From the author: Lovelorn Z has the time travel opportunity of a lifetime, so they're using their 10 trips back in time to win back the heart of their girlfriend Una, who left them after an epic fight on New Year's Eve, 2022. However, time travel mixes up Z's memory, and time itself becomes jumbled up.
Paradox for Lost Causes
by Jordan Kurella
December31, 2022, Attempt 5
I arrive in our old closet of a kitchen on an abysmally sunny New Year's Eve morning with one wicked time travel hangover. My tongue is glued to the roof of my mouth, which tastes like I haven't brushed my teeth in twelve years. I'm coated in the conductive solution the techs painted me with back at the Time Travel Bureau, and my backpack (also coated in the solution) is sitting in a wet lump on our (your) pristine kitchen floor.
You're gonna be pissed about that, Una. But I have time to both clean it up and win you back.
Past Z won't get up until mid-afternoon, when you usually came home for lunch so you could see them (me) at least a little bit before they (I) went off for work. Twelve years later and I'm stillgetting up late to clean corporate toilets, but here we are. And here I am. At least that'll make me real good at cleaning this crap off our (your) kitchen floor. Cause Past Z won't be up for a few hours. Your friend Lorenzo won't be by to grab them for a few hours more.
I've got plenty of time.
Plenty of time to shower and get this gunk off and take some ibuprofen. This time travel headache I have is gonna turn into a full-blown migraine if I don't knock it out quick. The third trip I took to win you back, Una, I spent throwing up in our clean, clean bathroom because I never got to that ibuprofen in time--because I was too intent on making out with you. As if that was going to be the thing to save us. As if that was how I was gonna win you back.
Well, I didn't. So, I'm here again, for the fifth time.
You're not gonna remember that third trip except maybe in dreams. The mandated counseling I have to get at the Bureau tells me that all these trips (these ten trips) might have long lasting effects on both our subconsciouses; that it might be in our dreams, mess up my memory. I remember learning about the subconscious in high school. That's some Freudian shit.
Freud was a fraud, and my memory's fine.
January2, 2035, Attempt 3
I don't remember ever being mistaken for a hero, so I'm no good for time travel. I'm not some kind of social worker or diplomat being sent off to the past to make the present better, or on to the future to ensure humanity's survival. I don't have a PhD in quantum physics, and I'm not a doctor who can cure cancer. I'd never normally be a time travel candidate, except when they want "low-priority internal personnel" for a "project." And how much lower priority can you get than third shift custodian?
This is experimental time travel shit, for internal-use only. Julia (the main tech) says the Bureau doesn't want to accidentally erase some big-name do-gooder and lose all their funding, so here I go: ten trips to try and win you back. Ten trips to change my life for the better--cause it would be much better if you were in it, Una. And in the meantime, the Time Travel Bureau gets to test their equipment on the effects of paradox and erasing the butterfly effect. And if I get lost in the process, they get to hire another third shift custodian on at minimum wage, but I get to disappear seeing you another time, and another time, and another time.
January1, 2023, Attempt 7
Another time saying goodbye. Another time where you're hiding your face as you stand there, your olive-green suitcase in the hallway, holding our cat (my cat) in your arms, and saying, "I can't live like this anymore, Z. I just can't." And I look around our (your) apartment, which is neat and tidy and organized with a bunch of bullshit from IKEA. It's not the apartment you have a problem with.
You can only look at the cat (my cat), who is so comfortable in your arms. She always did like you better. Your hands are white-knuckling the roller-handle of your suitcase, but that's not because it's heavy, we both know that. Your five-year-old glasses are slipping down your nose, you don't move a finger to push them back into place.
"Why not?" I ask.
I ask even though I know the answer. But I ask like I asked the last six times, with the hurt rising up from my stomach to my heart. It closes up my throat; it makes my teeth ache.
"It's over, Z," you say. "I can't live with you anymore. I can't be with you like you are."
And you turn away, rolling your suitcase and taking you and our cat (my cat) out of my life forever.
December31, 2022, Attempt 5
Our cat (my cat) is under the couch hissing and growling at me. I don't know if it's the smell of the conductive solution all over this backpack, or if she knows something's up. Don't cats have like a sixth sense or something? Can't they see into the spirit world or beyond time? Or is that another thing from one of those movies your friend Lorenzo used to make us watch. Am I just remembering scenes from Pet Sematary? How am I mixing this up?
