by Tyler Schwanke
Jason stood outside the bedroom window of his parent’s house. His younger self sat at a desk, hand writing the letter to Susan Worski that sometimes, as an adult, he’d think of after masturbating and feel very sad and embarrassed about. His younger self’s face was puffy, eyes bloodshot. The travel agency had placed Jason exactly at the time he asked, less than two hours since Susan had called. He knocked on the window. His younger self jumped in his chair.
His younger self stood up from his desk, checked his closed bedroom door, then looked back at Jason. His mother had been right. He’d been a sloucher. The bleach made his hair more white than blonde, almost like a Q-tip. And so thick. When did that change? He was much thinner than Jason remembered, especially in the face, though it was hard to tell just how thin he was under such baggy clothes. Jason almost yelled at himself to take off the Adidas track jacket he was wearing. And that idiotic eyebrow ring.
Jason knocked harder on the window and said, “Hippopotamus.” He motioned for his younger self to come over.
“Who the fuck are you?” his younger self said, the fuck stumbling off his tongue as if the CK had tripped over the FU. That’s right. He’d sworn a lot back then. He thought it made him look cool.
“Don’t swear. You’re not any good at it. Don’t you want to know how I know the family’s safe word?”
His younger self took a breath and shuffled his eyes, thinking things through. He walked over and cranked the window open two notches. “You do look kind of familiar. Are you a friend of my parents or something?”
“As much as any child can be friends with their parents, I suppose.”
“You mean you’re my brother?”
Jason sighed at his own stupidity and leaned on the windowsill. “Our parents are forty-six right now. I’m thirty-seven. Do either of our parents seem like the kind of people who’ve been engaging in sexual activity since the age of eight?”
“That’s fucked up.”
“Let me explain who I am. I’m going to go to the sliding door. And before you start feeding me lies that you’re not alone, save it. I know that our folks are up at the cabin putting in the dock, that Carol is spending the night with friends, and Steve is in St. Peter and isn’t coming home this weekend.”
“How do you know all of that?”
“Because you do. In the fridge is a chilled bottle of Champagne you’re unsure how to open, and in our parent’s room you’ve got an Outkast CD synced up and rose pedals on the bed, though, in hindsight, it is kind of disturbing we used to do it in their bed, even if it is a king and has strategically placed mirrors from both dressers. But instead of getting to use any of that, you’re going to try and win Susan back with a terribly cliché love letter and some cheap gas station roses because Bachman’s will be closed by the time you leave. Now I’m going to go to the sliding door. Please let me in. I’ve got a lot to tell you and we need to be at the Eagan theater in three hours. I’m here to help you.”
“To get Susan back?”
Jason stepped away from the window. “Absolutely not.”
The specialists at the travel agency really did have things down to a science. First he told his younger self who he was, and when he didn’t believe him told him things only himself would know (in this case that his first time successfully masturbating to completion was to a Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Edition with Tyra Banks on the cover, that in sixth grade, after he found his mother’s dildo, his father told him it was natural, that all women have them, even stuck up Beth English down the street who’s always yelling at him to quit going off jumps with his bike on her stretch of the sidewalk, and that his proudest moment in life so far was winning the fifth grade mental math competition at his school, but only because it validated that he wasn’t in fact mentally handicapped like Billy O’Neill had said he was). The travel agency had been clear to use three memories; two sexual, because it’s the sexual stuff that we bottle up and fear of being judged for the most, and then a softer one to show that you didn’t travel twenty years just to harass and embarrass yourself. You were then to provide an example that you were from the future by telling them of an event before it happened. For those that couldn’t remember specifics of their travel day, the agency provided moments from that day’s news for the traveler to use. Jason hadn’t needed one.
Two hours and forty-five minutes later, he sat in the maroon passenger seat of his family’s rusted 1991 Plymouth Sundance while his younger self drove and sucked down a Camel. Jason rolled down his window to escape the smoke.
The Sundance pulled around the back of the Eagan theater and came to a stop by the dumpsters. Up ahead, sitting in the dark spot between two pools of overhead parking lights, was a Volkswagen Passat, the windows fogged.
“You’re telling me Susan is in that car?” his younger self said, a shaky finger pointing in front of him.
“Yes, now quit stalling. The sooner we get this over with the sooner we can move on.” Tough love was what his younger self needed. His parents coddled him too much, especially mother. It’s why it’d taken being kicked out of three colleges and a DUI before deciding to get sober. His younger self got out of the car and walked towards the Passat.
