3960 words, short story
Seven Cups of Coffee
Here, in this now, our first cup of coffee is still in your future. It’s 1941, and you’ve been married to your husband for two years, three months, and seven days. He doesn’t know about the way you look at the women in fashion magazines and clothing catalogs. The way you find yourself imagining how the drape of this skirt, the brush of that hemline, would feel against their skin in particular. You barely admit to yourself the way your fingers want to stray to the back of your neck, the outline of your collarbone, the shape of your mouth when you look at them. Your skin flushes hot, only partly shame, and you put the pages away quickly, telling yourself it’s only your imagination, the flutter deep in your belly when you look at them.
They are too pretty, too perfect, the women in those magazines and catalogs. It’s only that you want to be them. You want hair that never strays out of place, and lips that stay bright and unsmudged all day long. Nothing else.
After the first cup of coffee, which is in your future and my past, everything will change. It is the beginning of the end for you. For me, in this now, in every now I’ve found yet, it is already too late. I can’t change anything, I can’t fix anything. I’ve tried. But I’m not giving up. Ever. I will not give up on us, on you.
It is 1983 and I’m sitting across from a woman who hasn’t given me her real name, saying only to call her Scarlett. I’m here because I answered a want ad for a cleaning woman. I’m here because I’m running out of options; I have nowhere else to go.
Scarlett smirks, the cat after the canary. I should leave, but the steaming cup of coffee between my hands, followed by the plate piled high with fluffy eggs, greasy bacon, and crisp golden toast, keeps me in place. I haven’t had more than saltines and the last dregs of Cheez Whiz in the now-empty jar over the past three days. And Scarlett is buying.
“Time travel,” she says, and I’m sure I misheard, but I don’t stop shoveling food in my mouth to check.
In this now, I haven’t yet seen her time machine. I’ve lived my life linearly, scrounging odd jobs and crashing on friends’ couches. In this now, my parents want nothing to do with me—words like “no daughter of mine” and “not under my roof” still ringing in my ears, better at least than my mother’s tearful, “if you just try” and “you’re so pretty, girls like you don’t have to be . . . that way.”
In this now, the closest I’ve gotten to time travel is occasionally getting high—losing minutes or hours, or slowing everything down, stretching it out when it gets to be too much and I don’t want to think about the hole where my family used to be. I have no idea yet what is and isn’t possible. How going into the past or the future can rip a person apart in ways they never imagined, ways they can’t see until it’s far too late.
I haven’t met you yet, not in this here and now. All I know is that I’m down to almost my last saltine. My on-again-off-again girlfriend called it off for good and kicked me out, and I desperately need a job. So ‘cleaning woman’ sounds pretty good right about now.
It is 1945, and you are pregnant with your first child. The first one you’re counting that is—at least out loud. There was a miscarriage, just over a year ago, but you’re trying not to think about that. You’re trying to move on, think positive thoughts, look ahead to the future so bright and full of promise.
This time, everything will be okay. You’re sure of it. You glow softly with the knowledge, even though sometimes you can still smell the bleach—taste it, the scent thick at the back of your throat—burning as you scrub blood from white tile. This time, things will be different. Everything will be the way it is supposed to be, because you love your husband and you are a good wife and you will be a good mother soon, too.
You’ve stopped subscribing to fashion magazines, and when you go to the post office to collect your mail, you tell the clerk to throw the catalogs away. You shop at the new department store downtown with your sister-in-law, and you don’t think about the women in the other changing rooms, pulling silk stockings over the length of their legs and clipping them in place. You don’t think of cotton and wool tugged over their heads, or their hands smoothing the fabric against their hips and bellies. And those long afternoon hours waiting for your husband to get home, sitting by the apartment window, which you have open for the breeze, your skin barely flushes at all, and your thoughts are completely under your control.
You’ve barely begun to show. You haven’t told your husband yet, just in case. You keep the secret tucked inside your cheek, biting your lips against the fullness of a smile. You’ve always wanted to be a mother. You’ve dreamed of holding your little girl in your arms, singing songs, and making up silly stories so she’ll laugh. You already know you’re going to name her Alice, just like you know for sure she’s going to be a girl, but you keep that knowledge secret, too.
In this here and now, I don’t know any of this yet, because I haven’t met you. I’m standing on a street corner, holding an anachronistic cup of coffee brought back with me from 1983. I’m blowing on it while I wait, not wanting to burn my tongue, and trying to calm my nerves, distract myself from what I’m about to do.
