need a person. Just a bobbing blob of weighted plastic wearing Mr. Clark’s face, lifting can after red and white can of Ranier beer to its mouth in the background until the death of all matter in a fiery entropic abyss.
On our second playdate we tried to play Cowboys and Indians. I heard the other kids doing it. Cowboys had horses, and I loved horses more than candy, so I was pretty excited.
But I never ever got to be the cowboy. The space/time continuum said cowboy is just another word for the generational trauma inflicted by the colonizer’s whole-ass inability to access empathy for anyone but himself and the debt to entropy incurred by his solipsistic commitment to almost unimaginable violence as an expression of personal potency.
Then it poured the living memory of the surrender of the Nez Perce in the Bear Paw Mountains like molten platinum into my brain and blood shot out of my nose and my eyes at the same time and my pinky toe turned into a suciasaurus rex tooth. The space/time continuum panicked, whispering oh shit, oh shit, I’m sorry, I’ll fix it, whereupon it flooded my grey matter with golden retrievers and the smell of chocolate cookies baking and the exact emotional sensations experienced in the moment of era-defining scientific discoveries and a few old Bob Ross episodes just in case.
My appendix ruptured and I didn’t speak again for ten months.
My parents sent me to specialists.
A lot of them.
The space/time continuum is a total slob and a nightmare roommate.
It leaves its wadded-up proto-stars all over the floor. It won’t do the dishes even when I cook, since it only pretends to eat. It washes clothes we haven’t bought yet, then forgets to put them away for weeks. It has taken a moral stance against both mowing the lawn and dusting. It says doing so would only appropriate the culture of sequential cause and effect, which it has no right to wear like a costume.
It leaves a ring of quantum foam around the bathtub to just get crustier and crustier until I give in and scrub it off myself. Stare for fifteen minutes while my knees get sore on the badly-grouted tile thinking about equal division of labor and if maybe we should get a chore chart, if that would even help, or if it just thinks this is my work because I’m the one who’s going to die someday so it bothers me more. Finally run the water and watch it all swirl down the silver drain into the waste infrastructure dimension.
“An alarm clock,” I whisper to the slowly rotating water. “An alarm clock has a ring but no finger.”
Every Valentine’s Day, the space/time continuum wraps my gift in pink and red paper with hearts or baby angels or birds or radio signals all over it and practically climbs the walls with excitement waiting for me to open it.
Those are some of the best times I remember. The moments before I rip the baby angel bird hearts open.
There’s never anything inside the box. It’s just that after I open the box, I know a story about love I didn’t know before I opened the box. And I mean I know it like it happened to me. Like it’s my own story.
One year it was this: the Loch Ness monster was absolutely real. She lived to be about 500 years old like that one ugly Greenland shark they found before a Swiss tourist hit her in the head with a boat propeller in 1951. There used to be two of them, even. A mating pair. Nessie had a single baby around the time of the Great London Fire and I felt her love that baby monster fishosaur down in the dark and the cold that wasn’t dark or cold to her at all. I felt the absolute safety and security of thousands of pounds of water pressure like one of those weighted vests for anxious dogs. I felt Nessie love her baby so much the temperature of the whole lake rose by one degree.
My gifts aren’t as good. My gifts do not come from the time-pit out of which springs the Pleiades and ring-tailed lemurs and the Battle of Tours and Loch Ness, they come from my checking account.
Last year I gave it cufflinks. I don’t fucking know, you try buying for a space/time continuum who definitionally has everything.
Here is an abridged list of things the space/time continuum and I fought about:
What movie to watch.
Whether or not I had a hostile tone this morning.
The exact dictionary definition of narcissist.
If it’s technically gaslighting to make a fight never have happened.
Where it goes when we’re not together.
Why it won’t let anything last.
The whole thing about it allowing death to exist.
If it ever thought for one minute about consent before fucking about with my Lego and/or timestream.
Whether it has to pay rent.
