Time machine, time machine, take me away, to foreign lands and long-forgotten days.
3 January 2007; local time: 10:45 a.m.; Bellevue, Washington
Frigid air freezes my lungs as I step out of my time machine onto an empty playground. Last night’s blizzard has washed the world in white. A thick blanket of clouds threatens to dump more snow from the heavens, so I button my winter coat snugly before enabling the time machine’s invisibility mode. I’ve lost my gloves, so I jam my icy hands into my pockets and trot across the street like a wobbly penguin until I’ve entered the Bellevue Heights parking lot.
The townhome’s lot is a deserted graveyard of snow-covered cars. Slowing to a stroll, my sneakers shatter salt-weakened ice until I arrive safely on a shoveled walkway. Epic pillars of dirty, blackened snow line the lot’s perimeter like discarded dreams, leading me to my destination: townhome C101.
I know the man inside, Wes. We’ve only met once before—a decade in my past—and he isn’t expecting me today, but I promised to return a favor to him. I only hope I’m not too late.
A wreath lies on the ground next to his front door. Though the decoration has seen better days, the brass bells still jingle merrily when I give it a light kick. “Merry Christmas and happy New Year!” I imagine him saying each time he answered the door last month; I should be so lucky if he welcomes me so warmly. Bracing myself for the inevitable, I gently stomp my shoes to dislodge any accumulated ice, and then ring the doorbell.
As expected, Wes doesn’t answer the door, necessitating Plan B: today is Wednesday (one of Wes’ split days off), which means that after breakfast but before lunch, he’ll start his laundry. His unit is blessed with an in-suite washer and dryer, tucked into a half-bathroom just beyond his ground floor living room. But the dryer is shoddy, spewing steam like a drunk dragon, so Wes always cracks the bathroom window to keep mold from forming on the walls. My suspicions are confirmed when I round the townhome’s backside and hear the dryer’s rickety groans escaping into the winter morning.
A discreet check of my surroundings ensures I’m alone except for two men idling in a green Hyundai Sonata to my right. As they’re either waiting for a friend or finishing a drug deal, I pull my trusty fake cigarette from my coat pocket and nestle it between my lips whilst killing time by sifting through old emails on my phone. Despite our brief encounter, Wes and I volleyed emails back and forth every day for weeks, trading pleasantries and banal day-to-day stories, and occasionally discussing the mysterious forces bonding us together. But then the trail stops, goes cold, dies in its tracks. The timestamp on my last email to him reads, “11:14 a.m., January 3rd, 2007.” Half an hour from now.
The guys in the Sonata finally reverse and pull out of the lot, leaving me to my crime. Tucking my fake cigarette back into my pocket, I scan my surroundings one last time before elevating onto my tiptoes to remove the protective screen on Wes’ window. Then with the grace and dexterity of a Romanian gymnast, I leap through the air and catch the window’s ledge. After using my elbow to nudge the window open, I hoist myself through. Though I crash land onto the bouncing dryer and side roll off with a full twist, I manage to stick the landing. Eat your heart out, Nadia Comaneci!
Safely inside, I discard my soiled sneakers and sling my winter coat over the washing machine before peering out the laundry room’s open door. The living room lights are dimmed, and the fireplace awaits its resurrection as I step onto the pristine white carpet. The kitchen is similarly deserted, although a dripping bowl and coffee mug in the drying rack next to the sink suggest Wes ate breakfast recently. He must be upstairs now.
Standing at the base of the stairwell, I strain my ears for sounds of life; the gentle hiss of a shower means he’s home. In a different context, bursting in on Wes while he’s naked would be a treat, but it’s hardly the reunion I’d planned today. Anyway, I’m racing against time, so I grasp the oak bannister and bound noiselessly up the carpeted steps, two at a time, until I’m outside the master bedroom. The door is ajar, so I peek inside to find the lights off and the shades drawn. I avoid the triangle of light that spills in from the open, adjoining bathroom door as I slide into the bedroom to hide behind his dresser.
Wes has just finished showering. I watch as he dries his hair, arms, chest, and finally his legs, before wrapping a white towel around his waist. Stepping out of the shower, he walks towards the sink and fills it with hot water while wiping the mist from the mirror mounted above. Using a comb, he sweeps his thinning brown hair to the side—sans product—before applying foamy blue lathering gel to his face.