Anyway, the plan: originally, in our original timeline, we got into a huge fight on New Year's Eve cause a big snowstorm knocked out the power and Lorenzo bailed on showing up to grab me. We spent a candlelit Saturday night with no entertainment and only rage between us. You were exhausted from grading, and I don't remember what my problem was. I only remember that we never used to get into fights. Ever. Until that last Halloween. Then we fought a couple of times, no big deal. Until this big blow-up.
Until you left.
So, the plan is to avoid the fight. When the snow happens, we're gonna get out of the house and do stupid shit like we used to years ago when we were younger and dumber and had fewer responsibilities hanging over our heads. When we would steal kisses only in the dark so that no one knew we were kissing. When we'd come in from the cold and your glasses would fog up and I'd make science fiction jokes from Lorenzo's movies. When people would stop me and ask, "Are you a boy or a girl?" and I wouldn't answer, and you'd just grab my hand.
We're gonna get that time back. I'm gonna get that feeling back of my heart being light as light; so weightless I could fly off and touch the stars, but only if I was with you. I'm gonna get usback, but not just for me, for you, too.
But really, I don't just want you back. I needyou back. Lorenzo isn't going to bail this time, I made sure of that. He's gonna pick Past Z up, like he does every Saturday night--I know this, I texted him (same number, some things never change). So, it'll just be you and me, together. We won't fight about all the time I spent with Lorenzo, we won't fight about how we never spend time with each other alone anymore. Because I'll be here with you, alone.
It'll just be you and me and our snow angels all night; our gloves clasped together; our fingers going numb from the cold; both of us holding close to keep warm. Kissing to keep warm. Huddling against the wind. Our chests touching, my mouth on your neck so that I can live in your heartbeat, maybe just for a little while.
This. This is what I want.
This is what I miss.
December31, 2022, Attempt 8
I miss holding your hand and so my fingers inch closer to yours on the couch as you sit grading papers with a frown so deep that it's going to leave a mark. Past Z is still asleep, and the apartment is stifling in the unseasonably warm sunshine. My plans of snow angels and quiet kisses may be traded for Rear Windowand that six pack of (probably) skunked beer in the fridge.
My pinky is almost touching yours when a key turns in the lock and I notice a familiar long-haired scruffy sight shuffling through the half-open door.
"Hey Lorenzo," you say. "Here to snag Z? They're right here."
"Cool," Lorenzo says. His posture is unsure, as if he doesn't know how much space he is allowed to occupy in this apartment. He shuffles his feet back and forth, looking between me and the coffee table.
"Want a beer?" I ask.
I walk to our (your) closet of a kitchen and he follows me, his posture easing, his steps becoming more comfortable as he gets further from you. When we're alone, when we're almost touching, I pass him a can of something I don't recognize: black, with a fish on it, and he makes a face.
"I brought this over a year ago, Z," he says.
"Una drinks wine," I say. "I drink tea."
"I know," he says, and grins. "So, you coming over? I sent a buncha texts."
"My phone's in the other room," I say. "Charging."
Which is partially true but also way dishonest. I'm not the Z he's looking for. I don't remember this Lorenzo; this conversation; this tension, this electricity, this familiarity, this closeness.
But I like it. It feels good.
"I got John Carpenter's The Thing," he says, "you know, in case it snows. And I got Duel, in case it doesn't. I figured Una could use the time to get her grading done."
His eyes are saying more than that, they're intense. They make me want to be intense. And suddenly it's like everything he's saying is code for something else. And suddenly everything I have to say next is code for something else, and it's like: I don't want to fuck this up. But not with you, Una. With Lorenzo, with him.
So, I smile at him (the way he's smiling at me), and of course I fuck it up. Cause I say, "I can't. I have to talk to Una tonight."
He nods, slowly. Sets the beer can (still closed) on the counter and bites his lips.
"Good call," he says. "Well, if you need anything, text. I'll be right over. Don't hesitate."
You're petting our cat (my cat) when Lorenzo and I walk out of the kitchen together.
"What are you going to talk to me about?" you ask.
"Our future," I say. It's a loaded statement.
"Why?" you ask. "We don't have one."
January1, 2035, Attempt 9
One more time to win you back after this, Una. One more trip, one more failure. After twelve years and eight failures, you'd think I would've grown sick of trying. But I spent twelve years thinking about you. Twelve years before I could speak to you again, all while wondering about how you're doing, and avoiding all contact with you.
