“Doors closing,” said the automated voice, tinny and clear, from the indoor speakers. The steel windowed panels began to slowly slide toward each other, like lovers inching closer to a kiss. They met and locked together, the train groaning to life as it prepared to leave the metro station.
It was 3:05 in the afternoon, and the train was supposed to have left at 2:58. The passengers, mostly tourists, donning tight baseball caps and large backpacks, sweated patiently into the plastic seating as they awaited the train’s departure. It was assumed that any delay under ten minutes was due to a minor technical fault, and therefore did not merit explanation or apology. The faces of the passengers did not betray any joy or relief at the movement of the train – they were, colloquially, unmoved. Conversely, those on the platform – would-be-passengers – were restless: the next train, which was supposed to have arrived two minutes prior, was, by extension of the first delay, delayed as well, and each of the would-be-passengers displayed dissatisfaction in their own personal way.
Martha, a working mother, was approaching lateness for her second husband’s surprise birthday party. She held in her moist grip – damn the July heat! – a bag filled with limpid plastic balloons, awaiting inflation. It was an impulse buy: on her way to the metro station, heels clacking on the uneven pavement, she passed a party goods store. In the display window stood a shabby-looking clown, his red fluff nose faded with time and neglect. Above him had hung brightly colored flags and streamers, some exclaiming that it was TIME TO PARTY (it was 2:30 in the afternoon) and others dearly wishing a HAPPY BIRTHDAY TO _______. The store was called Party King, though, from the dereliction of its exterior, it seemed that the monarch had been in absentia for some time.
Martha passed this store every day, twice, on her route from the metro station to the office and back, though she only noticed it that Tuesday. She mentally cursed herself as she stood before it, thinking of the countless hours she had wasted buying decorations in that party place across town, with the leering cashier and the anemic attendant. The mad rush on the day of her son’s birthday two months earlier, the deadening traffic and her interminably ringing cell phone…Martha started.
A face, dark and curious, was peering at her through the glass display window. It looked to be a man, with short black hair, a small mouth and a neatly trimmed mustache. She met his gaze, bringing her face closer to the clown’s white plastic hand behind the glass. The man’s eyes were black, or very dark brown, and were ringed with surprisingly long and delicate lashes, above which sat two bushy but amicably angled eyebrows. Martha felt a strange rush, not of attraction but of a deeper warmth, a surprise at an unfamiliar but pleasingly open face, clean and unmarred by the blemishes of spite and stress endemic to the rest of the city. She walked into the store without knowing precisely why, drawn to the benign face of the stranger. Only when the door had swung shut behind her, a small bell sounding to formally announce her entrance, did she remember that she was on her way to her husband’s surprise party.
He had turned forty-two that Sunday, and they had gone out for a long, romantic dinner during which she consumed copious amounts of wine in order to forget that she had borne two children by a man other than the one sitting opposite her. He had suggested they go dancing after dinner, but the wine had made her tired and left her liverish, so she’d insisted they return home. Upon their arrival the house was dark, the living room half-lit by the flickering television. The babysitter (Mary? Margaret? –From across the street, beautiful and quiet) lay on the couch, her shirt ridden up to the belly button, exposing a strip of tanned skin. Martha’s husband had looked for a moment too long before gently shaking her awake, proffering a warm smile and a crumpled twenty-dollar bill. Martha lumbered upstairs, intending to check on the children, but she was so sleepy that she did not pause on her way to her bedroom.
Lying facedown on their bed, she hoped that her husband would forgive her for cutting the evening short. When she woke to her alarm the following morning, she was greeted with a pounding headache and bilious breath. She stumbled to the bathroom and found a tablet of aspirin and a glass of water waiting for her atop the sink. She’d taken this as a sign of goodwill from her husband, and so did not apologize for the evening.