It’s snowing. Christmas week and the streetlights and shop windows glow, making each individual snowflake glitter and shine. Any moment now, you’ll come down the street your arms full of packages, not paying attention. You’ll be thinking about the carefully chosen tie for your husband, and the sweater for your sister-in-law. How you’ll wrap everything and place it just so under the Christmas tree. And then, when every present has been opened, you’ll pull out one last package you’ve been keeping hidden and place it in your husband’s hands. A silver rattle, and you’ll tell him what a wonderful father he’ll be.
With all these thoughts filling up your mind, all I have to do is step out in front of you, just another distracted shopper, my head full of Christmas, not paying attention to where I’m going. I won’t even have to brush your arm, accidental fingertips on the thickness of your wool coat, or nudge your hip with mine as you pass. A simple step, and you’ll move out of my way, miss your footing, and slip into the road just as the number eight bus comes along. And it will be too late for the bus to stop, fish-tailing on the ice. Brakes squealing, and pedestrians gasping as your packages fly through the air—that carefully chosen tie, the beautiful sweater for your sister-in-law, and even the little silver rattle—falling to soak in the slush on the ground.
Scarlett has told me all this, every last detail she thinks I need to know to make sure everything goes perfectly. That doesn’t include your name, or anything about you, or why it’s so important to make sure the baby in your belly—little Alice who you want so badly to meet and hold in your arms—is never born.
Without a face or a name, I can pretend it really is an accident. I’m not a murderer, just a clumsy pedestrian. I can collect my cash and choose where and when to live out the rest of my life. That’s what Scarlett promised—do the job, and I get one last trip. Then I never have to see a time machine again if I don’t want to.
So I’m waiting in the falling snow, blowing on my cup of coffee, and in exactly one minute, you’ll walk down the street toward me. Easy. Simple and clean.
After all, in this here and now, what are you to me? Nothing. Just a date and a time and a precise location. A step to the left at exactly the right moment. I don’t even know what you look like, not yet. Though in time I will know every detail of your body, where your waist dips toward the curve of your hipbone, the scent of your skin late in the afternoon just before your husband gets home, and the way your lips taste in the bruise-dark hours between three and four a.m. when he’s out of town.
But for now, I know none of these things. I look at my watch and count silently, my breath steaming in the winter cold. And when the moment comes, I drop my anachronistic cup of coffee and take that one little step to the left, eyes closed, heart pounding, tears hot against the winter cold.
It’s 1984, New Year’s Day. I’m shaking, my jaw clenched to keep my teeth from chattering. The diner is warm, the only place open on the entire snowy street. In all its seventeen years, the diner has prided itself on never once being closed.
The windows steam. I sweat inside my coat, but I can’t bear to remove it. My hands are wrapped around a cup of coffee, but the thought of putting food in my mouth is abhorrent.
Scarlett slides into the booth across from me—not a hair out of place, her make-up immaculate as always. It’s the same diner where I first met her. She’s still smiling, not quite smirking her cat-with-the-canary look, until she gets a good look at me.
“I want to go back,” I say. “I changed my mind. I want to undo it. Find someone else if you have to, I don’t care. I’ll give the money back, and I won’t tell anyone. You’ll never see me again, I promise.”
I expect her eyes to go hard when the words stop, and for a moment they do. Then a real glimmer of regret, a hint of sympathy creeps through. Her hands cover mine, still wrapped around the coffee mug. I wonder about her real name, how she got here, about the shadows under her perfect skin, and the brief flicker of pain behind her eyes.
She speaks softly, even though we’re the only two in the diner, holding my gaze the entire time.
“It doesn’t work that way. I’m sorry.”
I want to spit in her face, call her liar. I want to slap her and make her take the words back, but deep down, I’m afraid they’re true. A time machine isn’t a magic wand. I can’t undo what I’ve done. I made a choice, and now your blood is on my hands.
I don’t ask again. Instead, I beg Scarlett to at least tell me your name. I have to know. I have to own this thing, fully and completely. If your death is going to be on me for the rest of my life, it will be your death, a specific death, belonging to a real woman, not just a place and a time and a step to the left with eyes closed and tires shrieking in the fresh-fallen snow.
“It won’t help you sleep at night,” Scarlett says. “In fact, it will only make things worse. Why do that to yourself?”