Why it didn’t tell me to go to the hospital that night because we both know it had to have known.
Why it is the way it is.
Why it refuses to change.
Why it decided capitalism had to be a thing.
Why everything sucks so much all the time.
Why I don’t think a baby is a good idea.
This is what it looks like when the space/time continuum is mad at you.
You wake up in the morning already late because your alarm clock now reads 1-800-222-1222. The auto-set coffee machine isn’t left on for you and the taco leftovers from last night are all gone and its car isn’t in the overnight guest spot and you can’t find your phone and there’s no dishes in the cupboards and there’s no cute little post-it note on the fridge telling you to have a nice day (PS we’re out of milk) but there definitely is lipstick scrawled on the bathroom mirror. The expensive stuff, MAC Saint Germain, big swooping letters that read:
The speed of light in a vacuum is the same for all observers regardless of the directionality of the light source. Asshole.
You’ll have to wait a few weeks for the space/time continuum to cool off and get a little cheeky over a couple of bottles of bodega rosé to find out that it 100% ate all the pad see ew leftovers, just to spite you. But then it got sick and spewed total paralyzing awareness of causality all over the 98 bus and, like, everyone on that route is now loaded up with heavy sedation or Fields Medals but ANYWAY it’s just maybe possible your phone is embedded in an extremely put-out pachycephlosaurus’s eye socket.
But either way, you have to stop freaking out about the car.
The continuum doesn’t have a car. It’s never had a car. It doesn’t drive. It doesn’t even have a license so much as it contains everyone else’s licenses. It’s just that sometimes a pocket universe containing a reality in which Monet was never born looks a lot like a 2005 Inca Gold Pearlcoat PT Cruiser with a faded COEXIST bumper sticker half-peeled off the back and a leather frog keychain swinging from the rear-view.
Then the space/time continuum starts acting way too nice. It lets you pick the movie and what kind of takeout to order this time and gives you a foot-rub before admitting that your favorite patterned cups and soup bowls and novelty pink octopus mug are currently making a long lonely pilgrimage around the frigid ring system of Saturn.
Yes, it knows they were your mother’s, and it’s very sorry, it doesn’t know what gets into it sometimes. It just loves you so much and, well, you know how you can be. So immature. So self-centered. So finite. You don’t appreciate the emotional labor the space/time continuum puts into this relationship.
But that octopus mug is gonna make big news in about a hundred years, so let’s focus on the positive, also don’t be mad but your coffee ended up in the butt of Malmsey that drowned George Plantagenet. Because fuck you that’s why. It was upset. You shouldn’t have said that thing about the invention of death. There are just some things you do not say to someone you love.
But you make up. Always. Until you don’t. And when your duck pad see ew with extra broccoli arrives in its pure white styrofoam container, twenty minutes before you put the order in, there’s a pastel violet post-it note inside that says: please don’t leave me.
The space/time continuum enjoys baking, but you can’t eat the pale green prinsesstårta it has worked so hard to perfect after seeing it on that reality cake show. You can only have eaten it. Or be going to eat it. Or sometimes one day will have been never eating it.
That’s pretty much how it goes for all its hobbies. It swears it knit me a gorgeous mauve cabled cardigan for my fifteenth birthday because I’m always cold.
I wouldn’t know. I’ve never seen it.
Coming up on my sixtieth.
The space/time continuum is not a dick.
My mom—you remember Alice, with the curly hair and the fruits and vegetables in every lunch? Well, Alice died a little while after the whole David and Susan thing we have/have not mentioned yet/previously.
Paranasal tumors. I didn’t even know you could get nose cancer. By the time they found it, Alice hadn’t been able to smell or taste anything in years.