Memories flashed through Jason’s mind of his younger self confronting Susan, at first bright and vivid, then unfocused and in tiny fragments. Susan was giving Jeremy a hand job, her pointy tongue smashed up in his ear, her wrist moving so quick one would’ve thought she was trying to remove Jeremy’s penis from his body. Jason’s chest became tight. Susan had been a first of many: sex, love, bringing a girl home for pasta night, worrying about how heavy he breathed when he was the big spoon. He’d always lied to himself that Susan hadn’t replaced him so quickly, but finally seeing the proof in person hurt more than he imagined it would. Thank god she hadn’t been giving Jeremy a blowjob. He got into the driver’s seat as his younger self ran back to the car, slamming the passenger seat door behind him.
“It’s going to be all right. We don’t need her. That’s what I’m here to show you,” Jason said.
After a few seconds, “Fucking drive,” was all his younger self could manage through the tears.
Back at the house, they sat out on the deck, his younger self only a few sips away from finishing off the bottle of Champagne. Jason sipped an iced tea. The sky was dark, the moon high and hidden under clouds. The stars were far away. Jason held up to the deck light a printed screenshot taken from Facebook of Susan at the age of twenty-five. She lay on a hospital bed with a ginger baby nestled in her arms. Beside her stood her parents and younger sister.
“That was twelve years ago, and I’ve still never seen a picture posted of the father,” Jason said. “Could be anybody’s, really. She probably doesn’t even know. You saw how much she hung out at bars while getting her associate’s. I mean for God’s sake, she had sex with a Jack FM DJ.”
“Why are you showing me this? What are you even doing here?” His younger self rested his elbows on his knees and held his head up with his palms under his chin. He looked at Jason behind heavy eyelids. He wasn’t used to drinking this much. “I thought there were rules about meeting yourself and destroying the space time continuum and all that other shit Doc tells Marty in the second movie.”
“So did I, but apparently the travel agency figured it out. I guess the universe simply adjusts and corrects itself when things like this take place. Or at least that’s what the pamphlet says.”
His younger self lifted his head as if he had more to say, but was interrupted by a white froth spewing from his mouth. Jason got him a tall glass of water and a piece of wheat bread to nibble on, then helped him down the stairs and into bed. He pulled the covers over his younger self and shook his head at what used to be his room, the piles of awful Michael Bay-esque DVDs strewn across the floor, the wood panel walls and popcorn ceiling plastered with posters of terrible rap/rock bands that in twenty years would play the casino circuit and busty playmates in string bikinis who’d later become best selling authors on how to raise children.
“You never answered my question on what you’re doing here,” his younger self mumbled, eyes closed and face smashed into the mattress.
“I did too. I’m here to help with Susan. It’ll take two years for us to get over her. I’ve had time to reflect and I think I can cut that down to a month.” Four months was really what he needed, but a month was all he could financially afford. “I want that time back. She’s not worth it. I’ll go over the plan tomorrow. When I’m done, that bitch will be the one who takes two years to get over us.”
“Don’t call her a bitch.”
“I don’t like the language either, but she engaged in sexual activities with someone hours after breaking up with us. For our purpose she is a bitch and you need to think of her that way. It’ll help speed things along.”
“I don’t think I like myself,” his younger self said, and fell asleep. Jason couldn’t tell which one of them the remark was directed at.
The details of the next forty-eight hours could’ve been included in a psychiatric evaluation to have someone diagnosed with bipolar disorder. One minute his younger self would be angry, burning Sadie Hawkins dance pictures of him and Susan in the fireplace, tearing up love letters she’d written him for their month anniversaries. The next minute he’d be in panic mode, frantically scouring the junk drawer in the kitchen for tape to put the torn pieces back together. The rest of the weekend he just cried. By the time Monday morning rolled around, Jason was almost giddy to get rid of himself. He pulled up to the front of the high school with the urgency of a driver making a pit stop during the Indy 500 and pulled away as soon as his younger self’s foot hit the pavement.
First on his itinerary was to find a new place to stay. Another night sleeping in the closet to avoid his parents was not an option. Funds were limited, so what he required was something inexpensive and in a part of town where he didn’t risk running into anyone who knew his younger self. He settled on the Red Roof Inn near the highway and checked into a room with crusty burgundy carpet and questionable looking sheets. He spent the rest of the morning flipping through past yearbooks with a highlighter to find girls he felt would say yes if his younger self asked them to dinner. That afternoon he drove around to various clothing stores to update his younger self’s wardrobe. In between stores he amused himself by picking random CDs from the pleather two hundred count CD case resting in the back seat. It astonished him his mother ever let him listen to music filled with so much cursing.