Still, she’d felt guilty: the night before was the most recent in a long line of incidents that, however small, seemed to Martha to underscore a manifest difference between her temperament and that of new husband. Though she rarely admitted it, least of all to herself, Martha was senior of her husband by five years, though she often felt far older. His playfulness and ebullience, so attractive when she was in her late thirties and had just escaped from a stagnant marriage with a man almost shamefully older than she was, now tired her. His friends – many of them Martha’s age, or older – seemed like children, and when they entertained Martha often felt lost in the conversation, as though their words constructed a maze she would have to grudgingly escape. Confused and alienated, Martha would often excuse herself early from the company, claiming a headache or indigestion. She did this so often that she once overheard a friend of her husband’s wonder openly if she was a hypochondriac.
This incongruence was not so apparent when they were alone, and she rarely felt occasions when he suggested they do something adventurous (travelling, or hiking, or dancing), Martha felt increasingly out of touch. Staunchly habitual, she was disinclined to break her modest routine. She knew that her quietude bothered him, though he’d never uttered a word of recrimination. It was this sentiment of partial inadequacy that sparked the idea of the surprise party: he would be delighted, and Martha felt that it would somehow vindicate her behavior. That very afternoon (Monday, 1:12 p.m.), she phoned those whom she knew to be his closest friends, all of whom – though surprised at her initiative – were more than willing to assist with the organization of the party. After having coordinated the details – they were to congregate at Martha’s apartment at 3:30 p.m., set up and await the arrival of her husband at 4:00 – she rushed to finish her paperwork so that she could leave the office earlier the next day.
It was dark outside when she returned home, the crescent moon smiling lopsidedly amid a scattering of dim stars. She found her husband and daughter in the kitchen, halfway through a dinner of leftover lasagna.
Her daughter, already 11 (12?) years old, was slowly becoming aware of her body, the strange roundness that precipitated adolescence. She gave Martha a quick smile and a perfunctory hello and returned to staring at her place. Martha gave her husband an awkward peck on the cheek, to which he did not respond, and placed a slice of lasagna in the microwave. As the timer counted down from three minutes (was that long enough?) she turned to her husband and, with a contrived cheeriness, asked about his day.
Pleasantries always felt scripted to Martha: rigid and forced, like pushing a rusty key into an unwilling lock. She cared about her husband, loved him, even, but that affection did not translate into interest about the minutiae of his day. Her husband, conversely, hungered for detail, and seemed resolutely determined to extract as much information from Martha as possible. Usually she acquiesced, painting him an exacting image of the events that had transpired in the metro, the office, the coffeeshop. That night, however, her social energies were rather depleted, and so she deflected his inquisitions onto her daughter, whose subsequent reticence he attributed to her tender age and so generously tolerated. After clearing the table, she carefully hand-washed the dishes and cutlery, despite the dishwasher that her husband had installed a few months earlier.
Martha thoroughly enjoyed scrubbing plates and knives and forks: she loved to see the colored residue of food run down the length of the white plates and stream into the sink, chased by the frothy outpourings of a sponge. She loved the feel of tepid water on her veiny wrists, the softness of the sponge in one hand and the reassuring firmness of a steel knife in the other. Most of all, though, she loved the gleam of spoons and plates after they were rid of the scraps of a meal: perched on the drying rack, they shone with a rare purity that gave Martha both satisfaction and hope. They were ready for the next meal, for life to continue. Washing dishes, to Martha, was an affirmation of continuity and progress, more so than the ticking of a clock or the growth of her children.
She was indulging in this task of reassurance when she felt two broad hands descend on her hips. Softly and slowly they moved up her waist and crept forward to cover her stomach, carrying behind them thick forearms that enveloped her torso and wrinkled her shirt. Martha continued to wash, though she now began to move the sponge counterclockwise around each plate, as though willing time to slow and prolong the embrace. It was during these moments, in which only their bodies spoke, that she felt closest to her husband.