That’s the worst part, she told me after the diagnosis, home, in bed with a couple of bottles of Ignoring Our Problems juice. I can’t smell anything. Not even you. I used to smell your head when you were a baby and it was the most amazing smell, better than Chanel No 5, I swear. Like lavender and bread baking in a stone oven. And sometimes, just once in a while, when you got older, you would be running out the door for a date with that kid in the flannel or putting groceries away or watching TV and I’d get a whiff of it again, like you were still so tiny and all mine and nothing bad could ever happen to us. And it’s gone. I’ll never smell you again ever.
She hated hospitals so by the time I managed to convince her to get her butt in a paper gown it was just all through her. It couldn’t wait. Had somewhere important to be, I guess.
But she was wrong. The worst part was that I wasn’t there. I wanted to be. But I had to work. I missed it. The last words my mother ever said to me were days and days before.
“Those things are rigged, honey.”
But by then she was mostly morphine by volume, so.
One time the space/time continuum and me went to Mr. Clark’s diner for burgers and floats. I was eleven. It looked eleven enough. I felt so grown up in that red vinyl booth all to ourselves, with my own money in my own wallet like some kind of real adult human who mattered. My dad had taken his curtain call three years before. But mom and I were fine. Really. We carried the Christmas tree inside and set it up just the two of us. No men required.
I ordered a peppermint milkshake from Mr. Clark and there was a chocolate ribbon time loop inside it. I didn’t find my way out until the school year was mostly over. I’ve been hard of hearing ever since.
I guess a lot of us spend middle school stuck in a time loop. I’m not special.
Never have been.
The thirty-ninth time I met the space/time continuum it was a three and a half foot long rhinoceros iguana named Waffles. Waffles was lounging on fresh shredded newspapers in the display window of Jungle Friends Exotic Pet Store and Bubble Tea Cafe. Waffles was marked down 70% for Presidents’ Day weekend.
I ordered a black milk bubble tea from the counter wedged into the large parrots section.
The scarlet macaw said: the problem with Einstein-Rosen wormholes is that the ‘hallway’ they create between two singularities is too small and open too briefly to ever permit transit by a living person.
The African grey said: You be good I love you see you tomorrow.
The blue hyacinth said: Fuckshit, Susan.
Then it sang a few bars of The Entertainer and cracked up laughing.
Not everything means something.
Waffles watched the parrots. Waffles slurped up a strand of wilted collard greens. Waffles licked his eyeball.
The owner-operator of Jungle Friends Exotic Pet Store and Bubble Tea Cafe brought me my drink and swapped the 70% Off! sign for an 80% Off! one. So I took Waffles home. I put him in a plastic sun-faded Rainbow Brite kiddie pool with the contents of a Sensible Plan brand EZ Ceezar Salad bag and some flat rocks from the last trip I took with my mother to the Ocean Shores boardwalk, when I won every prize in the shitty Happy Claw prize machine one after the other.
I warmed the rocks up in the microwave so Waffles could rest his belly on them. Then I sat back on my couch and drank the better part of a bottle of Bombay Sapphire because fuck George Plantagenet that’s why.
That hadn’t happened yet. But if you spend long enough around the space/time continuum you get this thing where your head turns into a Tetris game and all the falling pieces are memories spinning around, upside down, out of order, mostly missing the sweet spot so they can just pile up uselessly while the music goes faster and faster the closer you get to this person you love so much who is no less your life partner for being an iguana right now.
Waffles lay in the kiddie pool and stared at me for a long time.
Then the space/time continuum chomped down on a ranch-seasoning crouton and said: The traveler and their vessel would have to be smaller than an atom, far faster than light.
P.S. We’re out of milk.
That was probably our best date.
I married someone else.
For a while. Right after college. Trying to get away, I suppose. Find out who I even was apart from the space/time continuum. High school relationships never last anyway, right? He was just a guy. Let’s say his name was David. It doesn’t matter.
The space/time continuum told me not to. It said we were not compatible because my cells were contaminated by long-term non-consecutive exposure to excited superliminal mass fields and David’s cells were contaminated by long term exposure to being a douchebag.