Three nights later, his younger self stood frowning in front of the hotel’s bathroom mirror in a beige cardigan and plaid shirt tucked into tight fitting jeans with the pant legs rolled up. His hair was freshly cut, most of the blonde thankfully removed, and parted to the side. The eyebrow ring was still in place. It’d been a compromise Jason had allowed only because the look of it had started to grow on him.
“So this is going to help me get over Susan?” his younger self said. “I look like a failed writer who’s forced to drive the soccer carpool.”
“At least you don’t look like you’re late for your community service.”
“Big words coming from someone with such a terrible beard. There’s no way I’m growing that thing when I’m your age.”
“What’s wrong with this beard?”
“Nothing if it wasn’t so red, which wouldn’t be a problem if your hair wasn’t brown and gray. You look like a fucking Irish skunk.”
His younger self left for his date with Andrea Richards, a freckle faced brunette who later in life would become a pediatrician and amateur yoga instructor. At the ten year she had too much to drink and let it slip that she always had a crush on him in high school. Her husband cut her off before she could get into specifics.
Around eleven the memories came in, and the hope of a rich wife who performed amazing feats of acrobatics in the bedroom soon fled. His younger self pounded on the door around eleven-thirty. “Fuck this shit. I’m not doing it anymore.” His younger self marched into the room and plopped himself down on the bed. He’d been crying, though his face didn’t give his secret away. Jason just remembered that he had.
Without asking for details, his younger self recapped the date—the awkwardness of small talk, the pressure of making a good impression. What he failed to mention, but Jason already knew, was that the real issue with Andrea Richards was that, to put it simply, she wasn’t Susan. She didn’t laugh like Susan, didn’t smell of strawberry body spray like Susan. When choosing a travel date he’d always known there’d be obstacles, but he’d failed to recall the biggest obstacle would be how passionate he’d been about her. Passion was a feeling he was no longer familiar with.
“Maybe this is a bad idea,” his younger self said. “Aren’t you afraid me dating might mess up us getting with our wife? Maybe I’m supposed to be single for the next two years?”
“The travel agency wouldn’t have allowed me to come here if that was the case. They have a very thorough screening process. Remember, the universe adjusts and corrects itself.”
“I just don’t understand why I at least can’t see a picture of her. You showed me all those pictures of Susan.”
He shrugged and made a beats me face that he immediately knew was far too animated. “The travel agency said I couldn’t, and I didn’t ask why. They’re the experts. I’m just the one paying for their service. Now let’s not let ourselves get discouraged. This was just the first attempt. Rome wasn’t built in a day you know.”
“Fuck Rome,” his younger self said. Jason didn’t understand the misdirected anger.
After his younger self left, Jason propped himself up on his stiff mattress and began making giant yellow Xs across the faces of the girls with promising futures. What he needed was attractive girls with loose morals, the kind whose futures included failed attempts at beauty school and missed child support payments. After ten minutes he set the yearbook and highlighter down and went into the bathroom. The little bastard was right. He did resemble an Irish skunk.
At night he’d sit in the silence of his hotel room and wait for the memories to see how the dates went. Sometimes there’d be nothing. Sometimes his face would glow red at how much his younger self talked about Susan. But for the most part there’d be little signs of himself moving on: the satisfaction of a girl laughing at one of his terrible jokes, the nervous feeling in his stomach moments before he went in for the goodnight kiss. To Jason’s surprise, one night his mind flushed with the memory of dry humping Laura Finnegan in the backseat of the Sundance.
When the dates ended poorly his younger self would come over and ask questions about his future, where he lived, what he did for a living, what his children’s names were. Jason never confirmed anything, but his younger self became convinced he’d end up with a cool job in marketing. It almost broke his heart how optimistic he used to be. On nights his younger self couldn’t find a date, Jason made him go out with Paul and Todd, his two best friends at the time who Jason couldn’t remember when he’d last spoken to. His yearbook was full of people like that; friends he’d thought he’d know forever that time had other plans for.
Susan started texting after a couple of weeks, just like he remembered. She wanted to know if they could talk, that she was sorry he’d found out about Jeremy like he did. Since they went to different schools the phone was the only way he’d talked to her after they’d broken up, which is why Jason had taken it. There’d been too many sleepless nights of him waiting for her to call, re-reading texts, looking for deeper meaning in her words. Mind games. That’s all they were. He wasn’t going to let his younger self go through it all again. He deleted every text, erased every voicemail. When his younger self asked if she called, Jason told him no and that she never would. One night she left a five-minute voicemail, crying and pleading for him to call her back. Had she done that before? He couldn’t remember. He saved the voicemail, just in case listening to it later would jog his memory.