Watching him shave is strangely erotic. He’s so methodic and precise, and though his glasses rest on the counter, his slow, steady swathes ensure he doesn’t nick his face once. Twice, when he dips the razor into the sink to swirl the blade clean, he grips the countertop and mutters something the steady drone of the bathroom’s fan drowns out. The third time he says it, I throw caution to the wind by leaning in for a better listen, and I can hear Wes chant:
“You can do this, you can do this, you can do this…”
Wes finishes shaving. After setting the razor next to his glasses and splashing cold water on his face, he grips the counter and stares solemnly into the sink whilst repeating his mantra of “you can do this, you can do this, you can do this…” His frustrated hand glides across his smooth face before reaching towards the back of his toilet. Hidden behind a stack of magazines is a handgun, which he cradles like a wounded animal. He stares at his reflection in the mirror while continuing his chant.
Before he can properly grip the gun, I spring from behind the dresser and shout, “Don’t do it!”
The commotion nearly causes Wes to drop the weapon. “Who are you? How did you get in here?” he asks after regaining his composure.
“Wes, it’s me, Matt. Matt Craven,” I say while raising my hands to show I mean him no harm.
He fumbles for his glasses while aiming the gun in my direction. He frowns once he gets a good look at me.
“Matt Craven? Do I know you?”
“Yes, we hooked up back in November.”
A sparkle of recognition dances across his face, and he slowly lowers the gun to his side while continuing to examine me through squinted eyes.
“Why do you look so…different?” he asks.
“Wes, it’s me, I promise.”
“You’re bigger than last time. And older, a lot older.”
“Who are you?!” he demands, raising the gun towards me again.
“It’s me, Matt! Please, just listen to me. I…”
“What’s my favorite show?”
“What’s my favorite show? Before we met in person, we emailed each other, and one of the things we talked about was our favorite TV shows. If you’re really who you say you are, you’ll know the answer.”
“Uh…is it Bones?”
“Wrong!” Wes says, taking a menacing step towards me, the gun swinging wildly in my face. “Listen, I don’t know who you are, but you have five seconds to get out of my house before I…”
“Wes,” I interrupt, “you were doing laundry the day I came over, back in November. It was a Wednesday, just like today. You told me you had to crack the laundry room window to keep mold from accumulating on the walls. Then you invited me onto the couch and you put some music on—the Beatles, an album you created of your fifty favorite Beatles songs—and I stumped you in music trivia by telling you Madonna had more #2 songs than Creedence Clearwater Revival. Then you touched my thigh and I froze.”
The gun is still pointed at my face, but my words have stopped Wes in his tracks. Swallowing nervously, I soldier on:
“You asked if I was OK, and I said yes, but I was trembling inside because I wasn’t out yet. You kissed me to alleviate my fear, and it was the most magical kiss I’d ever experienced. Afterwards, you took me upstairs into this bedroom, right here, and it was the first time I’d ever been happy I was gay.”
My vision glistens as a groundswell of emotion threatens to dissolve me into tears, so even with a firearm pointed my way, I turn away to rub my eyes and mumble, “You made me tacos for dinner that night, and you forgot to put the cookies in the oven for dessert.”
When I turn back to Wes, he’s awash with confusion as he attempts to reconcile my detailed retelling of our only encounter with the impossible man standing before him.
“Wes, please. It’s really me,” I say, daring to reach for his hand.
“I…believe you,” he says, lowering the gun once more. “But you look so different.”
Any of his trust I’ve just gained, I’m about to lose with a ludicrous but truthful confession:
“That’s because I’m…” I start, biting my lip, “…I’m…from your future.”
“Yes, I’m from the year 2018.”
Wes starts to raise the gun in suspicion, but I beat him to the punch.
“Wait! I can prove it! You’re going to get an email from me today at 11:14 a.m. I’m going to ask about your New Year, suggest we get together this weekend, and…oh…I’ll also…umm…” I’m afraid to admit the last detail, but it’s impossible to omit, so I roll my eyes and exhale loudly before adding, “I’ll also…ask to suck you off through your underwear.”