By that time the space/time continuum wasn’t an iguana anymore. It was a mid-market talk radio host of one of those raunchy advice for the unemployed and lovelorn shows they used to pump out like Xerox copies of Xerox copies. Tune in to KHRT 101.5 to hear the velvet voice of my ex, the unstably-enfleshed and endlessly repeating moment of creation and destruction, give you hot tips for better oral sex. The trick is know to your core that nothing means anything and all life and feeling will end.
The space/time continuum was working through some stuff.
The seventh time we met, the space/time continuum was this gangly ginger kid who got hit bad with the freckle-gun and a broken arm. The cast had everyone’s messy kid-handwriting all over it.
You should see the other guy.
That events do indeed occur sequentially is perhaps the greatest lie of all.
See you this summer.
“You wanna see something?” The space/time continuum asked me just as the lunch bell rang.
Seventh grade. We were gonna be discussing The Westing Game next period and I was so excited I could barely breathe. But I said okay anyway because it was wearing a shirt that said DON’T PANIC, so I figured the space/time continuum was on the up-and-up.
It took me to the teachers’ lounge. It had a special key on a leather frog keychain. I didn’t know what to think. The teachers’ lounge was forbidden territory. As thrilling and terrifying as peeking in a cross-hatched window at the surface of Mars.
“It’s okay,” the space/time continuum said. “I’m allowed.”
Inside the teachers’ lounge it wasn’t the teachers’ lounge. It was 1958 and we were outside and it was so hot. A man and a little boy were walking across a huge courtyard toward Catedral de la Asuncion de Maria Santisima. Birds exploded into the air before them. The little boy was the most beautiful child I’ve ever seen, with the curliest hair and the biggest eyes. He practically glowed.
His father knelt down next to his baby and kissed his tiny cheek. He pointed toward the two golden spires.
“Look, Daniel!” Roderigo R. Roderick said. “Two of them! Just like you and me, mijo, forever and ever.”
“It’s Dazzle Dan,” I whispered.
“Happy birthday,” the space/time continuum answered.
I said it wasn’t my birthday.
It shrugged. “It’s always your birthday.”
And then it wasn’t 1958 anymore and it wasn’t Guadalajara, it was the teachers’ lounge and it smelled like old pencils.
But the space/time continuum didn’t do that kind of thing very often because it made my teeth bleed.
Anyway, David cheated on me eight or nine weeks after the wedding. Let’s say her name was Susan. It doesn’t matter. Let’s say she looked just like me but younger and prettier and less contaminated by excited mass fields.
As far as I can tell, the space/time continuum owns every self-help book ever published.
The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. The Power of Now. The 4-Hour Work Week. Hypatia’s Commentary on Diophantus’s Arithmatica. How to Win Friends and Influence People. Summa Theologicae. Truth in Comedy: The Manual of Improvisation. Awaken the Giant Within. Opticks, or, A Treatise on the Reflections, Refractions, Inflections, and Colours of Light. The Rules: Time-Tested Secrets for Capturing the Heart of Mr. Right. Gödel, Escher, Bach. A Brief History of Time.
But I don’t think it ever actually read any of them. It longed to improve itself, to access its trauma, discover its full potential, and rise above its faults. But it was terrified of actually changing anything.
I remember once, when we were moving from the yellow apartment downtown to a bigger place over the river, the space/time continuum and me plunked down on cardboard boxes full of its comfort reading. I’d optimistically labelled them Books to Donate, but it was an arch lie and we both knew it. We ate cold pineapple pizza and drank warm merlot straight from the box. And the totality of existence said to me, with sauce on the tip of its nose and not a little chagrin:
For me, self-care is like the grandfather paradox. It might feel good in the moment, but at what cost? No butterfly could imagine the changes to the timeline that would go down if I truly discarded everything that does not spark joy.
Do you really want to live in a universe where the space/time continuum has become fully self-actualized?