She knew that their friends – his especially – wondered why they had married. The questions were never direct, but Martha had noticed the curious glances they were given when they met with acquaintances at bars or restaurants. People guessed at the reasons for their marriage, the theories ranging from the mild – midlife crisis on his part, biological anxiety on hers – to the scandalous – a pregnancy catalyzed the nuptials promptly followed by an early miscarriage and entrenched resentment from both parties. The truth lay far from any of the aforementioned postulations, though not because it was in any way disreputable. Had they been asked, both Martha and her husband would have been happy to reveal the key to their compatibility and dispel the rumors that they did not know existed.
What Martha and her husband had in common was a love of literature. Not necessarily the same books, or genre: Martha was somewhat of a traditional Anglophile, re-reading Dickens or Hardy, while her husband preferred modern science fiction, to the tune of A.G. Riddle or David Mitchell. No; what they both held was a fundamental appreciation for invented lives carefully built, letter by letter, like Towers of Babylon that stretched from the page into the heavens of the imagination. Her former husband had never read anything longer than a newspaper article, and even then was often angered by what he perceived as gratuitous language. A staunch believer in both literary parsimony and rigorous verisimilitude, he found fiction wasteful and redundant.
He did not criticize Martha for reading novels, but she’d nonetheless felt the mounting weight of his disapproval with every turn of the page. She became so paranoid about reading in his presence that she began spending evenings at her office. As she spent more time away from home so did her husband, leaving their children with a motley series of caretakers and a patchwork quilt of guidance. Martha felt a bit guilty about neglecting the upbringing of her son and daughter during their most formative years, but the comfort and safety she felt in her office was sufficient to muffle thoughts of her children behind the voices of her favorite characters.
After her husband moved out and divorce proceedings were underway, she began spending her evenings at home and made an effort to reacquaint herself with her children, who she viewed as small and delicate strangers. She’d made various unsuccessful overtures, cooking elaborate dinners with food they turned out not to like, taking them to the park one Saturday morning and finding that her son was allergic to pollen, buying her daughter clothing she had long outgrown. Her children were indifferent to her attempts, and saw her as but one in a long line of clueless surrogate mothers. Martha eventually resigned herself to their coldness and withdrew to the role of supervisor, employing eager teenagers to guard and interact with the children she hadn’t put effort into raising. Her work continued unimpeded, and during a seminar she’d caught the eye of a handsome journalist for a small newspaper. They dated for about thirteen months, during which he wooed both her and her children, who confided in him as they had never bothered to with Martha. Their wedding was a small, modest affair, with two dozen guests and a kindly civil magistrate.
Her husband was thoughtful, caring; he respected her work and she his, and he’d read aloud to her above the soft dark head of her sleeping daughter some evenings, though less and less, now, years after the wedding. In bed – usually long before her husband – she would sometimes reach down to the drawer of her nightstand and pull out a small photo album, about the size of a paperback novel but, she thought, not nearly as engaging. Each photograph, smooth and pliable, carried the fraction of a memory, the weight of a millisecond. Martha wondered if time had a certain mass – the aging of a man, or woman, was usually measured in pounds, wrinkles, sagging skin. But those were years, decades; how much did a second weigh? An hour? Smaller units of time, perhaps, were weightless; grains of sand dropped carelessly on a browned back and disappearing, darkened by an everlasting sun.
The album opened easily. She perused it often, reliving the past in short and unsatisfying jolts. There she was, in an elegant white pantsuit, at her second wedding reception, gazing dolefully at her new husband (right off the shelf!) as he regaled their (his) friends with some amusing trifle. One photo stood out in particular: she remembered that moment, faintly, her husband loud, boastful, his face red and animated. The feel of the cool white fabric on her overheated skin, her feet bloated and aching after hours spent in heels that were, to her embarrassment, far too small (she hated big feet on women.) Martha looked at the face of the woman in the photograph – herself, three years lighter.