My absurd admission makes Wes smile while my face flashes crimson. “Suck me off through my underwear? Why would you ask to do that?”
“Listen, just check your computer in a few minutes, OK?” I say, attempting to steer the conversation back on track. “If you receive an email from me at 11:14, will you believe me?”
“Against my better logic, I’ll have to. It’s too preposterous to make up.”
“Great, I’ll wait for you downstairs.”
Downstairs, I plop onto the same white sofa Wes seduced me on over a decade before.
It’s comfier than I remember, though I barely notice since I’m furiously scrolling through my emails to confirm I sent him a message at 11:14 a.m. today. Once I’ve double and triple checked the email’s timestamp, I slouch into the cushion’s warm embrace and let my mind wander.
Wes will believe me. I know it sounds crazy—me coming back in time from his future—and I wouldn’t believe it, either, but like he said, it’s too preposterous to have made all this up. Maybe he’ll even make me those cookies he forgot last time.
“I believe you,” Wes says from behind me, his sudden appearance jolting me into an upright position. He’s thrown on a pair of grey sweats and a plain white t-shirt, and his dried hair has taken on a warm glow. “I got an email from you at 11:14 a.m. exactly, asking about my New Year and whether I’d let you suck me off through my underwear.”
A weak smile is all I can conjure.
“So…what’s the future like?” Wes asks as he circles the sofa to enter the living room. He freezes a half second while staring at the empty space on the sofa next to me, before settling into an arm chair instead.
“Well, umm…” I start while racking my brain for tidbits I’m allowed to divulge. “Oh! The Beatles finally released their music to iTunes. Now everybody can listen to them on their iPods!”
“I’m thinking of getting a Zune, instead.”
I reflexively grimace. “Stick with an iPod.”
“But I thought…”
“Trust me on this one.”
“OK. What else can you tell me?”
“I’m not really supposed to talk about the future…”
“OK,” Wes says as he slides back into his seat. He changes tact by adding, “It looks like you work out in the future, though.”
He catches my funny look. “Your arms, they’re huge now. You’re more muscular than when I first met you.”
“Oh, yes, thank you. I started working out shortly after meeting you. I’ve been going ever since.”
“And you’ve added highlights to your hair.”
“A splash of color goes a long way with all this black,” I say while resisting the urge to flash a cheeky grin.
Wes smiles but then frowns. “But…why?” he asks.
“Why did you come back? Why are you here?”
Placing my hands atop my head, I close my eyes and steel myself for the task at hand. “Because,” I say, opening my eyes to meet his inquisitive gaze, “I made a promise to return a favor to you,” I confess.
“A favor? What favor?”
“Let’s start from the beginning. After you…well, after what you were going to do upstairs just now…your ex-wife emailed me.”
“Carrie emailed you?
“Yes. She had access to your email account and was notifying all your contacts about your passing. But when she read my last message to you, she saw my sexual suggestion and realized we were lovers.”
Wes stands, horrified. “Oh my god, you told her I’m gay?! She doesn’t know yet! None of my family know yet!”
“Don’t worry, I kept your secret safe.”
“I didn’t respond at all. It wasn’t right for me to out you like that, especially after you’d just passed away.”
Wes is still agitated, so I continue.
“I never talked to your ex. Like I said, it wasn’t my place to tell your secrets. Carrie didn’t email me anymore after that.”
Wes slides back into his seat, still upset but noticeably calmer. He looks like he could hug me or punch me, I can’t tell.
“Well thank god you didn’t tell her!” Wes exclaims, crossing his ankles angrily.
“Wait, it gets worse…”
“How could it possibly get worse?”
“A few days later, your mom called me.”
“Oh my god!” Wes’ mouth drops in horror as he collapses backward into the seat, hands shielding his eyes. “How did she even get your number?”
“She went through all your contacts and was notifying everybody of your passing. She didn’t know who I was, or my relation to you.”
“You didn’t tell her, did you?”
“No! Of course not! When she asked how we knew each other, I made up some story about working in the ski shop your son hangs out at.”
“So, she doesn’t know I’m gay, right?”
“She doesn’t know you’re gay, Wes,” I say, bitterly, “but partway through that call, she broke down and cried her heart out to me, telling me how much she missed her son.”
The image of his mother in tears instantly chastises Wes into silence.