The Suciasaurus rex is a two-legged carnivorous theropod, a cousin of the more famous Tyrannosaurus rex. It is the only dinosaur ever found in the state of Washington.
Once, we were lying naked at three in the afternoon in the uptown loft apartment we had for six months when I was twenty-five and the owner was on sabbatical in Paris.
I kissed the space/time continuum’s chin and said, in that extra-soft voice that only comes out of you when you’re just so happy: Why me?
What do you mean why you?
By definition, you could have chosen anyone, anywhere, in the whole cosmos. Why me? I’m just a person like everybody else.
The space/time continuum rubbed its nose tenderly against mine.
Because it’s you. It’s you because it’s you because it’s you because it’s you. Haven’t you ever been stuck in a stable time dome before?
Plus you smell really good. And you offered me your Capri Sun even though it was your favorite flavor.
And we laughed and snuggled and ordered sushi and champagne and watched the traffic go by in the snow thirty stories down. You got a point for every blue car.
Two for red.
But why are you here? Why are you in bodies and minutes and places at all?
The space/time continuum frowned. It finished the bottle.
Everyone gets stuck sometimes.
I went to a small liberal arts college upstate. Double major psych/physics. A very calculated choice.
Inside/Out, I used to say.
The space/time continuum wasn’t allowed on campus. It would sit by the University sign on the bumper of its crumbling pick-up truck chain-smoking angrily and reading through copies of Omni (for the articles) until I was out of class. I’d run out every day like a movie montage, all long hair and long skirts and the long half-life of first love.
I was really pretty then. I don’t know why I want you to know that. It’s not important in any way. But I was.
The problem was that college isn’t part of the normal timestream. Way too much angst and intersecting choice matrices. Warps the gravity fields and fucks with beta decay. It’s an unsettling pocket universe of weird smells, meaningless gold stars, protective self-delusion, and leaking bodily liquids.
Go ahead and try the double slit experiment on Friday night in a freshman dorm. You’re safer with a Ouija board.
But the space/time continuum wanted to support my goals.
Ultimately, I ended up a bartender. Basically what I studied, in a roundabout way. And I only really do roundabouts anymore. Fluid dynamics. Classical conditioning. A festive arrangement of personality disorders and lost time.
But I can make a mean Hammerhead Bowl, so who’s to say I didn’t come out on top?
We broke up junior year. It said we weren’t putting the same effort into the relationship. I didn’t make time for it.
I laughed. It didn’t.
Then David and Susan and my mom and student loans and better blow jobs through the power of drive time radio and I didn’t see the space/time continuum again for almost five years.
Sometimes things just don’t work out. You want them to, but they don’t want to, and their vote counts for more than yours, so they don’t.
The space/time continuum says that no matter what, there is always a place where they did work out. So even if you’re suffering, there’s a version of yourself somewhere who isn’t, maybe older, maybe younger, maybe she has one of those naked cats or something, and if you can’t be happy, you can at least be happy for her.
I replied: Fuck that bitch I hope she drowns.
The one hundred and seventeenth time I met the space/time continuum it was my mother’s doctor. It had kind eyes and bifocals and a little felt bunny stuck onto the tip of its pen just the perfect dusting of authoritative grey at the temples.
I cried and I cried and I told it to fucking stop, it wasn’t cute anymore. It never was. Fix her or get out. What is the point of all this if it can’t even fix one lousy directionally locked material entity?
It got out.
The hallway was so long and white and clean and quiet. The cool blue price display on the vending machine flashed on and off, on and off, like a lonely lighthouse in an antiseptic sea.
Reader Damaged. Cash only.
I thought I didn’t see the space/time continuum for five years.
Somewhere in there, I got this idea in my head that having plants around would help my anxiety and ground me in the now. So I bought the first orchid I liked, one that promised spectacular colors that would last for weeks. I put it in the window and watered it and loved it and it died immediately.
So I got another one that looked just like it. The way you swap out a kid’s dead goldfish for a ziplocked new one from the shop while they’re at school and they never notice because who gives a fuck it’s a goldfish.