What worried him was that besides the new memories being created, nothing else was changing. He still spent his first year of college moping around his dorm room listening to AFI, still got fired from Best Buy when Mr. Knudson discovered his water bottle filled with vodka. He still owed Mrs. Sivongxay, his loud-mouthed neighbor, seven hundred dollars for falling through the double paned glass on her front door.
He told his younger self that he needed to try harder. “What am I supposed to do?” his younger self said. “I’ve done everything you’ve asked of me. I think things are going well with Jessica Braulick. Maybe that’ll turn into something.”
“It fucking better. I didn’t travel all this way to have nothing to show for it. Fuck Jessica or someone else for all I care, just figure it out.”
“Don’t swear. You’re not very good at it.” His younger self gave him a look. “You shaved your beard.”
Jason started answering the texts. He told Susan she was ugly, lame in bed. When she wrote back that he didn’t mean that, that he was just lashing out because he was angry, Jason and his younger self drove over to her house early one morning, hours before her or her parents or younger twin brothers were awake. His younger self stayed in the car, pouting and smoking, while Jason smeared peanut butter under all the handles of Susan’s Honda Civic that sat in the driveway. He sprayed the car with shaving cream and tossed eggs at the front of her house. Finally, he dumped across her windshield the re-torn pieces of the month anniversary love letters she’d written.
A week went by with no word from Susan. No texts. No calls. He constantly checked his younger self’s cell phone so much that he’d turn it off, only to turn it on again in case she’d call and didn’t leave a voicemail. To keep his mind off her, he arranged it that he’d take his younger self to school in the mornings so he could have the car during the day. This was technically a trip after all. He’d used up all his vacation days for it.
He’d go exploring downtown, catch a Twins game at the Metrodome, walk around the Mall of America, things working three jobs wouldn’t allow him to do. One afternoon he went on a hundred dollars worth of rides at Camp Snoopy, something he hadn’t done since high school. His savings ran low, but still he spent. Desperate times. He treated himself to a spa day and tried a new restaurant each day for lunch. He dyed his hair black to cover the gray and bought himself some new clothes, including a Vikings jersey he was surprised to discover he really wanted. Still, he thought of Susan. Wondering when she’d call next, if she were thinking about him. He missed getting calls that weren’t from his mother or Carol, although Carol only called when there was news about the kids. He hadn’t spoken to Steve since their father’s funeral. At night he’d fall sleep on his side, staring at the nightstand, waiting for the phone’s screen to illuminate and drive away the darkness.
On the final night of his trip, his younger self picked him up at the hotel at six. Jason jumped into the passenger seat and lit a Camel as they pulled away. The song coming from the CD player bragged that it used, “fuck,” forty-six times. Jason rapped alongside the music. He knew every single fucking one.
They arrived at the Eagan theater. His younger self parked the car and looked up at the theater with such an intense stare Jason wondered if he was trying to pull a Carrie and burn the place with mind power. Inside, Jason bought two tickets to Insomnia and then two large popcorn and drink combos. They found seating towards the back, and Jason took out the cell phone. There were texts from several girls he’d told his younger self to ask out, and even a few he didn’t. Still nothing from Susan. He put the phone back in his pocket and saw his younger self watching him.
“She didn’t call.”
His younger self shrugged. “I didn’t ask.”
He hadn’t, had he? Jason took the phone out of his pocket and handed it to his younger self. “You’ll need this when I’m gone.”
“Hold on to it. I’ll get it from you after the movie,” his younger self said.
Jason knew he’d seen Insomnia late one night on TV before, but had completely forgotten that Robin Williams was the murder suspect. Oh, how he missed Robin Williams. He decided he’d watch Dead Poets Society and One Hour Photo when he got home. And maybe Hook for the hell of it.
On screen, Al Pacino chased Robin Williams across a river transporting logs to a lumberyard. The two jumped from log to log, an intense game of frogger for senior citizens. Two logs parted, and Al Pacino fell between them, splashing into the frozen Alaskan water. Jason sat up in his seat, shoved popcorn into his mouth. The logs moved quickly above Al Pacino, banging together, creating and destroying pockets of light for him to break through. Jason’s fingers scraped the bottom of his popcorn bucket. He turned to ask his younger self for some of his, but he wasn’t there. When had he left? Did he go to the bathroom? How long had he been gone?