“Her voice ached with love,” I add. “And do you know what it’s like to have to lie to a mother like that? Her soul longed for answers, but I couldn’t tell her the truth because it would break her heart.”
“Matt…I’m sorry, I didn’t know…”
“Fuck your apologies, Wes! That phone call was the worst moment of my entire life! I had to lie to a grieving parent!”
Hot tears spring from the corners of my eyes, but I’ll be damned if they stop my rampage.
“You left me behind without answers, clues, or even a goodbye! And I couldn’t tell a single soul what happened because I wasn’t out yet, but your death tore me apart! I was never the same after your suicide.”
And with that, all my tears fall. Too angry to hide my shame, I stare my tormentor down through muddled vision as he moves to the couch to sit beside me. I want to push him away—to keep him from harming me ever again—but I allow him to gently cradle me in his arms as I cry the lonely tears of an abandoned boy who never got his answer.
When my sobbing finally subsides, Wes breaks our embrace to look me in the eye.
“Matt, I’m so sorry for what I put you through. I didn’t know my death would hurt you so much. I’m a coward for killing myself. I…I can’t admit to myself that I’m gay.”
Suddenly, it’s my turn to comfort a sobbing bundle of fragility.
“I know,” I say while gently rocking Wes in my arms and wiping a stray tear from my eye, “but I realized something that day.”
“What was that?” Wes asks without looking up.
“I wanted to hate you for killing yourself, and I did…but how could I condemn a man for not accepting his sexuality when I hadn’t accepted my own?”
Wes nods solemnly but says nothing.
“I wasn’t out when we met, but after your death, I knew something had to change. I didn’t want to end up like you, carrying a dark secret that poisoned my heart and mind. So after your passing, I promised myself I’d come out, to everybody. I’d always been paralyzed by fear, but now it was a life or death matter. And I chose to live.”
Another tsunami of tears is surging through my ducts, but I blink them away.
“I told my roommates I was gay. Then I told my mom. Then all my friends,” I say proudly.
“And what happened afterward?” Wes asks, his lip quivering.
“I finally started living. And I never, ever, regretted it.”
This admission reduces Wes to tears again. As I gently caress his back, I confide:
“I know this is all fucked up, but if it wasn’t for you, I don’t think I’d have ever come out. You gave me that last, necessary push that finally allowed me to love myself.”
“I didn’t realize the impact I had on your life,” Wes manages between sobs. “We only hung out that one time.”
“I know our time together was brief, but I’ll never forget how you changed my entire life. You saved me, Wes. And now I’m here to save you.”
Wes pulls away and studies me curiously. “Save me? Save me how?”
“By showing you that coming out is the first step towards an exciting, fulfilling, and wonderful life. I’m living proof of that.”
Wes’ eyes shimmer as he fights back more tears.
“I must’ve really meant something to you for you to come back, huh?” he asks with a nervous laugh.
“You meant the world to me,” I admit.
“Thank you,” he says, trapping me in a bear hug, “for everything. But I don’t know where to start. Who do I tell first? How do I tell them? What if they’re upset with me?”
“We’ll take it one step at a time. I’ll show you the way,” I promise.
Wes breaks out of our hug with jarring seriousness. “Take me to the future, show me the life I’ll lead.”
“I…I can’t, it breaks too many rules,” I say. “I’m not even supposed to tell people I’m a time traveler.”
“Oh. OK. I understand,” Wes says. He quickly changes the subject, but his dejected face grips my heart and won’t let go.
“What if…” I interrupt, “what if I take you back a few months in time, instead? We were supposed to have Thanksgiving dinner together, but we were both busy, remember? We could finally share that meal together.”
“I’d love that!” Wes says with a grin.
“Are you ready now?” I ask. “It’s lunchtime; we can go today, if you want.”
“I…I’m not ready yet. There’s too many thoughts and emotions swirling inside me, and I need to sort them out first.”
“No worries,” I assure him. “Take your time.”
“Can you come back tomorrow, same time? I think I’ll be ready then.”
“Sure,” I say as I stand to leave. Wes mirrors my action and waits while I fetch my coat and shoes from the laundry room. After my laces are tightened and my coat is buttoned, I turn to give Wes one last hug, but he beats me to it, wrapping both arms around me so tightly my fingers start tingling.