That orchid also died. So fast it honestly felt kind of personal.
Lather, rinse, repeat.
All in all I had seventeen odontoglossa pulchella and a lot of new, more interesting anxiety about maybe being the grim reaper of plants somehow. Or at least fundamentally incompatible with life.
The space/time continuum was all of them. It didn’t mind waiting. Five years was nothing at all. Barely a ripple in a puddle that isn’t a pond.
I wonder if the universe where everything worked out okay for me is also the Snack McCoy universe and the reason things can work out there but not here is because civilization is all or mostly corgis so there’s fundamentally no real problems and also no climate change.
I wonder if I’m a corgi in the Snack McCoy universe.
The space/time continuum says I’m not.
I’m a cagey fucking greyhound and I still have anxiety.
The space/time continuum left me for good a couple years back. It was so ugly. Those scenes are always so ugly. It’s your last chance to say the worst things you’ve ever thought about a person, so get it all out while you can, right?
But some things you can’t come back from.
Maybe it was my fault. I said it first.
I’m not your fucking emotional support human. I just want the infinite embodiment of reality I fell in love with back. I just want everything to be like it was.
And the space/time continuum sneered at me. I am exactly who you fell in love with! For me, the moment when I touched your Medieval Castle Siege drawbridge was half a second ago. I kissed you at the dance tomorrow. You’re the one who’s changed. But you know what? I don’t have to sit here and take this. In a million other shards of reality beyond this completely stupid one, everything is precisely like it was. So fuck you very much. I don’t want you like this. I can go find all the other versions of you in all the other timelines and love them and hold them close and give them everything while you stay here alone and drink yourself to death in this shitty town. And yes, I’m including the one where you’re a greyhound. I’m going to pet her so good, and brush her and walk her and feed her organic raw food artisanal treats. We’re going to enter agility competitions together and chase cars and have a trillion puppies. And wait til you see what we do in the one where you’re a lamp. Yes there’s one where you’re a lamp, shut up! Stay here and have another drink, I’m going to go where everything is just as sweet and good and new as it was in the beginning and you’re not fucking invited.
It looked stricken, even though it’s the one that said all that poison. It put its hand over its mouth.
But like I said, there’s some things you can’t come back from.
Eventually, all loops degrade and fall apart.
So that happened.
Or will happen. Or is happening. Or someday might inevitably be unhappened.
Nowadays I work the bar at the Neptune Room, home of the Hammerhead Bowl and extremely understated jewel of the Tides Inn Hotel.
Too broke to retire, too stubborn to die.
It is distinctly shit here.
I am distinctly shit as well. And old. And angry a lot of the time.
The decor is wall to wall plastic fish, seaweed garlands, and discount Christmas lights. The clientele come in drunk already when we open at four. The kitchen offers a limited menu of mystery bisque, French fries, and despair.
My knees hurt. I have a lot of time to think. Nobody bothers me except to grunt for another of whatever they’ve chosen to hurt themselves with tonight. I look out the picture windows at the town Ocean Shores was supposed to be and I think about the Suciasaurus rex and Mr. Yuk and corgis with lawyer names and David and Susan and the constellation of Taurus.
In the end, I get this place. We understand each other. I was supposed to be something better, too.
Today, I am mixing Hammerhead Bowls in the back. Don’t get excited. It’s just whatever’s left in last nights’ well drink bottles, Coke, and the syrup from the maraschino jar all dumped into a turquoise plastic tub shaped like a shark with two straws in it. I finish up and head out to flip over the CLOSED sign.
There’s a box on the bar. Wrapped in pink paper with hearts and baby angels on it. But it’s not Valentine’s Day. My hands settle down on the ribbons. I look around for orchids or iguanas or whatever, but I’m alone.
The box is sitting on top of a hand knitted mauve cabled cardigan.
