BY CYRENA LEE
Copyright is held by the author.
THE FIRST time I noticed the fickle nature of time was when the color of the sky didn’t make sense. It was just after dinner, close to eight. Uncle Rich, the creepy husband of my aunt, was smoking a cigarette with my father by the window. His thin, leering eyes popped out of his pockmarked face. The sun was still out, which was unusual for that hour, and my mom and her sister — Auntie Helen — were at the sinks, washing up the mess everyone had made, scrubbing down chopsticks. I was dawdling at the table, picking at my rice. Cousin Audrey, five years older than me, was outside on the back porch, texting her friends and smacking her gum loudly. I wondered if she might give me a piece later.
“Elena,” my dad barked at me suddenly. “Finish your dinner.”
“It’s really almost eight?” I stuffed a mouthful of rice into my mouth. I had been a finicky eater. “It looks too light outside for eight o’clock.”
My dad, American name Marco, looked outside. My mother’s American name was Isabella. A funny irony that two immigrants from China who now lived in New Jersey had picked two Italian names to match. In silent confirmation of his agreement, Dad looked at his watch. “Tomorrow must be Daylight Savings Time.”
“What do you mean?” I must have missed that lesson in school. It was one of those things I just managed to miss in life, like never knowing the real Chinese names of my parents.
Uncle Rich let out a loud, barking laugh. “You don’t know! At your age.” He inhaled another puff of his Marlboro. Same pack as my dad, with red stripes. They had the same bad taste for things that were bad for you. “It’s when all the clocks move forward one hour. Now the days are getting longer, and this way, people can benefit from the daytime more.”
I nodded and finished my rice. My mother came to take my empty bowl away from me without a word.
“The clocks will jump ahead at 2 a.m. tonight,” my father announced with authority.
Uncle Rich lit up two more cigarettes. “Here, Marco.” I didn’t like Uncle Rich, especially not after our visit to his brother’s house. I remember driving up in our old Toyota to a massive mansion with a pristine lawn. We walked through room after room, full of massive jade vases, like Chinese tourists at Versailles. Except these owners were from Hong Kong. Uncle Rich’s family was rich since a few generations ago. I had to call Uncle Rich’s brother Uncle Billy, even though we weren’t really family. He looked at us as if we were nothing, smiled at our dusty car and cheap factory clothes. Big cousin Audrey was family though, tied by blood. She traipsed around the house as if she owned the place. She probably would, one day. She even walked around our modest house like she owned it. Audrey came in swinging loudly through the sliding door, forgetting to push it closed.
“Audrey. I was just about to explain to your baby cousin the concept of time relativity to age.” Audrey put down her Nokia cell phone and spat out her gum. “Baby Elena? She’s too young to get it.”
“No, she’s not. Go ahead.” Uncle Rich prodded her, clearly more for her benefit than mine.
“OK,” Audrey said, sighing. She always looked so mature, so much cooler with her expensive clothes and her high school level books. Her confidence always made everyone think she was much smarter than she actually was. “Basically, time speeds up as you get older.”
“What do you mean?” I tried not looking at her pack of gum.
“Since you’re only eight years old, one year is a whole eighth of your life. But, since Wai Po is 80 years old, one year is one eightieth of her life.” Wai Po was our maternal grandmother.
“Wai Po is not 80 yet,” my mother called from the sink, pulling rubber gloves from her hands. “Her birthday is next week.”
“Bravo,” my Uncle Rich said, “that was a very good explanation Audrey.” He turned back towards me. “So you see, Elena. Time can jump ahead one hour and slowly by slowly, it speeds up. Before you know it, you’re dead.” He cackled.
My mouth dropped open and my mind exploded trying to wrap itself around this concept. Trying to imagine myself as old as cousin Audrey, or as old as my parents, or even my Wai Po. Even Audrey looked a bit shocked at her father’s last remark.
“Rich!” My Auntie Helen appeared. “Stop scaring the children. We should go. It’s late.” They ran their own real estate business, an offshoot of Uncle Rich’s family’s empire. She fished their Lexus car keys from his pocket. Uncle Rich’s face was wine red. My father, who could hold his liquor, took the keys. “We’re going out for a night cap. Isabella will drive you and Audrey home, Helen.” My mother and aunt exchanged a look, as if to say, these men and the things we put up with.