Twelve years ago, you stood at our apartment door, your olive-green suitcase sitting in the hallway behind you, our cat (my cat) in your arms, and you saying, "I'm sorry, Z, but no more of this. I just can't anymore with you."
It was the last thing you said before you turned and walked away. And I didn't stop you, because I was too stunned to say anything in response. Until recently.
I'm not sending this letter. Like I didn't send the last eight of these letters. I know it's over. Something in my gut tells me that, and also that these next two trips are just me going back for no reason. Or somereason, but I can't figure out what it is, but I keep doing it anyway. Did you know that today I forgot where I keep the coffee? It's been in the same white IKEA canister for fifteen years. The one you bought. The one I kept, despite everything.
Or did I buy it? I feel like don't know anything anymore.
My counselor at the Time Travel Bureau says it's good to write down my feelings, so I always write everything to you. But I'm sick of writing things down. I hope this is my final letter to you, because I'm never gonna win you back. But then I keep going back again and again, time after time. And things keep happening, and I only remember half the trip. My counselor says I need closure, but I'm not getting any closure. Eight tries and eight failures only to make sure that everything stays the same. All I know is: this time, my heart's not in it. This time, I feel like going back for you is wrong.
Anyway, I'm putting this letter with the rest of them.
January2, 2035, Attempt 10
This is my last letter to you, Una. When I arrived back in my time, Julia and her techs were super happy. Apparently on this trip (my last trip), they finally figured out how to erase the butterfly effect.
"It worked! It worked!" she said. She shook my hand, practically vibrating. "Thank you so much, Mx. Caldwell. We couldn't have done this without you."
She didn't notice the look of defeat on my face when she came up to me, handing me my coat and asking, "Do you want to go again? Another trip? Any time? Any place?"
I told her that I'd think about it, and then I don't stop to shower or sign paperwork, I just grabbed my gunky backpack and took a night bus home, watching everyone better than me (everyone like you, Una) picking their noses and taking selfies in the back of their self-driving cars.
When I got home, though, your friend Lorenzo was waiting for me. His hair is as long as ever, and he was watching some movie with a lot of screaming. Then he said, "Hey babe, you okay? C'mere."
This was ... nice.
He stood up and wrapped me in his arms. He still wears too much pomade, but it smelled so good. I fell into his belly and his hug and just cried on his shirt until it was wet. He stroked my frizzy hair and let me cry. He held me and held me and never shushed my sobs.
"How'd you know?" I asked.
"You told me," he said. "You told me about it on New Year's Eve, twelve years ago."
I don't remember any of this. Or was that Past Z's doing? All I know is that this is what I want. My heart twists over and over on itself like a wet rag, wringing out the past week's drama.
"Go take a shower," he said. "And we'll order delivery. Maybe watch a movie?"
In normal circumstances, where like, I hadn't been time traveling, I'd ask: "Excuse me, do you live here?" But time travel throws everything into a warped-perspective. My apartment now has a VR rig, which I didn't have before, a larger television, a bigger couch. Some other stuff that definitely isn't mine.He and I are now a thing, a definite thing.
So I said nothing, instead my heart hiccuped in my chest, the tips of my fingers tingled, and I got lightheaded. Six years. Then, something trailed, shadowy, in the periphery of memory: a closeness, an intensity that I longed for. But I couldn't touch it, couldn't find it.
"You don't remember," Lorenzo said. "Ever since that one Memorial Day when I called you, when I told you that I needed you and you ... you knew. You just knew that you needed me back."
And the look in his eyes was the same gut twisting concern I saw in yours, Una. In yours. I sat down on the couch, and he followed me, taking my hands in his. Looking at me with those huge brown eyes. He held my hands so tight I thought I'd never be alone again.
"We'll take it slow," he said. "I hope you remember this. I hope you remember us."
Una, what's wrong with me?
December31, 2022, Attempt 10
"You're wrong," I say to Past Z. "Go back to bed. That's not why I'm here."
But their eyes (my eyes) are so angry, so furious, I know they won't. Their hands are gripping my own arms so hard, it's gonna leave a bruise, and their voice has grown so loud that it's burning out in their throat, or in my ears, I'm not sure which. It's after I say, "Calm down" that they start shaking me; literally, actually shaking me.
I want you to stop this, Una, but I know by now that you won't.
"You're lying. What the shit are you trying to prove here?" Past Z says crying, really crying. "What did you think was going to happen, you coming back here into our life thinking you can get something back that you never had? That was over? That was ending?"