“Please,” I say.
She relents, partway. She tells me your name, and nothing more. Not where to find you before that day in 1945. Not why the child in your belly had to die. I leave the diner pretending that will be enough. I have your name. I can mourn. I can try to make some kind of peace with what I’ve done.
It is 2037, February, and the stainless steel screw-top cup from a thermos of coffee is passing back and forth from my mittened hand to the hand of a woman named Mona. Mona is from 1961, hiding out here in the future, another of Scarlett’s ‘cleaning women’. We met here in 2037, coincidentally picking the same year out of all the years Scarlett offered us after our jobs were done. We were both trying to see how far we could run, and recognized something haunted in each other under all the slick, bright neon of a future that wasn’t what we wanted after all.
“My time, or yours,” I’d said, the cheesiest of pick-up lines.
We fell into each other hard, not love, but desperation, something to cling to because we were both terrified of being alone inside our skins.
What we learned together is what we both already knew apart—there is no place far enough that either of us can run. Even this here, this now—where women can love women, where men can kiss each other and vow to spend the rest of their lives together, where people of both or neither genders can live their lives in peace—we can’t be happy. Our pasts are a shadow; we can’t live in all this light until we’ve found a way to undo what we’ve done. Then, maybe then, we would deserve a future like this one.
The coffee passing between us is spiked liberally with brandy, the last of the bottle drunk before we set out into the cold. We’re here to sneak into Scarlett’s time machine, stalling and stamping our feet against the cold as we gather courage. This is another thing we’ve learned. There has always been a time machine here. As far as we know, there always will be one. Whether Scarlett built it or found it doesn’t matter. What matters is we’ve seen her operate it just enough times between us to know how it’s done.
I boost Mona up first, then scramble over the chain link fence behind her. From this angle, the time machine looks like nothing, a strange fragment of light refracted in a way it shouldn’t be, a bend of the universe. Not even a machine, but time folded somehow, impossible, but possible, because both of us are here.
This is goodbye, but we don’t say it aloud. Mona goes first, back to 1961, I assume, though I never asked. Just like she never asked me where I was running. She slips into the machine that isn’t a machine and it unfolds, throwing loops of light around her body so bright I have to shade my eyes. Then she’s gone.
I drink the last of the coffee in the thermos, down to the dregs, and leave the stainless steel screw-top cup behind. Deep breath, and I step forward. Light encompasses me, the machine hurtling me backward through the years as though it doesn’t care that my one and only goal is to unravel time.
It’s 1943, before your first child, the one you never even had the chance to name. Before the bleach and the chemical sting behind your eyes, burning your skin as you scrubbed and scrubbed the bathroom floor. You still subscribe to fashion magazines in this here and now. In this here and now, you know what my fingers feel like sliding silk stockings down the length of your calves, bunching cotton and wool in my fists and rucking it up over your hips and your belly.
Our first cup of coffee is in your past, my past. And I know that in the bruise-dark hours between 3 and 4 a.m., your mouth tastes like plums.
I have tried every way I know to convince you to run away with me. I’ve played out every scenario I can imagine, trying to undo the future, change what I haven’t yet done, what I will do, what I have always done, in my past and your future.
I have looped through this moment so many times, stepping into Scarlett’s machine again and again, and letting it rip me apart. Every word from your lips, every gesture of your hands, the way you lean your body away or toward me, frightened or longing—I have it all memorized. Sometimes I wish I could leave; spying on your life this way—a string of moments in your past and your future—doesn’t seem right. But somewhere in one of those moments there has to be a key, a word, a phrase, something I can do or not do to save your life.
In a future just a few days from now, you will tear your fashion magazines to pieces, stuff the scraps down the drain, and run water over them until they are pulp. You will slam the apartment window, eschewing the breeze playing with the ends of your hair. You want the apartment sweltering, sweating out the memory of me, sweating out everything you’ve buried deep inside you for so long.
I’ve been there to witness this destruction. Seen the way the curls stick, sweat-damp, to the back of your neck and wanted to taste the skin between them. Even angry, even broken, even denying what you are, in that near future I’ll want to run my tongue over your collarbone, rest my hands where your waist dips in, and feel your pulse beating just under your skin.
I’ll want to whisper to you that everything will be okay. Even though it’s a lie.
If I hadn’t killed you in my past, your future, I wouldn’t be in love with you. Or would I? Was this always meant to be?