Maybe I won’t open it. Maybe I just let this be over for once. I’m tired. I don’t believe in anything anymore.
Of course I open it.
I’m fourteen years old. Mom and I get in her little yellow Jeep and drive down the coast to Ocean Shores. It’s the first year after Dad left. She’s nervous about doing it all on her own from here forward into always, so she’s smoking again, and interfering with the radio like there’s some tuning on the dial that will bring back the life she thought she was going to have. But there isn’t. She’s alone. He’s gone and she’s alone.
But she’s trying. Alice is trying.
So she gives me my riddle for the trip instead of Dad, instead of the man who couldn’t handle us at the peak of our reclusive timeline algorithm, and my mother’s riddle is this: What is the difference between love and time?
We get salt water taffy and hit the boardwalk, walking lazily down the rows of purple and pink and green neon flashing lights and tinny arcade machine action music. Tickets spit out of the bank of Skee Ball machines like cheeky blue tongues. A rusted out mechanical pony plays The Entertainer as we stroll by. I say low tide stinks something awful. Alice laughs.
She doesn’t smell anything.
Mom gives me $5 and says I can play whatever I want. We pass the Happy Time Entertainment Inc Treasure Claw Machine, whose decal stickers have peeled and blistered in the reeking salt wind until it just says Time Claw.
“Those things are always rigged, honey,” Alice says then, and then later in a narrow white room with tubes coming out of her nose. I hear it in both memories, in the same tone, at the same time.
But I promise her I can do it. I’m good at claw machines, always have been. I look over at her, at Alice, her face washed in all the colored electric lights, and she is so beautiful, she really is, so beautiful and so unfathomably young. You never think of your parents as young, but god, she’s just a baby. And so am I.
I drop a couple of silver coins into the slot and press the glowing buttons with authority—left, right, over, just a little more. Release.
The claw descends.
It comes back up with a crappy stuffed starfish. Mom and I start screaming like I just won the MegaBucks, jumping up and down and hugging each other and she’s kissing the top of my head and the WINNER lights are going soundlessly crazy because the machine’s speakers are broken and then suddenly there’s this kid standing next to me in a puffer vest and a Nirvana shirt and glasses and I know before I turn around who it is and was and will be.
“Wow,” says the space/time continuum. “That was amazing! Can you win one for me?”
“Probably not,” I say sadly. “Two in a row is pretty tough. And I’m out of money.”
The space/time continuum hands me a dollar in quarters.
“I’ll probably lose,” I protest.
“It’s okay if you lose,” it says.
I look at my mom and she nods encouragingly. So in the money goes. I push the buttons again. I drop the Time Claw.
And what do you know? It comes up desperately clutching a giant toy it absolutely should not be able to lift with those pitiful skinny silver prongs. The claw looks like it’s gonna break off the suspension for a minute. But it doesn’t. It doesn’t. It glides smoothly home.
I retrieve the mass of fluff from the prize bin.
It’s a Cartoon Sparkle Rainbow Geoduck. With big friendly eyes and long lashes and a wide, smiling mouth. Geoducks are endemic to this coast. Some bright idea factory must have had a lot made up special for this specific arcade, in this specific, tiny, trash clam town.
I stare at it. Because this really happened and I forgot it ever did. I am both then and now, myself in the Neptune Room with shaky swollen hands and myself at fourteen, frantic with hope and hormones and I forgot this happened, because forgetting is so easy. Little holes open up in the fabric of reality and you drop parts of yourself into them and you forget that your mother ever looked so pretty and so worried and so young, you forget that you won this ridiculous thing for a stranger in a tawdry arcade and Alice was so impressed. She looked at you like she was seeing you for the first time. Like you were a real live grown up separate person and she only just noticed.
And then the Time Claw is gone and it’s the end of the weekend and Alice and I are sitting in a hot tub with mold softening every jet on a grey beach full of grey sand and hidden ancient clams. We finish singing Don’t Cry for Me Argentina and she smiles at me.