“Thank you, Matt, for saving me. I never would’ve guessed you’d mature into such a loving and caring man,” he says.
“No, thank you,” I say, “for giving me the life I always wanted to live.”
Wes finally releases me to wipe away a tear underneath his glasses.
“I’m going to call my mother right now, to tell her I love her. But I’ll see you tomorrow,” he says, smiling.
“Tomorrow,” I repeat. “Your whole life is about to change, Wes.”
“Goodbye, Matt,” he says before gentling closing the door.
4 January 2007; local time: 11:54 a.m.; Bellevue, Washington
A light dusting of snow falls from the heavens when I step out of the time machine again, though I barely notice. I’m brimming with joy as I dart across the road and back into the parking lot. Not only did I save a man’s life, but I’ve allowed him to finally live out all the impossible hopes and dreams he never realized. I’m practically bursting with glee when I ring the doorbell to Wes’ townhome.
He doesn’t answer. Maybe he’s in the shower, or maybe he ran to the store. Confident he’ll hear me this time, I ring the doorbell a second time, but still, nothing. The laundry room window isn’t open, so I pace under his awning and count to five hundred to kill time while he finishes his shower or errand. However, my confidence crashes as my mental counter slowly ticks upward. When I reach five hundred, I dejectedly ring the doorbell twice and pound the door thrice, but the door remains unanswered.
Where could he be?
“Hey, is your name Matt?” a voice behind me asks.
An old man with a shovel is standing on the sidewalk. His grey hair is tucked into the ear flaps of his hunting cap, and his warm breath continuously mists his cold eyeglasses into uselessness.
“Yeah, I’m Matt. Have we met before?”
“No, we haven’t, but I’m the property manager here.”
“Oh. I’m here to see my friend Wes. Do you know where he’s at?”
“I’m afraid you won’t find him here,” the old man says.
“Do you know when he’ll be back?”
“I’m sorry to tell you this, kid, but Wes…” the old man falters.
“Wes…took his own life last night.”
My knees buckle, and my heart implodes. But he, but he… “But he…”
“He wanted me to give you this,” the old man says, as he walks towards me and pulls an envelope from his inside jacket pocket and thrusts it into my shaking hand.
“I didn’t mean to be nosy, but he dated the front of the envelope with last night’s date. You’re probably the last person he thought of before…”
The old man trails offs. The cold crisp air, which felt so invigorating a moment earlier, is suddenly suffocating. I can’t speak or move. The old man eventually turns and heads back towards his office without a word.
I can’t remember if I waited a minute or a lifetime under Wes’ awning before a voice inside me screamed: Run! Run away from this place, and don’t ever come back! My feet move on their own, dashing across the parking lot. A car almost flattens me when I run out into the street, and the driver honks his horn and shouts an obscenity, but I can’t hear him. I’m running back to my time machine as fast as my legs will carry me, as cold snow and hot teardrops quietly fall all around me.
3 January 2019; local time: 1:13 p.m.; Seattle, Washington
I’ve reached today—the twelfth anniversary of Wes’ passing—the old-fashioned way, without time traveling. Unable to summon the strength to open his parting gift to me, I kept the envelope tucked away in a filing cabinet at home. But today I’m nervously twirling the envelope in my hands while watching snow-covered cars meander outside my window.
“You can do this, you can do this, you can do this…” I say to myself.
In one swift motion, I dig my index finger into the corner of the envelope and tear a jagged cut across the top to reveal a letter inside. Blue ink greets me as I smooth out the tri-folded paper and settle in for heartbreak.
You grew up into such a caring and compassionate man, and I’m honored that you came back to save me. I can’t come out, though, because that’s not who I want to be. I know you’ll think I’m a coward, but I’d risk losing my job, my son, and my entire world if I lived as a gay man. More importantly, you’d never find the magic spark to lead your own life if I came out. You deserve to be happy, the way I don’t know how, so I’m sacrificing myself for you, the way it was always supposed to be. I hope you can find it in your heart to forgive me, and that you continue living the life I was too ashamed to lead. I’ll save you a seat at that great big Thanksgiving meal up in the sky.
I love you, and thank you for everything,