Time – she saw it everywhere, in veins at the back of her hands, in the countryside flashing across the passenger-side window when her husband drove, a monotonous film reel run by a spotty projector. She smelled it in the sweet aroma of a rising cake, on Sundays when her hands felt idle and she baked. She was afraid of it, its caprice, how it teased her with a grey hair and then, as though changing its mind, brought her a long and substantial menstrual period a few days later. You could never win: either you were losing time or gaining it, and neither is good. A loss implies a failure, while a gain is a gluttony, time padding your waist and clinging to you like a tick as you hobble towards death and demensia.
Martha was disgusted by the old lady sitting on the bench beside where she stood on the platform. Her face wrinkled and sagged. her chin drooping into her neck like paint on a painting hung before it’s dry. The elderly woman was hunched forward, her back arched like a runner’s. She turned to smile at Martha.
“You off to a party?” Her voice sounded like she looked – desiccated and yet somehow still corpulent. Her words folded into each other like the flaps of skin on her neck. Martha’s bag, the one she was gripping far too tightly, had the Party King logo. The lady had seen it and sought to converse. Martha did not want to talk to this woman, a slave of time – she did not want to be faced with her mortality.
There was no exit from time. How she longed to live, ageless and immemorial, in a book, her self preserved at every page, her thoughts and words, cryo-literarily frozen. Reading was a fleeting departure, an emergency escape: she would plunge her head beneath the sea of words, letters like salt stinging her eyes, and hold her breath, hoping that time would forget about her. But as the blood rushed to her head and her lungs strained she reluctantly surfaced, again and again, as time smiled smugly and roughly pushed her onto the dumb, lively earth. Martha’s efforts at prolonging her submersion – with an oxygen-tank epic or a multi-volume snorkel – were fruitless, and she was always called back to the domain of time. Her husband, who used literature to explore rather than hide, urged her to read aloud, to share her experience with him as he often did with her. Martha always refused, claiming that she hated the sound of her own voice. She could never tell him the truth: she couldn’t adulterate her hiding place with another person.
For his birthday, she’d gotten him an old Michael Crichton novel, Timeline. It was wrapped with light green paper (his favorite color was red, but the store didn’t have any) and stashed under their bed. She would add it to the pile of presents at the surprise party, knowing he would be pleased. Whenever she bought him literature, she made sure that it also somewhat suited her, as she knew she’d be hearing excerpts from it in his measured voice.
The old woman had turned away by now, her lips still set in a gentle smile as she stared at the train tracks. Martha felt a little ashamed at having ignored the lady’s question. It was rude, and it flew in the face of the lessons of respect her mother had instilled in her. Still, she felt that her mother would understand: she too had grimaced at wrinkled faces in the street. Martha’s eyes prickled with tears – oh, her mother! Only she had understood – the need to stay, to remain still as life’s ignominies chased others down a narrowing timeline. Martha wanted her mother alive, but she knew her mother would rather stay dead: she had chosen to strip herself of her remaining years rather than watch them fall, one by one, like withered petals from a bowed stem. Her mother had achieved timelessness, but not in the way Martha dreamed of it. Martha still wanted life, but a life without time, to feel her heart beating madly as she ran from it.
It was impossible. Her cells were dying, her hair color fading, her face drooping with every passing thought. She fingered a book of poetry in her purse with her free hand – poems were a great way to hide for a few minutes, during breaks, to catch her breath between clockstrokes. No – now was not a good moment.
She looked at her watch: 3:10. Her train was supposed to have left at 3:05, giving her 25 minutes to get to the closest subway station and walk the five minutes home, perhaps longer in this heat. Since the last train was delayed by seven minutes – she quickly did the math – her train should arrive and depart within the next two minutes. Seven minutes was not too egregious of a delay, and if she hurried home – could she afford to stop for coffee? her minutes, chips in life’s casino, were fast dwindling – if she hurried, she could meet everyone at 3:30, and await her husband’s arrival at 4:00. He was always very punctual.