Here and now, you are distracted. Your eyes are the same color as the coffee you’re holding. Not just brown, but the color it turns when it catches the light as you pour it from pot to cup. A rich color on the edge of red. Secret. Flavorful. Strong.
Steam rises into the light slanting over the kitchen table between us. You keep glancing at the clock, counting the minutes until your husband comes home, projecting yourself into the future when all I want to do is hold you in the here and now. You haven’t told me to leave yet, but you will. You’re already thinking about fixing your hair, smoothing powder over the places where my lips have been, making dinner, all the things a good wife should do.
Everything about your posture says brittle, haunted. Fragile as the cup in your hands.
“You should go,” you say.
Inside those words, I hear all the ones you don’t say, at least not this time, the words you’ve said in the times before. “I can’t do this anymore. I want a baby. That’s something you can’t give me. I don’t love you. I never loved you. You’re sick and wrong and it’s a sin. I never want to see you again.”
In all of those times, never once have I told you that in two years, right before Christmas, I will cause your death. I don’t tell you about the children, either of them, who will never be born. And I don’t tell you about the horrible things I’ve contemplated doing—finding a way to cause another miscarriage, murdering your husband, all to keep you safe, keep you alive.
No matter how deep your words cut—and they cut to the bone—I don’t fire back with my secret knowledge. It isn’t fair that I know you better than you know yourself. Besides, the knowledge would rip your heart out and I tell myself it’s a mercy to you, letting you live in bliss and innocence for a while longer.
It’s a lie. I’m sparing myself. I don’t want you to die hating me. I need to pretend I can still fix this somehow. I haven’t given up on you. I swear.
I want to take your hands across the table. I want to hold them and look into your eyes. Maybe this time you’ll believe me when I tell you the future gets better. If you ran with me, we could go to a place where we could love each other openly and no one would judge us. We could have a baby and it would be ours, our family, something new to fill the hole in my heart where my family used to be.
I wonder if that’s unfair to you, if I’m trying to make you into something you’re not. All the words I could possibly say in this here and now don’t feel right. Not yet. But maybe one day. I have to keep trying.
In this here and now, I don’t say anything at all. But I do stand for a moment outside your apartment door, breath held, listening. I stand there long enough to hear the coffee cup shatter as you hurl it against the wall.
It will be all cleaned up by the time your husband gets home. Every trace of me will be scrubbed clean from your body, and you’ll be smiling. Just like a good wife should, no matter the white-hot ball of rage you’ve pushed down deep inside.
It is 1941. In this here, in this now, our first cup of coffee is still ahead, for both of us. I haven’t met you yet, and I’ve already killed you in the future, four years from now. I haven’t tried to convince you to run away with me. I haven’t tried desperately to undo what I’ve done. I don’t know the scent of your hair, or the feeling of your skin under my fingertips. All I have is a name, so I don’t even know it’s you when we collide.
You’re just coming out of the post office, your arms full of catalogs and fashion magazines. It’s summer, and the magazines scatter—bright, beautiful women, caught in the sunshine, pages fluttering in the breeze.
You blush, hurrying to gather them, and I bend to help you. I don’t know anything about you except the way a curl of your hair sticks to the corner of your mouth as you pause to look up at me. In that moment, I’ve already started to fall in love. It’s too late by the time you tell me your name. I’ve invited you for that first cup of coffee. I’ve heard you laugh, self-conscious, guarded, but with so much promise of joy tucked inside.
I could run away before the waitress brings the cups. I could go back—to the future, to the past, try again. If I did, would it change anything? I wouldn’t know the taste of your skin, or the look in your eyes, right before you tell me to go. Maybe my heart wouldn’t break, and you wouldn’t throw yourself into your husband’s arms with such angry determination, set on proving me wrong, determined to be something you’re not. Maybe you wouldn’t be carrying a child that needs killing according to some grand cosmic plan that I don’t even understand.
Or maybe all of this was always meant to happen, always will happen, no matter what I do.
But that doesn’t mean I’ll stop trying, looking for a way to unravel everything I’ve done. Maybe it isn’t possible, but I have to try. For you. For us. For all the cups of coffee in our past and our future.
All I know is that in this moment, this here and now, you’re looking at me in a way I’ve never been looked at, been seen, before. And I wouldn’t trade this cup of coffee for the world.