A memory flooded his brain, the images coming one after another, bright and intense. He knew he’d remember it for a very long time.
He got up and headed for the exit, kicking up half full popcorn buckets and cups of soda in his path. He found his younger self with Susan in the lobby. He’d run into her only moments before. She’d been coming from the bathroom, having just finished seeing a movie with friends who’d already left the theater. His younger self believed their running into one another was a complete coincidence, but Jason knew the truth. The universe had adjusted. Fuck.
Jason hid behind a cardboard cutout of Spiderman swinging through New York City. Susan pushed back his younger self’s hair, said something, smiled. Fragments of images came through. He remembered the warm touch of her fingers across his forehead. She liked his new hair, something his younger self would never admit to him. “I’ve really missed you,” she had said. “I know you’re still mad, but could we go somewhere and talk?”
His younger self’s mind now flashed with memories; how beautiful she’d looked for their first date, the way her hair fell across his face when they made love, how warm she was in the mornings. Jason saw it all. His younger self remembered how Susan had come to his grandfather’s funeral, how she’d held his hand when they lowered the casket, how on the way home she told him she thought he was strong for crying. Jason had forgotten that. Nobody held his hand during his father’s funeral; nobody ever told him he was strong. He started sobbing behind the Green Goblin cutout. What a fool he’d been.
“I don’t think that’s a good idea,” his younger self said. “I’m here with someone and they might get worried if I just take off.”
“Can you call me later? I don’t care what time,” Susan said.
“I don’t think so.”
“Are you out of your mind? Weren’t you paying attention just now?” Jason yelled across the lobby, drawing attention from several people. He came out behind the cutout and hurried over to his younger self and Susan.
“Do you know this guy?” Susan asked his younger self, who could only open his mouth but not produce any words.
“Susan, it’s me, Jason. I’m so sorry for the awful things I’ve done lately. I’ve just been so angry for so long, but that doesn’t excuse my behavior. I now see how terribly wrong I’ve been over the last twenty years in blaming you. I just didn’t try hard enough, with school, with work, with you, with life, really. It was my fault. It was always my fault.”
“What are you talking about? This is really weird,” Susan said.
“Sir, I think you should walk away,” his younger self said.
Jason grabbed Susan’s hand. It was soft and oily from lotion. “Baby, I told you. I’m Jason. Let’s go somewhere and talk, and I’ll explain everything. You owe me at least that much.”
Susan pulled her hand away and stepped back. She started to breathe quickly. “Baby? Gross. I don’t know who you are or what you’re on, but I don’t owe you anything.”
His younger self clenched his teeth, puffed up his chest. “Seriously, buddy, you need to back off.”
“Don’t owe me anything? Like hell you don’t.” How the fuck could she be doing this to him again? “If you had any idea on what I’ve been through, how much money I put into coming here. You think time travel is cheap? You should see what they charged me so they can pay for their fancy fucking lobby.”
His younger self stepped in between him and Susan. “That’s enough. You’re obviously very confused and need to go take some medication or something.”
His younger self pushed him. “Fuck off. Or I’ll tell the manager to call the police. And then you’ll never get home.” He took out his car keys and grabbed Susan’s hand. “Let’s go. Make sure this sicko doesn’t follow you or anything. We can come get your car later.”
Yes. This was good. His younger self had been brave, shown her he could protect her. He’d take her home and by the time they reached her house, everything would be back to normal and all of this would be a story, something they’d laugh about later, that time some crazy drug addict pretended to be Jason at a movie theater.
Jason tried as hard as he could not to smile. “Sorry to bother you.”
Back in the theater, he shuffled sideways down the aisle, ignoring the snide remarks whispered as he passed. One guy said loudly, “You owe me nine-fifty for my combo, dickhead, and you bet your ass you’re paying me,” but he didn’t care. Everything had worked out better than imagined, and when he returned home there’d be no more halfing recipes when cooking dinner, or skipping office Christmas parties because he couldn’t find a plus one, or paying a twenty dollar cover charge, and required nine dollar soda, at The Dripping Lollipop when he wanted to see a woman naked below the waist. He’d have the life he’d always wanted: children asking him to kiss their boo-boos and owies to make it all better, crowded kitchen tables overflowing with food. All because of Susan, his sweet, beautiful, caring Susan.
He sat down, took a sip of his soda, and closed his eyes, waiting to see what happened next.
Tyler Schwanke is a graduate student in the MFA program at Hamline University. His work has been published in eFiction and Rock, Paper, Scissors.