After I bid them goodbye, hugging my cousin Audrey and begging her for a piece of gum, I chewed over this notion of time being so flexible, while I chewed on the pink Bubble Tape gum. To Audrey’s credit, she gave me the rest of her entire roll. Then again, there was only an inch and a half left. I wrote in my journal about the day, and decided that they were wrong. I don’t know what possessed me or where my confidence came from, but I wrote down these words: time is nothing but a story that we tell ourselves—it doesn’t mean anything!
After that, manipulating time was simple. To do so, simply tell yourself a story. Or tell anyone a story. It doesn’t matter, because to tell a story all you need is a pen and a piece of paper or even just a laptop. String together some words, and like that, long stretches of time can be condensed into a few phrases and one can skip years into the future in a sentence.
By the time I was 13, I had forgotten the meaninglessness of time. That thought was buried under all the other things I was pressured to attach meaning to, like getting good grades and being popular. Audrey had just been accepted into college, a fancy private school in New York that was not quite Ivy League but “expensive enough”, as my dad smirked. Ever since he and my Uncle Rich had gotten into some business investment together, they had gotten more competitive than buddy-buddy. Audrey had a graduation party at a fancy restaurant where everyone ate Peking duck. I had on a sweater from the mall that I had begged my parents to buy me, it was form-fitting and made me feel like I wasn’t a kid anymore. Audrey wore a tee-shirt emblazoned with Che Guevara’s face, and after the duck was served, her and my mother argued about politics. “You’ll see when you’re older,” my mother, said, with a laugh. “You won’t be so young and idealistic anymore.” Audrey claimed to be a communist, and my mother said that when Audrey got older, she would be a Republican like her parents. I remember admiring her shirt, but the man’s bearded face didn’t mean anything to me. I looked him up because I didn’t want to appear dumb for not knowing.
Communism, I learned, is about sharing resources equally. It’s what led to the eventual death of my paternal grandparents, who were forced to wear white cones on their heads while being beaten during ‘struggle sessions’, until they had admitted their classist crimes. “Struggle sessions” is the English translation of pipan douzheng, which means to criticize and judge, to fight and struggle. Criticism and judging must have been a cornerstone of Chinese culture, based on the way that I was raised. But in America, the struggle continued. My dad always taught me that because of my appearance, I’d have to fight and struggle so much harder to be on top. But that struggle over school books and success was never revolutionary, not like Che Guevara.
He was a marxist. Like Siddhartha, he was shocked by witnessing poverty, hunger, and disease. But instead of renouncing the world and turning inwards, he decided to turn the world inside out. Che Guevara was killed, but his pretty face ironically remains a commodity in the form of a t-shirt. I even thought about buying my own, despite what the communists did to my grandparents, because the t-shirt looked cool. Or Audrey made it look cool. But my allowance was a pittance, and the $20 shirt plus $7 shipping was too expensive. Then the unspeakable incident happened.
I was studying for the SATs when my dad stumbled into the house, reeking of cigarettes and anger. He slammed the door and then he slammed something into the glass cabinet. “That mother fucker,” he yelled, “Rich — fucking rich asshole.” Then, a string of expletives in Mandarin. Eventually the rage died down with no explanation. But after that night, Uncle Rich didn’t come to the house anymore — not even for my high school graduation party. My parents were particularly proud that I had gotten into a real Ivy league school, and were happy that I’d be in New York too. “Your big cousin Audrey will take care of you,” my mother told me as she ruffled my hair.
And Audrey did, begrudgingly — as if I were covered in snot, as if she was doing me a favour. About once a month, she invited me to her fancy parties and dinners, always paying my part of the bill. I eagerly attended, even if it meant playing the little cousin, an object of amusement to her friends. They were only five years older than me, but they acted like they were the adults, stuffing themselves with wine and rich food, paid with family credit cards. After whatever fall-out happened between my dad and Uncle Rich, my meager allowance had been rolled way back. I hoarded as much food as I could from the dining halls for long library shut-in days, studying the works of Max Planck. Einstein was for babies — sophomores. Everyone knew about the theory of relativity. I wanted more.