The truth is so raw that my mouth runs dry with it.
"Whatever happens now, to us, to Una and me, the real Z, the actual Z, is your fault--fucking imposter. I hate you. I hate what I'm going to become."
I can see this hate burning in them, in me. It runs so deep, so hot, that I have to look away. I turn to you, Una, and you catch a glimpse of me: me who is hurting, me who cannot stand this reflection of myself, this realization, and you also look away.
"I will do anything, everything, to not become you," Past Z says. "You who comes back like a fucking stalker and thinks they can have someone--an actual person--who made a choice to leave them twelve years ago? Grow up, Future Z. Grow up."
Past Z pushes me away, their stance still wobbly from sleep, their force focused from rage. They push me, and I stumble back over my backpack, and down onto a stack of pillows, scattering them behind me. Both elbows and my tailbone hit the floor with a crack, with a thud, my impact shaking the wine glass on the table. A moment past my fall both you and Past Z turn and look at me with concern. Have you looked at me this way before, Una? The twisting in my gut feels familiar, but I don't recognize your face.
January2, 2035, Attempt 1
I don't recognize the smell of the experimental time machine. It's worse than the regular time machines. It's like live power lines and the air before a bad storm; the whole room is so dry that it makes my hair frizz; makes my skin itch; makes me agitated. There's also a small aftertaste of acid sweat (fear sweat) in the air, like the techs in here never leave, or the ventilation is just that bad.
The machine itself looks like one of those escape pods from those movies your friend Lorenzo used to love to make us watch. Except the front side is all glass (Julia says it's a conductor--I'll take her word for it). For all these trips I have to wear a tank top and shorts, no jewelry, and no nail polish. Also, I have to put my shoes in my backpack. They inject me with and slather me in with some sort of conductive solution that looks like green Jell-O, and they paint my backpack in the same green Jell-O stuff before locking it in a glass case.
The backpack is full of my life's savings (a paycard of $350), and the book you gave me a month before you left--Zadie Smith's White Teeth. I finally read it. I liked it. It was sad though, but you always liked sad books. The mandated counseling I have to get says I should carry around reminders of you. Like I need any.
I'm finishing this up before they strap me in and shove a mouthguard between my teeth. I'll see you soon though, for the first time until the future. Paradox or not.
January2, 2035, Attempt 8
This room, this apartment, is lonely without you in it (with just me in it). I don't even have a cat, not after you left with ours. I haven't cared about a single thing since you left: except work, and then getting you back.
But, you know what, Una? I'm starting to think these ten trips are only a good deal for the Time Travel Bureau. That the bonus on my paycheck is gonna be a painful reminder that I'm a fucking failure. That I can't do anything right.
Did you know that it's been thirteen years and Lorenzo's damn fish beer is still in this fridge? All six cans, pristine and probably totally disgusting. We never touched a single one, you or me. You always drank wine. I drank tea. Lorenzo loved this fish beer. In the black can, with the pull-top.
I remember how he'd drink from it and look at me and smile while something scary was happening on our TV. Right after you'd scream and cover your face, right after the two of us (Lorenzo and me) would both laugh. We watched Dead Aliveonce and you fled to our room to grade papers, and he and I stayed up until three in the morning talking about Romero versus the more modern zombie.
I should throw out this damn fish beer, I'm never gonna drink it. And I know by now that you're never gonna come back and drink it either. But I can't bring myself to toss it. I've been moving it aside for twelve years, making space for it, smiling at that damn hooked fish on the can and thinking of Lorenzo and his scruffy beard, his fingernails always black from factory work, and the way he smelled: like his beeswax pomade.
As I'm writing you, there's something scratching at the periphery of memory: a closeness, a familiarity that makes my heart hurt. But I can't reach it. I can't touch it. So I'm just gonna close the fridge, say goodnight, and leave this closet of a kitchen behind.
May28, 2029, Attempt 11
I arrive in my closet of a kitchen on a beautifully cloudy Memorial Day morning with one wicked time travel hangover. But it's not as bad this time. My breath doesn't taste so rancid, my mouth isn't as dry, my tongue is where it belongs. Guess there's a difference in how far I go back, Lorenzo, or what I go back for. Because this time I'm not going back for me; this time, babe, I'm coming back for you. You asked me to, told me that it was me who gave you life today, Lorenzo. You told me it was me who saved you.
Now, all I gotta do is remember how I did it.