“Have you figured out my riddle yet, Miss Grand Prize Winner?”
She turns to me in the water and wraps up my cheeks in her wet hands and god, her eyes are so green, it is impossible than any human’s eyes have ever been so green. Alice’s face takes up the whole of the universe. She barely gets the first few words out before those green improbable eyes fill up with tears and she’s crying and lying in that future bed listening to the radio and holding my hand while she whispers:
“Baby, the difference between love and time is nothing. Nothing. There is no difference. The love we give to each other is the time we give to each other, and the time we spend together is the whole of love. Things will get better, sweetheart. Someday. Sometime. I promise. I love you so much. My darling baby. I love you. Don’t forget. No matter what happens. The answer is nothing.”
She hugs me and there is no difference. All the time spent in love is one time, happening simultaneously, a closed timeline curve of infinite gentleness. The continuum hiding in all the faces of people I have needed and wanted and cared for and grieved, the faces through which I loved the world, all one, all at once, memory and dreaming and regret and desire, injera bread and lentil soup and sushi and champagne and running toward a pickup truck in the yellow afternoon, red and white Rainier beer cans and rhinoceros iguanas and orchids and plastic Army camouflage-print glasses and psychology and physics and circular saws and Dazzle Dan feeding the birds in front of the Catedral and the Loch Ness monster’s ancient reptile heart beggared with love for her baby in the dark. And plants that are whales and whales that are plants and Suciasaurus rex and middle school and the countless infinite loops we get stuck in like tar and an octopus mug in orbit around Saturn, and the Washington State Legislature and KHRT 101.5 and golden retrievers and red cars and Bob Ross and the emerald dish soap on the sink that made Alice remember her bridesmaids’ dresses and just stop like a watch with her aching hands gloved in soap-bubbles. The puddle that comes and goes with the rain and a house that belongs to a hill and Cartoon Sparkle Rainbow Geoducks and the smell of a newborn’s head and Snack McCoy running after a ball of light in a universe without pain and there is no difference, no difference between any of it at all, it is all one thing, the only thing small enough to fit through an Einstein-Rosen wormhole—all dumped together into a blue plastic shark bowl with two straws.
Love in the vessel of time.
That’s where Alice left her loop. Not in that bed twenty years later not knowing who I was or where she was going, but there with her baby in Ocean Shores, WA, at twilight, somewhere between the water and the Time Claw, promising me ice cream for dinner while the space/time continuum looked on and kept the tourists at bay.
When she could still smell me a little.
When I was old and sorry, just so sorry.
There is no difference. There never was.
The lights twinkle in the Neptune Room. The space/time continuum looks like the Mr. Yuk kid all grown up, my own age still. It smiles from the doorway, silhouetted by sundown.
I’m holding something old and ratty and sodden with seawater in my hand. I don’t even look at it, just sniff awkwardly and hand over the Cartoon Sparkle Rainbow Geoduck to the kid in the puffer vest.
“I won it for you, after all.”
“Keep it,” says the space/time continuum. “Happy birthday.”
“It’s not my birthday.”
The space/time continuum looks just like it did in the beginning. And the end. And all points in between. It shines. And so do I and so does Alice and so does blasted, cursed Ocean Shores, WA and geoducks and regret and all the ships at sea.
Cyndi Lauper starts playing on the long-defunct sound system because the space/time continuum is a cheesy fool and always will be. The lights are so dim now. Almost out.
It takes off its glasses.
“It’s always your birthday. Keep it. Keep it all. It’s yours. I love you. I’m sorry. I’m an idiot. I love you. This you. Infinitely better than the lamp or the greyhound or the one I never made any mistakes with.
I’ll do better this time. I can be better. Come home.”
“The Difference Between Love and Time” copyright © 2022 by Catherynne M. Valente
Reprinted from Someone in Time: Tales of Time-Crossed Romance, ed. by Jonathan Strahan