By my junior year, I kept thinking about how my time was speeding up and how I needed to beat it. I found a temporal realm called the Planck scale, where even attoseconds — one quintillionth of a second — can drag on for an eon. I felt a thrill, like I was on the edge of something. And then: everything shut down.
The lights in the stacks of the old library flickered, my hand-me-down phone sounded an alarm: all students were to report back to their dormitories, immediately.
Unsettled, I grabbed the two corn muffins (wrapped in a greasy napkin) and my books. There had been news reports of an invisible death spreading around. It echoed SARS or Ebola, except it was even more threatening because it came from China, and China had become the centre of the universe. China was where everything was made, manufactured, and the so-called communist China had nearly the same amount of billionaires as America. Schools shut down, restaurants and cafes closed, but most importantly, my dormitory and dining hall closed. Travel restrictions forced me to go to Audrey’s in Brooklyn. I had only been there once, after Uncle Rich had bought the old factory for her. I hadn’t been there since she renovated, but had seen new photos on a design blog. She opened the door and gave me an extra set of keys that had been made for her maid. Because of the virus, Audrey explained Luciana wouldn’t be coming around anymore. She worked for Aunt Helen and Uncle Rich, too. I had seen Luciana a few times over the years. I remembered her as a nice woman.
I set down a stack of my physics textbooks on her large vintage Italian dining table and an old gym bag stuffed with clothes on the floor. Audrey was dressed in a rainbow-striped caftan, glamorous as ever.
“You can put your things in the guest room,” she nodded towards the door fitted with a vintage glass doorknob. “Bed has fresh linen, and the bathroom is just across from it.” I suddenly felt very self-conscious about my hoodie that hadn’t been washed in a week — I had started social distancing early — and my old frumpy jeans. “Thanks Audrey,” I managed.
“Of course,” she said, “what is family for?”
I smiled and took my things into the room. Audrey took a phone call with a friend and for the first time, I felt like I heard her speak. Her voice had relaxed an octave. She spoke comfortably, like she was speaking to an equal. My back stiffened at this stranger with my blood.
Two weeks passed. The world outside had gone mad; people dying in droves or hoarding irrationally. Inside, we lived life as if we were on a permanent staycation, except we also had to complain about it. We watched Netflix, ordered food, and Audrey worked doing whatever she did as some sort of consultant. She usually worked at an exclusive feminist coworking club that had since shut down. I had read something about how they had mistreated their employees. Neither of us brought it up. She made a lot of money, or at least, Uncle Rich and Aunt Helen still did.
Audrey was a good cook, too. Her kitchen was stocked with the thickest balsamic vinegar that I’d ever tasted, a hundred spices, jars and jars of truffles, whole frozen chickens, beans and grains artfully displayed in mason jars. She was so stressed about her vacation being cancelled that she almost forgot I was there. I was relieved; I couldn’t be a nuisance if she didn’t notice me. But despite my relief I could feel myself turning inside out. It was like living in a high-class prison of the same television shows; of having fancy clothes delivered to you (on Audrey’s part); of the same rhythm of eating breakfast, lunch, and dinner, day in and day out. This lockdown was modern life with no illusions of freedom; you either had money to live or you didn’t. It was then that I realized I didn’t want to be like Audrey.
We were finishing up a meal of miso-glazed salmon with Italian broccoli with fancy orange wine, which made me heady and bold. “Hey,” I asked my cousin, “do you know why our dads got into a fight?”
Audrey had her wine glass in one hand and her other was tapping her phone. Her faded sweatshirt had the word CLINTON emblazoned on it.
“Umm, I don’t really know. That was a long time ago.” She finished her wine and opened another bottle.
Time. Hearing that concept sent me somewhere else completely.
“Time . . . funny you mention that. Remember when you and your dad explained to me about time speeding up as we get older?”
At this, Audrey put down her phone and looked at me. “Ha, yeah. Ironically, right now, it seems to have slowed down with these worldwide quarantines. I mean, we can’t do anything! I had to cancel my trip to Puerto Rico.”
“Actually,” I said, and then took a sip of wine. “I remembered something. After you guys left that day, I had an epiphany. I realized the truth of everything.” Another sip. I grew feverish. Audrey narrowed her eyes.
“What are you talking about, Elena?” She poured herself more wine, but slowly this time.
I decided it was better to communicate what I had to in writing. In words. As proof. I got up and quickly walked to the kitchen counter, grabbed a notepad and pen. I scribbled down the epiphany I had, just as I had done when I was 13. I ripped the paper and slid it to her.
Audrey picked it up. Her usually manicured nails showed signs of fraying. “Time does not exist? What is this? Jesus, I knew you were too young to handle your alcohol.” She dropped the piece of paper and snatched my wine glass from me as if it belonged to her. It did, I guess.
I stood up and whisper-shouted again. “Time. Does. Not. Exist!”
“If time doesn’t exist, then what does? How could you even say that?”
“Prove that it’s real.” I was standing now, and my breathing had quickened. I picked up the modern clock, which was made out of sustainable bamboo and flashing LED numbers and shook it. “These are just numbers. They don’t mean a damn thing. What means anything to you?”
“Elena, put down my clock!” Audrey screamed. Her face had turned red.
Then, a knock on her front door. We both froze. The knock came again, urgent, persistent. Audrey moved first, collected herself. She walked towards the door and looked through the peephole.
A muffled voice fought her thick steel door. “Please, miss Audrey, please!”
Audrey froze. “Luciana? What are you doing here?”
“Please, miss Audrey. I’m sorry to bother you. My son is very sick, the hospitals are all full and I don’t have anywhere to —” Luciana’s desperate cries collapsed into a fit of coughing. Audrey jumped away from the door. “Luciana!” She cried out, with genuine concern now. “Are you sick?”
I approached the door. Luciana continued pleading. “I just need some money for some Tylenol, the prices are so expensive.”
“We have some!” I yelled and ran to the well-stocked medicine cabinet in her bathroom and grabbed a bottle fast as lightning. Nobody would have even been able to time me. I started to unbolt the door. But Audrey grabbed my shoulder, forcefully.
“Wait!” She was really screaming now. I pushed her off with surprising strength and then found myself on the other side of the door that slammed shut.
Luciana had backed away six feet from me, an old handkerchief wrapped around her face. “Miss Elena! Keep back!” I tossed her the bottle of Tylenol, and then realized I forgot the money. Luciana grabbed the bottle and then backed away.
“Wait one sec,” I pounded on the door. “Audrey! Lemme in! Can you give me some cash for Luciana?” I heard her move away from the door. I folded my arms, patiently. She was probably gathering up a care package for Luciana.
Then, a red envelope, the kind kids receive on Chinese New Year, slid out from underneath the door, followed by a second.
“The first one is for Luciana. The second one is for you. I’m sorry Elena, I just can’t risk getting sick here.” Audrey’s low voice echoed through the door. It carried over, bounced off the cold tiled floor, kicked me in the gut. Luciana grabbed the envelope and rushed out of the building, sobbing. I started to laugh absurdly.
“But I’m in my socks!” I yelled. “And they’ve got holes!”
Audrey quickly opened the door and threw out my gym bag and my textbooks. But I saw it in slow motion. My eyes jerked in witness to this cold action. Saccadic eye movement. My brain was processing this visual information, this rejection of flesh and blood. I didn’t get to tell her what I wanted to tell her — that, besides the fact that time didn’t exist, she and Uncle Rich were so grossly wrong about time inevitably speeding up as one got older.
It only happens because when we get older, we fall into traps. Confined or not; we all fall into the same old routine, of having the same day, the same breakfast time, the same worries, the same drudgery of emails and reading long analyses about important cultural issues or political movements or indulging in the same old desires that we satisfy until they re-emerge again. No wonder Audrey loved going on vacation. But even that, after a while, felt like the same old same old. I took one last look at the door.
Time had melted away. I saw a vision of myself, older, turning into Audrey like I always thought I wanted. But it was a trap. I had the choice to walk away from this future. Maybe I could even save her, I thought, from the ravages of time on a loop.
But then I thought about all the other people without the safety and comfort of their own home. Maybe it’d be easier to save them. I pulled on my old sneakers, grabbed my belongings. I was curious about what the outside world really looked like. I pushed the exit button. The sunlight streamed down on me. The sky looked bluer than it had in a while in Brooklyn. The air was so fresh. Clean. Cleaner than I had ever tasted.
I breathed in.
I breathed out.
The seconds dragged on.
I walked into the future with all the time in the world.